Monday, April 16, 2007

Bethlehem: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy!

Last week, the Express Times told us that Bethlehem's Housing Authority (BHA) wants energy-efficiency upgrades that will reduce both utility bills and global warming. That's good news. Who can complain about that?

Me.

Let me explain what's going on. The Guaranteed Energy Savings Act allows a municipal body like BHA to borrow money to hire an approved energy consultant to reduce energy costs. The debt is funded from the money saved on utility bills. If no savings are realized, nothing has to be paid.

In principle, this sounds very good. But in practice, Bethlehem is perverting a good idea for political purposes.

Eighteen firms are state-certified for energy savings contracts, including Allentown's DMJMHarris. But the only firms seriously considered for a $7 million BHA energy savings plan were North Carolina's Ameresco and Pittsburgh's CLT Efficient Technologies. Given the amount of money involved, I'd expect to see more than two companies interested. This lack of competition might be troubling, but BHA had already paid Enlightened Energy Consultants, to recommend the best outfit for this energy savings deal. Their recommendation? Ameresco. It currently has fourteen public housing clients. It's experienced.

But last Monday, BHA chair Dave "Lumpy" Sanders had no interest in this recommendation. He had already made up his mind. When the resolution to approve the contract came up on the agenda, Sanders immediately asked that the contract be awarded directly to CLT, the second highest scorer. Commissioner Joe Long, who chairs the local Democratic party and is notorious for back-room deals, seconded this motion. They had no interest in their own staff's recommendation!

An Ameresco rep, sitting in the peanut gallery, asked and was permitted to address the authority. He raised enough questions about the contract that the other BHA commissioners, Paul Reitmeier and George Samuelson, voted against awarding the contract to CLT.

The decision to award the contract to CLT was defeated by a 2 to 2 vote. Commissioner Iris Linares, a member of the Democratic state committee and the deciding third vote, was absent. Had she been present, the contract would have been awarded to CLT. And when she shows up for a second vote in May, that's what will happen.

Here's why. CLT's owner, Charles Zappala, is heavily connected to the state Democratic party and isn't afraid to throw his money around. Since 1997, he's contributed over $90,000 to Democrats seeking federal office. He's donated a whopping $208,000 since 2000 to mostly Democratic candidates seeking state office. Beneficiaries of his largess include indicted state senator Vince Fumo ($44,000) and the Guv, Ed Rendell ($25,000). Now gee, why would a dude from Pittsburgh be giving money to two boys from Philly?

Wait. It gets better.

On September 29, 2005, Zappala picked up the $652 catering bill for some event in honor of Lehigh County exec Don Cunningham. That same day, Zappala and his wife each kicked in another $2,500. Do you honestly think this Pittsburgh gazillionaire is just interested in good local government, far from his own home? Has Zappala also contributed to Bethlehem Mayor Callahan's campaigns? I don't know. I'll be checking.

Zappala does spread his money locally, and it seems to pay off. In Pittsburgh, his firm was one of just two companies considered for an energy savings deal. Guess who just got the deal? CLT. Zappala had contributed $10,000 in the Pittsburgh mayoral race, and another $500 to a city council campaign.

Funny thing. Zappala is neither a populist nor an environmentalist. His investment firm has interests in large waste treatment facilities in largely black and poor Chester, Pa. In 1997, a federal court concluded that the concentration of so many waste facilities in one area constitutes environmental racism.

I've been informed that board members have already received calls telling them to vote for CLT in May. "It's what the Mayor wants." Aside from an obvious Sunshine Act violation, it begs the question whether Mayor John Callahan is really looking out for Bethlehem or Democratic campaign coffers.

Isn't this just the latest example of "pay to play" under our archaic campaign finance laws? It occurs under the radar, largely unnoticed, especially on the local level. But it's destroying our democracy. A nonlocal moneybag like Zappala becomes far more influential than Bethlehem's own residents.

23 comments:

Julian Stolz said...

Nice Mel Brooks referance ;)

Anonymous said...

isn't a pay to play reference a little premature unless you have evidence of contributions to callahan?

Chris Casey said...

Bernie, I don't think your brand of sunshine is the kind some folks want to work on their tan in!

Billy Givens said...

This is a glaring example of the political corruption in place in Bethlehem when on February 2, 2005, I was gagged at a Democrats for America (DFA) meeting in the Atrium Room of Bethlehem's Brew Works.

Besides my wife Kathy Parker and our neighbor Cliff O-Hearn, all of Parker Avenue, Easton, the meeting was attended by: DFA member Jeanne Doyle who was also with Kathy and me at a January 2007 meeting at the Ship's Inn in Milford, New Jersey.

The purpose of that meeting was to participate in a nation-wide telephone-conferencing hook-up with former Presidential Candidate Howard Dean.

Dean said that with one more endorsement, he was confident that he, though failing to get his party'y Presidential nod, would be victorious in his campaign to become Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Dean in fact won that election in February, around the 8th as I recall, with the strong support of Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, who had months before publicly endorsed Dean for the post.

Also at the Ship's Inn meeting that cold, snowy night in January 2005, Dean encouraged us to help rebuild the Democratic Party through the recruitment of new candidates.

We did that, and in the general election of 2006 recaptured Congress, both houses.

I was threatened with ejection from the meeting for advocating for fresh faces to run in the May 17, 2005, Democratic Primary.

My advocacy was interpretated, at least by implication, as opposition to incumbent Mayor John Callahan.

That's when it became crystal clear to me that the "Lehigh Valley's" Democratic Party under ward-heeling bosses like Joe Long and, in Easton, his lieutenant James Edinger.

LVDem said...

I guess a couple of points:
-it's not unusual for qualified firms to skip the bidding process. Sometimes they just don't have the capacity to take on another project. So the 2 responses don't send up flags for me, especially if an RFP process was followed.
-what was the difference in the scores between number 1 and number 2? If we are talking a couple points out of one hundred, there is little difference. Perhaps #2 came in at a lower cost? I don't know, I'm simply asking the question. I've been involved in scoring where we've picked number 3 b/c number 1 and 2 were too expensive or did more than we asked for in the RFP. Something to consider. Selecting the #2 is not necessarily a sign of foul play.
-What cares what the mayor wants? The reason Authorities are established is to remove the decision making from political influence. Let the authority make the recommendation. The worst that could happen is that the city opts not to renew the authority when it comes up for renewal, but we all know that isn't going to happen to a housing authority.

And again, Billy, nobody gagged you and nobody threatened to remove you. We did choose to ignore you and move on with our night's agenda. Your perceptions of that night are greatly different from everybody else's.

Bernie O'Hare said...

ANON 7:23, The "pay to play" reference is entirely appropriate, even if Callahan has nothing to do w/ this. Look at who sits on that Authority. Vice Chair Joe Long chairs the local Dems and is also chair to the northeast caucus. Linares is also a state committeeman. Zappala is an ATM for Dems seeking office. Locally, that includes Cunningham. Now if there are contributions to Callahan, that makes things a little stronger. But the connection is already pretty strong.

Bernie O'Hare said...

LVDem,

1) I'm not sure there were only two outfits interested. The BHA used a consultant so there may have been more. But if only 2 out of 18 express any intererst, it's noncompetitive. It defeats the purpose of seeking out bids or RFPs.

2) I don't know if the prospective vendors are far apart. What I do know is that Lumpy Sanders started things off my recommended the bidder whose owner is a major Dem contributor. He didn't even have the finesse to wait for the staff recommendation. The recommendation wass made only bc the other bidder piped up.

3) I don't think there's anything wrong, to be honest, with the Mayor coming before the BHA, in an open meeting, to make his wishes known and the reasons for them. If he's too busy, I don't think there's anything wrong with sending a staff member. Perhaps he has good reasons for recommending CLT. Perhaps he's not involved at all, and someone is just saying that this is what the mayor wants. We don't know any of this because it is occurring behind the scenes. It is bad government. Housing authority members were tagged just last year with Sunshine Act violations. It appears they still haven't learned.

Billy Givens said...

Lvden

You're calling my wife and one of the best friends I had in Easton before he moved away, Cliff O'Hearn - and, I might add, Jeanne Doyle, a fellow DFA member.

There's one thing - and it's a big one - that I don't like about Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson from Tennessee: his treatment of the East Coast Native Americans in their WWII "Bataan Death March- and Diaspora- like" relocation that's come down through history to be known as the "Trail of Tears."

(When I was a veteran in VA rehabilitation hospital in Swannanoa, N.C., in the mid-1950s, I had the opportunity to see this passion play performed on the Cherokee reservation, about 50 miles south of Swannanoa.)

What I do like about "Old Hickory," however, is this: any scoundrel who insulted his wife found himself staring down the muzzle of a flint-loaded pistol.

You have called into approbation not only me, a political associate, and a trusted personal friend, but also my wife and the mother of two of my children.

I demand satisfaction.

I demand to know who you are.

I have the Constitutional right to face my accuser.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Billy,

1) OT posts will be deleted. They're annoying, factually challenged and self-aggrandized.

2) If you have a problem w/ LVDem, go to his blog, get his email addy, and send him a note.

3) I allow anonymous posts. I allow posts under a nom de plum. It stimulates discussion. If you don't like that policy, then don't post here.

Billy Givens said...

Bernie,

It's your judgment call, of course, since "Lehigh Valley Ramblings" is your blog, but I respectfully plead that my comments today are not "OT."

The Democrats took back our government last November based on two issues: one, get our troops the hell out of Iraq and bring them home to two, a country free of the corruption that's the other booger on the fingertips of Bush and Cheney and General Peter "Pick-a-Peck-of-Pickled-p+eppers" Pace and his boss General "Betrayus."

You know the corruption I'm talking about: the pay for play of "Casino" Jack Abramoff, Orville Norquist, Michael Scanlon, former Secretary of the Interior Gayle Norton, Christian Coaltion Founder Ralph Reed, U.S. Attorney Albert Gonazales and the eight fired federal prosecutors, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

It the corruption is all whole cloth and all of one piece, and all the way up from Inside-the-Beltway to the so-called "Lehigh Valley," no more than a myth except for the rain, turned to the snow that's now falling, and the flooding and the mud.

Anonymous said...

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A product of BleepCO!

Anonymous said...

That's 1-800- BleepCO!

Billy Givens said...

Anon. 12:18 PM,

Hang on to your $99.95 a little while longer and give this nor'easter we'e experiencing time to do what you're proposing.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Hey, I just tried to buy one of those Billy blasters. I called 1-800-Bleepco, and Billy answered the damn phone!

J. Spike said...

Bernie ,

There have been alot of U.F.O. sightings here in Easton.

We just thought it was the Mayors buddies visiting.

Maybe the surge in posts explains it more.

Anonymous said...

so basically you'd be happy if those who donate to Dems don't get any public business?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon,

I'm pretty much an equal opportunity offendor. This criticism may seem directed at Dems, but it's not. It's directed at "pay to play," and both major parties are equally guilty. In Bethlehem and NC, the criticism can usually be applied to Dems bc they almost always have a stranglehold on power. In parts of Lehigh County where the Republicans are in control, like the Macungies, the same things happen. Occasionally, there'll be an ethics prosecution that brings a lot of things to the surface. But before that, there's an accumulation of little things, like what is happening in Bethlehem. It leads inexorably to corrupt and undemocratic government.

What I would like to see, now that you ask, is campaign finance reform. Philly recently adopted an ordinance limiting campaign contributions, and it has made it thru the courts so far. I'd like to see a ban government contracts to anyone who donates to a campaign. Anyone, for example, who donates to a pol seeking office in Bethlehem, should be barred from any contracts or tax concessions with the city for a period of two years. Here's another idea. Clean elections laws should be tried. This is the public funding of a campaign that can raise a threshold of so many small contributions. I'd also like to see local reports available online. It's vitually impossible to assess how much money Koz King Abe Atiyeh has handed out to local pols, but it's sickening. He's not giving Lamont McClure money so McClure can push for a child expolitation unit. It's business. And lest you get the wrong impression, I'm not criticizing Atiyeh ort Pector or any of the others who play this game. They're just being good businessmen. I do criticize pols who have prostituted themselves to these political johns.

Dems are supposed to be the party of reform, right? So why aren't we reforming? Seriously, when I look at the amount of money Zappala has dropped on pols, I want to hurl. It's obscene. It's legal bribery.

I hope you'll support candidates who speak against the outright sale of their offices and refuse contributions from potential contractors. These pols are almost nonexistent. There is one in Northampton County. And he's a Democrat. His name is John Stoffa.

Thanks for your comment. I think I'll have to write about this again.

Anonymous said...

Some facts to consider:

1. There were actually 3 firms that proposed, Ameresco, CLT, and Honeywell. Of the 18 firms on the PA approved list, only 4 have taken part in HUD projects - the three here and Siemens.

2. Per HUD regulations, all pricing mark-ups must be disclosed at the RFP/RFQ stage. From what I understand, CLT was 7% lower in these mark-ups - if the article is correct, and were talking about a $7 million project, that means a bid difference of $490,000!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon,

1) If only 4 out of 18 prospective contractors are bothering to get involved, the process is doomed from the start.

2) BHA paid a consultant $30k to go thru everything and they came up with Ameresco. That was also the staff recommendation, from what I understand.

4) The contractor favored by party men Long and Sanders just happens to be owned by a big time Dem donor.

5) Any allegation that CLT is the lowest bidder reveals a gross misunderstanding of the evaluation process. As I understand it, pricing does not take place until after an energy audit is completed.

6) CLT has been in business less than one year and has never implemented a public housing energy performance contract.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, you need to get the facts straight - after you do some fact checking, will you admit that some of the things you have posted here are not true? I challange you to uphold the priciples that you are trying to preach.

Facts pertaining to your latest post:
1. It may be your opinion that the process was doomed from the start, but unfortunately not that many of these types of companies involve themselves with Public Housing - they do schools, cities, counties, hospitals, state governments, etc.

2. The consultant recommended Ameresco, the staff recommended CLT.

5. The gross misunderstanding of the process is with you. The pricing MUST be given up front to comply with HUD regulations. CLT was significantly lower from what I am told, and I am sure this will come out.

6. Check CLT's website, or try google - they have been in business for 7 years and from my research they have completed a ton of these energy savings projects. They are now completing a Housing Authority that is much larger than BHA.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 10:02, It's important to me to try to have my facts right.

1) It looks like we basically agree on the facts. We may have different opinions. I think having only 4 contractors dooms any hope of a competitive price from the start. But I concede this is a specialized field.

2) My information is this was the recommendation of both a paid consultant and the staff member who worked with that consultant. Now he could have been overruled, and my next question would be why.

5) Once again, I'm relying on information provided by a credible source.

6) CLT may have been in business longer than a year, but not in this type of business.

I'll be happy to post this topic again, but would like some information from you. You can email me at BOHare5948@aol.com. I'll preserve your anonymity if that is your desire. You obviously have inside information, and I'll supplement my post if my facts are wrong. But here's what I want. I'd like to see the scoring of the proposals by the staff and consultants. I'd like the written of evaluation committee members and the consultants. I'd also like to know whether any of the five Board members was previously contacted by a CLT or Ameresco representative. CLT's owner is one of the biggest Democratic contributors in Pa., if not the country. Three members of the BHA are partisan Dems. The BHA is known for making decisions behinf closed doors. And wht did Mr. Sanders feel compelled to start pressuring other board members behing the scenes with "This is what the mayor wants?"

You be straight with me and I'll be straight with you. On the other hand, if this is a reward to a major Dem contributor, you will be burned eventually. And my blog will be the least of your problems.

Anonymous said...

do you drive domestic or foreign?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Neither, if I can help it. Both, when I can't.