Watchdog group alleges campaign finance violations in 1st Congressional District race

  • An ad attacking Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse ahead of his ultimately unsuccessful bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in the Democratic primary in 2020. The ad was paid for by American Working Families, a super PAC now under scrutiny after the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center alleges two companies made illegal campaign contributions to the PAC. One of those companies was Excel Dryer, of East Longmeadow. SCREENSHOT/AMERICAN WORKING FAMILIES

  • The U.S. Capitol in Washington, at sunrise. AP FILE PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2020 10:08:36 AM

HOLYOKE — A local company is one of two that have been accused of illegal campaign contributions to a political action committee, or PAC, that spent $1 million on ads attacking Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse ahead of the Democratic primary in the 1st Congressional District.

On Tuesday, the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission, or FEC, against two companies — Excel Dryer of East Longmeadow and DTE Energy Co. of Detroit — that in August gave a total of $25,000 to the American Working Families PAC.

The PAC backed Morse’s opponent, longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, during the primary. The two companies are federal contractors, which are barred from making such campaign contributions.

“The ban on federal contractors making political contributions has been on the books for 75 years — it’s been consistently upheld by courts even as other campaign finance laws have been struck down,” Maggie Christ, a senior researcher with Campaign Legal Center, said Friday. “It provides a really important guard against pay-to-play corruption in one of its most basic forms.”

Executives at Excel Dryer did not return phone and email messages on Friday. Efforts to reach DTE Energy and American Working Families PAC were not successful. In a statement, Neal spokesperson Peter Panos said the Neal campaign “always follows the law and has no connection to any super PAC.”

“Richie focused on talking to voters about how he’s delivered for Western and Central Massachusetts, and that’s the record that secured his decisive victory this year,” Panos said.

In the two weeks leading up to the primary, American Working Families dropped $701,575 on the 1st Congressional race, nearly all of which it spent on ads attacking Morse. In total, the PAC spent $1 million against Morse and $13,000 backing Neal, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s the most spent by any of the 13 outside groups that spent $3.4 million on the race between Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Morse, who ran against Neal from the left.

Among the group’s ads attacking Morse was one that ran over the final days of the race that Morse and groups including the LGBTQ Victory Fund criticized as homophobic, prompting American Working Families to say it would pull the ad. Founded in 2013, American Working Families is a super PAC that can raise unlimited sums of money. It cannot, however, contribute that money directly to a candidate or coordinate with that candidate.

From January 2019 through Aug. 11, American Working Families received most of its funding from labor unions, FEC data show. However, in the weeks leading up to the Democratic primary, the super PAC hauled in $680,500, much of which came from corporations, business executives and lobbying groups. Among those that contributed were Excel Dryer and DTE Energy, which gave $10,000 and $15,000, respectively. Both companies have open contracts with the federal government, according to the federal open data portal USAspending.gov.

In the case of Excel Dryer, which makes hand dryers at its East Longmeadow manufacturing facility, the company is in the final year of a 15-year supply contract it has held since 2006 with the General Services Administration. Neal toured Excel Dryer’s plant in May. A company press release announcing Neal’s visit said that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the congressman was involved in early discussions to establish Excel Dryer as an “essential manufacturer whose hand dryers play a critical role in achieving proper hand hygiene.”

DTE Energy also has a contract with the General Services Administration, in addition to contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense.

Brendan Fischer, the director of Campaign Legal Center’s federal reform program, said the cash DTE Energy and Excel Dryer gave to American Working Families PAC may open them up to discipline from the FEC. “It’s very likely that government contractors like these that make contributions to super PACs will be fined by the FEC,” he said.

Those that gave money to the American Working Families PAC during the final weeks before the primary remained anonymous until the PAC had to submit its quarterly FEC report on Oct. 15. That report shows that the biggest group to give to American Working Families as election day approached was another super PAC — Progress United PAC, which itself received a $250,000 donation on Aug. 14 from the American Economic Freedom Alliance. Progress United then funneled $185,000 of that money to American Working Families over the next nine days, FEC records show.

American Economic Freedom Alliance is a conservative group that spent $1.1 million backing Republican candidates in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That year, the group gave $600,000 to a super PAC backing then U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, in his unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat. The group spent $330,000 on ads thanking Messer for “his plan to end tax credits for illegal immigrants.”

This cycle, the American Economic Freedom Alliance gave $700,000 to Republican causes, including money to the group American Policy Fund, which attacked Republican congressional candidates competing in primaries in Maine and Georgia for their past opposition to President Donald Trump.

American Working Families, the PAC that attacked Morse, also received cash in the final weeks before the primary from groups including: $50,000 from The Boeing Co.; $50,000 from the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned electric companies; a total of $50,000 from three energy companies; $56,000 from physicians associations; and $25,000 from the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.

Peter Picknelly and three other members of the Picknelly family, who run Peter Pan Bus Lines, gave $13,000 in total to American Working Families, and real estate developer and philanthropist Harold Grinspoon gave $10,000. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and two of his sons gave $8,000 total, MassMutual gave $10,000, and South Hadley’s Andrew and Sarah Yee, owners of the Bean Restaurant Group, gave $1,000.

One American Working Families ad referenced Morse having “sexual relationships with college students” while he was a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst — an attack critics said played on homophobic tropes.

The line referred to anonymous allegations college Democrat groups made in an unbylined story in the UMass Amherst independent student newspaper, accusing Morse of pursuing sexual relationships with college students. However, those accusations later came under scrutiny after reporting by The Intercept appeared to show an attempt to smear Morse with the possible involvement of state Democratic leadership.

Morse ultimately lost to Neal, who won about 60% of the vote. Neal, the top recipient of corporate PAC money in the U.S. House, is running unopposed in the general election.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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