Tuesday, November 06, 2007

New Questions About One Anonymous Mailing Attacking Councilor Murphy

The anonymous mailings attacking Councilor Stephen Murphy continue to be in the news today as the subject of a story in the Boston Globe. This makes the fifth news cycle for the mailings, a public relations mess.

While Connolly's campaign has admitted to sending out two of the mailings, the Globe reports that there are three additional mailings around town, and that Connolly has declared he is not responsible for any of them.

As a result, one of those other three mailings may be subject to declaration as an expenditure under state campaign finance law, yet nobody has declared it to date.

Anonyous Mailings Sent Around Boston

Residents city-wide began receiving two anonymous mailings last Thursday attacking Councilor Stephen Murphy in the City Councilor-At-Large race. The Boston Herald (here and here) and online bloggers (here and here at Brighton Centered) established links between the anonymous mailings and challenger John Connolly. In a statement released Saturday, Connolly's campaign admitted they sent both mailings, although they did not apologize for either the content or the anonymous nature of them.

The Globe story writes:
In an interview yesterday, Connolly defended the mailings on legal grounds, saying that state law permits anonymous campaign literature against another candidate.

"In retrospect I should have put my name on it, and I wish I did," he said. He did not explain the change of heart and did not apologize, nor would he accept responsibility for other anti-Murphy mailings that were sent around the city late last week.


Three other anonymous mailings about the race have been sent out in recent days, one attacking Murphy in South Boston and the other two urging voters in West Roxbury to elect a councilor from the neighborhood. No one has accepted responsibility for those.
Connolly stated his defense, on legal grounds, of the city-wide anonymous mailings attacking Councilor Murphy. As long as his campaign is taking responsibility for them, the mailings will eventually appear on his campaign finance reports when he declares them as expenditures. Nothing illegal there: free speech in campaigns is perfectly illegal, and basically everything in those two flyers appears accurate. (In the Globe piece, Councilor Murphy split some hairs: "There's a difference between lobbying for a state job and ones being offered," Murphy said. "His stuff is false on that regard.")

Of the other three mailings sent out -- two in West Roxbury advocating for bullet voting for a local candidate (but not naming one), the other in South Boston attacking Murphy, according to the Globe -- no one has yet admitted to sending them out.

One Other Mailing May Be Subject to State Campaign Finance Disclosure Law

One of those three mailings -- sent to South Boston and attacking Councilor Murphy by name, according to the Globe -- is now the issue, because failure for anyone to come forward and therefore declare it on campaign finance reports might violate state campaign finance law.

Expenditures in Boston municipal political campaigns are governed by Massachusetts law and overseen by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF). In their FAQ, OCPF offers guidance. Basically, if the Connolly campaign took responsibility for the Parkway and SBA mailings, there would be no issue -- the expenditures for the mailings would be detailed on the Connolly committee's regular campaign finance filings.

According to the Herald's Howie Carr, two of the additional three mailings have "return addresses to two nonexistent groups, 'the Parkway Coalition' and 'the South Boston Association.' " The Parkway mailing apparently has the same "bulk mailing permit out of North Reading as the Connolly committee," according to Stephen Murphy as quoted by Carr. Both appear to encourage voters to use their bullet vote in the Councilor-At-Large race, but at least one appears not to mention Connolly by name.

The West Roxbury mailings encouraging bullet voting do not mention any candidate by name, and therefore are classified as "issue ads" or "independent expenditures" which do not have to be reported by any candidate or committee under state law. If, however, they are made with "the cooperation of, in consultation or in concert with, or at the request of any candidate or campaign (or their agents)," then these mailings would have to be reported under state law. As long as Connolly continues to claim that he had nothing to do with them, and assuming that his statement is factually accurate, then no law appears to have been broken.

But the Globe notes that the other anonymous mailing, sent to South Boston residents, attacks Councilor Murphy by name. It may not therefore constitute an "independent expenditure," because it mentions a specific candidate related to an election. The key wording as to the applicability of the law lies in whether they have the "purpose of expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate"; if they do, then they must be reported under campaign finance laws.

One of the anonymous mailings Connolly has admitted to sending out contains the following line:
On November 6th, tell Steve Murphy that if he doesn't want the job he has, you'll elect someone who does.
If the South Boston mailing, which nobody has claimed responsibility for, includes language like that advocating the defeat of Councilor Murphy, then it would likely be subject to full disclosure under the state's campaign finance laws. If no one makes the disclosure, then OCPF might need to investigate further.

Attorney Connolly stated in the Globe piece that "state law permits anonymous campaign literature against another candidate." Correct, as long as the expenditure related to the anonymous campaign literature naming a candidate is fully declared.

The OCPF website lists no registered committee named the "South Boston Association," or anything like it. (Nor is the "Parkway Coalition" listed, although, as noted above their mailing advocating bullet-voting is not at issue.) No one appears to have declared this particular expenditure. Will the SBA file papers with the OCPF declaring themselves a committee under state campaign finance law? We'll be watching.


The failure of the Connolly campaign to get out in front of the anonymous mailings on the first day indicates horrendously bad public relations work on the part of the John Connolly campaign. They only admitted on Saturday to having sent out the two city-wide mailings; if they are also behind the other three neighborhood-specific ones, they should have admitted so early on to limit the damage. We are now in the fifth news cycle for this story, which could have died out after one or two if it were handled properly.

Connolly's defense of the mailings on legal grounds misses the point: weren't they something that was just-plain wrong to send out anonymously? If so, apologize for sending them out anonymously in a carefully-crafted statement that doesn't apologize for the content of them. It would be easy for attorney Connolly to draft such text. Furthermore, rather than parsing legal arguments about the mailings, wouldn't the public be better served by full and open disclosure?

In the Globe story, Connolly did not take responsibility for the anonymous mailings sent to West Roxbury advocating bullet votes. Yet one of them appears to have the same bulk mailing permit as other Connolly campaign literature, according to Councilor Murphy. If I were a betting man in one of Governor Deval Patrick's casinos, I would bet on the Connolly campaign's involvement with that mailing. It ain't illegal to advocate for bullet votes anonymously, so what's the downside to accepting responsibility for it?

The deeper problem, however, is that Connolly is now on record with the Boston Globe as not taking responsibility for the South Boston mailing attacking Councilor Murphy. Whomever is responsible for that one mailing -- be it Connolly or somebody else like the "South Boston Association" -- would be well advised to come forward with their involvement, and make sure that all state campaign finance laws are followed. Otherwise, an investigation by OCPF might be in order.

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