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Public records 101

By PHILIP EIL  |  October 1, 2014

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STATE EMPLOYEE SALARIES

Let’s start simple, shall we?

The amount of money state workers bring home each year is a) publicly available, and b) easily accessible via the state’s “transparency portal” at www.transparency.ri.gov/payroll.

Credit goes to the makers of this site for how straightforward it is. How much does Governor Lincoln Chafee make? Type in “Chafee,” click “Search,” and, bingo, a table of info appears with his name, job title, and total earnings for Fiscal Year 2014: $129,210.12.

How about URI basketball coach — and perennial highest-paid state employee — Dan Hurley? $627,499.96.

Rhode Island College president Nancy Carriuolo? $200,196.88.

State Police superintendent and Department of Public Safety commissioner Steven O’Donnell? $159,084.74.

But it isn’t just marquee names that are searchable. Type in a name like “Smith” and you’ll get a cross-section of state operations, from a principal marine biologist at the Department of Environmental Management ($52,080.19), to a correctional officer ($96,696.69), to a seasonal dietary assistant at the Department of Behavioral Healthy, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals ($11,429.08), to a chief of data operations at the Department of Administration ($79,261.90).

If your thirst for numbers isn’t quenched by all of this, the transparency portal also offers breakdowns of Commerce RI loans, state revenues and expenditures, motion picture tax credits, and state contracts over $1 million.

COURT AND LEGAL RECORDS

From WJAR Channel 10 investigative reporter Katie Davis:

“Criminal Records: If a criminal case has ever been in District/Superior court in Rhode Island, you can find it online at courtconnect.courts.state.ri.us. So . . . if you want to know whether someone was ever arrested, even if the charges were later dropped, this is a good first step. Step two would be to go to the courthouse and pull the file to get specifics, such [as] an affidavit. [It’s the] same deal with Federal court on pacer.gov, although there is a fee to use the site and it’s a little more complicated. But PACER has most docs online as PDFs, saving you a trip to the courthouse.

“Mugshots: Individual police departments may or may not give these out (which NBC 10 believes is bogus, by the way). But the ACI will email you a photo, as long as the case is no longer pending. So . . . if someone ever did time in Rhode Island, you can get a mugshot and the basic info about their stay (how long, discipline record, etc.) through the ACI. Many times you can get an old photo of someone who’s currently in the news.

“Police Reports: As long as the incident didn’t involve minors, you should be able to get a copy of the police report just by showing up at any police department and asking (you may have to pay a small fee for copies). Just give a name or address and approximate date. Find out why cops showed up on your street, whether or not anyone was arrested, etc.”

PACER?

What is this PACER thing Katie is talking about?

It’s a magical place (full name: Public Access to Court Electronic Records) where indictments, lawsuits, transcripts, motions, and other documents from federal courts, coast to coast, live.

It’s here where you’ll find the docket (aka the log of events and documents) from Buddy Cianci’s “Plunder Dome” proceedings; 38 Studios bankruptcy filings; the latest salvos in the ongoing squabble between the owners of Providence’s “Superman” building (the Massachusetts-based High Rock Development) and its last major tenant (Bank of America); lawsuits involving CVS, Brown University, Alex and Ani, the Providence School Board . . . the list keeps going.

To stroll the digital halls of PACER is to find yourself inside the whirlwind of legal activity taking place in our country every day. But, a word of warning: PACER’s 10 cent-per-page viewing/download rate may not sound like a lot, but it can add up fast.

DIGGING FOR ELECTION DIRT

From Rhode Island Public Radio political reporter Ian Donnis:

“Back in the distant past — say, 2002 — reporters and other curious people had to schlep down to the Branch Avenue office of the state Board of Elections to review state candidates’ campaign finance filings. Thanks to the Internet, the filings are now just a few clicks away (elections.state.ri.us/finance) and they offer insight into all kinds of questions, from the big picture (How are the gubernatorial candidates doing with their fundraising?) to avenues for further inquiry (Which industries contribute the most in particular races? Why do people from out of state contribute to RI candidates?).

“Candidates are required to file other paperwork with the Board of Elections, including when they formally organize a campaign. It was by finding such a filing in 2010 that I was able to break the news that Gina Raimondo was running for state treasurer. The Board of Elections also tracks third-party independent expenditures, an increasingly prominent piece of campaign spending. (It was through such filings that reporters were able to show how a five-figure contribution from a Walmart heiress made its way to an independent group backing lieutenant governor candidate Daniel McKee during the recent primary.) The state Board of Elections’ Web site is one of the best ways for examining the money that courses and flows throughout our political system.

“See also opensecrets.org, a Washington group that tracks the influence of money in politics, and the Federal Election Commission, for federal candidates.”

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