Sen. Dean Tran, a Fitchburg Republican elected in 2017, was removed Thursday from his position as assistant minority whip and banned from interacting with his staff except through official emails, after the Senate Ethics Committee found his office staff had been performing campaign work with public resources during business hours.
Both in interviews recounted in the committee's report and in a social media post Thursday, Tran denied the allegations, which surfaced in anonymous mail last fall to Senate President Karen Spilka.
"This is politics, when they cannot win by attacking you personally (2017) or your record (2018), they will use the internal process to their advantage and find you guilty through anonymous letter and hearsay," Tran wrote on Facebook. "This is why good people do not enter politics. Will I let them win this year? Absolutely not! I will continue to work hard for the people I represent."
In a 15-page report filed Thursday with the Senate clerk, the Ethics Committee said that Tran "received repeated advice" that it was "inappropriate for staff to do campaign work during regular Senate business hours and for staff to participate in most fundraising activities."
"Senator Tran did not take corrective steps at any point, disregarding the advice he had been given at multiple points in the last two years," the report said. "Instead, Senator Tran refused to change his practices and did not take responsibility for any wrong-doing, deflecting the blame to staff."
On Thursday afternoon, the Senate adopted a resolution implementing the committee's recommendations.
The Senate agreed to strip Tran of his position in the GOP leadership structure, along with other provisions stipulating that Tran's personal office be relocated elsewhere in the State House for the remainder of the session while his staff continue to serve constituents from their current space, and that he be "segregated from his staff" for the rest of the term, contacting them "only in writing through official Senate email" and only about official Senate business.
Additionally, the report said allegations "concerning Senator Tran's October 2019 supplemental budget amendment" and supporting materials will be referred to the State Ethics Commission and the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Those allegations are not detailed in the committee's report.
When the Senate passed a $780 million midyear spending bill last October, Tran filed and later withdrew an amendment that would have exempted projects of a certain size from review by the Cape Cod Commission. Sen. Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat, at the time called it "insulting" that the proposal came from so far away from the affected region, and the Cape Cod Times reported that Tran filed the amendment on behalf of a Leominster developer, Gregg Lisciotti.
On Oct. 30, 2019, the report said, Senate President Karen Spilka received a package of anonymous letters alleging that Tran staffers had worked on his campaign on state time. One of the letters "made allegations concerning an amendment that Senator Tran had filed to the supplemental budget debated in October 2019."
Spilka referred the complaint to the Ethics Committee, which is chaired by Longmeadow Democrat Sen. Eric Lesser, on Nov. 4.
The Senate counsel's office and human resources office "had already had several interactions" with Tran by that time, "beginning almost as soon as he took office in December 2017," according to the report.
The report said human resources and Senate counsel continued to receive allegations that Tran expected his staff to perform campaign work, including an allegation in January 2020 that he wanted to bring on two district aides who would work on his re-election bid.
Tran joined the Senate after winning a 2017 special election, and was reelected the following year with 54 percent of the vote. He has pulled papers to run in this year's race, as have Democrats John Cronin and Brian Boyle, according to Secretary of State William Galvin's office.
In an email to the News Service, Tran said the report was "riddled with lies and hearsay to fit a narrative" and that he had no opportunity to challenge its contents.
"I did not see the report until an hour before it was published," he said. "The credibility of the information is based on who the information came from and the report accepted anything and everything from anybody. I was personally attacked in [the] 2017 special election, they tried to attack my voting record in the 2018 election, and I expected the same this year, but what I didn't expect was for the attack to come by way of the internal and partisan process through an anonymous letter about 2018. And of course, we all know, this year is an election year."
The Ethics Committee said it formally opened its investigation on Jan. 28 and interviewed Tran on March 5. He was notified of the complaint on Jan. 8, after a preliminary investigation by Senate counsel, according to the report.
"Senator Tran denied the allegations," the report said. "Senator Tran also asserted that his staff was 'totally autonomous.' Staff members may have attended both official and campaign events, but he claimed they had never touched any campaign fundraising."
According to the committee, "several witnesses" said almost all of Tran's staff worked on his 2018 campaign, with a "skeleton crew" manning the senator's district and Boston offices. Witnesses also reported seeing Tran staffers at a GOP coordinated campaign office during business hours, and the report said a party official told the Senate counsel's office "that it was 'widely known in the 'community' – meaning local Republican circles – that Senator Tran had staff do campaign work on state time."
In one April 2018 incident, a Senate employee reported being asked by a senior staffer to use public resources to print 50 copies of a Tran campaign fundraising form and deliver them to a fast-food restaurant in his district, the committee said.
Citing an email exchange between Tran, his staffers and members of an advocacy group, the committee said that Tran's employees also helped organize fundraisers.
Under Senate rules, senators cannot use state funds to employ anyone "who does not perform tasks which contribute to the work of the Senate and which are commensurate with the compensation received," and no full-time Senate employee can "engage in any outside business activity during regular business hours, whether the Senate is in session or not."
The Ethics Committee said that Tran violated those rules "Because he was aware of his staff's campaign work on state time -- and likely insisted on it." It said he also "likely violated various sections of the conflict of interest and campaign finance laws."
The committee's report is signed by all seven of its members: Lesser, Vice Chair Cynthia Creem, Sen. William Brownsberger, Sen. Michael Barrett, Sen. Cynthia Friedman, ranking minority member Sen. Patrick O'Connor and Sen. Bruce Tarr, the Senate Republican minority leader.
Spilka said the committee's work yielded "overwhelming evidence of violations of the rules of the Senate on the part of Senator Tran." She thanked the committee for a "detailed and thorough investigation," and "the members of the Senate for their quick action to adopt the recommendations of the Committee in a bipartisan and unanimous manner."