By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY— The final tally is still unclear, but Alabama taxpayers shelled out at least $97,000 for state officials and PR flacks to attend the Paris Air Show last month, and at least some of that money appears to have come from funds intended for public education and job training.
Over the last month, the Alabama Political Reporter requested information from the Department of Commerce about taxpayer costs for dozens of state officials and media advisers to travel to the famed Paris Air Show in June. We also sought information about state contracts with Big Communications, the Birmingham-based public relations firm whose executives accompanied officials to Paris.
After weeks of delay (and the insistence of Gov. Robert Bentley’s staff), Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield sat down with Alreporter.com. During the interview, Canfield shed some light on the state’s peculiar relationship with Big Communications and funding for the European travel.
Among other things, Canfield told the Alreporter.com:
* Paris Air Show travel costs state taxpayers between $88,000 and $97,000. County and local taxpayers paid thousands more to underwrite the costs of travel for dozens of others. Some state officials had their expenses paid by third-parties. For example, the customers of South East Alabama Gas District paid the way for House Speaker Mike Hubbard to go to Paris.
* Big Communications – the PR firm whose executives traveled to Paris on the state tab to send out press releases, photographs, Tweets and Facebook posts – was selected by Canfield to publicize the trip, but the company actually has no contract with the Department of Commerce. Instead, there is a no-bid contract is between Big Communications and AIDT, the workforce training agency spun-off from the two year college system last year and placed under the supervision of Commerce.
According to its website, AIDT was established in 1971 “… to provide quality workforce development for Alabama’s new and expanding businesses, and to expand the opportunities of its citizens through the jobs these businesses create.” The state legislature placed AIDT under Commerce during the 2013 legislative session – AIDT is funded from the state’s Education Trust Fund (ETF). The Department of Commerce’s funding comes from the general fund.
Questions arose concerning the Birmingham-based PR firms involvement with commerce after the group began to send out press releases and photographs to media throughout the state from the Paris Air Show. Big’s “news reports” and photographs flooded local newspapers, television and the internet.
According to Canfield, Big Communications provides public relations to the Commerce Department under a $384,000 no-bid, “professional service” contract with the education office of AIDT. Canfield, said that when his office was planning a major PR campaign for the state, he met with Ed Castille, the head of AIDT, and “talked about his advertising/marketing budget…we just piggy-backed on top of [the AIDT Marketing budget]…we felt confident it would also assist him in his efforts,” said Canfield.
“Bottom line: No, we didn’t divert any money that would have gone to training,” Canfield said. “We used money that was already in their budget [for advertising].” According to Canfield only $100,000 from the AIDT budget, will be used for the Big contract, the rest would come from the Commerce Department.
So far this year, Big has been paid $232,000 for its work. AIDT has already paid Big, $100,00 and commerce has paid $132,000. Canfield said he was not sure that the remaining funds would be spent this year.
When asked why Big Communication was given a no-bid contract (page1, page2, page3, page4, page5, page6, page7) Canfield explained, “It was a ‘Professional services contract…,.’ You don’t put out to bid legal work…professional services because the law recognizes they are unique and require expertise and proof that the services can be provided.”
Big Communications has several state contracts, including $4.5 million to promote Alabama seafood.
The Governor’s office explained that the Alabama seafood promotion contract with Big is paid for by BP oil company, under an agreement with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and doesn’t require state funds.
A call from the Alabama Political Reporter to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner N. Gunter Guy was not returned.
The contract between Big and Conservation does show that it was put out for competitive bid.
Canfield said that a PR firm like Big became necessary because, “We need[ed] to rebrand in a way that’s unique…like we’ve never done before….scrapping our web presence and refacing and coming out with a brand new face…in today’s world we need to be smarter about how we project our image.” He said that after seeing the work Big had done for Conservation and others he decided to use them to promote the state.
Canfield said that part of the provisions with Big was that they would prepare promotional materials for the Paris Air Show. There is nothing in writing to document these provisions, and apparently nothing outlining what taxpayers would pay for the company executives’ European travel.
At least two executives from Big Communications were on hand in Paris. John Montgomery, founder and president, and Robin Oliver, Vice President of Big Communication. The pair can be seen in photographs published on the internet at events surrounding the Paris junket. Montgomery is pictured with the Eiffel Tower in the background and Oliver standing with Alabama’s First Lady, Diane Bentley.
According to Canfield, Montgomery was in Paris “at his own expense” even though pictures published on the state’s website, “Made in Alabama,” were credited to Montgomery. Canfield said that ADIT was to be billed approximately $7000 for Robin Oliver’s trip to the air show.
However, Canfield fails to factor in the hundreds of thousands paid to Big, for promotional material, booth-displays, press releases, and social media postings during the event.
In a post-event summary, Big Communication said that their efforts at the Paris Air show generated, “News coverage with an ad[vertising] equivalency value of more than $75,000.” (Post Event Report: page 1, page 2)
In fact, news organizations around the state printed much of Big’s PR releases verbatim, giving readers the exact impression of the Paris trip that Big Communications’ PR campaign had crafted.
Canfield did not project what type of return on investment might come to the state as a result of the PR campaign but expressed confidence that it would repeat rewards for the taxpayers of Alabama.
The Commerce Secretary has said that he estimates the cost to Alabama taxpayers for the Paris trip will be between $88,000 and $97,000.”
This does not figure in the approximately 100 other Alabamians that joined the governor’s party at the Air Show, but as Canfield points out their trips were not paid for by the state. However, Mark Heinrich, Chancellor of Alabama’s Community Collage System, was on hand at the event in Paris.
Canfield said the genius of the state’s presence at the event was that it gave “the appearance of being huge because it includes the participation of individuals from Alabama who chose to support the event at their own cost…the one thing Alabama does well because we all have limited budgets. We leverage our relationships…so we had a huge Alabama presence…local communities, industrial development boards, various chambers of commerce chose to be there at their own expense.”
Canfield did concede that local and county taxpayer did bear some of the burden for travel to the posh air show.
He also stated emphatically that past and present legislators including former Gov. Bob Riley and current Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard did not receive any state money for their trips to Paris.
“Bob Riley was there but not in any official capacity for the State of Alabama or the Dept. of Commerce…he was there as a private citizen engaged in his own business activity.” Riley’s daughter Minda was also seen at the state’s Made in Alabama booth. Canfield said that he was unaware of her working at the booth, but said she was not on the official schedule.
Bob Riley, is a registered lobbyist for EADS, the parent company of Airbus, Minda is a part of Riley and Associates lobbying firm.
Canfield said that Hubbard was there representing the Southeastern Alabama Gas District, (SEAGD).
State employee Rachel Adams, communications director for Hubbard, said that the Speaker was in Paris representing the economic development group SEAGD. However, when Canfield was asked if he would characterized the gas cooperative as a “economic development group,” he said, “I’ll let them characterize themselves….”
He did say that they were partners in helping to bring industry to the state.
Hubbard has a consulting contract with SEAGD paying him $12,000 a month for “business development,” according to published statements by SEAGD.
AIDT was taken out of the two-year college system and placed under Canfield at Commerce. We asked how much AIDT received from the Education Trust Fund, Canfield said he did not know. Canfield said he would supply us that information. A follow-up email was sent to Ms. Miller the day after our meeting, she said she would speak with Canfield. After 5 days, Canfield’s office still has not sent us the the budget.
According to SB137, AIDT is budgeted, $51 million for FY 2014.