Campaign Finance: the New Brown Paper Bag?

I’ve had a hypothesis for a while and not enough time to do the research to test it, but here goes anyway: whereas in times past the greatest danger of political corruption was the straight out bribe, these days it is the fattening of campaign finance accounts. Lt. Governor Tim Murray is the latest politician to run afoul. The campaign finance account is the new brown paper bag.

The brown paper bag full of cash delivered to a politician in exchange for illicit favors was the modus operandi in the simple past. We don’t long for the bygone era when bagman Billy Masiello of MBM roamed State House hallways, pockets stuffed with greenbacks, grifting for grafting pols. Recall Barry Locke, a cabinet secretary and interim head of the MBTA in the King administration, convicted in an MBTA kickback scheme. Let’s not forget former Representative Vincent (‘gotta grease a few guys’) Piro, senators Ronald MacKenzie, J.C. DiCarlo, and Jimmy Kelly, and on and on. These folks were the crème de la schmutz of the brown paper bag era.

We still have the small timers like former Senator Dianne Wilkerson and the former Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner and of course the big fish, ex-Speaker Sal DiMasi, scoundrels all.  But the real action has moved to the fattening of campaign accounts, a legal activity; yet some politicians and contributors have been unable to restrain their outsized enthusiasm for the democratic process. And that’s where the problems begin.

Take the case of developer Arthur Winn, a contributor so distressed by the legal limits he could bestow upon Senator Wilkerson that he persuaded some of his subcontractors to dig deep for her, then Winn reimbursed them. He did what he could to help other politicians as well and wound up pleading guilty to federal misdemeanor charges. His attorney Robert Popeo stated that “The whole area of political contributions is rife with hypocrisy . . . It’s possible to legally make campaign contributions much larger than the contributions Winn is pleading guilty to. . . . You shouldn’t prosecute people for doing something they could do legally.” (How good an attorney is Popeo? He got Piro off!)

We have the Probation Department case in which a series of discrete events common in Massachusetts have been combined to produce another federal case. The money connection is that some department employees (or those who hoped to be) were pressured to give money to campaign finance accounts, jobs and promotions were secured, and the legislature generously increased the department budget.

Then we have Lt. Governor Murray, caught up in a scandal in which his friend Michael McLaughlin (who could not legally raise campaign money as head of the Chelsea Housing Authority) apparently raised tons for Murray. The lieutenant governor asked the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to investigate in order to clear his name and the OCPF instead made a criminal referral to the Attorney General.

On January 18 Murray announced he would not run for governor so he could spend more time with his family. A week later OCPF released the referral letter it had sent the Attorney General – back in September. Murray raised a goodly amount of money from September on, including some in January. But as the Boston Herald reported in Donors tell Tim Murray to keep the $ many of his supporters do not want their money back. They expect him back some day and my goodness, once you’ve already invested the money . . .

For now their campaign contributions will be deployed to pay legal fees to forestall a state indictment. It’s great to see such public spirit.





About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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