The story of what happened at RPV that lead to their current financial situation and the firing of Executive Director Sean Kenney is a particularly difficult one. As I’ve dug into RPV’s financial disclosures and sought out narratives that might explain how events unfolded, I’ve been confronted with conflicting accounts and stories that don’t seem to entirely match up to the data that’s available. There are probably several mutually-exclusive versions of what happened, which isn’t really that surprising considering the personalities involved, but amidst that confusion a couple of consistent themes have developed, ones that we can learn a lot from going forward.
In one sense this is a fairly straightforward example of fiscal mismanagement. Money came in to do things, money went out to do things, and it didn’t balance. Debt grew. Hopes that money would come in to relieve that growing debt burden never fully materialized, or in several cases concerns about spending available resources on seemingly critical things were deemed more important than meeting obligations or reducing the amount of money borrowed on lines of credit. Sometimes expenditures appear to have been made without the proper authorization, or earmarked money was “spent twice.” Whatever the particulars of these events actually happen to be, and the stories I’ve gotten conflict in some respects, the outcome was clear.
RPV staff, whether by intent, or insubordination, or incompetence, spent money in an unsustainable fashion and put the organization at risk. The person who was ultimately responsible for this had their employment contract “renegotiated” in return for having RPV roll out a personal PR campaign to salvage their future, and they were ushered towards the door. While they rise to acknowledge the standing ovations they receive on their farewell tour, whether anyone is buying all this must be going through their mind as they contemplate an uncertain future. Meanwhile, several of their actually-respected colleagues who weren’t part of the decisions are also on their way out, simply because RPV can’t afford them anymore.
In years past, if bad financial decisions were made there was always a Daddy Warbucks or two standing there in the wings to bail out RPV if this happened, and it’s quite understandable if habits borne of that easy way out instilled a culture of not worrying too much whether the books balanced. Virginia’s Republican Congressional delegation had some pretty senior and powerful members who could, and did, come to the rescue in the past. They might even perhaps make some rather pointed “suggestions” about how money might get spent in return for rescuing the organization from bankruptcy, although no one would ever believe such activity might have actually constituted unlawful coordination of campaign expenditures as defined under federal law. Surely, that wouldn’t have happened. Ever.
But in this last election cycle that all changed. Frank Wolf announced his retirement and devoted all his campaign cash to elect Barbara Comstock. Far more significantly, Eric Cantor got blindsided. Cantor had lavished the 7th District Committee with about a half million dollars from his victory fund, Dave Brat clearly didn’t need much from it given the weak opposition to his general election campaign, and with Cantor now gone there was a question about what to do with this tremendous pile of money that is far beyond what district committees ever tend to have. Of that only about $12,000 went to RPV, and all of that was dedicated to purchasing software licenses from a specific vendor, one that had received about $150,000 in payments from RPV that year alone. Most of the rest ($300,000) went to the RNC and NRCC. It wasn’t the rank-and-file in the seventh district that made that spectacularly absurd decision, it was the remaining holdovers from the Eric Cantor crew that had been calling the shots in Richmond for so long, and who had done things like make sure huge piles of money were being funneled to some select vendors for some reason that couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with kickbacks, bribery, or other forms of personal enrichment. No, that couldn’t possibly be the case.
I’ve been told that the Associated Press is releasing an article soon about this episode. I wouldn’t be surprised if such a piece is ultimately impossible to write, given how all the insiders who know what happened have incentives of various types to not talk to anyone. Should the reporter at work on it actually manage to gather enough evidence to make a journalistically-defensible piece that details the blow-by-blow, it might be somewhat amusing. It won’t actually be very helpful to anyone, though.
When you rip out a huge noxious weed by the roots it’s going to spew dirt everywhere and leave a pretty ugly hole in the ground. That has nothing to do with Sean Kenney, or Pat Mullins, or even John Whitbeck. They had to confront the mess, or in Whitbeck’s case the aftermath of the mess. Could it have been handled better? Sure. Was everything done that rightly deserves question be automatically considered a reprehensible bad decision? Absolutely not. Honestly, I think making sure staff gets paid before vendors is an awfully defensible position, even when tempered by questions of whether proper authorization was obtained and whether it made sense to staff at those levels in the first place. Ultimately Kenney had to go. That was inevitable, but the problem really never was him.
The primary question this should raise in Republican minds is that of insider political corruption between the political vendor community and influential party personalities that can direct how commitments and party expenditures are made. We can shuffle personalities around all we want, but as long as there’s nothing to even discourage personal enrichment at the expense the of the party’s mission it’s going to be impossible to get good value for donor’s money, make sensible long-range financial decisions or for that matter to consider RPV’s mission at all instead of who stands to win when a dollar is spent in a particular way. Transparency — at least towards the State Central Committee — is about the only way to address this situation. Amazingly enough it would also go a long way to address how the party could avoid bad financial decision making at the RPV staff level well before such problems balloon into six figure debt problems as well.
We have a chance right now to significantly change the culture at RPV under the unique circumstances of having new leadership, ridding ourselves of a significantly insidious political machine, and the current possibility of knocking down the other unhelpful political machine in Virginia. As long as there are secrets held in close circles among those who have the ability to dictate how party money is spent we will always have problems like those we’ve recently been surprised by. We can chart a new course where that kind of secrecy no longer exists as a cloak to hide backroom deals, degrade the value of a donation, and put someone’s personal interest above the goals we are supposedly working to achieve.
That’s where we go from here, if we’re smart.
The opinions expressed here are solely the views of the author, and not representative of the position of any organization, political party, doughnut shop, knitting guild, or waste recycling facility, but may be correctly attributed to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. If anything in the above article has offended you, please click here to receive an immediate apology.
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