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29
Aug 2008
Right under Antonio's radar, Airport officials are hiring PR firms

It's hard to believe how this could be happening after all the headlines and trials and mayoral directives but it's true -- the give away of public money to public relations firms for jobs that city workers are paid to do or don't need to be done is still going on.

Last month, it was the L.A. Harbor officials who got caught red-handed ignoring the mayor's order and agreeing to hire two PR firms for $1.6 million to tell truckers new rules were coming to cut down on pollution.

Now, with documents I obtained under the California Public Records Act, we learn that Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) has been doing the same thing dating back to 2005 when Antonio Villaraigosa came to power and kept in place Jim Hahn's directive that ended the use -- and abuse -- of PR contracts that were nothing but payoffs for "other" services rendered.

Amazingly, the contracts I obtained -- and there may well be others in a subsequent release of documents -- show they were awarded without competitive bidding by keeping the deals just below the legal limit that would have required making them public at the time.

When things are done to keep the public from knowing what's going on, I like to use the word secrecy. It makes it sort of sinister and it's accurate.

Now I don't know whether these deals were a secret from the mayor or his staff but if I supported a ban on something that was useless and tainted by scandal in the past I'd be mad as hell to find out my orders were being disobeyed by people who work at my pleasure.

Of course, if I did know about it or didn't really care, I might do as the mayor did with the Harbor contracts when they became exposed to the light of public knowledge -- I'd cut the initial payoff back to say $350,000 and look for opportunities to extend or expand it.

And under those circumstances, I certainly wouldn't hold anyone responsible for defying my orders.

Maybe when the mayor gets back from Denver or campaigning in New Hampshire or raising money somewhere, he'll have a different view of these LAWA contracts.The first contract signed on Dec. 15, 2005, provided for hiring the PR firm Saeshe Inc. 1055 W. 7th St., for $99,000 -- $1,000 below the bidding limit -- for 12 months of work on a passenger communication program targeted to international travelers who speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Spanish and Armenian.

It involved figuring out a way to let these passengers know how to get a taxi or shuttle and things like connecting to hotels in ethnic areas such as Courtyard by Marriott in Baldwin Park to provide "in-bound travelers from various countries who are not familiar with LAX...with in-language travel tips."

The second contract went to the well-connected Rogers Group, which was up for $750,000 of the harbor deal until publicity embarrassed the mayor to the point he snuffed the deal -- sort of.

The LAWA contract worth $98,760 to Rogers -- $1,240 under the limit -- was to "make travelers aware of what to expect and what they can do to minimize inconvenience" due to construction projects at Tom Bradley International and other terminals, according to the May 26, 2006 proposal.

Hard work as that might be, fees were limited to $385 an hour for Rogers' top executive down to $75 an hour for support staff.

With that contract running out last year, LAWA began the process of extending it. But it took a while perhaps because of leadership changes so it wasn't until Jan. 14 of this year that Roberta Silverman, the executive vice president of Rogers, sent a memo seeking to increase the contract to $150,000 -- which surely was a coincidence since that was the new limit for avoiding public scrutiny.

"Due to the fact that printed materials for our communication program -- specifically in-terminal signage -- must now be produced by an outside vendor, we are seeking to increase the not-to-exceed total from $99,000 to $150,000," Silverman wrote. "Previously, Sign Shop was able to produce the signage, but is no longer able to do this work."

The next day the proposal was amended but it still took until June 4 to sign the deal. And a month later the Harbor tried to expand the city's subsidy of the public relations industry that has proven so helpful for so long to politicians in need of funds for their campaigns and other activities.

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