Watch CBSN Live

Lamar Demands $1M Taxpayer Bailout for a Single Billboard

Lamar Advertising has gone to court seeking a $1 million taxpayer bailout for a single billboard in Pittsburgh that was only erected because Lamar gave a "gift" to the official who approved it.

The company argues that because the city changed its mind halfway through construction of a unique electronic billboard downtown, it should pick up the expenses Lamar will lose in the deal.

The story of how Lamar got into this pickle is an unusual one in advertising: it suggests that pulling strings to circumvent government regulators is sometimes not the smartest way to do business. (BNET has suggested before that much of Lamar's revenue is dependent on legal maneuvering rather than wooing paying customers.)

The story starts in 2008, when Lamar was trying to get permission to put up a 19 by 58 foot electronic billboard in downtown. Lamar gave a gift to the city's development officer and -- by amazing coincidence! -- the company got a no-bid permission to build its billboard and didn't have to go through the inconvenience of the usual public hearing.

The development officer then resigned amid a cloud of ethics violations accusations, and the city nixed Lamar's billboard. The problem is that the company had already started building the thing and says that because the parts can't be used elsewhere it will cost Lamar "in excess of $1 million." So Lamar has appealed in court, arguing that because the city initially OK'd the board it should pick up the cost for changing its mind.

You have to admire Lamar's chutzpah. This is a company that specializes in urban zoning and permission issues. BNET has noted before how expert it is at navigating local politics to get its billboards up. But in this case, Lamar is arguing that it was a naif, led astray by a city crook into spending money on a project it thought had legitimate permission.

The court could see it differently: That this is a company that has a long experience dealing with cities and had a pretty good idea that giving gifts to officials in return for fast-track status is at least a conflict of interest and at best bribery. Such bad faith should not be rewarded with public money.