Sam Bell is in the third year of a PhD program in geology at Brown University. Geology as in rocks. But Bell also moonlights as the the state coordinator of The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, the state affiliate of the 10-year-old Progressive Democrats of America. And in his work with The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, Bell was instrumental to the investigation that ultimately led to the National Rifle Association paying the second largest campaign finance fine in the state’s history.
Last year, Bell and his group started digging into the financial relationship between the NRA’s state-level political action committee, which over the previous decade had given tens of thousands of dollars to Rhode Island lawmakers, and the NRA’s national PAC, known as the NRA Political Victory Fund. What Bell and his associates found led them to file a complaint with the state’s Board of Elections, alleging a number of serious campaign finance violations. In apparent response, the NRA last year quietly dissolved its Rhode Island PAC. Then, earlier this year, news came that the pro-gun group had reached a settlement with the state, and agreed to pay a $63,000 fine — officially for not creating a separate bank account for money the state PAC received from the larger national PAC.
In an interview with TPM this week, Bell explained how his interest in science led him to politics.
“The thing that first got me interested in getting involved in politics was watching how science got devastated by cuts to fundings, particularly at the federal level but also at the state level.” Bell said. “I had the sort of disappointing realization that politics has a huge amount to do with the advancement of science. And in many ways the best thing one can do for science is to get politicians to be willing to support it.
Bell spoke to TPM about his group’s investigation into the NRA’s activities. An edited version of the conversation is below.
TPM: How did you and The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats come to focus on the NRA’s activities in the state?
Bell: So, after Newtown we decided to try to pass an assault weapons ban. And Rhode Island is — at least the people of Rhode Island are quite liberal. They voted for Barack Obama by a very strong margin. In fact, only Vermont and Hawaii voted for Obama by a larger margin. And actually, we support an assault weapons ban by an even stronger margin, 10 points more than we voted for Obama. So the people of Rhode Island are very strongly behind it. However, the state Democratic Party is quite, quite right wing.
Democrats fully control both houses of the legislature, and Rachel Maddow actually predicted that because of that the assault weapons ban would pass easily. But it failed. It failed quite miserably. And a key part of the reason why it failed is that the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, the House majority leader, and the Senate majority leader — the top four Democrats in the House and the Senate — had each taken thousands of dollars from the NRA. And we believe that those contributions and the contributions to other NRA Democrats in Rhode Island played a critical role in getting the Democrats, in a state that is quite strongly supportive of reform, to be so fully committed to the NRA’s position on this issue.
Talk about how you went about doing the work of looking into the NRA’s state PAC’s finances, and why you went about it in the way you did?
The first thing we noticed was that this was an enormous amount of money for Rhode Island. It was — since online reporting began in 2002, it was more than $160,000. And we’d never seen an NRA fundraiser in Rhode Island. So we were wondering where they got all their money. We went online, and they didn’t report any donors at all. They reported they’d received all that cash in aggregate contributions — that’s small dollar contributions under $100 that you don’t have to report. We thought, ‘whoa, wait a second, that’s unlikely.’
And then, it transpired that, actually, on the federal reports, for their federal PAC, [the NRA reported] contributions to lawmakers in Rhode Island. That actually double report[ed]. On the federal report they report the contributions to the lawmakers in Rhode Island, and on the state reports. So we thought, looks like what’s happening here is they’re just taking money from the federal PAC, laundering it through the state PAC, and giving it to lawmakers. Which is illegal, under Rhode Island law.
So how many people worked on this? How long did it take you to figure this stuff out?
I think I first noticed this in, I want to say, June or July. Then we started digging a little further. I found some people at a local law firm, called CFO Compliance, that does campaign finance work and they were very helpful. So I talked to them and they helped me prepare the complaint, and then we finally filed it in September.
Can you tell me why you included the specific allegations you did in the complaint you filed?
The reason we structured the complaint the way we did is that we wanted to emphasize the reason that this is an important violation. Under Rhode Island law there are tighter reporting limits and contributions than there are under federal law. So we suggested that not only did we think that they were violating the $1,000 [state] limit by making contributions from PAC to PAC, and that they were violating the federal contributions law (that you can’t give federal contributions to Rhode Island PACs or candidates), but we also wanted to emphasize that we thought it was likely that many of the contributions that the federal PAC received were a) over the $100 reporting limit and b) over the $1,000 limit for the maximum allowable contribution to a Rhode Island PAC. And we emphasized that because the reason why this is illegal, is that if you were allowed to simply transfer money from a federal PAC to a state PAC, you could ostensibly gut all tighter state PAC campaign finance laws, and you would be able to skirt any of them by simply funneling money through a federal PAC.
Are you satisfied with the result? Do you think $63,000 is the right figure, the right outcome?
I would say we’re not surprised by the settlement. The reality of government enforcement of things like this is that the resources just aren’t there for them to fully prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law. It’s a little bit like how the banking regulators never really take the banks to trial. And we wish that they had prosecuted it further, but we appreciate the really hard work that the people of the Board of Election, especially Rick Thornton, did. And so we understand the reality that they had to go through, but we wish that they had had the resources to fully pursue this the fullest extent of the law.
Has there been any thought to look at the NRA’s activities in Rhode Island in the context of federal campaign finance laws?
We plan on doing a fuller investigation. Our next steps are investigating what happened in Rhode Island further, trying to trace the money trail, so we have a full picture of what’s going on. And then hopefully we’re going to look at other states where we believe that similar activity is going on, and try and formulate complaints in those states.
So those are going to be the next steps. We would like to pursue it further, after we do that, looking at federal contributions, looking at how the state PAC operates in states where this is not illegal. Whether there are other violations of law that could go on.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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