Sam Bell is in the third year of a PhD program in geology at Brown University. Geology as in rocks. But Bell also moonlights as the the state coordinator of The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, the state affiliate of the 10-year-old Progressive Democrats of America. And in his work with The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, Bell was instrumental to the investigation that ultimately led to the National Rifle Association paying the second largest campaign finance fine in the state's history.
Last year, Bell and his group started digging into the financial relationship between the NRA's state-level political action committee, which over the previous decade had given tens of thousands of dollars to Rhode Island lawmakers, and the NRA's national PAC, known as the NRA Political Victory Fund. What Bell and his associates found led them to file a complaint with the state's Board of Elections, alleging a number of serious campaign finance violations. In apparent response, the NRA last year quietly dissolved it's Rhode Island PAC. Then, earlier this year, news came that the pro-gun group had reached a settlement with the state, and agreed to pay a $63,000 fine -- officially for not creating a separate bank account for money the state PAC received from the larger national PAC.
In an interview with TPM this week, Bell explained how his interest in science led him to politics.
"The thing that first got me interested in getting involved in politics was watching how science got devastated by cuts to fundings, particularly at the federal level but also at the state level." Bell said. "I had the sort of disappointing realization that politics has a huge amount to do with the advancement of science. And in many ways the best thing one can do for science is to get politicians to be willing to support it.
Bell spoke to TPM about his group's investigation into the NRA's activities. An edited version of the conversation is below.