The University of South Florida doesn't know the difference between fundraising and arm-twisting. While choosing a contractor for its $46.5 million Polytechnic campus project in Lakeland, it asked the bidders how they would help the university raise money. The question implies that only those who plan to give or raise substantial donations have a shot at winning the job. USF and all other public universities should bar discussions of philanthropy during contract selection or renewal. No vendor should wonder whether a business relationship with USF or another school depends on how wide it opens its checkbook.
The issue arose after it became known that Skanska, the firm that won that USF contract in Lakeland, donated $1 million to the USF Foundation a year later. This piqued the interest of state Sen. JD Alexander, a Republican from Polk County, who launched an investigation into how often contractors for state universities are also donors. Alexander's pursuit of the issue is wrapped up in his anger over the university system's refusal to immediately split off the Lakeland campus from USF, but his effort to examine the relationships between contracts and donations is a worthy one.
Using lists supplied by USF, the Tampa Bay Times found that at least 75 companies that work for the school have also made donations. Twenty-three of those have given more than $1 million in the aggregate (including the Times). Of course, not every significant donation by a vendor comes with the suggestion of a side-room deal. It is a matter of scale and timing. When a multimillion-dollar contract is followed closely by the winning bidder giving a major gift, a closer look is warranted.
The handling of the Lakeland campus contract is a primer in what not to do. Bryan Mehaffey, a member of USF's review panel, asked bidding companies: "What will you do to help USF raise money from donors?" He told the Times he had been asked to raise the issue, but it shows a serious lapse in judgment. By mixing money-raising questions with construction bids, taxpayers are left to wonder whether the winning contractor was the best qualified builder at the best possible price or the one willing to shake the bushes for financial support.
Among the other valid questions: When Skanska gave USF $1 million did it consider the money an investment in securing other USF work down the road? Certainly if a contractor knew it was being evaluated on fundraising skills, that would be a valid presumption. And would Skanska's bid have been lower were it not for its substantial donation? The public will never know.
Alexander's pursuit of this issue may be self-serving as he seeks to embarrass the state university system. But there is nothing wrong with bringing more transparency and scrutiny to the way schools pick vendors. When business and government get too cozy, no matter the setting, taxpayers are usually the losers.