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McCaskill panel to probe federal use of publicity firms

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 6:05 PM

The General Services Administration hired a public relations firm this year to manage negative publicity over a long-standing pollution problem and its potential health fallout at a federal office complex in Kansas City, Mo.

Now Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has announced an investigation into how many other federal agencies have used taxpayer money to pay public relations companies to manage their images.

McCaskill spokeswoman Maria Speiser said the senator was "quite surprised" to learn that the GSA signed a $234,000 "emergency communications plan" with Kansas City-based Jane Mobley Associates to manage fallout from problems at the Bannister Federal Complex. Federal agencies spent a total of $1.3 billion on advertising and public relations contracts last year, McCaskill's office said.

"When used appropriately, public relations contracts may help federal agencies educate the public about health risks, emergency planning or similar topics," the senator wrote in a letter this month to GSA Administrator Martha N. Johnson and Daniel I. Gordon, chief of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. But McCaskill noted that "publicity experts" cannot engage in "publicity and propaganda" unless authorized by Congress.

McCaskill, chairwoman of a Senate panel that oversees government contracts, requested detailed explanations of the government's use of outside "publicity experts."

"I am concerned whether spending money on these services is in the best interests of the taxpayer," she wrote.

GSA spokeswoman Angela Brees said, "We found ourselves in a very unique situation" in Kansas City early this year. The "legacy contamination" at the 68-year-old Bannister building, which was used until the mid-1970s for jet-engine manufacturing and other industrial uses, was concerning the public. Brees said the agency had no regional administrator at the time and was short-staffed, so it turned to a private firm.

"We needed someone to guide the philosophy because we didn't have the necessary resources," she said.

The entire Bannister complex has shown signs of groundwater contamination, and workers have complained about health problems for years.

The GSA shares ownership of the federal complex in Kansas City with the National Nuclear Security Administration, which manufactures nonnuclear components for atomic weapons there.

This month a report by the GSA's inspector general found that the agency had been negligent about monitoring for pollution and had misled the public about potential problems. The report did not mention the Mobley firm or its contract, which ran from February to mid-May.

The government agreed recently to begin a cleanup. The inspector general noted the progress but said that until recently the agency lacked a "strong environmental management program" for the building.

According to contract documents provided by McCaskill's office, Jane Mobley Associates developed a communications plan to help the GSA explain to a lay audience the technical and scientific nature of the environmental conditions at the complex. A statement of work described "an impending crisis event for the government" arising from a media probe and investigations by multiple government agencies into potential health risks at the building.

The consultant's mission was to bring "neutral third party expertise" to help the government address the concerns, in part by "anticipating possible media coverage" and "developing messages" for the media, public officials and occupants of the building.

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