YOUNGSTOWN - Inside a nondescript building works engineer Thomas Fok - one of the largest individual contributors to the Ohio Republican Party and elected officials of both parties.
The civil engineer gives to candidates he's never met, Democrats and Republicans, politicians of all stripes, though tilting heavily toward the GOP. He's a personal friend of state GOP Chairman Bob Bennett.
To his colleagues, the elderly immigrant - who fled the war-torn Far East some 60 years ago and earned a PhD in the United States - is a brilliant engineer. To the residents here who know him, he's an unassuming man who donates his time to the local library and other causes.
He might also be among the savviest of Buckeye politicos, having spread more than $200,000 to state political candidates and parties of all kinds since 1990.
His firm, Thomas Fok & Associates, ranks 38th in dollars received among the hundreds of firms with consulting contracts from the Ohio Department of Transportation, according to a Blade analysis of state contract records.
From 2001-present, the state agency has paid his smallish firm $3.8 million. The total does not include some work completed in partnership with other firms.
Critics of the current Republican administration in Columbus say Mr. Fok's winning of contracts is one example in a larger system that reeks of political paybacks. The contracts are awarded using a basic rating system, but in the end, the engineering firms are chosen subjectively by state officials.
State Sen. Marc Dann, a Youngstown area Democrat who has received contributions from Mr. Fok, said he has heard complaints about ODOT's contract policies and said the appearance of "pay-to-play" in state government has been growing because of a $300 million investment scandal at the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.
The scandal began with the bureau's failed $50 million rare-coin investment with political insider Tom Noe, who is a former Toledo-area coin dealer and GOP fund-raiser.
"I do believe it's a reasonable and a fair question whether there is a quid pro quo between those contracts and the considerable amount of political donations," Mr. Dann said. "You look across the state, and there's a Tom Fok in every [ODOT] district."
The agency and Republican officials say there isn't such a relationship and that ODOT contracts are awarded on the basis of merit, said Lindsay Mendicino, spokesman for the state agency.
"There is no special treatment for anyone," she said. "Campaign contributions and politics play no role."
But a larger Blade investigation published this week shows that those who contribute get the work.
Engineering firms have given more than $1.2 million to politicians, political parties, and political-action committees. Over the last five years, those same firms, including Mr. Fok's, received as a group more than $400 million in ODOT consulting contracts.
Some engineers say political donations are a necessary part of the contract game. Others say donations give engineering firms a higher profile - a showing off of power and wealth that creates confidence.
Mr. Fok declined to be interviewed or have a current photo taken. His firm would not release biographical information about him or the firm, located at 3896 Mahoning Ave. in suburban Youngstown. Mr. Fok said through an assistant that he had no comment.
But the company's principal engineer, Dave Bakalar, said Mr. Fok was politically active and a Republican. He said he did not know anything about the donations.
"He's open in terms of helping people. For example, with the 9/11 gazebo [memorial in Youngstown], we donated our design services," he said Thursday from in front of the firm's orangeish building, reminiscent of a one-level 1950s-style motel. "What is that word they use for someone who is outgoing - philanthropist?"
Youngstown engineer Sat Adlaka said he doesn't give political contributions but added that it probably doesn't hurt in winning business. He said he "has a high regard" for Mr. Fok's work.
Mr. Adlaka used to vie for state work and would like to try towin more of the public business again, he said. He feels face-to-face contact with state officials is the best way to win the jobs.
"Of course, it helps to have social contacts. I think if you are more in somebody's face, that helps more, and it doesn't hurt to be in the same party," he said.
The state agency changed its system this year for factoring in the minority status of contractors, lessening its importance for individual firms, Ms. Mendicino said. The old system listed Mr. Fok in the "minority business enterprise" category, meaning he automatically received a few extra points on his agency rating.
GOP state political director Jason Mauk said the work of raising political money and the awarding of state agency contracts are separate animals.
"Anybody can access our contribution records because they are public, but we have never had dialogue with any of our elected officials regarding the awarding of state contracts from a political perspective," he said.
Unlike some other owners of civil engineering firms - with employees that sometimes unofficially band together to "bundle" contributions to particular candidates - Mr. Fok gives in his own name, more than $174,000 over the past 10 years, and more than $200,000 since 1990.
There is nothing illegal about making political donations. The level of giving to individual candidates is governed by state law.
But the appearance of a quid-pro-quo relationship between engineers and the Republican power structure that controls millions in state contracts has become part of a cumulative effect for skeptical Democrats and some taxpayers who say investment opportunities and state contracts are for sale.
"You can't allow every state contract to be a vehicle for campaign fund-raising," Mr. Dann said. "That's what I've seen happen for the three years I've been in office. It's not just about the GOP; it's wrong."
Mr. Fok has given liberally to Republicans over the years, including Gov. Bob Taft, state Auditor Betty Montgomery, Attorney General Jim Petro, and Judith Lanzinger, an Ohio Supreme Court justice from Toledo.
Mr. Fok has given to Democratic candidates too, including to Mr. Dann.
Mr. Dann - who has expressed a desire to run for higher office - received $2,400 from Mr. Fok over the past couple years.
The senator said he has never met Mr. Fok, who sponsors a golf hole each year at the senator's golfing fund-raiser.
"I have never spoken to the guy, and he has written me checks," he said, adding that he finds Mr. Fok's support odd. "Day in and day out for politicians, people usually don't just send you checks without having a relationship with you."
In his criticism, Mr. Dann allowed that the Democratic Party might have engaged in the same behavior. "If it is the case, then voters ought to be outraged. If Democrats ever get the chance to serve again, we need to set a different standard."
Mr. Fok's name is everywhere, and it points to early political connections: He was appointed to the Youngstown State University board of trustees in 1975 by Democratic Gov. John Gilligan and served until 1984. He was also appointed to the board of trustees for the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County in 1973 and still serves today. He donated his time recently to engineer the local 9/11 memorial, and he has a PhD and a stellar academic resume. He's won awards for innovative engineering designs.
Mr. Mauk, the GOP spokesman, said GOP Chairman Bennett knows Mr. Fok well.
"[Mr. Bennett] knows that he is well respected as an engineer and that he has done business with the state, as far as he can recall, for several decades. He believes that he did business with the state under Democratic governors as well," Mr. Mauk said. "[Mr. Bennett] did say that [Mr. Fok] has never asked for anything as long as he's known him."
Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick