When Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority hands out money, it's often board member Jim Ferlo, a state senator, who makes the developers and contractors dance for their dinner with tough questions about their plans for the public's money.
On March 5, 2008, though, he was the one with his hand out at a dinner-time campaign fundraiser, at Downtown's The Common Plea restaurant, attended by many of the people who get URA aid and contracts. In fact, three firms whose executives wrote checks to Mr. Ferlo's campaign -- SAI Consulting Engineers, McTish Kunkel & Associates and Wilbur Smith Associates -- got new contracts or increases to old contracts approved by the URA board the next week, with the senator voting yes.
"I don't vote on a personal basis or with any favorite in mind," Mr. Ferlo wrote in an e-mail response to questions, declining an interview. He added that he once turned down a developer's check offered a week before a board vote on their project, when the contribution was not tied to a fundraising event.
Vendors often rub elbows with officials at political fundraisers or send them campaign checks, sometimes days or weeks before seeking their approval for aid or contracts -- some competitively bid, many not.
The Post-Gazette reviewed more than 2,000 contributions made in 2008 to the campaigns of Pittsburgh officials, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and state officials who sit on city or county authority boards, plus records reflecting more than 1,500 contracts issued by the city, county and their authorities last year. Time lines assembled using that data illustrate the flow of contracts and contributions.
Campaign funding is the topic of a special city council meeting at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday on contribution limits proposed by Mr. Onorato and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Also before county council's Government Reform Committee, the legislation would cap donations, but wouldn't bar government contractors from giving to campaigns, as a handful of cities and states have done.
"It is understood that it is very difficult for political officials to remain impartial when they're receiving sizeable donations from interested parties," said Karla Cunningham, Hillman chair of politics at Chatham University, after reviewing time lines of contracts and contributions. When there's "that type of interplay, are you receiving the lowest bid, and are you receiving the services you're paying for?
"Is this the kind of value we associate with a robust democracy?"
Tying contracts to contributions is illegal, and officials say their decisions aren't swayed by checks.
"You get to know people" when you're on boards, said state Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side. "They like you. They want to contribute. What you have to avoid is quid pro quos."
Mr. Walko noted that the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, whose board he chairs, plans to make Chester Engineers compete to keep a big contract it has held for decades -- even though Chester's political action committee gave thousands of dollars to board members' campaigns last year. The board allowed Chester's contract to continue after its mid-2008 expiration.
One contractor who attends fundraisers said he's just trying to get a fair shake.
"If I like somebody, and I want to give them a couple of dollars, I've got a right to do that," said Jack Cargnoni, president of Collier-based Independent Enterprises, which wins so many contracts with the water authority that, he said, board members gripe that he gets too much.
"All of my work is bid work," Mr. Cargnoni said of his interaction with various agencies. "If you go to the consultants, banking, bond work, engineers, they're given jobs" without bidding.
State law allows engineering, legal and financial contracts to be awarded without bidding. Locally, those jobs are generally awarded after agency staff members review a few firms' proposals and recommend one to the board. Those competing are often big campaign donors.
Law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney sees "supporting good candidates as part of civic engagement," wrote Tracie Gliozzi, its communications director, in an e-mail response. So is "our legal representation of civic and governmental agencies as they advance the growth and development of our region."
"I think some of the vendors think the contribution gives them an entrÃ©e [to the official] if they have a problem" with a city process, said city Controller Michael Lamb, who supports contribution limits.
He said contributions he's gotten from executives of Jordan Tax Service and law firm Goehring Rutter & Boehm are driven by their appreciation of his streamlining of processes when he was the county prothonotary -- not by his proposal last year to have the city join the county in hiring those firms to collect overdue taxes.
Mr. Ravenstahl's administration is negotiating such a pact with the firms, whose executives contributed to his campaign, too.
Thank-you contribution offers are "usually done in a private setting, in a congenial way," said City Councilman William Peduto, who has pushed for campaign finance reform. He isn't on a contract-approving board, but he said he's had vendors and developers say to him, "You've done a good job on this project, Bill. We want to help you." He said he rejects such offers.
Mr. Onorato's campaign, apparently gearing up for the 2010 governor's race, raised $2.2 million last year due in part to big checks from vendors that work for the county and its authorities. Mr. Onorato delegates contracting to the county manager, and has "minimal" involvement, wrote Oren Shur, a campaign spokesman, in an e-mail.
Mr. Ravenstahl, whose campaign is significantly funded by firms that do business with the city, said he allows "no quid pro quos. ... I would argue that the time frames of when these contributions are being made, if they would happen to be around the same time [as contracts], are coincidence rather than something that is planned. Oftentimes [contributions] are made around fundraisers."
He has created a commission to bring best contracting practices to the city and its authorities. In the meantime, he has ordered city departments to stop giving noncompetitive contracts by April 15.
He and Mr. Onorato want to limit any person or partnership to $4,600 in contributions to an official per four-year election cycle. PACs could give $10,000 per cycle. There are now no such limits in Pennsylvania, with the exception of Philadelphia.
"The public would feel more at ease if the city had relatively low contribution limits," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a watchdog group. He suggested a $500 limit on individual donations and a $2,000 cap on PAC giving.
The city and county could also "simply say, if you've given a campaign contribution to anybody who sits on that board in the last two years, you're not eligible for a contract," he said.
Philadelphia, San Francisco, some New Jersey cities and that state, Ohio and Connecticut have so-called "pay-to-play" laws preventing major contributors from getting certain contracts. Mr. Ravenstahl doesn't want that here.
"I don't believe that a person that decides to contribute to my campaign or others should be punished for doing so," he said. "It violates that person's First Amendment right [to expression], and is really as un-American as something can be."
Spokesman Kevin Evanto said Mr. Onorato "felt that the best way to [reform campaign finance] was by starting with strict contribution limits for individuals and PACs.
"He's certainly open to additional ideas," Mr. Evanto added, either as amendments to his proposal or future legislation.
Some officials worry that too-low contribution limits would tilt the field in favor of wealthy candidates, who can spend their own money without limits.
"I don't come from money," said Mr. Walko, who's running for Common Pleas Court judge. "I'd be hard-pressed not to accept a donation when I have so relatively few avenues to raise money."
Karamagi Rujumba contributed to this story. Rich Lord can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542.