State Representative Joseph Almeida is maintaining his innocence after State Police charged him with unlawfully appropriating more than $1500. He’s accused of using more than $6000 in campaign contributions for his personal use. Meanwhile, watchdogs say there’s room for improvement when it comes to how the state polices the money collected by politicians.
The usually genial Joseph Almeida wasn’t in a talking mood – at least not for reporters – when he returned to the House Wednesday for the first time since his arrest a day earlier.
In his statement, Almeida said he respects the legal process and maintains his innocence on the charge against him. The 7-term Providence Democrat has had a series of bankruptcies in the past, including one as recently as 2007. Almeida says his focus will be on representing his hardworking constituents on the city’s south side.
The State Police investigation of Almeida was triggered by an audit done by the state Board of Elections. The board is the state agency responsible for monitoring campaign fundraising and spending by candidates.
The Election Board’s head of campaign finance, Richard Thornton, said he routinely cross-checks candidates’ campaign fundraising reports with contributions made by political action committees, or PACS.
"So when I did that, when Representative Almeida had filed his reports, I noticed that there was some discrepancies in what the PACs were reporting as giving to Representative Almeida and what Almeida was reporting as having received," Thornton said.
Thornton said he monitors candidates’ campaign finance filings for just this type of scenario. So the Board of Elections can pursue an audit if something questionable pops up. But unlike some other states, the Board of Elections doesn’t do routine audits of the hundreds and hundreds of campaign finance reports that candidates file each year. (The one exception, with mandatory audits, is for the relatively few candidates who take part in the state’s matching funds program.)
So does the absence of routine audits by the state agency in charge of campaign spending open the door to potential abuse?
"That’s a great question," said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. "I think the outlook isn’t great. You know, the purpose of auditing is to act as a deterrent. And so, if there’s insufficient auditing, there’s an insufficient deterrent to this kind of behavior."=
Marion said audits for every candidate aren’t necessary to deter abuse. Rather, he said, just the possibility of a random audit could be enough to deter wrongdoing. That’s the approach used in states like Tennessee and Pennsylvania, where a small percentage of candidates’ fundraising reports are chosen for audits each year.
The Board of Elections’ Richard Thornton agrees that some degree of regular audits would be a good idea.
"The audit function is something that is very important, very critical," Thornton said, "and certainly, although we do target those where concerns are observed, the audit more on a scheduled basis would give me greater comfort."
As it stands, Thornton said, there tends to be more attention on the large fines racked up by some candidates for delinquent campaign finance reports. He says introducing some degree of regular audits is also a challenge, since he’s one of two Board of Elections staffers dealing with close to at least 1000 reports each year.
Meanwhile, the mid-winter fundraising season is in full swing for state lawmakers … and Representative Joe Almeida is due back in court April 17.