William Felkner: It takes a
When Cumberland Democrat Mayor Daniel McKee took the teachers’ union – the National Education Association – completely off guard by successfully championing legislation that would provide education choice and remove the burden of union control, the response was predictable: “They cheated!”
On the Dan Yorke show, Bob Walsh, president of the NEA suggested that the mayor co-mingled federal funds in an account used to purchase lobbying services – a funding no-no. Well if they did cheat, or bend the rules, the NEA should know because they are the reigning kings of NOT paying for lobbying services.
Besides the four senators and two representatives currently in office that work directly for or sit on the board of organized labor, they take a less direct route to political power as well. Weeks ago, the Providence Journal highlighted the network of social and environmental activists working with the unions to influence legislation in RI. One of the most blurred lines between legal and illegal political activity is seen right inside the NEA building.
Ocean State Action (OSA) and Marriage Equity Rhode Island (MERI) are organizations that promote “social and economic justice.” They are actually a combination of non-profits (c 3’s & c 4’s) and political action committees ensuring that a legal funding stream is available for every occasion.
All affiliated organizations are located in the NEA building and are run by the same people. One quarter of the OSA funding comes from organized labor and the OSA Fund covers the payroll for everyone in the office. Furthermore, the NEA executive director, Bob Walsh, is also the secretary-treasurer of Ocean State Action and Working Rhode Island, another organization located in the NEA building. Working RI is the “conduit that distributes large sums of money to and from labor allies.”
Working RI, if you didn’t know, was created by disgraced former labor and gambling lobbyist Guy Dufault and has no paid staff. Their top four donors are the RI AFL-CIO, the NEA-RI, the United Nurses and Allied Professionals and Harrah’s Operating Company. Dufault was banished from sight after he was recorded scheming with casino lobbyist and Republican activist Mike Levesque on a way to sabotage Republican Governor Carcieri’s campaign.
The web of political influence is so convoluted that you don’t know who is doing what. I’m sure that everyone involved with OSA, MERI, and Working RI lobby the State House but you would never know how they don’t get paid for it. Technically, the NEA admits that some union dues go towards political activity but claim that it is only $10 per union member, per year. So they must be tremendously thrifty lobbyists.
But if you think that looks shady…nobody knows how to work the system better than the queens of tax funded advocacy, the Poverty Institute and One Rhode Island.
One RI is a coalition of 160 organizations that are all funded in whole or in part by tax dollars. These are the people that rally at the State House (besides the union activists). The Poverty Institute is an organization designed “to bring about systemic change by providing policy analysis, education, and advocacy statewide on issues effecting the well-being of all low-income Rhode Islanders.”
One RI compiles a platform of legislation that represents the collective wants of the coalition. This platform of legislation is also given to students at Rhode Island College who, as candidates for the Master’s of Social Work program, are required to lobby the State House – often led by the Policy Director of the Poverty Institute, Linda Katz. This is no small contingent as it is approximately 60 student lobbyists per year.
The Poverty Institute website names eight staff; most familiar are Linda Katz, Ellen Frank and Kate Brewster. The website also includes the One RI website which lists Heidi Collins as the contact person. But what exactly are One RI and the Poverty Institute? There is no paperwork registered at the Secretary of State’s office nor is there any information at Guidestar, an online directory of non-profits.
According to Heidi Collins, One RI is a project of the Poverty Institute and according to the Rhode Island Foundation which provides funding for them both; the Poverty Institute is a project of the Rhode Island College Foundation. Both One RI and the Poverty Institute are located at 600 Mount Pleasant Avenue in Providence, the same address as the state-run and tax-funded Rhode Island College.
According to the RIC School of Social Work Reaffirmation for Accreditation, “the School of Social Work operates the Poverty Institute,” and the Institute provides “field placement opportunities and material for course assignments, research projects for students from both levels, and graduate integrative projects.”
However, the registered lobbyists associated with the Poverty Institute – Linda Katz (Policy Director), Ellen Frank (Sr. Economic Analyst) and Kate Brewster (Exec Director) – are listed as employees of the RIC Foundation and it’s mission is “to encourage and receive gifts on behalf of RI College that provide financial support for the improvement and expansion of RIC.”
But here is where it really gets confusing. When the ladies at Rhode Island College notify the RI Secretary of State that they will be lobbying at the State House, they claim payment from the Poverty Institute. However, the Poverty Institute has never registered as a lobbying firm. And how could it; it is not a real organization.
And here’s the kicker – if they are registered lobbyists for a lobbying firm that is really a project within the Rhode Island College Foundation, why does page 10 of the 2006, IRS 990 form answer “NO” when asked if “during the year, has the organization attempted to influence national, state, or local legislation, including any attempt to influence public opinion on a legislative matter or referendum?”
I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation. After all, the Poverty Institute has had this symbiotic relationship with Rhode Island College for about a decade. If it were illegal for lobbying activity to take place at a tax-funded college, some smart taxpayer would have turned them in to get the reward the IRS provides for citizens who turn in tax cheats, right?
The lessons here are two fold. Firstly, if a fictitious lobbying firm can operate out of a state-run, tax-funded college, then Mayor McKee should be able to creatively finance a lobbyist with legal funds, whether or not they came through a bank account that also holds federal funds.
Secondly, there is a vast network of advocacy groups that work with the cash rich unions. If you pay union dues or just pay taxes, you need to understand that your money is being used to lobby the State House for illegal immigrant rights, same-sex marriage, abortion on demand, universal healthcare, an expanded welfare system, and/or more redistribution of wealth policies than you can shake a stick at.
In the end, every taxpayer and every hard working, dues paying union member needs to ask themselves: “If I was free to choose how to spend my money – if Bob Walsh, Linda Katz, Kate Brewster, and Guy Dufault weren’t doing it for me – would I voluntarily give my money to support those issues?”
William Felkner is the president of Ocean State Policy Research Institute – www.oceanstatepolicy.org