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Where’s the EngageRI donor disclosure?

November 17, 2011

Every political movement has unintended consequences. One of the baleful aspects of the EngageRI pension overhaul lobbying group is that it has moved seriously backwards on a bedrock principle of open government – the disclosure of contributions from top political players.

Thanks to Ted Nesi of WPRI and Mike Stanton of the ProJo for shining some light on how much money EngageRI has raised and spent. So far, the group, which is largely business-financed, has harvested between  $700,000 to $1 million in contributions.

The money has gone for such traditional political activities as State House lobbying, television spots and public relations and advocacy.

The problem is that none of this money is open to public scrutiny. Rhode Islanders have no idea where this money is coming from. EngageRI used an IRS loophole to avoid any requirement that the donors be made public.

Perhaps the most outrageous defense of EngageRI’s anti-disclosure stance has been State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who has defended this secrecy policy. She is saying in essence that because EngageRI is doing something the entire state will benefit from there is no need for disclosure.

This, of course, is ridiculous and the height of hubris. In every political decision there are winners and losers. Resources are allocated among interest groups. This is political science 101: the system is about Who Gets What. Surely, a Rhodes Scholar such as Raimondo understands this.

Is there any other recent elected official in Rhode Island who has said that an interest group that engages in traditional political activity doesn’t have to disclose donors?

Assuming pension overhaul is approved by the Assembly, the state will have to make a decision with huge financial implications for investment advisers and state employees alike: Which company or companies will get the deal to manage the new 401k plans that state employees will be moved into. There are potentially millions of dollars in investment fees at stake here, as well as the financial future of state workers. State House sources say there is already a parade of investment groups lining up to get this business.

How will they be picked? What process will be used to evaluate competing proposals? How lucrative will be the management fees?

How can the taxpayers and public workers be assured that nobody from these companies is giving money to EngageRI, which has said openly that it plans to be active in legislative election campaigns? Where is the transparency needed to assure the public that there is no insider dealing?

Thankfully, there is a group fighting for open government: Common Cause of Rhode Island.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, is preparing legislation for introduction in January that would force donor disclosure. “There is no reason transparency shouldn’t be there,’’ says Marion.

Marion says other state legislatures, including those in Minnesota and Maryland, have enacted tough state disclosure laws to ensure that groups that actively try to influence politics must reveal their donors.

“Politics is about the allocation of  resources in a society,’’ says Marion. “We should know more about who is responsible for doing that.’’

This isn’t to pick on the business community. While everyone knows that Rhode Island labor groups are spending to fight the pension overhaul, Marion’s legislation would affect their disclosure too. For example, is the Rhode Island labor movement’s campaign coming only from the union dues of Rhode Island workers or is it financed by say, contributions from the national AFL_CIO or other labor groups from outside the state.

The state’s media should get behind Marion and Common Cause. The Providence Journal has long crusaded for open government, but we haven’t heard much from them or other news outlets on this topic. Without open records of donors, the media will never be able to tell the public who is financing political campaigns and State House lobbying.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was absolutely right when he opined early in the 20th century that the disinfectant of sunlight is the best check on government and the special interests that would influence lawmakers. Citizens have a right to know.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2011 4:51 pm

    I think it’s time to stop calling this a pension “overhaul.” Its been watered down enough that it is really just a stop-gap measure.

    With regards to EngageRI’s membership, the Klu Klux Klan wore sheets covering their faces. What does society have to fear from anonymity?!

  2. November 18, 2011 9:45 am

    Thanks, Scott! We need reform of money in politics, not “reform” of pensions that hurt the working class while protecting judges and the 1%

  3. R. Douglas Nagle permalink
    November 18, 2011 4:06 pm

    Reports in mainstream media have stated that the ‘pension overhaul’ will save the state and cities of RI $274 MILLION in just the first year. RI has about 1 million residents. These savings, or takings, will come only from those currently employed or retired from employment from government/municipal jobs. The savings will benefit all especially those who do not pay this kickback. Please do the math Raimondo did not publicize and show how much LOSS the average retiree and employee will bear for just the first year. ‘Fairness’? IF there are 50,000, they will bear a loss in the next year of $5,480 each. If the 274 MIL were flatly shared per person it would be $274 DOLLARS per person for the year. If Hasbro told their few remaining RI employees they had to donate back $5,480 each in order to keep their job and salary (because it was unfair to ask customers to pay more for toys) the employees might consider unionizing and fighting back. Unionizing was the course decided upon by state/municipal workers long ago due to concerns for protecting themselves from just such action.

    It is creepy that Raimondo and cohorts have separated Judiciary and Police from the mainstream of the effects from this take-back. An appearance of impropriety taints this move. Perhaps this strategy reflects the concern: Why risk sympathy within those who would be expected to stand and protect Marie Antoinette & company? Gina, Alan, and even John Jr know better than to try to toss us cake.

    Douglas Nagle

    • Mister Guy permalink
      November 19, 2011 12:35 am

      “It is creepy that Raimondo and cohorts have separated Judiciary and Police from the mainstream of the effects from this take-back.”

      Actually, it’s just routine RI politics. The amended Raimondo retirement “reform” plan excluded some, but not all, “public safety employees” (including many police, fire & correctional officers) from the new hybrid retirement system. Doing this was a purely political move to placate those unions only, and there’s no way that the amended plan “saves” anywhere near the needed $6.8-9 Billion that the original plan reportedly did. Not that anyone seems to care at this point.

      “Why risk sympathy within those who would be expected to stand and protect Marie Antoinette & company?”

      Actually, floor amendments were made in the RI House to try & cover all “public safety employees” that are currently in the RI pension system (like those that protect the airport & the State House), but those amendments all failed.

  4. Jan permalink
    November 18, 2011 10:56 pm

    I hope that this topic is not swept under the rug. The people in this state have the right to know who was behind the EngageRI movement. If they have nothing to hide why are they being so secretive? As long as this is undisclosed I will continue to believe that it involves something corrupt, unethical, and or downright immoral.

  5. November 20, 2011 6:16 pm

    Thanks All

  6. November 25, 2011 4:06 pm

    Some good news for open government: Both Senate President Paiva Weed and House Speaker Fox told Rhode Island Public Radio that they favor full disclosure for EgageRI donors and the labor union donations.

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