Questionable favors

Firm involved in probe has cloudy past

One name that comes up in the federal investigation of the influence of money on City Hall is a local telecommunications company — Spectronics.

When it comes to elected officials, one Spectronics executive has a history of ethically challenged giving.

In the mid-1990s, Spectronics vice president Vertis McManus admitted in federal court that his company paid a Louisville alderman to advance his firm's interests while the city was involved in contract negotiations with a Spectronics business partner.

It also appears that McManus was involved in defrauding a town in Michigan in the 1980s. In that case, a Vertis McManus of Benton Harbor, Mich., took $20,050 that was supposed to be used to purchase worker's compensation insurance for town employees and deposited it in his own account, according to news reports from the time in the St. Joseph Herald-Palladium. In federal court in October 1982, a then 29-year-old McManus received a five-year probation sentence for defrauding the town.

McManus' boss, Spectronics CEO Dorothy D. Rollins, is related to a number of donors to Mayor Bill Campbell's 1997 re-election campaign who now say they never gave any money during the election. Some claim they don't even know who Campbell is.

Federal investigators are looking into whether Spectronics used the names of Rollins' relatives — and others — as a way to get around campaign finance laws that set the maximum contribution at $2,000 during an election year, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

McManus and Rollins did not return repeated phone calls with detailed questions from Creative Loafing, including ones about whether McManus was the same Vertis McManus involved in the Benton Harbor incident. A Spectronics staff member, however, confirmed that McManus is from Michigan.

By all appearances, Spectronics is a successful company. During the mid-1990s, for example, the firm did more than $4 million in subcontracting work for MediaOne, which at the time, was the city's cable provider.

But three weeks ago, CL reported that federal investigators were looking into donations to Campbell's 1997 re-election campaign. Campbell supporters had been scrambling for cash after the mayor was forced into a run-off election against Marvin Arrington.

At least 24 people — some of whom had connections to Clayton County developer Ronnie Thornton — were listed on campaign disclosure forms as giving $2,000 each to the Campbell campaign. Yet, many of the supposed donors claim they made no such donation, and federal authorities are looking into whether this was a way for big-money contributors to funnel more money to the Campbell campaign than state law allows.

Two weeks ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the feds are investigating a group of suspicious donations unrelated to Thornton, which total $10,000. Five $2,000 cashier's checks were purchased Nov. 12, 1997, at a Wachovia Bank in the names of people living in three different states, the paper reported.

At least two of the contributors are related to Rollins, the head of Spectronics. They are Pascagoula, Miss., residents Dorothy H. Watson and Mary E. Rollins. Mary Rollins is Dorothy Rollins' sister.

Mary Rollins told CL that federal investigators spoke with her several months ago about the $2,000 donation to the Campbell campaign. She says she didn't give the money. Watson, who is Dorothy Rollins' aunt, said she doesn't know who Bill Campbell is, but said it was possible her niece donated to the mayor on her behalf.

This, however, isn't the first time Spectronics has been involved in political peccadilloes. In the mid-1990s, Spectronics vice president McManus hired Louisville Alderman Paul Bather as a consultant, paying him $2,000 per month "to help position (the) company" in Louisville and the region. Bather's gig occurred as Louisville's Board of Aldermen was negotiating a franchise agreement with the city's cable provider — a former Spectronics business partner — according to April 1998 stories in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The Louisville Ethics Commission censured Bather for "his attempt to influence other sitting members of the Board of Aldermen while having a direct pecuniary interest as a result of his contract with Spectronics Corp."

McManus paid Bather $56,000, but lacking hard evidence that Bather used his position to secure a quid pro quo for Spectronics, no criminal charges were filed in the case.

In Atlanta, the feds are now investigating whether Spectronics violated campaign finance laws.

So why would Spectronics want to donate more than the legal limit? The answer might be Y2K.

On Nov. 24, 1997, Campbell edged Marvin Arrington by about 4,000 votes to win a second term. Over the next year, the city was considering what company to hire to prepare the city's computer system for Y2K. Spectronics and TDC Systems Integration — the company that eventually won the contract — were included on a special list of minority contractors maintained by the city and considered for Y2K work. At the end of October 1998, the city declared its Y2K situation an emergency and that allowed contracts to be handed out without a bidding process, says Atlanta City Councilman Lee Morris, who has helped spearhead the Council's own investigation into TDC's contracts.

Spectronics didn't receive any of the lucrative Y2K contracts, but it did land a taxpayer-funded $105,589 re-seller fee in 1999, for helping to facilitate a deal between Atlanta and computer giant Oracle Corp. for financial software that was to be installed at Hartsfield Airport.

The only explanation offered up by the city? "I guess it's like a real estate brokerage fee," Campbell spokeswoman Sheila Jack told the AJC in October last year.??