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Paying to play on Hill Farms

capitolisms-featuredWith so much said and written about political contributions made by the development team that was not selected to rebuild the massive Hill Farms complex, it might not be bad to talk a bit about the team that was actually chosen.

Mainly thanks to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, it wasn’t hard to hunt down the expenditures made by the principals of Smith Gilbane, the leader of the development team that has received preliminary approval to rebuild the massive structure now housing the Wisconsin Department of Transportation on Madison’s west side. The nonpartisan Democracy Campaign, which tracks donations to candidates for state office, posted a blog to its website this month reporting that the companies making up the Smith Gilbane group gave Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign at least $58,000 from 2009 to 2014.

Most of the money came from executives at C.D. Smith Construction Inc. of Fond du Lac, one of the main companies in the Smith Gilbane partnership. The owners of C.D. Smith gave $57,000 to Walker between 2009 and 2014, according to records gathered by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Contributions from the other company in the team were quite a bit smaller. Three executives at Gilbane Inc. of Providence, R.I., gave Walker $1,250 in 2009 and 2010.

And an executive at the architecture and engineering firm in the team, Minneapolis-based Hammel, Green & Abrahamson Inc., gave Walker $150 in 2012. That company, more commonly known as HGA, has a longer history, in fact, of giving to Democrats.

Among the recipients of HGA’s donations going back to 1997 are Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who ran against Walker both in the 2010 election and the 2012 recall, and Jim Doyle, a Democrat who preceded Walker in the governor’s office.

News of the winning team’s contributions has been largely overshadowed by donations from a group that is apparently not in line to win the Hill Farms contract. The neglect is partly understandable, mostly because of the inevitable suspicions raised by the timing of certain donations.

Terrence Wall, president and chief executive officer of T. Wall Enterprises, gave Walker nearly $10,000 in the same month that the state’s request for proposals for the Hill Farms rebuild was made public. Even before that, Wall, who was part of a development team also consisting of Neenah-based Miron Construction Co. Inc., had opened his wallet often for Walker, giving nearly $8,885 between 2005 and 2012.

Miron itself has been no skinflint when it comes to giving to the governor. Executives and employees at the company contributed $23,160 between 2009 and July 2014, according to Democracy Campaign records. David Voss III, a project executive at Miron, gave Walker $2,500 on Oct. 14, just a few days before developers who were interested in the Hill Farms projects were required to go on a tour of the existing building.

Hill Farms

The Hill Farms State Transportation Building in Madison. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Still, despite the hefty and well-timed donations, the team led by Wall and Miron was not the first choice for the Hill Farms contract. (Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Administration, has explained that the state is still negotiating the specifics of the project and that the contract is not yet guaranteed to go to Smith Gilbane.)

Contributors to Walker’s campaigns can also be found among the other development teams that the state put on a short list of possible winners of the Hill Farms contract. Various persons affiliated with C.G. Schmidt of Milwaukee, the general contractor in one of the development teams not selected for the Hill Farms project, gave Walker about $25,310 between 2005 and June this year.

And executives and employees at Eppstein Uhen Architects Inc., Milwaukee, which was part of a group also including M.A. Mortenson Co. of Minneapolis, gave Walker $6,850 between 2005 and 2012. To be sure, many of these companies have also given to Democrats over the years.

Wall himself gave at least twice to Doyle, although those contributions were greatly outpaced by his support for Walker. Still, were those measly donations what cost him the Hill Farms project?

It’s hard not to indulge in speculation like that when reviewing political contributions and their possible connection to public-works contracts. But it’s equally difficult to prove that any sort of “pay-to-play” deal exists.

The Walker administration has tried to distance itself from the selection of a Hill Farms developer by putting the choice in the hands of a specially designated committee. Still, state officials’ refusal to name the members of the committee has not helped assure the public that decisions are being made entirely for the right reasons.

If nothing worse, as the Democracy Campaigns points out elsewhere on its website, the donations give rise to suspicions. What’s more, they provide strong evidence that many company executives feel – whatever the reality – that they have to pay if they want to play.

About Dan Shaw, dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com

Dan Shaw is the associate editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com or at 414-225-1807.

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