- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts election officials say they’re seeing a spike in the number of so-called “straw donor” cases meant to disguise the true source of campaign contributions - and they’re hoping to discourage the practice in the future.

Since 2013 alone, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance has settled 11 such cases, with nine of those in just the past two years, according to a report issued by the agency.

In each case, officials said individuals or their businesses gave money to employees, friends or family. In turn, those “straw donors” gave money to candidates.

That’s a violation of the state’s campaign finance law which prohibits disguising the true source of contributions. The law also bans most businesses from contributing to candidates, political action committees or parties - either directly or indirectly.

The 11 cases have resulted in forfeitures of $566,000.

What’s not exactly clear is the reason for the spike, although campaign officials say the increase in cases could be the result of better auditing or heightened public awareness of the practice.

Of the 11 cases, the one that resulted in the biggest forfeiture of $185,000 - the largest in the history of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance - was settled when state campaign regulators entered into an agreement with Canton-based businessman Vincent Barletta earlier this year.

According to the agreement, on at least 60 occasions between 2010 and 2015, business entities controlled by Barletta provided $35,500 to employees who then used those funds to make contributions to candidates.

Barletta did not return calls or emails from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Campaign finance officials looked at bank records and other documents and found several employees of Barletta-controlled businesses deposited funds received from the businesses into their personal checking accounts shortly before or shortly after they made contributions to 10 candidates running for statewide, legislative and municipal offices.

They included former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat.

Investigators said the candidates weren’t aware of the scheme and agreed to give the donations to the state, a local city or town, or a charity or scholarship fund.

Campaign finance officials said Barletta has also contacted the Federal Election Commission about alleged corporate reimbursements provided to employees for contributions to federal candidates and committees since 2010.

Michael Sullivan, director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, said he hopes highlighting the recent cases will discourage others from attempting similar schemes.

“It’s a problem we’d like to resolve through education, not by opening more cases,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said candidates can provide a first line of defense by being a bit more skeptical when they suddenly receive several employee contributions from the same company.

“Before depositing, ask the question, ‘are these funds really from the individuals signing the checks?’” Sullivan said in a written statement.

The OCPF report comes as an investigation by The Boston Globe and the Center for Responsive Politics found a Massachusetts law firm’s partners received bonuses that matched political donations.

The investigation found that partners at the Thornton Law Firm donated nearly $1.6 million to Democratic committees and candidates from 2010 through 2014. During that same period, the lawyers received $1.4 million listed as “bonuses,” including more than 280 in amounts that precisely matched their donations and were paid within 10 days.

A spokesman for the law firm has said its donation reimbursement program was reviewed by outside lawyers and complied with relevant laws. They said the contributions only involved equity partners in the firm and their own personal after-tax money.

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