Pay-to-Play Reform – Let’s get on the same page!

Let’s set the record straight – Common Cause Georgia is not smearing anyone’s name, especially not that of Mayor Kasim Reed.  We are, however, hoping he will rise to the occasion and embrace true ethics reform as he has in the past.

For more than three years, Common Cause of Georgia has promoted the idea that Atlanta’s city politicians should not use their influence to compel vendors who do business with the city to make  campaign contributions. Nor, do we argue, should such businesses make substantial contributions to city politicians in expectation of favoritism.

That is a very simple argument. “Pay-to-play,” as the practice is called, at best gives the appearance of cronyism. At worst, it has been part of some worst scandals in Atlanta, particularly at the airport.

CCGA’s position spans the terms of two mayors. We have not argued for restraints on “pay-to-play” because of the actions of any one mayor and any member of the City Council. Rather, we are concerned entirely about making government transparent and ethical. At the heart of a current controversy at the airport, the issues – as they have been many times in the past – are transparency and “pay-to-play” favoritism. Mayor Kasim Reed is not providing documents from an airport procurement that his administration cancelled. Those documents, according to allegations in the press, would show that the cancellation and a new procurement showed favoritism to Reed contributors who had been disqualified from the first round of bids.  These documents could be released with the competitive bid numbers redacted, so the integrity of the sealed bid process was maintained while the process can be transparently scrutinized.

There is nothing inaccurate – or personal – about the concerns we have raised. Yet, the mayor has countered as if our long-stated position is an indictment of his administration’s ethics.

It’s worth noting that Reed endorsed ethics reform during in his 11 years in the State Senate, and has undertaken reform measures as mayor – like those that he pointed out in his recent response to Fox 5’s I-team report.  With Reed’s history, it should seem natural for him to support the modest position of CCGA’s proposed policies on “pay-to-play.” After all, we are not advocating a total ban on contributions from any city vendor – just a curtailment of how much money city contractors and would-be contractors can contribute to politicians.

Instead of allowing the owners of a company bidding for lucrative city contracts (along with their spouses, children and employees) to contribute the maximum allowable amount of $2,500 each to city candidates, we advocate for a total combined limit of $250 for anyone associated with a bidding company. This would allow such companies to show their support for a candidate of their choice without having the ability to collectively contribute tens of thousands of dollars in an effort to secure a winning bid.

Why do we want “pay-to-play” reform?  Because the City of Atlanta has a real perception problem when it comes to the practice of awarding contracts.  The City’s history of cronyism and corruption is detailed in our recent report – “Contracting at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport: The Need for Pay-to-Play Reform in Atlanta” by Kennesaw State Professor Kerwin Swint.

Mayor Reed says those who refer to corruption or cronyism should back up their allegations or stop smearing people’s reputations.

Let me be clear – we bring up this history not as an attempt to smear anyone’s reputation or make any allegations of wrong-doing by anyone currently in the Mayor’s administration, on the City Council or working at the airport.  We raise the issue to underscore the need for reform to fix the perception problem.

The history of cronyism and corruption goes back decades and will continue to tarnish the City of Atlanta’s reputation until real reform is embraced.   It is unfortunate, but because of this history, corruption is the first thing that comes to mind when something unusual happens.  When the City decided to take an unusual step and throw out all 94 bids for airport concessions because 43 percent of the bids submitted contained errors, it caused many Atlantans to think “here we go again”.

And why wouldn’t they think that?  One of the mayor’s largest contributors is a company that submitted bids that would not have qualified in the original process, according to the Fox 5 I-Team investigation.  But because all bids were thrown out, they now have the chance to resubmit their bids and possibly win the contracts.  No matter how honestly this process is run, this creates a perception problem.  And it is a perception problem that would not exist under our proposal because that company would not be allowed to contribute over $22,000 to any campaign, and therefore, would not create the perception of wrong-doing.

That company released a statement to Fox 5 in response to their story that states our case for us – the company regularly contributes to political campaigns based on its business interests.  They don’t make contributions because they want a better City of Atlanta, or because they think Mayor Reed is doing a great job, or because they think he is the best option to serve the people of Atlanta.  They are doing it only because they want to secure favoritism.  Whether or not they actually get the favoritism they seek is not the point, the fact that they try to buy influence and can do so legally is the problem.  This is a practice that should be stopped.

Here are two more points to clarify in response to the Mayor’s statement:

1) The Mayor says “without campaign contributions, candidates who are not wealthy would never be able to spend the time required to meet voters, communicate their ideas or develop their platforms. They would have to focus solely on raising money, which I believe would put them at a fundamental disadvantage and severely limit the pool of qualified candidates for office at the expense of voters.”

That is a pretty big stretch.  The companies seeking city business don’t run a charity for non-wealthy candidates. These companies contribute – and contribute handsomely — to incumbents and favored candidates only.  This is how incumbents’ campaign committees become wealthy and scare off potential challengers – it’s called incumbent protection.

Case in point, in the first six months of this year, Mayor Reed raised at least $80,000 from companies seeking to do business at the airport.  He has no opponent at this time, and is not on the ballot for a full two years.  He currently has a war chest over $600,000.  How big do you think the “pool of qualified candidates” will be given that sort of head start?  How many non-wealthy candidates will receive contributions from those same companies in 2013 to jump in the pool with Mayor Reed? And, what non-wealthy candidates are being funded by would-be airport vendors? Again, it’s not about non-wealthy candidates, it’s about incumbent protection.

2) Mayor Reed is correct – we applauded him for returning $24,600 of the $80,000+ he raised from airport vendors.  It was a step in the right direction, but it was only one step.  More steps need to be taken, like passing an ordinance that would greatly reduce such an amount being collected from vendors.   And, if he would like more than just applause, returning the full $80,000+ he collected this year from airport vendors would get a standing ovation.  Passing “pay-to-play” reform would get cries for an encore.

The mayor’s response included a quote from me in a July 20th AJC article praising his decision to refund the contributions, but he left out the first and most important line of the quote – “People doing business with the city should not be contributing heavily to campaigns.”  Again, he does deserve the praise for the first step, and I’m hopeful he continues to take additional steps in the right direction so that we can continue praising him.

In that same AJC article, Mayor Reed said of refunding the campaign contributions “We are doing this to avoid appearances.”  He sees the potential of the same perception problems that we do.  It seems we are saying almost the same thing, so let’s get on the same page and pass pay-to-play reform.

You can see all the campaign contributions to all city candidates from the last election, as well as Mayor’s Reed 2011 contributions on Common Cause Georgia’s MoneyWatch page, which tracks campaign contributions to elected officials.

About William Perry

Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia
This entry was posted in Campaign Finance, Government Ethics, Pay-to-Play and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pay-to-Play Reform – Let’s get on the same page!

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