Sunday, November 14, 2010

Star Makes Light Of Vaughn's Strong-Arming To Win Approval Of ACS Parking Meter Lease Deal For His Law Firm's Client

My how things have changed. Once upon a time the news media could be counted on to ferret out corruption of our politicians. Nowadays, they're in bed with them. The best case and point has been the Indianapolis Star's treatment of City-County Councilor Ryan Vaughn's active involvement in ramming through the Republican-controlled council a 50-year lease of the City's parking meter assets for the benefit of his law firm's client, ACS. This blog first broke the news that state lobbying records revealed Vaughn himself had been registered to lobby on behalf of the politically-connected company. After being questioned by other folks in the news media about it, Vaughn explained it was a simple error made by a paralegal at his law firm and assured the public he had never lobbied for ACS. Vaughn was hired to work as a full-time lobbyist for Barnes & Thornburg after Republicans took control of the council by Joe Loftus, who, along with the firm's managing partner, Bob Grand, handpicked most of the senior staff who went to work for Greg Ballard after his upset election in 2007, including Deputy Mayor Mike Huber, who is spearheading the ACS parking meter lease deal for Ballard.  The Star's executive editor, Dennis Ryerson, has dismissed any talk of their being anything nefarious with the deal as simply "noise" by a few in the blogosphere and apparently can find no ethics experts who think there is something a tad bit jaded about Vaughn participating in a decision that so obviously benefits his law firm's client. His newspaper is even downplaying Vaughn's heavy-handed tactics to win council approval of the deal.

Earlier last week, city beat reporter Jon Murray wrote a story about the tough sell the Ballard administration was enountering on the 50-year lease agreement with ACS, even after a bunch of window-dressing changes made to the agreement to make it appear more palpable. Murray specifically mentions an e-mail Christine Scales, who narrowly won her council seat against her Democratic opponent in 2007, sent to her fellow councilors urging them to table the controversial ACS deal.

At least one Democrat, Paul Bateman, said he plans to support it, but all GOP members may not fall in line behind Mayor Greg Ballard's controversial plan . . .

"I feel pretty good about (its chances)," said council President Ryan Vaughn, noting that significant changes announced by Ballard last month have addressed many council members' concerns . . .

One Republican, Christine Scales, sent an e-mail Tuesday urging her caucus's leaders to table the proposal, citing several concerns and saying the city hasn't fully considered alternatives.

By the time the Rules & Public Policy Committee took up the vote on the controversial parking meter deal later that day, word had leaked out Scales had been removed from her favorite committee assignment, the Public Safety Committee. I called Scales and she confirmed she had been removed from the committee. She said Councilor Mike McQuillen, who somehow ekes out a living trading political campaign buttons and is a stooge on the council for Vaughn, had informed her of the decision. When she wasn't satisfied with his explanation for the decision, she spoke directly to Vaughn, who admitted there had been some "communication issues" in the past that led to his decision to remove her from the committee. Scales made it clear to me she believed her e-mail urging the council to table the parking meter lease deal led to Vaughn's decision, although she conceded Vaughn had also expressed concern she was not being a team player on the Public Safety budget earlier. Scales was the only Republican councilor who asked tough questions of Public Safety Director Frank Straub during his budget hearing, including why he had spent money on redecorating his offices. Despite her reservations about Straub's spending priorities, she still voted for the budget in the end.

During my conversation with Scales, she also mentioned Vaughn had said he intended to split up the public safety committee's subject matter into two separate committees and there may be further reassignments after the first of the year. In today's "Behind Closed Doors" column, Murray includes an item discussing Scales' removal from the Public Safety Committee that downplays any role her opposition to the ACS deal had with Vaughn's decision:

Indianapolis City-County Council leaders shuffled committee assignments for some members last week, but one change stood out.

Christine Scales, a member of the Republican majority who has bucked her party on some key votes, didn't take the loss of her seat on the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee quietly. She received a new assignment to the Parks and Recreation Committee.

"If I don't fall in line with them, I get punished," Scales told us. "They know I'm passionate about public safety."

However, a couple of days later -- and after we asked council President Ryan Vaughn about the change -- Scales got back to us and said she now is promised a return to the public safety committee when the next round of assignments is made in January. By then, the council may consider splitting the committee into two, creating more spots.

Vaughn denied that Scales' voting history was the reason for the committee reassignment.

But she's gone against the party on some big votes, including twice on proposals involving the Capital Improvement Board, which oversees the city's sports and convention facilities. Those measures -- an increase in the county hotel tax last year and this year's CIB's budget, which included the second of three $10 million payments to the Indiana Pacers -- still passed 15-14 without her support.

Vaughn instead attributed the committee change to poor communication by Scales about her intentions on some recent issues and to other considerations, including figuring out assignments for new council members.

Her replacement on the public safety committee is Republican Aaron Freeman, who has experience as a former prosecutor and reserve officer.

Scales acknowledged she hadn't always communicated effectively about some issues, including concerns she had about next year's public safety budget, though she ended up supporting that budget in the committee's vote.

Scales says she still plans to vote against a proposed 50-year lease of the city's parking meters, which is on the council's agenda for Monday, unless changes are made.
Murray's item in the "Behind Close Doors" column makes no mention of Vaughn's conflict of interest pertaining to ACS. During his earlier reporting on my discovery state records had shown Vaughn was a registered lobbyist for ACS, Murray's account of what Vaughn had dismissed as "error" was trivialized by placement in the "Behind Closed Doors" column in a similar fashion. Whenever Ryerson has his reporters stick a news item in this column instead of a regular news report, it's his way of saying it's really not news, but to avoid the appearance of some we are ignoring real news we'll stick it in this column to provide a basis for saying the newspaper covered it when it is later criticized for failing to report something of significant news value.

As the item notes, Vaughn replaced Scales on the committee with Aaron Freeman, which comes as no surprise. Freeman, who was appointed to the council, is one of Vaughn's buddies from the corrupt Marion Co. Prosecutor's Office of Carl Brizzi where Vaughn was Brizzi's favorite pretty boy. The very first meeting following Scales' removal from the committee was to hear the IMPD report on the handling of the fatal DUI case of Officer David Bisard. Freeman, not surprisingly, had plenty of nice things to say about Straub's and the department's handling of the report, which obviously whitewashed Straub's and Ciesielski's indifference to the serious matter at hand because they were more consumed at the time trying to restore their public image and had instructed two high-ranking members of IMPD, Darryl Pierce and Ron Hicks, to return to IMPD headquarters from the Bisard "crime scene" to discuss the more important matter of restoring the public image of the Chief and Straub. Pierce and Hicks were later demoted. Ciesielski and Hicks pat themselves on the back for trying to restore public confidence in the much-maligned police department.


Paul K. Ogden said...

You're right on the mark. The Star dumps legitimate stories into Behind Closed Doors when they don't fit the Star's agenda.

Not once has the Star mentioned the fact that Ballard's chief legal advisor, Joe Loftus, someone who is paid for our tax dollars, is a paid lobbyist for ACS. How could the Star possibly not think that's relevant? Then you have Vaughn's role. He not only is going to vote for the ACS deal, he is activiely pushing the deal in comittee and behind closed doors. Yet he is an attorney for the firm that represents ACS and he himself was identified in state records as an ACS lobbyist.

Yet through it all, the Star's editors think these conflicts are all no big deal. Yet they think conflicts of interest, some much less, are a big deal when it comes to the state level. If a story doesn't fit the Star's agenda, then it downplays the story or doesn't report on it at all.

dcrutch said...

I don't want to misquote Cato, but the term was something like the "power elites". The Star, Jim Shella, et al are generally interested in promoting incumbent interests, keeping the interviews coming, the P.R. wagon rolling, the conventions booked, avoiding accusations of political incorrectness- all while the aggravations and corruption pointed out by average citizens and Tea Partiers alike are depicited as the frothing of nut cases.

Think there'll ever be investigative reporting on the millions we pay out in benefits to illegal immigrants in this state? Given our IPS graduation rate, how about a comparative investigation of where our public education tax dollars go for in pupil head count relative to salaries/benefits and the number of administrators? Will there every be a clamoring to look at the books for the Pacers? Speaking of graduation rates, how about the affectation of generation after generation of subsidized parenting as a lifestyle choice? Think there won't be some interesting statistics there?

No wonder we're supposed to just take the word of ACS on what the books look like and say, "Oh sure, just tell us how much is is and we'll write a check." If the mayor and council head say it's the right thing to do, then golly gee- if they were wrong then the Star would be all over it.


artfuggins said...

Ryan Vaughn has so many conflict of interests going that he needs to resign the council. I hope the voters either in the GOP primary or in the fall send Vaughn back to the private sector to peddle his wares without the added problem of the conflict of interest with his council leadership problem.