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Shadow government redux

Things happen.

You wake up some morning and you’ve got a complex web of half-city and half-private corporations taking on a variety of government projects. There’s even a $100 million city-run bank. Only a handful of people know anything about it. The green eyeshade guys had some ideas. And off they went.

That was Baltimore — gulp — almost 30 years ago. I wrote a long series of articles about what we at The Sun called “The Shadow Government.” William Donald Schaefer, then the mayor, said we had called him a thief. We hadn’t. Our point was basically this: You’ve got a big ball of wax here that keeps getting bigger, operates out of public view and avoids important safeguards.

Now we have the Baltimore City Foundation, an instrumentality operated out of City Hall. The Sun has reported that the foundation is used, alternately, as a fund for worthy projects ostensibly beyond the financial means of the city or, so it appears, as a money-laundering machine for publicity-shy contributors to Mayor Sheila Dixon.

The foundation was formed in 1981 under then-Mayor Schaefer. (It was not mentioned in The Sun series.) I’m guessing it grew slowly, took on official status and was seldom questioned.

It became part of the municipal woodwork. It had a board of upstanding, generous and sometimes politically involved people, but there was little to provoke any sort of “wait a minute” scrutiny.

Asked to account for her use of foundation funds to pay for an ice sculpture and various other inauguration expenses, Dixon said campaign contributors didn’t like giving money for inaugurals. Not entirely true. What they don’t like is the publicity that such contributions might draw. It’s one thing to help with a campaign and another to underwrite a party.

They would contribute, the mayor says she was told, to a foundation set up to underwrite efforts the city felt it couldn’t afford to pay for with its regular budget. If the money then went to an inaugural ball, well, who would know? Who even knew there was a Baltimore City Foundation?

Now, though, the foundation looks a little like a political money laundering operation.

Calls for oversight

Scrutiny is always late.

Reacting to The Sun’s story, Comptroller Joan Pratt said she wanted to make sure the foundation was not used as an improper pass-through. She called for an audit.

So did Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Councilman William H. Cole IV said he wanted to shield city employees from conflicts of interest. Were city workers soliciting money from contributors who were doing business with the city? Who, if anyone, was guarding against the appearance of the quid pro quo?

All this demonstrates is the ultra-thin separation between contributions to candidates or office holders and a hoped-for favor. There’s always been an unspoken agreement: If I give you money to run ads or to put on victory celebrations or inaugurals, maybe you will give me a shot at city business. In polite language it’s called access.

Without the campaign cash, many businessmen believe, they might not be able to pitch their product or service. So you help, and hope no one will notice.

With some bravado, veterans of this little charade say: “You have to be able to take their money and vote against them.” Surely this does happen.

More often recipients will say: Gee, I just don’t know who contributes to my campaigns. There are so many contributors. This, too, is sometimes true.

Bad advice

Comptroller Pratt, Council President Rawlings-Blake and Mayor Dixon are obviously right to demand an audit. More than that may be needed, it would seem.

The foundation’s board needs to function more like a board. Its employees probably should be independent of city hall — particularly if it wants to operate outside the bounds of competitive bidding and other requirements.

Mayor Dixon told The Sun she was advised to handle the inaugural contributions the way she did. Real bad advice.

Exceptionally bad, actually, since at the time of the foundation giving to her inauguration, she was already under investigation for various forms of favor granting with businessmen in search of tax breaks or something else from the city.

It is not to the mayor’s advantage to have what looks like a slush fund available for ice sculptures.

Much of what the foundation does, it seems, is wonderful. But everyone should remember this: Process is your friend. And perception in politics is still reality.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.