Off The Record: On Religion, Politics & Equality
For a movement that is a little over a month old and only started bringing in a flood of donations over the last couple of weeks, Occupy Wall Street runs an ever tightening financial ship. Tight in the sense that they have a bank: union friendly Amalgamated. There are two “CPAs” giving time and guidance to the OWS finance group. And, they have a growing team of entrepreneurs, business owners and book keepers minding the till at Zuccotti – all of whom must submit to background checks. The finance team’s next challenge is to become fully transparent and they know it.
OWS finances are becoming a matter of discussion inside and out of the movement. There are expected challenges from the Right about sources of funding, trotting out Soros as the go-to bogey man and claiming the more money that pours in the more problems OWS will have.
But questions arise from inside the movement as well. This was posted to an online forum (www.nycga.net) from the working group OccupyTV:
Hello this is OccupyTV. We have some questions for the finance team. Who is managing the 500K raised so far? Where are the receipts for spending? Where is the balance sheets? Why is this not posted online for ALL to see? Where is the transparency? Why is it not being distributed to other occupy locations that have not been able to raise money? We are not the only ones posing this question. Our viewers have been asking this for days now. If all this is not transparent, well then that is a huge issue and needs to be addressed immediately.
Members of the finance team are getting requests to do more and more media. Just this morning, a friend of mine on the team got an email from Huffington Post requesting an interview.
I have visited the movement on several occasions and spent the day Saturday hanging specifically with the finance group. I am a bit of transparency freak as I report on federal funding of faith-based organizations and the problems that come with it. There is, of course, the unacceptable hiring discrimination allowed religious groups, proselytizing which is not allowed (but goes on anyway) and abhorrent transparency around this funding at state and federal government agencies.
Holed up at a decrepit card table at OWS command central at least two members of the finance working group must be on site at all times. This is a common sense move: to monitor the cash and one another. Group members have taken on code names: Billy Bailout, Daisy Deficit to name a couple. It is mostly for fun – word play with what brought them out to Zuccotti in the first place – but it also represents the newness of the group, perhaps a fear of exposing oneself just yet to media attention until structure and protocol has been put into place.
In a milieu of working groups that focus on arts and culture, direct action, The Occupy Wall Street Journal and media, finance is decidedly unsexy and thankless. But for a movement spurred on by the financial irresponsibility of congress and Wall Street, and economic inequality their team may become one of the most important. This is something of which they are keenly aware. They are planning to go online with all financial statements and expenditures. However, since the team is made up of volunteers, most with regular jobs, uploading financial transactions at the end of the day takes a back seat to handling all the requests coming in from the growing number of working groups.
Each working group – there are 62 at present – are allowed up to $100 a day (not the $150 Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” claims) in expenditures to further the efforts of their group. Be it several tents for the comfort team, sign making supplies for the arts and culture group or in the case of food money to feed the camp (which can be over and above all the donations they receive). This figure wasn’t arbitrary, it was decided on by voting during the daily General Assembly.
People requesting more than the allowed $100 per day must fill out a requisition form requires approval by the General Assembly. If you can’t cough up receipts for your group’s expenditures, you must return that share of the money. And, if like one group, you buy a case of beer for a meeting and try to pass it off as necessary for “morale” you will be paying finance back out of your own pocket for that one.
What money can and cannot be spent on is a matter – at least at this point – of common sense. No, you can’t buy twenty pumpkin lattes or – as above a case of beer – for your group. The drum group – which according to many on the inside is becoming a nuisance had the nerve to show up to one General Assembly and ask for $8000 for damages to their drums. This was soundly voted down. There was no justification for that kind of expenditure – and it was just plain crazy.
As the movement continues to coalesce and narrow its focus one OWS member suggested the number of working groups will drop. As groups combine or disband and the amount of money to maintain the multitude will diminish.
Currently, OWS is considering becoming a non-profit 501c3 organization. They are operating alongside another NFP in order to take in donations. Becoming a 501c3 would require them to post all 990 tax forms for public review. Whether or not OWS decides to go the 501c3 route, they plan on being as transparent as possible.
One of the concerns down the road is – does this thing have to go inside? Or, at least part of it. There is a lot back and forth on this issue within Zuccotti. The month old movement has already got people waxing nostalgic about those first few weeks and they don’t want to see the camp go. But according to people on site every day the growing and sometimes unruly homeless population, scammers wandering the crowd selling buttons and a growing command central (which really needs a room of its own to take the movement to the next level) at least a partial decamp may be on the horizon. There is internal concern about the financial implications of maintaining the city within the city. With ongoing sanitation and comfort costs, the working group per diem and feeding all comers (sometimes at least $1000/per day on top of donations) something will have to give.
As donations continue to pour in, adding to a what some are reporting is a $500,000 OWS bank account, (the last I heard it was hovering around $300K) the need for a coherent financial plan, where money will be spent (on public advocacy? on campaigns? on maintaining Zuccotti?) and OCD level transparency will become vital to the movement growing its legitimacy. But be careful not to give in to the right wing media’s hand wringing and hay making over OWS finances – this is just a case of growing pains.