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Crawford investigates

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-01-19


John Crawford waited until most of the other councilmen had taken their turn during “open mic” at a recent city council meeting. “Open mic” is a ritual every other council meeting where the nine members can express themselves outside the constraints of an agenda. Then he dropped a bomb.

His comments caused everyone in the room to sit up and then sit quietly while he ticked off his concerns, his disturbing observations, and finally announced his plan. In the process he put both Mayor Tom Henry and the underachieving Election Board on notice that he would methodically and patiently look into questionable campaign contributions.

Early last year, a blogger friend scoured campaign contributions listed on the Henry for Mayor financial report. What he found would have been humorous if it did not suggest favoritism and corruption in the awarding of contracts by the Henry Administration. Sizeable contributions had been mailed to the Henry Campaign from all over the country. In some cases numerous members of firms had pitched in to support the mayor of some distant town where probably very, very few of them had ever been.

Cynics questioned what oh what might motivate people in Colorado, for example, to want to support Mayor Henry in his re-election: perhaps those employees of a distant engineering firm remembered with a small tear in their eye how we had saved ourselves in the Flood of ’82, or the Komet unbeaten run in 1993. Perhaps it was a romantic link with Carol Lombard, or more likely they had seen how glib the mayor was on Jimmy Kimmel and felt an overwhelming urge to send tens of thousands of dollars to encourage humors government in Fort Wayne. Perhaps a great-grandfather had worked for Mayor Harry Baals.

Cynics would make those jokes. Most others in politics believed it is simply and obviously “pay-for-play” politics whereby national contractors in search of lucrative local contracts toss a few dollars to the incumbent candidate to insure the contractor has the foremost set at the bidding table when contracts for streets or sewer work are let. The company boss goes around the office and tells senior staff to write a check for $1,000 to a candidate in a town they have probably never heard of. The question we should ask is whether this sort of quid pro quo, which is how it looks, raises the profits in concrete and pipe to the benefit of the incumbent and the contractor.

So, the money rolls into the incumbent because he can, or so it is believed, affect the outcome of a bid that could mean hundreds of thousands to the contractor’s bottom line and a kick-back to the incumbent. The campaign contribution, greasing the palm as it is also called, is rued by some business leaders as a cost of doing business. Most contractors hate it, unless they win the bid.

In 2011, then Council President Mitch Harper and former council member Liz Brown raised considerable dust during the campaign by promising a bill to limit just this sort of back scratching. What they offered was flawed and attacked vociferously by the mayor’s friend on council, Tim Pape, among others. The Democrats assumed the traditional Republican argument that contributions were a matter of free speech; they added that municipalities could not write parochial election law that clashes with statewide law. An opinion from the state attorney general to that effect all but killed the approach Harper and Brown had taken.

Fast forward a year and Dr. Crawford quietly intoned that he would approach the mess a bit differently: he had spotted a couple of instances where it seemed contributors from far-flung places had exceeded legal contribution limits. In other words, he would strike where the law already allowed, not try to make new law. Crawford has already sent a letter to the election board requesting an investigation of those potential violations. He will pick a little low hanging fruit that may lead to a more significant harvest.

Perhaps this will yield nothing, but it certainly is a declaration that the matter of perceived campaign corruption and favoritism in public works will not go away. Councilman Crawford, with support from Mr. Harper and the Republican super majority on council, will dig very deeply indeed to determine what other abuses of campaign law may have occurred and whether those contributing got favorable treatment in the awarding of local contracts…at your expense. Mr. Crawford is starting modestly with a request for an investigation, and may achieve much more than the previous attempts to write new law.

So, the Mayor had about a month to savor his election victory. He may remember that campaign irregularities forced a previous mayor from office and, as a consequence, may wish to lawyer-up. Certainly, the Tuesday night that Crawford explained his intentions other council members talked of what might become a full blown investigation into whether some contractors had benefited from their contributions and whether more than a few superficial laws had been broken.

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