CONTRACTOR DONATIONS COMMON, AND LEGAL

Sunday, February 18, 2007
Section: MAIN NEWS
Edition: main
Page: 1A
BY BRENT D. WISTROM, The Wichita Eagle

In the last three months of 2006, construction company owner Ron Cornejo and several of his family members donated $500 each to three Wichita City Council members who are running for re-election.

In the same time frame, his company, Cornejo & Sons Construction Inc., won more than $5 million in competitively bid city projects.

It’s perfectly legal for contractors to donate to City Council campaigns in Wichita while their contracts await council approval. And contracts like the Cornejos’ are almost always competitively bid.

Cornejo is just one example of a company executive whose business depends partly on city contracts making contributions to city campaigns, an Eagle analysis found.

But other cities are increasingly curtailing contractor campaign donations.

Campaign finance and governmental ethics researchers say contributions can create a pay-to-play atmosphere.

And, they say, restricting the donations can improve public confidence in government.

Contractors’ contributions are only a fraction of Wichita City Council members’ campaign money. Both council members and contractors say the $500 donation limit and cautious city policies prevent undue influence over who gets taxpayers’ money.

“I just don’t think it’s a large enough amount of money that anyone would think it’s going to influence a vote on anything,” council member Sue Schlapp said.

Who gives, who gets

Candidates who got money from people with pending competitively bid contracts include Schlapp, Paul Gray and Carl Brewer.

— Gray received at least $2,000 from Cornejo family members.

— Schlapp received at least $1,000 from Cornejo officials and $250 from representatives of Dondlinger & Sons Construction.

— Brewer received $500 from Ron Cornejo.

The Eagle found the contributions by building and cross-referencing databases of campaign donations and city contracts from Sept. 1, 2006, through Jan. 1, 2007.

Only incumbents received outside campaign contributions during that period. The next round of finance reports is due Tuesday.

The list is not comprehensive because it included only company officials who wrote the bids and their spouses. It does not include other company employees, nor does it include companies with no-bid contracts.

None of the contractors examined gave to Mayor Carlos Mayans.

Cornejo said his contributions don’t have anything to do with influence.

“I think we need good people in office,” he said. “I think we need business -minded people in office and people that will run the city the way it should be ran.”

Timing is everything

Suzanne Novak, who focuses on campaign finance reform at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said that when contractors are donating to the people who approve their contracts, it can lower public confidence in government – even if no laws are broken.

Contractor-council member links can be particularly alarming when campaign contributions come around the same time that the contracts are being approved, Novak said.

“Regardless if they’re competitive or no-bid, it does raise a red flag if, around the time it’s being decided, that’s when contractors decide to give to certain officials,” she said.

There are several examples of Wichita City Council members getting contribu tions within hours, days or weeks from people representing companies whose contracts the council approved.

On Oct. 17, for example, Ron and Martin Cornejo each gave $500 donations to Schlapp.

The same day, the City Council unanimously approved nearly $2 million in street projects, all of which went to Cornejo and Sons. More than half of them were for routine projects in Schlapp’s northeast Wichita district.

Schlapp said she was unaware of the same-day contract and donation and said, “there’s no connection there at all.”

Ron Cornejo said he also was unaware the projects were approved the day he sent the check.

“I never even considered it because we never know for sure when the council is going to approve a project,” he said. “There’s no correlation whatsoever.”

Contributions from city contractors and their spouses account for only about 4 percent of Schlapp’s campaign finances.

Gray, who had $2,000 in contributions from city contractors – about 13 percent of his overall 2006 fundraising – said he doesn’t sense any obligation from a donation.

“I know some parts of the country have problems with that,” he said. “I don’t see that here. I don’t think people could get away with that without it being known.”

Brewer did not return calls Thursday and Friday.

Because major contractors almost always have pending city business, council members say they typically don’t consider whether a contract is pending when they accept a donation.

Businesspeople, likewise, say they aren’t thinking about their contribu tions as a business move.

Marty Dondlinger, who is vice president of Dondlinger & Sons Construction Co. Inc. and donated $150 to Schlapp, said he doesn’t perceive any pay-to-play atmosphere in City Hall.

He said he considers his donation as one from an individual, not a business .

“Sue is more or less a personal friend,” he said. “We go to the same church.”

No pressure

Current and former council members say they’ve never been pressured to approve contracts because of a donation.

“I think it’s pretty well safeguarded,” said Phil Lambke, who served on the City Council from 1993 to 2005. “But I know the public, a lot of times you hear that office holders are getting paid off. But I never saw any evidence of it.”

The safeguards include:

— Political action committees and businesses can’t give to campaigns. If their members want to donate, they must do it as individuals.

— Contracts are usually competitively bid, examined by a bid board composed of city staffers and later approved by the council. The council almost always relies on the bid board’s recommendations.

And often, companies whose executives contribute don’t win contracts they bid on because another business had a lower bid or proved it was more suitable for the job.

Issue getting attention

The relations between government contractors and campaigns have been increasingly scrutinized across the nation. “It’s a major problem in national government,” said George Frederickson, an Edwin O. Stene distinguished professor of public administration at the University of Kansas. “Governments – state and local – tend to be cleaner.”

Campaign contributions pose “no ethical dilemma if there’s an absolute firewall between elected officials and the people who let contracts,” Frederic kson said.

Several major cities, including Houston, Philadelphia and Oakland, Calif., have some rules against government contractors giving money to council members when the contractor has pending business.

“These laws are not greatly common,” he said. “But they’re increasing for good reason. These firewalls break down.”

Reach Brent D. Wistrom at bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

What other cities do

Some cities have had laws against contractors donating to campaigns for years. But more are creating them as the result of real or perceived corrupti on.

Here are samples of those laws:

— Westminster, Colo.: Council members must abstain from debating or voting on any issues that directly affect people who gave more than $100 to their campaign.

— Houston: Contractors with deals worth more than $30,000 are prohibited from donating to city campaigns from the time the council agenda is released until 30 days after the contract is acted on.

Contribution cap: $5,000

Political Action Committee cap: $10,000

— Oakland, Calif.: Contractors can’t make contributions between start of negotiations and either 180 days after completion of or termination of contract.

Contribution cap: $500

Political Action Committee cap: $1,000

— Philadelphia: Contractors must disclose all campaign contributions in the past two years, including those of family members and company partners. If any contributions exceed limits, contractor is barred from getting city contracts.

Individual contribution cap: $2,500 a year

Political Action Committee cap: $10,000 a year

Sources: National Civic League, individual cities

Wichita’s safeguards

Contractors and consultants that do business with Wichita have to sign off on a variety of policies aimed at de-politicizing contracts.

Among them:

— Contractors can’t lobby government employees or elected officials.

— Contractors can’t hire other contractors to do part of the work.

— Contractors can’t employ any city employees or council members or channel any money, directly or indirectly, to them.

Source: City of Wichita

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