The PolitiFact Rhode Island Top 10 fact-checks of 2014
From beach fees to marijuana, from pensions to slavery, PolitiFact Rhode Island covered a lot of ground in 2014, a year that was also marked by hard-fought political campaigns that generated many dubious claims.
Overall, we issued 90 rulings that hit every stop on our Truth-O-Meter, from True to Pants on Fire.
As the year ends, we thought we’d take a moment to review our most widely-read PolitiFact items of 2014. Here they are, in descending order, as determined by page views on our PolitiFact Rhode Island website:
10. Robert Healey: "I spent only $36.29 on my campaign for governor."
Healey entered the campaign in September, replacing a Moderate Party candidate who dropped out due to illness. A perennial candidate, Healey prided himself on his low-budget operation, which netted him a surprising 21.4 percent of the vote in the three-way race.
A reader who noted the many "Healey for Governor" signs around Rhode Island questioned whether his campaign really spent so little.
We found that the signs were actually recycled from previous campaigns. According to his filings with the Board of Elections, Healey spent a little more than $36, mostly on his cell phone bill -- and two postage stamps. We ruled his claim True.
9. John DePetro: "Although the governor doubled the beach fees . . . all the money, as we found out, is all going to an out-of-state company. The state isn't even getting the money for that."
Talk-show host DePetro, a frequent critic of Governor Chafee, was wrong on several elements. First, the governor didn’t increase beach fees on his own; the General Assembly approved his proposal. Second, the state got 80 percent of the extra money generated by the increase.
Finally, DePetro cited WPRI-12 TV as his source. They got their facts right, but he didn’t, earning a Pants on Fire ruling.
8. Heidi Heilman: "Today’s marijuana is 300 percent to 800 percent more potent than the pot of yesteryear."
Heilman, an official of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and president of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, made this claim in a Providence Journal commentary arguing against legalizing marijuana.
We checked with various drug enforcement agencies and also examined the University of Mississippi study Heilman cited, which showed that today’s marijuana is indeed far more potent that samples seized in past years. We ruled her claim True.
7. Jorge Elorza: "We have a retiree that is collecting a $17,000 paycheck a month . . . tax free."
During his successful campaign for Providence mayor, Elorza frequently talked about the causes of the city’s severe financial problems, including public-employee pension costs.
Providence officials sent us a list of the retirees receiving the largest pension payments, including the 37 receiving more than $100,000 a year. At the top was Gilbert McLaughlin, who retired as fire chief in October 1991. His annual check: $196,813, or $16,401 a month, close enough to Elorza’s figure to rate a True ruling.
6. Diego Arene-Morley: "There are more African-American men in prison, jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850."
Arene-Morley, a Brown University student leader, made this claim during a forum on the possibility of taxing and regulating marijuana in Rhode Island, arguing that drug laws disproportionately affect minorities.
We looked at 1850 Census data and figures from several sources on the number of African-American men currently in prison in the United States. We found that there were 807,076 African-American men enslaved in 1850 and from 1.68 million to 1.88 million African-American men in prison as of July 1, 2013. We ruled Arene-Morley’s claim True.
5. Michael Cerullo: "Marijuana contains 50 to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco."
Cerullo, a psychotherapist, made this claim in a Providence Journal commentary arguing against marijuana legalization. We examined studies and consulted experts on carcinogens in marijuana and tobacco smoke.
We found nothing to support Cerullo’s claim, and some evidence that refuted it, including the latest marijuana factsheet from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which said it’s "not yet known whether marijuana smoking contributes to [the] risk for lung cancer." Our ruling: Mostly False.
4. Bing West: Seventy-five percent of of the young adults in this country are not mentally or physically fit for military service.
West, a Marine veteran of Vietnam and prominent military author, made this comment in a radio interview as he decried potential cuts in defense spending. Our research eventually took us to a report prepared by Mission Readiness, an organization of 89 retired military officers and officials.
The report, "Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve, 75 Percent of Young Adults Cannot Join the Military," and other research from the Defense Department found that a high percentage of young people were unqualified for the military because of obesity or other physical or mental problems, or because they couldn’t pass the military’s math and reading tests.
That was enough evidence to rule West’s claim True.
3. Sen. Jack Reed: The Senate proposal to restore emergency unemployment benefits for five months was "fully paid for."
Reed was talking about an unsuccessful effort to restore extended benefits, which would have been paid for, in essence, with extra tax revenue collected over 10 years.
We ruled his claim Mostly False because in our view -- and the view of economists we consulted with from both sides of the aisle -- the plan was too speculative to be considered "fully paid for" had it been adopted.
2. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: "There are already more American jobs in the solar industry than in coal mining."
Whitehouse has become known as the U.S. Senate’s strongest voice for action to address climate change. He advocates reducing America’s reliance on fossil fuel by shifting to renewable resources.
We found studies from several reputable private and public sources that supported Whitehouse’s claim, and ruled it True.
1. Occupy Democrats: "Nine out of the ten poorest states are Red States."
We examined data on per-person, median household and median family incomes from the Census Bureau and other sources to evaluate this pro-Democrat group’s Facebook claim.
We initially ruled it True after finding that nine of the ten poorest states had voted Republican (Red) in the 2012 presidential election. After several readers suggested we factor cost-of-living in those states into our calculations, we revised our ruling to Mostly True.
All in all, it was a busy year for fact-checkers in Rhode Island and around the country. After a brief holiday lull, we’ll shift back into high-gear soon, as Governor-elect Gina Raimondo takes office and a new General Assembly session gets underway.
(If you hear a claim you’d like fact-checked, email it to [email protected]. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)