EngageRI forms PAC to fund pols; spent $617K for pension bill

By Ted Nesi

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Engage Rhode Island, the deep-pocketed advocacy group that successfully pushed passage of the new pension law, spent more than $617,000 over two months to promote the legislation and has now formed a political action committee to support lawmakers who voted for it.

EngageRI shelled out $93,327 in November after spending $524,657 in October on two months’ worth of lobbying, advertising, campaign materials and other expenses in support of the pension bill, according to a lobbying report the organization filed Thursday with the secretary of state’s office.

On Nov. 17, the day the pension bill passed the House and Senate, Engage Rhode Island formed an offshoot organization called Engage RI PAC that will be able to support individual candidates. Engage Rhode Island, the original group, is organized as a 501(c)4 nonprofit and thus barred from advocating for individual politicians.

“We’ve said all along that we would support candidates that supported pension reform, and the PAC gives us the vehicle to do that in a direct way,” EngageRI spokesman Jon Duffy told WPRI.com.

‘We’re not going anywhere’

As a political action committee, Engage RI PAC can donate up to $25,000 a year collected from individuals and corporations under Rhode Island law, he said. The maximum annual contribution allowed is $1,000 and the PAC will be required to disclose its donors. Duffy was unable to say how much money the PAC has raised so far.

“There’s a history of advocacy groups coming and going and we think it’s really important that Engage Rhode Island show we’re not going anywhere,” he said. “This pension battle is ongoing.” (That’s especially true on EngageRI’s website, which as of Thursday still said the General Assembly “is currently reviewing” the pension bill.)

Engage RI PAC’s chairperson is Paul Choquette Jr., vice chairman of Providence-based Gilbane, and its treasurer is John Galvin, chief financial officer of Pawtucket-based Collette Vacations. The PAC’s other directors are Ed Cooney, Kas DeCarvalho, James Long Jr., Constance Pemmerl and Dan Sullivan.

More than half the money spent by EngageRI in October and November – $381,719 – went to Duffy’s public relations firm Duffy & Shanley for advertising, though in many cases that money was then spent by the firm to buy television, print and digital commercials. (EngageRI has bought ads on WPRI 12 and WPRI.com.)

EngageRI’s union-backed opposition in the pension fight, the Rhode Island Retirement Security Coalition, never registered with the secretary of state’s office as a separate organization and did not report its spending. Both groups refuse to disclose their financial contributors.

No other issues for now

Duffy declined to specify how much Engage Rhode Island the 501(c)4 had raised beyond “six-figures,” but said he was pleased with the impact it had on the pension debate.

“I believe we had a very positive result and a very positive impact on the conversation,” he said. “Our goal was to be a positive force in the debate and I think we were able to do that. … We stayed focused on pension reform and our desire to educate Rhode Islanders on it, and I think the bill that was passed was very good.”

Asked whether EngageRI plans to broaden its advocacy to include other issues, Duffy said: “As of now, we are singly focused on pension reform.”

The spending figures for EngageRI do not include money the group spent in September, the month it was formed but before it hired lobbyists and came under state disclosure rules.

• Related: Pro-Raimondo group EngageRI to spend six figures (Sept. 29)

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