Engineered Graft

WASHINGTON–In the current debate over public financing of electoral campaigns, the issue is not whether? but which? For many years there has been indirect public financing through patronage jobs for “pols” who, in the words of a recent New York Public Interest Research Group study, received “much dough for no-show.”

Last year’s Agnew scandal involving payoffs by engineering firms to Maryland politicians in order to obtain or retain lucrative public works contracts further underscores how business interests buy government contracts with taxpayers’ money.

Kickbacks, payoffs and bribes to individual politicians and political parties have been uncovered by district attorneys and investigating newspapers around the country. This form of crime in the suites is widespread.

Nearly four years ago, Newsday reported that architects and engineers were responding to shakedowns by Long Island politicians in return for public works contracts. Two years later the Philadelphia papers reported similar abuses. Early in 1973 before the Agnew story erupted, a modest attempt before the Maryland Legislature to reform this two way system between the shakedown-ers and payoff-ers led the state’s Senate FinanceChairman to openly declaim: “No one can tell me that this bill is in the public interest when you know and I know that political contributions win contracts.”

In New Jersey a new 90-page study entitled “Blueprint for Scandal” by the Center for Analysis of Public Issues (Princeton, N.J.) condemned state and local agencies for the “subconscious policy of malign neglect that has allowed engineering of public work to become a hodgepodge of sloppy administration, wasteful spending and flabby standards of conduct.”

What are the engineering and architectural societies doing about this corruption? They are expressing dismay, grave concern and are passing resolutions with recommendations although one report by an arm of the American Institute of Architects stated: “Such postures may be good public relations, but are they effectual?” The recommendations usually given by these societies call for: (1) strengthening the canon of ethics against such payoffs; (2) urging state registration boards to include a ban on such corruption and apply the sanction of revocation of licenses for proven violators; (3) tougher enforcement of pertinent state criminal statutes; (4) passage of law setting up “non-political” selection boards at the state and municipal level; (5) full disclosure of public contracting procedures, proposals, and contracts.

Last September the Maryland Society for Professional Engineers recommended a legal limit for political contributions by those doing business with state and local agencies. Two months later the National Society of Professional Engineers’ task force recommended that the limit be $100 but the NSPE’s Board of Directors voted for vagueness by urging “nominal contributions.”

It is remarkable how these societies can avoid their main obligation which is to relentlessly investigate these kickback practices wherever they occur around the country and bring the evidence to law enforcement agencies, registration boards, legislatures, and the public. The engineers and architects who are members of these societies know of these abuses earlier and in more detail than the rest of the country. As William Slayton, Executive Director of the American Institute of Architects, said last fall in a typically heard comment: “It stinks, the whole business of financing campaigns stinks. The architect is put into a box he can’t get out of. He is a cow to be milked.”

But the “cow” doesn’t have to be milked. If the architectural and engineering societies want to clean their own house as they say they do, then they should beef up their legal and investigating staffs as well as set up clearing houses to receive facts leading to the uncovering of such abuses. Interested readers can send their suggestions and ideas to Milton Lunch, General Counsel, National Society of Professional Engineers, 2029 K Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006.

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