Airport lawsuit a cause for ‘pay to play’

The recent ruling by a federal court awarding $17.5 million to Corey Airport Services comes as no surprise — and need not be repeated in future years if the mayor and the Atlanta City Council would heed the advice of Common Cause by adopting a strong pay-to-play ordinance.

Simply stated, a pay-to-play ordinance would declare that any company or individual that contributes either directly or indirectly through shareholders, employees and members of their immediate families more than a nominal amount to a candidate for public office, an elected city official, or to a city employee would be ineligible to receive or perform a contract with Atlanta. Companies and individuals would not be prohibited by the ordinance from contributions to political campaigns up to the amounts permitted by state law. They would however, have to make a choice: They cannot be both a big campaign contributor and be eligible to bid for or perform a contract with the city within 12 months of the contribution.

Other states and cities have successfully adopted such ordinances. The SEC also adopted stringent pay-to-play regulations prohibiting regulated broker-dealers from contributing to political campaigns after it was revealed that Wall Street firms were getting bond business from cities and counties by making large political contributions to public officials.

For too many years, candidates for mayor and the Atlanta City Council have relied on large political contributions from bidders, airport concessionaires, real estate developers and their attorneys and vendors of goods and services. Voters can confirm the accuracy of this statement by looking at the Common Cause Money Watch website, which lists political contributions to candidates for mayor and City Council (including substantial sums to candidates who ran unopposed).

Bidders for city contracts have come to believe that they must “pay” large political contributions to candidates if they want to “play” on a level (or a not-so-level) playing field in the award of city contracts.

During Mayor Shirley Franklin’s second term, Common Cause proposed a pay-to-play reform ordinance. Franklin refused to support the ordinance, and it went nowhere. In the last election cycle, Common Cause solicited commitments from the four of the leading candidates for mayor to support the adoption of a pay-to-play ordinance. All four candidates refused. One official told us that because of low name recognition, they needed those contributions to run their campaign.

The American people know that Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Banks, the coal and utility industries, and many other interest groups don’t spend millions each year in political contributions and the lobbying of key members of Congress with no expectation of reward. Likewise, no one believes that real estate developers, airport concessionaires, bidders for city contracts, their employees and family members make large political contributions in city elections far out of proportion to those from ordinary citizens because of civic pride.

Testimony by former airport director Angela Gittens during the Corey case told us that she had been instructed by former Mayor Bill Campbell not to put the advertising contract at the airport up for competitive bids because Barbara Fouch was a “friend.” This was one more example of the cronyism that has plagued Atlanta contracting for years, going all the way back to the Hartsfield administration.

Because city officials have refused to address the problem of cronyism and outright corruption in city contracting over a period of years, the city’s reputation has suffered and our already cash-strapped city and its citizens are now saddled with a $17.5 million judgment.

Isn’t it time for the people of Atlanta to demand that our elected officials put the interests of the city ahead of their needs for campaign cash from companies and individuals doing business with the city?

Emmet J. Bondurant , a partner in the law firm of Bondurant, Mixson Elmore LLP, is the former chairman of Common Cause Georgia.