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April 1997 – Price for Board of Transportation Seat: $11,000

April 4, 1997


Governor James Hunt addressed the members of Board of Transportation at their swearing-in ceremony today –but a public-interest group blasted his appointments as a prime example of “the corrupting influence of campaign money”.

The families of the 21 members appointed by the Governor gave an average of $11,000 each — for a total of $231,000 — to Hunt’s 1996 reelection bid, according to an analysis of campaign records by Democracy South, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Chapel Hill.
The practice of appointing major donors to key boards and commissions is not new, and a seat on the Board of Transportation is arguably the choicest plum because members dole out over $1 billion in road-building money each year.

“This was a chance for the Governor to challenge DOT’s bias for highway sprawl and reject a patronage system that auctions off seats on key policy making boards,” said Joe McDonald of the N.C. Alliance for Transportation Reform, a statewide group of neighborhood activists. “The Board of Transportation needs to be replaced with a new mechanism for transportation planning, but the Governor’s appointments are just business as usual; he’s basically turning over a giant public agency to developers, realtors, and other private interests.”

The six new board members (15 are re-appointments) all have strong ties to traditional business interests and economic development groups. The whole board includes a nod toward diversity -~ an African American attorney, a Republican mayor, a female transit planner — but it is dominated by business owners, building contractors and others with strong political fundraising credentials.
“At a time when the public is demanding campaign finance reform, the Governor is rewarding his biggest donors with the power to spend tax money as they see fit,” said Chris Fitzsimon of the Common Sense Foundation in Raleigh. “This kind of leadership is why we don’t get needed reforms but do get millions spent on needless road projects, like UNC’s controversial Rams Club boulevard.”

Research by Democracy South shows:

** Political patronage is a major source of campaign money for Jim Hunt. A preliminary review of his finances shows that about $2 million of $10.3 million Runt raised came from the families and business associates of donors appointed to boards and commissions in the past 4 years.

** The $231,000 from DOT board members and their families doesn’t include the amount, likely much larger, that these individuals helped raise. For example, board member Lyndo Tippet served as state Democratic Party treasurer during his first term on the board, and Douglas Galyon helped package at least $50,000 in donations from fellow executives at Guilford Mills for Gov. Hunt’s 1996 race.

** Road builders and Department of Transportation contractors were among the biggest donors to Hunt’s campaign. They include W. T. Phillips, chairman of the Knoxville, Tennessee land clearing contractor (Phillips & Jordan, Inc.) who gave the maximum of $12,000, and top executives and family members of Tarboro’s Barnhill Contracting Co., who gave Hunt $35,450. Donating developers Include the Crosland family of Charlotte ($16,250), the Zimmer’s of Wilmington ($24,000), Raleigh1s Cliff Benson family ($13,000) and Seby Jones family ($16,000), and the Shelton’s of Charlotte and Winston-Salem ($46,000).

** An earlier report: by the Institute for Southern Studies and Independent Weekly of Durham found that members of the DOT board appointed by Gov. Jim Martin gave or raised more than $3.5 million for Republican candidates and the party from 1984 to 1992. The 1992 “Highway Robbery” report quoted Billy Rose, former head of DOT’s Highway Division, saying that 5 to 10 percent of DOT spending was wasted on road projects designed to satisfy “political favoritism or just plain old greed.” That amounts to over $100 million a year in wasted tax money.

Democracy South is a successor to the Institute for Southern Studies’ research project on the influence of campaign money in state politics. Now an independent nonprofit organization, Democracy South favors voluntary, full public financing for qualified candidates as a way to move electoral politics beyond the current quid-pro-quo patronage system.