Would you like a $400,000 bonus because you’ve made only about $25,000 annually for a few years, or maybe because you want to buy a house in Tucson, Ariz.? Then being president of the Philipsburg-based non-partisan, non-profit voter information center Project Vote Smart is the perfect job for you.
For fiscal year April 2005 to March 2006, Project Vote Smart President Richard Kimball was given a $400,000 bonus, and a raise in salary to the tune of 300 percent. His full 2005-2006 fiscal year compensation, according to Vote Smart tax filings, was $471,994 ––nearly one third of the group’s overall operating budget.
Why did Kimball have such a robust 2006? The answer is complicated.
First, there’s the reason given at the end of Vote Smart’s 990 tax form for the fiscal year ending in 2006: “This bonus was paid to compensate Richard Kimball for being the key employee and leading the organization for more than 10 years at a very low average salary between $25,000 and $35,000…His new salary is $114,314 per year,” the document says.
But that’s not the only answer.
Partisan Free Politics, a blog run by former Vote Smart employee Andrew MacRae, featured Kimball’s bonus in a post in late June. The post caused a furor among Vote Smart alum who were shocked not only that Kimball was given such a hefty bonus, but also that the filing listed him as working 40 hours per week. One commentator noted, “[He] definitely worked 40 hours a week, PVS could never function without him playing all those important tennis matches…”
In response to such barbs, Vote Smart national director Lisa Coligan posted a response on the blog’s comment section: “Mr. Kimball received no compensation for his first 5 years of work with the Project. During that time, he also sold his home and his retirement funds and donated them to the Project…Two years ago , the Project’s Board awarded Mr. Kimball a one-time bonus so that he could qualify for a housing loan…His years of no salary and minimal salary made it impossible for him to qualify for a loan… Mr. Kimball currently has a board-approved salary of approximately $85,000 dollars a year,” Coligan wrote.
The two explanations differ enough to raise plenty of questions, such as: Did Kimball receive the bonus as compensation for years of low pay, or so he could buy a house in Tucson, where Project Vote Smart has a second campus? Also, what is his salary exactly? Disregarding the $400,000 bonus, it would appear to be $71,994 for 2005-2006. That year’s Vote Smart tax filing says Kimball’s salary would be raised to $114,314 the following year. Then again, Coligan’s original explanation says Kimball’s current salary is $85,000. After the Independent made inquiries with Vote Smart, Coligan sent a fax giving yet another number for Kimball’s current salary. This time it was $129,000.
Responding to a request by the Independent for clarification on why Kimball was given a bonus, Vote Smart’s national board chairwoman Jessica Arrigoni said in an e-mail, “I can not speak for the rational [sic] of each board member’s vote.” In that same e-mail, Arrigoni noted that Kimball has contributed more than $1.2 million to Vote Smart over the years, and that Kimball has the authority to lower his own salary, and has done so regularly since founding the group more than a decade ago. She provided Kimball’s recent salaries as follows: $20,936 in 2004, $50,000 in 2005, and $92,873 in 2006.
All of these are below the salary of $129,000 that Kimball is apparently authorized to draw, but again, these numbers don’t match the claims on Vote Smart’s tax filings. More than that, the figures contradict numbers provided by other Vote Smart representatives. This leaves only the explanation that Kimball, in any given year, can make as much as $129,000, but usually takes less.
Such aversion to clarity and full disclosure comes as no surprise to MacRae.
“[The bonus] was not disclosed even within the organization,” the former employee says. MacRae is also an administrator of Vote Smart’s group on social networking website Facebook.com. That group’s page featured the first post about the bonus, but according to MacRae, Vote Smart, which also monitors the group, deleted the post.
And Kimball’s bonus has turned heads beyond the organization he founded. Charity Navigator, an organization that watches and rates non-profits, gives Vote Smart a two-star ranking (out of a possible four).
Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing with Charity Navigator, says her group gave Vote Smart a low rating because its growth has been in decline, and also because of Kimball’s salary, which amounts to 32.15 percent of Vote Smart’s operating revenue.
“Most groups spend 15 percent or less on administrative compensation,” Miniutti says. She also said that most organizations receive at least a three-star rating.
It’s digs like this that have Vote Smart alums talking.
“[Vote Smart] is just not transparent,” MacRae says. It’s an aspect of the organization MacRae says saddens him and many of his fellow alums, because they believe in the group’s cause, which has been to staunchly advocate for a political climate wherein all politicians are open and honest about their finances and their stances on issues.
Vote Smart has assailed politicians for not being open. They have also criticized politicians, including Sen. Jon Tester, who refuse to take part in their National Political Awareness Test.
That advocacy for openness and clarity, however, apparently doesn’t go both ways.