June 06--A tax-exempt think tank promoting itself as a nonpartisan champion of the middle class is heavily funded by public agencies, top Democratic politicians, lobbyists and powerful special interests -- all of whom are promised influence and access to state policymakers, a Herald investigation has found.
Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth -- better known as MassINC -- has reaped millions from a donor list that includes health insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield, politically connected lobbying firms such as Dewey Square Group, and publicly funded agencies such as Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, MassDevelopment and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.
MassINC's board of directors includes 12 registered lobbyists representing big banks, pharmaceutical companies and commercial developers, as well as Partners HealthCare, National Grid and Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., according to state records.
"These days almost everyone has to register as a lobbyist. We want balance on the board. That's what we sort of strive for," said MassINC president Greg Torres.
While MassINC claims its donors and directors have no special influence over its reports and articles, the group's sales pitch on its website promises donors "influence" to shape public policy and invitations to exclusive events with state leaders such as Gov. Deval Patrick.
The Herald has found that donors and board members at the tax-exempt think tank are often quoted or cited in articles for its CommonWealth magazine.
A recent article blasting the Massachusetts Historical Commission and Secretary of State William Galvin as heavy-handed and unresponsive included critical quotes from David Begelfer, CEO of a commercial real estate trade group. Begelfer is a MassINC board member and his trade group is a leading MassINC donor.
"I don't know what passes for journalism ethics these days," Galvin said. "I suspect pay-to-play doesn't."
Torres denied the organization fosters a pay-for-influence business model, saying, "If the MBTA is giving $5,000 for a conference, it's just not enough to move the needle anyhow."
MassINC was founded by three former strategists for the 1994 gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Mark Roosevelt, a landslide loser to then-Gov. William Weld.
The nonprofit group boasts it is nonpartisan, even though many of its early donors and executives are Democrats such as state Treasurer Steve Grossman, 2002 gubernatorial candidate Chris Gabrieli, former Patrick administration official Ian Bowles and Mitchell Kertzman, who chaired Roosevelt's failed campaign.
Some Republican lobbyists are on the current board of directors, including Thomas Trimarco, a former aide to ex-Treasurer Joseph Malone, and Mark Robinson, who served in the Weld administration.
The organization promises individual donors access to private, members-only events. Corporate sponsors are promised increased access with increased donations and companies donating at least $100,000 are assured annual, private meetings with MassINC leadership, and special opportunities to co-host MassINC events with key business and political leaders.
Torres downplayed that access, saying private events are rare and MassINC gets "a relatively small amount" of public money. "Individual sponsors can certainly have input, but they're not in a position to dictate on the research front, the policy front and the journalism front," Torres said.
CommonWealth's editor Bruce Mohl bristled at any suggestion that sponsors can buy favorable coverage.
"I think that claim is false. Indeed, I can point to countless stories that our sponsors disliked," Mohl told the Herald.
But MassINC donors also have been quoted in recent articles praising Attorney General Martha Coakley, and questioning Gov. Deval Patrick's move to crack down on executive bonuses and perks at quasi-public agencies. Those same agencies are also giving money to MassINC to pay its bills.
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