A local good old boys and gals club does exist in good ol’ Great Falls, and it has real impact on our community. Despite those who yell that I am just being negative, the facts tell the story.
Crony capitalism exists to some extent everywhere and at every level, including right here in Great Falls. Anyone who believes otherwise is either naïve or intentionally ignorant. Unsurprisingly it is often the case that those who most adamantly deny the existence of a Great Falls good old boys and gals club are the same ones who benefit most from it.
In this article I will show one example of how the local crony system has worked, who has benefitted and what the consequences have been to the rest of us.
First is my definition of the good old boys and gals club, hereafter referred to as The Club:
The Club is the relatively small group of people who know each other, have common financial and political interests, often socialize together, and belong to the same clubs and organizations. They serve on each other’s bank, business and non-profit boards of directors and work together behind the scenes to effect policies that benefit each other. The Club poobahs are very good at nominating and appointing their friends and business associates to government and non-profit organization (NPO) advisory boards over those who are just as qualified but not part of the clique.
Many who belong to The Club are in the same or similar economic, social, and professional ranks – lawyers, NPO executives, CEO’s, politicians and former and current government officials etc. They contribute to each other’s political campaigns and give public and private support to each other. You can usually determine who’s “in” by looking at the political contributions of some who hold elected positions of power and seeing who gives them support. Follow the money – and the influence.
They trade in political/professional/financial favors and scratch each other’s backs. One thing The Club hates more than anything is someone who is not afraid to ask questions and call attention to conflict of interest issues, or someone who simply wants there to be full transparency and some public scrutiny.
“The Club poobahs are very good at nominating and appointing their friends and business associates to government and non-profit organization (NPO) advisory boards over those who are just as qualified but not part of the clique.”
Let’s review a series of events which transpired in 2017 concerning the distribution of federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) taxpayer funds by the Great Falls Community Development Council (CDC) and the Great Falls City Commission. This sequence perfectly illustrates how The Club operates:
- City appoints members of organizations which receive CDBG funds to the committee that recommends allocation of those funds, the CDC.
- City gets big pile of taxpayer CDBG funds.
- In their FINAL 2017 meeting the CDC recommends $0 for Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art.
- City Commissioner Tracy Houck is the paid executive director of PGS and she doesn’t like zero dollars for her organization.
- Tracy Houck leverages her position as city commissioner to get an unprecedented do-over on the entire CDBG allocation process.
- Given time to do some backroom wheeling and dealing PGS miraculously goes from $0 to $28,000 in CDBG funding.
- The city commission approves the funding with only two votes out of five.
- Someone notices and says “Hey you can’t do that! Two votes out of five means it does not pass!”
- City commission gets another do-over and votes again, this time approving the $28,000 for PGS with a 3 to 1 vote.
- City commissioner/PGS Executive Director Tracy Houck gets your money. Houck’s daughter was also an employee of PGS,
- Commissioner Bill Bronson’s son was also an employee of PGS. Bill voted yes for PGS to get the money.
Fortunately several Great Falls citizens were paying attention and called BS on this whole shady, dishonest process and wrote letters of complaint to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office in Denver, which oversees Great Falls’ CDBG distribution. As a result HUD began to inquire and investigate.
The February 20, 2018 letter from HUD to the City of Great Falls stated, in part, the following:
“With regard to the City of Great Falls, we consider any member of the City’s Commission or Community Development Council to be in a decision-making position and able to gain “inside information” on the CDBG funding process. The City’s letter dated December 20, 2017 identified 14 individuals who participated in the Commission or Council between 2012 and 2017, and who would also be identified as persons covered by Section 570.611(c). In total, $522,252.00 was awarded by the Commission and Council between 2012 and 2017 to entities from which the 14 members noted above, or those with whom they have business or immediate family ties, obtained a financial interest or benefit.” (emphasis added)
So how is it that these people were in a position to gain “inside information” in the Community Development Block Grant funding process?
Well, 11 of those 14 individuals were serving as members of the CDC, which was responsible for screening applications and making recommendations as to which local organizations would receive CDBG funding. The problem is that they were at the same time also employed by or board members of the organizations they were screening and recommending funds for.
The other 3 individuals are Great Falls city commissioners who not only appointed the CDC members but were also either employed by, board members of, and/or had immediate family members employed by the organizations applying for and receiving the taxpayer funds. Those same city commissioners make the final decision on which organizations get the CDBG funding, which can be tens of thousands of dollars per organization.
Here are the names of the 11 CDC members who were board members of or employed by the organizations they approved funding for.
Tina Cubbage – CDC Member – Employed by Big Brothers/Big Sisters which received $5,005 (2012)
Sandy Wright – CDC Member – Employed by Children’s Museum of MT which received $6000 (2012), $5000 (2013)
Anita Fisher – CDC Member – Employed by Paris Gibson Square Museum which received $3000 (2012), $5000 (2014)
Jolene Bach – CDC Member – Employed by Rural Dynamics which received $18,000 (2012), $7500 (2013) – Employed by GFDA which received $22,780 (2015), $40,000 (2016)
Dave Sutinen – CDC Member – Employed by Quality Life Concepts which received $7500 (2013), $5500 (2014), – Employed by Rural Dynamics which received $11,250 (2017)
Carry Koppie – CDC Member – Employed by NeighborWorks Great Falls which received $84,903 (2014)
Neil Fortier – CDC Member – Employed by NeighborWorks Great Falls which received $84,903 (2014), $22,780 (2015), $75,000 (2016), $82,903 (2017)
Dave Fink – CDC Member – Board member Rural Dynamics which received $10,000 (2015), $11,250 (2017)
Harmony Wolfe – CDC Member – Employed by Paris Gibson Square Museum
Jennifer Fines – CDC Member – Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity which received $25,000 (2015), $70,564 (2016), $65,000 (2017)
Susan Wolff – CDC Member – Board Member GFDA which received $40,000 (2017)
The level of insider rigging of the system here is stunning and it’s outrageous that it was allowed to go on for so long. This was corruption, plain and simple.”
“The level of insider rigging of the system here is stunning and it’s outrageous that it was allowed to go on for so long. This was corruption, plain and simple.”
None of these folks were knowingly violating HUD rules and standards in my opinion but those rules and standards were nevertheless violated by their actions, actions for which there have already been consequences and may well be even more serious consequences to come. And that raises an important point regarding The Club – thinking that “it’s always been done this way” doesn’t make it right and isn’t a justification for participating in a system of cronyism involving public funds. Nor does it absolve any of us from the consequences.
Those who should have known better, and I believe actually did know better but went ahead anyway, are the two city commissioners and the Mayor. For them there is no excuse.
Bill Bronson – City Commissioner – Spouse Employed by NeighborWorks Great Falls which received hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2012 which Bronson voted to approve. From the HUD letter: “Carol Bronson’s relationship to Bill Bronson and her position with NeighborWorks Great Falls creates a conflict of interest, because of the exposure to “inside information” and potential for financial benefit for herself and the organization.”
Bob Kelly – Mayor – Board Member GFDA which received $40,000 (2017)
Tracy Houck – City Commissioner – Executive Director Paris Gibson Square Museum. Houck directly intervened as a city commissioner in the process in an attempt to direct funds to PGS, her employer.
For a full list, year by year since 2012, and detailed CDC and City Commission meeting minutes and funding vote details here is the City of Great Falls response letter to HUD.
So what are the consequences of this one example of the local The Club? Let us count the ways:
- Destruction of public trust in City government
- Public officials unable to do their jobs because of their previous conflicts of interest
- Some organizations being left out of funding because they didn’t have an employee on the CDC
- The very real possibility that the City will be required to repay over $500,000 to HUD
In conclusion, not only has Great Falls been a community shoulder deep in serious cronyism, but Great Falls wins the gold medal in the Good Old Boys & Gals Olympics! Let’s stop pretending otherwise, stop allowing it to happen, and demand accountability so we can move forward with some honesty and integrity.