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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Scam of the Week

The O broke a nice little story the other day. Two paid assistants to U.S. Rep. Earl "the Pearl" Blumenauer are also on the payrolls of local agencies back home in Portlandtown. Tom Markgraf (right), a Blumenauer aide, also pulls down $100 an hour as a consultant to Tri-Met. And he puts in enough hours for Tri-Met that he makes some serious dough there:

Markgraf has received about $100,000 in no-bid contracts from TriMet since joining Blumenauer's staff six years ago, where his salary climbed to $65,000 last year for advising the congressman on transportation and other needs.
Pulling a similar manueuver is Robert Liberty (left), who, according to the O story --
was elected to the Metro Council in November but continues to work in Blumenauer's office as a part-time adviser on "livable communities" while helping set policy on urban planning, land use and transportation for the regional government.
The story then quotes a number of critics who call these dual relationships unethical. Their problem seems to be that since the local agencies get money from Congress, it's unseemly for Blumenauer's staffers to also be on the local pads -- particularly since the hometown agencies are often paying them, directly or indirectly, with federal funds. Of course, the congressman himself denies that there's any conflict of interest, since he, Tri-Met, and Metro are all working for the same lofty goals.

To me, the Markgraf situation is just another example of a plain truth. Any time you see a "semi-autonomous" public agency like Tri-Met -- run by people who are not publicly elected, but appointed by elected officials who are their cronies (in Tri-Met's case, Governor Teddy-Neil) -- you can be sure that hanky-panky with public money is in the vicinity. It's like the Portland Development Commission, which has been outed for some of its own howlers in recent weeks. "Semi-autonomous" is synonymous with "not accountable," and you see the results.

Records show Markgraf has received five no-bid "public outreach" contracts from TriMet and the Washington state Department of Transportation, and one bid contract from the city of Portland, since 2000. Of those, five were paid with federal funding.
It stinks to high heaven. Back where I come from, energetic prosecutors make careers out of tearing this sort of thing up. But in my 27 years in Portland, there's never been a law enforcement official bright, brave, and honest enough to take a pop at stuff like this.

I used to think that Oregonians were just naive. But now I'm beginning to think that they just don't care, and besides, the hideous conflicts just run too deep.

Anyway, it was an uncharacteristically sharp reporting job by The Oregonian. And then, true to form, the editors ran it on the Saturday of a holiday weekend, thus insuring that the fewest possible readers would see it. If you hurry, you can still catch the link before the World's Lamest Web Site makes it disappear from the free internet forever.

Comments (17)

Oh yes it's all about planning and livable communities. This week's scam.

A Portland Tribune, South Waterfront story seemingly written by the PDC or Homer Williams himself. Chuck so full of BS that I did LOL.

No time to disect the piece right now. But perhaps later I will waste some time and carve it up with a reality knife.

Portland can know for sure that South Waterfront is all good according to Markgraf, Liberty and Blumenauer.

Does the O actually mention any specific notations of a conflict of interest?

Considering that both TriMet and Metro are regional authorities, this doesn't sound like much of a story.

Does the O actually mention any specific notations of a conflict of interest?

I think that "the double-duty jobs look bad to taxpayers who wonder how the employee can devote adequate attention to both bosses, or who may question giving public contracts to politically connected staffers" is all you really need to see that there's a problem here.


Come on, if this was Cheney and Haliburton you'd be screaming until you turned blue (oops, probably too late for that).

These guys are part of the federal policy apparatus while they make money from federal sources through no bid contracts.

They get these because of their official positions grant them access to information and influence within the political sphere.

"Consultant" is just another term for unofficial inside lobbyist. The fact that they are purchased with public money makes it exponentially worse.

Oh man, my week is not starting off very well. Am I sitting here agreeing with Steve and Pancho? D'oh!

Suppose that three wise men served as paid staffers. One each from Exxon, Pfizer and Morgan Stanley, and each paid as a consultant by their respective private employers. (Names pulled from the proverbial hat.)

Is this not perceived as the ultimate in having direct access, the very same kind of access that lobbyists wish to obtain through campaign donations? Can we therefor, in the case Jack points to, bypass entirely the whole notion of focusing on campaign financing laws (as Tri-Met does not make direct campaign donations in elections for officials) and get to the root of one of the evils to which those campaign finance laws are directed? Special access. It could apply to lobbying laws, in isolation, as well.

In Oregon, at least, there are little rules prohibiting a legislator from leaping over to being a lobbyist until the passage of a little time out of office. While they may indeed have two masters (mentally) at the same time, they get to be paid by only one of them at any given time.

Many folks had been disappointed in Bush's reliance on industry representatives (lowercase r) in development of his energy plan; and to the secrecy attached to its development. The beef had been to make the records open to the public for inspection. I do wonder whether Earl could appease the public by releasing records of all communications between himself and the in-house lobbyists; perhaps even tape recordings as well.

Can you define government speech? Is this instance merely proof all by its lonesome, without the need to embellish or even to make one single induction? Is it so obvious that one need not even engage in refuting an endless list of conceivable alternative rationalizations or inductions?

If it is OK, why then don't we let the lobbyist get paid a commission of say one percent of the take attributable to their efforts; kinda like the lawyer lobbyist for Portland to buy PGE resources beyond the jurisdictional boundaries of Portland. (But, is it much different than the speech of any school district superintendent, or district attorney, or sheriff, in advocating for more taxes from the public?)

Please allow me to offer one correction. Its Porkland, not Portland. Portland is in Maine.

Of course there is a problem.
One of the worst being the public paying activists though channels like this.
It's pretty easy to use your time and effort advancing the planning crap ruining our region when you get paid by taxpayers to do it.
Show me a single person or organization opposed to Metro or PDC policy making who gets public money. There's plenty of their friends, organizations and people, who do get tax money to help them out.
Even the otherwise worthy Portland Audubon Society and other activist organizations get regular contributions from Metro and other public agencies in exchange for pushing their propaganda and policies.
In addition, every one of the public agencies have full time tax funded PR people working full time to cover, wrap, spin and deliver more of their own self preserving misrepresented public policies.

More corruption seeps out all the time with no consequences.
When the Metro Zoo and Zoo Foundation engaged in money laundering and tax evasion the story nearly died before it was read.
The same is happening today with South Waterfront, the PDC, the Convention Center "Headquarters Hotel", the planned Transit Mall and Light Rail extensions, TriMet fair increases and other flakes in the perpetual snow job.
None of which is economically viable or sustainable.

In Portland especially there is a perpetual snow job and I can't think of any entity or person, other than the Cascade Policy Institute, who is giving any of it due diligence.

Severe problems, (indicated by such as the Sellwood bridge closing indefinitely to Truck and Transit traffic), are stacking up and all the usual suspects/regular Portland activists are doing nothing about them. They sure have plenty to say though.

No need to mention the politicians. They are so lost they think the public wants to pay for their campaigns.

Jack you are right when you say people don't care.

Of course when the tremendous downsides to these policies are so continually obscured from public pondering I can hardly blame the public for not picking up on the net detriment.

I contend that the Tribune story today on South Waterfront is the premiere example of that obscuring machine.

What is obscured?
The initial public cost is really $280 million with many hundreds of millions more hiding in planner-world,
OHSU with it's new buildings and 25 or so acres in SoWa will pay NO property taxes at all,
the OHSU biotech jobs promise was and is a fabrication with zero plausibility,
the greenway is no more than a glorified sidewalk presented as some big public gain,
the high rises have become bigger, wider, more blocking and more profitable,
upcoming tax exemptions will further cripple city and school budgets,
the public is, for some unknown reason, supposed to appreciate the subsidizing of housing for people earning $69,000,
no "schools, community centers" or other significant facilities for families have been identified or FUNDED,
The Tram is of course a cruel hoax on the taxpayers,
PDOT never did any genuine traffic impact study (never looked at any traffic connections to the South)meaning horrific gridlock is on the way,
every single existing and new property within the 409 acre Urban Renewal District will have ALL property tax increases, for at least the next 20 years, diverted away from city and school budgets and into this shady and reckless scheme,
city agencies didn't "work to find compromises",
the streetcars are not a "compromise" to "reduce vehicle traffic"
and not a single real world response has come from ANY of the fatal flaws raised during the entire SoWa process. Not one.
In fact every single flawed notion stands as it did since day one and in many aspects has actually worsened during the process.
No matter how fully refuted.

In Markgraf's picture he is a dead ringer for John Goodman.

"I think that "the double-duty jobs look bad to taxpayers who wonder how the employee can devote adequate attention to both bosses, or who may question giving public contracts to politically connected staffers" is all you really need to see that there's a problem here.

Well, that and "no-bid contract."

I think I may know where Sizemore ought to look for the 10% he has been chasing all these years.

Re: the lack of energetic prosecutors hereabouts: One of my theories is that if you are going to have an effective (but unscrupulous) political machine, you need to have at least some pliable prosecutors, judges and news people, as well as a system in place to punish those who dare get too fair-minded and independent by trumping up charges against them. I see the Terry Gustafson prosecution and disbarment as an example of this kind of punishment. Note how active Michael Schrunk was in the crusade to remove her-and how she was replaced by "Schunky flunkie", John Foote. I saw Ron, Kuby, associate of the late William Kunstler, on Tv making the point that states with very serious problems make it appear they are ethically scrupulous using this sort of prosecution.

I think TorridJoe is on to something.... I'm vastly less interested in "the appearance of a conflict of interest" than I am in actual conflict of interest.

Sure, the "appearance of" may be bad PR, may be bad politics, may just be plain stupid - but the ethical problem arises when there is an actual conflict of interest.

Can anyone demonstrate that either Tom Markgraf, Robert Liberty, or Earl Blumenauer has done something to actually generate an actual conflict of interest?

[Disclaimer: While I consider everyone in this story a friend, and have some professional relationships here too, I speak for no one but myself, and have discussed this issue with none of the guys mentioned.]


You don't think there is an inherent problem when Congressional staffers moonlight with no-bid contracts funded by federal dollars that flow through their committees?

I gave you the benefit of the doubt on your support public financing of campaigns, a lot of people don't recognize what is wrong with redistributing tax dollars to fund political speech in a campaign.

But if you aren't disturbed by redistributing tax dollars to pay political-staffers for their political advice regarding the policies they influence, I'm not sure what you are willing to tolerate.

Perhaps everything short of an actual handshake bribe is not an ethical problem in your world?

Let me give you an illustration that might prod your conscience.

Suppose that a Republican Congressman who supports the expansion of the Drug War and the Patriot Act allowed his staffers to moonlight as political consultants to the Federal Correction Workers Union.

See a problem?

"Sure, the 'appearance of' may be bad PR, may be bad politics, may just be plain stupid - but the ethical problem arises when there is an actual conflict of interest."

Well, that's true as far as it goes. There probably is no chargeable offense here. It's probably only run-of-the-mill influence peddling, or the appearance of it. Which, as you say, "may be bad PR, may be bad politics, may just be plain stupid."

But Mr. Chisholm, that's bad enough. It is bad PR, is bad politics, and it is just plain stupid. If I must have a politician representing me (and in our republic that is the best representation I can get short of getting elected myself) then I want him to not be stupid.

(You hear me, Rep. Hooley? Don't you be stupid, either.)

Surely the agencies involved can find some way to get their message to Rep. Blumenauer in a way that does not generate such bad appearances.

Hey, Kari, speaking of apparent conflicts, how much (in dollars' worth) work have you done for Earl or either of these two aides? Got any proposals in front of any of them at the moment?

As someone who used to work for Robert, frankly, Robert's one of the biggest fans when it comes to ethics and conflict of interest laws. That is, he's a huge stickler for this stuff and thinks it's a major problem that developers fund campaigns and then politicians make decisions about developers.

That's why, when he ran for office, he refused to take more than, I don't remember, $50 from people with a fiscal interest in Metro's work. The trash haulers, developers, etc. -- he turned down money left and right.

And when he worked at 1000 Friends, he was always pushing for us to get excited about conflict of interest legislation, initiatives, etc.

He's kind of lumped in with Markgraf on this story, without any evidence that anything is going wrong (the evidence they offer on Markgraf doesn't seem very strong, either). Seems like the Oregonian wanted to create a pattern, so they grabbed two people.

What's really wrong is that we pay Metro Councilors a third of some judges. That's right -- we peg their salary, by the Metro Charter I believe, to be one-third of that of a local (appellate?) judge. And we claim Metro Councilling is a part-time job, running a region with 1.5 million people, 25 cities, and three counties in it. And we expect them to do that job for about $33,000 a year. Most folks would want a second job. And Robert had one before he became a Metro Councilor, which was advising Earl.

Robert, who is, as Earl noted, one of the nation's top experts in the field of growth management, and he's providing advice and knowledge that's very valuable. Could Earl hire someone else who isn't connected? Sure. Would we, as taxpayers, get more worth out of that? I doubt it.

Simply said: show me the conflict. Show me the money.

When we talk about good old boy networks, the operative word is GOOD. Some people are so good, so bright, so expert, that the safeguards that apply to others don't apply to them. Therein lies the problem........


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