Questions raised about high speed rail PR

September 3, 2009 7:23:50 PM PDT
There were questions raised about the public relations company that was set to get a lucrative contract with the state to promote high speed rail. The questions concern just how close some execs with that firm are to the governor and whether the state needs to spend $9 billion on a p.r. campaign in the first place.

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There are ethical questions surrounding the new public relations firm the California High Rail Commission is poised to choose.

After asking bids for the $9 million contract to better publicize the project, one company stood out, winning by just one point.

"The top firm, Mercury Public Affairs, received a score of 91," said a speaker.

The problem is Mercury is led by Adam Mendelsohn, Governor Schwarzenegger's former communications director and now top private political advisor. Mercury was also the force behind the Governor's 2006 re-election. The person recommending Mercury used to work with Mendelsohn in the Governor's office.

When asked if they scored his previous colleague higher so that he can win the contract, Jeff Barker, a California high speed rail bid reviewer, said "It was not part of my calculus. My sole focus, my job with the authority is to make sure Californians are informed, that is my sole focus."

However, government watch dog groups wonder if Mercury got an unfair advantage, with two state employee who used to work together, helping each other out.

It's actually common for state workers to quite, start their own business and take advantage of previous relationships to win government contracts. Strict bidding laws are in place, but some of those former state workers do win in.

"This type of conflict is almost inevitable, in this revolving door situation that we've set up, and it makes you wonder if we should be doing all of this outsourcing or if the government couldn't just publicize this program on its own," said Derek Cressman, from California Common Cause.

Mercury says it is not a new firm and is experienced with numerous, established offices.

Another question raised was if there are there any inappropriate relationships being taken advantage of so that Mercury could win the contract? Brian Jones, from Mercury Public Affairs, said "Absolutely not. We feel like we're uniquely qualified to deliver on this project. We have many people in our firm who've worked on high speed rail in the past. They believe in this project."

Whether the relationship questions played a role or not, the High Speed Rail Commission postponed the vote to next month.

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