AG polled voters on chances for Senate

Survey financed by secret account

By Glen Johnson
Associated Press / February 5, 2009
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Attorney General Martha Coakley has twice used a legal but hidden bank account to poll voters on whether she would be a viable US Senate candidate.

Coakley has avoided any public steps that would make her appear overeager, including starting a federal campaign committee.

Yet in 2004, when Senator John F. Kerry was the Democratic presidential nominee, and again in November, when Kerry was mentioned as a potential secretary of state, Coakley tapped the undisclosed account to assess her prospects in a special election to replace him, the attorney general said in an interview yesterday with the Associated Press.

While federal campaign committees must be publicly reported, bank accounts used for "testing the waters" can remain cloaked from public view until a candidate formally decides to run for federal office, according to the Federal Election Commission.

During the most recent poll, Senator Edward M. Kennedy also was being treated for brain cancer, although he has returned to work. Kerry, meanwhile, missed being named secretary of state when President Obama appointed former senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

A special election for US Senate would probably attract a wide field of candidates, including several members of the state's all-Democratic House delegation and possibly former attorney general Scott Harshbarger.

Coakley is considered to be among the most viable female candidates, because she is one of the state's six constitutional officers and its chief law enforcement officer. Among her fellow Democrats, she is the only woman officeholder who has succeeded in a statewide campaign.

Coakley divulged the existence of the account and the spending from it after the AP asked her to explain a $25,400 payment from her state campaign committee to the firm of Washington pollster Celinda Lake. The expense was incurred in November, Coakley said, but logged in a report filed Jan. 7.

In an initial conversation on the subject, Coakley said the poll focused on state issues. "This was around AG issues, state issues," she said. "There was a change in the law, so funds from a state account can only be used for state campaign purposes."

Asked whether there were any crossover questions that could pertain to a possible federal campaign, Coakley initially replied, "If we were going to do that, we would have had to use federal money for that."

She added: "We limited our use of state funds to issues that we think are applicable to a state campaign."

Coakley said she had not yet established a federal campaign committee to finance such things as federal poll questions.

But Coakley called back 10 minutes later and disclosed that she had established a federal campaign bank account to weigh a potential Senate race and used it in November and during Kerry's 2004 White House race.

"At the time we did the poll in November, there was a chance that Senator Kerry might take a position in the Obama administration," Coakley said. "As a result of that, we did a limited amount of polling with funds from an exploratory bank account for that. But most of the poll was related to state issues."

Mary Brandenberger, a Federal Election Commission spokeswoman, said individuals can maintain such accounts as long as they want, provided they keep track of any donations and expenditures. Individuals must disclose an account only if they decide to begin a campaign.

The candidate must also file a report detailing past activity in the account. In Coakley's case, that would mean listing all donors for the account and all expenditures, including the 2004 and 2008 polls.

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