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Law change helped House candidate pay himself

Bielat took $10,000 salary from campaign in loss to Frank

“I did not cover it up. . . . But it got to the point in the campaign when we had to have some income,” Sean Bielat said. “I did not cover it up. . . . But it got to the point in the campaign when we had to have some income,” Sean Bielat said.
By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / February 12, 2011

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Sean Bielat, whose spirited challenge to US Representative Barney Frank last year drew national attention, paid himself $10,000 in salary drawn from his campaign account, but waited to disclose the move until after the November election.

While not prohibited on the federal level, personal salary payments are rare. It appears Bielat is the first Massachusetts candidate to take advantage of a change in federal law that allows him to do so.

In an interview this week, Bielat acknowledged that he held off taking the salary until the final weeks of the race to avoid sparking a debate that would deflect attention from campaign issues. As a candidate, he had promised a transparent office. But he said he and his wife were cash-strapped as Election Day approached.

“The fact you are calling me is indicative of how much of a distraction from the campaign and from the discussion of the issues of the economy and jobs it would have been,’’ he said. “I did not want that distraction.’’

Bielat made the payments to himself on Oct. 15, two days after the final preelection reporting deadline.

That meant the payments were not disclosed until late November.

In addition to the $10,000, the Brookline Republican’s campaign lists another $14,300 in debt owed to him.

Bielat said that money represents an additional salary payment he earmarked for himself, but never took.

In 2002, the Federal Election Commission lifted its longstanding ban forbidding candidates from drawing on their donations to pay themselves salaries.

The change was intended, in part, to make it easier for candidates who are not independently wealthy to afford to run for office.

Since then however, few candidates have taken advantage of the new rule, and those who did often faced public criticism.

The Federal Election Commission and several national watchdog groups say they have not tracked how many candidates have drawn salaries. But it appears that Bielat is the first federal candidate from Massachusetts to do so.

“In all my time of observing Massachusetts campaigns, I have never heard of this happening before,’’ said Pamela Wilmot, the longtime director of Common Cause Massachusetts, which monitors political finance issues.

Massachusetts law prohibits state candidates from using donations to pay themselves salaries.

Bielat, who said he has not ruled out another run for Congress after giving Frank his sharpest challenge since 1982, sharply rejected the notion that he had deceived voters by intentionally hiding the salary until after the election or by listing a second payment he intended to give himself as debt, instead of as a salary.

“I did not cover it up,’’ Bielat said. “Your zeroing in on this now is indicative of why I wanted to avoid any salary. But it got to the point in the campaign when we had to have some income.’’

Bielat quit his job at the iRobot Corp. a year before the election, giving up a $162,754 salary.

“My wife and I are not wealthy,’’ he said, noting that during the campaign they had a child and were burdened by expenses such as student loans.

But in the months leading up to the election, Bielat was sharply critical of Frank for a lack of transparency and promised to be more open.

In a September press release, he accused Frank of not revealing certain campaign contributions. “It’s yet another example of Barney Frank skirting the spirit of the law intended to increase transparency and accountability,’’ Bielat said in a statement.

A month later, he criticized the congressman for not being forthcoming about gifts he took, including the use of a private jet and a Caribbean vacation home. “I want to give the citizens of the Fourth District honest representation and transparency on how their money is spent,’’ he wrote.

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause’s national office in Washington, D.C., said the organization takes no position on the practice of candidates paying themselves, but that a ban would “prohibit ordinary people from running for office’’ and render campaigns “the domain for the wealthy and well connected.’’

“We want more ordinary people to run for office,’’ she said.

Sheila Krumholz — executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington public-interest group that monitors campaign finance issues — said she sympathizes with candidates who need to draw salaries, particularly when they take on incumbents who are on the public payroll.

But she emphasized that such salary payments from political accounts should be made public, so voters can use the information in evaluating a candidate.

“It should all be transparent, and not something voters can only find months later,’’ she said.

The Bielat campaign committee’s latest report filed with the Federal Election Commission on Jan. 31 shows that it has debts of more than $63,000. Of that, $14,300 represents the second salary payment that Bielat has yet to take.

Although he is fund-raising to pay off the debt, he said he might ultimately not collect the salary.

“Everything in the campaign was informal,’’ he said, noting that his run had been fairly low-key, until it suddenly gained the national attention of conservatives and particularly Fox News, where he appeared several times during the campaign season.

The attention created a flood of donations that bulked up his campaign coffers.

Though a newcomer to electoral politics, Bielat raised more than $2.4 million.

Frank spent about $3.5 million on his reelection. The veteran Democrat from Newton defeated Bielat with 55.5 percent of the vote.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.