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Soccer Team Owners Helped Fund Campaigns Of Mayor, Council Members

Rendering courtesy Louisville City FC

Members of the Louisville City FC ownership group have given Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Metro Council members thousands of dollars in past campaign contributions.

The politicians collectively received about $45,000 from nearly half of the team's 47 owners in election cycles since 2002, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance records.

Many of the gifts were the maximum amount individuals could give at the time: $1,000. The law has since been changed to allow individuals to donate up to $2,000 to candidates per election.

Political scientists say donations like these are powerful tools for groups seeking to curry favor with elected officials. Being a donor can bring a promise of access.

And access can lead to influence, said Dewey Clayton, chair of the University of Louisville's political science department.

Louisville City FC's owners have stressed the need for a soccer stadium since the team began playing in Louisville in 2015. The team currently plays home games at Louisville Slugger Field -- home of the city's professional baseball team, the Louisville Bats.

Now, the ownership group is trying to convince the Metro Council to approve a public financing measure that would assist in the construction of a $200 million soccer stadium project -- complete with retail, office space and a hotel in the Butchertown neighborhood.

Fischer has already said he'd commit $30 million in public funds to the project, but he'll first need council approval.

Clayton said the donations made in past elections don't suggest Louisville's leaders have been bought. Money doesn't turn politicians to pawns, he said.

But, Clayton said when someone has a record of shelling out money for elections, it can potentially buy access to meetings where ideas can be heard, discussed and considered.

"That's a whole lot right there, that's getting their ear," he said. "Oftentimes, that will be enough."

There's nothing illegal about the relationship, but it can skew the system in favor of donors who are often wealthy and have projects and plans in mind, said Edwin Bender, executive director of FollowTheMoney.org— a nonprofit dedicated to examining the impact of campaign finance on public policy.

Projects with public funding components like sports stadiums are complicated and can create a perception of favoritism, Bender said.

"That's what disclosure and transparency are all about," he said. "It's incumbent on the Mayor and the Council Members that they are making decisions for the larger populous."

Donations To Fischer

Soccer team owners gave Fischer $31,875 over the course of two election cycles, campaign finance records show.

Nearly a dozen of the owners have given the maximum amount allowed by an individual.

The records also show that Fischer's biggest donors include some of the most visible members of the team ownership group — like Michael Mountjoy, Tim Mulloy and John Hollenbach.

Fischer was first elected in 2010, and has raised more than $4 million in his quest to be and remain the city's top official. He'll be seeking re-election next year.

Fischer has championed the idea of constructing a soccer stadium in the city's Butchertown neighborhood, just east of downtown near Interstate-64 and River Road. He often attends the team's home games at Louisville Slugger field and he regularly joins fans near the field, singing along with cheers and playing a drum.

In a text message, Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter said Fischer had "absolutely not" been swayed to support the stadium project by donors.

"The mayor and his team are doing this because of the many significant community benefits of this transformative project," Poynter wrote.

During a September news conference, Fischer called the deal a "smart opportunity."

"And when smart opportunities to move our city forward come up, we’re going to grab them,” he said.

Donations To Metro Council

The city's 26-member Metro Council has delayed a vote on the project's public funding measure.

Democrat Barbara Sexton Smith is sponsoring the ordinance that would secure the $30 million public bond plan needed to purchase and prepare land for the stadium project. She said the delay was needed because council members had more questions about the deal.

Team owners have appeared at council committee meetings and presented economic analysis that show big gains in tax revenues and jobs if the stadium project is completed.

Economic experts, though, have criticized the projections.

"Completely unrealistic and lofty," said Andrew Zimbalist, economics professor at Smith College and a renowned expert on sports economics.

"Academic studies consistently find no discernible positive relationship between sports facility construction and local economic development, income growth, or job creation," said Ted Gayer, director of the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution.

Still, many council members are supporting the project.

Team owners gave $12,950 to support the campaigns of 12 sitting council members in election cycles stretching back to 2002, campaign finance records show.

Democratic council members have received $7,200, while Republicans have received $5,750, the records show.

Republican Glenn Stuckel has received more from soccer team owners than any other council member. His district stretches from Hurstbourne Parkway east to the county line in far eastern Jefferson County.

Council President David Yates has been given $1,500 from team owners.  Democratic Caucus chair Bill Hollander has received $3,500.

Louisville City FC owner Sandra Frazier has given $4,500 to sitting council members, the records show. Hollenbach has given $3,000, per the records.

Steve Haag, spokesman for the council’s minority Republican caucus, said many council members were unaware of the identities of the team’s ownership until earlier this month. He doubts the contributions have swayed any influence.

Tony Hyatt, spokesman for the council's majority caucus, dismissed the notion that council members can be swayed by campaign donations.

"It throws a question and a shadow on something that I think is just not there," Hyatt said.

Money Is A Factor In Politics

Political campaigns are often financed by people with special interests, said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, an ethics watchdog group.

This norm can undermine the public faith and confidence in government, he said. Yet the reality is that money is a factor in politics.

Moreover, the influence of individual contributions — which are capped at $2,000 — may seem inconsequential, Ryan said. But when grouped with other donations from individuals with the same interest -- the promise of access grows.

And if a politician only hears from the people who give money -- perspectives can be skewed.

"You may begin to conflate their interests with the interests of the public, at large," Ryan said. "That's the pernicious effect of money in politics."

Disclosure: Louisville City FC is privately owned by 47 investors. Two of those, Gill Holland and José Donis, are Louisville Public Media board members.

This story has been updated.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.