A candidate can argue all he wants that political donations are a form of free speech. He can dismiss as coincidence those campaign contributions that arrive around the time that he approves the donor for a handsome public contract.
But a look at the record in Pittsburgh suggests something a little more intentional, a cozy pay-to-play system where it isn't hard to connect the dots. That's the feeling Post-Gazette readers had Sunday after digesting reporter Rich Lord's account of a long list of contributions given to city, county and state officials last year who awarded contracts to the givers.
The report examined more than 2,000 donations and more than 1,500 contracts. Here are two examples of the interplay between public contracts and political contributions.
Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority board voted on Feb. 13 to buy 43 parking spaces from developer Millcraft for $1.72 million so they could be leased back for use at Piatt Place. On March 6, a Millcraft executive made a $500 campaign contribution to Sen. Jim Ferlo, a URA board member. Then on May 8 the URA board voted to seek $5.6 million from the state for Millcraft's Market Square Place project. On the same day, Millcraft execs gave Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who appoints the URA board, an $8,000 contribution. In June the URA board voted to sell property to Millcraft for $2.3 million and throw in a $380,000 grant. In December Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign received a $10,000 contribution from a Millcraft executive.
In another case, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority board approved in February $1.16 million in contracts for Independent Enterprises. The next month the firm's executives gave contributions of $500 to state Rep. Don Walko, chairman of the PWSA board, and $400 to state Rep. Dan Deasy, then a city councilman and PWSA board member. In May, an Independent exec gave a $500 campaign contribution to Mayor Ravenstahl, who appoints the PWSA board.
In case after case, the Post-Gazette story detailed the intertwined records of public contract approvals by political officials and campaign contributions to them from individuals at the firms that got the work. To no one's surprise, the elected officials said the donations have nothing to do with the contracts.
Mayor Ravenstahl said there are "no quid pro quos" for contractors doing business with the city. "I would argue that the time frames of when these contributions are being made, if they would happen to be around the same time [as contracts], are coincidence rather than something that is planned," he said. "Oftentimes [contributions] are made around fund-raisers."
That's not how it looks to the public, especially in Pennsylvania, where the sky is the limit on political contributions.
Mr. Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato have proposed a joint city-county limit on campaign contributions of $4,600 from individuals and $10,000 from political action committees per four-year election cycle. That would be better than nothing, but it doesn't go far enough. The limits are too high for local races and they do nothing to discourage the appearance of pay-to-play.
Real reform would also rule out no-bid contracts for political contributors and maybe even bar bid contracts of a certain size for political donors, as is done in other cities and states. The mayor doesn't like that because he says it infringes on a contributor's First Amendment right to support a candidate. His constitutional concern rings hollow, however, when Pittsburgh taxpayers see work going repeatedly to outfits that plow contributions into the campaigns of those who control the purse.
It's not enough for public officials to say they don't act with favoritism. They must declare that they will not even appear to act with favoritism.
In a state like Pennsylvania, where the laws are loose and cronyism is tight; where a 30-year Senate veteran was just convicted on 137 counts of corruption; where the chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was fired last week by the governor on allegations that he took $150,000 from the state for a ghost job; and where a grand jury last summer indicted 12 state officials and employees in a bonus pay scandal -- it's easy to see how appearances cause the public to lose faith in government.
If elected officials truly want to restore integrity in the process and confidence in their own virtue, they need to do reform right, not reform lite.