Architect Contends Contributions Get Government Contracts in TN

Wed February 04, 2004 - Southeast Edition

CHATTANOOGA, TN (AP) A Chattanooga architect contends the State Building Commission favors political contributors when it hands out work, but Tennessee Secretary of State Riley Darnell said that’s not so.

“If you don’t make the right political contribution, you don’t get the job,” architect Terry Barker said of his firm, River Street Architecture, deciding not do business with the state.

Darnell, who serves on the seven-member commission, said the board oversees all construction, demolition, land purchases or leases by the state and “is all about getting the taxpayers of Tennessee the best value for their dollar.”

“Anytime you have government, you have politics involved,” he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Commission contracts are based on qualifications, past performance and fairness, said Michael Fitts, who has been a state architect for 32 years.

The commission also includes the governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker, commissioner of the Department of Finance and Administration, comptroller and state treasurer.

Darnell said governors have not participated in the commission’s monthly meetings for years. That means Lt. Gov. John S. Wilder, the vice chairman, leads the board.

Campaign records show Wilder received 24 donations, totaling $18,050 in 2000 and 2001, from 18 contributors who are engineers or architects. House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, received three donations from three engineers or architects totaling $2,500.

Chattanooga-based MEP Engineering received the most business during the period, with 15 state contracts totaling $7.1 million, records show. MEP engineer Stanton Peters contributed $2,000 to Wilder’s most recent re-election campaign.

Planning Associates Inc. was awarded eight state jobs during the period. Planning Associates chief Socrates Sabater said politics played no role in getting the state work.

Elections records show no contributions by Sabater since 1996. Sabater said state officials have asked nothing of him in exchange for the contracts.

Dick Williams of Common Cause of Tennessee said state leaders should consider changing the commission membership to avoid any appearance of favoritism.