Advocacy Nonprofit Fined $31K for Defying Mass. Campaign Law
January 4, 2018 Strong Economy for Growth, a nonprofit, social welfare organization based in Lynnfield that advocated expanding the number of charter schools in Massachusetts and opposing legalization of marijuana during the 2016 election, recently was fined $31,000 by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance for violating the state's campaign finance law.
Strong Economy for Growth (SEFG) solicited, raised, and spent money from August 2016 to November 2016 to influence the two ballot questions without organizing a ballot question committee or disclosing its activity, according to a public resolution letter issued last Friday by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) to SEFG President Robert Haskins. The charter school question was voted down, while the question legalizing marijuana passed..
The fine, which has been paid, represented the funds available in its bank account, OCPF said, and, late last month, identified all donors who contributed funds in the August-November 2016 period.
According to the letter, signed by Michael Sullivan, director of OCPF, the nonprofit also agreed not to engage in any election-related activity in Massachusetts through 2018.
SEFG, a 501(c)(4) organization, according to OCPF, had spent $990,000 to Great Schools Massachusetts, which supported Question 2 concerning charter schools, and $178,000 to The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, which opposed Question 4 to legalize recreational marijuana.
"In at least one case, the contributions that SEFG made to one of the ballot question committees could not have occurred without significant and timely donations to the organization," according to OCPF. "For example, another 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, QXZ, Inc., whose major donor is a known charter school advocate, gave $600,000 to SEFG on Aug. 29, 2016. SEFG, on the same day it received the money from QXZ, made a $300,000 contribution to the Great Schools Massachusetts Committee. Prior to the donation from QXZ, Strong Economy for Growths bank balance was less than $60,000.
OCPF said its review also "revealed specific financial activity demonstrating an intent to influence the election. For example, bank records showed that on Oct. 20, 2016, less than a month before the election, Strong Economy for Growth deposited $25,000 with 'Charter School Initiative' written on the memo line of the check."
SEFGs bank documents further showed a $200,000 donation received in late September 2016 from a donor known to be an anti-marijuana advocate, said OCPF: "From Aug. 1 to Nov. 8, SEFG gave $178,000 to the ballot question committee opposing the marijuana question. OCPF believes that the funds donated by the anti-marijuana advocate were used, in part, to allow SEFG to contribute to the marijuana ballot question committee."
The resolution letter from OCPF to SEFG required the organization to disclose $1,252,500 in receipts from donors, as well as the $1,168,000 in contributions it made to the two ballot question committees.