Thursday, January 06, 2011

Vane Is Not The Issue

It isn't often that I question a reporter's coverage of an ethics issue involving former public officials, but I will take issue with a story WTHR's Mary Milz did tonight questioning the ethical propriety of the CIB awarding a $36,000 a year communications contract to former Ballard communications chief Robert Vane. According to Milz, Marion Co. Democrats are questioning the contract:

Some people are raising questions about the Capital Improvement Board's latest hire. The CIB, which runs the city's sports venues and convention center, recently signed a one-year contract with Robert Vane to handle its media and communications for $3,000 a month.

Vane is Republican Mayor Greg Ballard's former Communications Director. After two years with Ballard, he left in November to start his own communications firm.

One of his first contracts is with the CIB.

"It was my decision and I approached him," said CIB President Ann Lathrop.

Lathrop said she didn't interview anyone else. She didn't have to.

"I think he's uniquely qualified with his knowledge of the issues related to the CIB and I wanted someone able to hit the ground running," she said.

But Democrats argue it doesn't pass the smell test.

Adam Kirsch, a spokesman for the Marion County Democratic Party, said Vane knows the CIB issues "because taxpayers paid him to do it for many years and now they're paying him in the private sector."

Kirsch said the deal violates the mayor's ethics rules - the part prohibiting former employees from seeking work on matters which they "personally and substantially participated."

Kirsch said Vane "spoke on behalf of the CIB several times, he spoke on the Pacers deal. He clearly dealt with the CIB which is what the ethics policy contemplates."
Former corporation counsel under Mayor William Hudnut, Sheila Kennedy, agrees awarding the contract to Vane did not violate any law or ordinance but thinks it "raises the appearance of impropriety because when people work for the city they work for us and we have a right to expect they're devoting their talents to the public issues." Kennedy adds, "Something like this also raises the appearance they're feathering own nest while purportedly doing the public business and that's why there are ethics rules all over, trying to avoid exactly what this appears to be."

Kennedy is right to raise the "feathering one's own nest" issue in the context of former government employees leaving their public positions to accept jobs directly related to the public work they performed, but the issue is misplaced with Vane's situation. Vane did not hold a policy-making position with the city; he essentially served as a public relations flack for the mayor, a role he is now performing as an independent contractor in the private sector. If Milz or the Democrats wanted examples of people working in the Ballard administration using their positions to land lucrative jobs in the private sector that were directly related to their government jobs, they need not look far. There are plenty of examples.

Ballard's chief of staff, Paul Okeson, took a government relations job with a major city contractor and campaign contributor to Ballard's campaign, Keystone Construction. Kevin Taylor left his job running the Indianapolis Bond Bank to work for City Securities, which has performed work on a number of public finance matters for city-county government. Former Deputy Mayor of Economic Development Nick Weber went to work in government relations for Baker & Daniels, which represented a number of businesses awarded economic development incentives while Weber was employed by the city. And then there's former DPW employee Kyle Walker, who left his city job to work for a consulting firm that does business with his former employer.

In each of those cases, the former city workers were in a position to make policy decisions that directly benefited their future employers. How do we know they didn't take actions in their government positions in consideration for obtaining a lucrative job with their new employers? That is precisely the reason the public must demand and expect tough revolving door laws that prevent government officials from acting out of self-interest to land new jobs in the private sector. I don't recall Milz or any other member of the local news media raising questions about any of those individuals and whether their new employment violated the city's ethics ordinance. Robert Vane did not make policy decision regarding the CIB while working for Mayor Ballard as his communications director. Paul Okeson did. He then went to work for a firm that submitted a bid as part of consortium seeking to manage the CIB's facilities as a result of an initial decision by Mayor Ballard to put out for bid the management of the CIB's facilities. Ballard even appointed Okeson to the CIB. The administration later abandoned the privatization initiative, but the ethical issue was pronounced and nobody in the media asked any questions about it.

Don't get me wrong. The media should be asking tough questions about these no-bid contracts. The real issue with the CIB's contract with Vane to the extent there is one is whether it is fiscally prudent. Is Barney Levengood or another member of his staff incapable of fielding media inquiries on behalf of the CIB? Is this a more efficient way of covering those duties than employing a full-time staff person? WRTV had a story the other day questioning the decision of Wayne Township Trustee Andy Harris, a former Ballard employee, to hire Aaron Williams for a $65,000 a year job as communications director. Williams is a former employee of the Public Safety Department and son of Deputy Mayor Olgen Williams. Does a township trustee really need a full-time communications director? Can't the trustee speak for himself? We've certainly seen many examples of governmental entities and school districts awarding public relations contracts to outside firms that stretch fiscal credulity. I'm not certain the contract awarded to Vane is as bad as many of the other examples that are easy to find.


Paul K. Ogden said...

Andy Harris, Wayne Township Trustee, hired a "communications director" for $65,000? Why does a township trustee need a communications director? That's ridiculous.

Sorry...I missed the story. I remember when township trustees in Marion County were part-time and making about $30K a year.

I guess Harris is trying to make the case that the General Assembly needs to eliminate townships.

I totally agree with this post on Vane. You are exactly right...there are far, far worse examples of the revolving door involving the Ballard administration than Vane's employment. Still the CIB doesn't need to be contracting out PR to the tune of $36,000 a year.

Still...has Harris thought of contacting Vane? Sounds like he can do the work for less t han Harris' communications guy.

Citizen Kane said...

Unfortunately, government officials are constantly trying to justify their existence by expanding their fiefdoms. And if the former or present trustee can not communicate to their constituents, then maybe they should not have sought the office. And what are Aaron Williams qualifications for the job?

I know that his dad is not qualified for his job - though since he does not do anything, maybe he is.

Concerned Taxpayer said...

Harris also hired his campaign manager as his "deputy chief trustee."
I think he's using a deputy chief position on the fire department to pay her.
She is the wife of one of his new fire department deputy chiefs.
Business as usual.

Concerned Taxpayer said...

I suppose his new "communications director" is the same Aaron Williams who floats from job to job, until something happens, then moves on?