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Leaders weigh in on legislative grants

February 29, 2012

Photo by Kathleen McKiernan Rep. Spencer Dickinson (D-South Kingstown) visits the empty building at the Institute for International Sport, which is under investigation by the state police for failure to account for state funds.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The scandal surrounding the Institute for International Sport has shined a light on the legislative grant program that provided the $575,000 missing grant to the nonprofit, renewing an age-old debate on its merits among local legislators and state leaders.

Just on the University campus at 3045 Kingstown Road, the Institute for International Sport and its Executive Director Daniel E. Doyle, Jr. are under investigation by the state police and the attorney general’s office after an audit released two weeks ago by Auditor General Dennis E. Hoyle questioned why Doyle owes the university more than $380,000 and cannot account for most of a $575,000 grant to build a second building on the Kingston campus. The building located now at the campus remains a half-finished empty shell.

After Rep. Spencer Dickinson of South Kingstown discovered the sport institute building within his district splashed across newspaper headlines on Friday, Feb. 10, he is calling for more accountability.
Dickinson was dismayed that his leadership did not tell him about the state funds, the auditor general’s report confirming the missing grant or the ensuing investigation by the state police.

“It is common courtesy. The legislator in the district ought to know about it,” Dickinson said. “In the district I represent, I’m the last one to hear about it and I know why. They know I wouldn’t like it.”

Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Gordon Fox countered that “this all predated Rep. Dickinson’s service in the House of Representatives. It predates Speaker Fox’s tenure as speaker. It doesn’t involve Dickinson or any other representative.”

Berman said if the grant had been in Dickinson’s name, he would have been notified.

The grant money stems back to January 2006 when then-Speaker William Murphy and Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano sponsored the award. According to Berman, Fox asked the auditor general to investigate why the building at the Institute was never finished after the matter came to his attention.

Dickinson's concerns harp back to criticisms the program has received over the years and is part of what he calls the “Rhode Island syndrome.”

“When the whole process of legislative grants lacks accountability and the whole legislative budget lacks accountability, this is what kind of outcome you get,” Dickinson said. “They give this money away like it’s theirs. This doesn’t make anyone look good, URI, the state or the legislators. We should be accountable on every level except we accept the fact that no one is accountable.”

“If you want to know why businesses don’t want to come here, it’s the whole attitude. It’s costing us jobs and money because a few people want to play it close to the vest,” he added.

Dickinson is not the first to question the merits of the legislative grant program. In 2008, the House Republicans filed suit against the program questioning its transparency. Though the state superior court rejected the case in 2008, the House GOP appealed to the state supreme court. The suit was scheduled to come before the state supreme court yesterday, where the question of whether or not House Republicans can bring an appeal, rather than the merits of the program itself, was likely to be addressed.

“I’m strongly opposed to the entire legislative grant program. The program should be abolished,” said House Minority Leader Brian C. Newberry, who took office after the House Republicans filed the lawsuit.

“It’s vote buying for incumbent legislators. Every year in the Joint Committee on Legislative Services budget, certain money is set aside and the leadership dolls out the money. Incumbent legislators take the money and distribute it to local charities. They’re using taxpayer money to make themselves look good.”

Newberry, who said he has not sponsored a grant since he took office in 2008 said the institute grant is an “egregious example.” of legislators taking taxpayers’ money and giving it to an organization they have a personal interest in.

On the other side of the debate are other local legislators who remain confident in the program that provided funding not only to the institute but to local charities ranging from school assistance, homeless shelters and animal shelters.

“It’s especially valuable now in the economic conditions we’re under now,” Representative Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly) said. “People think it’s a great waste of money, but I think when you select an organization and know what they do, it’s important to the community they serve.”

There is currently $2.2 million in the state budget reserved for legislative grants. The $575,000 grant for the institute remains an outlier with most grants ranging from $250 to $5,000. Each year a legislator can sponsor a grant request to support local nonprofits and submit the request to the House Speaker and Senate President for approval. When seeking funds, an organization has to fill out and submit paperwork stating what the money will be used for and then the Joint Committee on Legislative Services decides who gets the grants.

In South County, Walsh has sponsored four grants this year, ranging from $1,000 up to $2,000 for local charities such as the Charlestown Animal Control and Shelter, the Charlestown Memorial Day Committee and Matunuck Elementary School. Representative Teresa Tanzi (D-Narragansett, South Kingstown) sponsored $3,000 for the Matty Fund and $1,000 each for the Johnnycake Center and Welcome House in Peace Dale. Senator Susan Sosnowski (D-South Kingstown, New Shoreham) sponsored 20 grants in 2012, ranging from $1,000 for the South Kingstown volunteer fire departments up to $5,000 for Block Island Health Services. Senator James Sheehan (D-Narragansett, South Kingstown) sponsored 10 grants this year, including $900 for the West Bay YMCA and $1,300 for the Narragansett Senior Association.

Noting that it was Speaker Gordon Fox who first called into question the Sports Institute grant, some local representatives feel the legislative leadership are doing their part to police themselves.

“I have to give credit to Speaker Fox. He was the first one who called a light to it. Frankly, they saw a problem and alerted officials,” Tanzi said.

Legislators say the deceit of the institute will not deter them from sponsoring grants in the future.

“As long as it’s monitored, I will apply for those organizations because if I don’t more grant money will go to another town,” Sosnowski said.

“I won’t hesitate next year. I know where that grant money is going. I check out the places to see what they’re doing,” Walsh said.

“We’ve cut aid to cities and towns and the community development block grants are getting smaller. If an organization in the community needs it, I’m not going to turn them down,” Tanzi said.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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