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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 2, 2006

Democrats’ donation may have broken law

Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Secretary of State Matt Brown, who is running for the U.S. Senate on a clean government platform, received donations from three state Democratic parties and at least one, the party in Hawai'i, may have violated campaign finance laws, The Associated Press has learned.

The Brown campaign struck a deal in which the Hawai'i Democratic Party would give a $5,000 donation to Brown and in exchange, the party would receive money from Brown supporters, Jane Sugimura, the Hawai'i party's treasurer said.

"That's what my understanding was," Sugimura said.

The arrangement could violate federal law if the donation to the party was earmarked for Brown and came from someone who had reached the legal limit for individual donations to the campaign, said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors fundraising and spending in political races.

Late yesterday, Sugimura told The Advertiser that the party accepted a $6,000 donation from a Brown supporter in January after giving the Brown campaign $5,000 late last year.

Sugimura said she did not know the party's donation was going to be used for a primary, where the party usually remains neutral, and said the party has decided to return the money.

"We're going to return the donation and ask the Matt Brown campaign to return ours," she told The Advertiser.

It was not immediately clear who gave the donation.

Brown faces former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat held by Republican Lincoln Chafee, who is challenged by Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey in the GOP primary.

Typically, state parties do not get involved in primary races. In Rhode Island, for example, neither the state Democratic nor Republican parties has donated to or endorsed candidates in the Senate race. They usually wait until after the primary to throw the victor their support.

Richard Pelletier, field director for Brown's campaign, said the deal he struck with the Hawai'i party was slightly different from what Sugimura described.

"We told them that if they were willing to donate to us, we would be willing to help them raise that money," he said.

Brown's spokesman, Matt Burgess, denied wrongdoing, but said the campaign has encouraged donors to give to state parties in Hawai'i, Massachusetts and Maine. He said Brown was not available for comment.

"We always encourage our supporters who want to elect Democrats to help organizations who have been helpful to us," Burgess said.

Sugimura, one of two people who had to approve the Hawai'i donation, said she spoke with Pelletier about the deal once, late last year. They discussed the address where she should send the check to Brown's campaign, and he told her there would be a donation given to the Hawai'i state party. The money came in later, after the party gave the money to Brown, she said.

She said she did not know who gave the money to the party, or how much they gave.

Pohai Ryan, executive director of the party in Honolulu, said she did not immediately have access to the records and could not provide the information. Ryan said Pelletier approached her for the donation because they became acquainted when he was executive director of the Maine Democratic Party. She said she was unaware of any wrongdoing.

"I'm not aware of a tit for tat. I don't know what the final arrangements were," she said.

Noble said it is not unusual for campaigns to direct their most generous donors elsewhere once they've reached the individual contribution limit. But if they donate to somebody else knowing the money will be funneled back to the candidate, that's illegal.

The Massachusetts and Maine parties each donated $10,000 to Brown in December, according to the most recent campaign finance report Brown filed with the Federal Elections Commission.

Cyndi Roy, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said a Brown staffer solicited the donation.

"We realize that this is a very important race and it is one of our best shots for reclaiming a seat for a Democrat," she said.

She said the party meant to give $5,000 each to Brown and Whitehouse, but all the money was accidentally sent to Brown, Roy said. Burgess said Brown has since returned $5,000 to that party at its request.

Pat Colwell, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, issued a statement saying the party donated to Brown at Pelletier's request, but would only donate to other state parties in the future.

"Look, we're all on the same side," Colwell said. "We are committed to electing Democrats across the state and country."

Alex Swartsel, spokeswoman for Whitehouse's campaign, said Brown's campaign showed a lapse in ethics.

Swartsel said, "To engage in what is at best a questionable tactic and at worst an illegal one is a very serious issue."

AP reporters Michelle R. Smith, Steve LeBlanc and Mark Niesse contributed to this report.