August 19, 2009

Headless horsemen

We should now be comfortable taking as fact the notion that public accountability in the city’s dealings with The Cordish Cos. is a giant cosmic joke.

Metro Council President David Tandy, D-4, traveled to the company’s Baltimore headquarters with a posse of city bureaucrats Aug. 7 so that the developer of Fourth Street Live and the slow-to-move Center City project could offer some accounting of the $950,000 forgivable loan bestowed upon it by city government to rehab the Sports & Social Club.

Tandy, whose Cordish-accounting initiative appears to some as an attempt to look tough on a zeitgeist local issue as he begins a campaign for mayor, took along Bruce Traughber, David Morris and Ellie Shipley from the city’s economic development office, as well as Mike Norman, the city auditor — ostensibly for the purpose of assuring those of us who pay taxes that our money wasn’t misused.

The auditor’s report is good reading if you have about five minutes and the minimum abstract reasoning skills of a ball python.

According to the four-page report, the city crew began by agreeing that all discussions of expenditures remain confidential, meaning city officials cannot talk about any findings, other than to say they found something — which, apparently, they didn’t, as the report’s characterization of the findings was that all is good. The crew perused vendor invoices and receipts, bank statements, checks and credit card statements, and lien documents — in total, some 285 pieces of paper were shifted around on what we can only presume was a table, perhaps surrounded by leather or fine-cloth chairs.

No independent party verified that those were records of expenses at the Sports & Social Club; in fact, as Norman’s report notes, “the review relied on (Cordish) personnel’s assertion that the documentation provided was related to the $950,000 forgivable loan.” As the just-trust-us mantra plays soulfully in the background.

Further, Norman covers his ass (and who wouldn’t in this situation) with this deer-in-the-headlights caveat: The Office of Internal Audit did not independently identify the documentation for review, and therefore does not offer assurance as to the completeness, accuracy, or reliability of the documentation reviewed. Instead, only limited assurance that the documentation substantiates the use of the loan proceeds could be obtained.

At which point we arrive at The Result, a two-sentence nod to all the insiders in the room that says Yes, We Did — we went to Baltimore, sat down with Cordish on the condition that we never speak of this again, and, well, let’s just all move on. Your elected and appointed representatives trust this developer — ergo, you should too. They spent all the money the right way, despite appearances: Physical transformation of that club has been subtle at best. Maybe they spent a chunk of city cash getting Paris Hilton to harrumph there for a half-hour on Derby Eve.

This meeting was Political Theater 101, and everyone knew it going in: The contract for the loan does not stipulate a right to audit. In the absence of the law, nothing could compel Cordish to open the books, and we still don’t know whether the company actually did. As Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16 — whom Democrats typically cast as a stick-in-the-mud villain to downtown development schemes — said, we’ve exhausted our options.

We should seek lessons. The first, to Tandy or whomever is elected the next Metro mayor: Do not treat a major national developer as if it is doing you a favor being here, and do not offer recompense based on that sentiment. Cordish made a good business decision opening Fourth Street Live; the entertainment district has been successful and clearly appeals to a demographic that exists here. That should help explain why Cordish agreed to the Center City deal, and make you wonder why the Mayor’s Office felt it necessary to offer up nearly a million in taxpayer change to get one new bar downtown.

The second, to the outraged: Maintain your focus. The city did not require Cordish to choke up proof in this deal. The company operates in a competitive environment where such revelations could affect its bottom line. It is the city’s responsibility to require accountability. What company would offer such a thing if not obliged to?

The third, to the Metro Council: Take the opportunity of a new Metro mayor to re-examine the relationship between our executive and legislative branches, and assert your authority accordingly. 

Tagged: Editor’s Note |