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Donna Perry: Game Over at URI

Thursday, February 23, 2012

 

Observers of the multiple layered saga now unfolding around the Institute for International Sport on the campus of URI can be forgiven if they thought they were reading a first rate movie script. It’s complete with a globetrotting “big vision” executive, foreign locales featuring talented young scholar-athletes, a former President or two and other political luminaries, exclusive island vacation homes, the involvement of two high profile politician brothers, and extremely deep pocketed and well-known philanthropists. If it were a movie, all that would consume the riveting first half, no doubt.

The second half of the movie would pick up the pace in more recent times as it concerns the decidedly unglamorous, and non-politically connected Rhode Island taxpayer-- and the unwanted bag he/she possibly has been left holding. Law enforcement investigators, as in the State Police and investigators for the state Attorney General’s office would be added to the cast.

But there’s one other subplot to note. The half-forgotten court case about the legality of the legislative grant system of the General Assembly may not seem to be central to the story, but it is.

When former Representative Nicholas Gorham resumes the case against the grants system before the RI Supreme Court next week, though he will be arguing a separate, distinct question about whether the grant system is legal in the first place, the activities surfacing about the Institute should serve as a textbook example of the dangers that unmonitored, rubber stamped grants can run into when they end up in opportunistic hands.

There’s no question the mission of this enterprise was admirable, as it showcased young student-athletes from many countries and fostered a sense of international harmony to go along with its premier international games events which always featured appearances by leading political figures.

Unfortunately for URI, the taxpayer, and certain big name benefactors, it is beginning to appear that the game at which the Institute reigned supreme was occurring far from the playing fields and competition arenas. How else to explain anorganization which, over a period exceeding two decades, enjoyed a consistent stream of 6-figure public grant funds and 7-figure private donations, yet needed to be “borrowing” funds from URI to cover the salary and benefits for the well-connected, and well-travelled Daniel Doyle?

The public relations machine to which he is related will no doubt be advancing all kinds of plausible scenarios in coming days as to how funds ended up depleted and how he just needed a new fundraising strategy to get things back on track. One would hope for the sake of the taxpayer that it will take more than spin driven information to satisfy the multiple law enforcement inquiries now underway. Furthermore, a full and impartial investigation into the murky boundary line which existed between URI and the Institute is critically needed, which is why URI’s decision in recent days to backpedal from Vice President Bob Weygand’s original instinct to order a separate, outside investigation seems a significant mistake.

Early reports indicate no one can presently account for how Doyle had obtained state employee statuswhen he was never an employee of the university. Likewise, it seems neither Mr. Doyle nor the ultimate plugged in brothers, as in Bill and former AG Patrick Lynch—who have had intermittent involvements with the enterprise--can account for a mysterious forgery of the signature of Allan Hassenfeld, a long time benefactor, on a 2009 Annual Report. URI has had no explanations thus far about the loans to Doyle or about the vague reimbursement schedule, and taken together they raise troubling questions about the university’s own controls and fiscal record keeping.

Reclaim Those Funds

As for the responses to this widening mess from elected leadership, Speaker Gordon Fox, in particular, has shown an appropriate degree of concern and outrage over the vast amounts of state grants issued in recent years. Most of a $575,000 legislative grant doled out in 2007 for construction of a new facility for the Institute cannot be accounted for and the building stands unfinished on the campus.

It has also come to light that an additional $157,500 community service grant was given the Institute just last fall. Fox now says he is exploring options for reclaiming those funds. It’s a start, but the grim truth is that it should come as no surprise that the Institute has been the recipient of more than $ 5 million in state grants doled out over the years. Guess it’s understandable given that, as former URI President Robert Carothers stated, Dan Doyle “had great contacts in the Legislature.”One can only hope that the message emerging out of the Institute’s chaotic fiscal collapse is that monitoring controls, and not just a checks-with-no-strings-attached system, is long overdue by the Legislature.

It’s been stated that a “vision for world peace” was a driving force for the plans Mr. Doyle brought to the enterprise for many years.That may be so. But lowly, unconnected Rhode Island taxpayers can be forgiven for wondering whether it was truly world peace—or “a piece” of the world-- that the Director was really after.

Donna Perry is a Communications Consultant.

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