Democrats hope to use charter school campaign against Baker

BOSTON — Democrats looking for a political toehold in their campaign to unseat Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in next year’s election have seized on the revelation that Baker’s education chairman made a previously unacknowledged donation totaling nearly $500,000 to a group supporting last year’s charter school ballot question.

The donation was only disclosed after an investigation by the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance forced the New York-based group — Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy — to release the names of its donors and pay a record $425,000 as part of a campaign finance settlement.

The donation, while not illegal, shows just how committed Paul Sagan was to the ballot question, which would have raised the state cap on charter schools.

Baker was all-in on the question and appeared in television commercials supporting the initiative. When an earlier donation of $100,000 by Sagan was revealed last year, Baker quickly dubbed criticism aimed at Sagan “a nothing-burger.”

Questioned by reporters this week, Baker said there was nothing wrong with the donations. He said it should be no surprise that he and Sagan — and Secretary of Technology Services and Security Mark Nunnelly who gave $275,000 to Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy — backed the question.

“Sagan, Nunnelly and I were all on the record as supporters of charter schools,” Baker said.

Asked if Sagan told him last year about the $500,000 donation on top of the $100,000 donation, Baker said he could not recall “off the top of my head.”

Investigators said the group raised more than $15 million from wealthy individuals and then contributed it to the Great Schools Massachusetts Ballot Question Committee in a manner intended to disguise the true source of the money. The money represented 70 percent of the $21.7 million reported received by the charter school committee.

The civil forfeiture by Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy is the largest in the 44-year history of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Democrats were quick to pounce on Baker, who remains one of the most popular governors in the country and has yet to formally declare his candidacy.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren, a Democratic candidate for governor, fired off an email to supporters arguing that it’s “hard to imagine Charlie Baker didn’t know about their illegal scheme.”

“Charlie Baker uses the same fiscal tricks and sleights of hand that he builds his budgets on to get around the rules…

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