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Politico scoop on Kay Hagan leaves out a title or two

Ace Politico congressional reporters Manu Raju and John Bresnahan last night scored a fine scoop on the closely watched North Carolina Senate campaign between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and North Carolina statehouse Speaker Thom Tillis. After the senator voted in favor of the stimulus package in 2009, Politico reported, her family profited from the legislation: “JDC Manufacturing, a company co-owned by the Democratic senator’s husband, Chip, received nearly $390,000 in federal grants for energy projects and tax credits created by the 2009 stimulus law, according to public records and information provided by the company,” reported Raju and Bresnahan.

The story featured the Hagan campaign’s claim that the senator never used her position to assist the company and that she’d hired an attorney who confirmed that she’d handled the matter in compliance with ethics laws. Even so, Politico’s revelations — along with Tillis’s benefiting from a federal renewable energy tax credit program — will resound in North Carolina and Washington at least through early November. Already the story has gotten ample pickup.

That’s not to say it’s perfect, however.

At the heart of the piece is JDC Manufacturing, which is owned jointly by Chip Hagan and his brothers, John and David, according to the story. It gets more complicated from there, as Raju and Bresnahan explain:

In 2010, as the stimulus law was being implemented and money was being doled out, the company learned from one of its contractors that for-profit companies had just become eligible for federal energy efficiency grants, according to information provided by Hagan’s firm. It was a ripe opportunity for JDC Manufacturing, which is a holding company and is leasing space in its Reidsville, N.C., facility to a plastics recycling company, Plastics Revolutions Inc. Company officials said its equipment needed to be modernized.
The plastics recycling company is owned by John Hagan, while Chip Hagan serves on its board of directors. It was undergoing a two-phase improvement project to install more efficient lighting, replace furnaces and installing solar panels on the roof — at a projected cost of $438,000. The company was one of 27 in North Carolina to be awarded funds for energy efficient projects, to the tune of about $250,644.

There are yet further permutations here relating to the spiking rental rates paid by the plastics company to JDC Manufacturing. And here’s where the Politico story takes on a strong whiff of Washington. For an explanation of JDC Manufacturing’s revenue vicissitudes, the piece turns to Caitlin Legacki.

Who is Caitlin Legacki? According to the story, she’s “a former Democratic operative and now a spokeswoman for the company.”

That’s accurate enough; no need for a correction. There is, however, a pressing need for amplification. Legacki is listed as a principal at Precision Strategies, the crisis-management/branding/organization-building outfit piloted by partner Stephanie Cutter, a former top Obama campaign official and a CNN pundit. Nowhere in the piece does Politico cite the connection between Legacki’s work for the Hagan company and Precision Strategies, nor her standing as former communications aide for Kay Hagan.

Those omissions hardly poison the central contentions of the Raju-Bresnahan enterprise reporting. But they do deny readers a fuller picture of the goings-on. Anytime that beleaguered public officials call in the “principal” of a top Washington firm connected to the White House, that’s a bit of detail that’s useful to readers. They deserve to know whenever there’s a down pillow’s worth of coziness in a senator’s PR defenses.

Precision Strategies couldn’t have asked for a better arrangement. Crisis communicators, after all, prefer not to be identified as crisis communicators in articles exposing a crisis. Such identification hurts their crisis effectiveness. And if there’s any agenda that Washington journalists can ethically harbor, its an agenda to put crisis communicators out of business. Identify them as such whenever they rear their heads.