Candidate for treasurer seeks opportunity to help 1 million people
Ernie Almonte speaks glowingly about his love of cooking and the outdoors, of his family – including five sons, two of whom are Eagle Scouts – and his Italian heritage.
Handing over his business card, he points not to the contact information on the front, but to four words printed on the back:
“Integrity. Reliability. Independence. Accountability.”
“These are my core values,” he says. “It’s a contract between myself and you.”
Almonte, who spent more than a decade as the state’s auditor general, has served in a variety of other professional and public capacities and is now a Democratic candidate for general treasurer, presents that commitment, particularly the pledge of integrity, as central in his message to voters.
“My education, my experience, my ethics and my maturity,” he said, will allow him to carry through on what he promises to achieve.
Visiting the Beacon’s Warwick Avenue office on Thursday, Almonte focused on a four-point plan for the treasurer’s office.
He intends to pursue a “strong investment strategy” for the state that is sustainable and lowers the burden on taxpayers; create a “financial resource expert team” to assist cities and towns; put in place a chief accountability officer to rein in fraud on the municipal and state levels; and pursue a “financial capability program” to educate Rhode Islanders about money management.
At the heart of his plan, he said, is providing municipalities and citizens with the tools needed to pursue prudent, long-term financial management while fostering a climate of trust and certainty for business in the Ocean State.
“It will create a culture of business growth and a culture of job creation,” he said. “It creates a culture of trust in our government.”
The financial resource expert team, said Almonte, will be focused on addressing financial issues in communities before they become crises. The concept, he said, stems from his experience as auditor general, when his office would often find itself in a position he called “reactive” to such situations.
“If you truly want to make this state better, it needs to be proactive,” he said. “A lot of cities and towns do not have that expertise … we’re trying to improve their skill set and help them make the right decisions.”
The chief accountability officer, said Almonte, would provide assistance and education in “best practices in how to reduce the risk of fraud for city and town officials.”
Describing what he calls the “fraud triangle,” which attributes the misuse of funds to the three ingredients of pressure, opportunity and rationalization, Almonte said the accountability officer’s position would be focused on rooting out and preventing such incidents.
The “financial capability” program, a term Almonte said he prefers to “financial literacy,” would be focused on educating individuals. In a struggling economy, he said, the management of money can especially weigh on people’s minds, and providing them with the tools needed to be successful in that regard would improve productivity.
“If we can teach them how to handle their finances, they can focus on their job,” he said.
A certified public accountant who served as auditor general from 1994 to 2010, Almonte boasts a range of other experience. He was the first public servant elected as national chairman of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and for the past three years has served as chairman of the U.S. Department of Defense Audit Committee, a position appointed by the secretary of defense.
In 2008 and 2005, he was named one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in the Accounting Profession” by Accounting Today. In 2011, he founded the accounting firm Almonte Group LLC, for which he serves as “chief visionary officer,” and he is also president of government services and chairman of the board for Virtual DBS in North Kingstown.
“I will be able to bring local and national leadership experience,” he said.
In his first bid for elected office, Almonte said he has raised approximately $300,000 and hopes to double that amount. He acknowledges the race for governor will draw the lion’s share of voters’ attention, and said his focus is on meeting with Rhode Islanders.
“Nobody’s going to outwork me,” he said, calling his experience on the campaign trail thus far “overwhelmingly positive.”
Almonte said he has no preferred candidate in the governor’s race, but spoke highly of the quality of the field and said he could work effectively with whoever is ultimately the victor.
“I know how to work with people and bring people together,” he said.
Regarding current General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who has drawn criticism from some due to her role in reforming the state’s pension system, Almonte praised her “tremendous courage to tackle a problem that could have sunk our state” and her work to “professionalize” the treasurer’s office.
The role of hedge funds in the pension reform has been particularly controversial. Almonte said he does support such funds being a part of pension plans as part of necessary diversification and risk reduction, but indicated he would prefer a lower level of their involvement than what is currently in place.
Almonte also said he would have taken a harder line with hedge funds during negotiations, and would have instituted a timeline for resolution of the matter.
“Don’t confuse my smile with weakness,” he said. “I’m one of the toughest negotiators.”
Almonte additionally said he would have made a greater effort to communicate with those financially impacted by the reform. He said he has gained the respect of public employees as a “truth-teller,” and would bring the same approach to the general treasurer’s office.
“There should have been an extended amount of time to reach out,” he said. “It takes time, and a lot of people don’t want to take that time … [I have] courageous conversations with everyone, telling them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”
Almonte said reaching out to the state’s diverse communities is also essential. Citing a recent appearance on Spanish-language radio, he said he has started working to learn Spanish – he already knows Italian – and received positive feedback from the Hispanic community.
“People see that I am authentic, I am sincere,” he said.
Now 57, Almonte said his decision to seek elected office is motivated purely by his affection for Rhode Island.
“I love Rhode Island,” he said. “I just want to make it better.”
He also said the move required the backing of his family. He estimates he could earn $3 million more by remaining in the private sector, but sees an opportunity to help on a broader scale.
“If I get elected treasurer, I can help 1 million people be successful,” he said. “My eyes are on the long-term vision.”