Some things in life can become nearly reflexive: Telemarketer calls, hold your wallet. Dead skunk, hold your breath. Political donations, hold your nose. These are hard and fast rules – utterly inflexible.
Except when they’re not.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz recently returned $25,000 in donations to avoid, he said, the appearance of impropriety. Evidently, he did it proactively – before anyone even needed to suggest that the donations would smell fishy.
The donations in question came from the law firm of Hiscock & Barclay and one of its attorneys. The firm had been selected as the county’s bond counsel. Poloncarz said he decided to return the money when he learned of the donation – which had been handled by an organization called the Friends of Mark Poloncarz – “because I didn’t want anybody to make the assumption that it was like ‘pay to play’ and that there’s this hint of impropriety here.”
It was a good decision, even if it is of a sort that is too infrequently made.
Hiscock & Barclay was selected earlier this year to replace Hawkins Delafield & Wood as the county’s bond counsel to help with financial transactions. It was one of seven that sought the designation and will earn a fee of between $8,000 and $25,000 for each transaction, depending on how much money the county is borrowing.
It was a plausible choice – Hawkins Delafield & Wood sought significantly higher fees – but the acceptance of the donations could easily have undermined public confidence not just in the decision but in Poloncarz personally, even though he wasn’t directly involved in the fund-raising.
Not everyone is as fastidious about donations. Hiscock & Barclay was also among the top donors to former Erie County Executive Chris Collins when he was in office. Donations to Collins amounted to $52,000, even as the firm represented Erie County in lawsuits regarding strip searches at the county jails and served as bond counsel for the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.
“I may be the first elected official in Erie County who actually refunded donations because it has a hint of what looked like impropriety,” Poloncarz said. “I’m fairly confident that almost every other political person or elected official would have kept that money.”
He’s right, but there’s no reason Poloncarz should be the exception to the rule. It doesn’t have to be inflexible. Other elected officials in the county and, indeed, all candidates running for election this November should take a lesson from Poloncarz and commit to this kind of fund-raising ethics. There are worse things than returning money that could help with your re-election, especially if keeping it could actually hurt the cause.