Search results: campaign finance
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Amplifying Incumbent Protection Program of Campaign Finance

Maybe it’s a trap that has just organically formed due to human nature or maybe it’s a deliberate scheme, but ever-increasing campaign finance regulations are effectively an incumbent protection program.  Consider the next notch on the ratchet, as proposed by state representative Deborah Ruggiero and state senator Louis DiPalma:

The state’s campaign finance laws need to be tightened so officeholders and candidates cannot repeatedly amend their finance reports that list all expenses and contributions in a given period, according to Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown. …

“Mandating submission of a paper bank statement is a good first step, it allows the Board of Elections to easily identify discrepancies, but we should go further and require banks to send electronic statements directly to the [Board of Elections], as is done in Massachusetts,” Ruggiero said in the statement. “Most-needed though are stiffer penalties for repeated amendments to campaign finance reports and not filing on time.”

Having spent many hours working with the Board of Elections Campaign Finance Unit, I can report that situations easily arise that aren’t absolutely clear in the law and can lead to very time-consuming revisions of reports going back months simply to adjust for a $1 discrepancy.  And having worked with local candidates for office, I can also report that even just the prospect of having to fill out these forms is a significant disincentive to run.  If the rules are made even more strict more people will simply decide that it isn’t worth the effort or risk.

The question that arises is whether it’s more important for our democracy to be able to trace every penny that is donated or spent by state and local campaigns or to avoid having more than one-third of incumbents in the General Assembly winning their campaigns simply by getting their names on the ballot, because they have no opposition.  From my point of view, that isn’t even a close competition.

We’re not going to end corruption by catching it in nickel-and-dime inspection of small-time politicians’ campaign accounts.  We need to ensure that all politicians are under constant threat of losing their seats.  The bigger-time the corruption, the more likely the politician will be to hire people to avoid accounting errors, even as the people who would like to challenge him or her out of a sense of public service are tripped up and fined for minor errors and lapses.

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Thinking Through Trillo’s Campaign Finance Complaint

Billboards promoting Allan Fung’s candidacy may or may not violate campaign finance law, but Joe Trillo’s formal complaint about them raises questions that Rhode Islanders really should consider:

According to Trillo’s campaign, Fung is using several illuminated digital billboard signs in North Providence, which he did not report on his campaign finance reports.

“Allan Fung has been utilizing three corporate owned, illuminated digital billboard signs along major thoroughfares in North Providence, since December 3, 2017, but never officially reported paying for any such advertising on his past or present campaign finance reports. This is a violation of Rhode Island campaign finance laws, and yet another example of Allan Fung’s clear and intentional mismanagement of his campaign finances,” said Trillo.

Here is the current state of campaign finance law in the Ocean State, based on my own reading and experience dealing with the Board of Elections Campaign Finance Unit: If the candidate paid for the billboards, they would have to be listed as an expense on his reports.  If the owners of the billboards put them up without consulting with the candidate, the candidate should report them as an in-kind contribution, and the owners should possibly file reports as if they are political action committees (PACs).

That last situation is patently unconstitutional.  The state government of Rhode Island cannot regulate and limit residents’ free speech rights just because what they say supports a candidate for office.  That is true no matter the motivation or whether the person asked the candidate for input before expressing his support publicly.

This same logic transfers directly to the candidate.  If it falls under free speech rights to express support for another person, and it absolutely does, then it must fall under free speech rights to express support for one’s own candidacy.

In the abstract (although probably not under current law as adjudicated by the Supreme Court), one could possibly argue that states can regulate the money that people give to candidates and how they spend it, but restrictions on anything having to do with speech are clear infringements on our rights.

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A Key Insight from Mattiello’s Campaign Finance Woes

Everybody’s choosing corners in response to news that Speaker of the Rhode Island House Nicholas Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, and his close allies have been tangled up in campaign finance peculiarities, with some subpoenas flying and Mattiello having to transfer $72,000 from one campaign account to another.  Given the ground I’ve staked out on the broader issue, however, I’d suggest that italicized sentence in the following paragraph is probably the most important consideration:

Mattiello issued this statement late Tuesday night: “I am pleased this issue has been resolved. I regret that my campaign inadvertently made some mistakes. I accept the warning from the Board of Elections and will fully repay from my campaign account what is owed to the PAC account. To assure those mistakes are not repeated, right after the 2016 election I hired a CPA with expertise in campaign finance to handle all of the finances.”

If our election laws have become so complex as to require specialized accountants in order to run for a seat in a part-time legislature, we’re doing something wrong.  We need more people running for office, not fewer.

Yes, money in politics is a problem, but the solution isn’t to force candidates to spend more money on campaign management.  Rather, we need to reduce the value of elective office as an investment for special interests.  That could mean something relatively easy, like term limits, but more fundamentally, we have to reduce the things that we task government with doing.

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Campaign Finance Reform and Fascism

Some folks to the left of the center line in Rhode Island politics would probably like me a whole lot more if I didn’t get so heated on the subject of campaign finance reform.  For much of the last two decades, that subject has been an area of rare agreement between left and right, but the more I’ve thought about it, and the more I’ve observed, the more convinced I’ve become that campaign finance reform actually does a great deal of harm to our country and that its supporters on the right have been suckered.

Among the many benefits of Scott Walker’s push against public-sector labor unions in Wisconsin may be its effect in prodding the left to start leveraging the campaign finance advantage before it was politically wise to do so on the national stage.  I’m referring to the infamous “John Doe” investigations, which I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere in Rhode Island news media, other than on Anchor Rising-Ocean State Current:

In April, National Review told — for the first time — the stories of the targets of Wisconsin’s “John Doe” investigations. The accounts were harrowing. Anonymous sources told of pre-dawn raids, with police swarming into their homes, walking into sleeping children’s rooms, denying the targets immediate access to lawyers, and then imposing gag orders that prevented them from telling friends, family, and supporters about their ordeal.

These raids were not launched against hardened criminals but against conservative activists, and the “crimes” they were accused of turned out not to be crimes at all.  Rather, a hyper-partisan district attorney, John Chisholm, and his special prosecutor, Francis Schmitz, launched a multi-county criminal investigation of First Amendment–protected speech. They wanted to know the extent to which conservative individuals and groups had coordinated with Scott Walker’s campaign — and the campaigns of various state senators — to advocate conservative issues.

On the surface, it sounds like a great idea to increase transparency in politics, down to the donations and spending by every candidate for every office.  The problem is that insiders have all of the advantages, on that count, and ruthless people can make better use of the information than moral grassroots volunteers and candidates, whether the ruthlessness manifests as a literal government conspiracy, as in Wisconsin, or merely run-of-the-mill intimidation of donors who back the non-ruthless.

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Campaign Finance and Petty Tyranny

Let’s get one thing straight.

A group of town residents gets together to persuade their neighbors to vote for lower taxes at the local level.  They spend hours generating information to persuade and hours walking streets talking with people in the community and delivering literature.  They ask some friends for help covering the costs of things like printing and postage.

If you think this group of people ought to have to register with some bureaucrat in the state government and file reports about donations and expenditures, you do not believe in freedom of speech or freedom, generally.  You believe in tyranny, even if it’s only petty for the time being.  You believe in making it more difficult for the average citizen to affect his or her government and disadvantaging them in their fight against special interests and government insiders and ensuring that people on the government payroll (one way or another) are able to undermine any advantage that citizens might find.

It really is that simple.  You cannot believe in government of, by, and for the people and also believe that some government agent (making north of $75,000 per year, plus benefits, with pension promised) should be breathing down the necks of people who are trying to get control of their labor-union-dominated municipalities.

I bring this up because I received an email from Board of Elections Director of Campaign Finance Richard Thornton saying that “it has come to the attention of this office” that the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) “has been expending funds to support a position in the upcoming Tiverton Financial Town Referendum.”  I am not a board member of the TTA, so I did not respond.

However, I did opine on Twitter: “Received a friendly reminder from BOE about filing for local budget advocacy. Doesn’t apply, here, but even so, it’s absurdly undemocratic.”

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Thornton emailed again asking for “clarification” of the meaning of my tweet.  I clarified as follows:

I wasn’t aware that the Board of Elections was monitoring my Twitter feed.  Have you friended me on Facebook, yet?  I’m on LinkedIn and Pinterest, too, by the way, although I don’t think my resume or pictures of things I’ve seen around Rhode Island are relevant, here.

I’m happy to affirm officially that I believe state-level campaign finance laws and regulations imposed on grassroots groups attempting to affect local ballot questions in their own communities are offensive and probably unconstitutional.

That said, I am not a board member of TTA and don’t know why you included me in your original email.  Strictly speaking, TTA has done no advocacy in this campaign, and certainly not enough to come anywhere near the threshold.

For my own advocacy, I hadn’t yet crossed the $1,000 threshold until (I think) today.  Although I find it obscene that I have to answer to the state for these purposes, I will file whatever documents are necessary.

Whether it’s me or the group opposing me, this is absurd.  Campaign finance is not some benign, feel-good civic altruism. It’s the camel’s nose of tyranny.

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A Tiverton Campaign Finance Answer

Frankly, I’m not a fan of campaign finance regulations, especially at the local level.  If the information’s out there, grassroots groups should use it, but that’s a separate question of whether the government should be able to impose these sorts of rules on the population.

Whom does it serve when people who are politically savvy and well organized (often within the political establishment) can comb through the donations and expenditures records of newcomers who want to serve their communities in public office?  And then there are the fines.

I go into more detail on this topic in a new post on Tiverton Fact Check, in which I answer a resident’s question about why the current Town Council vice president, Denise deMedeiros, has an inactive account on the state’s campaign finance site.  (Basic answer: because the Board of Elections spelled her name differently when she reactivated her account to run for Town Council a few years ago.)

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Unpaid Campaign Finance Fines

Why do lawmakers get away with having unpaid campaign finance fines? Why don’t we actually enforce the laws that they were elected to create? This is an affront to all voters and taxpayers of the state.

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The Nationalization of Campaign Funding

When you’ve got a running Internet search on your state’s name, curious items sometimes find their way into your field of vision.  Such is the case with this article about the campaign finances of Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Steve Benjamin, a Democrat:

Benjamin also received 11 donations from various attorneys and businesspeople from the state of Rhode Island. The 11 gifts from the Rhode Islanders totaled $8,300, or 36 percent of the money the mayor raised for the quarter.

The donations from the Rhode Island residents were logged on June 6.

The article mentions that Benjamin was in Boston for the next few days for a U.S. Conference of Mayors, so one can easily imagine the scene:  Partisan organizers set him up with an event here and there (maybe he knows somebody from Rhode Island), and a handful of wealthy people were able to give him enough money that it amounted to a notable third of his fundraising for the quarter.

Still, one thinks of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo and her jaunts across the country to gather up campaign funds, making up a majority of her collections.  What are these people buying?

Some of them, no doubt, hope to make a good impression for purposes of inside deals, but all of them?  Is this just a broad network of “you back my guy, and I’ll back yours,” thus multiplying campaign donations beyond legal limits?

That possibility raises a counter-cultural thought:  If these wealthy “attorneys and businesspeople” could give more of their political donations locally, there might not be a market for this national network.  Sure, that means they’d be able to give money directly to the people who can give them political favors, but one suspects the politicians know who, locally, is making connections for them in other states.

Moreover, in the case of Raimondo, her massive fundraising haul is starting to look like a lifeline for her reelection, and ultimately, the quality it rewards is little more than the ability to tap into a national funding vein.  At least with larger amounts of local contributions, the funds would be an indication of local support, which would be bound up with local concerns and our own internal political battles.

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What Are Raimondo Campaign Donors Buying from Out of State?

Shortly after adding the certification of school bus drivers to my running list of tasks at which Rhode Island government is failing, my morning reading brought to my attention multiple articles about Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s big fundraising take in the first quarter of this calendar year.  Here’s WPRI’s Ted Nesi:

Raimondo continues to demonstrate a fundraising prowess rarely seen in Rhode Island politics, having raised nearly $3 million since becoming governor and millions more before that when she was general treasurer. The state’s last two-term governor, Republican Don Carcieri, had about $275,000 on hand at the same point during his third year in office.

Want a fun fact?  According to the helpful spreadsheets that one can download from the state’s campaign finance search tool, so far in 2017, only 31% of the $570,110 the governor has raised came from people with addresses within Rhode Island.  That does represent a little bit of a change.  Going back to 2009 (the earliest available for her) brings Raimondo’s in-state percentage up to 51%.  Over those seven-plus years, by the way, the governor of Rhode Island has averaged a $541 donation from people out of state, but only $406 from donors in the state.

For comparison’s sake, Cranston’s Republican Mayor Allan Fung, presumed to be Raimondo’s most likely GOP challenger in 2018, has collected 99% of his $30,109 campaign donations so far in 2017 from people with in-state addresses.  If it seems unfair to compare a governor with a mayor, turn to the fundraising record of former Republican Governor Donald Carcieri.  He raised 89% of all of his campaign money from people in Rhode Island, and Rhode Island donors gave him an average $427 donation, versus $397 from each out-of-state-donor.

So what are Raimondo’s out-of-state donors buying with their money?  I’m sure their motivations are manifold, but I can’t help but notice that Wexford Science & Technology is back in the news, having received approval for $13.5 million in taxpayer incentives to do business in RI.  As I highlighted back in December, the interactions of Wexford, the Brookings Institution, and other private organizations are certainly, let’s say, interesting, as is the overlap with Raimondo’s donor base.

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Coalition Radio Introduces Three Fiscal Topics into the 2014 Campaign


Issue 1: Do any candidates for Rhode Island Governor or Rhode Island General Assembly support modifying or repealing Governor Chafee’s Wall-Street-first law regarding municipal priorities?

Issue 2: Will any of the candidates for Governor of Rhode Island have their fiscal staffs look immediately into the possibility of a Providence receivership. Will they tell us if they do?

Issue 3: Buddy Cianci, according to some research done by Michael Riley, once advocated for pension obligation bonds to help finance Providence’s pension system. Might he do so again?

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Funny How Rhode Island Works

Readers know that I’m not a fan of our campaign finance regime.  It imposes a complicated, intimidating set of laws for grassroots candidates and groups that creates opportunity not only for prosecution of them, but also political attacks on their donors.

I have a hard time, therefore, getting worked up about the apparent probability that the campaign of Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello funded a mailer allowing Republican Shawna Lawton to endorse him in a high-profile way against his Republican challenger, Steven Frias.  To the extent the activity is illegal, it is because of this complex, unconstitutional labyrinth we’ve built, with incentive to find workarounds.

That said, the investigation is unearthing an education in the way Rhode Island politics work, and the stunning thing is that the most objectionable things are treated as incidental… and they’re all completely legal.  I’ve already highlighted one connection:

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has put Edward Cotugno, the mail-ballot guru who helped him eke out an 85-vote victory in 2016, back on his campaign team and given his son a $70,000 a year State House job.

Mattiello, D-Cranston, hired Michael Cotugno as the legislature’s new associate director of House constituent-services.

Here’s another:

Included in the evidence packet that the board provided to The Journal on Friday, in response to a records request, was an Aug. 14, 2016, text from “Teresa” to [political consultant] “Jeff” [Britt] and his partner, Daniel Calhoun, who is still listed as a $60,891-a-year legislative employee on the state’s transparency portal.

Think of this.  Under Mattiello, the legislature has given well-paying legislative jobs (of unknown difficulty) to the son of his “mail-ballot guru” and the man who shares a nice Warwick house with one of his campaign operatives, and the thing we’re supposed to be upset about is a relatively small contribution toward political free speech!

But arguing that the campaign finance investigation is the only reason we know about the rest doesn’t justify burdensome campaign finance laws.  When people act in suspicious ways (like endorsing people of other parties or independent spoiler candidates), we should… well… suspect them of having some ulterior motive, unless they can express a persuasive rationale for the odd decision.  And if somebody who benefits from that persuasion wants to fund it, their money doesn’t change the validity of the argument.

Ultimately, the answer is just to reduce the size of government and the value of controlling it.

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Innovative Ways to Corrupt Government

I suspect this sort of thing (or perhaps more-mild variations) are more common than we know:

“Public records obtained by CEI show a pattern of law enforcement offices turning to off-the-books payments for privately funded lawyers to push a political agenda that was roundly rejected at the ballot box by the American people,” said Horner. “The scheme raises serious questions about special interests setting states’ policy and law enforcement agendas, without accountability to the taxpayers and voters whom these law enforcement officials supposedly serve.”

These public emails and documents reveal the details of an unprecedented, coordinated effort between environmental groups, plaintiffs’ lawyers, and major liberal donors using nonprofit organizations to fund staff, research, public relations, and other services for state attorney general offices. One nonprofit uses a center, established by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to pay for Special Assistant Attorneys General (SAAGs) for the AG offices that agree to advance progressive legal positions. Offices that have taken on board a privately funded prosecutor are Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia. Senior attorneys from the activist AG offices have even flown in to secretly brief prospective funders of another nonprofit, Union of Concerned Scientists, which has recruited AGs and served as their back-room strategist and advisor on this since at least 2015.

Government has so much power that special interests will inevitably seek innovative ways to leverage it.  Yesterday, my Twitter stream was full of investigations into relatively low-dollar campaign finance questions concerning relatively unknown candidates for office, as if the inherent corruption of big government’s every day operation is less scandalous!

However one balances newsworthiness, the solution is the same: shrink the size and authority of government and thereby reduce the incentive to invest in corruption.  Unfortunately, people tend to support big government because they want it to do a particular thing.  If their fellow citizens disagree and bring about an elected government that is less inclined to do that thing, they’ll seek other means.

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The Million Dollar Quarter: Is Rhode Island for Sale?

Everybody who writes or comments on Rhode Island politics is expressing shock and striving to process the fact that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo took in $1.3 million in fundraising during the first three months of 2018.  That’s a 40% increase in her cash on hand over a period of time during which polling data and the general temper of the people of the state suggest lackluster support for the governor (to put it mildly).

So what gives?

Spreadsheets available from the state Board of Election Campaign Finance Unit show that a significant majority of the governor’s donations come from out of the state: 60.5%, to be exact.  Out-of-state donors tend to be more generous, too, with an average donation of $725, compared with $524 in state.  In fact 63% of Raimondo’s out-of-state donors gave her campaign the maximum of $1,000 (with one Robert Clark of Saint Louis, MO, apparently giving an illegal $2,500 donation).  This compares with 43% of in-state donations.

By contrast, Raimondo’s nearest Republican opponent, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, raised only 16% of his $191,460 first-quarter revenue out of state, with the average out-of-state donation amounting to $288.  Just 16% of Fung’s out-of-state donors gave the maximum $1,000 (with none giving illegal contributions greater than that).

The question Rhode Islanders should be asking is:  What do all of Raimondo’s generous out-of-state donors expect to get for their investments?  Neither of the two possibilities that come to mind aren’t encouraging.  Perhaps the donors want special deals from the governor’s office, using Rhode Islanders’ public resources.  Or perhaps they’re using Rhode Island’s governorship — the chief executive office of a state that has been mired in stagnation and controversy for way too long — as a stepping stone for national political ambitions.

Either option suggests a state for sale whose people will either have to tuck their empty pockets back in or brush the footprints off each other’s backs when the governor’s done with us.

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Rhode Island Senate Leaders Declare Representative Democracy Dead in Rhode Island

To the Rhode Island Senate’s shame, it has filed legislation for what is likely the first-ever expulsion of a state senator, and it was done, as the bill states, based on some now-resolved campaign finance problems, “unwanted media coverage,” and some allegations and criminal charges for which Coventry Republican Senator Nicholas Kettle has not yet gone to trial.

As argued in this space, yesterday, whatever one thinks of Kettle’s moral standing to claim continuing political support, this extreme measure by the Senate goes beyond attacking his rights to attacking the rights of Rhode Island voters.  It isn’t up to voters to find a candidate whom the insiders in the State House can accept; it’s up to the legislators to accept whomever the voters send.

The fact that the lead sponsor of the bill is Democrat Senate President Dominick Ruggerio — who was himself arrested in 2012 and brought “unwanted media coverage” to the chamber — puts an exclamation point on the political nature of this move.  The involvement of Senate Majority Leader Dennis Algiere does not alleviate this problem, especially after recent revelations that he played a role attempting to broker peace at an initially secret meeting between Ruggerio and Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello.

Moreover, the fact that the legislation includes detailed documentation of the allegations, as attachments or evidence, suggests that there’s more going on here than a desire to resolve a legislative problem.  I’ve never seen external documents appended as part of a bill before, and I’ve read thousands of bills in the past few years.

One needn’t come to the defense of Senator Kettle or his alleged actions to suggest that this is a step too far and moves Rhode Island governance to another level of intrinsic corruption.  If Kettle is no longer acceptable to his constituents, then they should remove him.  The other politicians in the state Senate shouldn’t take it upon themselves to ensure that a district goes without representation for an entire legislative session.  Discomfort with the subject matter of the allegations shouldn’t lead Rhode Islanders to give over their basic rights as voters to a small group of political elites.

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Commerce’s Out-of-State Candidate

Today’s Providence Journal Political Scene reports the large fundraising take of recently declared Rhode Island Senate candidate Nick Autiello.  He’s currently making $80,000 (not including benefits) working for the quasi-public Commerce Corp. and says he’ll give that up if he’s elected to the seat currently held by Democrat Paul Jabour.

The first question is why somebody would find a senate seat that valuable.  Since I can’t answer that, the next question is where his fundraising money is coming from.  At over $50,000 in a few months for the 27-year-old, his campaign touts this as the biggest fundraising haul of any first-time candidate’s first quarter… ever.

Not mentioned, though, is that the state’s campaign finance database shows more than 94% of that money coming from donors with out-of-state addresses.  Between his Commerce connection and the out-of-state domination of his fundraising, Autiello’s may be the most-Rhode Island story of the Raimondo Era thus far.

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