Burns & McDonnell, which is seeking the exclusive contract to build and privately finance a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport, has made campaign contributions to Mayor Sly James and all 12 of his council colleagues.
Council members insisted to The Star that it won’t stop them from critically reviewing the proposal, before an expected decision June 15.
“They give to everyone,” Councilman Quinton Lucas acknowledged Tuesday. “I would understand public concern related to that. But we are still able to be objective decision-makers.”
Lucas, who received $5,125 from the company prior to the 2015 general election, said the council realizes how the public can view campaign contributions as a way of increasing the donor’s influence in public policy.
“We should be mindful of that fact,” he said, adding that the council must make sure it isn’t giving Burns & McDonnell undue favoritism.
Lucas said many of his council colleagues are viewing Burns & McDonnell’s unusual financing proposal with a skeptical eye, and the council’s decision isn’t being directed by the company. To that end, the council has already approved a $475,000 legal services contract to try to make sure the city scrutinizes the proposal and, if it moves forward, negotiates the best deal for the city.
Councilman Lee Barnes, who received $5,250 in 2015 from Burns & McDonnell, said he also received contributions from other engineering firms that may want to compete for this airport work.
“Most engineering firms gave to my campaign,” said Barnes, himself an engineer, who emphasized those contributions aren’t guiding his decision. Instead, Barnes said he wants to determine whether the public even wants a new single airport terminal, before it gives that job to Burns & McDonnell.
Mayor James was first elected in 2011 and re-elected in 2015. Prior to his first election, he received $3,000 from Burns & McDonnell. Prior to his 2015 election, he received $6,250, including $400 in an in-kind contribution for a Nov. 6, 2013, fundraiser the company held.
That fundraiser was eye-opening because 259 of Burns & McDonnell’s employees contributed more than $37,000 to the mayor, mostly in $100 checks. For that quarter, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission disclosure report, Burns & McDonnell employees contributed more than $50,000 to the mayor.
James said he has never kept track of things like employee contributions to his mayoral campaigns. The mayor raised nearly $2 million in his runs for office from countless donors, including engineering and architecture firms that compete with Burns & McDonnell, plus developers, development attorneys, big law firms and civic officials.
James, who is a staunch supporter of the Burns & McDonnell idea, said the contributions have nothing to do with his public policy votes.
“It never has, never will,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference.”
The mayor denied any undue influence from campaign contributions.
“If the idea is to try to show some sort of corrupt attitude, it’s not selling. Not with me,” James said. “It never has. I get contributions to run campaigns just like everybody else who’s running for office.”
Observers say Burns & McDonnell is almost without peer in Kansas City in terms of its campaign contributions across the board — to federal, state and local races and to both Republicans and Democrats.
They say that’s just part of the company’s culture of civic activism, including major United Way contributions, the Battle of the Brains science competition at Union Station, and its championing of the Big 5 agenda to lift up Kansas City.
“Our employee owners are active in their community and on issues that they care about,” said Mike Talboy, Burns & McDonnell’s director of government affairs. Talboy said the Nov. 6, 2013, fundraiser grew out of employees’ support for James.
While 259 employees made contributions that day, that’s in the context of a company that employs about 3,000 people locally. Talboy said no one is required or pressured to contribute to political campaigns.
“There is zero obligation. And we make that very clear, on any political activity,” Talboy said.
Two scholars who have studied ethics in government said the public shouldn’t assume Burns & McDonnell’s contributions will sway the council on the airport. For one thing, they note, Kansas City has contribution limits. In 2015, there was a primary election and a general election for the council. During each race, an individual or company couldn’t donate more than $3,150 per mayoral candidate, $2,625 per at-large council candidate, and $1,575 per in-district candidate.
The Missouri Ethics Commission also requires disclosure of those contributions, so there is transparency, unlike with the “dark money” contributions that often color politics in Jefferson City.
Walter Siewert, former professor of public ethics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said Kansas City’s contribution caps limit the depth of a company’s influence and that he didn’t see any “red flags” in Burns & McDonnell’s contributions.
However, he said that if the council wanted to avoid even the appearance of any kind of influence-peddling, it could open up the airport approach to other companies through a competitive bid.
Allan Katz, professor of public affairs and political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the community should focus on the airport proposal’s pros and cons, not on whether Burns & McDonnell made campaign contributions.
He said it’s not at all unusual for such a large firm, like other large organizations and unions, to get financially involved in politics. He also said that if City Council members can’t take their money and still vote against them, “they don’t belong in politics.”
In some cases during the 2015 election, Burns & McDonnell supported more than one candidate in a race, such as the opponents running against Katheryn Shields and Teresa Loar. The company contributed $1,000 to Loar shortly before the primary and $2,625 just prior to the general election. It contributed $2,625 to Shields after she defeated Jim Glover in the general election. It also contributed $1,575 to Heather Hall after she was elected.
Both Loar and Shields are giving heavy scrutiny to the Burns & McDonnell proposal but say the late contributions, and the backing of their opponents, have nothing to do with that.
“I certainly wouldn’t hold it against them,” Loar said, adding that the contribution wouldn’t sway her one way or another. “It would take a lot more than that to buy my vote.”
Shields said Burns & McDonnell is a great company and “they’re definitely a group that you want to have on your side.”
But she said the council’s decision on the airport will be based on its merits, adding, “ I think the proposal will either rise or fall based on the strength of the proposal.”