When Baldwin County Commission President Tucker Dorsey’s private foundation hosted its “Fall Men’s Night” fundraiser for the Sheriff’s Boys Camp Oct. 27, it did so with the pre-certified permission of the Alabama Ethics Commission.  

It also did so with an engineering company that’s been paid more than $5 million by Baldwin County over the past six years footing the bill to treat local elected officials and public employees with free alcohol and a steak dinner. And looking over the scant records available for Dorsey’s foundation, it appears to spend at least as much money hosting these political “networking opportunities” as it does providing support for charity.

Dorsey’s Red Text Foundation — a reference to the King James Bible’s use of red ink to outline words spoken by Jesus — has been hosting such men’s nights for the past few years. According to the Form 990 nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporations are required to file with the IRS, Red Text was formed in February 2013 by Dorsey, with Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack and Dewayne Hayes as officers.

So far Red Text has only filed its 2014 Form 990, so it is difficult to know what it has done in the ensuing years. But that 2014 filing shows the foundation began the year with $7,520 in the bank, received another $8,500, took in a $3,825 grant and spent $9,861. Red Text isn’t required to document the origin of its finances and Dorsey has refused to answer Lagniappe’s recent questions about this fundraiser and Red Text’s finances, but the 2014 document does show expenditures, revealing that nearly two-thirds of the money spent that year went to hosting steak dinners.

In the same year, the foundation awarded $3,825 in donations to nine area nonprofits — $750 of which went to the boys camp. The document also shows $6,026 went toward “meetings.”

“The foundation hosts monthly dinner meetings along the Gulf Coast. These meetings or ‘Men’s Night’ events are area networking events. There is no cost to attend but the contributions received benefit local charities” is how the meetings are described on the Form 990.

For this latest iteration of Men’s Night, Volkert Engineering plunked down $6,000 to “host” the networking/fundraising event, which might raise eyebrows given Dorsey and the County Commission’s direct ability to affect how or if the engineering firm is selected for lucrative contracts. According to a Volkert spokesman, it’s not the first time the company has paid for one of Dorsey’s networking events.

“The Volkert people in Baldwin have done it for years,” Volkert spokesman Steven James said. “They pay the caterers. It’s around $6,000 for catering. Sometimes there are joint sponsors.”

James said there is “kind of an expectation” for civil engineers to be involved in supporting local charities because the companies do so much work paid for by the public. He pointed out that another local engineering firm, Preble-Rish, had also hosted Dorsey’s fundraisers. Lagniappe was unable to verify whether that was the case directly through Preble-Rish vice president John Avent, as he did not respond to questions about the matter, but the Sheriff’s Boys Camp director Jim Harmon also said both engineering firms had paid for events.

Since the beginning of 2010 Volkert has been paid more than $5.4 million, according to online county records, making it the highest-paid engineering firm doing business with Baldwin County. During that time Preble-Rish has been paid nearly $1.8 million according to those same records, and Thompson Engineering has been paid $1.9 million.

Greenlighted by Ethics Commission
On Sept. 16 of this year, David Conner, a partner in Blackburn & Conner PC, wrote a letter to the Alabama Ethics Commission seeking pre-certification for elected officials and public employees to attend the Men’s Night event. Blackburn & Conner serve as Baldwin’s county attorneys.

While the letter did explain the event would be hosted by Volkert and that the company does work for the county, it pointed out that, “the steak dinner and accompanying hospitality are not intended to influence any elected officials in the performance of their official duties in any manner.”

It went on to say that, “based on previous pre-certification approval, it is our understanding that because this event also serves as a fundraising event for the Baldwin County Boys Ranch, the public officials and employees in attendance may accept the meal and hospitality provided at the event.”

The Ethics Commission stamped the letter for approval on Sept. 28, with a handwritten note underneath saying 600 people were invited. While the letter from Conner does not mention Red Text, an email provided to Lagniappe appears to be from Dorsey and the Red Text board to invitees telling them the event is a go and encouraging them to “bring a guest that you think will fit in with the group.”

The email also mentions Baldwin County Sewer System and Blue Rents as offering their services to support the meeting. Dorsey is employed by BCSS owner Clarence Burke.

Lagniappe contacted Ethics Commission General Counsel Hugh Evans to ask if he could share the criteria by which the commission would clear attendance at an event hosted by an elected official’s private foundation and paid for by a company that does business before that elected official.

“The event was a widely attended event (only requires 12 people per Section 36-25-1(34)) and over 600 people were invited. As such, public officials are entitled to attend the dinner by virtue of Section 36-25-1(34)(b)(14) without violating the Ethics Act. That’s all our precertification allows. What a sponsor cannot do is use it as an opportunity to corruptly influence official action, and it does not provide protection for facts not disclosed to us. The only thing we precertified was an event benefiting the Boys and Girls Club,” he wrote back.

Conner confirmed that his firm was paid to write the letter on behalf of the county to determine the appropriateness of the attendance of elected officials and public employees at the fundraiser.

“As part of my duties as County Attorney, I am routinely asked to address questions or issues involving elected officials and public employees and the application of the Alabama Ethics Law, which sometimes includes drafting requests for Ethics Opinions and requests for preclearance certification,” Conner wrote in response to Lagniappe’s questions. “Your requests for information to Baldwin County and your question appears to imply that Baldwin County paid for a letter written on behalf of the Red Text Foundation, which is incorrect. Our firm was paid by Baldwin County to attempt to address questions or issues related to the attendance of Baldwin County elected officials and employees, as well as other state and local officials, at the event on Oct. 27, 2016. According to a review of records by county staff, our firm was paid $78.75 to draft the preclearance request on behalf of Baldwin County to obtain precertification related to the attendance by public officials and employees.”

Boys Camp director Harmon said the Oct. 27 Men’s Night brought in $7,000 for the boys camp and he estimated 100-150 people attended. He said Dorsey’s foundation hosts two or three such dinners a year.

“It’s a good fundraiser,” Harmon said. “The men have a good time and it’s a night of fellowship among the business and political leaders of Baldwin County.”

In an August interview Dorsey said “sponsored events” were the source of direct funding for Red Text, although he did not elaborate as to what those events might be. He said the fundraising dinners predate the formation of Red Text, which is why donors don’t give directly to the foundation at these dinners.

“The way it usually works is people make donations directly to the ranch itself. So the supper is the facilitator for raising the money for the ranch. The reason we did that is because we didn’t have the 501(c)(3) to start with and we started the suppers, I want to say in 2011, and then we didn’t have a mechanism for people to donate except for donating to the Sheriff’s Boys Ranch directly,” he said.

Choosing engineers
As Baldwin has been one of the nation’s fastest growing counties over the past decade, the building and expansion of roads and bridges across the miles of empty farmland has been a boon not only to those who would develop the land, but also to the engineering and construction companies awarded millions in work.

And while construction projects to build and improve those thoroughfares are awarded through a strict bid process that rewards those with lower prices, that’s not the case when it comes to selecting engineers and some other professional services. The state of Alabama doesn’t require engineering firms to bid for public jobs in the same way other companies might have to.

Engineering companies can apply to be put on a county’s “on-call” list, which means they are selected for work by the county engineer based upon expertise. In 2002 Baldwin County adopted Rule 9.10, which sets up the use of on-call engineers. It was modified in 2008 to require the county to get Request for Qualifications from interested companies when a job is more than $100,000. The rule states that the top three RFQs should be ranked by the county engineer or environmental director and presented to the County Commission, which would then award the most qualified company.

However, the commission hasn’t been afraid to waive that rule when it comes to big projects, particularly the Baldwin Beach Express. County records show that since 2011, nearly $10 million in contracts was awarded after the commission waived rule 9.10 and handed work worth more than $100,000 to seven engineering firms without an RFQ being required.

Of those firms, Volkert was awarded $2.4 million, Hutchison Moore & Rauch LLC got $1.65 million, Geotechnical Engineering Testing Inc. was awarded $1.5 million, Hatch Mott MacDonald was awarded $1.3 million, Preble-Rish was awarded $1.2 million, Neel-Schaffer got $966,000 and Christian Testing was awarded $755,000.

Dorsey, along with Commissioners Frank Burt and Charles Gruber, voted in favor of waiving rule 9.10 for all the Phase I contracts related to the Baldwin Beach Express. Commissioner Bob James abstained from the votes because his son works for Volkert and he had business relationships with some of the other firms, according to county records.

On Phase II of the Beach Express contracts, Dorsey voted against all of them in March 2012, saying it would be irresponsible to move forward without knowing the status of the coming RESTORE ACT money. The contracts were still approved by the commission and moved forward upon just the votes of Gruber and Burt.

Burt says the waiving of rule 9.10 was done simply to get the process moving faster. “I believe we saved a lot of money by doing it this way,” he said.

But by the same token, when asked whether he’d attended any of the Men’s Night meetings paid for by engineering firms, Burt said he has steered clear simply because of the way it could look having engineers who do so much work for the county hosting parties for those who hold the purse strings.

“I’ve never been,” Burt said. “I was offered that they’d come pick me up, but I just don’t do it. Even the appearance of impropriety I try to avoid.”

In addition to hosting parties, some engineering firms have been big players when it comes to donating to political campaigns. According to Alabama Secretary of State Records, from 2013-2016 Volkert donated $182,934 to various campaigns. That includes $2,000 to former Commissioner James and $1,000 to Dorsey. The David Volkert and Associates Holding Co. PAC also donated $1,000 to Dorsey in 2014. Volkert donated $2,500 to current Commissioner Chris Elliot, who defeated James in 2014. James also received a $1,000 donation from Neel-Schaffer in 2014.

While Preble-Rish hasn’t donated anywhere near as much as Volkert on a statewide level over the past few years, election records suggest it, too, has put money into local races. Probate records show the company donated $5,000 to Dorsey in 2013 and its vice president, John Avent, added another $1,000 for Dorsey. Elliott also received $2,500 from Preble-Rish last year.

The company also gave $10,000 to the Coastal Alabama Progress PAC in March 2016, according to state records, and Thompson Engineering donated $2,000 as well. A few months later that PAC distributed $5,000 to Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood’s campaign, $2,500 to Daphne City Councilman Joel Coleman’s campaign and $1,500 to Fairhope City Councilman Jay Robinson’s campaign.

Coastal Alabama Progress PAC’s chairman is listed as Scott Shamburger, who is also listed in Dorsey’s email as being on the Red Text Foundation’s board of directors.

Elliott also received $10,000 in donations from Thompson Engineering’s PAC in 2015, according to records. Another of Elliott’s biggest donors was Coastal PAC, which donated $17,000 to his campaign in 2014. On July 8, 2014, Elliott received a $10,500 donation from Coastal PAC the day after Baldwin County Sewer Service gave the PAC a $7,500 donation.

Correction:
In the original version of this story, Baldwin County EMC Board Member Joseph Coleman was incorrectly identified as the recipient of a $2,500 campaign donation from the Coastal Alabama Progress PAC in June of this year. The actual recipient of the donation was Joel Coleman, who won election to Daphne’s City Council. Joel Coleman is land product development manager for D.R. Horton and is a licensed, professional engineer. He is serving his first term in office. Joseph Coleman still has another two years as a Baldwin EMC trustee before his next election and he said he has never received a donation from the Coastal Alabama Progress PAC. We regret the error.