Tuesday, February 14, 2006

At least 7 firms winning no-bid contracts gave Doyle money


At least 7 firms winning no-bid contracts gave Doyle money
By JR Ross
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. - Employees of at least seven companies donated to Gov. Jim Doyle's re-election campaign around the same time the state picked their firms for no-bid contracts totaling more than $36.1 million, according to an Associated Press review.

They include two IBM salesmen who gave Doyle more than $11,000 over a three-year period as the business won more than a dozen contracts worth more than $6 million.

Also, three Oracle Corp. employees gave Doyle $3,250 within days of the company winning a contract that could be worth up to $29 million to provide software and technical support to the state.

Some $16,000 in donations from employees of the other five companies in the AP review were given to Doyle around the time their firms won work.

Doyle has been under fire over the last several months as federal, state and local prosecutors review a contract won by a travel agency whose executives gave $20,000 to Doyle shortly before and after the deal took effect. A federal grand jury last month indicted a state employee involved in selecting the firm, alleging she manipulated the process to help the company beat out a competitor to "cause political advantage for her supervisors."

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said a culture has developed in Madison that vendors feel they must make campaign contributions to enhance their chances to win state work.

"They've almost been trained like rats," McCabe said. "You push the right button, and out comes a treat."

Doyle's office referred all questions about the donations to his campaign. Doyle campaign spokeswoman Melanie Fonder said the governor has never tied state work to political contributions. He returned $10,000 in donations from executives of a Manitowoc company that came in three days after the firm won a $1.1 million grant.

Fonder said the campaign reviews all donations and has no plans to return those identified in the AP review.

"There is no connection," Fonder said.

IBM won more no-bid contracts awarded from the state's three largest agencies than any other company over the past three years, according to the AP's review. The work was largely related to hardware maintenance and software purchases.

Around the time the company won those contracts, salesmen Daniel Meixelsperger and Mark Ronnie made a series of donations to Doyle's campaign totaling $11,100. Some of the donations were made within weeks of the company winning the no-bid contracts.

Meixelsperger is the main sales representative the state deals with, according to the Department of Administration. A contract lists Ronnie as a company contact for the state.

Department of Administration Executive Secretary Sean Dilweg said the state selected IBM for its mainframe in the 1990s, which required the state to purchase IBM products that are compatible with its system.

According to a database of contributions maintained by the Democracy Campaign, Meixelsperger also donated to former Govs. Scott McCallum and Tommy Thompson while they were in office.

"These were private donations, and they weren't connected with contracts awarded by the state," IBM spokesman Scott Cook said, declining further comment.

Various Oracle offices had 47 contracts with state agencies to maintain databases tracking things like road work and criminal histories before the state decided to consolidate the work into one contract, Dilweg said. The contract is expected to save the state up to 45 percent of its prior costs, including a $2 million savings achieved in the first year of the six-year deal, Dilweg said.

The donations from Oracle employees came between May and June 2005, within weeks of the contract's approval. All three live outside Wisconsin, including Margaret Kuhlman, an account manager who works with the state. She is the only one of the three to have made a political contribution to a state candidate in the previous decade, giving Doyle $500 in 2003, according to the Democracy Campaign database.

Kuhlman did not return calls from the AP to her Chicago office, and a company spokeswoman declined comment.

McCabe said vendors seeking state work have given to governors since long before Doyle took office.

Campaign finance reports show McCallum received $4,001 in 2001 from executives of an Oklahoma company that built a private prison in Wisconsin hoping the state would buy it. The money came in one week before the state Building Commission, chaired by McCallum, approved buying the prison for $75 million.

In 1999, executives of a Fond du Lac construction firm gave Thompson $37,000 two weeks before the Building Commission he chaired gave the company a $29.5 million, no-bid contract to build a prison for sexual predators in Mauston.

Thompson faced other allegations that contributions were tied to state work but denied there was any connection.

McCabe's group last year reviewed more than 5,000 Commerce Department economic development grants handed out between 1999 and 2004, a period covering the terms of Thompson, McCallum and Doyle. It found those who had donated to political candidates received awards averaging more than $1 million. It said that those that did not received an average of $129,990.

"They're not making donations to get good government," McCabe said.

The consulting firm Mead & Hunt won a no-bid contract from the state in 2004 to do an analysis of the Dane and Milwaukee county airports as the state fought the proposed closure of Wisconsin military bases. Company president Rajan Sheth gave Doyle $1,250 over the course of the year, including $250 eight days before the almost $80,000 contract was approved.

Sheth said he opposes exchanging contributions for political favors and said the donations were not tied to the contract the company won.

Sheth has made multiple donations to numerous candidates spanning the political spectrum, according to the Democracy Campaign database. Mead & Hunt is one of the state's oldest consulting firms, in business for 106 years.

"Mead & Hunt has done work for state government since long before I was born," said Sheth, who has worked for the company almost 30 years. "I don't think there is any correlation with any contribution any of us make."

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