Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Donations, road work unrelated

Enquirer study finds no link

By Patrick Stack
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — Northern Kentucky's road contract awards reveal limited evidence of an alleged “pay to play” connection to political contributions, state campaign finance records show.

        For the past two years, the Republican-majority state Senate has considered a law to limit contractors' contributions to both gubernatorial campaigns and to political parties, maintaining that the donations may be linked to state contract awards.

        While Senate arguments hold that highway contractors give a disproportionate amount of the contributions to Gov. Paul Patton and the Democratic Party in Kentucky, an analysis by The Cincinnati Enquirer has found that in Northern Kentucky, political donations do not show a great influence in road contracts.

        Of 23 companies awarded contracts to do road work in Boone, Campbell and Kenton Counties from 1996 to 2000, only nine were found to have employees or spouses of employees who made contributions to the Kentucky Democratic Party from 1997 to 2000 or to Mr. Patton's 1995 or 1999 campaigns, the Enquirer found.

        The $66 million in road contracts awarded to Northern Kentucky firms with contributing associates was less than half — 45 percent — of the total of $146 million in contracts examined by the Enquirer.

        The Enquirer examined state road contracts of more than $200,000 for work in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties from 1996 to 2000. The companies that were awarded contracts were cross-referenced with a list of contributors to Mr. Pat ton's 1995 and 1999 campaigns and the Kentucky Democratic Party from 1997 to2000. The analysis comes after the introduction of Senate Bill 1 during the 2001 session of the Kentucky General Assembly. The bill, which was passed by the Senate but died in the House for the second year in a row, would have prevented contracting companies from doing business with the state if they or their officers contributed to statewide candidates or political parties. .

Proximity may help
               Kentucky Senate President David Williams sponsored the bill in the Senate. He said he did not know why the three counties didn't show a strong correlation between political contributions and contract awards, but speculated that it might be because proximity to Cincinnati businesses keeps companies from depending on state contracts.

        “If you get into eastern or south-central Kentucky, where you don't have an ability to go into (nearby areas) and do other work, these contractors are dependent on the local and state governments for their business,” he said.

        Mr. Williams cited a 1999 report by the Louisville Courier-Journal that found that of $8.57 million in contributions to Mr. Patton's 1995

        and 1999 campaigns and the Democratic Party from May 1995 to August 1999, $1.17 million came from highway contractors and another more than $594,000 came from highway engineers, almost 21 percent of the total. That report covered the entire state.

        Senate Republicans had criticized Mr. Patton's administration, saying road and highway contractors gave a disproportionate amount to Mr. Patton's campaigns and the Democratic Party, and that such contributions were being rewarded by the awarding of state contracts to contributors.

        Contractors are “just putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of these campaigns, and it just doesn't look right,” Mr. Williams said.

        Mark Pfeiffer, a spokesman for Mr. Patton's office, said the governor's office opposed the bill on the grounds that it would infringe on constitutional rights of free association. He said campaign contributions do not influence the state's contract awarding process.

        “Contracts that the governor approves are based on who's the best entity to get the job done,” he said. “Politics doesn't enter into his decisions.”

Big contracts, no donations
               The Enquirer found that the company receiving the most in Northern Kentucky road contracts, Eaton Asphalt Paving Co. of Covington — with a total of $33 million for 19 road contracts — was not found to have any associates who made any political contributions. An official of Eaton declined to be interviewed for this article.

        In Kentucky, highway contracts are awarded on a competitive basis, with the low bid winning. Contractors are also required to be precertified with the state before they can receive a contract.

        The nine companies that both received contracts and made political contributions gave more than $220,000 to the Democratic Party from 1997 to 2000, and $16,000 to Mr. Patton's 1995 and 1999 campaigns, the analysis found. Those companies represented $66 million of the $146 million in contracts examined.

        The other $80 million in Northern Kentucky road contracts went to firms that could not be found in the list of contributors.

        Associates of Elmo Greer and Sons, a London contracting firm, gave $93,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party, but also gave an additional $10,000 to the state Republican party, according to federal election finance data.

        The company received a $20 million contract in January 2000 to work on Ky. 17, but that was the only time the firm appeared in the contract records examined.

        The state archive destroys copies of contracts about three years after the final audit is completed on the contract, said Todd Shipp, assistant general counsel for the Transportation Cabinet, so the list of contracts studied by the Enquirer did not include all contracts awarded in the period. Some contracts from 1996 and 1997 may have been destroyed if the projects were completed and audits executed.

        Not all of the companies receiving Northern Kentucky road contracts were located in Kentucky. Five companies — receiving state contracts totaling $34 million — were from states including Ohio, Maryland and Florida.

        Northern Kentucky road contractors defended the state's low-bid system, saying they believe it prevents politics from entering into the contract award process.

Contractors react
               Spartan Construction Inc. in Burlington received about $7 million in contracts. Dianne Brossart, president of the company, said she has personally made contributions to the Democratic Party and to Mr. Patton's campaigns, but her company has not. According to online records, she personally gave $17,500 to the Kentucky Democratic party.

        Mrs. Brossart said she didn't see a correlation between her contributions and her company's contracts with the state, saying the company does not do a large amount of business with the state anyway. The company does about $15 million in total business each year, she said.

        “I'm a believer in the Demo cratic Party and I really like Gov. Patton,” she said. “I think he's done a lot of good for Kentucky. But I don't think we reap any benefits personally out of” making contributions.

        “I think with some of the larger companies in the state there's a correlation between (contributions and contracts), but I really don't know,” she said. “I don't feel that it affects me that much.”

        Dan Seevers, president of DRT Construction, an excavations firm in Independence, said neither he nor his company makes political contributions.

        “For doing publicly funded work, where it is the lowest and best bidder, I can't see where political contributions affect that,” he said.

        “Since the bids are publicly opened, I don't see how my political contributions would have any impact. I have to stand on my own as a contractor,” he said.


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