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Occupy Boston's efforts to watchdog its own finances show a maturing movement

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  November 1, 2011 03:59 PM

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Recently, an advocacy group in Boston began to fear that one of its supporters was using group funds inappropriately. After initially issuing a tough press release, the group realized that airing such a brouhaha in public could cause embarrassment and bring discredit to the organization. So instead, they went through a behind-closed-doors mediation process with a lawyer, designed to paper over the dispute and come out with a statement to reassure donors who might be worried their gifts would be misused. This group was not a long-established organization but rather Occupy Boston, the month-old and rapidly maturing encampment in Dewey Square.

Last week, organizers of the Occupy Boston protest alleged that one of their number, Paul “Fetch” Carnes, had been spending the group’s funds inappropriately. According to one fellow member of Occupy Boston’s Financial Accountability Working Group, Stephen Squibb, Carnes had bought items like tents without explicit authorization from the other members of committee. Carnes had also been attempting to organize fundraisers for the group through the Boston Teachers’ Union, without telling anyone else. This secretive fundraising created a considerable amount of suspicion and unease, Squibb said.

Carnes — or Paul Fetch, as he is known in a series of bizarre YouTube videos that attracted notice several years ago — has denied any wrongdoing, and told the Herald last week that the unauthorized expenditures came before rules were put in place.

A charismatic character, Carnes has been with the protests since the beginning. He is one of the few in Dewey Square regularly wearing a tie, and declined to talk to a Globe reporter in early October; “I don’t need [to talk to the press]. It’s about the revolution,” he said then. While his quirkiness didn’t attract notice at first among the colorful bunch who have congregated in Dewey Square, it soon became clear, Squibb said, that Carnes rejected the consensus-based process that the Occupy movement uses to govern itself. In an interview today, Carnes himself agreed, saying, “I don’t have time to sit there and tell the whole group what I’m doing 24/7.” This attitude, combined with fears about fiscal management, created an initial group-wide consensus to reject Carnes in a vote of the group’s nightly General Assembly on Oct. 26.

However, in keeping with the group’s strenuous belief in openness and accountability, the group’s allegations were posted in the form of a press release on the Occupy Boston website — thereby making the squabble far more noticeable then it would have been otherwise. Shortly thereafter, it was mutually decided to take the process to mediation and to work out a resolution, according to Rita Sebastian, a representative of Occupy Boston, who stated that going to mediation was a natural outgrowth of the movement’s ethos. However, neither Carnes nor Sebastian were able to identify at whose initiative the decision to go to mediation took place.

A lawyer was found to serve as a mediator, pro bono, via a recommendation from the National Lawyer’s Guild; both Sebastian and Carnes declined to identify the attorney. Both Carnes and representatives of Occupy Boston said they spent several days negotiating. As part of the eventual agreement, Carnes said he has agreed to stop his fundraising efforts. The rest of the details are unclear; Sebastian said the group plans to fully announce this accord this afternoon once “the terms of the agreement have been carried out.”

Occupy Boston has matured significantly over the past month. It has gone from a gathering of ragtag idealistic protestors in Dewey Square to a group that now calls in the lawyers for extensive mediation to try to paper over alleged financial shenanigans. The 99 percent now not only have a voice, but they have their own institutional bureaucracy too.

Globe photo/Dan Wasserman: Paul “Fetch” Carnes at an Occupy Boston protest last month.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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