WASHINGTON, D.C.—Public affairs specialist Qorvis Communications found itself in the center of a controversy over recruiting “independent” experts to attack New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer. Qorvis had been providing crisis counsel to American International Group, one of several large insurance companies under fire by Spitzer for alleged collusion and bid-rigging.
But Qorvis was dismissed by AIG on Monday, and the insurance company denied any knowledge of the proposed attacks on Spitzer.
Two weeks ago, two AIG executives pleaded guilty to criminal involvement in what Mr. Spitzer described as a widespread conspiracy to cheat customers.
The campaign to criticize to Spitzer came to light after Washington-based speakers’ bureau Leading Authorities sent out e-mails to leading academics and other financial commentators suggesting they come to the defense of the insurance industry.
One of those contacted was Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean at Yale School of Management and a vocal supporter of Spitzer’s efforts to clean up various industries. Commenting for a Wall Street Journal article, Sonnenfeld expressed surprise that he had been contacted: “Does [the author of this e-mail] think that any of these people are going to attack Spitzer for hire?”
Others contacted included Kevin Hassett, an American Enterprise Institute scholar; Lynn Turner, a former SEC chief accountant; and Laura Unger, a former Securities and Exchange Commission member. Said Turner, “I believe it is Spitzer, not AIG or its management, who is on the right side of this.”
The e-mail said Leading Authorities would recommend paying a $25,000 retainer to anyone who agreed to participate, along with $10,000 for opinion articles or TV appearances. Suggested talking points, which Leading Authorities said were drafted by Qorvis, including arguing that “long-standing industry-wide practices is better left to regulators who understand the industry, rather than criminal investigators,” and claiming that innocent investors were being victimized because stocks were being hurt by Spitzer’s “theatrics.”
Qorvis said it had asked Leading Authorities for a list of names, but had not authorized the firm to send out the e-mail or to offer payment for third parties who spoke out against Spitzer. Both Qorvis and Leading Authorities told reporters that AIG had no knowledge of the proposed anti-Spitzer effort.
AIG terminated its relationship with Qorvis on Monday, the day the e-mail was sent, but a spokesman told the Journal the decision was unrelated to the e-mails.
Spitzer spokesman Darren Dopp told the Journal the approaches indicated a “campaign to mislead the media and the public. It’s one thing to convince people on the merits. It’s another thing to pay people to pose as objective commentators. It’s manipulative, dishonest and wrong.”