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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Mailers attacking local Democratic candidates came from shadowy industry front group

By Bob Plain in Rhode Island’s Future

A slide used at Gaspee Business Network's initial meeting.One way the Gaspee Business Network is unlike a traditional chamber of commerce, says its founder Mike Stenhouse, is it has no legal structure and isn’t registered with the Secretary of State.

The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats thinks it should have a legal structure, and filed a campaign finance complaint with the state Board of Elections yesterday relating to a string negative mailers targeting left-leaning legislators. The mailers said they were paid for by the Gaspee Business Network and the Gaspee Project.

“Given how few rules there are,” said Sam Bell, state director of RIPDA, “it is shocking that right-wing groups like the Gaspee Business Network find ways to break the law. The brazen refusal to disclose the money fueling their nasty attacks shows a rampant disregard for the law.”

RIPDA alleges the Gaspee Business Network paid for 58 mailers without filing the proper campaign finance law disclosure forms. Because it didn’t, RIPDA said in its complaint, the group now needs to disclose who funded the mailers.

“The Gaspee Business Network has made it abundantly clear that it has waived its right to pursue exempt nonprofit certification,” according to the complaint. “Therefore, the Gaspee Business Network must disclose its donors.”

Stenhouse disagrees, saying the Gaspee Business Network is “merely a marketing sub-brand, an initiative of the official legal entity – The Gaspee Project, which has met with the RI Board of Elections on numerous occasions in order to understand and comply with election reporting laws.”

He said the Gaspee Business Network has a bank account, but is not its own entity. He said he took the additional step of filing a “fictitious name” report with the Secretary of State so to avoid this confusion. 

On Gaspee Business Network’s website, this is disclosed with a asterisk in fine print at the bottom of a page. “GBN is an initiative of The Gaspee Project, a nonprofit organization; your partnership donation or other gift to Gaspee is not tax-deductible,” it says. The Gaspee Project is a legal non-profit that engages in election activity.

But Bell says Stenhouse has bent the rules to the point of breaking them.

“If an entity exists enough to say on a mailer that it paid for the mailer, then it exists enough to file a disclosure report,” he said. “If Stenhouse wants to invent an imaginary group that doesn’t exist, he is free to do that.  But then he shouldn’t put out mailers saying that the imaginary group that doesn’t exist paid for the mailers.”

He added, “I should also note that “mythical” organizations typically do not have websites. Moreover, it is deeply telling that Stenhouse did not respond to the other violations documented in the complaint, which include a donor left off of a mailer, multiple prior donors not disclosed, and violations of the readability standards.”

Stenhouse is also the director of another small government advocacy group, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. While he often claims the Gaspee Project and the Center are legally separate, at the initial meeting of the Gaspee Business Network’s initial meeting, he explained how the two entities work together.

“It was formed because, after a few years, we found that work at the Center, my other organization, we’ve been working on a [small government] agenda for years,” he said. “But they don’t pay attention to us. We don’t pose a threat to them, we don’t have any clout to them. What’s happened in other states successfully throughout the country is when there is a line to a political organization working in concert with the first organization, because our Center cannot be political but another organization can be and when you combine good policy ideas with a little bit of political lobbying or campaign clout then you start to see the needle move. When you have political leadership combined with grassroots leadership, that’s when things happen. And that’s what the Gaspee Network and the Gaspee Project are designed to do."

Bob Plain is the editor/publisher of Rhode Island's Future. Previously, he's worked as a reporter for several different news organizations both in Rhode Island and across the country.