OLYMPIA, July 3.–In a case that might make you think about the dangers of glass houses and stones, the state is dropping a plan to award a no-bid contract to a high-profile public relations firm that is helping promote the campaign of Democrat Jay Inslee.
It’s not that anyone is saying anything improper occurred when the state decided to skip the bidding process and hand a $400,000 contract to GMMB, Inc., to help promote health care reform. The firm has coordinated several public relations campaigns for the state in the past, and it has been working with many of the same issues under another contract with the new state health benefits exchange. But it is the potential appearance of impropriety that has tongues clucking. The firm and its partners have been active in promoting Democratic political campaigns nationally and in this state over the last several years, and at the present time it is doing the ad-buying for a multi-million-dollar independent campaign for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee. The state Republican Party even put out a press release denouncing the Gregoire Administration for “cronyism.”
State officials have decided it’s one headache they don’t need. OFM spokesman Ralph Thomas said, “We decided to take another look and see if there is a different way that we can go about this. And it is important work. We wanted to make sure that it is beyond reproach.”
So it’s back to the drawing board. The state now plans to seek bids from pre-qualified vendors on its master contract list, and according to the Department of Enterprise Services, GMMB isn’t among them.
What does this have to do with glass houses and stones? It’s not the first time something like this has happened. Back in 2004, the Secretary of State’s office awarded a million-dollar public relations contract to a company that also had worked on campaign advertising for Republican officeholder Sam Reed. Among those who complained the loudest about cronyism was GMMB partner Frank Greer, whose company had been beaten out during an open bidding process. “I would think at least it would appear inappropriate,” he told the Seattle Times at the time. “It has the appearance of impropriety.”
Just goes to show that what goes around comes around.
A No-Bid Contract
This case is actually a little stickier than the one Greer complained about in 2004. There was no chance for others to bid on the contract. State policy allows it to award contracts without bidding when it can make the case that only one vendor can perform the service – when special expertise is required, when deadlines are tight, when copyright restrictions are an issue, or when there just aren’t any other providers within a defined geographic area. But whenever the state announces a no-bid contract, you can bet people are going to ask questions.
On June 21, a week before the Supreme Court upheld the federal Affordable Care Act, the Office of Financial Management announced plans to award GMMB a contract for a “comprehensive communications plan.” According to the legal notice, the firm would develop and implement strategies and tactics to “enhance Washington’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act (national health reform) and other health reform initiatives as identified by the governor’s policy office.”
And the contract was to have closed quickly. It was to have been awarded July 6.
That was enough to catch the attention of Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center, a right-leaning think tank, who pumped out the news in one of his Internet broadsides the following day. There just seemed something a little strange, he said, about a fat state contract being awarded to promote a program whose survival was then in doubt. “The state should use as much performance-based competitive contracting as possible,” he said. “Sole source contracts that are not subject to an open competition, however, should be subject to scrutiny and avoid even the slightest appearance of favoritism with public funds.”
Why No Bids?
To explain why it was dispensing with the open bidding process, the Office of Financial Management explained that GMMB was providing technical assistance to multiple states as they implemented the Affordable Care Act. “As such, they have recent experience with other key national consultants who are providing policy analysis for Washington’s low-income coverage populations,” the legal notice said.
Since the beginning of the year, GMMB has been advising the state Health Benefits Exchange under a $695,000 contract. That is the state agency that will coordinate sales of insurance policies when national health care reform launches in 2014. GMMB has been conducting focus groups, testing “messages,” and providing advice regarding a logo, a name, a tagline, a slogan and other “branding” activities.
That special expertise gave it “critical knowledge and unique connections to key components and key players who are working to implement national health reform,” OFM stated. The $400,000 would be paid for by a mix of federal funds and a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
A Well-Connected Firm
Mention the name GMMB in political circles, though, and it’s bound to trigger a few other associations. Back in Washington, D.C., it is known as one of the best-connected public affairs firms around. Partner Frank Greer was media director for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign; other principals were active in the Kerry and Obama campaigns, and the firm advised the Obama Administration in its efforts to pass federal health care reform legislation. At the national level, conservative critics have complained that the firm has used its connections to become one of the preeminent public affairs firms involved with the Affordable Care Act – though one might also argue that it is a matter both of special knowledge and good business.
In this state, where the firm has an office in the South Lake Union district of Seattle, Greer has been a frequently quoted media adviser to Gov. Christine Gregoire’s campaigns. He has been a staunch supporter of Inslee in his previous congressional campaigns. And this year his GMMB is doing the ad buying for Our Washington, the independent campaign for Inslee that is financed by the Washington Education Association, the Democratic Governor’s Association, the Service Employees International Union and the Washington Federation of State Employees. A May 31 report on file at the state Public Disclosure Commission shows that the firm has reserved $3,220,152 in airtime for the campaign.
The firm also has been a rather successful competitor for state contracts since Gregoire came to office. Since 2005, GMMB has won contracts worth $12 million. But it should be noted that most were obtained through open competitive bidding, and at least a portion of that money has been spent buying ad time for media campaigns. The firm has worked with the Department of Health on smoking-cessation programs and the wash-your-hands campaign during the bird-flu outbreak of 2009, and it has advised the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. And despite that unpleasantness back in 2004, it won a sole-source contract from the Secretary of State’s office for strategic planning for the state’s public libraries.
“This is cronyism at its best,” said Washington State Republican Chairman Kirby Wilbur. “I have to hand it to the Democrats; they go out of their way to keep it all in the family.”
Washington State Wire was unable to reach Greer for comment.