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Published: Tuesday, 9/20/2005

ODOT contractors find more than 1 way to give to campaigns

BY JOSHUA BOAK
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Last of a 3-part series Last of a 3-part series
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Last of a 3-part series

COLUMBUS - Top officers of some of the largest engineering and design firms working for the Ohio Department of Transportation not only contribute to the campaigns of Ohio politicians, but have found a way to give to them a second time - through political action committees.

A Blade investigation into firms receiving lucrative ODOT contracts shows that several of the companies have set up their own PACs to funnel even more money to Gov. Bob Taft, the Ohio Republican Party, and other elected state officials, including some who are Democrats.

Records show that several of the civil engineers at Burgess & Niple - a firm that has been paid $39.2 million since 2000 by the state transportation department - have contributed to Resources PAC, a political action committee set up by the Governmental Policy Group, a powerful Columbus lobbying firm hired by the engineering firm.

Led by Richard Hillis, Victor Hipsley, and Brooke Cheney, Governmental Policy Group used the PAC to route thousands of dollars of contributions to candidates in state, county, and municipal races.

After federal election reform in 1974, PACs gained traction as a means for corporations and special interests to skirt national and statewide limits on individual donations.

Redfern Redfern
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Backed by Burgess & Niple, Dominion Homes, and a group of chiropractors, Resources PAC has raised and disbursed more than $170,000 between 2000 and 2004, according to filings with the Ohio Secretary of State's Office. The campaign donations were $117,375 for Republicans and $48,550 for Democrats.

Burgess & Niple executives supplied $12,000 to Resources PAC and $10,000 to Governmental Policy/Merit, an earlier Governmental Policy PAC that ceased operating about five years ago.

Their PAC contributions were in addition to the $167,850 Burgess & Niple executives gave directly to candidates for statewide office, the General Assembly, and to state and county political parties since 1995.

Records also showed that Francis Smith, a former executive at Burgess & Niple, gave $1,140 to Mr. Taft and $350 to Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, but then gave $700 to Resources PAC, which contributed $4,000 more to the governor and $4,000 more to Mr. Petro.

Mr. Smith said there was "no ulterior motive" in the contributions, a claim that has drawn cynical responses from statehouse veterans.

"Anybody who says money doesn't influence the process is far and away removed from that process," said House Minority leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island), who received $150 from Resources PAC.

Mr. Redfern said the current system traps him in a Catch-22, such that he must seek funds for Democratic races while simultaneously calling for bans on contributions from state contractors.

He said that PAC organizers don't attempt to buy legislative favors with campaign donations but do request something valuable in return for their support: an opportunity to inform a politician about their causes.

"Most lobbyists who approach me aren't asking me for my vote," Mr. Redfern said. "They're asking to educate me on their perspective."

Some recipients of Resource PAC's campaign checks deny that their actions or the work of ODOT administrators could be affected by contributions from engineering and consulting firms.

"Everyone gets access whether they give or not," said Lynn Olman, a former Republican state representative for Toledo who received $2,500 from Resources PAC. "I know that you guys would like to believe that the system is pay-to-play, but from an inside view that's totally incorrect."

Ohio Director of Commerce Doug White, who received $1,000 from Resources PAC during his tenure as a Republican state senator, said that the necessity of fund-raising irritates many candidates and can appear distasteful to those outside the political process.

"Democracy is like making sausage," Mr. White said. "You don't want to watch it happen."

Mr. White said that the ultimate root of the problem is escalating campaign expenses for candidates.

If campaign donations fail to influence politicians and public servants, why would company executives make campaign contributions to candidates and also send money to political action committees such as Resources, which in turn contribute more money to candidates?

Mr. Redfern and Mr. Olman agreed that only the partners at Governmental Policy could appropriately answer the question.

However, Mr. Hillis and Mr. Cheney declined to return phone calls.

Resources is hardly alone as a PAC set up to accept contributions from Ohio engineers. Several engineering consultants with ODOT contracts sponsor corporate PACs, including URS, Gannett Fleming, and ms consultants.

Those three firms have received a combined $77.59 million in contracts from ODOT since 2000.

Records show that employees of the firms have contributed a total of $42,133 to their companies' PACs in addition to the $103,046 they contributed directly to candidates and political parties.

One of the employees from URS who contributed to the firm's PAC was Richard DeWitt, a former executive at the company.

In fact, Mr. DeWitt gave $2,500 to Mr. Taft and then gave $3,000 to Build Ohio, his firm's PAC, which contributed $4,500 more to the governor.

"I did my fund-raising through a political action committee that my company has," Mr. DeWitt said last week.

Asked if he continued to financially support political candidates, Mr. DeWitt said, "No. I don't work at the company anymore."

Blade staff writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

Contact Joshua Boak at:

jboak@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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