Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Let's Get Real, with Darlene Harris

Months ago, Councilwoman Darlene Harris and I had a wide-ranging conversation about city ethics and campaign finance reform. My desire to see strict legislative limits on political contributions along with full transparency did not impress her.

"You don't think people take cash?" she asked.

She shot me a look like maybe I was from another planet. Then she looked around as though to check to see that she herself was still on the right planet. Then she resumed looking at me like I had just fallen off the turnip truck.

(Photo cap h/t Pgh Hoagie)


So we have an issue. Campaign finance reform is not perfect.

Point conceded. However, let's start with simple things first. Today our politicians accord themselves a fair amount in the way of so called pay-to-play because it is so fairly ingrained in the system, and because it is so easy.

It makes sense to take action to demonstrate that selling out is not acceptable.

If the ship leaks, we can look to where it's leaking. I'm sure there will still be lobbyists and financiers, not to mention rogues, who will continue to excel at circumventing the system and enriching the coffers of politicians. Yet by turning down this road, we would be establishing some mutual standards, and encouraging those middlemen to disappear into the hinterland.


Harris offered another jewel to the Comet, this one regarding all the excitement the pay-to-play angle tends to stir in the media. This must have been just a short time before the Superbowl, because sports event tickets and trips were very much in the news.

"Do you know what would make a really fascinating expose?" she began, caustically.

She then wondered aloud how many trips sports journalists and all other print and broadcast journalists and personalities accept to attend professional sporting events and sports-related events throughout the country. Home games. Road games. Playoff games. All-Star games. Drafts. Exhibitions. Planes. Hotels. Restaurants. Et cetera.

"Do you know the food they have at those things?" she asked.

"Now, see here," I thought for a moment. The media doesn't get to vote on public contracts. The media doesn't get to hand out taxpayer dollars. The media doesn't....

But then I thought about every new stadium we've ever built.


  1. CASH is not illegal. Anyone can take cash. It is legal tender. Duhhh.

    Darlene is out in space -- not even on another planet -- sadly -- too often. With this issue even more so.

    What is not okay is taking the cash and NOT reporting it. Take $200. Fine. Put it onto a form. Note its donor and place of employment. Account for it.

    As a sting, give a politician a donation in cash and if it does NOT appear on the campaign finance forms, then file an ethics complaint. Busted. We should have these plants working all the time.

  2. If pay to play is the problem, then fix pay to play. You don't fix pay to play with campaign finance reform.

    As you said, "If the ship leaks, we can look to where it's leaking." EXACTLY.

    If you have a leak on the roof of your house, don't put in cement floors. Fix the roof.

    The pay part should be okay, within reason. Don't make it criminal to give a donation to a candidate. We want people to be invested in self-government and the American process -- generally. However, we don't want special favors to be delivered to anyone. We don't want certain players to get the ball and our money all the time at the exclusion of others. Government isn't about making the rich richer despite effective operations.

    The play part of pay to play is where the taxpayers get screwed. The play part is fixed with the elimination of all no bid contracts.

    If you want to do business with government, we need to have a competitive bid process to insure that we buy the most and best for the money -- open to all.

    Gaming the system is solved when the contracts and purchasing elements are with sealed bids and competition.

    Campaign finance reform is another matter. It needs attention too. But, trying to make Campaign Finance Reform a wonder drug, magic bullet, and fix-it-all-solution, is sure to bog everything down and fail.

    BTW, this was one of the failures of Peduto 2004 thinking. We're past that now, I dare say.

  3. I love how her argument for not having campaign finance reform is that politicians take cash, too. WTF?

  4. Perhaps I'm misreading here, but is Ms. Harris implying that sports journalists travel to road games on the dime of the team they're covering?

    That's not the case at all. Media outlets pay for those trips, which is why you'll see a beat writer, a sidebar writer, and two columnists at a Steelers' game in Baltimore but only a beat writer at Pitt's game at DePaul. Management decides how to spend its money on road trips.

    I think the use of the word "accept" in the sentence "She then wondered aloud how many trips sports journalists and all other print and broadcast journalists and personalities accept to attend professional sporting events and sports-related events throughout the country" is, quite frankly, disingenuous.

    If there's a quid pro quo in sports journalism - I can't speak to other forms of journalism - it generally consists of access to players, coaches, etc. in return for fair or even partial coverage.

    But I highly doubt any sports journalist lobbied publicly for a new stadium because the Steelers put out a nice spread at halftime of home games.

    Not quite as "fascinating" as Ms. Harris would seem to be implying.

  5. I don't know about that, Peaks and Gutters. I watch a lot of Everyone Loves Raymond and Raymond got a lot of tickets to games and it seemed to me it was paid for by the team and not by the paper.

    Harris might be saying Ed Boards are being wooed by teams to influence their opinions and write good things and therefore shut their mouths about CBAs and instead, love it up about the Rooney's and the Pirates and the Penguins and their stadiums and whatever they want and the ampitheaters and such. Blahblahblah.

    Harris is a truth-teller.


  6. Mark suggested -

    "As a sting, give a politician a donation in cash and if it does NOT appear on the campaign finance forms, then file an ethics complaint. Busted. We should have these plants working all the time."

    I don't think we'd know HOW to give cash to a politician like that. Not in a way they'd trust us. I think they'd only accept cash from sources they'd trust for whatever reason.

    Peaks & Gutters - I actually come down with Darlene on this. I don't know the details of who pays what for what excursions (news story??), but I don't doubt there's a whole lot of expensive wooing going on. And even if for regular games for regular reporters the travel doesn't come free, how about irregular games for exceptional reporters?

    Elaine - Yup.

  7. Did you get that pic off of Matt's site? It looks like the pic from Smith's swearing in ceremony, where we found out that Smith would rather eat cake then do her job.

  8. Ahem...Wouldn't sports writers want new stadiums no matter what freebies they did or did not receive?

    It's their industry. It would always be in their best interest to have their industry propped up.

    Or maybe I'm missing something here...

    Also, who pays for what likely differs between paid newspaper staffers, freelancers and those in syndication..I'm guessing.

    Also, despite sports being a religion, it isn't government. We don't elect them, we don't pay their salaries (though we may pay for a stadium or two), we can't choose to throw the bums out. There IS a difference.

  9. Look, it seems like increasingly recently the argument is advanced that campaign finance won't work. On one level that may be true, in that company CEO’s will have to take meetings with the Mayor and people like Jim Ferlo (the people on the boards of authorities), give them an envelope of cash and then those companies will get the City or Authority contracts. But it will be clear to anyone who looks at it that the contract bidding process is crocked, and eventually the CEO’s or the Mayor will do something wrong, get caught and then tell law enforcement about the corruption to cut the best deal they can. Meanwhile, if we do have campaign finance reform coupled with the detailed searchable online database of who is giving campaign contributions and the detailed online searchable database of City contracts and permits, then the voting public will have the resources they need to make informed decisions about who to vote for (good candidates).

    I know Darlene Harris knows this, and I suspect she thinks she would not get elected (or re-elected) in such an environment. Certainly she would be worried about political allies being elected or re-elected in that environment. She is just stalling and trying to cloud the issue by bringing up sports journalists. They travel as extensively as they do because they are doing their job, covering sporting events. They likely use their own credit cards for travel and get reimbursements. As such, they use meal and ancillary expenses per diem rates provided by the federal government. If they take a team member or coach or owner to dinner (and thus blow out the dinner per diem for that day), they record who they ate with and submit the receipts for that dinner. For any other reimbursement (like cabs or airport vans), they need original receipts.

    The newspapers and TV stations foot the bills for those trips. They might receive (illegal) kickbacks from sports teams in exchange for favorable coverage. But if that were true two things would happen. The TV or print reporters would lose the trust and respect of the public, and likely the kickbacks would come out at some point when one of the parties did something else wrong and sought to cut a deal.

    Campaign finance reform at the City level is coming, it is inevitable. The only question is whether it will be done now, or in a year, or five years, or ten years. When we do have reform like that, it will clear the way for someone like Cory Booker to run for Mayor, and maybe win.

    Until then, the Darlene Harris’ of the City will show there true colors in interviews like yours.

  10. Ed - I don't disagree on CFR. When I asked about tickets (which I was also interested in), Harris said she has not personally accepted any sporting tickets in well over a year, despite her roles on the SA and SEA boards. Except on a couple of rare occasions when she passed them along, as to a city worker who just got let go.

  11. Ask Ms Harris what happen to taxpayer financed "smoke eater" that was installed and eventually removed. Busted by Rich Lord (how's come Lord's are Rich. Or, Rich Fees..City Tax Official isn't named Minnie Money)

    Phelphs, and Harris should smoke in solitude.

    Just kidding! Send that bong my way...


  12. Tim McNulty provides a response at the P-G Early Returns blog:

    Notice that the little list: "Home games. Road games. Playoff games. All-Star games. Drafts. Exhibitions. Planes. Hotels. Restaurants. Et cetera.", did NOT appear in quotation marks. That was my own little flourish, but a decent representation of DH's comments I think.

  13. ...Two reasons why Tarzan swam fast. He was high or scared.

    Obama guy sez we can't have honest dialogue on race. We are he talking to whites or blacks..perhaps both.

    Woody Harrelson was dude in movie called "White Men Can't Jump"(?)

    How 'bout movie called "Black Guys Can't Swim". Name last black guy to win Gold". Was Tarzan ever caught...

    I admit, monk can't jump. Honestly!


  14. Does she still get priority snow removal?

  15. Harris gets what is offered to all...

    Nothing unusual here...

    Costa will see to it. He will wipe snot from face...


  16. Bram, I am glad to hear you don't disagree on CFR (I might have had to “Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war”). I am getting angry that people are suggesting CFR should be stalled or halted because they can imagine ways around it. I am also glad to hear that Darlene Harris doesn't abuse this whole free ticket thing either.

    But there is no little irony in her singling out sports reporter as supposed possible abusers of travel expenses. The Mayor, a couple of his brothers and a couple of bodyguards all traveled to the Super Bowl using (I believe) the Mayor's campaign funds. This was justified because the Mayor was going to appear on a couple of morning TV shows. As far as I know the Mayor recognizes no limitation on his spending of campaign funds as long as he staggers in for that morning TV appearance. So there could have been meals at the best restaurants, the most expensive booze, hookers, drugs, goats, (Rich) Lord knows what all else. A drop in the bucket of the Mayor's cool mill, and wonder of wonders, Darlene Harris is subtly pointing this out (to the rest of us).

  17. Dan Onorato and Luke Ravenstahl are not champions of campaign finance reform. They want to reform the city limits of donations, but in the meantime they'll take unlimited amounts of money.

    That seems a little hypocritical... so much for our "true champions" of campaign finance reform. Why even waste your breath.

  18. "Did you get that pic off of Matt's site? It looks like the pic from Smith's swearing in ceremony, where we found out that Smith would rather eat cake then do her job."