Listen, I don’t want to attack Max Wells too hard for his TV attack on Tom Leppert or his latest mailer, the front of which you see above. This is politics, not NBA playoff basketball. I understand that in the final days of a mayoral campaign, you’re going to distort your opponent’s record and background to get an edge. That’s fine; truth is, we kind of like that part of the game. It’s more interesting than attending these forums and hearing each candidate compete over who can hire the most cops.
So we don’t come to scold Wells for his Leppert-bashing ad but to put it in proper context. That’s what you can expect from Unfair Park: We shine a light into the darkness, render clarity where there is none and complain about Owen Wilson’s basketball allegiances.
In Wells' ad, a contemporary of Wells' sits on his porch reading the paper and, apropos of nothing, begins offering his thoughts on mayoral candidate and presumed favorite Tom Leppert: “Tom Leppert says he wants to be mayor of Dallas. But he told a Honolulu newspaper that, quote, 'Hawaii is our home.' Says he wants to fight crime. But his company got fined $6 million by the Justice Department for fraudulent billing. But if Hawaii is your home, and you’re being fined by the Justice Department, it’s going to be kind of hard to be the crime fighting mayor of Dallas.”
First, kudos. This is a sly way to get in two disparate lines of criticism: One, Leppert doesn’t have Dallas cred. (He didn’t move inside the city limits until three and a half years ago.) And, two, Leppert is just like any other slick and slippery CEO. Bravo.
Now let’s address the first part. Leppert did tell the Honolulu Star Bulletin, “Hawaii is our home and this decision was very difficult” after he took the job at Turner Construction. That was back in 1999. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a long time for the 73-year-old Wells, but for the rest of us I think we can live with a quote from eight years ago.
This is politics, and if Wells wants to make fun of Leppert for an off-the-cuff remark to a newspaper, then let him. We’ve made fun of Leppert too, from his odd facial mannerisms to his penchant for bringing up his dead dad at every forum. But where Wells' ad is really out of bounds is when his pitchman talks about how Turner’s company was fined by the Department of Justice for fraudulent billing.
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In fact, in 2005, while Leppert was CEO, Turner Corporation agreed to pay $6.6 million in fines after the company received tax credits on bonds for dozens of federal contracts without passing them on to the federal government. If you’re still reading -- and quite honestly, I don’t even know if I am -- that sounds very serious. The Department of Justice press release, which used words like “fraud” and “abuse” and “false claims,” certainly makes it seem like Turner intentionally defrauded the federal government out of millions of dollars. The concerns of Wells’ pitchman seem valid: Why would you want to vote for the CEO of a company like this?
But if you go beyond the press release and look at the actual settlement agreement between the DOJ and Turner, a process we don’t expect out of our candidates, you’ll notice an interesting fact on the first page: Turner’s misdeeds date back to an arrangement with its bond broker, AON Risk Services, in March 1, 1997. (Please hang in there. Almost done.) Leppert wasn’t even CEO then. He was still calling Hawaii home.
In that arrangement, Turner’s bond broker credited to Turner a portion of its commissions it received from bonds it brokered on nearly 40 federal contracts. Of those, only one occurred after 1999, when Leppert became CEO.
The contract with AON question ran through 2000, during which Leppert had just begun his tenure as CEO. Should he have known that his behemoth company just happened to have a solitary arrangement with a bond broker that violated the law? Honestly, I don’t have any idea. Then again, neither does Wells. Or his paid pitchman. --Matt Pulle