Rodino’s outreach to China not unusual, but details raise questions
Posted: 03/08/2013 at 12:00 pm
By: Tim Vandenack
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Terry Rodino (Photo Supplied)
Terry Rodino, an Elkhart County commissioner, shakes hands with an official from the Chinese city of Jinhua during a visit there in March 2011. The image comes from a news item on the visit on 36tv.cn, a Chinese website. According to a suit filed by a pair of Rodinoís estranged business partners, the handshake came after Rodino and his counterpart from Jinhua signed a ìfriendly-city-relations agreement and memorandum of commercial understanding. (Photo Supplied)
They create an air of credibility, help open doors to higher-level Chinese officials for Indiana delegations seeking such ties, says Larry Ingraham, a senior fellow at Indianapolis’ Sagamore Institute.
Beyond that, Ingraham is uncertain on the propriety of elected Indiana officials benefiting personally from relationships with the nation, suddenly a topic of debate in Elkhart County.
“It’d have to be a case-by-case scenario,” he said. “It depends on the situation, and each case is different.”
Back in 2010, Elkhart County Commissioner Terry Rodino traveled to Jinhua in the industrial province of Zhejiang, at least in part to establish a friendly sister-city relationship with the city. He followed up with visits in 2011 and 2012, while reps from Jinhua came to Elkhart County in 2011 and 2012.
Rodino’s visits, meant in part to foment economic ties between Elkhart County and China, generated limited public fanfare at the time. But a lawsuit filed against him just last month in U.S. District Court is now calling into question the propriety of his efforts there, specifically a purported $1.63 million deal he helped engineer with a Chinese company that netted him around $100,000, maybe more.
The suit charges that Rodino used his position as county commissioner in helping secure the sale of five recreational vehicles from an Elkhart County manufacturer to a Chinese-owned firm. It was filed in South Bend by estranged business partners Tim Dugle and Amit Shah, one more legal sally in their ongoing dispute with Rodino over management of a pallet-making company and other firms they jointly own.
Funds Rodino earned as part of the China deal stemmed at least in part from investment money diverted from the firms Rodino, Dugle and Shah jointly own, the suit charges. Thus, Dugle and Shah reason, they were cheated out of income. The China-RV deal is just one of several instances of alleged mismanagement they describe in their suit.
Rodino has yet to formally answer the suit — he’s rejected related charges in earlier suits — and his lawyers have not responded to queries seeking comment.
IMPORT OF ELECTED LEADERS
While offering no opinion on the Rodino case, Ingraham expressed enthusiastic support for moves to create ties between Indiana and China. The Sagamore Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank, has heavily promoted establishment of such connections. It’s been particularly active in fostering a relationship with Zhejiang province.
“I think it’s a very positive thing. There’s a lot to be gained from it,” Ingraham said.
Ties usually focus, initially, on cultural or educational matters. But they can expand to commercial and economic matters, generally the end goal, and create new markets for Indiana goods, new investment opportunities.
Zhejiang, a heavy manufacturing area in eastern China, is home to Jinhua, Elkhart County’s sibling community there. Of the 20 or so Indiana communities with sister cities in China, about half of the relationships are with Zhejiang locales, Ingraham estimates.
Indiana has a sister-state relationship with Zhejiang that dates to 1987.
Ingraham was also emphatic on the importance of elected Indiana leaders’ roles in establishing relationships, specifically mayors.
“Mayors are highly regarded in China,” said Ingraham. “It’s a powerful thing to have (a city’s) mayor represent it on a business trip to China.”
In a September 2012 interview published on the Sagamore website, Dennis Kelley, president of Indianapolis-based Pacific World Trade, expands on that. Kelley’s firm has manufacturing operations in China and also offers consulting to states and cities looking to promote trade with China.
“In China, that government-to-government bridge is extremely important to doing business. Without the mayor or the leaders of the city active in the development of the relationship, it wouldn’t go anywhere,” Kelley said. “The sister government in China, for instance, isn’t likely going to respond to an email directly from a company asking for help.”
Kelley seems to see the role of elected leaders as breaking the ice, creating an entry point for companies to drum up business deals. He didn’t specifically speak to the possibility of an elected leader acting as businessman as well, securing a deal for personal gain, as Rodino apparently did.
A business leader with a government delegation in China “has credibility,” Kelley, who was traveling in China and not immediately available for additional comment, said in his Sagamore interview. “Then he can come back to his city in Indiana and begin communicating directly with the commerce officials he knows in China.”
Though in his third term as county commissioner, Rodino, too, is a private businessman, running a pallet-making company. The county commissioner’s seat is considered a part-time position.
THREE ACCORDS WITH CHINA
Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder remains steadfast that Rodino was always upfront about his efforts in China. Yoder saw Rodino’s trips as two-pronged — as county commissioner he was promoting Elkhart County, while as an entrepreneur, he was mindful of business opportunities.
“We were very much aware he was over there,” said Yoder.
Indeed, Rodino has spoken publicly about his China trips, though not the RV deal, and commissioners backed the notion of building some sort of relationship with the nation to help the economy here. There was never a formal resolution making Rodino an ambassador for Elkhart County to China, Yoder said, “but Terry reported to us all the activities.”
Rodino made at least three trips to China, in July 2010, March 2011 and August 2012, and he inked three accords with Chinese officials while there. Elkhart County Administrator Tom Byers provided copies of the documents.
The accords seem fairly broad and general, with the sides pledging, variously, to maintain communication in economic and other matters and promote two-way trade. At times, the English seems garbled, and they hardly seem to be airtight legal documents.
Jinhua and Elkhart County will work together to build a “platform for better exchange in RV manufacturing, medical devices, biomedicine and plastic green recycling,” says an accord signed March 21, 2011, by Rodino and his Jinhua counterpart. “The two governments will create a favorable economic and trade atmosphere, assist the enterprises (to) build business relations and provide policy supports and services.”
In each of the documents, Rodino is identified as signing for Elkhart County, state of Indiana, United States of America. No mention is made of Rodino’s position as county commissioner though the March 21, 2011, document, as noted above, alludes to the “two governments” working together.