By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- The Massachusetts Republican Party offered Wednesday to certify Republican gubernatorial hopeful Mark Fisher for the primary ballot in a bid to resolve a legal battle with the Shrewsbury businessman that a party lawyer said has become a "distraction" and a "drain on resources" for the GOP.
Fisher, a Tea Party Republican hoping to challenge the GOP's leading contender for governor Charlie Baker, has yet to respond to the offer made in writing to his campaign and through the courts, but he scheduled a press conference for Thursday in Boston to discuss his plans. Fisher contends in his lawsuit that he was unfairly denied access to the September primary ballot due to improper vote-counting at the party's nominating convention.
The candidate has also not responded to claims from the party's attorney Louis Ciavarra that Fisher was demanding as much as $1 million in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.
The motion filed in Suffolk Superior Court on Wednesday by Ciavarra argues that proceeding with a trial scheduled for June 16 is "moot" because the party is prepared to offer Fisher exactly what he's been seeking - access to the Republican primary ballot.
"The cost of winning this case is probably greater than the cost to bring closure to it," Ciavarra told the News Service. "We do not believe there has been a violation of any rule or law that will subject any defendant to liability but the financial cost of that success, the time to get there and the restriction of not being able to focus on what's important is greater than certifying him.
Fisher sued the MassGOP after the party's convention, alleging that party leaders improperly manipulated the vote count resulting in him narrowly falling short of the 15 percent total required to qualify for the primary ballot.
Asked whether the campaign would accept the offer of ballot access, campaign manager Deb McCarthy said, "I can't comment on that," but said Fisher would make a statement and take questions at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Omni Parker House downtown. Fisher's attorney Thomas Harvey did not return a call seeking comment.
Baker has repeatedly said since the lawsuit was filed that he would "welcome" a primary if Fisher qualifies, and spokesman Tim Buckley said, "Charlie has said all along he's looking for the fairest and quickest outcome."
While the party maintains it did nothing wrong, Ciavarra's motion makes clear that Fisher and the legal challenge have become an unwelcome sideshow, distracting Republicans from the their ultimate goal of reclaiming the governor's office after eight years.
"It's not unusual for clients to say it's time for adult supervision and we need to move past the fight," Ciavarra said.
Ciavarra wrote that Fisher has "demonstrated an unwavering commitment" to publicize the case, and tapped allies within the party to "carry his torch and caused increased disruption to the Party. This distraction, and the expense created by this activity, is preventing the Party from focusing on its true goals," Ciavarra wrote in the court motion.
If a judge and the Fisher campaign accept the offer, the MassGOP said Fisher would retain the right to seek damages in a separate claim, but that such a proceeding was not time sensitive and could be delayed until after the election. The move to forego a trial would also eliminate the possibility of any potentially embarrassing details of alleged backroom deal-making coming to light in court during the campaign.
McCarthy declined to comment on what Fisher planned to say at Thursday's press conference, but promised it would be worth the wait. She also declined to respond to the claim that Fisher and Harvey asked the MassGOP for $1 million to drop the lawsuit, before downgrading their request to $650,000.
"I advised you and your client, as well as my own clients, that it is unlawful to compensate someone in exchange for not seeking election - in layman's terms 'buying people off the ballot' is illegal," Ciavarra wrote in a letter to Harvey on Tuesday that was circulated among Republican State Committee members. The letter was first reported on by the Boston Globe.
In that letter, Ciavarra wrote that he was prepared to recommend, and the MassGOP would likely accept, a settlement that puts Fisher on the primary ballot in September provided that he collects the required 10,000 certified signatures. The Fisher campaign claims it collected at least 15,000 signatures that have been submitted for certification.
"Without a settlement, it seems as though the trial of this matter may continue for many months and that appeals of the case could drag on for year. During that period, Mr. Fisher's time and resources will be divided between this litigation and trying to prepare for the primary in September," Ciavarra wrote. "Similarly, the Massachusetts Republican Party will be focused on the defense of the lawsuit at the very time it should be preparing for the fall election."
Fisher told the Boston Herald on Wednesday morning that the MassGOP was making a last ditch attempt at "intimidation" by releasing the Ciavarra letter and suggested the party may have come to him first offering him money back in December before the convention. Fisher declined to be interviewed for this story.
Asked whether the MassGOP ever offered Fisher money to resolve the dispute, Ciavarra said, "We certainly never offered to pay him $1 million to settle this lawsuit."
But when asked if any financial settlements were discussed, he said, "There were discussions about settlement terms that involved a number of topics. Some of those discussions involved money but they never got to place where money was offered."
In its latest filing with the Federal Elections Commission, the MassGOP reported having just $36,828 in cash on hand at the end of March. Meanwhile, Fisher reports a balance of just under $101,000 in his campaign account through April, making a $90,000 personal loan to his campaign mid-month.