Earlier this week, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Bice wrote a piece headlined "Major Walker Contributor Got No-Bid Contract". The purpose of the article is to link Scott Walker to a possible "pay to play" scheme with Graef-USA, an engineering consulting firm based out of Milwaukee.
After a slab of concrete fell from the O'Donnell Parking Garage and killed 15 year old Jared Kellner, Milwaukee County shut down the site and gave Graef-USA a no-bid contract to perform county-wide safety inspections. Graef has been charged to oversee the inspection of nearly 100 county buildings using several subcontracting firms to do the work.
Dan Bice discovered that Graef-USA contributed more than $14,000 to Walker's campaign in the past 8 years. The implication is that politics might be involved in Walker's decision to hire them. Bice did concede, however, that when it comes to politicians, Graef-USA seems to be an equal-opportunity contributor, contributing large sums to Governor Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Evidently, what wasn't reported was that Governor Doyle approved a no-bid contract for $650,000 with Graef-USA to inspect the Hoan Bridge this October. The story about Walker giving Graef a no-bid contract was front page news, but the story about Governor Doyle, written by reporter Tom Held, was buried in the local section of the paper with no mention that Graef had contributed more than $40,000 to Doyle's campaign chest.
El Conquistador contacted reporter Tom Held and questioned why this information wasn't included. He said that since Dan Bice had already reported on Graef's political contributions, he chose to focus on "more immediate news". He also said he didn't include the information because he was working with "a limited amount of space".
This underscores a serious problem with the local media, and it sends a message that when a Republican gives work to a politically active firm, it debuts as a premier story in the state's largest newspaper; but when a Democrat does the same thing, it's underplayed and relegated to the local section lacking newsworthy details. Many people who read the story on Doyle did not connect the dots that Doyle used the same firm Walker did for a "no bid contract".
It doesn't take many words to include the fact that Doyle, who received $40,000 in campaign contributions from Graef-USA, gave them a "no-bid contract". That took 15 words, so I'm quite confident that space restrictions didn't play a key role in the decision.
Compounding the problem, two Milwaukee County Supervisors issued a press release criticizing Walker for giving a no-bid contract to Graef-USA since they were involved in the O'Donnell Parking Garage construction in the 1990's. Supervisors Marina Dimitrijevic and John Weishan said in a joint statement,
"We are also concerned that Graef-USA Inc, a firm that has contributed to County Executive Scott Walker’s gubernatorial campaign, was awarded a no bid contract. Even though a lot of the work is being subcontracted, the fact remains that County dollars are being funneled through Graef, which was one of the contractors involved in building the O’Donnell Parking garage in the first place. How can we expect them to provide unbiased reports in light of that fact?"
El Conquistador contacted Walker's office to confirm Graef-USA's involvement in the original construction of the O'Donnell Parking Structure. Fran McLaughlin, the county's communications director, said that Graef did not play a role in the original construction of the O'Donnell Parking Garage, but rather they were "brought in to review structural documents when problems were discovered" near the completion of the project.
Using Graef did not pose a conflict of interest. The Department of Transportation and Public Works requested Graef-USA to do the work because of their "familiarity with all county buildings". The choice to use Graef did not originate with Walker, but instead with Public Works Director Jack Takerian. And the decision was approved by the county's Architecture and Engineering Department.
When El Conquistador asked why Milwaukee County chose to do a "no-bid" contract with Graef, McLaughlin stated that "Public safety was the sole concern for acting quickly without waiting for bids" and it was "precisely why the Chairman of the County Board announced the inspection team plan with the County Executive in a joint statement on June 30th." McLaughlin also told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that if the decision to hire Graef was political, County Board Chairman Lee Holloway, a frequent critic of Walker, would never have supported it.
But Dimitrijevic and Weishan's press release complained about being kept in the dark. They claimed to know less about the county's contract with Graef and "the scope of the work being performed" than the media. Whether or not Dimitrijevic and Weishan were kept in the dark seems obvious since they were unaware that Graef didn't participate in the original construction of the O'Donnell Parking Structure. They were also unaware that it was Jack Takerian, not Scott Walker, that made the decision to contract Graef for emergency inspections.
Their joint press release almost makes one wonder if there was a good reason they were kept in the dark. Perhaps some tragic events are best left to those who won't make a public mockery or a partisan spectacle of an already sensitive issue, or perhaps they knew as much as they needed to know.
But not all the County Supervisors were left in the dark. When El Conquistador contacted County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo and asked him about the no-bid contract, he explained
"Graef has been awarded a contract to inspect other County owned facilities and at the direction of Milwaukee County is utilizing several other local area engineering firms to get this work done as quickly as possible to assess the safety of all Milwaukee County structures. While I am not a fan of no-bid contracts in the public sector, I am in full agreement of utilizing the no-bid process in this instance because doing so has resulted in this important work being started at least eight weeks sooner than would have been possible had the bid process been implemented."
When we asked him his thoughts about his colleague's joint statement criticizing Walker, he stated
"In their rush to feed their addiction to blame Scott Walker for everything they perceive to be wrong in Milwaukee County, my two colleagues failed to learn the facts before making their unfortunate and inaccurate press release. The fact is, Graef is not involved in the ongoing inspection of the O'Donnell Park parking structure. An engineering firm by the name of Inspect is conducting that investigation.
If my colleagues where really interested in learning the facts as their press release claims, all they would have to do is pick up the phone and call Jack Takerian as I did. Of course, that would not have satisfied their real intent. "
The current events surrounding County Executive Scott Walker and subsequent news coverage makes one question the power of the media to shape public opinion. Newspapers and television may not overtly cover the news in a subjective or partisan way, but what stories they choose, when they choose them, and what facts are made available can affect the way people reconstruct the world around them. When readers or viewers assimilate the news, they should ask themselves if there is another side to this story. By doing that, perhaps we can filter out the differences between news and political advocacy.