Answer Man: U.S. Postal Service deal is not exactly what it appears to be

News-DemocratJune 4, 2013 

Q. A friend sent me this and swears she checked its accuracy, but I'd like to run it past you. In essence, it says that the U.S. Postal Service awarded a contract to CBRE Inc. that gave the commercial real estate services company exclusive rights to sell unwanted postal properties. The sales may fetch hundreds of millions or even billion of dollars, and CBRE will receive a 6 percent commission. What's troubling, the email said, is that the company belongs to Richard Blum, who happens to be the husband of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "How does a powerful U.S. senator from San Francisco manage to get away with such a sweet deal?" it asks. Well?

-- S.R., of Belleville

A. Sounds like someone has piled up enough incriminating evidence that Joe Pesci could have could have convicted Feinstein for insider dealing in "My Cousin Vinny II."

In reality, even Perry Mason might have lost this case -- and, no, I'm not trying to apologize for Feinstein. The trouble is your friend's email omitted a few relevant facts, which may make the parts add up to a lot more than they should.

Yes, the email is true as far as it goes. As you know, the Postal Service is battling huge deficits so it has often talked of selling off unneeded property to raise money and cut expenses. In a 2012 report to Congress, it listed more than 600 buildings it wanted to sell. If you look at www.uspspropertiesforsale.com, you'll find 42 buildings and 11 land parcels currently on the market.

In the past, the USPS worked with multiple real estate service firms in its dealings. But in 2011, it awarded an exclusive contract to the CB Richard Ellis Group (now CBRE Group), whose chairman of the board is Richard Blum, Feinstein's husband.

That's when people like the email writer started putting two and two together. Feinstein, they figured, probably used her legislative weight to help steer the contract to her husband's company so they could reap millions of dollars in personal gain. The fix was in. Q.E.D.

But before you reach that conclusion too fast, you might want to consider a few facts that the writer conveniently neglected to mention:

* CBRE Inc. does not "belong" to Blum. While Blum Capital Partners, Blum's private equity firm, is a large stockholder, CBRE is a public company headed by Robert Sulentic, the president and CEO.

* Both the Postal Service and CBRE say the 2011 contract was bid competitively and awarded fairly.

* The Postal Service is an independent agency. While it does report to Congress, so far there has been nothing to suggest that Congress holds any power over contracts are awarded.

* This isn't the first time Feinstein has been criticized on issues that may have profited her husband. However, Brian Weiss, Feinstein's communications director, maintains that Feinstein is not involved with and does not discuss her husband's business decisions with him.

* Ironically, in 2012, Feinstein voted for an amendment to a bill that would have temporarily halted post office closings, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle. The amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives.

I leave it to you to decide whether Feinstein is the victim of a circumstantial case that doesn't add up -- or guilty of a sweetheart deal as charged.

Q. We donate to various charities, but it seems after we donate, this information often comes: Donate now and a matching contribution will be donated. Who matches the donation?

-- Marvin Thomas, of Troy

A. It could be just about anyone with a good heart and a wad of cash they're willing to give away.

I'm sure you've heard of companies that are willing to match donations that their employees give to qualifying charities. For example the Monsanto Fund will match a minimum of $25 per contribution up to a maximum of $5,000 per employee per year.

Well, sometimes individuals, companies, family trust funds, etc. will tell a charity: "Hey, if you can raise a certain amount of money, we'll double (or triple, etc.) it." This helps two ways: The charity has more incentive to get on its fund-raising horse, and such an offer may be more attractive to donors.

In fact, such Internet sites as www.donationdoubler.org and matchingdonations.org were started to create a central list of charities trying to take advantage of matching grants. Just a cursory check finds match offers ranging from the Houston Texans NFL team to such local offers from Skid's Restaurant in Elon, N.C. Many remain anonymous.

Today's trivia

Since 1974, what state has executed the most people per capita?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: In a 1991 interview, Oprah Winfrey said her first name was actually "Orpah" on her birth certificate, but people began mispronouncing it with regularity, so "Oprah" eventually stuck. In the Bible, Orpah and Ruth marry the sons of Naomi in the book of Ruth. The name is often said to mean "a fawn."

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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