Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Onorato Money Phenomenon

It does tend to pour in hand over fist. Why is that, and should we be concerned?

"Ensuring that all contracts are competitive and putting limits on all donors eliminates any implied pressure on candidates that could potentially be associated with contributions. As Allegheny County Executive, Onorato has ensured that contracts are competitively awarded and he would do the same as governor," Herman wrote in an e-mail.

Democratic fundraiser and Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, whose team got a publicly financed arena in a 2007 deal Onorato helped broker, gave $100,000 in December.

"Dan has received broad financial support for several years, and there has never been any correlation between his fundraising and his work in elected office. While the arena was funded in part by public money, county funds have not been used to pay for it*," Herman said.
(Mike Wereschagin, Tribune-Review)

The truth of Onorato's claims can at least partially be fact checked. This chart by the Post-Gazette is now a year old, but it shows some contributions made to the Allegheny County Executive tracked against county contracts received in 2008. Here are the immediately relevant portions:

Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney (law firm)
$14,850 in contributions to Onorato
A $175,000 contract with the Sports & Exhibition Authority (SEA) and a $70,000 contract with the Airport Authority

Chester Engineers
$12,000 in contributions to Onorato
A $6.54 million planning contract, a $30,000 documentation contract, a $197,000 demonstration contract and a $70,000 engineering contract with the Sanitation Authority (ALCOSAN)

SAI Consulting Engineers
$5,250 in contributions to Onorato
A $559,000 design contract, a $157,000 management contract, a $73,000 increase in an engineering contract and a $549,000 increase in a management contract with the Airport Authority; as well as a $425,000 engineering contract with the Sanitation Authority (ALCOSAN).

When Onorato's spokesperson writes about "ensuring" that all contracts are "competitively awarded", does that equate to an outright ban on no-bid contracts? And would that extend to consulting contracts by financial, legal and other professionals? It's unclear at this point.

Did Onorato put anything solidly into place during his 6-year tenure to better ensure competitive contracting in Allegheny County? Were there any no-bid contracts during his tenure, such as some of the ones above? The answers seem to be no and yes, respectively.

A contemporaneous piece by the Post-Gazette quoted him on issues involved:

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. (P-G)

Updated data and more fact-checking are definitely required, but the smart money is that Dan Onorato falls short of the "Mr. Clean" persona he is adopting of late.

It's worth noting in general that when it comes to fund raising and a candidate's ability to really turn on the juice, individuals and PACs making transparent A to B contributions are only part of the story. Well-connected intermediaries can tap into networks of major donor interests, informally bundling significant sums to facilitate toward a candidate with relative discretion. Such intermediaries themselves might also have business or seek business before the government, though these connections are much harder to trace.

*-NOTE: The old home of the Penguins and Pittsburgh's civic multi-purpose arena, the Mellon Arena, sits on a 28-acre parcel of land abutting Downtown Pittsburgh that is owned by the public Sports & Exhibition Authority (SEA) -- which is controlled jointly by the City and the County. Much of it is presently outdoor parking, along with an arena that will probably be demolished. Part of the "deal" struck with Penguins owner Ron Burkle was for the city and county to give the Penguins all the development rights up front for all 28 acres -- even though state subsidy and state-arranged casino license awardee money were heavily involved in financing the new arena. Estimates as to the value of that SEA land primed for redevelopment vary widely, but some in 2008 pegged it at $70 to $100 a square foot, or up to $122 million.


  1. Correlation does not equal causation. Also because most major corporations and engineering firms that are capable carrying out and performing high level government contacts donate to political officials, comparing money donated from select firms to contracts awarded isn't a particularly good metric. That isn't to say pay to play and contract in local government don't exist, nor doesn't it mean onorato is clean on this issue. what I am saying is that facts that he is a prolific corporate fundraiser and that companies that donate to him have been awarded contracts are poor metrics of determing the influence of campaign contributions on onoratos decision making. In fact if anything, onoratos fundraising acumen would suggest contributions of the relatively modest nature ( as compared to his fundraising total) of most of companies listed would be relatively unimportant to him, because quite frankly those sums in isolation will have almost nil effect on his political fortunes.

  2. Anon 5:52 - I agree the info above isn't enough to "book him" for pay to play. More data would be needed, and even then it's still nearly impossible to demonstrate intent (that's why nobody ever gets convicted for pay-to-play, even though we can assume it's not uncommon). However one thing this post is about is the space between Onorato's claims of being a good-government reformer and the record that exists.

    When you talk about Onorato's being a "prolific corporate fundraiser" and that being a point against pay-to-playism due to the "drop in the bucket" effect -- I wonder what is the GROSS effect of corporate contributions on a candidate, particularly a Democrat, that is a "prolific corporate fundraiser". Does accepting that much cash habitually make one more leery of regulation and more excited about corporate tax cuts? See this link: Morning Call and consider the policies Onorato is espousing. Remember also his posture towards Marcellus Shale drilling.

  3. wowow--all things on my "what's not to love?" list converge on this 28 acre parcel, it's just that heart/mind boggling!

    Whatever happened to Steve Leeper?

    Hey - getta look at the Willets Point redevelopment story in today's NY Times: the pesky atty that snarled my fave Westway project is at it again, my aunt must be in talk radio heaven. Nothing likea good ED story.

    On soap, Bram: Kirk's? Dr.Bronner's? HOW are these dirtbags gonna keep clean? Who's gonna sponsor the Comet?