Builders’ support questioned

Published 8:26 pm Saturday, February 21, 2015

Late political contributions aligned with apartments vote

Less than a month before all three voted in favor of a controversial apartment complex on Bridge Road, then-council members Charles Brown, Jeffrey Gardy and Charles Parr received $1,000 donations from the Tidewater Builders Association — even though they had already lost their elections and the association had already donated to each of them before the election.

It was an unusual move for the association, which annually donates to a multitude of local and state candidates but usually does so in advance of the elections.

The association’s 2014 contributions totaled nearly $54,000. But all of its donations to City Council candidates in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Portsmouth took place before the respective elections of the candidates.

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The lone exception outside of Suffolk was a $5,000 donation to Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms in May. He was not up for election in 2014.

Dr. Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University, said the situation is not illegal as long as there was no quid pro quo negotiated.

“This case seems to fit right into that regular mold of campaign contributions as it relates to positions and votes,” Kidd said. “What makes this different, and a little more eyebrow-raising, is that the contributions came after a loss and then the vote came before they left office.”

The three votes in favor of the conditional use for the apartment complex on Bridge Road proved crucial to its fate, as council voted 4-2 to grant the permit, despite recommendations against doing so by the city Planning Commission and planning department and opposition by all Suffolk citizens who spoke during public hearings on the project.

Two of the three former council members who benefited from the late contributions chaffed at any suggestion of impropriety in regards to the campaign contributions. The third, Charles Parr, failed to return multiple calls for comment on the situation.

When asked for comment about the TBA’s donation, Brown said he was “offended” at the idea that the donation could have influenced his vote for the apartments and suggested the only reason someone would think that is because he is black.

“I thought it was a good project, and I would vote for it again,” he said. He noted that his first vote regarding the project, in a June 18 City Council meeting, was against denying a rezoning for the land, which was necessary for the apartments to move forward.

Subsequent votes on the project were continued multiple times, ultimately leading to the matter being decided at the Dec. 17 meeting — after Brown, Gardy and Parr had been voted out of office but before their successors had taken their seats.

Brown said the TBA gave him a post-election donation because he called and asked for it.

“I didn’t want to use my own money (to pay campaign bills),” Brown said. “I was in the red. That’s the only reason why. I called the office and spoke with the president of the organization and let him know I was running in the hole and would they be able to help me out. Once I paid all my bills, I gave all the money away.”

Brown also noted the TBA was not the only entity that gave him a donation after the election. The majority were builders or developers, however, some of whom — like Sam Cohen, the builder of the Bennett’s Creek Commons project and a past president of the TBA — have a direct stake in the Bennett’s Creek apartments project.

Brown did, indeed, close out his election account and give the remaining money away, according to the final report he filed with the State Board of Elections. He donated more than $2,800 to two civic leagues, two churches, the Boy Scouts of America, a Greek alumni association and the American Cancer Society.

“I wanted to have a zero balance, because I’m not getting back into politics,” Brown said.

Gardy also rejected the idea that a donation could have influenced his vote and said he didn’t know why the donation came in after the election.

“Maybe somebody in their group was supposed to send it and didn’t send it,” he said. “I figured they knew what they were doing.”

He said the donation didn’t influence his vote.

“It wouldn’t make any difference to me,” he said, noting he had a reputation on City Council of being “probably pro-development as long as it’s worthwhile.”

Gardy also has closed his campaign account after paying his final bills and partially repaying a loan to himself.

Parr, after being told the subject of the interview on Feb. 12 and saying he would be available Feb. 13, did not return messages left that day or since.

Kidd, the CNU political science professor, said the appearance of possible impropriety is important for elected officials to avoid.

“Elected officials should not do this kind of stuff, if for no other reason than it causes people to be skeptical about the integrity of the process generally,” Kidd said.

Without knowing about Brown’s comments, Kidd suggested the donations could have been for the purpose of helping the candidates pay off campaign debts.

“It could be something like that, but the appearance doesn’t look like that to people,” he said.

Kidd noted statewide ethics controversies that have arisen in the past year, including the convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, on federal corruption charges for receiving improper gifts and loans from a Virginia businessman.

“The public is a little bit cynical,” Kidd said. “I think public officials have some responsibility to be thoughtful about that.”

The Tidewater Builders Association was the top 2014 donor for all three candidates. It is the top all-time donor for Gardy and Brown and, for Parr, it is tied for the top all-time with the First Lady, an event venue that has provided in-kind support to Parr’s campaigns.

The association has a history of donating to Suffolk candidates after elections, but only when the recipient won the election.

In 2010, the organization donated $500 to Brown after the election and after having also donated before.

In 2012, it donated $2,000 each to Lue Ward and Roger Fawcett more than a month after they won their first elections. Before the election, it had donated to their opponents.

Cohen referred questions about the donations to Vince Napolitano, who he said is in charge of the Tidewater Builders Association’s political action committee. Napolitano did not return multiple messages left at his office.