Thomas Tisch ’76 is the Chancellor of the Corporation of Brown University and a partner at Four Partners, a private investment firm in New York City. He has served on the boards of numerous philanthropic and educational institutions.

Brown Political Review: What is the Corporation’s role, practically or philosophically speaking, for the University?

Thomas Tisch: The role of the Corporation is to take the long view and to be sure that we are on a right and steady course. What the Corporation does not do is manage or entirely set the course for the University. Those responsibilities are really left, in large part, to the president and the senior administration, to assemble the combination of planning and resources that are necessary to help chart that course. There’s a deep sense that the University is governed best by a very effective president, and ensuring a shared sense of governance has been institutional tradition. Whether it’s the formulation of strategic plans, budgets or policies on sexual assault, a broad base of community participation is usually inherent in decisions.

BPR: There’s no direct public access to the content of the Corporation’s meetings. Is that a problem?

TT: There is a community letter that the president generally sends out after each Corporation meeting that often details the items discussed…When we did a review of governance in 2009, we decided to reduce the period over which Corporation minutes are locked from 50 to 25 years.

BPR: Why is that period so long?

TT: There is a sense that there are items that might come up which, to certain people, require a sense of confidentiality, and it is important to allow people in the room to have the power to speak freely. I will tell you, having reviewed the minutes of the Corporation meetings and being in the Corporation meetings myself, that having them locked up for that long probably doesn’t make sense. But it is, in many ways, the tradition of university governing bodies to have some degree of confidentiality. Harvard, for example, still maintains a 50-year lockup on their Corporation records.

BPR: There’s no democracy in the governing of Brown. Do you think that democratic functions have a place here?

TT: The Corporation was never set up as a democratic structure. It’s among the least democratic structures in the world.

BPR: Is that just? Is that right?

TT: I don’t know exactly how I would define “democratic structure,” but we are not a democratic or representative structure.

BPR: Do you think student representation should be part of the Corporation?

TT: I think it’s very important for the Corporation to receive input and voices that represent the breadth and character of the Brown community in making decisions. I don’t think that necessarily equates to the Corporation being a formally representative body, and I think it’s very important that we not become one.

BPR: So you think that it is important that the Corporation stay nonrepresentative.

 TT: No, I believe that it’s important for the Corporation to be structured in such a way that we have deep input, respect and openness in the processes that affect the breadth of the Brown community. It’s also important that we conduct ourselves in a way in which we have a sense of trust, transparency and engagement. And it’s interesting that there are times when the Corporation will step back and look at our work in a variety of ways to be sure that we are conducting ourselves appropriately and that our processes are such that those ideas are recognized and affirmed. We’re also capable, I believe, and we’ve shown this at various times, of making adjustments and assessments of the way we conduct our business to be sure that those ideas are present and appreciated by the community…I think if we recreated the Corporation as something that appeared to be a more representative body, with faculty, students and staff, then there is a great risk of people feeling that they have to behave as representatives of a certain perspective of the moment in a very political sense. And I think that is a great risk to the governance of the University. We have a broad range of perspectives in the room: I’m very proud of that as the Chair of the Trustee Vacancy Committee.

BPR: Are you obliged to include members of the Brown community in presidential searches?

TT: Absolutely not, but we chose to, absolutely. And as a matter of fact, in the search that yielded Gordon Gee and beforehand, candidates were selected and then presented for review of the campus. [Community members] were brought in at the last moment. In the latest search, from the first day our committee convened as a total group [with student and faculty members] — from the setting of the lens, to the criteria, to the interviewing of the candidates towards the review. There was one moment in the life of the committee, at a very critical point of narrowing the field and selecting the candidate, when I didn’t want to favor one group or the other, so in that moment, I just opened the floor to everyone.

BPR: Who do you think Brown belongs to? What are the controlling interests?

TT: In terms of whom the University belongs to, the University has a mission statement: research, teaching, and service to the world. In the broadest sense, we’re technically structured as a nonprofit corporation, so at some level it may belong to the members. But what it really belongs to is the pursuit of an ideal. And the ideal is truly a glorious ideal. I think there’s no greater statement in any university charter than the Brown statement to educate students to live lives of usefulness and reputation. There’s no more glorious ideal than the openness that is inherent in the charter, one that’s not perfect at this time. But we should work over time to make it perfect, and it’s a community that’s very much committed to those values. It’s one of the things that engages me and the entirety of the senior administration in a very deep way. There are conversations that are difficult, where people might be disappointed in certain rules or judgments of the Corporation. We saw it in the last two years with respect to the issue of divestment from coal, and we’ve seen it in relation to issues of openness and speech, which were framed by the critical point around a discussion on the disruptions to former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly speaking on campus. We see elements of [Brown’s openness] in the way we define the community in terms of behavior around sexual assault. I think one of the real blessings of Brown is that we [have these conversations] in a very broad, open and serious way, with a great deal of integrity. It’s one of the pieces of Brown that makes me feel that the work that we’re doing is just incredibly important — because there are very few institutions in American life that represent this ideal.

BPR: Some students feel that recent spending projects have been wasteful — specifically, the renovation of Andrews Commons and, to a lesser extent, the renovation of the John Hay Library. How are student needs assessed in planning projects like these?

TT: Each one of those major projects came about in a process that incorporated a tremendous amount of community input. In the case of Andrews, it’s hard for a student today to imagine what Andrews looked like five years ago. For any project, I know anybody might say: “It could have been spent differently.” I’ve never seen a project built of any kind, a sculpture presented, a renovation project done where somebody doesn’t say they might have done it differently. I actually think that’s what’s happened in terms of housing, which is an area where for many years there were deep concerns about the deterioration of our housing stock, specifically for freshman. The space that’s now Andrews Commons was a large, unused space that was not a place of any life or vitality in the community, and [this coincided with] a discussion of the lack of study spaces in the dormitories. In the case of the Hay Library, one of the most glorious spaces on campus, the building was in a complete state of disrepair. So to see the reading room naturally filled up indicates that, although there may be students who don’t value it, there are students who value it very deeply. And it’s really the work of, in the case of Andrews and in the case of the John Hay Library, the Library Advisory Council and the Campus Life Committee…which have a great deal of student input in the selection and the crafting of those plans.

BPR: How is financial aid weighed in the budget? How does Brown’s aid process compare to peer institutions?

TT: Brown’s commitment to access and financial aid is something that’s glorious and is supported, I think, by the entirety of the Corporation. One of the great challenges for the University is that we find ourselves, blessedly, in a competitive cohort, where the resources that other institutions enjoy are materially greater than the financial resources that Brown enjoys; our endowment is a fraction of the endowment of other institutions in our cohort. And there are many institutions, such as Wellesley, Williams and Amherst, where their endowment on a per student basis is measurably higher than ours. And yet, they don’t have the same aspirations in terms of research and graduate students. That’s one of the reasons we have a University Resources Committee: to be able to work through those tradeoffs and the consequences of emphasizing various aspects of the budget in relation to other aspects. The tradeoffs are made especially difficult by the fact that we live in a moment when the major revenue lines of all universities have become much flatter. Thankfully, we have structures that allow for lots of community input into the buildup of the recommendations that come before the budget and finance committee.

BPR: Do you think the University and the Corporation have any responsibility to make investments that reflect ethical and political concerns of students?

TT: I think the University has a responsibility to manage the endowment in a financially, morally and ethically responsible manner, yes.

BPR: Is that management in specific relation to student concerns?

TT: We have a process through the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility (ACRIP) to listen to and consider deeply the views and recommendations that come forth from the community. That doesn’t mean that we will necessarily [listen]. In the case of the ACRIP recommendation on coal divestment, we did not accept that recommendation. That was a decision that was arrived at after much discussion with a Corporation-based committee. I think that there are elements of the letter that President Paxson wrote to the community where her basis of the rationale for the judgment made a lot of sense and was actually beautifully articulated. And on that issue, like on so many issues, there were a great number of perspectives present in the Corporation. I know many students and many members of the community were disappointed at the conclusion. I can tell you as well that there were members of the Corporation who were disappointed in the decision…I do believe very sincerely that it is important for the Corporation to maintain a sense of trust, appropriate transparency and a deeply meaningful engagement with all parts of the Brown community. This was one of the reasons that led to the governance review of our work in 2009, where we created the position of Young Alumni Trustee, a position that has been very effective in the work of the Corporation and that has brought a closeness with student experience to our work. It’s incumbent on us to work to have the right conversations with student and community leadership over the period ahead to be sure that we’re engaging in a meaningful way, to be sure that there’s the right transparency and that we’re working to build the right trust. We’re doing as good a job as we can.

In November of 2014, President Christina Paxson sparked controversy with her reaction to the Janus Forum’s debate, “How Should Colleges Handles Sexual Assault?” an event in which two speakers, Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy, were invited to represent opposing viewpoints about rape culture on college campuses. The presence of McElroy, who has authored an article called “The Big Lie of ‘Rape Culture,’” upset many students who did not want her to step on campus and spread such inflammatory opinions at Brown. McElroy argues in her article that the idea of rape culture is a myth, and compares it to propaganda used by Hitler. Even though McElroy was to provide one viewpoint which would be countered by Valenti in the debate, Paxson retaliated by scheduling another lecture, “Research on Rape Culture,” to occur at a time that conflicted with the debate and to include arguments that refuted McElroy’s.

Had President Paxson scheduled the additional lecture to take place at another time, so that students were able to attend both the lecture and the Janus Forum debate, students would have had the opportunity to attend both events, benefit from the extra education, and develop their own opinions. By scheduling the event to coincide with the debate, President Paxson chose to limit Brown students’ exposure to perspectives on rape culture. In forcing them to choose between events, Paxson dissuaded students from attending a debate with opinions considered unpalatable at Brown. The handling of the situation seems to belie Paxson’s response to the protests of Ray Kelly’s speech last year, when she maintained that, “Brown has sound policies that promote and preserve freedom of expression, even when the ideas being expressed may be abhorrent.” The contradictory events underscore administrative struggles to straddle the line between creating an environment open to freedom of expression and protecting Brown’s image of upholding certain values. A closer look into Brown’s long history of confronting administrative identity crises reveals that this struggle is not something new.

In 2012, Malcolm Burnley, who was a Brown senior at the time, realized for just how long Brown had been juggling the twin challenges of fostering an environment of open discussion and neutralizing speakers with ideas that seem repugnant to the community and administration. In an interview with BPR, he shared the story of his discovery that Malcolm X had come to Brown against the wishes of the administration in 1961. Burnley, who had been assigned to come up with an original story based on something in the Brown archives for a creative nonfiction class, had been shocked when he stumbled across a picture of Malcolm X in a 1961 copy of the Brown Daily Herald.

“I was shocked,” recalls Burnley, “because Brown had been doing a lot of retrospective speaking about civil rights leaders who came to Brown and the long history of progressivism on campus. Malcolm X never came up.” The fact that Martin Luther King made a visit to Brown University, on the other hand, was widely advertised. After seeing the article, Burnley began to investigate how the visit happened, and why he had never heard of the visit before.

In 1961, a Brown student named Katherine Pierce wrote an article, published in the Brown Daily Herald, arguing against Malcolm X’s separatist stance, and stating that integration was necessary for the progression of racial equality. Malcolm X had read the article and expressed desire to come to the campus to refute it. Pierce and Richard Holbrooke, who was then an editor of the Brown Daily Herald, invited the civil rights leader to come speak to the university.

“The university said absolutely not.” It was within Brown’s rights as a private university to prohibit the students from inviting a speaker they did not want, but it was certainly not conducive to the expression of free speech and debate. Holbrooke, who was a big proponent of free discourse, would not let the matter go without a fight. After several more meeting with the two students, threats from Holbrooke about publishing nasty things about the current university President Keeny and even moving the publication off campus, the administration finally caved. They agreed to let Malcolm X come, but only under several conditions: Someone from the NAACP or another civil rights organization had to come and argue from an opposing viewpoint, and the students would have to take care of making all the arrangements. The school would take care of nothing. Malcolm X even had to provide his own security.

Even though they allowed Malcolm X to come, the school seemed fairly intent on making sure that his visit was as downplayed as possible. “I found out that the school didn’t want to keep a record of Malcolm X coming,” said Burnley, who went through President Keeny’s notes from 1961. Even though Pierce and Holbrooke met with him around half a dozen times to argue for and arrange the meeting, there was not a singular mention of anything having to do with the incident. After the visit, it was as though it had never happened.

It seems that over fifty years later, Brown’s tactic for dealing with unwanted speakers has not changed much. Even when the administration cannot stop the speaker from coming, making it as difficult as possible for the event to happen or for students to access it certainly reduces its impact. It is a sad irony that a school’s administration should try to limit students’ access to such diverse resources, a strategy fueled more by politics than by education.

When asked why the university made such an effort to minimize Malcolm X’s visit, Burley explained that in 1961, Brown was a very different place than it is now. Whereas now, Brown touts the reputation of being one of the more freethinking and liberal schools of its caliber, half a century ago its administration at least was rather conservative and still fairly tied to its strong Christian roots. “There were only about six black students in each grade,” Burnley said.

So why did the school advertise its hosting of other leaders, like Martin Luther King? According to Burnley, the school recognized that change was inevitably coming, and saw integration as a much more mild and therefore more appetizing route than Malcolm X’s separatist stance. However, as Malcolm Burnley pointed out, “one of the important things to remember is that integration might not have even happened without a presence like Malcolm X forcing people to recognize what a more radical alternative might be.” Here, Burnley hits the crux of why access to a diverse pool of thought and speakers, unrestricted by popular opinion or what at the time is considered politically correct, is so important. We do not have to agree with every speaker we go see—in fact, it is advantageous to attend many speakers aligned with beliefs contrary to our own. Only then do we best know how to defend what we believe. By exposing students to a wide range of opinions, the university would not be endorsing all of them. Rather, it would be offering students a better chance to refine their own. Katherine Pierce, the original author of the piece that inspired Malcolm X to come speak, was a proponent of integration, but knew she only stood to benefit from hearing Malcolm X argue differently. Similarly, a student passionate about preventing campus rape, who subscribes to the notion of rape culture, should have wanted to hear McElroy speak, if only to strengthen and refine her own stance after hearing the counterargument.

It should never be the university’s goal to block students from different opinions and outlooks in the world; Brown is not a bubble. Rather, it should be the school’s goal to provide students with the education and tools they need to be informed individuals who understand the complexities of the world in which we live, so that we can go out into it armed with enough information to form substantiated opinions and defend them.

The White House has officially donned its white hat. The highly anticipated First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was released yesterday. The interagency task force, which falls under the purview of the White House Council on Women and Girls, is fronted by Vice President Joe Biden, US Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other department heads.

By involving the federal government, the report aims to call national attention to sexual assault on college campuses and strengthen the fight against sexual violence. Recent statistics reporting alarming numbers have likely sparked the motivation behind these efforts: At least 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted during her college years. And more often than not, the perpetrator is someone victims know or even trust.  The monster myth is exactly that—a myth.

On creating the Task Force, President Barack Obama comments, “Sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals. It threatens our families, it threatens our communities; ultimately, it threatens the entire country. It tears apart the fabric of our communities. And that’s why we’re here today – because we have the power to do something about it as a government, as a nation. We have the capacity to stop sexual assault, support those who have survived it, and bring perpetrators to justice.”

SAAM Ad Campaign, Google Creative Commons, Creative Commons License
SAAM Ad Campaign, Google Creative Commons, Creative Commons License

The White House’s report can be broken down into four components.

Identification

The Task Force has created a campus climate survey in hopes of more accurately understanding the extent of sexual assault on college campuses. This is thought to be a more efficient method of identification, as victims “rarely report sexual assault to law enforcement…[or] access formal services, like crises centers.” The survey is essentially a questionnaire meant to address “both the amount of sexual assault occurring (prevalence or incidence) and perceptions of campus climate.” It will be administered to students, faculty, staff, and/or administrators.

Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has outlined the most promising prevention methods. In general, they are “those that are sustained (not brief, one-shot educational programs), comprehensive, and address the root individual, relational and societal causes of sexual assault.” Bystander intervention has been named as the most effective strategy. The CDC has published a basic factsheet regarding bystander intervention.

Sociological research demonstrates that men might not necessarily understand what other men consider acceptable sexual behavior. They will, in general, underestimate their peers’ desire to interfere in instances of sexual misconduct, thus making them less likely to intervene themselves.

A Public Service Announcement, emphasizing the idea that consent should be the determining factor in proceeding onwards in a sexual encounter, was also released this week.

Finally, the Task Force recommends the constant development of new prevention strategies.

Response

While sexual assault is a crime punishable by a significant prison sentence, many survivors choose a university hearing over a legal trial, and so we should improve the process by which universities respond. Given the highly traumatic nature of sexual assault, confidentiality and sensitivity must be employed by all affiliates of the university who will be involved.

In order to guarantee these qualities, the Task Force recommends hiring trained advocates who “understand the dynamics of sexual assault and the unique toll it can take on self-blaming or traumatized victims” and highlighting these individuals to all campus members. The Task Force will also be providing universities with a sample protocol regarding reporting and confidentiality.

Transparency & Enforcement

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, federally-funded schools are required to not only prevent sexual assault but also respond quickly and adequately when it does occur. The Task Force has made a recommendation to federal agencies in that they should work on bettering their coordination in fighting sexual violence conjointly and clarify university obligations under Title IX.

The Task Force also launched NotAlone.gov to more effectively disseminate resources and literature regarding sexual assault and increase communication between all the involved parties.

While I commend federal efforts in reducing sexual assault, I, along with others, must criticize the White Houses’ lack of a nuanced, sophisticated lens. The report is largely based on a gender-normative dichotomy in which women get raped and men do the raping.

Yes—our current knowledge of rape points to the notion that women are sexually assaulted far more often than men and that the majority of rapists are men. However, our leaders must diversify their understanding of rape and its intersectionality in order to best provide solidarity and support to any survivor, regardless of identity.

As Brown student Lena Sclove puts it, “Right now there is a great deal of national attention on college sexual assault, but sexual assault happens in the home, in elementary, middle, and high school and on the street. A college education is inherently a privilege so we have to remember survivors who do not fit into the demographic of ‘college student’.”

Much like Capitol Hill, and perhaps due in part to our actions on the ground, Brown University has recently been enveloped by an air of increased concern for collegiate sexual assault. Last week we learned of the violent rape and strangulation of Lena Sclove that took place on August 2, 2013.

After a Student Conduct Hearing on October 11, 2013, the accused was found guilty of four violations under the Student Code of Conduct: actions that result in or can be reasonably expected to result in physical harm to a person or persons; sexual misconduct that involves non-consensual physical contact of a sexual nature; sexual misconduct that includes one or more of the following: penetration, violent physical force, or injury; and illegal possession or use of drugs and/or alcohol and/or drug paraphernalia.

The disciplinary board suggested a two-year suspension, but Senior Associate Dean for Student Life Allen Ward reviewed the case and, on his own accord, decided that a one-year suspension was more apropos. Sclove immediately appealed the decision but was rejected. The perpetrator remained on campus until the days before Thanksgiving break, thus reducing his suspension to a sole semester.

In the weeks after finals, Sclove awoke to find a painful lump on her back, which, unfortunately turned out to be a cervical spine injury that would render her unable to walk for months—one of the many life-altering side effects of the assault. She was forced to take a semester of medical leave and will, once her health improves, consider returning to Brown if significant policy change is evident. While away from campus, Sclove reported the incident to the Providence Police Department for the first time.

This hard-to-bear information rocked Brown University last week when it was revealed during a press conference in front of the Van Wickle gates. Student activists immediately rallied behind Sclove. Demonstrations and protests were rampant on our campus, reminding some that the ‘90s revolution is far from over. Two petitions were circulated asking signatories to stand in solidarity with the request that, upon determining a student guilty of sexual misconduct, Brown should suspend said student for two years, or until the victim graduates—whichever renders a longer punishment.

Upon release of Brown University President Christina Paxson’s sugarcoated statement and the Task Force’s initial report, students have altered the course of the movement.

New demands have been made. They are specific, concrete, and tangible. If implemented, Brown will, for the first time, privilege victims over perpetrators. Sclove’s testimony will, hopefully, be the final push for the university, which has been accused of softly punishing sexual assault in the past.

And while Sclove is arguably the current face of the fight against sexual assault at Brown, she is forever adamant that she is merely one of many. “This is not just about me,” she said in an electronic correspondence. “There are so many survivors out there. This is about all of us. This [is] about making this campus safe for everyone.” “But,” she points out, “we have to keep thinking critically about this issue. We can’t get stuck. We must think intersectionally about how sexual assault directly connects to racism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism.”

Lena, while “grateful to all the support” notes “there is still much to be done.”

Russell Carey is executive vice president for planning and policy at Brown. He works closely with Brown’s president, provost, executive vice president for finance and administration, Corporation and members of the community to ensure effective planning and policy in keeping with the University’s mission. He sat down to talk to BPR’s Sabin Ray. Info from the Taubman Center, Brown University. 

Russell C. Carey
Russell C. Carey, via

One morning last month, Rhode Islanders woke up to the news that the National Rifle Association had been charged with the second-largest campaign finance ethics violation in state history. In a settlement reached by the Rhode Island Board of Elections, the NRA admitted that it improperly funneled money from its national Political Action Committee (or “PAC”) to the Rhode Island-specific PAC, illegal under state law. The PAC was fined a historic $63,000.

What the stories didn’t reveal? That the NRA’s wrongdoing, the record fine, and the shuttering of the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC was the result of the initial hunch of one person: Brown University student Sam Bell.

Bell’s story is certainly noteworthy for its David-and-Goliath appeal; the plot notes sound like a chilled-out version of “A Civil Action.” It’s also remarkable for the NRA’s astonishingly poor cover-up (their reports defy simple arithmetic) and the even more stunning realization that nobody checked them for ten years. But the real reasons Bell matters — the success of his legal complaint and the clues that led him there — together represent something else entirely: a new model, potentially, for enforcing campaign finance laws in Rhode Island and around the country.

Bell is a Ph.D. candidate in Brown’s geology department — not exactly the campus war room, unless you apply a broad interpretation to “digging.” But it’s the 24-year-old grad student’s other job that supplies his political adrenaline, as State Coordinator of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats. Tall and ebullient, with a perennial tie and glasses that accentuate a scrutinizing demeanor, Bell sharply resembles the consummate grad student, including a thin, brass voice almost perfectly designed for administering factual correction. His age and background, in a way, are camouflage for political foes that get too casual with the facts, whom Bell can skewer (and I can testify) with an encyclopedic knowledge of state politics and polling data down to the district level.

I visited Bell at one of his monthly statewide meetings. A dozen coat-clad adults, all over 40, sat in a fluorescent conference room and looked on while Bell comfortably wrapped up a PowerPoint on monetary policy. Later, Bell told me that his suspicions in the NRA case began not with fishy numbers or a secret source, but an old-fashioned political ass-whooping. So ass-whoopy, in fact, that something didn’t add up.

“We failed miserably at passing an assault weapons ban,” said Bell, referring to the measure’s failure last spring, and citing a failure to act from the legislative leadership despite their repeated official statements of support. That seemed odd to Bell: after all, constituent support statewide for gun control reliably clocks in at overwhelming levels. Sixty-four percent approve an assault weapons ban, including 86% of Democrats, while the NRA received a toxic 56% “unfavorable” rating, both according to polling data from last year. Bell noted that more Rhode Islanders support gun control than  supported Barack Obama in the 2012 election.

Then Bell learned that the speaker of the house, the senate president and both chambers’ majority leaders all had accepted money from the NRA — a lot of money. An independent analysis of public campaign finance reports by BPR confirms that the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC spent over $162,000 on Rhode Island elections since 2002, and the speaker and senate president each took $2,700 and $5,700 in the same time frame, respectively. True, Bell reasoned, the Rhode Island legislature is notoriously conservative on issues of reproductive health and voter I.D. — a fact made even more frustrating by Rhode Island’s misnomer status as the most liberal state in America, but even that didn’t make much sense either, per the same polling data that Bell now knew by heart. The mystery wasn’t the legislature’s willingness to take the money, but the money itself. In other words, if the NRA was so unpopular, who was writing the checks?

“We wondered how this group was able to raise so much money,” said Bell. “We had never seen an NRA fundraiser, never heard about one.”

Then he consulted the public records in the Board of Elections archive (the same source of BPR’s analysis) where Bell noticed the organization hadn’t reported a single donor in ten years. Such a practice is only legal if a donation is less than $100, known as “aggregate individual contributions.” Additionally, Bell said that the NRA’s federally filed expenditures matched dollar-for-dollar those of the NRA’s Rhode Island-specific PAC — again, every year dating back to 2002.

Put another way: the NRA didn’t even attempt to hide what plainly appeared to be suspicious activity. Something was clearly up. And Bell was the first to have checked in over ten years.

Here’s what Bell saw when he consulted the public records. First, he saw the same pattern repeating over and over again in the NRA Rhode Island PAC’s reports to the state Board of Elections: a large sum listed for “aggregate contributions,” and a long line of goose eggs for every other category:

  Agg Exp. PIC

 

Those many “zeros” coincidentally line up with all the categories for which PACs don’t have to report their donors. The $1,200 in the example above was filed in the seven days before the 2012 election in October. Notice that the NRA quickly spends all of its “aggregate contributions” in the same reporting cycle, ending with a “Cash Balance” of zero. BPR’s analysis of records from the Board of Elections shows that of the 65 reports that the NRA filed with the Board in which they disclosed receiving contributions, 60 followed this identical pattern — listing all receipts as aggregate individual contributions, and spending the exact amount in the same period. The five exceptions in which the NRA reported their receipts were all cases of voided checks.

Next, Bell noticed that the addresses listed for the NRA’s national and Rhode Island PACs were identical, and both registered as the “NRA Political Victory Fund.” Below is an example from the NRA’s public reports with the Rhode Island Board of Elections:

RI Address PIC

And here is the NRA’s filing in the same month with the FEC:

NRA Address PIC

 You can see they didn’t exactly try to hide it. Second, and related, the NRA double-listed their campaign contributions, or “disbursements,” in both reports. Here’s one example from the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC, in their October report to the state Board of Elections:

Costa RI Pic

 …and the exact same contribution reported in the same month to the FEC:

 Costa Fed PIC

 

Again, about as inconspicuous as Justin Bieber at a DMV.

It raises a key question. Campaign finance is a notoriously dense field. The notion of keeping hopelessly opaque and unclear documents “transparent” before the public is often seen as a cruel joke. It takes lawyers to enforce campaign finance laws — and most of the time they get frustrated: see Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig’s march across the New Hampshire tundra just to get a few people to pay attention to the issue at all. But the NRA-Bell scandal forces us to reduce this sad canard to its core. Does the NRA assume that people care so little — are they so contemptuous of the law and the intellect of those who might enforce it — that they don’t even pretend to comply?

Bell was about to find out. With the pro bono help of the law firm CFO Compliance, and with the crowd-sourcing teamwork of his Progressive Democrats posse, Bell began building a case.

In September of last year, Bell filed a formal complaint on behalf of the Progressive Democrats, alleging three specific violations. Here is the Campaign Finance 101 digest of what Bell alleged:

1. A federal-state PAC conspiracy. Rhode Island law says that if a PAC is registered in Rhode Island, it cannot receive money from any federally registered PAC.  The first and most obvious complaint alleged that the NRA’s federal PAC was sending money to the Rhode Island state PAC — a violation of Rhode Island law.

2. A failure to report donations. Rhode Island law says that any candidate, campaign or PAC must disclose the name and address of anyone who donates more than $100. The second complaint alleged that there was a high likelihood that many “donors” to the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC (if there were any at all) must have given more than $100, just by  sheer odds. According to BPR’s analysis, the NRA Rhode Island PAC’s “aggregated individual” (i.e. undisclosed) contributions amounted to over $160,000. For the NRA to be innocent, that means that not a single donation — once, ever — over a ten-year period and among these hundreds of thousands was ever over $100.

3. A violation of the overall campaign contribution limit. Rhode Island Law limits any candidate, campaign or PAC from receiving more than $1,000. If Bell’s first complaint was true, that would likely mean that the NRA was sloshing it’s money from its national coffers into the RI PAC. Since many of these donations were over $1,000 (in the October 2012 filing above, the contribution is $1,200) — and if that money came from NRA’s national PAC as Bell alleges — that would mean the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC illegally received more than $1,000 from a single source.

Bell’s Progressive Democrats filed the complaint in September, and after that… well, we don’t really know what happened after that. The Board of Elections conducts its investigations under strict confidentiality.

Here’s what we do know. On October 3, the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC formally dissolved. Whether this was part of the negotiations, or a political attempt to save face, no one knows except for the NRA. It seems clear that without the Progressive Democrats’ complaint, the state of Rhode Island would be one NRA Political Action Committee richer.

Then, on January 17, the Board of Elections announced their closed-door settlement with the NRA, fining the organization a historic $63,000. Again, how that number was reached is confidential. But far more intriguing was the rationale used by the Board of Elections. The Board found the NRA guilty of funneling money from its national PAC to its Rhode Island PAC — point #1 in Bell’s three-part complaint. For that, the NRA faced an enormous fine. But the Board found the NRA not in violation of Bell’s complaint #2 and complaint #3: that is, NRA RI was not fined for accepting donations over $100 without disclosure, nor for accepting donations over $1,000.

What defense did the NRA use to bring the Board to their side on these latter two points? The NRA argued that its Rhode Island PAC was maintained and operated “within” the NRA national PAC’s finances. In other words,  they shared the same bank account.

Think about that for a second.

The spirit of the law — the idea of precluding national PACs from giving money to state PACs — is meant to create separation between national and state money, and to keep state organizations free of outside influence. In response to the allegation that it violated a law meant to keep national and state PACs separate, the NRA argued that the only reason its national and state PACs looked so similar was “only” because the two PACs shared an address, legal liaison and bank account — such that they became indistinguishable from one another. That was their defense.

Yet as counterintuitive as their defense may seem, it offers the brilliant catch-22 of exonerating itself from Bell’s second and third complaints. If the sharing of bank accounts is an acceptable legal explanation, then suddenly there would be no realistic way to know if the NRA’s “Rhode Island PAC” (indistinguishable from the national PAC for financial purposes) ever inappropriately accepted donations of more than $100 or $1,000. Remember, the NRA isn’t required to say if checks or cash were earmarked especially for the Rhode Island PAC. If NRA national and NRA Rhode Island indeed shared the same bank account, we can only take the NRA’s word that every dollar of “aggregate expenditures” was really intended for Rhode Island, and not just sloshed into Rhode Island as needed from the national PAC’s war chest. Why is this, you ask? Because, that’s why. Welcome to the Kafka novel that is American campaign finance.

If you’re confused as hell, that only means you’re paying attention — campaign finance is confusing. To the left are Bell’s claims and the NRA’s defense spelled out graphically. Click on each below for an expanded view.

Bell/RIPDA ComplaintNotice how conveniently self-referential the NRA’s defense appears — almost too perfectly, it fits the explanation one would expect if we were to cover up the funneling of anonymous national cash into state politics, hand-in-glove. In that scenario, it would appear that the NRA admitted to a lesser offense in order to deny the far more egregious ones, especially the $1,000 limit.

The NRA's Defense

“This is why the NRA had to argue they were running the RI PAC inside their national PAC bank account,” Bell said in an email. “If they admitted that they transferred money from the national PAC to the state PAC, nearly all of those contributions would be in violation of the $1000 rule.” The DiCaprio-themed bank-account-within-a-bank-account alibi seems exactly big enough for a $1,000 limit violation to fit into.

All told, the NRA’s alibi might go down in history as a contender for the award given for Most Chutzpah Ever Summoned in a Legal Defense. Meanwhile, Bell says there are still major questions in the case, including strong, emerging evidence that the NRA’s claims are spurious or at least highly doubtful.

“We’re still looking into this,” Bell told me. “We’re still trying to collect data, still trying to figure out exactly what happened. I don’t think that this thing is fully over.”

Next week, BPR will take a close look at Bell’s claims, evaluate the defense that the NRA has offered, and talk to campaign finance experts about how Bell’s example might be followed in other states.  

On October 29, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was scheduled to deliver prepared remarks during a public lecture at Brown University. Kelly’s presence attracted crowds of protestors who objected to various policing tactics of the NYPD, including the policy known as “stop-and-frisk,” as well as the wiretapping of New York City’s regional Muslim communities.

While taking the stage, Kelly was prevented from speaking when student and community members led a protest inside the auditorium that resulted in the cancellation of the event, generating a national controversy as well as an investigation from a campus disciplinary commission that is still underway. Brown Political Review has since obtained a copy of the prepared remarks that Commissioner Kelly was prepared to deliver on the afternoon of October 29.

Editor’s Note: BPR invites readers to share comments, opinions, experiences, letters and articles in response to our ongoing coverage of Commissioner Ray Kelly. Please send your response to comments@brownpoliticalreview.org, and place “Ray Kelly” in the subject line.

Late update: A previous leak of the speech included only excerpts for a total of 807 words, or two and a half pages. BPR’s full transcript is 3, 295 words, or eleven pages.

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For more information, see BPR’s coverage of the events below:

BPR’s Exclusive Video of the Protest from Inside.

BPR’s Liveblog of the President Paxson’s University Forum.

BPR’s Interview with Yale Law Professor James Forman, one of the foremost critics in the United States of “stop-and-frisk” and other NYPD policies.

BPR’s Interview with Brown Professor Ken Miller, whose Op-Ed criticized the Kelly protest.

Event Analysis from BPR:

“Who is Raymond Kelly?”

“Ray Kelly and the Need for Open Discourse”

“Brown’s Platform Legitimized Kelly”

“For the Ones in the Annex”

“Legalizing the Stop and Frisk Conversation”