BOSTON — A congressional ethics panel is moving forward with an investigation into allegations that U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan violated financial reporting rules ahead of the 2018 election.
On Tuesday, the House Committee on Ethics released a report detailing the allegations and recommending that an investigation continue. It said there is "substantial reason to believe that Rep. Trahan’s campaign committee accepted personal loans and contributions that exceeded campaign contribution limits."
Trahan, a Westford Democrat, loaned herself $371,000 last year as part of her bid to win the 3rd Congressional District seat previously held by Rep. Niki Tsongas.
The money helped fund last-minute advertising blitz that some say helped the political newcomer clinch the Democratic nomination in a 10-way primary last September. She won the primary by 145 votes following a recount between her and Democrat Dan Koh. She went on to defeat Republican Rick Green and Independent Mike Mullen in the Nov. 6 election.
In a statement, Trahan's spokesman Mark McDevitt denied any wrongdoing by the congresswoman and said she expects to be cleared of the allegations.
"The complaint that generated this referral came from a right-wing group with a long history of attacking Democrats, and is without merit," he said. "The Federal Election Commission has found no violations in numerous cases involving the use of marital assets that closely mirror Congresswoman Trahan’s use of funds, which is why we remain confident that any review will rule in her favor."
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a conservative Washington D.C. group, filed the complaint with the Ethics Committee earlier this year. It alleged that Trahan didn't have enough revenue and assets listed in her name to cover the loans, based on the personal financial disclosures she filed in Congress.
The report suggested the loans were backed by her husband, David Trahan, a real estate developer.
The congresswoman initially denied that any of the money belonged to her husband but later acknowledged drawing money from a joint account she shares with her husband.
Under federal campaign finance law, spouses are limited to the same $2,700 maximum contribution to a candidate as any other supporter.
Trahan said before she married, the couple entered into a prenuptial agreement that stated their incomes would be considered joint property which each of them having equal right to use.
"All of it — what I earned, what Dave earned — was our money, regardless of whether it was in my account, Dave’s account, or a joint account," she said in an Oct. 30 statement.
To back up her point, Trahan's campaign cited cases involving celebrity Jane Fonda and former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole where the FEC deemed spouses’ funds to be candidates' "personal funds" when candidates had the right to manage and dispose of those same funds.
Trahan has amended her personal financial disclosures filed with the House clerk multiple times over the past year, as questions about the source of the campaign loans were raised. She added a joint banking account and a $71,000 home equity loan to her disclosure.
Her campaign has pointed out that such amendments are common, especially among first-time candidates.
"There is no plausible argument that anything in the amended forms would have changed anyone’s vote; nonetheless, voters deserve transparency and accuracy from candidates and elected officials, and I regret that there were inadvertent omissions and errors in my initial filings," Trahan said in the October statement. "But I remain incredibly proud of the campaign we ran — and the path we took to fund it."
Last year's race for the 3rd District was the state’s marquee congressional election and awash with money. All told, candidates spent nearly $12 million, according to disclosures with the Federal Election Commission, making it one of the state's most expensive congressional races last year.
Trahan also faces an FEC complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C. watchdog, questioning the source of her campaign funds.
It seems unlikely the FEC will act on that complaint anytime soon. The six-member commission, which is down to three members, lacks a quorum to hold hearings on investigations.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.