Report: OH’s Frequent Political Donors Win More Contracts

Fri November 07, 2003 - National Edition

COLUMBUS, OH (AP) Companies that donated to a political fund controlled by Gov. Bob Taft won 89 percent of unbid design and construction management contracts for rebuilding Ohio’s schools, a newspaper reported.

The Ohio School Facilities commission, created in 1997, has awarded $166.5 million in contracts that didn’t go through a competitive bidding process. A computer analysis by The Columbus Dispatch showed that 19 companies that made political contributions landed nearly $148 million of those contracts. Architects and managers that didn’t donate received about $18.5 million in contracts, the newspaper reported Sunday.

“There is no correlation between soliciting donations and the awarding of school-construction contracts,” said Orest Holubec, Taft’s spokesman.

The facilities commission run by a Taft appointee administers $3 billion worth of school construction contracts overall.

Commission Director Mary Lynn Readey said she and her staff can’t tell if the companies they hire are political contributors.

The construction-management and architectural companies donated both to Taft’s re-election campaign, where the maximum donation is $2,500, and to the fund set up to promote or defeat ballot issues. There are no limits on the size or source of contributions to issues funds.

The newspaper said its analysis can’t prove the companies received the contracts because they donated.

Columbus lobbyist Robert F. Klaffky said lobbyists recommend that corporate clients give to political campaigns to increase their visibility and assure better access to elected officials.

“Anyone who is a major corporation is going to be hit,” said former Senate President Stanley J. Aronoff of Cincinnati, now a lobbyist for several large businesses.

One of his clients, Turner Construction Co., donated $25,000 to the issues fund and received more than $10 million in School Facilities contracts. The New York company has a Cincinnati office.

The ballot issue fund was created in 1999, Taft’s first year in office, but the issue it supports changes year to year.

This year its goal is to raise $3 million to support a bond proposal for Taft’s Third Frontier project to attract high-tech jobs. Brian Hicks, Taft’s former chief of staff, is running the campaign.

Hicks said the governor personally solicits most of the fund’s donations, either through telephone calls, letters or meetings with select groups, such as corporate executives.

“Companies that support the governor generally support his initiatives,” Hicks said. “When he calls, they generally give. They do business in the state, they have employees in the state and it’s in their interest to support efforts that help the state.”

Among the companies the newspaper analyzed, the largest contract awards, more than $18 million each, went to Ruscilli Construction of Columbus and Quandel Group of Harrisburg, PA, each of which donated $25,000 to the issues fund.

In the 2000 issue campaign, to support the Citizens for a Clean Ohio bond initiative, the 19 construction and architecture firms gave nearly $300,000 of the $999,000 raised. The next year, the state-paid portion of school-building contracts those companies received nearly doubled to $27 million.

“Companies recognize that campaign contributions can produce positive results for their business,” said Steven Weiss, communication director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign-finance watchdog based in Washington.

“Campaign contributions are an investment and not just a show of support for a healthy democracy,” Weiss said.

Catherine Turcer, legislative director of Ohio Citizen Action, another political-watchdog group, said everyday citizens can’t get the same inroads with the governor.

“If I come to a meeting with you and I come with a $25,000 contribution, I’m going to be treated different,” Turcer said.