Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pay to Play at BHA: Campaign Finance Reform Needed

Yesterday, I told you Bethlehem's Housing Authority (BHA) will soon award a lucrative energy savings contract to an outfit whose owner has given obscene amounts of money to Democrats seeking higher office. It will ignore its own staff and a paid consultant, who advised them to give the deal to someone else.

Such is the power of money in Pennsylvania politics. It's legal bribery, and it's rampant.

"So basically you'd be happy if those who donate to Dems don't get any public business?" That's what one commenter asked. No, I happen to be a Democrat. But we've reached a melting point. Wealthy developers, lawyers, engineers and prospective contractors know campaign contributions help their bottom line. They spread money and get noticed. Others, who don't have thousands of dollars, are ignored. Orwell's warning rings true - some animals are more equal than others.

Money has become so important to pols that even locally elected officials never stop fundraising. Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan is a prime example. He was just sworn into office for his first four-year term on January 3, 2006. Yet last year, in an off year, his campaign raised over $13,000.00. He didn't get that money from bake sales and car washes. Most of it came from lawyers, developers and prospective contractors. Tom Beach, executive VP of Conshohoken engineering firm Remington & Vernick, kicked in $1,000. Do you honestly think he gives one Philly cheesesteak about Bethlehem?

Pennsylvania has no limit on how much anyone can contribute to or spend in a political campaign. And although both pols and vendors deny a connection, any cursory examination of local campaign finance reports will reveal the same players, and guess who is always rewarded with contracts, jobs and tax concessions. Coincidence? Office seekers are so busy raising money, they have no time to interact with voters. Our campaign finance laws need reform. Here are a few ideas.

First, we should consider contribution limits. Home Rule governments like Northampton and Lehigh County have a right to impose these restrictions. Are any candidates for county office willing to study this kind of legislation?

Second, we must eliminate "pay to play" abuse. It's already led to two years in Club Fed when Michael Solomon, as a Norco official, was shaking down county contractors. Individuals who contribute to county candidates, for example, should be barred for one or two years from seeking no-bid contracts with the county. Philadelphia has recently adopted legislation directed at eliminating this shady practice.

Third, we need to experiment with "clean elections." How do they work? A candidate collects a number of small dollar qualifying contributions ($5 or $10), agrees to strict spending limits, and refuses further private money. Her campaign will then be publicly funded. Participation is voluntary, so no one can claim an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. This enables elected officials to concentrate on issues instead of endless fundraising.

Fourth, campaign finance reports should be more accessible and better explained. In the last primary, for example, there was a bitter four-way battle for the seat ultimately won by state rep Joe Brennan. Although campaign finance was a hot issue in that race, reports were unavailable online until after the election was over, when it no longer mattered. That is unacceptable. Reports for those seeking local seats should also be available online. Let's face it. Without online access, it's nearly impossible for a working person to follow the money. And those local elections are often more meaningful than anything on the state level. How much money do you think KOZ King Abe Atiyeh has given to local candidates in the Lehigh Valley? I see his name everywehere, but it's impossible to tell without taking each report and manually adding the sums. That system must change.

Finally, those reports should have detailed explanations when a candidate spends money on himself. In December, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan gave himself $3,600 for "political travel" and "miscellaneous expenses" during an off-election year. Is it that expensive to drive in Bethlehem? And what kind of expenses are Callahan spending on himself when his next election is three years away? I think we're entitled to better itemization instead of an expense that raises more questions than it answers.

21 comments:

LVDem said...

To be fair this isn't about bethlehem or Democrats. Remember that article I did about Reichley and the sick sums of money he brought in from the developers of the region. Bernie even made the comment "Boy, these developers have their tentacles everywhere. Kind of explains why Rich Grucela is having such a tough time getting his fellow legislators to buy into his proposal to assess developers with impact fees." The problem with money and power isn't about party: it's about who is in power. You point out developers/lawyers giving money to the mayor. Well, if was a Republican mayor, there'd be the same money.

I'm glad you brought up the point about money in politics. It's troubling, but there are very very few people who can get elected on slim budgets. Stoffa did it, but with a flawlessly executed strategy and an incredible reputation of effective upper level county government management. He was, in other words, such a good candidate that money didn't matter. Unfortunately, we don't have many Stoffa's in the world, yet alone in politics. That bolt of lightening doesn't strike very often so when it does, we all point and say "see, it can happen." The reality is that it's more the exception that proves the rule: money is a part of politics.

Until we stand up and demand that a change be made...

Anonymous said...

Bernie,
I am not sure how accurate the dates are on Callahan's reporting. I know for a fact that Callahan hosted 2 fundraiser for Rendell last fall at Starter's Riverport. One of them was a $500.00 per ticket event and one was a $25.00 per ticket event. They were on the same day. It was the same day that Riverport had a ribbon cutting ceremony, I think it was a holiday.
I went to the $25 fundraiser and made my check payable to "Friends of John Callahan" but it was a Rendell fundraiser.
I looked at the Reports on the Dept. of State website and see what you see, but I am almost certain those developers that paid $500 to Callahan paid it for the Rendell event.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 9:19,

Thanks for the comment. Those contributions, all made on 11/28, were contribuitions to Callahan. He claims them as such on his campaign finance report. If they were intended for Rendell, then his committee would have cut a check for Rendell for the amount of money raised. That didn't happen. The checks were all $500 except for Tom Beach and Jim Broughal. Those were $1,000 checks. The money went into Callahan's till, and there it sits. In fact, that's one reason why Callahan was able to spend $3,600 on himeslf in December. My report about Callahan is accurate.

These are local records. I thought you could only see them by going to the courthouse. I wonder why Callahan is filing online. That's something new.

Looks like his little dinner may have been at The Edge.

Bernie O'Hare said...

LVDem,

You made my point better than I did. It's not about the party - it's about the money. That's why Stoffa is so rare. I spoke with him once, and only very briefly, about money. He told my the potential for mischief is endless. I'm hoping I can speak with him in detail about that some day.

Bill White though it was hilarious when Stoffa wouldn't take a bag of pretzels from Larry Otter. "I won't accept anything from anybody." But we're in a "one hand washes the other" climate. It's good to see someone who doesn't play that game, and makes it very clear. Our next exec will be a player, no matter what party he or she is from, unless Stoffa seeks re-election.

Anonymous said...

Bernie,
I see what you are saying. I looked to see what kind of contributions "Friends of John Callahan" and it was only the $1,225 from the fundraiser at Starters. I thought for sure that Callahan was throwing the other fundraiser that day. I guess he wasn't. The date was 9/11.

With the kind of money he has, it will be interesting to see how active Callhan will be this spring with the City Council race.

Anonymous said...

To correct my last post- It should state I looked at the contributions to Rendell from "Friends of John Callahan" and it was a contribution of around $1,200.00

Anonymous said...

Campaign funding reform must start at the federal level and trickle down to the local level. We as taxpayer have an option from our tax returns to contribute to campaign funding by checking a box. We must insist all candidates use these monies for their run for public office. We should not allow them to op-out and spend whatever the Political Action Committees give them!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 10:14,

So basically we're talking abnout different events at different times. There must have been a fundraiser for Rendell and a separate, and later, fundraiser for Callahan.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 10:23,

Trickle down reform? Do you really think that's going to happen? Where have I heard that "trickle down" phrase before?

Reform should start where we have some control - at the local level. We need a state constitutional convention for some major changes on the state level. Nearly all of our electoral abuses could be solved with changes on the local and state levels.

I don't think we'll see much in the way of reform from our Congress, whether Dems or Republicans are in control. And when they do decide to "reform," they screw everything up. They are the rocket scientists who shoved HAVA down our throats, causing us endless troubles with local and state elections.

Anonymous said...

You should inquire about the contributors to the Allentown Mayor. Specifically Nic Sawarksi, 64 downtown townhomes on lots purchased from the Allentown Parking Authority, and Thomas Williams of City Line Construction who also has a contract with the City for post fire inspections/condemnations, and was awarded the right to redevelop Sal's Spaghetti house by the ARA, both the top to contributors, all this in 2007, a non election year. Coincidence?

Bernie O'Hare said...

These are some of the same players you'll also see on other campaign finance reports. And lest we start getting the wrong idea, these players contibute to Republicans with equal ease. Like LVDem says, they support those who are already in power.

Billy Givens said...

Bernie,

No one twisted John Stoffa's arm and forced him to buy the touch-screen voting machines.

There's no way possible he can flick this booger from his fingertip.

And you know it.

It's as nasty as it looks, violative non only of reliable voting but also, with no booth in which to vote with the curtain drawn, sanctity of the Australian secret ballot.

Anonymous said...

idealistic, but unrealistic. a couple points

1. solomon did not go down for pay to play. despite a lotta smoke, there was no fire on that one. solomon went down for getting in on the back-end of some contracts he set up when he was in office.

2. i'm troubled by the two year hiatus idea. anytime you limit resources available to candidates, you elevate
a) the wealthy, who can fund their own campaigns;
b) the party machine, who will be able to legally launder the money (giving more power to the Joe Long's of the world you seem to despise); and
c) the media-without access to resources to communicate their message, candidates will be entirely at the mercy of the media, who are not entirely clean or unbiased themselves.

3. Stoffa's campaign was kind of a once in a lifetime fluke. Reibman (inexplicably) didn't spend any real money in the primary attacking Stoffa. Had he done so, Stoffa would not have had the resources to respond, and the primary outcome could have been quite different. i hazard to guess you would be talking about County Executive Nyce in your blog.

4. I love the idea of mandatory contributions and spending limits, and even public funding of campaigns, but there is that pesky bill of rights.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Billy,

1) Your comment is OT, as usual.

2) I've been thru this w/ you several times now, in comments on many blog posts and in emails. Stoffa was in office 18 days when the county decided on AVS. Stoffa weas not part of the selections committee. Nor was any member of council. They accepted the recommendation of a selection committee who analyzed three different systems. From what I can see, the selection committee acted in good faith, and we had no choice. Continued use of the lever machines would violate federal law. Stoffa had about as much to do w/ AVS as you or I. I don't recall any blasts from your bullhorn on this topic. You never addressed council on this subject, as you have falsely tried to claim. In hindsight, optical scanning would be the best system. Hindsight is always 20/20. Having been told this several times, you continue to post this false accusation.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 12:49,

I agree this is idealistic. Does that make it wrong? Can't we try, every now and then, to do the right thing? Let me respond to your points.

1) Technically, Michael pleaded to mail fraud and tax evasion. that doesn't sound like pay to play either. But the scheme was certainly part of the pay to play culture. He helped himself to some money from county contractors.

2) You make some good points. But if people who do business with the county or city are barred for a limited time from donating to a county or city campaignn, there will still be plenty of money. Unions, PACs, etc., will all still be able to contribute. This just eliminates a group of players who appear to be rewarded for their contributions. I don't think it elevates the wealthy, party machines or the media. It levels the playing field for challengers. It removes one advantage that incumbents have.

3) I have to agree with this point. Stoffa was a fluke. Reibman, although he had gobs of money, chose not to spend it. He seriously underestimated Stoffa. I don't think he would have made that mistake if he still had Hickey. Hickey would not take Stoffa lightly, just as he did not take Angle lightly. I'm not so sure Reibman would have lost to Nyce. The republican party was very divided after the primary, and Reibman would have won if he held onto Hickey.

4) Limits on campaign contributions have withstood constutional challenges. In fact, an ordinance from Philly imposing those kinds of limits was just upheld in a Commonwealth Court ruling earlier this month. That court even ruled that home rule governments have the right to impose campaign contribution limits. "Clean elections," the other idea being offered, also holds up to a constitutional challenge. Under that system, you must opt in. It is voluntary. If you want to raise your money the old fashioned way, you may continue to do so. Public financing of a campaign evens the playing field. In jurisdictions where it is in use, even incumbents like it. It gives them more time to concentrate on their job. They don't need to spend so much time and energy looking for handouts.

So is this unrealistic? The only thing unrealistic about these suggestions is that most pewople in office lack the political will to make changes. But if they did, the changes would hold up against constitutional challeneges. And the clean elections proposal, in particular, seems to be working where it has been used.

Anonymous said...

are we on sur-rebuttal yet?

1. pay to play is the illegal quid pro quo where a contractor gives something (in this instance a contribution) in return for the gaurantee of a reward (a contract). quite different from what Mike went down for. The "pay for play" aspect, as described above, was explored in tedious, nauseating, and painful detail, and there was nothing to it.

2.your solution, in your own words, would deal with a gtroup of people who "appear" to benefit from the current system. it would only deal with appearances, and the availability of (and here's the kicker) THE SAME money from the very sources you cite would make the reform meaningless.

3. i can't really comment, other than to say Hickey's an asshole.

4.i was inartful, and speaking to spending limits/caps on actual campaigns. that's the only way to deal with it. an "opt out provision" is the equivalent of unilateral disamament in an arms race.

LVDem said...

American history is loaded with idealists pursuing reform. Some get the job done. Some don't. That doesn't mean we sit back and say, "it ain't gonna happen." If we did, who knows what would have happened to slavery, the civil rights movement, women's vote, social security... the list goes on.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 2:07,

Holy shit! I know who you are, you miserable bastard! Good to hear from you. .... and a cold wind blew through cyberspace.

Anonymous said...

tis chilly out here.

and let's cut the solidarinos/slavery/equal-rights B.S. comparisons. i'm all for idealism with a purpose; that is, idealism that can be made to work. but without a hard cap on spending, as opposed to campaign fund raising, there isn't a reform you mentioned that a clever person couldn't find a way around.

put a mandatory cap on spending, in a fashion that the supremes can get comfy with, and you'll resolve the bulk of your problems. until then, this is nothing but mental masturbation. it's fun to discuss, but won't accomplish the end.

Anonymous said...

and it's always good to hear from and chat with you.




even if you are a sanctimonious bag of monkey nuts.

Bernie O'Hare said...

It was a real delight to hear from the mother of all miserable bastards. Don't tell anyone I'm an idealist. I won't tell anyone that you are, too, no matter how hard you try to hide it. We miss you here.

And I'll even agree with hard caps on total spending, if that idea can ever be sold.