Raimondo considering ‘changes’ after critics bash innovation office’s setup

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday she will reevaluate the setup of her chief innovation officer’s office, which has drawn criticism for being independently funded as an arm of Rhode Island College’s endowment.

Raimondo, a Democrat, told reporters she was proud of the R.I. Office of Innovation – which she described as a “pilot program” – citing its role in efforts to offer computer science classes at schools statewide and reduce the cost of college textbooks.

“We’ve been totally transparent about everything,” she said. “But you know, we’re always looking to improve, so we want to keep the good progress and, as we look for his replacement, we’ll see if there’s any changes we should make to the structure.”

Raimondo’s comments came after the current chief innovation officer, Richard Culatta, confirmed he will leave the job April 30 to lead the International Society for Technology in Education. Culatta had already been in the news in recent days after he gave an interview to WPRO host Tara Granahan, who expressed skepticism about the job’s structure.

“I think he’s done a terrific job,” Raimondo said of Culatta, who was a member of her cabinet. “He came to me a few weeks ago and said that he had another opportunity, and so, you know, we wish him well.”

The decision to have Culatta work under the auspices of the private Rhode Island College Foundation, rather than hire him as a standard government employee, was controversial from the start.

Culatta has raised nearly $1.5 million in private donations to fund his office since he took the job, according to figures provided by the governor’s office. The largest donation was $913,000 in February from Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a nonprofit in California. Major local companies also donated: Citizens Financial Group and Amica Insurance gave $50,000 each, and FM Global gave $35,000.

John Marion, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said the unorthodox setup made the innovation office “a weird entity that’s not part of state government, but has a lot of the power of state government.”

“To their credit, the Raimondo administration has been forthcoming about where the money’s come from, but they don’t have to be under the law,” Marion said. “So this could all be funded by sources that we would never know if they chose not to share it. That’s not how government should operate.”

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell suggested Wednesday that “unanswered questions” remain. “Who donated to Mr. Culatta?” he said in a statement. “Were any the donors to Mr. Culatta a beneficiary of some action by the Raimondo administration? Did Mr. Culatta play a role in any other fundraising activities that may benefit Governor Raimondo politically?”

Raimondo, however, argued that using private funds was a plus.

“I’m always looking to save taxpayers money, so for my mind, we are doing a lot of work not at a cost to the taxpayers,” she said. “So if I can be creative, create results and save money, then I want to do that.”

Marion suggested Culatta’s departure is an opportunity for Raimondo to “start over” and clear up the ambiguity surrounding the innovation office. The governor appears to agree, though she offered no details on what her future vision for the office is.

“The results speak for themselves,” she said. “And now we’re going to take a step back and evaluate as we find a replacement for Richard, what’s the right way to structure the office.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram