Where’s the EngageRI donor disclosure?
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.