Thursday, April 7, 2016

Hamilton County Commissioner's Emails Suggest Pay-to-Play Accepted Local Government Practice

During this year's legislative session, the Indiana Senate passed a bill that would have prohibited contractors from making political donations to government officials who were deciding the contractors' bids for work.  It, unfortunately, died in the Indiana House.  Developments this week show why such legislation is much needed.

Hamilton County Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt is a senior account executive for Indianapolis-based renewable energy firm Ameresco Inc.  His company is bidding on a green energy project in St. Joseph County.  In an email exchange with St. Joseph Commissioner Deb Fleming, Heirbrandt discussed the merits of his company while at the same time raising the possibility of
Hamilton Count Commissioner
Mark Heirbrandt
helping Fleming out with her campaign.  The Indianapolis Business Journal reports:
According to the information released by Democrats, Heirbrandt sent an email to Fleming in January about the green energy project his company was bidding on and included comments about her campaign.
Fleming is chairwoman of the committee that was formed to evaluate the proposals for the project.
On Jan. 9, Heirbrandt  said in an email to her that he met with other local elected officials to discuss the project but wanted to follow up with her because they had not had a chance to talk.
In the same email, he said he heard she may have opposition in the upcoming election and offered to provide assistance.
“Anything you can do to help is greatly appreciated,” Fleming replied Jan. 10.
On Jan. 17, Heirbrandt emailed her again to discuss fundraising opportunities and said he spoke with vendors about her. He asked her how much her campaign might cost and whether she’d be in a contested race in the primary or the general election.
“There are several vendors that are willing to help you put something together,” Heirbrandt wrote. “It will just need to be planned.”
Fleming responded that her ideal campaign would require at least $100,000 to $120,000 to cover the costs of mailers, TV and radio ads, and billboards.
Heirbrandt told her that several vendors should be able to help and that he’d talk to her soon about it.
The next email in the chain is from Heirbrandt on March 21, asking about the status of the decision to select a proposal for the energy project. No company has been selected yet.
Heirbrandt wants people to believe that his raising the possibility of funding Fleming's campaign at the very same time he was discussing the merits of Ameresco's pending bid would be viewed as two separate, unrelated matters.  In short, Heirbrandt thinks the public is really stupid.  Of course, Fleming would have assumed the two were related as would anyone with an ounce of common sense.

Gary Welsh of Advance Indiana picks up on another, possibly more important, point.  In the email, Heirbrandt suggests he could line up other vendors to support Fleming's campaign.  The only way he would have that sort of leverage is for vendors to be concerned they might lose contracts in Hamilton County if they didn't do Heirbrandt a favor by donating money to help out Fleming.  Welch concludes his article on the subject:
The bigger picture of course is whether Heirbrandt was in a position to direct other vendors to contribute to Fleming's campaign by leveraging his position as a Hamilton Co. Commissioner. That is the implication to be made from his e-mail exchanges suggesting he could help her raise money from other vendors. Why would other vendors be listening to his suggestions on campaign contributions unless it was a way of currying favor with him in his capacity as a county commissioner with contract decision-making authority? It's just an exercise in futility to discuss, though, since "pay to play" has been permissible activity by both federal and state prosecutors in Indiana, even if there's a long list of public officials who've been sent to prison for doing the same thing in neighboring Illinois. The fact that two public officials would so cavalierly discuss campaign contributions and a government contract in the same e-mail demonstrates just how bad things have gotten in the Hoosier state.
Pay-to-play politics is the worst at the local level.  In a county bereft of two party competition, Hamilton County government is consumed with the practice. That county's politicians are all too willing to hand over taxpayer money to government contractors in order to reap the rewards of  large campaign contributions and cushy private sector jobs and contracts in return.  But even in counties that do have some level of party competition, counties like St. Joseph and Marion, the practice thrives.

The time has long passed for the legislature to put a halt to local pay-to-play politics.

1 comment:

Nicolas Martin said...

Corruption is the nature of democracy. It's incredibly naive to think it can be meaningly reformed. The worst sorts of people are attracted to politics, and they are hardly going to attenuate their powers or abolish their natural propensity for criminality. Even educated and intelligent people can be persuaded by the incantations of political hucksters, and democracy is held to be as sacred now as the divine right of kings used to be. As the 20th century more than amply showed, there is nothing so heinous that democracy cannot foster it, including genocide. Honest government is a risible fantasy.