Original Reports

Using Campaign Finance Info with Payroll Data

Transparency Web sites can show taxpayers and voters the dots that they need in order to keep track of government’s activities, but those dots still have to be connected.  Unfortunately, some of the same technology and trends that bring us such access to information have changed the landscape for news media, too.  Consequently, newspapers don’t have the resources they once did to follow leads, which often produce nothing more newsworthy than wasted time.

That leaves it to people without specialized training to do the connecting.  The good news is that, at the end of the day, it’s just a matter of looking at all of the information that’s available.

For example, one of the links on the side of the Tiverton Fact Check homepage leads to the state’s campaign finance search.  There, you can look up candidates, organizations, the people who have donated to them, and the candidates to whom they’ve donated.

Under the “Filings” tab, type “Tiverton” into the space for “Last Name/Org Name.  Six organizations come up, three of them listed as “Active.”  Clicking on an organization brings up all documents that it has filed.  Clicking to “view” a document allows the option to look at an electronic version or the scanned document that the organization actually filed.

Selecting Tiverton 1st and then viewing its “Amendment of Organization” shows who was in charge of the group at the time it was filed and also which candidates the group worked to elect.  Notably most of the people on the Tiverton 1st list are on the Town Council, and all three of the endorsed school committee candidates won, which is a majority on that committee.

Turning back to the Tiverton payroll application, you can search for all of the names of the people behind the organization.  (Don’t include the notary publics, who just verify signatures on the document.)

In this case, two of the three people listed as “Co-coordinator/chair” show up as employees of the school department.  Gloria Crist was already receiving a little over $1,813 per year as a drama coach.  More significantly, soon after her endorsed candidates won a majority of the school committee, Linda Larsen was appointed by the school department as the School to Career Coordinator, which paid her $18,988 in fiscal year 2014.

The campaign finance site also prominently shows that Larsen loaned Tiverton 1st $178 that has not been repaid.  School Committee member Deb Pallasch loaned the group another $556 that hasn’t been repaid, although her husband has gotten back his $1,000 loan.

Sometimes you have to go through a few campaign finance documents to find the relevant information.  The Tiverton Political Action Committee for Education, for example, has been around for a while, so it makes sense to go to the group’s most-recent Amendment of Organization.

Even the group’s email address gives away that this is the PAC of the local teachers’ union, whose members represent the town’s single biggest expense.  The PAC’s organization change was switching out its treasurer.  Until this filing, the treasurer was Eric Marx.

Turning to the payroll site, you can narrow the data to the title of “teacher” and then click in the table where it says “Total Pay.”  That will sort the table from lowest pay to highest.  Click again to reverse it and put the highest paid teacher at the top.

In fiscal year 2012, Mr. Marx was the second-highest-paid teacher in Tiverton, making $91,394.  That might help explain why he became the treasurer of a group that works to elect specific candidates to government offices. The new treasurer was Amy Mullen.  Mullen isn’t making Marx money (yet), but $73,521 in fiscal year 2014 is quite a bit of incentive.

It’s interesting to note that all of the reports since early in the year of the last election are marked as “past due,” meaning the PAC hasn’t filed reports or notice that it has become inactive.  It’s even more interesting, though, to look at the campaign reports that it has filed, particularly during election years.

Its filing for the last quarter of 2010, for example, presents an interesting list of donations to legislators and other folks running for office.  All of the PAC’s revenue apparently came in amounts that don’t have to be reported by name, so there’s no way to know whether its money came from local teachers or people who are just political.

Regarding the donations that it gave, however, Tiverton representative Jay Edwards, for example, got $100.  Rep. Chris Blazejewski, from Providence, received the same amount.  Other state-level candidates received money from the National Education Association’s local PAC, like Linc Chafee, who received $800 from the Tiverton teachers’ union’s political arm.

In this case, the combination of transparency data is a good reminder that much of the policy that makes it worthwhile for local employees to become involved in politics is actually dictated by the state government.

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Justin Katz

Justin Katz, Vice President of the Tiverton Town Council, is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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