What is HDR Engineering, and why is it suddenly the top-ranking business donor to Mayor Greg Nickels' re-election campaign? Simple, says David Cobb of the international architectural, consulting and engineering firm: "We were impressed with his national leadership role on climate change and sustainability through the U.S. Conference of Mayors, an organization we support."
Cobb is national director of civic affairs for HDR's home office in Omaha, and, if you hadn't noticed, that's in Nebraska. Nonetheless, as City Hall campaign records show, Puget Sound-area HDR employees were impressed enough to donate $7,300 to Seattle's mayor, most of it in one day in May. Based on worker contributions in a single election, HDR has become the mayor's No. 1 business supporter since he first ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor in 1997.
So why is a firm from the Cornhusker state interested in a mayoral race 1,400 miles away? It turns out that as mayor and the chair of Sound Transit's board of directors, Nickels plays direct and indirect roles in some of HDR's dealings here, including signing contracts with the company. His new position as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors allows him to aid HDR elsewhere, as well.
There's no indication of backroom deals. But the public embracing is an eyebrow raiser. Paul Burstein, a University of Washington professor and expert on politics and money, says it would be difficult to show whether HDR gets favors for its support, and whether Nickels expected a legal campaign contribution in return. But some may view the coziness with concern. "To the average person who doesn't know how these things work," says Burstein, "maybe there's an ethical issue."
The Omaha firm, with 179-worldwide offices including Seattle, contracts with the city, the state and Sound Transit, specializing in transportation, environmental management and energy projects. It has inspected dams for Seattle City Light, is advising Olympia on its plans for a new 520 floating bridge, and is engineering the Sounder heavy-rail expansion from Tacoma to Lakewood, among other projects.
And HDR likes Mayor Nickels' style. "Our employee contributions came about as the result of a welcome visit the mayor made to our downtown Seattle office," says Cobb in an e-mail. That visit, on March 2, primed the money pump, unlike 2005, when HDR gave just $650 to the mayor's re-election. "The difference between now and 2005 is that at that time, we didn't have an office in Seattle," says Cobb, "and our company has nearly doubled in size, so we are taking a more active role on national issues."
In 2009 mayoral campaign donations, HDR has bested even powerhouse Seattle law and lobbying firm K&L Gates, formerly Preston Gates Ellis, Nickels' perennial top money backer. K&L employees have donated $3,900 to the incumbent's now-$500,000 kitty. The local attorneys gave him $3,500 in 2005 and $5,560 in 2001. Employees of billionaire Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc., popularly thought to be the mayor's top business backer, have given $2,375 this year, $2,100 in 2005, and $800 in 2001.
Until now, HDR had been focusing more on political initiatives it had a direct investment in - or likely would have, if voters approved the measures. As a Seattle Monorail Project contractor in 2004, for example, HDR gave a $20,000 corporate contribution to a group opposing an initiative to stop the monorail. In 2006, it gave $5,000 to support the city's successful Bridging the Gap transportation-improvement measure, and in 2007 donated $2,500 to a group backing the effort to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a waterfront tunnel (both transportation measures were pet projects of the mayor as well).
This year, HDR and its employees targeted Nickels with a one-day money gusher. On May 16, 33 HDR employees - engineers to vice presidents from Puget Sound, Nebraska and California - ponied up $25 to $300 each, for a total donation of $6,350, according to Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission records.
The May money was the result of Nickels' earlier visit in March, says Sandeep Kaushik, spokesperson for the mayor's re-election campaign. "They were interested in his thoughts on sustainability and the emergence of a new clean-energy economy," says Kaushik. "They saw him as a national leader on those issues."
It was only a coincidence, the campaign and HDR say, that the May 16 donations came three weeks after Sound Transit's board, and chairman Nickels, approved a $525,000 contractual amendment with HDR to do additional work on the Sounder extension to Lakewood. Nickels, as part of his official duties, signed the HDR contract approval document at a public session April 23.
That brought to $1.7 million in revised contract work Sound Transit had given HDR in four months. A second amended contract, approved by the board and signed by Nickels in January, authorized HDR to perform an additional $1.2 million in real estate services for the agency. The five-year-old Sounder contract and the seven-year-old real estate contract (awarded originally to an Edmonds company that HDR later purchased) were won through competitive bidding. Because the scope of the projects changed, the work was expanded and extended several times without further bidding to keep the same contractor on the job, the agency and HDR say. The two projects are worth a total of $14.5 million.
"HDR was first awarded a contract for work on the Lakewood extension in 2004, long before Mayor Nickels became chairman of the Sound Transit Board," says HDR's Cobb. That's correct - a board member since 1993 (dating to Sound Transit's predecessor), Nickels became chair in 2008. But the two pacts were recently extended on his watch. Geoff Patrick, Sound Transit spokesperson, says the agency has "no knowledge of our contractors' political activities," but adds that HDR's contracts went through the standard vetting and approval process, and "they are not subject to being politically influenced."
HDR had maxed out its $700 corporate donation limit to Nickels' 2009 campaign early on in 2008. In June this year, following the 33 individual employee contributions, HDR managing director John Williams of New York added another $125, as did another official. The same month, Williams shared the stage with Nickels at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Providence, advising a Nickels' task force on ways to obtain and use federal energy dollars.
The company and the mayor mutually admire each other, but observers shouldn't read too much into the relationship, their spokespersons say. "HDR is conscientious in following legal and ethical guidelines related to contracting," says Cobb. Adds Kaushik: "Any indication of linkage between those contracts and the campaign is just not true." Thing is, says Burstein, the UW professor, "It's just the way the system works."