Critics call chief innovation officer’s salary situation ‘problematic’

Richard Culatta (WJAR)

Rhode Island’s Innovation Office has raised $1,489,243, according to figures from the Rhode Island College Foundation.

The money comes from a variety of foundations, with nearly $1 million from the Silicon Valley Community Fund.

All the money is funneled through the Rhode Island College Foundation, but paid out to the Office for Innovation.

The office director is Richard Culatta. His job has been described by Gov. Gina Raimondo as a cabinet-level position.

Yet, Culatta is not a state employee, and is charged with raising money for his position.

That is problematic, said Mike Stenhouse, who heads the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

“So, you’re washing political money through a non-profit, potentially,” Stenhouse told NBC 10 News.

Stenhouse suggested that anyone who wants to gain influence with the governor could use the non-profit vehicle to circumvent any campaign finance laws.

“If money to fund this innovation officer was really a part of Raimondo’s campaign to try and make her look good, which we see her doing, then basically you’re getting a tax write-off to a foundation for donations whether they are from corporations or individuals, where otherwise those should be political contributions,” he said.

The Foundation sent NBC 10 a statement via a college spokesperson, noting that RIC and the Rhode Island College Foundation worked in conjunction with Raimondo’s office in January 2016 to launch the Office of Innovation at the college.

“As has been previously reported, the initial objectives of this initiative called on the Chief Innovation Officer to lead and develop research and professional development opportunities at RIC, assist in innovation within college disciplines, including K-12 education and healthcare, as well as provide experiential learning opportunities for students,” the statement noted.

The statement went on to say that the Foundation’s investment would also allow the college to attract additional research and grant funding that would enhance the overall academic experience our students and faculty members alike.

“The goal has been supported through projects such as the Open Textbook Initiative, which has resulted in a savings of over $100,000 in textbook fees for RIC students; Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI), a program that is working toward making Rhode Island the first state in the nation to provide computer science in every public school system; and a newly launched Personalized Learning Initiative that empowers educators to tailor learning opportunities for all students,” the statement read. “The RIC Foundation made an initial investment of $148,333.31 to launch the Office of Innovation with the expectation that those funds would be repaid and the initiative would become self-sustaining. As of March 2017, that investment has been repaid in full. Any and all grant funding received was done so in accordance with the Foundation’s not-for-profit status and IRS tax code.”

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