Money talks

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  February 6, 2009

Searching both Web sites is ponderous and imperfect, in large part because of the inexactitude of self-reporting. Misspelling of names is commonplace, as is the use of shorthand and often obscure abbreviations for companies and agencies — which means that entries elude any search attempts.

And, because the secretary of the Commonwealth's office requires contribution disclosures only for registered lobbyists, it gives a glimpse only at the tip of the iceberg: the $200 contributions from those individuals. The much more important bundled contributions are ignored there.

They are painfully difficult to determine through OCPF's campaign-finance reports — even when the campaigns do a good job of reporting.

At the end of May, for instance, the law firm Mintz Levin held a fundraiser for State Senate President Murray. Her finance report shows donations deposited in a two-day period from 31 individuals identified as Mintz Levin attorneys — including seven with its lobbying wing, ML Strategies. But at least 13 more Mintz Levin attorneys who contributed at the same time do not have their employer listed in the report. In all, the firm gave Murray nearly $10,000 in one haul — only $600 of which came from registered lobbyists, so only those contributions were reported to the state secretary.

Another Murray fundraiser was organized by health-care lobbyist Dennis Smith in April. The Phoenix has identified at least 30 contributors, primarily from Partners Healthcare — a Smith client — who pitched in to give more than $9000.

This bundling is done to ensure that officeholders understand the interests behind the dollars — and is thus critical to understanding who is trying to influence whom.

For example, Mintz Levin attorney Francis Bellotti, the former state attorney general, gave $100 on May 31, as part of the law firm's show of financial backing for Murray. But when he gave $250 on March 3, it was part of a different bundle, with a different message: his was one of several thousand dollars worth of contributions that day from executives at Arbella Insurance, where Bellotti is vice-chairman of the board.

You would never know about Bellotti's connection with Arbella from state disclosure materials. Nor would you realize which contributors (not to mention their spouses) are on other corporate or nonprofit boards, or belong to which industry. You would never catch the group of beverage-distribution industry leaders who bundle contributions, or the biotech venture capitalists who do the same — or the ophthalmologists. So, if officials write laws to favor those who bundled the most money, it would be almost impossible to see the connection.

Everybody does it
Murray and DeLeo were, along with now-departed Speaker DiMasi, by far the largest recipients of lobbyist campaign funds this past year. Each received more than $25,000 just from registered lobbyists. (DiMasi's fund for electing House Democrats received at least another $20,000, and Murray's Senate Democrats fund more than $10,000.)

Of the other 157 legislators now in office, nobody else topped $15,000, and only a dozen took in $10,000 or more.

But for some, the dollar amount may be less important than the percentage. Murray, DeLeo, and DiMasi each raised more than a quarter-million dollars this past year altogether, so arguably each lobbying interests' share has minimal impact. State Senate Assistant Majority Leader Lida Harkins, however, raised $27,068 in 2008 — three-quarters of which came from registered lobbyists and PACs.

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