Almond's cool cash
There's no real oversight for the governor's $1.5 million contingency fund, and
critics fault a greater emphasis on pet development projects than some other
by Steven Stycos
EVERY YEAR, Governor Lincoln Almond gets to spend $1.5 million on whatever he
wants. He doesn't have to plead with House Speaker John Harwood or justify his
expenses to Representative Antonio Pires (D-Pawtucket), chairman of the House
This is because the General Assembly annually appropriates the money to the
governor's contingency fund. Dating back to at least the administration of
former Governor Edward DiPrete, the fund is for "unforeseen and unexpected
events," Pires explains. But state law places no restrictions on its use, and
the Finance Committee doesn't audit the governor's expenditures, Pires says.
The money is in addition to the amount -- currently $3.8 million --
appropriated by the legislature each year to operate the governor's office.
A Phoenix review of invoices shows that Almond used the fund for a grab
bag of expenses last year, with heavy emphasis on his pet economic development
projects. The fund's largest single expense was $203,118 for a feasibility
study for the controversial proposed container port at Quonset Point. Other
spending included $75,000 to promote development in Warwick, $40,000 in
promotional materials to lure the annual meeting of the National Governors
Association to Rhode Island, and even $3500 to purchase a Mr. Potato Head
statute for the State House lobby.
Almond used his private stash for social services, helping to finance
AmeriCorps VISTA programs to improve reading, and paying for lead removal at
day care centers. The governor, who last week indicated that he may challenge
US Representative Patrick Kennedy in 2002, also likes to underwrite social
events -- he spent $190,825 in fiscal 2000 to finance WaterFire, First
Night, a visit by the Tall Ships, and the governor's senior day at Colt State
Park in Bristol. And there are a couple of junket expenses buried in the
invoices: $8556 in reimbursement to lottery giant GTECH Corporation for use of
the company's corporate jet, and $7634 for a 10-day trade mission to Ireland
and the United Kingdom.
Joseph Larisa, Almond's chief of staff, calls the contingency fund
expenditures a "microcosm" of the budget -- "things the governor views as
important to his agenda." Pires has few complaints with the governor's spending
choices from the fund. Adds Robert Arruda, chairman of the watchdog group
Operation Clean Government, "Based on what you're telling me, it seems the
governor is spending money on laudable projects."
But not everyone sees it that way. Maggi Burns Rogers, a member of the
Campaign to End Childhood Poverty leadership team, which unsuccessfully sought
contingency fund money last year to create summer jobs for needy teenagers,
finds fault with some of Almond's spending choices. Instead of funding jobs for
14- and 15-year-olds whose employment prospects were dampened by cuts in a
federally funded summer jobs program, Almond pleaded with businesses to employ
low-income youths, to little avail. During his two terms, Almond has also
spurned the poverty campaign's request for contingency funds to pay for utility
bills for poor people and clothing for welfare recipients, Rogers recalls.
Overall, she believes the governor spends too much on economic development
schemes and not enough to help the disadvantaged.
The $203,118 spent on the Quonset feasibility study, plus the $261,076 spent
from the contingency fund in 1998 and 1999 to pay facilitators to supervise the
Quonset-Davisville stakeholders project, are evidence, Rogers says, "[that]
it's all about big business pipe dreams." Rogers, who has researched Almond's
expenditures, also questions why the Rhode Island Economic Development
Corporation, which became a quasi-public agency to reduce its reliance on
taxpayer financing, is not funding the Quonset expenses from its own budget.
"Unless the governor can turn around and show these investments have turned
into real jobs for real people," Rogers says, the contingency fund should be
finance social programs, not economic development.
And though they disagree on Almond's use of the $1.5 million fund, Rogers and
Arruda agree there should be more public oversight of the spending process. As
it stands, citizens can review invoices of expenditures (albeit at an hourly
cost of $15) after filing an open records request with state Controller
Lawrence Franklin, Rogers notes, but a quarterly summary of spending could make
the information more accessible to the public.
Lisa Pelosi, Almond's spokeswoman, defends his outlays on Quonset and other
economic development programs, claiming they will bring long-term economic
benefits to Rhode Island. Larisa adds that requests for contingency fund money
"far, far, exceed the amount we have to meet them."
Larisa also notes that former Governors DiPrete and Bruce Sundlun used much of
their contingency funds to hire outside lawyers. Almond, however, hired Larisa,
executive counsel Claire Richards, and other in-house attorneys to work on the
governor's attempts to prevent legislators from serving on state boards and
commissions, and against former state Representative Vincent Mesolella's effort
to force the Department of Environmental Management to buy Pascoag Reservoir,
Larisa relates. Using the staff lawyers freed contingency money for use on
economic development and social programs. "I think the taxpayers are getting a
pretty good bang for the buck," Larisa concludes.
Most states have contingency funds, says James Carroll, a regional coordinator
for the Council of State Governments, and Almond's spending choices are
typical. According to the council's analysis of the different funds, however,
Almond has more money to work with than all of the other New England governors.
The council's most recent figures show that in fiscal 1999, Maine Governor
Angus King was given a $300,000 contingency fund, while the other New England
governors were each provided $25,000 or less.
Massachusetts, the region's most populous state, has no comparable fund, says
Alda Rego, assistant director of the Massachusetts fiscal affairs division. In
"extraordinary" instances, she says, the governor can appropriate additional
money to an already budgeted program, but he or she can't, for example, give
money to Boston's First Night celebration without legislative approval.
In Rhode Island, the governor's $3.8 million operating budget is occasionally
increased to cover unexpected expenses, Pires notes, in the two supplemental
budgets enacted by the General Assembly. "We try to make those budgets as tight
as we can," Pires says, so the contingency fund may be needed for unexpected
expenses at the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation or elsewhere.
When Almond fails to use the entire $1.5 million, Pires says, the House
Finance Committee allows him to carry the money into the next fiscal year.
Scooping the money to pay for other expenses would encourage the governor to
spend it at the end of the year on less than crucial items, Pires notes, rather
than leaving the money to be returned to the general fund. The annual state
budget bill suggests the fund may be used for "emergencies" or "unforeseen
conditions," but permits expenditures for any item, as long as the governor and
his director of administration have approved it.
Here's a summary of Almond's major contingency fund expenditures in fiscal
* Quonset Point ($203,118). After a developer proposed to build a huge
cargo port at the former Navy base, Almond paid a consulting firm $350,000 to
evaluate the proposal. The Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation
(RIEDC) supplied $150,000, and the rest came from the contingency fund.
During the previous fiscal year, the fund provided $261,076 to pay Mediation
Consultants of Providence to run the stakeholders' project. The stakeholders'
process, which consisted of 10 meetings in 1998 and 1999 of environmentalists,
labor leaders, business executives, and others, unsuccessfully sought to
develop a compromise plan for Quonset. Although the process failed, Mediation
Consultants' J. Michael Keating and Kathleen Birt were respectively paid $220
and $150 per hour for their efforts, according to contingency fund invoices.
Larisa defends hiring the consultants, saying it was "well worth the money and
effort to bring the environmental community and the business community
together." Almond wanted "an open participatory process," Larisa adds, but
there was no other money for it, so the contingency fund was used.
Pires isn't critical of the expenditures, noting that when Massachusetts
officials were trying to convince the Pawtucket Red Sox to move to Worcester
several years ago, the contingency fund paid $75,000 for an architectural study
of possible expansion of McCoy Stadium. Rogers, however, calls the Quonset
expenses "grotesque." Referring to the bill for Mediation Consultants, she
adds, "It definitely created jobs for them."
* Social events ($190,825). Almond used his contingency fund to make
sizeable contributions to five social events: WaterFire ($57,841); First
Night ($44,893); the visit last summer of the Tall Ships to Newport ($50,150);
the governor's senior day at Colt State Park ($26,069); and the State House
Centennial Ball ($14,007). Almond contributed a single sum of $50,000 to
WaterFire, and also paid for the sound system, chair and table rentals,
a Rose Weaver performance, a stilt walker, and a clown during one
WaterFire in October. First Night 1999 expenses included paying three
lighting technicians $1000 each for a laser show, plus $6000 for fireworks. The
City of Newport was reimbursed $50,000 to cover less than half the cost of
police, fire, and sanitation services related to the Tall Ships visit. Another
$16,000 was given to Tall Ships Newport Inc. from this year's contingency
Fiscal 2000 expenditures for the governor's senior day included 54 cases of
bottled water ($324), a banner ($150), buses ($3300), portable toilets ($900),
and food ($15,075).
The May 2000 State House Centennial Ball raised $255,000 for State House
renovations, according to Sheila McDonald, who coordinated the event for the
nonprofit State House Restoration Society. The contingency fund paid Quality
Rental Center in Pawtucket to rent the tent, tables, and chairs that were set
up on the Smith Street plaza. The fund also contributed $2500 for fireworks.
* Senior information specialists ($153,000). Feeling strongly that Rhode
Island's senior citizens needed help using the Internet, Almond used the
contingency fund to hire computer-savvy staff for the state's senior centers,
says Pelosi. The program is now supported by the annual state budget.
* AmeriCorps VISTA ($142,650). Since 1994, the contingency fund has paid
a major portion of the Rhode Island Service Alliance's administrative expenses.
The alliance oversees a $4 million program that provides low-paying public
service work for high school graduates in exchange for financial assistance in
college. Best known is AmeriCorps VISTA's City Year Rhode Island, whose
red-jacketed participants clean public lots and supervise youth reading
programs, among other efforts. The contingency fund paid for half of the
alliance's administrative budget in 2000, and Almond contributed the same
amount to the program this year, records show.
* Central Falls Teaching Institute ($125,000). The institute uses
mentors from around the state to train teachers in Central Falls. Almond agreed
to finance the pilot program, hoping that other communities would imitate it,
Pelosi says. The money pays primarily for substitute teachers so that mentors
can assist in other classrooms, according to Linda Celona, business
administrator in Central Falls. Almond also spent $125,000 on the program in
* Governor's reading initiative ($127,000). Almond paid $100,000 to
Atkins Marketing & Design, a Connecticut public relations firm, to manage
public relations for his campaign to have all Rhode Island children reading by
the fourth grade. The money went to produce public service announcements with
Today show host Matt Lauer, design a campaign logo, print bumper
stickers, buy T-shirts, and organize special events.
An additional $27,000 helped start Rhode Island Reads. Initiated by former
Lieutenant Governor Bernard Jackvony, the program offers after-school and
school-based literacy programs for grade school children at 20 sites, according
to Margaretta Edwards, executive director of the Public Education Fund. More
than $400,000 in annual funding, plus a coordinator for every center, is
supplied by AmeriCorps VISTA.
* Lead removal at day care centers ($90,000). The contingency fund gave
$90,000 to the Rhode Island Housing & Mortgage Finance Corporation to make
day care centers lead-free. Rogers cites this as one of the best contingency
* Warwick train station development ($75,000). Almond's contingency fund
directed $75,000 to the RIEDC to conduct a nationwide search for companies to
develop the area around the proposed train station near T.F. Green Airport, on
Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Basile Baumann Prost & Associates, a
consulting firm in Annapolis, Maryland, found three candidates to develop the
proposed station district, and then, Pelosi says, the winner was selected by
the City of Warwick.
* Renovations of the governor's office ($58,124). In the most criticized
expenditure, Almond spent thousands for electrical work ($6736), carpeting
($4330), computers and scheduling software ($30,277), bookshelves and a walnut
topped desk ($1072), air conditioning ($5990), and general renovations ($9719)
for first floor offices at the State House.
"Unspeakably extravagant when there are people sleeping on the floor at
Traveler's Aid," says Rogers. The use of contingency funds on office
renovations and furniture also bothers Pires. "I'm not going to chastise him
[Almond] for that," Pires says, "but that belongs in [the] operations [portion
of the budget]."
Pelosi defends the spending, noting that Almond secured $100,000 in last
year's supplemental budget for emergency shelter space at the Salvation Army in
Providence, and used $25,000 from the contingency fund this year to help keep
open the Harrington Hall shelter in Cranston.
* Disability consultant ($40,000). Almond used the contingency fund to
hire consultant Thomas Hehir to evaluate Rhode Island's early intervention
program for children with disabilities.
* Promotional campaign for National Governors Association conference
($40,000). The money was paid to RIEDC and the Providence-Warwick
Convention & Visitors Bureau to bid for the 2001 meeting of the National
Governors Association. The effort paid off, says Pelosi, and the governors will
be coming to Providence in August.
Sports events ($33,329). Almond paid $20,000 for an April 2000 reception and
banquet at the NCAA Frozen Four college hockey championships, which were held
at the Providence Civic Center. He also paid $9669 to the Rhode Island Disaster
Medical Assistance Team to stand by when the Snickers Eastern Regional Soccer
Championship was held at the University of Rhode Island. Another $3650 was
spent to rent a tent, tables, and chairs for a VIP reception at the youth
* Jewelers expo ($25,000). The contingency fund was used to reimburse
the Manufacturing Jewelers & Suppliers of America for holding an exposition
in Rhode Island in May 1999. The expo costs help an important local industry,
Pelosi explains, and were unanticipated.
* Funeral for Senator John Chafee ($14,187). Almond used the contingency
fund to honor the man who elevated him to political prominence by appointing
him US Attorney for Rhode Island. The fund paid for flowers, coffee, and pastry
for a memorial to Senator Chafee at the State House, and chairs, stanchions and
a tent at the funeral service at Grace Church.
* Destination Providence campaign ($12,155). Funneled through the
Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, this money contributed to a public
relations campaign to attract tourists to Providence.
* Miscellaneous expenses ($84,303). Included in this category are a
variety of items, including an $8556 payment to GTECH Corporation to fly
Almond, his wife, chief of staff Michael DiBiase, David Darlington, special
assistant to the governor, and two state troopers to the National Governor's
Association summer 1999 meeting in St. Louis.
Scheduling problems made the use of commercial airlines difficult, Pelosi
says, so Almond requested the GTECH plane to get to the meeting and make the
pitch for Providence to host the 2001 governors' meeting. GTECH was reimbursed
based on the equivalent in first-class fares, Pelosi says.
The contingency fund also paid $7634 toward a BankBoston-sponsored day trade
mission to Ireland and the United Kingdom. Almond and his wife took the trip,
but, according to Pelosi, their fares and expenses were paid by the Rhode
Island Commodores, a business group. The contingency fund paid for Darlington
and state troopers David Tikoain and Scott Hemmingway to attend. Pelosi can
point to no specific benefit from the trip, but she says economic development
projects often take time to succeed.
Other expenses included a $3060 "1/2 day consulting fee" for Canadian
affirmative action consultant Trevor Wilson; $5075 for the photographs in the
computerized presentation of Almond's 1999 budget address to the legislature;
$1200-a-day consulting fees for Charles Mojkowski to advise the Education
Finance Task Force; $4817 to the Providence law firm of Partridge Snow &
Hahn LLP for advice on dealing with the Narragansett and Pokanoket Indian
tribes; $2400 for three banners with the state seal; $1110 in moving expenses
for Jan Reitsma, director of the state Department of Environmental
Also, $1293 to Brewed Awakenings for coffee at judicial appointment press
conferences; $1575 for diversity training for 40 top state officials at the
University of Rhode Island's W. Alton Jones campus; $3853 to buy three sound
systems; $3500 for the Mr. Potato Head statute of "Colonel Hedley Russet" in
the State House foyer; $2000 to provide meals and room rentals at the Rhode
Island Children and Poverty Summit at the Sheraton Providence Airport Hotel;
$2820 for a retreat for the governor's staff; and $1416 to charter the schooner
Aurora for a 90-minute staff cruise in Newport harbor.
Also included were payments for ads in the New York Times, Wall
Street Journal, and other newspapers to seek new directors of the RIEDC and
Department of Corrections, and travel expenses for job applicants.