ROCHESTER — School Committee candidates Joe Pires, Anne Fernandes, and Greg Hardy, as well as Select Board candidate Adam Murphy, failed to file required campaign finance reports, a review by The New Bedford Light has found. All of the candidates prevailed in their races last week, except for Hardy.
A representative of the Mattapoisett Town Democratic Committee, Nicole Demakis, also said she had alerted the Office of Campaign and Political Finance about potential coordination between three of the candidates — Pires, Fernandes, and Hardy — and an Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee (or IE PAC), which functions as an equivalent of “Super PACs” on the local and state level. Coordinating with an IE PAC is against campaign finance laws.
These violations would likely incur fines, and while investigating the claims The Light found that the PAC supporting these candidates raised tens of thousands of dollars and employed conservative organizers and marketing firms on behalf of small-town races in Rochester.
School Committee elections in Rochester drew outsize attention after a months-long debate about removing books from libraries and about parents’ rights to shape the curriculum. Pires and Fernandes, who were already current members of the Old Rochester Regional and Rochester School Committees, were leading voices to remove the books.
Last Wednesday, Rochester’s town election day, Pires, Fernandes, and Hardy would not answer questions about their fundraising while holding signs near the town’s polling place. Each repeated “no comment” when asked about information that should be publicly reported — including how they purchased campaign materials like signs and T-shirts; why they didn’t file finance reports; and whether they coordinated with the IE PAC.
Adam Murphy, however, admitted he spent money on his Select Board campaign but never filed the legally required reports: “I personally paid for them out of my account,” Murphy said about mailers he sent.
Rochester Town Clerk Paul Dawson confirmed last Wednesday that Murphy had not filed any finance reports for personal expenses used on the campaign. Murphy’s victory on Wednesday was the only race in Rochester won by a non-incumbent.
Questions about campaign finances in these local races began on May 22, only two days before the election, when a text blast went out to Rochester voters: “Protect Rochester kids & taxpayers in election this Wed., May 24.” It went on to ask for voter support for Pires, Fernandes, Hardy and Murphy.
At the bottom was a sign-off: “Paid for by the Rochester Citizens for Responsible Government, IE PAC by Jacqueline Eckert.”
IE PACs are specialized political fundraising tools that are exempt from campaign contribution limits, on the condition that their donation and fundraising efforts operate independently from a candidate’s campaign.
But on April 29, Eckert, the chairman of the Rochester Citizens for Responsible Government, hosted an event for Pires, Fernandes and Hardy at her Rochester home overlooking Snipatuit Pond. The event was advertised on Facebook at her address, and photos on social media show these candidates and Eckert mingling with voters.
The daytime gathering included a lunch spread, custom signage, and personalized name tags for the candidates. In addition, multiple copies of books that Pires and Fernandes had campaigned to remove from school libraries were laid out with bookmarked pages.
None of the items — including the lawn signs, T-shirts, or text blasts signed by Eckert’s IE PAC — were reported by candidates or on the documents so far filed by Rochester Citizens for Responsible Government.
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Restrictions on communication and coordination between candidates and IE PACs generally prohibit any contact between candidate and IE PAC officers. “There can be no coordination between candidates and IE PACs,” said Jason Tait, a representative of Massachusetts’ Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
In particular, OCPF regulations state that coordination can be presumed if: “In the course of the current campaign, the candidate who benefits from the expenditure solicits funds for or appears as a speaker or draw at a fundraiser held by the person or entity making the expenditure.”
The IE PAC’s filings, which constitute the only record of fundraising on behalf of Pires, Fernandes, Hardy, and Murphy, show that Eckert donated $20,000 this month. The only listed expenses were for more than $4,500 of “print mailers” and “direct mail” promotional material on behalf of all four candidates.
The company Eckert paid for these mailers, Arena Mail & Digital, is a Utah-based political marketing consultancy that has been a driving force behind high-profile Republican campaigns across the country. According to its website, the firm has been hired by organizations supporting 235 U.S. House of Representatives campaigns; 50 U.S. Senate campaigns; and over 400 local candidates, PACs, or political groups.
Among their list of clients are Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, and U.S. Rep. David Valadao of California. Among the hundreds of clients at the local level, there are Republican organizations from at least 30 different states and the District of Columbia.
These promotional materials cost thousands more than the opponents of Pires, Fernandes, and Hardy spent on expenses for all signs, mailings, and print-outs, according to their campaign finance documents.
The filing from Eckert’s IE PAC lists Thomas Datwyler as its treasurer. A prolific Republican campaigner, Datwyler has worked on finances for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, Jim Jordan’s congressional bid, and was the treasurer for the Republican Party of Iowa, according to a personal website.
Many of the campaigns or PACs that Datwyler has run finances for also employed Arena Print & Digital, according to an analysis by The Light. These include: the Republican Party of Iowa, Miller-Meeks for Congress, Rodney Davis for Congress, LEE PAC, and others.
Datwyler also made news for one campaign that he says he did not run: George Santos’. The Long Island congressman listed Datwyler as treasurer on paperwork submitted to the Federal Election Commission, but an attorney for Datwyler told the Associated Press that this was a fabrication.
Neither Datwyler or Eckert responded to requests for comment.
However, Joe Pires posted on social media about the event at Eckert’s home.
Pires expressed “our gratitude” for what he described as a “meet and greet in support of the school committee members running for election.” The post tagged Fernandes, Hardy, Murphy and school committee candidates from Mattapoisett, David Pierre and Richard Reilly, who were both defeated in their races this month. While pictures clearly show Pires, Fernandes, and Hardy, it’s unclear if Murphy attended. When asked last week, Murphy said he did not attend.
Pires also offered thanks directly to the Eckerts in his post: “Thank you to the family who hosted our event! Very much appreciate it!!!”
When Tait, the OCPF representative, was asked if purchases used for a campaign event need to be reported, he reiterated that “all expenditures need to appear on campaign finance reports.”
As of Rochester’s town election day, May 24, none of these expenses had been reported.
In the elections, Pires and Fernandes each secured their third term on the Old Rochester Regional and Rochester school boards, respectively. Murphy will begin his first term on the town’s Select Board.
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