Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Pay To Play Is The Ballard Way

"Taxpayers are being asked to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in government spending ranging from huge construction projects to outside personal contracts," GOP mayoral candidate Greg Ballard told voters in 2007. "But there are virtually no rules governing the conduct of business or local government in such dealings," he added. Candidate Ballard promised a series of ethics reforms to provide greater transparency and to protect the public interest, including:

  • requiring persons who lobby city government to register with the city and report any lobbying expenses they make, including any entertainment or item of value they provide to elected officials and public employees;
  • barring lobbyists or other persons with a financial interest from serving on any commission or board that directly affects or deals with their lobbying or financial interests;
  • establishing a code of conduct for city employees which bars them from soliciting contributions from individual firms which do business with the city.
  • requiring statement of economic interests filed by public officials to be made publicly available online; and
  • requiring campaign finance reports be made publicly available online.
A year later, many of those promises remain unfulfilled. Mayor Ballard left it to a Barnes & Thornburg attorney, City-County Councilor Ryan Vaughn, to work with another ex-Barnes & Thornburg attorney, Corporation Counsel Chris Cotterill, to gut most of those proposals and pass in their place a watered-down ethics ordinance with few teeth. Lobbyists sit on boards and can lobby government officials free of regulation. No statement of economic interest statements are available online and the statements obtained through public records requests for city/county workers and political appointees are so vague, incomplete and inconsistent that they provide little, meaningful information to the public.
Mayor Ballard, himself, has provided little, if any, disclosure to the public about gifts he has accepted as mayor. That contrasts sharply with candidate Ballard's criticism of a former city councilor for refusing to disclose who gave him tickets to the Super Bowl. "Like most citizens, I was not shocked to learn Patrice Abduallah had accepted tickets to the Super Bowl," Ballard said. "What I did find surprising and offensive was his refusal to reveal who paid for the trip. This must change," Ballard stated. "It's time to restore ethics and public accountability to our local government." Despite a pledge to restore ethics and public accountability, Ballard has governed this past year under the guiding principle that anyone wishing to do business with the city-county government must pay to play.
While Ballard raised a relatively paltry sum of campaign contributions during his grassroots, upset win over the entrenched and well-financed two-term mayor, Bart Peterson, in 2007, he raised a cool $1 million during the one-year period following his election, even though he won't stand for re-election until 2011. Ballard told the Indianapolis Star editorial board during a recent interview that he had not yet made up his mind on whether he will seek a second term despite the record-setting pace at which his campaign committee raised money during his first year in office. "We're taking concrete steps to go down that path in case we make that decision because we don't want to get behind," Ballard said. That's another way of saying business as usual.
The $1 million campaign contributions aren't coming from the grassroots supporters who gave to him in 2007. His campaign reported a little more than $2,000 in those unitemized, smaller contributions. "As in most campaigns, many of Ballard's biggest donations came from the city's top law firms, engineering companies and other professional services groups that compete for no-bid city contracts," wrote the Star's Brendan O'Shaughnessy in a story discussing Ballard's fundraising activities during his first year in office. And that's an understatement. My study of that same campaign finance report led me to conclude that more than 90% of his contributions came from either persons or firms doing business directly or indirectly with city or county government.
As with recent past city administrations, Mayor Ballard raised more than $150,000 from a handful of the city's largest law firms and attorneys working for them which do business with the city or county. Those same law firms and attorneys were awarded more than $2.2 million in legal service contracts during Ballard's first year in office according to records furnished by the City's corporation counsel's office for IndyStat, the mayor's performance evaluation office in city and county government. The most successful firm at winning contracts, Barnes & Thornburg, was also the same law firm which raised more than any other firm for Ballard during his 2007 race, $8,000. The firm kicked in another $12,000 after he won. Another law firm which serves as counsel to the CIB, Bingham McHale, raised more than $30,000 for Ballard's campaign committee last year. Noticeably missing from Ballard's campaign finance reports were attorneys who typically contribute to Republican candidates but don't do work for the city or county.
Engineering and consulting firms and their owners and employees easily gave more than law firms and attorneys gave to Ballard. The report reads like a "Who's Who of Indianapolis Engineers and Consultants." Jansen Spaans' Ibrahim Swidan made $7,250 and was identified on public documents as a provider of future consulting work for the City. David Woo of one of the city's minority-owned business firms, USI, gave $7,500. DLZ Indiana contributed $21,500 in a series of contributions last year, some of which were made just weeks before the City's Department of Public Works announced it was awarding the company a $50 million contract to provide water resources management work for the City. “This program is all about the mayor’s goal to make Indianapolis a better city, to spend our dollars wisely and not duplicate expenditures,” DPW Director David Sherman said in a press released posted on the company's website. “The members of this team have bought into that goal and are calling on the right people to get the job done, ” he added. The work relates to the management and implementation of the City's "combined sewer overflow, septic tank elimination, sanitary sewer, treatment plant and stormwater programs, totaling over $800 million over the next five years, alone." Indianapolis residents learned today that they will be paying 66% higher fees over the next several years to pay for those services and improvements after experiencing a near-doubling of those fees as of last year.
DLZ is no stranger to pay to play politics. The company won multi-million dollar contracts with the Indianapolis Water Company after the Peterson administration purchased the water utility from NiSource in 2002 for $525 million. The firm ranked as one of Peterson's largest campaign contributors, making tens of thousands of dollars in contributions during his eight years in office. Indiana campaign finance online reports indicate the company has showered Indiana politicians up and down the state with tens of thousands more in campaign contributions. The firm recently caught the eye of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago, who is investigating pay to play corruption in the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. The Sun-Times reported recently on the pay-to-play probe and how DLZ received its own subpoena for records from the U.S. Attorney:
As part of their "pay-to-play" probe of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, federal investigators are examining state bid proposals and other records from 18 heavyweight engineering and construction companies that made hefty political contributions and got big contracts from the state and from City Hall, records show.
In all, the companies have made more than $3.6 million in campaign contributions since the mid-1990s, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis shows.
More than a third of that -- about $1.3 million -- went to Blagojevich, whose administration gave 11 of the companies $656 million in contracts since 2004.
Mayor Daley took $64,800 from the companies before he put a self-imposed ban on accepting campaign cash from city contractors in the wake of the Hired Truck scandal. Since 2004, 11 of the companies have gotten $183 million in city deals.
This latest window into the continuing Blagojevich investigation comes from a federal subpoena that was served on the Illinois Department of Transportation on Dec. 11 and made public in the wake of a successful open-records lawsuit filed by the watchdog group the Better Government Association.
None of the businesses named in the subpoena has been accused of any wrongdoing. At least one of those companies received a separate subpoena of its own.
"I have responded to the subpoena; 22 boxes have been sent," said Diane French, executive vice president and general counsel for DLZ Illinois, an engineering/design firm.
French declined to say whether the company is working on any state-funded projects in Illinois. She also would not comment on the firm's former lobbyist, John Wyma, a longtime Blagojevich associate identified as "Individual B" in the criminal complaint prosecutors filed when they arrested Blagojevich in December on charges that included the explosive allegation that he'd try to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate to replace President Obama there.
Another engineer who gave big to Ballard's campaign was the subject of one of the rare pay-to-play probes conducted in Marion County. The Star's Brendan O'Shaughnessy's report on Ballard's campaign fundraising noted that Willis Connor contributed $17,500 to Ballard last year. Former Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman, Ballard's current Public Safety Director, indicted in 1997 Connor, his business partner at American Consulting Engineers, James Wurster, and a former chairman of the Indiana House Ways & Means Committee, State Rep. Sam Turpin, on charges of bribery and unlawful lobbying. While serving in the legislature, ACE retained Turpin's service to help win government work and paid him $52,500 over a period of time at the rate of $1,500 a month. Newman's case against the three fell apart after the trial court dismissed the bribery charges, which the Court of Appeals affirmed on appeal. Turpin wound up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge for using political funds to pay for personal expenses in a plea agreement with Newman. Charges against Connor and Wurster were dismissed. Connor renamed Ace as American Structurepoint after Wurster retired. This is the same firm which has been providing estimates to Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard on the controversial Keystone Avenue roundabout project, the cost for which jumped to $149 million, or at least $60 million more than Brainard originally told the public it would cost. Democrats in Hamilton County have called for an investigation of alleged pay-to-play in connection with that project. The Star recently reported:
[Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Keith] Clock pointed out in the news release that American Structurepoint, the engineering firm handpicked by Brainard to design the road project, donated $10,000 to Brainard’s campaign committee in 2008. The 2008 annual report filed on Jan. 21, shows two donations of $5,000 made from the firm’s Indianapolis address. The firm and its employees have donated several thousands of dollars in past years as well, documents show.
“This appears to be more of the pay to play politics that persist in Hamilton County,” Clock said in the release. “If you take a look at the campaign contributions that these officeholders receive, it’s a list of who’s who of engineering firms that are doing the construction projects here, and Mayor Brainard is no exception."
If you wonder why Ballard is so anxious to please the folks who want to raise your taxes to bail out the CIB, just take a look at who made generous contributions to him the past year. Colts' owner Jim Irsay gave $5,000. Simon Property Group, a company in which Pacer owners' Herb and Mel Simon are principals, gave $5,000. Hunt Construction, which has worked on projects like Lucas Oil Stadium, and its related companies, kicked in $4,000. Lucas Oil-related companies chipped in $6,000. Keystone Construction ponied up $28,000. Shiel-Sexton added $1,500 as did Holladay Properties. Turner Construction added $5,000. Anheuser Bush gave $4,000 and Zink Distributing gave many thousands more in contributions. White Lodging, which won the coveted prize of $65 million in taxpayer-assistance for its new convention hotel, gave $2,000. Vision Concepts added another $12,500.
Other businesses holding city or county contracts were equally as generous. United Water, which holds the contract to manage the City's wastewater treatment operations, gave $10,000. ACS, which provides IT-related services, gave $2,000. CCA, which has a contract to manage Marion County Jail II, gave $2,500. Former Eli Lilly CEO Randy Tobias gave $2,500 to Ballard shortly before he was named as the mayor's choice to run the Indianapolis Airport Authority.
Pay-to-play politics are not new with the Ballard administration. Each of his recent predecessors, including Bart Peterson and Steve Goldsmith, actively shook down businesses and individuals doing business with the city and county to raise millions for their campaign committees. People think our politics are cleaner than Chicago's, but they're just kidding themselves. Unlike Illinois, local politicians have been able to trade government favors for political contributions because neither the U.S. Attorney's Office in Indianapolis or the Marion County Prosecutor's Office will actively pursue investigations of public corruption.
The embarrassing results of Newman's investigation of Sam Turpin more than a decade ago struck little fear in corrupt government officials. Bribery statutes are very difficult to prosecute under state law. Federal prosecutors, in comparison to state prosecutors, have a broader reach of weapons to combat public corruption. Federal prosecutors often rely on federal wire and mail fraud charges based on a theory that the public is being deprived of a right to honest services from their public officials. In some cases, prosecutors will even employ RICO statutes to prove a conspiracy among a variety of government and non-government actors. Yet, Indianapolis has had one political prosecutor after another appointed to the U.S. Attorney's office here which have refused to use the tools at their disposal. Not even unequivocal evidence that a former Lawrence mayor unlawfully turned over the city's water company to political cronies, along with millions in taxpayer dollars and assets, resulting in dramatic water rate increases for the city's residents, was enough to grab the attention of the U.S. Attorney's office here despite a lengthy FBI investigation.
Republican defenders of Mayor Ballard will no doubt launch personal attacks against me and others who seek to hold his feet to the fire for the promises he made during his grassroots campaign for mayor. Sadly, his election-night victory to end governance by country club politics in Indianapolis, along with the bold ethics reform proposals he made during the campaign, wound up shredded on the floor of the Murat ballroom where his supporters celebrated his victory to be swept away by a custodian's broom the next day. Who would have thought that Ballard would continue the pay-to-play tradition with such unbridled enthusiasm? Is it too much to ask of a politician these days to keep his word to the voters?


Paul K. Ogden said...

Even when I'm at my best, I couldn't say it any better than you, Gary. The detail you provided shredded any illusion this is anything more than Indianapolis pay to play politics. While there is versions of this played out across the state, I don't think there's any place worse, and more corrupt, than Indianapolis. I'm not even sure Gary competes with us.

I particularly liked what you said about the lack of activity from the Marion County Prosecutor and U.S. Attorney's Office. It's so true. People engaged in public corruption have nothing to worry about here in Indianapolis. Even when you give prosecutors fraud and corruption on a silver platter (e.g. the Lawrence water deal) nothing ever happens to those involved. In that case, political insiders turned a thousand dollar contribution into millions.

Gary R. Welsh said...

These guys must have so much fun sitting around the poker table at Meridian Hills swapping stories about the different deals that have made them multi-millionaires and say to themselves, "God, the people of Indianapolis sure are stupid to let us get by with all of this graft. God love them."

Melyssa said...

I wonder if this is what Goldsmith taught Ballard when he was whisked away to Harvard, shortly after his election, to take that crash course on being Mayor?

Downtown Indy said...

No Gary, it is NOT too much to ask. But I am convinced it's too much to expect.

I've live my entire life (so far) here. I just want out now, something I could never have imagined 5 years ago. If it wasn't for the the current horrible market for homes, I'd be selling out and moving on.

Anonymous said...

I've live my entire life (so far) here. I just want out now, something I could never have imagined 5 years ago. If it wasn't for the the current horrible market for homes, I'd be selling out and moving on.

Eventually all this will come crashing down. There is just no way it can last. So what if these people pass on their millions to their kids. In order to keep the status quo, the government is going to be forced to tax those millions in the 50%+ range. The more expensive that make it to raise a family, the more decent people choose to have fewer, or no, kids. In the meantime, the welfare layabouts and bums pop out kid after kid after kid. When those kids hit their teens, that is when more trouble starts.

I would have never thought that robberies and carjackings would be a regular occurrence on 86th and 96th streets. Look at our city now. If your lucky, you'll only be a property crime victim, not a physical crime victim.

I am so glad I don't live in Marion County. Hopefully within a few months time, I won't be working in that county either.

Anonymous said...

I am truly ashamed that I voted for Ballard.
He was a veteran,not just a grunt gunny like me but a full Colonel in the United States Marine Corp. Colonel Ballard is a disgrace to the Corp.
He can deal and stuff his pockets with all the cash he can get his filthy hands on but I'll be damned if I and other vets will let his corruption go unchallenged.
He's a disgrace, a shameful pitiful disgrace.

Unknown said...

...but a full Colonel in the United States Marine Corp.

I suppose it doesn't matter much one way or the other, but he was a major in the USMC. Upon retirement, military folks get a one level promotion, so Maj. Ballard became Lt. Col. Ballard, ret'd.

Greg said...

Now I really feel bad. I gave the Ballard campaign a check for $2,500near the end of his campaign, the same as Tobias, but I did not get even a thank you note, much less a tee shirt. I guess it is important that you have the right address on your check (I am just a poor southsider). I did it because I simply believed what he was saying. I am a small citizen who believed he has helping bring about change. Oh well, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, well you know.....

MissouriDemocrat said...

In St. Louis there is a major scandal involving the towing contract and the police department. In Illinois the governor gets impeached in Indy we reward public corruption with election and re-election. Thats the core of the republican and democratic parties here. It is surely the one thing I hate about Indiana.

John Evans said...

Just more proof that the so caalled two-party system needs a major overhaul.

This country is supposed to run on a system of checks and balances. We the People need to hold our politicians accountable. They are supposed to work for us, not the other way around.