Regulators: Chicopee Mayoral Candidates Ran Afoul Of Campaign Finance Law

Jan 9, 2020

Both candidates for mayor of Chicopee, Massachusetts, last fall were found to have violated state campaign finance laws having to do with their jobs as public employees.

Public employees in Massachusetts are prohibited from soliciting or receiving contributions for a public office candidate under Section 13 of the state's campaign finance laws

The new mayor, John Vieau, had worked for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and shared a post on his personal Facebook page about a fundraiser for a City Council candidate. That's according to a letter from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) to Vieau.

"On May 18, 2019, you shared a post to your personal Facebook Page [that] advertised a spaghetti dinner fundraiser to support the re-election of George Balakier to the Chicopee City Council," OCPF's then-director, Michael Sullivan, wrote to Vieau on November 13. "The post also included information for individuals to make [online contributions to Balakier's campaign]."

OCPF found that action violated the law. But the letter said once Vieau was made aware of the situation, he deleted the post from his Facebook page. 

The runner-up in November's election, Joe Morissette, is a vice principal at a city high school. He too posted on Facebook about a spaghetti supper — this one benefiting his own campaign.

In another letter from OCPF to Morissette, also dated November 13, state officials said Morrissette took action when made aware of the issue.

"[Y]ou promptly cancelled the event and refused and/or refunded any contributions that were offered in response to event invitations and advertising," the letter said.

In their respective notices, OCPF said since each candidate took quick action, and because they believed the letters would ensure future compliance with state campaign finance laws, no other action was taken. Each matter has been declared closed. 

The letters highlight an added burden placed on candidates for elected office in Massachusetts who also hold jobs in state or local government. Unlike other candidates, they are required to maintain a hands-off approach to fundraising, and leave that work up to a committee of supporters. 

OCPF declined to be interviewed for this story, as the agency is currently without a director. But a spokesman pointed to written guidance and multiple videos the office created to help clarify the rules.

According to the written guidance, the law is designed to prevent public employees from feeling pressure to donate to a co-worker or supervisor who is running for office, and also make sure no one "doing business" with government agencies feels pressure to help the candidate.

One video discusses a hypothetical situation where a mayoral candidate approaches the microphone at a fundraiser for the campaign and asks for donations.

"Giving a speech is allowed," the video said, "but soliciting is prohibited."

Sam Hudzik contributed to this report.