Mayor Carl Brewer urged Cabela’s officials in writing 15 months ago to hire Key Construction, one of the mayor’s biggest campaign contributors, to build their new northeast Wichita store.
Brewer’s letter comes to light amid a controversial bid process for the city’s new Mid-Continent Airport terminal, with some city officials and contractors wondering whether the project’s credibility has been compromised by the mayor’s 15-year friendship with Key officials.
In a March 31, 2011, letter to Cabela’s officials, Brewer clearly recommended Wichita-based Key Construction, owned by brothers Dave and Kent Wells. Over the past 11 years, the Wells brothers, their spouses and company management have donated a little more than $10,000 to Brewer’s political campaigns.
Brewer’s letter — written on stationery with the city’s letterhead — contains no other endorsements and does not acknowledge some of the other local project bidders, which included the Law Company — which ultimately landed the project — Dondlinger and Sons, and Eby Construction.
Brewer said he writes more than 50 such letters annually upon request, supporting Wichita firms’ bidding projects, grant proposals, scholarships and similar efforts.
“It’s a good policy,” the mayor said. “My No. 1 priority is growing every single business in Wichita, creating more jobs. Anyone who’s bidding on something, especially against out-of-state companies, and they’re good with us, come see me and tell me what to say, and you’ll get a letter.
“This deal here is political,” Brewer said about the controversy. “Me, I’m about jobs.
“This letter has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of longstanding friendships. I’m about helping the businesses we have grow.”
Brewer’s political opponents, particularly those like Americans for Prosperity who oppose public incentives for private businesses, have long questioned the mayor’s relationship with the Wells brothers.
During a debate over the taxpayer-funded downtown Ambassador Hotel parking garage earlier this year, council member Michael O’Donnell publicly criticized the Brewer-Key relationship.
Key was set to receive the garage contract in a no-bid deal from the city before O’Donnell and Pete Meitzner, supported by City Manager Robert Layton, led a revolt on the council that forced the garage project to be bid. Key ultimately was the low bidder.
Cabela’s officials said the letter had little effect on their contractor-selection process.
“During the site selection process, Cabela’s accepts recommendations for contractors in the local market,” said Mark Nienhueser, Cabela’s vice president for construction and real estate. “We combine those recommendations with our own list of regional contractors and begin a competitive selection process.
“In the case of Wichita, we followed this standard procedure and competitively bid the project to a number of contractors before ultimately awarding the project to the Law Company.”
Vice Mayor Janet Miller said the mayor’s office writes dozens of endorsement letters a year, available on request to any business that has a clean record at City Hall.
“It’s not like he picks and chooses,” Miller said. “I’m guessing that none of the other contractors bothered to ask.”
Brewer confirmed Miller’s guess, saying Key was the only Cabela’s bidder that asked for a letter.
Brewer’s letter is drawing fire at the state and local level, with critics complaining the mayor should be advocating for all Wichita-area general contractors instead of appearing to play favorites, especially with ones that have been generous to his political campaigns.
Miller agreed that the endorsement letter policy deserves another look
O’Donnell called the letter unethical and potentially corrupt, allegations that Brewer angrily dismissed during an interview Friday.
“When a letter recommends Key instead of allowing the process to work itself out, I think it just has an air of corruption to it,” O’Donnell said. “This seems on its face unethical to promote one construction company over another.”
Miller disputed that characterization.
“I don’t have a problem with the letter at all,” she said.
Some 15 months after Brewer wrote his letter, Key and Dondlinger are facing off again over the $100 million airport terminal project.
Dondlinger’s $99.4 million terminal bid was the low figure, but the city has ruled at four administrative levels that the company didn’t hire — and didn’t make a good-faith effort to hire — enough disadvantaged-business subcontractors for the project. Thus, the project appears headed to Key, the second-lowest bidder at $101.5 million. The City Council will hear an appeal from Dondlinger at Tuesday’s meeting.
Wyatt Hoch, Dondlinger’s attorney in the terminal-bid controversy, said Brewer needs to advocate for all Wichita contractors.
“We’d hope the mayor would also support Dondlinger and the other contractors in town, but Dondlinger for sure because it has a long resume of really good projects: the arena, Exploration Place, the Keeper of the Plains and others,” he said.
Rich Kerschen, president of the Law Company, which landed the Cabela’s job, agreed.
“I’m disappointed and I’m hurt that the mayor would decide to support one contractor over the others,” Kerschen said. “We really try to be good corporate citizens and from our viewpoint, we would hope the mayor would endorse all the contractors that were bidding the project from the city’s perspective.
“I’m disappointed he’d pick sides rather than supporting all the contractors in Wichita.”
Mike Gibson, the executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Kansas, agrees with Hoch. Gibson praised the mayor for urging Cabela’s to keep the work local but said Brewer didn’t go far enough.
“AGC of Kansas sees an opportunity to request a meeting with Mayor Brewer to educate him on the wide range of quality contractors that are based in the metro Wichita marketplace in order to increase the likelihood of a future Cabela’s project being awarded to a local contractor, knowing that a Cabela’s has a preferred list of national firms that follow their project around the country,” Gibson said.
The letter is not illegal in Kansas, and is not on the radar of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, director Carol Williams said this week.
However, Williams noted that the letter would be illegal in states with laws against “pay to play,” such as Illinois, or laws governing financial contributions by contractors to the public officials who award contracts for taxpayer-funded work.
O’Donnell said he doesn’t plan to ask the mayor to recuse himself from Tuesday’s vote on the Dondlinger appeal.
“I would have more faith the mayor will do what’s right. I don’t think I should have to ask him that,” O’Donnell said. “I wouldn’t object, but I don’t feel I have to tell him what to do. If he wants to recuse himself, that’s fine. I doubt he’d go to that length.”
The ethics of the letter
Dave Wells, the Key president, defended his relationship with the mayor, saying Thursday he was “stunned” by the controversy.
“I guess the mayor’s recommendation didn’t do a lot of good, did it?” he said, laughing.
Wells said he asked Brewer, a longtime friend dating back to the mayor’s days in the aviation industry, for the letter. Wells admitted he was surprised that the letter was later posted on the Key website under “news.”
Americans for Prosperity officials have long touted a fishing trip photo the mayor posted on his Facebook page, taken in June 2011 — about six weeks after the recommendation letter was written — as proof Brewer is too close to Key officials.
That contention riles up Wells, who urged The Eagle to publish the Facebook photo.
“Has nothing to do with anything,” he said. “I’ve gone fishing with him every year, and I’m going to continue going fishing with him.”