GARY — Buried among Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's hundreds of political donors is a select group profiting from city business.
A Times review of Lake County and Gary records found 67 city vendors contributed to the mayor's campaigns. They have received more than $38 million in city contracts to provide a variety of services to the city and its residents from garbage collection to financial advice to city leaders.
Freeman-Wilson said she doesn't get involved in the details of her campaign's finance fund-raising efforts, but does insist that city vendors are qualified.
"My experience as a city judge, Indiana Attorney General and mayor for seven years, allows me to understand the political process and the need to establish clear lines between government services and politics," she said.
"That’s why as an elected official, I do not get involved with details about political donors or the awarding of city contracts. I do set a standard to ensure that any firm or individual who offers goods or services to the city of Gary has been selected as a result of competitive bidding, or, in the case of professional services, an objective comparison by our capable staff, after evaluating the quality of work and services offered," she said.
Gary is not alone when it comes to donors seeking government contracts. A number of the same businesses also have bestowed campaign cash on mayors in Crown Point, East Chicago, Hammond, Hobart and Whiting.
Indiana law permits state and local elected officials to receive donations from individuals or businesses seeking to win or retain lucrative government service contracts, with few restrictions, according to Valerie Warycha, a spokeswoman for Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, whose office oversees elections statewide.
Critics call this practice pay-to-play and say it is widespread across Indiana and the rest of the country.
"It poses some serious ethical problems as well as problems in the merits of the government-contracting process," said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy organization.
Indiana attempts to regulate unscrupulous campaign financing through public disclosure. Election law requires candidates for public office to name their donors and the accounts given. They are on public view at county election offices.
However, those reports don't require anyone to divulge if a donor has a financial interest in the candidate's election, such as a lucrative government work contract the donor is pursuing.
Beyond limits to state casinos and their equipment suppliers donating to state officials, or a $2,000 annual limit for a corporation or labor organization, state law gives government vendors a free hand.
The Times analysis is based on hundreds of pages of campaign finance reports the mayor's political action committees filed with the Lake County elections board between her first successful mayoral run in 2011 and last year.
They catalog that more than 250 businesses and 400 individuals contributed just under $1 million over those eight years.
The Times also obtained from the city of Gary a list of more than 1,000 businesses that provide supplies and services to the city in return for public payment since early 2017.
Among that multitude, 67 were both vendors and mayoral supporters who have contributed more than $239,000 in the past eight years.
Those donors have received city contracts that have paid their businesses more than $38 million — about 13 percent of the city's entire vendor budget in the past two years.
Haywood, Fleming & Associates, a Gary insurance agency, and Roosevelt Haywood III, its principal officer, have given the mayor $29,850 in eight separate donations between 2011 and last year. The business has received city vendor payments of more than $2.4 million for risk management services.
Haywood couldn't be reached for comment.
Republic Services, a Phoenix, Arizona, waste hauler has donated $27,500, and received more than $8.4 million in the last year and a half.
"We participate in the political process in the communities we serve across the country. That involves supporting individuals who share our values and champion policies that make our communities cleaner, stronger and more prosperous," Doug Rosenbaum, general manager, Republic Services of Northwest Indiana, said last week.
American Structurepoint, an Indianapolis engineering firm, donated $9,500 and received more than $2.3 million for planning services. A spokesperson for American Structurepoint didn't respond to calls for comment.
A number of the donor-vendors are active outside of Gary. Republic Services donated to East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and Hobart Mayor Brian Snedecor.
Midwestern Electric, of East Chicago, which donated $500 to Freeman-Wilson and received nearly $63,000 for servicing Gary, also has donated to Whiting Mayor Joseph Stahura.
Walsh and Kelly, a Griffith asphalt paving firm that donated $2,000 to Freeman-Wilson and received $5.3 million from Gary, also has donated to Crown Point Mayor David Uran.
"There is a long record throughout the country, especially at the state and local levels, where businesses are seeking government contracts and try to increase their odds winning lucrative contracts by making campaign contributions to those responsible for awarding the contracts," Holman, of Public Citizen, said.
Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, a nonprofit promoting ethical and accountable government, said, "Government vendors are often the ones most motivated to give. They certainly believe pay-to-play exists.
"Those who accept the donations say that isn't the case. But I've had plenty of vendors tell me that if you want to be in the game for contracts, you have to show up on the list of campaign contributors. It has been a huge issue, so much so in Fort Wayne, they actually passed a local ordinance against it," Vaughn said.
The Fort Wayne City Council adopted an ordinance a year ago prohibiting anyone who donated more than $2,000 to city elected officials from bidding on city contracts.
Fort Wayne City Councilman John Crawford, one of the ordinance's authors, said the council was reacting to contributions of $5,000, and up to $10,000, a year to the mayor.
Crawford, who said he plans to challenge the Fort Wayne mayor's re-election next year, cautions the measure has yet to be tested in the courts, which could rule the ordinance illegally pre-empts state law.
Holman said pay-to-play laws have worked in 15 states. He said the most effective prohibit large campaign contributions from businesses soliciting a contract or those who already are under a government work contract.
He said the ban should apply not only to the business, but also its senior executives and their spouses.
Holman said pay-to-play laws often are passed in the wake of public corruption scandals, and also such donations rarely involve outright bribery.
"Officeholders who are otherwise honorable can end up pushing the line to the point where they can actually get themselves in trouble for being tried for bribery when they assume that is how the game is played," Holman said.
Former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is serving a 188-month federal prison term for shaking down towing firms to buy his campaign fund-raising tickets in return for his assigning them lucrative towing work.
Vaughn, of Indiana's Common Cause, argues Indiana is too conservative to impose either pay-to-play bans or restrict candidates to public financing, since private contributions are considered constitutionally protected speech.
She said a more practical alternative could be to amend campaign finance laws to publicly identify the select set of donors.
"Forcing these handful of vendors, providing the vast majority of the money to candidate's campaign coffers, to be upfront about that would be one way to provide voters with information," Vaughn said.