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Extension ‘likely’ on no-bid $250K contract for COVID communications with politically connected PR firm

Right up to the last moment, the Lamont administration has been conspicuously quiet about whether it will extend the controversial $250,000, no-bid contract it entered Dec. 1 with the public relations firm of ex-TV news reporter Duby McDowell to handle COVID-related communications for the Department of Health (DPH). 

But finally on Thursday, just days three days before Sunday’s expiration of the $83,000-a-month agreement, DPH’s acting communications director, David Dearborn, confirmed that arrangements are underway toward extending the contract with McDowell Communications Group.

Still, he said, he didn’t know how much longer it would continue, or for how much more money.

“It’s likely that we will need to do some type of extension of the McDowell contract for a time-limited period,” Dearborn said. “With the end date of the current agreement coming Feb. 28, this is presumably being worked on.”

“DPH is in the midst of a hiring process for a new director of communications,” Dearborn said, and “until that process is complete,” there’s a need to “ensure a smooth transition, and to handle the continued heightened demand of media requests, communications planning, and other efforts when it comes to the vaccine rollout.”

The hiring process would fill the vacancy of the DPH’s recently departed communications director, Av Harris. Harris was relieved of much of his role as frontline departmental spokesman in December when McDowell’s firm was hired to handle COVID-related communications.

At first, Lamont’s office said Harris would still handle non-COVID communications for DPH — but on Dec. 31, Deidre Gifford, the department’s acting commissioner, told him in a letter that “your appointment to the unclassified service ... is being concluded” and he would be on a paid leave until his termination Jan. 14.

Harris retained a lawyer, Irene Bassock, who said on Jan. 15 that his “abrupt termination is illegal retaliation for speaking up about potentially unlawful activity.” She said he’s “keeping his options open.”

Since then subject of the McDowell contract has quieted down. But no such stillness has settled over Harris.

He was heard on WTIC 1080 AM news-talk radio Thursday afternoon saying Lamont and his people are “an administration that .... concentrates on ‘What kind of headlines can I get? What’s the spin? What’s the story?’ That tends to drive policy.”

Afternoon host Todd Feinburg had prerecorded an interview with Harris, and he played excerpts during his show. Both Feinberg and Harris blasted Lamont’s newly announced decision to base the next round of COVID-19 vaccinations on age, a switch from the existing plan under which essential workers and people with preexisting medical conditions were next in line.

“Now we have an administration driven by somebody who’s basically obsessed with headlines and obsessed with press coverage and just wants to look good in the media, and that tends to drive policy. And that’s why he does so many switcheroos,” Harris said. “And now we’ve seen this happen in front of our very eyes with the vaccine distribution policy.”

(Lamont has defended the new approach as a faster and less confusing way to distribute vaccines, arguing a system taking into account people’s occupations or underlying health conditions would lead to delays and exacerbate equity issues.)

‘What would Cuomo do?’

Harris said Lamont pays lots of attention to New York Gov. Andrew Gov. and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. “We had an inside joke in the Lamont administration, which was WWCD — ‘What would Cuomo do?’ Anything Cuomo would do, then Lamont wanted to do,” Harris said.

Even before the current public discord with Harris, there was controversy over the contract.

First, political criticism arose over Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont making the contract exempt from competitive bidding under his continuing COVID-emergency powers.

State GOP House leader Vincent Candelora said the contract with McDowell — a former TV reporter with Democratic political ties who has supported Lamont — “smells more of politics than of policy.” It’s fine to use Lamont’s emergency powers to waive bidding when buying life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers, Candelora said, but not when awarding “a firm that is sort of a Democrat operative with a no-bid contract.”

Gifford defended the McDowell contract by saying her agency’s “communications and press relations demands” have increased so drastically during the pandemic that DPH “had to increase its responsiveness to members of the press, as well as and internal and external efforts to communicate with the public.”

“I reviewed the state’s approved vendor list for media, marketing and public relations contracts and found McDowell Communications, who employ a CDC Crisis Communication trained communications expert in Maura Fitzgerald who recently served [from 2016 to 2019] as the Director of Communications for the Department of Public Health. In addition, the firm as a whole is also able to provide guidance and strategy as it relates to spreading actionable messages to encourage our residents to receive the vaccine,” she said.

Next came a journalistic conflict-of-interest issue, which ended with McDowell and Kevin Rennie losing their co-hosts’ roles on WFSB-TV, Channel 3's Sunday morning Face the State news interview program.

Questions were raised about how McDowell could hold such a significant state contract with the Lamont administration and, at the same time, host a news program examining that same administration. WFSB decided that because of McDowell’s issue, both she and Rennie, an attorney who is also is a Courant columnist, could no longer be hosts. They’d been hired as a team in October to replace the recently departed Dennis House, and their final broadcast was Jan. 10. McDowell called it a mutual decision with WFSB; Rennie said they’d been fired.

Fitzgerald, the lead person for McDowell on the DPH contract, long has been an active Democrat. Now senior vice president at McDowell Communications, she headed the press operation for Richard Blumenthal’s successful 2010 Democratic campaign for U.S. Senate and then was his deputy district director for five years. Then she headed the health department’s communications operation for three years while Democrat Dannel P. Malloy was governor. Fitzgerald is the niece of Democratic U.S. Rep. John Larson.

Also listed as working on the contract for the McDowell firm is Dean Pagani, the former radio newsman and veteran Republican political staffer in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. He was press secretary for former Gov. John Rowland.

McDowell has hired a few subcontractors on the job. One is Carter Johnson, head of Ethical Influence LLC, who since Dec. 21 has been paid at the rate of $10,000 a month for “grassroots/community outreach,” according to a report by McDowell to DPH. Ethical Influence says on its website that it “designs strategic communications and advocacy campaigns for clients in heavily regulated industries and provides ‘surround sound’ communications to support lobbying efforts.”

McDowell said Thursday: “We hired a tremendous team and they are working alongside our staff on all aspects of communicating the vaccine rollout — community outreach, social media, website mechanics and design, graphic design, video production, and public information officer duties. We hope to keep the team in place and continue working for the state in its efforts to vaccinate all its residents, but that will be up to the Department of Public Health.” 


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