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I Was Wrong To Question The DRPA

 Later this year, it is possible — even probable — that the following individuals will all be in jail: former powerhouse Senator Vince Fumo, former House Speakers John Perzel and Bill DeWeese, Senators Jane Orie and Bob Mellow (both of Leadership), and former Representatives Mike Veon and Brett Feese (also from Leadership). 

 

On the one hand, seeing corrupt politicians brought to justice is a good thing, as is all the money they are giving back to taxpayers via forfeited pensions.

 

But there is a downside. While such offenders should obviously be prosecuted, people’s cynicism toward their government seems to be at an all-time high. Why? Because the rampant corruption still occurring — the kind that directly affects people — just isn’t being tackled seriously. 

 

Despite elements of corruption — both institutional and criminal — so apparent that even a law student could successfully prosecute the violators, nothing seems to get done. 

 

Worst of all are the pols who campaign as straight-shooting, law-and-order reformers, hell-bent on rooting out corruption, yet do nothing of the kind when elected.  Sadly, they often end up as corrupt as those they challenged.  The status quo remains intact, and, save for a bit of window dressing “reforms” here and there, it’s Business As Usual.

 

Nowhere is that more apparent that the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), one of the most powerful — and corrupt — organizations in the entire nation.

 

But wait! Could there be hope after all of reforming the Authority?  Sources say that a report from the New Jersey Comptroller’s Office will be released soon (possibly Monday), and that a gag order has been placed on its contents by the DRPA’s Chairman, Pennsylvania Governor Tim Corbett.  Sounds so cloak-and-dagger that it’s just possible to think maybe, just maybe, this might finally be the time when the bums are kicked out, replaced by honest folks with only one objective: responsible stewardship of the toll payers’ money.

 

After all, on the other side of the river we have firebrand Governor Chris Christie, who, like Corbett, is a former prosecutor.

 

So will this be the day we’ve been waiting for?

 

Fat chance. Very fat.

 

*****

 

Freindly Fire (FF) has been the longest-serving media voice taking on the DRPA and the heavyweights involved with the Authority (Ed Rendell, Jon Corzine, the Ballard Spahr law firm, CEO John Matheussen, and past and present Boards, to name just a few). For much of the past four years, FF has been alone in its quest to upend the corrupt regime, eliminate mammoth conflicts of interest, fire double-dipping executives, and bring accountability to the agency.  Joined by FOX 29 in 2010— and pretty much only FOX 29 — a number of the above objectives were met.  DRPA execs were scrambling (some were canned), a few reforms were instituted (though mostly toothless), criminal investigations were launched, and both new governors promised swift and decisive action.

 

But then it all fell off a cliff.

 

While we have moved in the right direction, it is not nearly good enough.  Quite frankly, this report will probably accomplish nothing.  Sure, there will be press conferences with harsh warnings from Corbett and Christie for the DRPA to shape up, Board members will say all the right things, and taxpayer and reform groups will fall for the same empty promises. And you know what will happen?

 

Absolutely nothing.

 

Therefore, it seems appropriate to take a new position regarding all things DRPA — I am apologizing.  In retrospect, I have been wrong across the board these past few years, and it is only fitting to publicly eat crow for those errors. I am man-enough to admit my mistakes.  Here are some of the most substantial:

 

1) I was wrong to think Tom Corbett would make good on his promise to clean house upon becoming Governor (and making himself DRPA Chair).  Instead, he chose to appoint hacks, lawyers (redundant?), former union officials, large-dollar political contributors and lobbyists to the Board, without so much as one reformer.

 

2) I was wrong to think Christie would use his office as a bully pulpit to demand the Jersey Board members (whom he can’t replace until their terms expire) to fire CEO Matheussen, under whose “leadership” the DRPA has become synonymous with “corrupt.”  This is a CEO, by the way, who has been working without a contract for years, makes more than either governor, and stands to pocket a six-figure sum of toll payer money in accumulated sick/vacation days when he finally leaves. Yet he remains because there has been no political will to remove him.

 

3) I was wrong to think the other media outlets (except FOX 29) would jump on board, exposing the DRPA for what it really is.  And I was wrong to assume they were capable of doing so in the first place, despite time and again giving them an exact roadmap for investigative articles.

 

4) I was wrong to think the Philadelphia Inquirer — both under former publisher Brian Tierney’s failed leadership and the current sell-out ownership — would cover the DRPA as a media watchdog should.  Could such inaction have been caused by Tierney begging Rendell for a taxpayer-bailout of the paper? And let’s not forget that, while R.endell was in power, the acting Board Chairman was John Estey of Ballard Spahr — Rendell’s former Chief of Staff, a major Rendell fundraiser, and a fellow member of Rendell’s law firm.  So obviously, I was wrong to even consider the possibility that the paper could objectively cover the matter.

 

5) I was wrong to expect that over $35 million in “economic development” money —codespeak for political slush funds used for everything under the sun —except the bridges — would be spent on 1) the long-overdue re-decking of the Walt Whitman Bridge; 2) helping offset yet another toll increase; or 3) paying down some of the DRPA’s enormous debt. 

 

And I would be wrong to end my list here, since there is so much more.  So check back next week for even more wrongs.  And who know?  Maybe all these wrongs might somehow make it right…

 

 

An accredited member of the media, Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television/radio commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com  His self-syndicated model has earned him the largest cumulative media voice in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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March 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm Comments (0)

Rendell’s Real Legacy: High Taxes, Low Ratings And Clenched Teeth

It was a December night, late 90’s.  My entire family was in downtown Philadelphia taking in the Christmas attractions.  One of our traditions was marveling at the magnificently decorated, larger-than-life tree in the City Hall courtyard.  But when we arrived, the gates were locked.

Viewing the tree wasn’t going to happen.

Disappointed, we started walking away when none other than the Mayor himself came bounding out of City Hall right next to us, clearly in a hurry.  But he saw us, turned around, and shot the bull for several minutes.  Upon hearing our plight, he immediately summoned a police officer from his detail and instructed him to take us up to his office, which “has the best view of the tree,” for as long as we wanted.

That tree never looked so beautiful.

And through it all, that Mayor never asked us our names or where we lived.  Whether or not we were voting constituents had absolutely no bearing on him.  He instinctively did what he thought was right, in much the same way he operated while an Assistant District Attorney, and later, the City’s DA.  He was one of the good guys.

And after his two relatively successful terms as Mayor, hopes that he would lead Pennsylvania in the right direction were not unfounded.

But after eight disastrous years as Pennsylvania’s Governor, Ed Rendell being viewed as a “good guy” is as likely as the Eagles’ winning this year’s Super Bowl: nonexistent.

*****

Up to this point, his legacy was known for three things: the introduction of gambling, which did not live up to the promise of tax-relief; huge tax hikes, coupled with a 40 per cent increase in state spending; and a perception of widespread pay-to-play within his Administration. Of lesser note but still sore subjects were his signing an unconstitutional legislative pay raise and not getting a single budget passed on time — budgets that were full of smoke and mirrors, such as imaginary revenue from the failed I-80 tolling plan.

But now, the image of Rendell that is etched in people’s minds is the Governor blowing his top during one of his final interviews. 

With teeth clenched in a menacing growl, he karate-chops the air and literally screams at 60 Minutes interviewer Lesley Stahl that … “You guys don’t get that. You’re simpletons. You’re idiots if you don’t get that.”   He was defending his position that gaming was good for Pennsylvania, under the rationale that if gamblers are going to lose their paychecks anyway, it’s better for state coffers if they lose them in Pennsylvania.

Truth be told, Rendell’s anger wasn’t really directed at Stahl.  An intelligent man, the Governor is all too aware that, under his watch, the state earned points in all the wrong categories: some of the highest taxes in the country; the nation’s most hostile legal system, causing doctors and companies to flee; a failing educational product; the country’s worst roads, and a decimated manufacturing base.

Pennsylvania’s biggest export is its children, and that, more than anything, has extinguished the hope for a better tomorrow under Rendell.

But if there is ever to be a turnaround, the time is now. Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett will be the state’s new Governor, a leader who has promised to run Pennsylvania in the mold of New Jersey’s Chris Christie.  And he definitely has the horses to accomplish his agenda: the Senate is solidly Republican, and the State House saw a thirteen seat swing to give the GOP a double-digit majority.

Many analysts postulated that Dan Onorato was defeated in the Governor’s race, and the Democrats lost control of the State House, because of the national Republican tidal wave, with Rendell playing little role in that result.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the off-year elections of 1994 and 2010, newly elected Democratic Presidents pushed unpopular policies: Clinton with national health care and gays in the military, and Obama with universal healthcare, cap-and-trade and the stimulus. In both cases, Republicans took advantage of the momentum and captured the U.S. House of Representatives and numerous Governorships, including the gubernatorial victories of Tom Ridge and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania. 

The State House was a different story. In 1994, the outgoing Governor, Bob Casey, Sr., was a popular conservative Democrat, and his influence helped the Dems maintain their slim majority. But Rendell was an albatross around the neck of Onorato, his protégé, and Democratic incumbents statewide.  Given that Corbett made Rendell’s legacy the focal point of his campaign, the Governor bears the most responsibility for his Party’s shellacking.

It’s legacy time for the Governor, and his approval ratings are downright dismal: twenties throughout much of the state and only thirties in his home base of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Poll numbers don’t lie, so when the vast majority of people say that Rendell’s eight years at the helm were a disaster, the realization of failure sets in, and backlashes occur — hence the uncontrolled outburst on 60 Minutes.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Rendell’s unpopularity is that it occurred despite the media’s cozy relationship with the Governor.  That free pass culminated when…

Read the rest and post a comment at Philly Magazine’s Philly Post:

http://blogs.phillymag.com/the_philly_post/2011/01/11/rendell%e2%80%99s-legacy-high-taxes-low-ratings-and-clenched-teeth/

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newsApapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

Freind, whose column appears nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a guest commentator on Philadelphia-area talk radio shows, and makes numerous other television and radio appearances, most notably on FOX.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

 

 

 

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January 11, 2011 at 11:14 am Comments (0)

Chambers Of Horrors: Chambers of Commerce Have Sold Their Soul

Chambers Of Commerce Have Sold Their Soul

“The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to promoting regional economic growth…and advancing business-friendly public policies.”

So says the Mission Statement of Philadelphia’s Chamber of Commerce.

It further states that it is, “dedicated to supporting and encouraging the continued growth” of its members by striving “to influence business-friendly legislation in all levels of government, participate in initiatives to improve education and the community.”

And its Public Policy department is supposed “…to address pro-business legislation directly with the policy-makers who can make a difference.”

Wow.

If only the Chamber put just a small fraction of that mission into reality, maybe Philadelphia wouldn’t be such a dismal place to live and work.

But the city Chamber is not alone in selling out its members.

Last month, the Montgomery County Chamber, in an act that defies belief, issued a “Lifetime Achievement Award” to Governor Ed Rendell at a “Celebration of Excellence” event. 

It’s no small point that Rendell, more than anyone, is responsible for the carnage that is Pennsylvania’s economy.

*****

Chambers of Commerce are, and should be, non partisan.  They should work with, and support, candidates who advocate pro-business policies.  Even more important, they should be vocal —and unified —in opposing those who favor policies contrary to their mission.

Call me crazy, but Ed Rendell fits into the latter category.  Of this, there can be no dispute.

Maybe Rendell’s vision has been shaped by the belief that government knows best, and wealth should be redistributed from those who work to those who don’t.

Or maybe it’s because he’s been on the public dole for virtually his entire working life, which certainly gives one a different perspective from those in the private sector creating jobs, meeting payroll, and growing the economy.

Either way, Rendell’s policies should have been opposed at every turn by the Chambers, whose primary responsibility is to fight for a pro-business legislative agenda.

But too many didn’t.  And for a Chamber of Commerce, even one sell–out is one too many.

In the Montco Chamber’s case, maybe leader Al Paschall wanted to be liked by Rendell; maybe it was an ego boost to have the Governor know his name.

That’s fine if you’re a regular citizen, but not if you run a Chamber of Commerce.

So how could Rendell, of all people, have earned anAchievement Award?

 Difficult to answer, given the governor’s fiscal record.  Consider:

Read the rest of Freindly Fire’s column at:

http://blogs.phillymag.com/the_philly_post/2010/05/12/chambers-of-horrors/

Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

Freind also serves as a weekly guest commentator on the Philadelphia-area talk radio show, Political Talk (WCHE 1520), and makes numerous other television and radio appearances.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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May 12, 2010 at 3:42 pm Comments (0)

Freindly Fire’s Analysis of the Democratic Governor Candidates

Freindly Fire’s Analysis of the Democratic Governor Candidates

BY CHRIS FREIND

The 2010 election cycle in Pennsylvania will be one of the most important in decades, highlighted by the gubernatorial contest. History favors the Republicans, since the governor’s office has switched hands every eight years since 1968, when governors were first permitted to serve two terms.

That said, the Democrats are not going quietly into the night. Conversely, the field continues to grow as more see promise that the eight-year trend may finally break due to the Democrats’ 1.2 million voter edge.

It is far too early to state that 2010 will be a watershed year for Republicans, as many in the GOP believe. While popular Attorney General Tom Corbett looms as the expected Republican nominee (he won a stunning victory in last year’s election, posting a 400,000 vote margin in an otherwise horrific year for Republicans), he must still get past Congressman Jim Gerlach’s insurgent candidacy.

No matter the GOP opponent, the Democrats will post a formidable challenger. Following is an analysis of the five most likely candidates, and their chances for victory:

Philadelphia Businessman Tom Knox

Many political observers believe that the next governor of Pennsylvania will be named “Tom,” and there is credible evidence behind this theory. While Tom Corbett is in the GOP’s driver seat, Tom Knox brings a plethora of assets to the race, and will present substantial obstacles for his opponents.

First and foremost, Knox can and will self-fund a large portion of his campaign warchest. He spent $12 million in his bid for Mayor of Philadelphia in 2007, narrowly losing to Michael Nutter. In doing so, he became a household name in southeastern Pennsylvania, which just happens to be home to 45% of the state’s electorate – a huge benefit to Knox.

Most political observers believe that $10 million is the minimum needed for the primary. Since Knox will easily pass this threshold, he immediately gains a huge advantage over his opponents. While they will spend their time fundraising, Knox will be traveling the state meeting, greeting – and raising even more money.

Knox’s positions on the issues also make him attractive to many of the state’s moderate Democrats, especially those in the northeastern and southwestern sections of Pennsylvania. He has been an outspoken leader in opposing electric deregulation and the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Blues merger, and supports school choice and tort reform, all issues of significant interest to the business community.

At this point, color Knox the frontrunner.

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato

Watch for Onorato to emerge as the Ed Rendell legacy candidate. While Rendell has not officially endorsed anyone – yet – it is clear to many that his close relationship with Onorato will be exploited to maximum effect during the campaign.

Onorato already has $5 million in his campaign fund. That gives him a solid start, and may be enough to weed out the rest of the field, with the exception of Knox. And while Rendell’s approval rating is dismal, he is still a popular figure in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Ed Rendell’s touting of Onorato, along with the use of the Rendell political machine, is certainly good for a significant boost, especially important because Onorato is barely known in the state’s most expensive media market.

But years as Allegheny County Executive comes with baggage. While Onorato pushed through a hugely unpopular drink tax, his biggest liability may be what many consider conflicts of interest with campaign donors. This could be a substantial negative factor, particularly since the current governor has been roundly criticized for his widespread conflicts, with some even suggesting rampant pay-to-play activity.

In an era where voters are increasingly concerned about the appearance of impropriety and corruption in state government, Dan Onorato may be in the wrong race at the wrong time.

Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty

While a nice town, Scranton is home to only 70,000 people, hardly the major metropolis in which an unknown mayor can launch a credible statewide campaign. The Keystone State has two major media markets, including the nation’s fourth largest, and they are not cheap. Going from a zero name ID to even 30 per cent will be extremely expensive, and Doherty will simply not be able to raise the campaign cash necessary to achieve this minimum level of effectiveness.

Since there are townships with more people than Scranton, it is clear that Doherty’s candidacy for governor is a joke, amounting to nothing more than a ploy to raise name ID for a Lt. Gov. run. No more ink is necessary for a non-starter like Doherty.

Auditor General Jack Wagner

Jack Wagner has proven to be an effective, independent Auditor General, one who has shown political courage by taking on Gov. Rendell and his Administration on various fiscal issues.

A former state senator, Wagner is a proven vote-getter in statewide elections, an endeavor none of his opponents has undertaken. Hailing from the same southwest base as Onorato, Wagner could pose huge problems for the Allegheny County Executive. While not being able to raise the same level of money as Onorato, Wagner’s possible motivation could prove more troublesome. It’s no secret that the Wagner-Onorato feud is viewed as akin to the Hatfields and McCoys; many observers think Wagner may jump into the race to play the spoiler.

An unheard of tactic? Try again. Just look at last spring’s district attorney race in Philadelphia. Dan McCaffery was one of only two viable candidates in the Democratic primary, yet two of his four opponents (like him, both white Irish Americans) stayed in the race to the end. Their disdain for McCaffery was palpable, and they clearly affected the dynamic of the race. McCaffery came in second.

Many Republicans have praised Wagner, which will not help him in a Democratic primary, but the biggest obstacle facing the Auditor General is his lack of fundraising prowess. If he can find a way to solve that problem, he will be an extremely viable candidate. Look for a Wagner candidacy soon, with a possible drop-out announcement a few months later, but not before Onorato’s image is seriously tarnished.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel

The recent announcement of a Hoeffel candidacy has the political observers buzzing, because on paper, it changes the dynamics of the race. A second candidate from the vote-rich southeast now dilutes the once-solid Knox base, especially since Hoeffel is a well-known figure who has represented Montgomery County for two decades.

While a Hoeffel candidacy is intriguing, it remains to be seen if he can raise the money to compete. If Onorato becomes the de facto candidate of Gov. Rendell, watch for the fundraising spigot to close from Rendell’s large-dollar contributors, many of whom hail from Montgomery County.

Interestingly, the Hoeffel candidacy places Rendell in an awkward position. A second candidate from the southeast would help Onorato, but if Hoeffel’s star falls quickly due to a lack of support, Tom Knox and his imposing warchest would again take center stage. Yet if Rendell tacitly helps Hoeffel to hurt Knox, there exists the possibility that Hoeffel would catapult to the head of the pack and end up hurting Onorato.

Conspiracy theory aside, Hoeffel is aided by the fact that he controls millions in county and federal stimulus money, and many recipients of such largesse would no doubt show their appreciation by supporting a Hoeffel gubernatorial campaign. If that becomes the case, however, Hoeffel will have to contend with charges of conflicts of interest, likely to be one of the hot-button issues in the campaign.

Hoeffel is no stranger to that. In a 1993 Philadelphia Inquirer editorial, he was criticized for coming close to selling his office after sending a letter to supporters that “managed to tout both his key policy-making position as a county commissioner (‘I have found myself ‘in the loop’ of policy and personnel decisions’) and his continued availability as a Norristown lawyer ‘to consult with you on any legal matters you might have,’” according to the editorial.

The newspaper stated that it would “feel more forgiving about the whole business, if Mr. Hoeffel himself conceded the perception problem – heck, it sounded like unabashed influence-peddling – instead of pawning it off as the creation of partisan mischief.”

If Hoeffel makes it to the spring, watch for that editorial to become part of your everyday television and radio lineup.

Hoeffel also has to contend with the perception that he cannot win a statewide race. His highly-touted announcement for U.S. Senate in 2004 was the highpoint of the Hoeffel campaign. He proved to be a non-entity against Arlen Specter, getting trounced by an 11 point margin.

Chris Freind, author of “Freindly Fire,” is an independent newspaper columnist and investigative reporter whose readers hail from six continents, thirty countries, and all fifty states. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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September 25, 2009 at 10:46 am Comment (1)

Open Letter To Gov. Rendell: Why Your Approval Rating Is So Dismal

Open Letter To Gov. Rendell: Why Your Approval Rating Is So Dismal

BY CHRIS FREIND

Dear Gov. Rendell:

I noted with interest that your current approval rating stands at just 39% — the lowest point in your career. Despite denying my repeated requests for a one-on-one interview, I nonetheless offer my thoughts as to why you have fallen out of favor with so many Pennsylvanians.

Conflicts Of Interest

First and foremost, the citizens of the Keystone State are fed up with what they see as huge conflicts of interest permeating every level of your Administration, with you being the focal point of many.

The appearance of a governor showing favoritism and special treatment to his big-dollar political donors, close friends, campaign fundraisers, and, perhaps most disturbing of all, one’s former law firm, raises eyebrows and sinks people’s faith in government.

For example, Ballard Spahr, the law firm where you worked from 1999 to 2002, billed a total of $25,000 in legal fees to the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) in the three years which preceded your election as governor. Since then, Ballard has billed over $3 million. Considering that you were the self-appointed Chairman of the Authority during this bonanza time for Ballard, many still wonder at this peculiar arrangement.

Making matters even more suspect, your former Chief of Staff, John Estey, voted on your behalf as the Chairman-designate at virtually every meeting. Since you made him the outright Chairman three months ago, he continues to vote to receive and accept Ballard Spahr’s legal bills to the DRPA. As a partner at Ballard, Estey is, therefore, voting to put money into his own firm’s coffers — a situation that offends many of your constituents and would never fly in the private sector.

Additionally, Mr. Estey is also the chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA), an agency of the Commonwealth which you control. Not surprisingly, Ballard Spahr also happens to be the PRPA’s outside counsel.

But what takes the cake is Ballard Spahr performing nearly $800,000 worth of legal work for the Pennsylvania Turnpike privatization initiative with no contract. That’s not a no-bid contract, mind you. It’s no contract at all. Must be nice to be Ballard Spahr.

From assisting Al Boscov (of Boscov’s department stores) with a $35 million taxpayer-funded bailout, after Boscov and his family contributed $164,000 to your campaigns, to awarding a no-bid contract to a Houston law firm, whose lead partner donated $91,000 to your campaign efforts, an increasing number of Pennsylvanians are, quite frankly, skeptical of your integrity. Addressing that should be your first priority.

Your Comcast “High-Speed” Connection

Earlier this year, you publicly scolded the Sunoco oil company for its decision to lay off 750 workers, calling the company’s action “unconscionable.” Yet you were notably silent concerning the 3,000 layoffs — four times the number at Sunoco — that Comcast has executed in the past year.

Why the disparity? A look at the campaign money trail might well provide the answer.

Since your 2002 election, Sunoco’s political action committee (PAC) contributed $55,000 to your campaign, with Sunoco employees donating an additional $2,650.

During that same time period, Comcast’s PAC, its employees, and the spouses of its top executives, have donated $634,350 to you. Additionally, Comcast spent at least $100,000 on your inauguration festivities in 2007, being designated a“Benefactor,” the highest level of contributor.

One of your closest allies, Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen (and your former Mayoral Chief of Staff), has contributed $80,000 to your campaigns. His wife, Rhonda, donated an additional $156,000. Interestingly, Mr. Cohen served as chairman of Ballard Spahr prior to joining Comcast. (Comcast is represented by Ballard Spahr).

Speaking of Ballard Spahr, the firm has contributed $481,000 to the your campaigns, and its attorneys donated an additional half-million dollars. Also, the Philadelphia Future Political Action Committee, registered at the Ballard office, pumped $471,000 more into your coffers. Mr. Cohen serves as that PAC’s treasurer.

And the address on your campaign finance reports is the 51st floor of 1735 Market Street in Philadelphia — where Ballard Spahr occupies the entire floor.

It all ties together, doesn’t it?

No New Taxes

Being a member of the media means that I’m not very bright, but pushing for new taxes might not be the best idea for winning the budget fight. We have never taxed ourselves into prosperity, but to increase tax rates during a severe recession is simply ludicrous. Your budgetary math has been fuzzy, to say the least, further reinforcing the notion that you are completely out of touch with reality.

Just one more suggestion. The next time someone asks you the amount of your paycheck, you probably shouldn’t answer, “I wouldn’t have a clue what I get paid in a month.” It doesn’t come across too well for the 99.9% of Pennsylvanians who do actually need to know what their income is. After all, they have budgets to balance.

Your Teflon is fading, Governor. You need, for once, to forget your own interest and think of those whom you swore to represent. It’s time to get Pennsylvanians working again and re-instill a faith that their governor is a man of integrity.

Otherwise, the only legacy you will leave will be one of greed and personal ambition.

Chris Freind can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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August 5, 2009 at 12:02 pm Comments (0)

Fire Sale Of State Building Going To Rendell Backer?

Fire Sale Of State Building Going To Rendell Backer?

Auditor General Is Reviewing Rendell Administration’s DGS Sale Agreement
By Chris Freind

Eyebrows have been raised concerning the possibility that some of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s high-dollar donors may be buying state property at “fire sale” prices in a depressed real estate market. The prospective new owner of the State Office Building in Pittsburgh is affiliated with a company whose two top executives contributed $221,000 to Gov. Rendell’s campaigns.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, the commonwealth’s elected fiscal watchdog, announced he was reviewing the Pennsylvania Department of General Service’s (DGS) agreement to sell the State Office Building in Pittsburgh to River Vue Associates for $4.6 million because the transaction amounted to a “fire sale.” DGS is part of the executive branch of the Rendell administration.

River Vue Associates is an affiliate of Millcraft Industries of Canonsburg, Washington County.

Millcraft chairman Jack Piatt has contributed $186,000 to Democratic Gov. Rendell’s campaigns, and Lucas Piatt, Millcraft’s Vice President, has donated $35,000 to Mr. Rendell.

River Vue would acquire the State Office Building early next year and possibly turn it into residential units with some hotel, retail or other types of space, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

In a letter hand-delivered to DGS Secretary James Creedon, Mr. Wagner said the Department of the Auditor General’s Office of Special Investigations would be seeking all available information pertaining to the sale, including lease terms and associated build-out costs at all privately owned buildings where DGS has relocated, or plans to relocate, 800 workers from at least 22 state agencies.

“I continue to believe this is the worst possible deal for the taxpayers of Pennsylvania,” Mr. Wagner said. “It makes no sense for the commonwealth to sell this prized asset — the signature building of state government in Western Pennsylvania — for the lowest possible price during the most depressed real-estate market in decades.”

Mr. Wagner asked DGS a month ago to take the State Office Building off the market until economic conditions improve, after another developer, the Buncher Co., withdrew its bid of $4.5 million. As an alternative to selling the building, the auditor general suggested the state investigate the possibility of using federal funds for green technology to rehabilitate the 52-year-old structure.

The 274,000-square-foot building occupies a prime, 1.3-acre location in downtown Pittsburgh, at the entrance to Point State Park, and offers sweeping views of the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Along with the Gateway Center complex, the State Office Building is a symbol of the post-Word War II downtown renaissance envisioned by David L. Lawrence, the late mayor of Pittsburgh, who served as Pennsylvania governor from 1959-63.

“The land alone is worth more than the sale price,” Mr. Wagner said. He noted the state has agreed to purchase the City of Pittsburgh’s Municipal Courts Building, which is one-fifth the size of the State Office Building and is situated in a less desirable location, under the Liberty Bridge and next to the Allegheny County Jail, for $9 million.

The State Office Building sale is a bad deal, Mr. Wagner said, because there would not be enough profits from the sale to offset moving expenses and pay for the first year of leases at multiple locations in downtown Pittsburgh, saddling taxpayers with an additional spending burden.

“During these difficult economic times, with the state facing multibillion-dollar deficits for the next few years, we should not be saddling hard-working Pennsylvania residents with additional financial burdens they cannot afford,” Mr. Wagner said.

“In addition to being financially wasteful, it would be ludicrous for Secretary Creedon to decentralize state offices in Pittsburgh while other government agencies are moving to centralize other functions in order to save money,” Mr. Wagner said. “Under the terms of this sale, the only certain winners are the buyer of the building and the landlords of the office space where state employees will be relocated.”

Chris Freind can be reached at cf@thebulletin.us

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March 28, 2009 at 2:19 pm Comments (0)

Comcast and Rendell: A High-Octane Connection

Comcast and Rendell: A High-Octane Connection

Conflicts of Interest Pervade the Relationship

BY CHRIS FREIND

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s recent decision to criticize the Sunoco oil company for laying off 750 workers raises a number of intriguing questions. While the governor saw fit to hold a press conference solely to excoriate Sunoco, calling the company’s decision “unconscionable,” he has been notably silent concerning 3,000 layoffs — four times the Sunoco amount — which Comcast has executed in the past year.

Since the governor’s election in 2002, SUN PAC, the Sunoco political action committee, has contributed $55,000 to Mr. Rendell, with Sunoco employees donating an additional $2650.

During that same span, Comcast’s PAC, its employees, and the spouses of its top executives donated $634,350 to the governor. Additionally, Comcast spent at least $100,000 on Mr. Rendell’s inauguration festivities in 2007, being designated “Benefactor” by the governor, the highest level of contributor.
The David Cohen Factor

The governor’s closest ally at Comcast is Executive Vice President David Cohen, who has contributed $80,000 to Mr. Rendell. Mr. Cohen is a longtime Rendell confidante and fundraiser, serving as Chief of Staff when Rendell was Mayor of Philadelphia. Prior to joining Comcast, Cohen was Chairman of the Ballard Spahr law firm, where Mr. Rendell worked while campaigning for governor. Ballard, which provides legal counsel to Comcast, has come under intense media and legislative scrutiny for the frequency and amount of secretive no-bid contracts it has received under the Rendell Administration. In addition, it received almost $800,000 for work on the Pennsylvania Turnpike without any contract.

Ballard Spahr LLP has contributed $481,000 to the governor’s campaigns, with its attorneys donating an additional half million dollars. Also, the Philadelphia Future political action committee (PAC), registered at the Ballard offices and whose treasurer is Mr. Cohen, pumped $471,000 into the Rendell coffers.

The address on Gov. Rendell’s campaign finance reports is the 51st floor of 1735 Market Street in Philadelphia. Ballard Spahr occupies the entire floor.

Cohen also serves as Chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Despite Mr. Rendell’s unprecedented intrusion into the private business sector by his attack on Sunoco, a major Philadelphia employer and Chamber member, no action was taken by the Chamber to defend the company.

The Comcast High Speed Money Connection

The Comcast money trail doesn’t end with Mr. Cohen. Ralph Roberts, Comcast’s founder, his son Brian, who serves as Chairman and CEO, and several other executives are strong Rendell backers. The elder Roberts contributed $52,500, and the son, $48,500. Comcast Chief Operating Office Stephen Burke donated $32,000.

According to Department of State records, the spouses of Comcast executives also made high-dollar contributions to Mr. Rendell. Rhonda Cohen donated $156,000, and the Roberts’ wives, Suzanne and Aileen, respectively, combined for another $25,250. Gretchen Burke contributed $5000.

The Comcast Corporation PAC contributed $93,500 to Rendell campaigns.

Rendell: On The Comcast Payroll

In addition to his $145,000 salary as governor, Mr. Rendell has also worked as a part-time football commentator for Comcast, earning a reported $20,000 per year. This arrangement has led many to question the apparent conflict, but the governor simply brushes off such criticism. As governor, Mr. Rendell has also collected a paycheck from the University of Pennsylvania, where Cohen serves as the Chairman-elect on the Board of Trustees, for his services as a lecturer. The university is a recipient of substantial state aid.

Comcast Aid: An End Run Around the Legislature

In constructing its new Center City headquarters, Comcast executives lobbied the state government for financial assistance. The firm sought a Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) designation for its building, which would have provided local and state tax relief. Despite the fact that KOZ’s are intended to spur development in areas of blight, not prosperous Center City locations, the $30 billion company almost succeeded with the help of Gov. Rendell. Had the Comcast effort prevailed, the company would have been exempt from state and local business taxes until 2015.

Ultimately, the Pennsylvania legislature defeated the efforts of Comcast and the governor.

The governor then made an end-run around the legislature, funneling nearly $43 million in taxpayer money to aid Comcast and pay for infrastructure near the Comcast building, prompting outrage from many. Comcast’s direct incentives were nearly $13 million.

The economic development funds equated to roughly 10% of the building’s cost.

A Cynical Public

At a time when political corruption trials, pay to play scandals and conflicts of interest are rampant, polls show a public with an increasingly cynical view of their government and elected officials. The Pennsylvania legislature has responded by introducing a number of bills aimed at how state contracts are awarded.

Under the Rendell Administration, over $1 billion in no-bid contracts have been awarded.

Chris Freind can be reached at cf@thebulletin.us

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March 28, 2009 at 2:15 pm Comments (0)

Rendell To Veto No-Bid Contract Reform?

Rendell To Veto No-Bid Contract Reform?

By Chris Freind, The Bulletin
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Pennsylvania Senate recently introduced 10 bills aimed at reforming state government. Senate Bill 102, sponsored by Majority Whip Jane Orie, R-40th, of Allegheny County, deals with how no-bid state contracts are awarded. The proposed legislation would eliminate no-bid contracts for consulting services, including legal and bond work, instead requiring an open bid process.

Secretive no-bid contracts doled out under the administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed  Rendell, D, have come under intense scrutiny by legislators, grassroots organizations and the media. This is largely due to the frequency and high-dollar amount of contracts being awarded to the governor’s close friends and political contributors, including Mr. Rendell’s former law firm, Ballard Spahr.

A similar bill reform bill passed the senate 50-0 during the last legislative session, but languished in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

The Bulletin discussed the proposed no-bid contract legislation with Gov Rendell’s Press Secretary Chuck Ardo.

The Bulletin: If the legislation reforming no-bid contracts were to make it to the governor’s desk, do you think he would sign it?

Chuck Ardo: He is not likely to sign it. 

TB: What would be the rationale?

CA: Well, for instance, take professional contracts. You wouldn’t want to hire a surgeon by determining the lowest bidder. You’d want to find the most qualified surgeon for the procedure. The same is true for lawyers and other professional services providers.

Also, sole-source contracts have saved the commonwealth significant money over the last several years. There is political gain to be had by advocating the end of sole-source contracts, but that’s not necessarily in the best interest of the commonwealth or its people.

TB: Would the governor be in favor of no-bid contracts that had a capped amount, such as $100,000?

CA: The problem is that some legal proceedings could require significant investment by the commonwealth. You want the best representation possible, not necessarily by those who submitted the lowest bid.

TB: In that regard, caps or not, would the governor be in favor of no-bid contracts being either approved or rejected by the state attorney general?

CA: We’ll have to see what the specifics of the legislation might be.  It’s hard to answer a hypothetical question like that until we know exactly what the language requires.

TB: Many eyebrows were raised when Ballard Spahr performed $773,000 of legal work for the turnpike privatization initiative — with no contract.  No-bid contracts are one thing, but how does the governor address this “no-contract” type of situation?  How was the turnpike lease issue “urgent”? 

(With no contract in place, Ballard was required to sign a  “Compromise, Settlement and Release” to get retroactively compensated.)

CA:  The needs that the turnpike lease was meant to address were urgent, and continue to be urgent.  There is very little doubt about the urgency of transportation funding needs.

TB: But was it urgent to the point where Ballard billed 2,300 hours over 84 days, utilizing 55 attorneys? Could the firm not have taken the necessary time to execute a no-bid contract?

CA:  I think that everybody was relatively assured that a contract could be worked out.

TB:  Not to seem like we are beating a dead horse, but…

CA:  You choose Ballard Spahr, but there are lots of law firms that have done work for the commonwealth.  There are law firms across the width and breadth of the state that have various relationships, which provide such services.

TB: Many people have inquired about a comparison of no-bid contracts between the Rendell and past administrations.  But it has been reported that such records were “lost” during a computer transition.  Is there any update on the lost records?  Is there any possibility the records might be found?

CA:  I didn’t know they were lost.  Let me find out.

Chris Freind can be reached at cf@thebulletin.us

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February 11, 2009 at 9:59 am Comments (0)

A Recap Of Ballard’s $773K No-Contract Legal Work

A Recap Of Ballard’s $773K No-Contract Legal Work
By Chris Freind, The Bulletin
In 2007, Ballard Spahr, Gov. Ed Rendell’s former law firm, performed $773,000 of state legal work without a contract.

Normally, a contract must be negotiated and executed before any work for the commonwealth can be performed. Because no contract was in place,  however, the firm had no way of receiving compensation. Consequently, it had to sign a  “Compromise, Settlement and Release” agreement initiated by the state Department of Transportation to receive payment retroactively.

While state law allows for work of an urgent nature to be performed without a contract, questions have been raised as to how the turnpike privatization initiative qualified an “urgent” matter, especially since the governor’s plan had been met with resistance in the legislature and had little chance of passage.

The hourly rates of Ballard’s no-contract legal work varied based on seniority. Firm Chairman Arthur Makadon billed $637.50/hour, with partners Ken Jarin and Adrian King Jr. billing $531.25/hour and $403.75/hour, respectively.

Mr. Makadon, a close friend of the governor, has contributed $87,500 to his campaigns. Mr. Jarin is listed as the “relationship partner” on the $773,000 project.  He is a longtime confidante and fundraiser to Mr. Rendell, having contributed $90,000 to the governor’s coffers.  He also serves as treasurer to the Democratic Governor’s Association, an entity that has contributed over $1.5 million to Mr. Rendell.

Mr. Jarin is married to Robin Wiessmann, who at the time of the Turnpike leasing project was serving as state treasurer.  Her office issued payments for the Ballard invoices. Adrian King Jr., served as the governor’s deputy chief of staff and as a cabinet member prior to rejoining Ballard as a partner.

The Ballard firm, a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP), contributed $481,000 to Gov. Rendell’s campaigns. The Philadelphia Future Political Action Committee (PAC), registered at the Ballard offices in Philadelphia and whose treasurer is David Cohen, former Ballard chairman and former chief of staff to then-Mayor Rendell, contributed $470,000.  Mr. Cohen donated $80,000, and his wife, Rhonda, contributed $156,000 to Rendell campaigns. Ballard associates contributed nearly a half million more dollars to Mr. Rendell.

There is no limit to how much an individual or an LLP can contribute to state candidates.  The majority of law firms are LLPs.

Additionally, on Pennsylvania Department of State campaign filings, the address of Gov. Rendell’s campaign treasurer is the 51st Floor of 1735 Market St. in Philadelphia.  The floor is occupied entirely by Ballard Spahr.

Chris Freind can be reached at cf@thebulletin.us

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February 11, 2009 at 9:56 am Comments (0)

Port Authority: $11 Million in Non-Bridge Projects

Port Authority: $11 Million in Non-Bridge Projects

DRPA Still Can’t Afford to Repair Bridges, but Funds 2008 Army-Navy game and historic house

BY CHRIS FREIND

The Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) resumed its controversial “economic development” program yesterday, doling out millions of dollars to projects having nothing to do with the Authority’s primary mission of operating and maintaining the four major bridges in Philadelphia. Many politicians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have close affiliations with these projects.

At its Thursday board meeting, the DRPA Projects Committee approved $11 million in grants to be spent on numerous initiatives in the cities of Philadelphia and Camden. The full board is expected to approve the expenditures at its Feb. 18 board meeting.

In Pennsylvania, the authority will spend $3.5 million for the restoration of an historic house in Philadelphia. An additional $2.5 million was allocated for several initiatives in the historic section of Philadelphia, including the development of a “permanent food structure” in Franklin Square and a technology update for the “Lights of Liberty” show. Lights of Liberty was the idea of then-mayor Ed Rendell to add an evening attraction to the historic district’s landscape.

The DRPA also authorized a resolution to give $250,000 to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau “for expenses incurred hosting the 2008 Army-Navy game.” The military academies played the game almost two months ago.

According to the DRPA, Philadelphia hosted its eighth straight sellout Army-Navy game, had a national television audience of three million, and was the recipient of $35 million in “total economic output.” When questioned about why the DRPA felt it necessary to pay out a quarter-million dollars given the game’s economic success, the answer given by CEO John Matheussen was that the Army-Navy game was good for the Philadelphia region.

In New Jersey, the authority passed a resolution to spend $5 million for “educational and infrastructure improvements” in Camden. Projects include the demolition of a city-owned downtown building and recreational improvements related to Roosevelt Park. The DRPA will also be involved in the “site acquisition, demolition, relocation, and other costs in connection with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ)’s development of an Academic Research Facility.” According to discussions at the DRPA press conference, however, the decision by the UMDNJ to move forward with the research facility has not yet been approved.

A significant portion of the New Jersey economic development funds will be allocated to public infrastructure improvements along Admiral Wilson Boulevard in connection with the expansion of the Campbell Soup Company, a business with a market value of $11 billion.

The DRPA will also fund the West Jersey Line, a 17 mile private railroad in Salem County. It will primarily serve two companies in that region.

Port Authority Vice Chairman Jeffrey Nash, who voted in favor of these projects, also serves as an elected Camden County Freeholder. With the exception of the railroad, all of the New Jersey economic development projects approved at the board meeting are located within Mr. Nash’s district.

Commuters became enraged last year when tolls increased by 33%, a measure taken because DRPA didn’t have the $1.1 billion it needed for bridge repairs. While tolls will rise another 33% next year, the Authority will also be issuing bonds later this year to raise additional revenue for capital improvement repairs. The total bond amount could exceed $500 million.

The Port Authority’s nearly $400 million in economic development grants have come under intense scrutiny in recent months as politicians, the media, and watchdog organizations have increasingly questioned why the Port Authority continues to spend money on non-bridge related projects, especially in difficult economic times.

The Authority has a debt of more than $1.2 billion, and 76 per cent of every dollar is allocated to salaries, benefits and debt service.

Pennsylvania state senator John Rafferty, R-44, Chester and Montgomery Counties, expressed his concern regarding economic development spending by the DRPA.

“They can say all they want that they had this economic development money in reserve, but it should be allocated to rail lines and transportation. The purpose of the DRPA should be to fulfill the same mission of every other government agency— to provide safety, health and welfare to the people for whom they are responsible,” he said. “And you do that by having bridges and rail lines that are up to code and meeting the needs of the consumers. It’s not investing in all these other projects!”, he added.

Sen. Rafferty discussed how much the DRPA changed after being granted economic development authority in the early 1990’s. “We’ve gotten so far away from the scope of what was intended for that agency, that I think the best way to (rectify the situation) is have the federal government eliminate the economic development authority and give us (the state legislatures) the authority to start looking into this,” he stated.

“The DRPA should stop being a wish-list for governors to pull money for projects,” Sen. Rafferty stated.

A spokeswoman for United States Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa, told The Bulletin that Mr. Specter is aware of concerns regarding the DRPA’s use of funds and is monitoring the matter.

The relationship of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, the Port Authority’s self-appointed Chairman, to his former law firm Ballard Spahr has also been called into question, as Ballard has received nearly $3 million in legal fees from the Authority since Rendell’s election in 2002. In the three years prior to that election, Ballard received only $25,000 from the Port Authority.

John Estey, former chief of staff to Gov. Rendell who routinely chairs board meetings on the governor’s behalf, is a partner at Ballard. He regularly votes to receive and authorize the DRPA’s monthly bills, including those from his own firm. Ballard’s invoice from December was over $33,000.

Chris Freind can be reached at cf@thebulletin.us

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January 23, 2009 at 10:33 am Comments (0)

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