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Do contractors’ gifts taint politics?

Plan to limit their campaign donations generates debate

– Money influencing politics is nothing new. People have been giving to politicians for centuries.

Yet whether the amount of money given to city politicians is problematic, especially by those seeking to do business with the city, is not an easy question, according to numerous officials.

Some argue the cure is worse than the perceived disease.

All four major mayoral candidates took contributions from people or businesses that also make money from city government, although incumbent Mayor Tom Henry hauled in by far the biggest share.

Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW, said he would have been shocked had they not taken money from such companies. It’s unfair, however, to assume all those donations were made to corrupt the process or buy favors, he said.

Councilwoman Liz Brown, R-at large, introduced a bill last week to limit city contractors from making political contributions to city politicians. She said it’s an effort to increase confidence in the process.

Sometimes, however, companies give money to campaigns because they believe the candidate will provide a fair process for business or be a good steward of tax dollars, Downs said. Others want to gain access; Downs said politicians at every level answer calls from their top donors – even if they disagree on an issue.

Government already is set up to prevent politicians, or their donors, from wielding too much control, he said. For a local example, if the mayor wanted to ink a large contract with a contributor, it would have to be approved by the City Council.

“We’re all corruptible,” he said. “We need a system of checks and balances.”

Brown said there have been several contracts awarded without public competition, which causes businesses to question how a vendor was selected. Examples are as varied as an earlier garbage contract and how the city police choose companies to tow away vehicles, she said.

“People wonder who’s getting the business and how they’re getting the business,” she said. “At the end of the day, the city of Fort Wayne should know they are getting the best services for their dollar.”

Mayoral money

Henry has been successful in raising money for his re-election campaign, thanks in large part to donations given by companies – and their employees – that do business with the city.

Since the start of 2010, Henry has raised $427,750, according to campaign finance reports. A study of those reports by The Journal Gazette showed about 60 percent of that money came directly from firms working for the city or people working for those firms.

The amounts for the Republican candidates were far smaller, yet all took some. Republican nominee Paula Hughes, as well as Eric Doden and Councilwoman Brown took less than $50,000 combined from companies doing business with the city.

Downs said incumbents historically have an easier time raising money – they are the ones in power. Now that Republicans have selected Hughes, it’s more likely she will receive more donations from businesses that didn’t want to choose sides in a primary, he said. She is hosting a high-dollar fundraiser in Indianapolis next month.

Justin Schall, Henry’s campaign manager, said companies and their associates give money for the same reason anyone else donates politically: They care about making government better and believe a candidate or party will help make that happen.

“I don’t think that is inherently unethical or immoral,” he said.

He also dismissed the notion that donors are trying to buy access to Henry.

But opponents, including Council President Mitch Harper, R-4th, have questioned why companies outside Fort Wayne or Indiana give money to Henry. He previously said some companies refuse to do business with government because they don’t want to be solicited for money. Harper has voted against some city contracts because they were with out-of-town firms that made political contributions to the mayor.

In just one example, Malcolm Pirnie of White Plains, N.Y., and several of its associates combined to give Henry more than $9,000.

Schall said companies that do business in a community care about its government, from ensuring the permitting process is streamlined to simply believing a leader will do a good and fair job. He added it isn’t simply the intention of the donor, but what the officials decide to do with the money. Schall said any mayor of a city the size of Fort Wayne should have the ability to turn down his donors, and he believes Henry has that integrity.

Finding the links

There is a simple solution to ending corporate influences in politics, Downs said: publicly financed elections. That option has many of its own problems, however, not the least of which are free-speech concerns and using tax dollars to finance political advertisements.

Matt Bell, a former Republican state legislator who dealt with campaign finances, said instead of limits on who can contribute to what candidate, he prefers a system of transparency that gives voters the knowledge they need to make informed choices.

Currently contributors giving at least $1,000 to a candidate must disclose their occupation, but often it is as generic as attorney, engineer or executive. There is no information on where that person works, forcing a voter to search online directories to try and discern the donors’ connection to the city. The Journal Gazette’s review relied on sites such as Google and LinkedIn to determine where donors worked, although it was not always immediately clear.

“If you as a member of the public really want to know who is funding a candidate, it takes a lot of effort,” Bell said. “How much energy are you willing to invest as a voter in determining that?”

Bell also said he is troubled by the fact local campaign finance information is not always available electronically. Allen County scans and posts most local reports, but that is a rarity in the state.

Changing campaign finance laws is not simple, he said. Legislators might be concerned that changes requiring more transparency might keep donors from giving money – hurting their re-election chances. Even with that challenge, Bell said he does not think it is a good idea for communities to write their own finance laws because it would become confusing for companies trying to do business across Indiana.

“I think election law should be pretty uniform throughout the state,” he said.

Problems with cure

Brown and others who support her proposal said reducing money from contractors to politicians will improve the process for all involved. Opponents, however, said there are unintended consequences to consider.

Councilman Tim Pape, D-5th, said limiting direct contributions would spur companies to spend money on politics in a way that is nearly impossible for voters to track. This could include forming their own political committees or donating to another candidate with the express purpose of the money making it back to the city official.

Bell said this is why contribution limits simply don’t work.

“Money finds its way into the system one way or another,” he said.

This is why Bell believes all contributions should be allowed as long as they are properly reported – keeping people from having to be creative about how they donate.

Councilwoman Karen Goldner, D-2nd, raised the question of why political contributions are viewed with such a taint. During a heavily contentious council meeting last week, she noted that Brown took money in her mayoral campaign from City Council Attorney Joe Bonahoom and voted to increase the money to Bonahoom’s budget.

Goldner said Brown’s bill makes it seem such a contribution could have strings, when in reality the $200 likely played no real role in forming Brown’s opinions on any subject.

The mention of the contribution drew fire from Brown, who called them slanderous accusations.

Brown’s proposal also does not distinguish between out-of-town companies and local business executives who have historically participated in politics.

Such a rule, if adopted universally, could affect such events as the Allen County commissioners’ annual golf event, which raises money for their re-election campaigns from various individuals, including many people who do business with local government.

Brown agreed her bill wasn’t perfect and was glad to begin discussing possible changes with the council now that it has been introduced. Much of the debate so far has been on whether the city has the legal authority to approve such a law.

She dismissed notions that her bill would have significant legal ramifications, noting it would not affect donations from union groups or political action committees.

“I think it’s a good start, though,” she said.