To pay or not to pay? Part 2

March 2007 » Columns
When I wrote Part 1 (CE News, January 2007, page 14) of what has turned out to be a series of columns about political contributions, I did not expect to write again about the subject, much less two months later.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S.
When I wrote Part 1 (CE News, January 2007, page 14) of what has turned out to be a series of columns about political contributions, I did not expect to write again about the subject, much less two months later. In fact, I wrote the first part with considerable trepidation, thinking that readers might take me to task for bringing up a subject that, although very much in the news, is swept under the rug by those who are most directly affected by it—engineers and others who provide technical services in the public sector.

However, the reaction to the first column compels me to write this follow-up column, using primarily the significant input of other engineers (and some non-engineers) who have had experiences similar to mine or are knowledgeable about the subject. Two common threads connect those who responded to the previous column—all of them were male and all (except one) insisted that they remain anonymous. "Don’t reveal my name or anything specific about my comments," was a universal request. They all felt a great need to discuss the subject, but obviously were fearful of repercussions if their cover was blown.

While no one mentioned their age, it was evident to me that the writers were predominantly young men who were not yet in control of the decision-making process regarding pay-to-play, but nevertheless were aware of the fact that it was going on within their organizations. The underlying feeling seemed to be that they resented not only the predatory political animals who worked for governmental entities, but also the higher-ups within their own organizations who both tolerated the practices, which amount to legal extortion, and participated in it by providing funds to the politicians who required that pay-to-play would be the name of the game in their jurisdictions.

Following are excerpts from readers’ responses. They are edited to protect the innocent, but the flavor and intent of the writer was not changed.

"We are a small consulting firm … and we currently do not have any significant municipal appointments. However, management has contributed to local (and higher) campaigns for years. The purpose of the contributions was to assist in keeping our name in the hat for obtaining individual project work from local government agencies, or to pick up a municipal appointment not on the radar screen of the bigger players. We have not contributed significantly compared with several firms with predominately municipal accounts."

The writer listed a number of other "bad things" about the pay-to-play system and ended with the following: "We are now going to rethink our contribution policies. … This is either going to catch up with the politicians by reducing their coffers, or shrink the pool of qualified available talent from which to obtain proposals. It also may possibly result in higher cost of projects."

A second engineer discussed entertainment, which is not exactly the same as political contributions, but is closely related. He said, "Entertaining includes taking potential and current clients out for meals. … This has put a crimp in our marketing efforts."

I am also in receipt of a state ethics commission document that contains a conflict-of-interest law for public officials and employees. The key paragraph states: "You may not ask for or accept anything worth $50 or more from anyone with whom you have official dealings. Examples of regulated ’gifts’ include: sports tickets, costs of drinks and meals, travel expenses, conference fees, gifts of appreciation, entertainment expenses, free use of vacation homes, and complimentary tickets to charitable events. If a prohibited gift is offered: you may refuse or return it; you may donate it to a non-profit organization, provided you do not take the tax write-off; you may pay the giver the full value of the gift; or, in the case of certain types of gifts, it may be considered ’a gift to your public employer’ provided it remains in the office and does not ever go home with you. You may not accept honoraria for a speech that is in any way related to your official duties, unless you are a state legislator."

Apparently at least one state is starting to take a get-tough approach when it comes to perks offered to elected and appointed public officials who are in a position to award, or at least recommend the award of, public work to private contractors. This law probably will directly impact state, county, and local engineers who have to deal with the public sector.

So far, only one reader chided me for being so wishy-washy about pay-to-play. He said some interesting things about the subject, although he is not an engineer. He was a high level administrator until he retired some years ago. I will include his full comments in a future column, but he closed his letter by saying, "Is the system abused? Sure. But what is more important is how frequently there is no abuse, and friends, part-time or full-time, make the system work."

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