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The Senate campaign of Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown (D) said Tuesday that some donors had been steered to contribute to three state Democratic parties that had given a total of $25,000 to his campaign.
The donations from the states angered Brown’s Democratic primary opponent and a campaign watchdog suggested that they could represent a violation of campaign finance laws.
By contributing to Brown on the last day of 2005, the Hawaii, Maine and Massachusetts Democratic parties seem to have unwittingly waded into the hotly contested Rhode Island Senate primary between Brown and former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (D).
Federal Election Commission records show that two of the three state parties donated $10,000 each — $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general — to Brown on Dec. 31, 2005. The Democratic Party of Hawaii gave $5,000 on that same date for the primary.
Brown spokesman Matt Burgess acknowledged that the campaign had asked a few of its donors to contribute to those state parties, where Brown campaign staffers have previous ties.
“We’ve let our supporters know who’s been helpful to us,” Burgess said.
It’s unclear which supporters were asked to give to the state parties and whether those few donors had already given the maximum contribution allowed to the Brown campaign.
Fred Wertheimer, the head of Democracy 21, a campaign finance watchdog group, called the practice at the very least “highly unusual” and said that the movement of money is sure to prompt further questions.
The transactions could be considered a violation of campaign financing laws if those donors had already given the maximum contribution allowed to Brown and were instructed by his campaign to give to the state parties.
Two of the three state party committees denied any wrongdoing, with one of the committees saying that state party leaders also intended to give to Whitehouse. Neither of those state parties appears to have given to any other Senate candidates this cycle.
Brown and Whitehouse are locked in a heated contest, with Whitehouse considered the favorite among party insiders to win the nomination.
The winner of the Democratic race will face either Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) or Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, who are battling in the Sept. 12 GOP primary.
Steve Hildebrand, a consultant to Whitehouse’s campaign, said that the situation only underscores how amateur his opponent’s campaign is.
“Brown must be so desperate to raise money to play this kind of dangerous game,” he said. “Why they thought no one would notice that three state parties made contributions shows how unskilled they are at this.”
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Democratic Party explained that the party had intended to send $5,000 to each of the Rhode Island candidates, but that the separate general election and primary checks ended up only going to Brown.
The party has since asked Brown to refund $5,000 and the Massachusetts Democrats plan to, in turn, donate that amount to Whitehouse’s campaign. Brown’s campaign has mailed the refund and party spokeswoman Cyndi Roy said that the Bay State Party “should be receiving it any day.”