In a January 27th story in the Indianapolis Star, I was quoted questioning Mayor John Ditslear’s campaign financing methods, a system I call the “Money Machine.” My concern? The Mayor invites City contractors and their wanna-bes to give him campaign donations. This is not proof of anything illegal. But the Money Machine system gives the appearance of “pay-to-play,” as if the donation is the cost of admission to being considered for City contracts.
Again, I’m not saying that’s what’s happening, but with this existing outward appearance, if the next mayor were truly conducting an illegal pay-to-play scheme, there’d be no way to tell because it would look exactly the same.
In the Star article, Mayor Ditslear called my argument, “ludicrous.”
Here’s a brief history of what I’m talking about:
In the mid-‘90s, during former Mayor Dennis Redick’s first term, the Money Machine concept took hold locally. It appeared as though the City’s accounts payable records and Planning Department application records had been gathered into a mailing list. These engineering firms, construction managers, architects, developers, consultants, builders, road pavers and trash haulers were invited to a golf outing with the mayor . . . for the price of a donation.
This system was so successful Redick entered the next two elections very well funded.
In June of ’03, after winning the primary election for a 3rd term, Redick was charged with domestic assault and his power began to unravel. John Ditslear threw his hat in the ring, running as an Independent. Ditslear had a record of civic involvement and so had solid local connections to draw upon for contributions. As a result, 90% of Ditslear’s pre-election campaign funds came from local sources.
In the run-up to the general elections, the Money Machine donors largely stuck with the incumbent, Dennis Redick.
But that November John Ditslear won and allegiances immediately shifted. According to campaign fillings, in the 40 days after winning, before he was even sworn in, Redick’s former Money Machine donors sent Ditslear nearly $20,000 – even though the election was over.
It didn’t stop there. Within 9 months of taking office Ditslear held his first golf outing and reaped big bucks from Redick’s old Money Machine donors. And oh what a machine it is. In 2004 Ditslear raked in over $70,000. In ’05 he raised $80,000 and in ’06 took an additional $75,000. Of that nearly quarter of a million dollars, over 75% came from out of town business interests who couldn’t vote in local elections.
None of this is illegal, but it should be, because it’s fundamentally unethical.
An example: When constructing the new city hall, two lucrative contracts were handed out. One went to Odle, McGuire, & Shook of Indianapolis, the architects who designed the building. The other went to Meyer/Najem of Fishers, who would be the construction managers. Neither contract required competitive bids. Both companies’ combined donations to John Ditslear totaled nearly $9,000. Their smallest donations came in the mayor’s first year in office, then grew larger in ’05 and ’06 as the City Hall project was in full swing.
Absolutely none of this suggests anybody did anything illegal. But consider the process: the Mayor sends invitations for a campaign fundraising golf outing to people who can’t vote for him but who’s business relies on winning government contracts, and they oblige.
The Money Machine is dangerous because even though John Ditslear, Meyer/Najem and McGuire, Odle, & Shook may be the most ethical collection of Hoosiers ever assembled – and I’m absolutely ready to believe they are, the next mayor and contractor/campaign contributors may not be. And if that next mayor actually traded contracts for campaign donations – classic pay-to-play, how would we know? We wouldn’t. And what if it’s as simple as a mayor giving contracts to those he feels most obligated to, no secret agreement, just a feeling of obligation because of a big donation? That’s still wrong.
Is that argument “ludicrous?” I don’t think so. That’s why 7 states, including neighboring Illinois have barred entities bidding on governmental contracts from making political contributions to government officials. This movement has been prompted by a wave of pay-to-play scandals across the country.
In the Star article, Mayor Ditslear actually argued, “They [the donors] offer to help me get re-elected because they think I do a good job,” and “I don’t invite people because they do business with the city; I invite people who I think would enjoy a round of golf and a nice meal.”
Now that’s ludicrous.
First off, they generally don’t “offer,” they’re asked to donate. And go to the county’s web page (http://www.hamiltoncounty.in.gov/), click the “Laws, Elections . . .” tab in the right hand sidebar and download Mayor Ditslear’s campaign filing for 2010. Look through the list of donors and see how many typical Noblesville voters you find - you know, local folks who think the Mayor is doing a good job and want to enjoy a round of golf and a nice meal with him.
Good luck with that needle-in-a-haystack endeavor. There are only a few on the donor list. The overwhelming majority are people who don’t live in Noblesville and can’t vote for Ditslear. So if he’s looking for people who think he’s doing and good job and want to help him get re-elected, why doesn’t the Mayor look in Noblesville? Why is he pursuing out of town people who have and/or want City contracts – people who can’t vote for him?
What’s more, why would somebody from Naperville, Illinois (who last year gave Ditslear $1,550) or Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin (who last year gave $500) give a crap how good the mayor of Noblesville, Indiana is? Is it because of the golf and the nice meal or is it because both of those donors represent engineering firms?
As ironic as it is unfortunate, at least once when he invited these out of town contractors to donate, the front of the invitation read, “Wanna Play?”