By Christian Wade
---- — BOSTON — For Democrats and charities, former Congressman Marty Meehan is the gift that keeps on giving.
Meehan left Congress in 2007 with nearly $5 million in his campaign war chest. Since then he has given $683,400 to Democrats and Congressional candidates in Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and other states, according to his reports to the Federal Election Commission.
That includes $210,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the fundraising arm of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and $68,500 to the Massachusetts Democratic Party. But it doesn’t include thousands of dollars in personal contributions Meehan has made to state Democratic lawmakers.
Meehan, who left Congress to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, has also been generous to national and local charities. He’s given $349,055 from his campaign funds to nonprofits including Greater Lowell Music Theatre, The Salvation Army, The Jimmy Fund, The Immaculate Conception Church in Lowell, Lowell General Hospital, The Lowell Plan and dozens of other causes.
The biggest recipient of Meehan’s charity is a group that bears his own name — the Marty Meehan Educational Fund — and gives scholarships to Massachusetts college students who lost a parent or loved one in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Meehan’s largesse is more than just generosity, say political observers, who point out that his contributions to state and congressional lawmakers boost UMass Lowell’s profile, which can translate into funding for the state university.
Meehan, who spent 15 years in Congress, defends his use of the campaign money, accumulated over years of fundraising. He denies that he is lobbying by doling out the cash.
He says the expenses are legitimate and based on requests he receives from party officials and candidates, as well as charitable groups that know he’s sitting on a large sum of cash.
“The money would be gone by now if I responded to every request for funds,” said Meehan, who still has about $4.5 million in extra campaign cash. “We say no to as many people as we say yes to.”
State and national party officials are the most aggressive in soliciting funds, he said.
“The Democratic Party keeps a list of who has campaign money in their accounts, and those folks get a lot of calls,” Meehan said. “When I left office, the state Democratic Party asked me for $1 million, but I wasn’t prepared to make that kind of a commitment. So I agreed to make donations every year.”
State and national party officials declined to comment about Meehan’s contributions.
Campaign finance experts say federal law gives former members of Congress plenty of leeway to spend the money however they choose, as long as it isn’t used directly on themselves. Most donate money to other candidates, political action committees or charities. Others keep their accounts open and use it to pay for future political activities.
“Some people actually return the money to the donors who gave it to them,” said Russ Choma, who tracks congressional spending fro the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. “It’s rare, but it does happen occasionally.”
Choma said at least 52 ex-lawmakers are sitting on more than $100,000 in campaign leftovers. At least eight of those — including Meehan and former Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy II — have more than $1 million.
By comparison, just 18 former members had more than $100,000 in their campaign accounts in the 1998 election cycle.
Some former lawmakers are savvy with the money, investing it in stocks or mutual funds to produce revenue. “There are some who’ve been out of office for 25 years and have more money than they started with,” Choma said.
Meehan keeps his money in an interest-bearing bank account and invests a portion in CDs, which generated about $15,000 in returns between 2012 and 2013, according to his FEC filings.
Kennedy reported a campaign fund of $1.7 million when left office in 2000. His latest FEC records show he now has $2.5 million and has earned $420,808 from interest on bonds and investments with Goldman Sachs.
Meehan, 57, was first elected to Congress in 1992, succeeding Chester Atkins in a district that included parts of the Merrimack Valley and his native Lowell.
He resigned in July 2007 to accept the chancellor’s job at UMass Lowell, his alma mater.
While he has been mentioned as a potential candidate for governor or U.S. Senate, Meehan said he isn’t holding onto the campaign money as part of a plan to return to politics.
“The more years that go by, the less likely it is that I will run for office again,” he said.
Separately, Meehan has given more than $23,000 of his own money since 2008 to state lawmakers including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Theresa Murray, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Rep. Brian Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee that shepherds budget bills through the Legislature, has received $1,000 from Meehan in recent years. Dempsey is also a UMass Lowell graduate.
Michael Goldman, a longtime Democratic political consultant, said Meehan’s contributions benefit him as chancellor of UMass Lowell, especially with the campus competing against private universities for limited federal research grants.
“When people call him up for money, he gets to make a pitch to them for educational funding,” Goldman said. “It gives him a chance to make his case, but it doesn’t guarantee that he’s going to get what he wants.”
Meehan’s contributions to Democrats in Congress don’t appear to be paying off. Federal funds and contracts for UMass Lowell have remained largely flat since he took over – netting roughly $24 million in fiscal year 2014, according to state budget figures.
Meehan’s ties to state lawmakers, however, appear to have had a more measurable impact.
For the past two years lawmakers have boosted the UMass Lowell budget by millions of dollars — even above funding levels called for by Gov. Deval Patrick — allowing the five-campus system to freeze tuition increases.
Last March, the Legislature approved a $2.5 million special appropriation allowing UMass Lowell to expand its campus into downtown Haverhill.
Meehan says he’s not lobbying state or federal lawmakers by giving out the money in his campaign account.
“I hope my experiences in Congress are an asset to the university. But it’s a different kind of job, it’s not political anymore,” Meehan said. “And most of the federal research dollars that come to the university are merit-based. Congressional earmarks are illegal.”
Several donors to Meehan’s campaigns over the years said they don’t have a problem with his use of their money.
Thomas McGraph was one of the last supporters to put money into Meehan’s campaign account, cutting a check for $90 in early 2007. He has no issue with his money going to other candidates, so long as they’re Democrats, he said.
“I’m a Boston Irish Democrat,” said McGraph, 62, of Pepperell. “And I think it’s important to support Democrats across the country to be a beachhead against the Republican Party.”
James and Carol Furneaux, of Newburyport, gave Meehan nearly $10,000 between 2005 and 2006 for his last reelection campaign. They, too, don’t have a problem with the use of their money on causes and campaigns.
“We have a lot of trust in Marty and believe that his giving represents our positions,” James Furneaux said.
Christian M. Wade covers government and politics for CNHI’s Massachusetts newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter: @cmwade1969
Marty Meehan for Congress Committee
Top Recipients (2007-14)
Democratic Congressional Campaign $210,000
Massachusetts Democratic Party $68,500
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee $33,400
Democratic Leadership Council $30,000
Committee To Elect/Re-Elect John Tierney $16,000
Campaign For Change $15,000
The Edward M. Kennedy Institute $15,000
Richard Neal For Congress Committee $14,000
Niki Tsongas Committee $13,000
Barney Frank For Congress Committee $12,000
Committee To Elect Jim McGovern $12,000
Stephen Lynch For Congress $12,000
Capuano For Congress Committee $10,000
Markey For Congress Committee $10,000
The Archive Collection Of Congressman Barney Frank $10,000
Marty Meehan Educational Foundation $52,000
ALS Champion Fund $25,000
Suffolk University $20,000
Immaculate Conception Church $17,200
Urban League Of Springfield, Inc. $16,250
Walden Woods Project $15,000
Merrimack Repertory Theatre $12,000
The New England Patriots Charitable Foundation $12,000
Shedd Park Baseball Organization $11,800
Camp Harbor View Foundation $10,000
Lowell General Hospital $10,000
Middlesex Community College Foundation $10,000
Steven Panagiotakos Charity Foundation $10,000
UMass Dartmouth Foundation $10,000
Honor Flight Of New England $7,500