Friday, May 22, 2015

The stuff of good exposes | Last Word

An article on the front page of the San Antonio Express-News’ business section Tuesday was headlined:

“Bid front-runner made campaign contributions.”

The story disclosed that three members of the Kowalski family gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to the mayor and City Council members who would vote Thursday to award the family’s RK Group a contract worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars over the next 10 years.

The contract would renew the RK Group’s decades-long exclusive right to cater events at the city’s Convention Center.

The headline, together with its prominent placement, suggested an exposé.

And I love a good exposé. But the numbers disappoint.

It turned out San Antonio’s most successful caterer, Rosemary Kowalski, her son Greg and his wife Bekki, have given all of $11,000 and change to the mayor and council members – over a four-year period.

That’s less than a total of $3,000 a year.

The contributions included a total of $8,000 to four current members of City Council and $3,000 to Mayor Ivy Taylor.

Folks, in today’s political marketplace, any notion that less than $1,000 per council member can buy a quarter-of-a-billion contract is absurd.

Sure, this is a low-wage town, but even our $20-a-week council members don’t sell out that cheaply.

The fact is that the RK Group has over the years earned a great reputation for their ability to efficiently serve excellent and often very fancy meals to crowds ranging from the dozens to the thousands at the Convention Center.

A screening committee recently rated the RK Group considerably higher than a competing group, involving several local restaurateurs partnering with a 40,000-employee national firm called Centerplate.

As far as I can tell, Centerplate also has a good reputation.

Their clients include a number of convention centers and sports venues.

But if politicians have a local company that has been performing the job magnificently for decades, why would they take a chance on an outside firm, albeit with local partners?

That is what is driving the council’s decision to renew a contract that Rosemary Kowalski has held since 1971 – not the Kowalski family’s contributions.

In fact, you might wonder why, given the magnitude of the contract, the campaign contributions are so low.

Why would they be so cheap?

And why did they give to only five council members – less than the majority needed to win the contract?

The answer to the second question, according to a spokesman for the RK Group, is that the others didn’t ask.

Campaign contributions, at this level, are often closer to extortion than bribery.

The answer to the first question is that the contributions were so low because the city now has contribution limits of $1,000 per election cycle for the mayor and $500 for council members.

It wasn’t always that way.

Back in 2002, the tax-collection firm headed by the late Oliver Heard joined with the firm of Escamilla & Poneck to give then-Mayor Ed Garza $8,500 while being considered for a contract to collect overdue fines.

They gave amounts ranging from $1,000 to $3,250 to other council members.

Only later would we learn through federal indictments that a member of Heard’s firm had bribed two council members who didn’t get contributions.

The council voted for their firms, even though a staff analysis showed an offer from an Austin firm was much better for the city.

And, of course, there was the notorious 1988 police contract – the source of the current tensions between City Hall and the police union – signed when the union was the largest single contributor to the mayor and council.

Now those were the stuff of good exposes!

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