KEVIN LEININGER: Undercover video shows why ‘pay to play’ suspicions persist

In this shot from a 2015 undercover video, city clerk's office employee Patty Stahlhut reviews Mayor Tm Henry's campaign finance report with Clerk Sandy Kennedy as they discuss contributions allegedly solicited by members of the city's Board of Works. Kennedy and Stahlhut later resigned after other videos documented partisan political activity in the office. (Screen grab)
This 2015 ad by Republican mayoral candidate Mitch Harper raised the issue of "pay to play" in city contracts. (Courtesy image)
Colin Keeney
Bob Kennedy
Kumar Menon

Supporters of the new law limiting campaign contributions of firms doing business with the city have never claimed to have evidence of “pay to play,” only that a too-friendly confluence of patron and politician invites a perception best avoided.

A good example has just been provided by Colin Keeney, the former city parking enforcement supervisor whose undercover videos of politicking in the city clerk’s office in 2015 resulted in the resignations of long-time Clerk Sandy Kennedy and several staffers and the election of Fort Wayne’s first Republican clerk in 38 years.

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The video, which Keeney captioned and recorded with a hidden camera on April 17, 2015 — the day pre-primary campaign finance reports were due — appears to show Kennedy and employee Patty Stahlhut reviewing Mayor Tom Henry’s report and discussing the role two members of the city’s Board of Works played in soliciting the contributions listed. Bob Kennedy, Sandy Kennedy’s son, was director of public works before accepting a private-sector job in October, and Kumar Menon is director of City Utilities. Sandy Kennedy suggests the two men were obligated to solicit funds for Henry, with Menon focusing on the “wet” companies. The three-member Board of Works approves millions of dollars in contracts every year, including streets, construction and sewer and water utilities.

The video does not even hint at any illegalities or, for that matter, anything particularly unusual. And maybe that’s the point: Many politicians who vote on contracts actively seek contributions from contractors. City spokesman John Perlich said Bob Kennedy and Menon “both articulated to me they have not raised money on behalf of the mayor during work hours. … They have not done anything wrong. The public can be assured that members of the leadership team are public servants who are committed and dedicated to serving taxpayers. … What employees at the city or employees of any organization … choose to do during non-work hours are personal choices. Mayor Henry has never asked or required anyone to solicit funds.”

But when government officials are using personal time to cultivate from donors who may benefit from performance of their public duties, it raises questions even when, as in this case, there is nothing to suggest any sort of quid-pro-quo.

Fort Wayne City Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, co-sponsor of the bill that allows firms doing business with the city to donate no more than $2,000 to any one candidate, believes the video perfectly illustrates why so many voters are suspicious of politicians. “It shows city employees, on city time, on a city computer, looking at the mayor’s finance report and the solicitation of contributions by voting members of the Board of Works,” said Crawford, who is considering a run for mayor in 2019. “It doesn’t prove anything, but at a minimum it looks bad.”

Keeney, who made hours of undercover recordings in 2015 because of concerns over political activity in the clerk’s office, agreed. “The question isn’t whether these individuals were on the clock when soliciting donations. The question is whether they used their positions . . . to influence the giving of donations to the Henry campaign,” he said.

There’s nothing new about the perception that money influences city contracts. In 2015, unsuccessful GOP mayoral candidate Mitch Harper suggested Henry was practicing “crony capitalism” and “pay to play” by accepting $92,000 from out-of-town engineers between 2013 and 2015 who received $20 million in contracts.

“The city’s growing, and they want to invest in Fort Wayne,” Henry explained at the time.

Perlich said the administration is disappointed by council’s 6-2 vote Tuesday in favor of a bill that doesn’t limit contributions themselves, just the ability of big donors to do business with the city. “We continue to have concerns about the constitutionality of the ordinance. We also believe it violates state law and doesn’t protect First Amendment rights. In addition, there isn’t clarity on how the ordinance would be enforced . . . A veto would be an option,” he said.

That would look bad, too, and would appear futile in any case, given council’s appropriate and veto-proof vote. Other local government officials should do the public and their own reputations a favor by considering similar legislation.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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