Beneath the Bright White Veil, the RI Way

And this is the sound of General Treasurer Frank Caprio breaking the glass rod that made him appear to be arm’s length from the Rhode Island way of politics:

He acknowledged the perception of a conflict with donations from eight out-of-state firms that specialize in class-action securities lawsuits.
The national litigation firm Grant & Eisenhofer is one example.
In June, the firm became the lead counsel in a class-action securities suit brought by Rhode Island against Security Capital Assurance Ltd., which allegedly reported inflated income that ultimately cost investors across the country millions.
The case, according to terms released by the treasurer’s office, could produce legal fees as high as $50 million if the suit is successful. Three months before being named lead counsel, four Grant & Eisenhofer employees, who list Delaware and New York addresses, made combined donations of $4,000 to Caprio’s campaign.
The treasurer returned those contributions Tuesday, in addition to donations from more than 50 individuals employed by securities-monitoring firms dating more than two years in some cases, according to a spreadsheet and copies of checks provided by the treasurer’s staff. The decision came several days into a Journal inquiry of Caprio’s political fundraising and hiring decisions.

Mr. Caprio is, however, keeping similarly situated donations from Rhode Islanders. Blame the size of the state, argue that elected officials shouldn’t be afraid to consider personal comfort with contractors when seeking to expend public dollars, and I’ll likely agree with you. But there’s something disconcerting about this dynamic:

“We’re talking about these local firms, individuals that have known me, have supported me for many years, in some instances, and people that I know well and I’m proud to have their support,” said Caprio.

Frankly, I’m not sure what the remedy should be, but it’s difficult to have faith in a government when it is characteristic for old pals to donate to their friends’ campaigns and then reap professional rewards when they win.

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Phil
Phil
11 years ago

Governor Carcieri nominated Brian Stern as a Superior Court Judge yesterday. Brian Stern is the Governor’s Chief of Staff, a position he held since 2007. In light of the subject of your post do you have any comments on this local political appointment? Is this an example of what you refer to as “the Rhode Island way of politics”?

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Absolutely; that very item is on my blogging agenda, probably for later today.

Ken Block
11 years ago

There is only one solution: public financing of campaigns, in conjunction with a hefty tax on a candidate’s private contributions to his/her own campaign.
We have to get the money out of political races.
While I’m at it…how about abolishing PACs? Or at the very least, close the loophole that allows an organization to run multiple PACs…effectively skirting the ceilings on donations and contributions.
Anyone who has seen the lobbyists stalking outside the legislative chambers knows that the lobbysists handily outnumber our legislators. Many legislators rely on the lobbyists to help them understand both sides of a bill…this is a side-effect of our part time legislature and the balance that a legislator has to make between his/her personal life, business life and political life (of course, except for those legislators who appear to hold jobs that more or less pay them to be legislators).
There is so much that is wrong with how our General Assembly operates. The only solution is to begin to swing the balance of power in the legislature until sufficient votes are in hand to being systemic change.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Ken,
I’m disappointed to see that the four Es, in Arlene Violet’s phrasing, might exclude an F for “freedom.” Abolish PACs? Get rid of private donations? Tax self-investment? How much should you have been taxed for investing in the Moderate Party?
I can’t help but wonder who would be forbidden to, say, buy advertising for a particular candidate. I also can’t help but fear that a system of public financing would add a layer of exclusion as it proves more difficult to qualify for public funds than to raise private money.

Andrew
Editor
11 years ago

Ken,
I doubt that the Supreme Court (unless we get more justices like Stephen Breyer) would find that the Constitution allow the hefty-tax proposal. The government shouldn’t be allowed to limit the level of resources, be it time, money or anything else, than an individual wants to put towards his or her own political activity.
More generally, you have to be careful in getting the money out of political races that you don’t unintentionally create advantages for incumbents that would be harder than ever to overcome (I know, it’s hard to imagine that that’s even possible in RI). And as limits become more restrictive, more and more candidate time has to be spent on the fundraising operation, which is not necessarily a healthy thing.
I am becoming more and more sympathetic to a voluntary “clean elections” system of public financing for candidates who choose to participate in one. On the flip side, I also think that raising (or entirely lifting) contribution limits from individuals who reside within a candidate’s constituency, while keeping approximately the current system for out-of-constituency contributions, would be worth a try.

Tom W
Tom W
11 years ago

>We have to get the money out of political races.
Yes.
But public financing isn’t the solution. Besides 1st Amendment issues, it would be naive to think that in Rhode Island opposition candidates’ public checks wouldn’t get “lost” or “delayed” or that they system wouldn’t have some sort of financial gerrymandering to favor the Democrats.
Or that there’d be pubic financing, but (still) no effective limits on unions’ contributions, such as in-kind contributions of facilities, “volunteers” (union staff working full-time on campaigns while on “paid leave” or “vacation).
Ditto at the national level with the Obama administration (you know, the same one that won’t prosecute the New Black Panthers for voter intimidation and wants to hire ACORN to serve as census takers and that was the beneficiary of innumerable “small” unreported donations, likely from overseas).
The better solution would be allowing donations, but they would have to be funneled through an entity (FEC?) that would pool the money and keep the donors’ identities and amounts given secret from the candidates and others (and exempt from FOIA). This should apply to PAC’s (and the like) as well.
We all know that many (probably most) large donors give to campaigns as a means to curry favor and buy influence. If they could no longer prove that they gave money to a candidate, many wouldn’t bother (even though they might say they did). This in turn would help mitigate the advantages of incumbency.
Others who currently might be reluctant to support an insurgent candidate might then do so because their support will not be public record.
1st Amendment concerns are minimal, since people can still support candidates to their heart’s content.
Not a perfect system, but far better than what we now have.

George
George
11 years ago

With respect to the position of General Treasurer – it shouldn’t be an elected office (especially in prone-to-corruption RI). It should be an appointment by the term-limited Governor. As an elected office, it is simply a fundraising opportunity for future ambitions. Isn’t it curious that the guy who writes checks for the state and handles its cash has the largest political warchest?

Matt
Matt
11 years ago

Or, we could try returning to the days when our courts realized that there was no logically defensible distinction between getting up on a soapbox in the middle of the town square to proclaim one’s message and paying for a 30 second spot during American Idol to do the same thing.
Even if one accepts the tenuous conduct/speech distinction prevalent in our First Amendment jurisprudence, (not that the concept is inherently intellectually bankrupt, but its application has sanctioned government regulation of a wide swath of expressive conduct that was unquestionably intended to be protected by the founders) the view that grants to government the right to regulate core political speech as a prophylactic against the influence of private money on the public discourse inverts the relationship between state and individual our Constitution was designed to protect.
Instead of cede control of the public dialogue to government, we should be looking at ways to restore the scope of the expressive liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment. A decision in this case, restoring the right of all Americans to organize and associate in the manner they deem appropriate – including as a corporate body – and advocate for policies they favor might be a good start.
Instead of getting the money out of politics, lets make sure everyone is on equal footing to get their money in politics.

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