SACRAMENTO—The focus on public relations ethics shifted back to California last week, with critics denouncing state governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for his use of a video news release to promote new labor rules and accusing his chief fund-raiser and campaign consultant Marty Wilson of cronyism over the award of a no-bid contract.
Criticism of the video news release—which depicts business owners praising the governor’s proposal—echoes the complaints that greeted VNRs produced by the Department of Health & Social Services to promote Medicare changes.
“We all know Governor Schwarzenegger is good at making movies,” said Assemblyman Paul Koretz, who is chairman of the Assembly Labor Committee. “It appears that talent has carried over to government work.” Koretz said the VNRs were propaganda, designed to manipulate the media and television viewers.
Meanwhile, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights—a group funded by the state’s trial lawyers—was calling for Wilson’s dismissal over his role in securing a $212,000 contract for Manning Selvage & Lee, which helped promote Schwarzenegger’s visit to Japan to promote trade, which took place last November.
Wilson, who is a partner at government relations firm Wilson-Miller, also serves as head of west coast public affairs for MS&L.
In a letter to the governor, also released to the media, the Foundation said: “Marty Wilson’s most recent role as go-between for your office and MS&L is undeniable proof that his service to you is conflicted by personal financial gain. Taxpayers have no option but to assume that your decisions are being influenced by an advisor with private, not public, interests in mind.
“As Wilson has shown himself unwilling to either eliminate his conflicts of interest or step aside, your only choice is to fire him.”
MS&L, through its Japanese affiliate Dentus, was contracted to produce the main promotional event of Schwarzenegger’s Japan trip, the California Festival.
Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, denied any conflict of interest. “These are people who every day their sole existence is to be opponents of the governor,” says Stutzman. “There is no substance to their complaint.”
The state’s rules allow no-bid contracts for certain kinds of work below a certain value. The rules are designed to prevent costly and time-consuming bidding for small contract—a process that could end up costing taxpayers more money—and it is not uncommon for members of the administration to recommend firms with whom they are familiar.
In a statement, the governor’s press secretary said Schwarzenegger was “focused on getting the best and the brightest and having people who know how to do events and know how to staff him well.”
MS&L issued a statement acknowledging that it has provided logistical support for the trade mission to Tokyo, and added: “MS&L and Dentsu have collaborated on several assignments for international clients because the partnership has yielded outstanding results. The Governor’s trade mission to Japan is yet another major success, not just for MS&L and Dentsu, but for the State as well.
“Marty Wilson, MS&L’s managing director of West Coast public affairs, and partner at Wilson-Miller Communications, is a close advisor to Governor Schwarzenegger. Throughout his career he has provided strategic counsel to government and private organizations. His track record with his clients is outstanding.”
As for the video news release, Schwarzenegger’s undersecretary of labor Rick Rice said it was no different from the kind of press releases distributed by government agencies every day. “Whether a reporter takes this and digs deeper, it’s up to the reporter,” he said, saying television stations were free to report other perspectives on the proposal, which would modify rules detailing when and how employers are to provide meal and rest breaks for workers.
In fact, Bay Area stations KSTS, KTVU and KRON all ran portions of the video, and all included coverage of a protest against the proposal.