By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Republican gubernatorial hopeful Mark Fisher escalated his dispute with the Republican Party on Thursday, accusing unnamed party officials of attempting to bribe him in December with $1 million to drop out of the governor's race long before the party's nominating convention in March.
Fisher also challenged the frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination Charlie Baker to join him in demanding the MassGOP release the detailed delegate vote tally sheets that were relied upon at the nominating convention to exclude him from the ballot.
"You want to lead the state as governor and you're not leading on this one issue?" Fisher asked, saying he hoped Baker had not been personally involved in the alleged vote-counting transgressions but later suggesting possible "collusion" with the Baker campaign.
Fisher filed a lawsuit after the MassGOP convention, alleging that the party improperly tallied delegate votes resulting in his failure to qualify for the ballot. The lawsuit alleges a number of irregularities, including the improper counting of blank votes toward the total, which the party denies.
The tea-party businessman from Shrewsbury said he would not accept the party's offer made in court on Wednesday to certify him for the ballot in exchange for him dropping the lawsuit, insisting that the party also pay him damages and release tally sheets that he said could contain "damning" evidence of possible criminal activity.
The MassGOP's attorney said the settlement offer was made to avoid further distraction from the party's mission of winning the governor's office in November.
A hearing in the case has been scheduled in Suffolk Superior Court for Friday at 2 p.m.
After being accused by party attorney Louis Ciavarra this week of demanding $1 million in return for dropping the lawsuit, Fisher said it was the party who first offered money to him to get out of the race and clear the path for Baker, the establishment's preferred candidate.
Fisher declined to say who made him the offer, citing a court gag order that's part of his lawsuit even though he agreed that the circumstances of the December offer were not a part of his legal claim related to the convention. Fisher did say he was first contacted by telephone in his office by a member of the Republican State Committee and subsequently referred to someone "higher up."
"My first reaction was, 'this is a bribe. This is illegal. This can't be done.' My second reaction was they have no clue why I'm running. There's no amount of money that is going to get me out of the race," Fisher said at a press conference held in the downtown Boston Omni Parker House hotel.
MassGOP Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes, in a statement, denied the accusations of bribery leveled by Fisher, and Ciavarra said such an offer has never been brought up since settlement negotiations began with Fisher and his attorney.
"Mr. Fisher made numerous false and unsubstantiated statements today. The facts, as substantiated by Fisher's attorney to the Boston Globe, are that Mr. Fisher asked the MassGOP leadership for $1 million dollars to abandon his lawsuit, and later revised his offer to $650,000, not the other way around," Hughes said.
Hughes also said that the party was not intentionally withholding the delegate tally sheets.
"His claim that we are unwilling to open that ballot box is also false. Given that this is a legal matter, there is a process to follow and we are abiding by that. We have every expectation that the ballots will be reviewed. Finally, there is no gag order preventing Mr. Fisher from providing proof to support his bogus claims," Hughes said.
Fisher does not dispute that he directed his attorney Thomas Harvey to ask for $1 million as a settlement figure, but called it a "ridiculous" figure that he threw out there to "shut them up" after MassGOP lawyer Ciavarra repeatedly asked his campaign how much it would take for Fisher to drop the lawsuit.
"Tell them it's the same number they offered me back in December," he said he told Harvey.
Fisher said he was not aware of Harvey lowering the asking price to $650,000, but insisted that he never would have accepted a settlement offer that didn't include access to the ballot and the release of the tally sheets.
A week after the convention, Fisher went on cable television and said, without elaborating, that something had occurred to give him hope a resolution could be reached that would avert his having to file a lawsuit. Days later, however, Fisher sued the party.
On Thursday, Fisher recounted a conversation he had with Baker about a week after the convention in which Baker told him he intended to stay out of the negotiations and would welcome a primary if that's what was decided.
Fisher went on to describe a meeting in late April between himself, Harvey and Ciavarra when he claimed Ciavarra outlined the potential contours of a settlement that could be for more money and no ballot access or less money and ballot access. According to Fisher, Ciavarra said he wasn't sure such a settlement involving cash would be legal and would have to be structured in a way to avoid an F.B.I. investigation.
Ciavarra confirmed the settlement negotiation meeting during the week of school vacation in April, and said he communicated to all parties that he is not a campaign-finance expert and any settlement would have to be reviewed for its legality. "In my opinion, it would be inappropriate to pay a sum of money in excess of real damages, if he can establish those," Ciavarra told the News Service.
Fisher said Hughes and MassGOP Executive Director Rob Cunningham were present, but in a different room for the meeting at Ciavarra's Worcester law office.
Calling on Baker to demand the release of the tally sheets from the convention and on Attorney General Martha Coakley to investigate the matter, Fisher said the party's offer to put him on the ballot if the lawsuit goes away was a form of intimidation and would not account for the money he has had to spend on lawyers and signature gatherers.
"The MassGOP will do anything they can, say anything they can to prevent the tally sheets from becoming public. Why? Those tally sheets from the convention are damning. They're damning. They will show criminal activity," Fisher said.
Fisher said he has spent about $70,000 in legal fees so far and $30,000 on professional signature-gathering as a direct result of being disqualified from the ballot at the convention.
Furthermore, Fisher said his campaign is struggling as a result of the uncertainty around his candidacy to raise the necessary money to qualify for state matching campaign funds, and must now raise $75,000 in the next three weeks to receive public financing.
Baker campaign spokesman Tim Buckley said the Republican candidate's position on the Fisher lawsuit has not changed. "For several weeks now, Charlie has made his intentions known that he wants a fair and quick resolution to this matter and if that means a primary, then we welcome it. Despite Mr. Fisher's latest performance, Charlie's position remains the same, and he hopes Mr. Fisher will work with the Party for a reasonable resolution."
When asked if he would accept an offer from the party of ballot access, a release of the tally sheets and $100,000 in damages, Fisher said, "That sounds like a pretty good deal."
The judge handling Fisher's lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court bifurcated the case and set an expedited trial date for June 16 to decide whether Fisher's name should be placed on the ballot. The judge ruled that Fisher's claim for damages could be considered at a later date.
In his motion filed Wednesday to settle the case, Ciavarra asked that discovery in the case be postponed until after the election, but Fisher said even if he is given ballot access he wants the damages portion of the trial to be expedited to June.
"I need that money now to buy lawn signs," he said.