Former Indiana Department of Transportation Commissioner J. Bryan Nicol changed official recommendations of INDOT's design division, according to an INDOT source, a move that sent millions of dollars of work to major contributors to former Gov. Joe Kernan's campaign.
Two days after last fall's election, INDOT consultant services manager Jeffrey Clanton said he was ordered by then-commissioner Nicol to make a number of changes to a July 29, 2004, selection list. On seven of the 24 different projects on the list, Nicol told him to add, as the No. 1 recommendation, the names of firms that didn't previously make the top three.
Clanton said he then was ordered to reprint the list as if those were the design division's original recommendations, with the original July 29 date.
Then Nicol made the changes official by signing both the selection list and a cover memo "approved as recommended," even though they were not the original recommendations, Clanton alleged. He then signed it, "J. Bryan Nicol 10/29/04," Clanton added, making it appear as if the selection was made four days before the election and not two days after Democrats lost the governor's race.
The value of the design work on those seven projects was more than $3.6 million. In three of the four most lucrative projects, the firms placed by Nicol into the top slots were bigger contributors to Kernan and the state Democratic Party than those moved out of the top slots.
These revelations came as part of a wide-ranging investigation of problems at the Indiana Department of Transportation by the I-Team at WISH-TV Channel 8. Reporters attempted repeatedly to contact Nicol for comment on a variety of issues. He refused to answer specific questions. In a brief telephone conversation before he left office, Nicol said his work spoke for itself. And in a Feb. 7 e-mail, he wrote, "It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the citizens of our state at the Indiana Department of Transportation and I am proud of all that I have done to improve the transportation system in Indiana."
INDOT's new chief of staff, Corey Carr, praised Clanton's actions regarding Nicol.
"I can't speak to what [Nicol's] motivation was to change dates or backdate a document," Carr said. "But it has to undermine a culture of principle-centered decision making. It just hurts the whole organization if there's a perception that things are done for something other than qualifications or value for the taxpayer."
Highway design firms and construction companies contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last four years to Indiana political campaigns and political action committees. The practice, insiders said, is considered a cost of doing business.
"We give because they ask us to," said one CEO of a major design firm, who requested that his name not be used.
The top 10 design firms and top 10 construction companies doing business with the Indiana Department of Transportation-and the top executives of those 20 companies-donated more than $750,000 to the recent campaign for governor. They made campaign contributions over the last four years of more than $482,000 to former Gov. Kernan, a Democrat, and over the last two years of more than $277,000 to Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican.
One design firm, Evansville-based Bernardin, Lochmueller & Associates, and its top executives, gave a little more than $52,000 to Daniels and $51,000 to Kernan.
In addition to the gubernatorial candidates, the 20 firms donated more than $12,000 to lawmakers on roads committees and nearly $90,000 to political action committees. Those PACs then turned around and gave more than $52,000 to the race for governor and almost $35,000 to lawmakers. One of those PACs, created by the Rieth-Riley Construction Co., clearly states its purpose is "to impact the political process."
"What money buys in politics and the policy-making process is access," said Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause of Indiana, a watchdog group that monitors state government. "The givers absolutely think that it makes a difference, that it is a good business decision. And when you see what some of these contracts are worth-even though some of these contributions are large amounts of money-they're really small investments in a much bigger payoff down the road."
The payoff? The award of multimillion-dollar contracts.
Added David Kusnet, a nationally known transportation researcher: "Their competitive edge should be quality, competence. It should be track record. It should be efficiency. It should be everything but political access."