Seattle's City Establishment: Pimps For Corporate Welfare

PROSTITUTION is illegal in Seattle, except when elected officials pimp the public's wares to downtown developers in backroom deals.

On Sunday, Times reporters Barbara Serrano and Deborah Nelson broke down closed doors and shed light on City Hall's den of corporate welfare depravity. Politicians can sputter about "civic" benefits, but they can no longer hide the disgusting truth.

The Times found that the city of Seattle intentionally overpaid a developer $23 million for a 1,200-space commercial parking garage in order to circumvent a state constitutional ban on giving public tax dollars to private businesses. The garage, part of a Rube Goldberg redevelopment project that moves retail giant Nordstrom into an abandoned building once occupied by Frederick & Nelson, will cost about $50 million to build. In 1995, Mayor Norm Rice and the entire City Council agreed unanimously to pay $73 million for the underground structure at Sixth Avenue and Pine Street.

Nobody can account for the "overpayment" - not Norm Rice, not the developers, not Nordstrom, not City Attorney Mark Sidran, not the council harem. Instead, City Council President Jan Drago blasted critics in the Post-Intelligencer for forgetting that downtown was in a "crisis" when the deal was approved. "How short people's memories are," Drago sniffed. (Never mind that developers who brought NikeTown and other newcomers to downtown say they already had signed leases and begun construction months before the "crucial" Nordstrom project was a go.)

As for Drago's own razor-sharp noggin, it was devoid of any fine details about the garage financing. She told the P-I she couldn't remember. According to Serrano and Nelson, however, our public servants were told explicitly in a 1995 memo that they were paying too much for the high-priced hole in the ground. So everybody knew what nobody can explain and now - have these sell-outs no shame? - they're blaming us for not being more knowledgeable about the rationale for this self-imposed financial rape.

Give Pine Street developers credit. Their tasty slice of corporate pork is dwarfed by the pot-bellied stadium deals, but they are surely among the most successful corporate welfare architects this side of the Kingdome. And whatever this obscene deal ends up costing Seattle taxpayers, it has been a windfall for the politicians who helped conceive and conceal it. Take just two examples:

During his failed 1996 gubernatorial bid, Norm Rice received maximum individual contributions of $1,100 each from Pine Street developer Matthew Griffin and his wife; $875 from Griffin's partner, Jeffrey Rhodes; $700 from Rhodes' wife; $1,100 from another key partner, Chicago-based investor Thomas Klutznick; $1,100 from Bruce Nordstrom; $1,100 from bond lawyer Gerald Johnson, who represents Pine Street Associates and promoted the garage deal; $1,000 each from investor and Price-Costco chairman Jeff Brotman and his wife; $1,000 from investor and architect William Bain Jr.; $1,000 from investor C. Bagley Wright; and $550 from John Finke, who arranged to get $47 million tax-exempt financing for the garage through a program run by the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.

Drago, who called this Robin-Hood-in-reverse scheme a "win-win for our taxpayers and our city's economic future," raked in maximum $400 contributions for her most recent re-election bid from Griffin, his wife, Brotman, and Herman Sarkowsky; Howard S. Wright III and C. Bagley Wright also each gave $400; Bruce Nordstrom ponied up $300; The Rhodes Company, owned by Jeff Rhodes, added another $400.

Who says money can't buy love?

The fundamental problem, of course, is not that developers give money to politicians. They have every right to do so. The problem is that what they are trying to purchase - apparently unconstitutional public subsidies - should not be for sale in the first place. City officials argue that any other financing package would have meant higher parking rates. So? Why should the rest of us be forced to subsidize cheap stalls so wealthy downtown shoppers can loll around Tiffany's and Il Fornaio for an extra half-hour or two?

Similar government shakedowns are spreading like a contagion: Grass-roots activists sued the Spokane City Council last year for another garage deal that looks like a disguised illegal gift to developers. In Winston-Salem, N.C., public officials handed over $500,000 to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. for a new parking garage. Outside of Kansas City, city officials proposed building two multilevel parking garages for Nordstrom. Near Pittsburgh, politicians forked over $14 million to subsidize a 520-space parking garage for a department-store complex. And Indianapolis, Scottsdale, Ariz., and New Albany, Ky., all used public financing for downtown parking garages.

Who will put a stop to it? In this state, the bedsheets of both Republican and Democrat leaders are soiled - most recently by the foul act that sank $300 million of public money into Paul Allen's football playpen. Incoming Seattle mayor Paul Schell is a peer and his campaign received donations from leading major Pine Street players.

Taxpayers should join forces with lonely watchdogs like CLEAN and the Seattle Displacement Coalition to form independent corporate welfare vice squads. Demand full disclosure of the entire Pine Street redevelopment scheme. Refuse to approve any new levies or taxes until the whole truth is known. This god-awful whoring has gone on long enough.

Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: