PR firm no longer representing Michigan on Flint water disaster

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A controversial public relations contract between the global firm Mercury and the state of Michigan has ended, The Hill has learned.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) came under fire for hiring the high-powered firm to help deal with the fallout from the water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich.

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Statements from January, when the representation was first announced, cited the “extreme interest” of the media and “severity of this issue” as the reasons for bringing on additional help from the private sector.

The contract was drafted to last one month, a source familiar with the relationship told The Hill. Following a consultation with the governor’s office, the firm and the embattled Snyder decided to part ways as planned. 

A spokesman for Snyder confirmed the termination of the contract but declined to give information about how much it was worth.

“Mercury's agreement with Moving Michigan Forward was to provide short-term crisis communications support following the emergency declaration in Flint,” Ari Adler said in an email. “That agreement was completed.”

Moving Michigan Forward, a nonprofit “social welfare” fund run by Snyder, paid for Mercury’s services. 

The fund is also footing the bill for ongoing public relations and strategy work from Bill Nowling, a senior partner in the Detroit office of the New York-based firm Finn Partners. He is providing “support with Flint-related communications on an as-needed basis,” Adler said.

Nowling, who once served as the spokesman for Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr, was also brought in at the beginning of this year.

“Finn Partners is focused on helping the state continue to respond to the families and people of Flint who have been impacted by this crisis,” Nowling, a senior partner at the firm, told The Hill in an email.

The costs of the contracts are unknown, though a ballpark figure could be available soon.

Moving Michigan Forward goes beyond the required disclosures for nonprofits and updates its expenditures, in general categories, and donors each quarter.

When the contracts were announced earlier this year, they attracted negative attention from media outlets, watchdog groups and lawmakers.

Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan who represents Flint, released a statement in January disapproving of the decision to bring the firms on board.

“Flint residents deserve action, not more talk from Gov. Snyder. This is not a public relations problem — this is a public health crisis,” he said. “The indifference shown by this administration throughout this water crisis is beyond frustrating.”

Bettina Inclán, the wife of Snyder's chief of staff, is a senior vice president in Mercury's Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., office and splits her time between Florida and Michigan. The firm does not have offices in Michigan.

By choosing Mercury for its services, Snyder "gives new meaning to keeping it all in the family," said Melanie McElroy, executive director of Common Cause in Michigan.

The Snyder administration has been criticized for not responding earlier to complaints about Flint’s water supply, which tests have shown to contain toxic levels of lead and other heavy metals. 

In 2014, the city of Flint switched its water supply source from the treated Detroit system to the Flint River as a cost-cutting measure. A number of issues — including not suppressing the corrosion of lead pipes — resulted in the dangerous contamination.

On Wednesday, a task force appointed by the governor released a searing report that called some of the state’s public relations efforts as the crisis unfolded “inappropriate,” though it doesn’t specifically mention the work of outside PR firms.

“As the Flint water crisis unfolded, certain state agencies’ perceived need to defend the original decision to switch to the Flint River and resist a return to [Detroit Water and Sewerage Department] resulted in public relations and communications efforts that have, at times, been inappropriate,” the report said, citing examples where officials attempted to discredit data from outside experts about water contamination.

“To some extent, inappropriate official public relations continue to this day,” the task force said. “Even as the state is aggressively engaged in mitigation efforts in Flint, the statement that the Flint water crisis was a local, state and federal failure implies that blame is attributable equally to all three levels of government. “

The report continued: “The state is fundamentally accountable for what happened in Flint.”

Since the crisis began, Moving Michigan Forward has started taking donations to be directed toward relief for Flint residents. Called MMF for Flint, the website promises that every dollar raised for the effort “will be spent on resources for Flint.”

“MMF has launched constituent outreach efforts aimed at increasing awareness of resources available to Flint residents, including updating them on where to find water resource sites, bottled water, water filters for individual homes and businesses, replacement filter cartridges, water testing kits and more,” it says.

Last week, Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyDecades of EPA deception and Senatorial corruption Overnight Energy: Volkswagen reaches .7B settlement over emissions Volkswagen reaches .7B settlement for emissions cheating MORE testified before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee on the Flint crisis, with many Republicans placing the blame on the federal environmental agency. 

“You had the opportunity, you had the presence, you had the authority, you had the backing of the federal government, and you did not act when you had the chance,” Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzOvernight Energy: Obama signs chemical safety reform into law House caucus to focus on business in Latin America Freedom Caucus urges vote on impeaching IRS commissioner MORE (R-Utah), the panel’s chairman, told McCarthy. “And if you’re going to do the courageous thing then you, too, should resign.”

Snyder told Congress that he sprung into action “as soon as [he] learned there was a lead issue,” including issuing water filters to the people of Flint.

When asked if he was reading news articles about health problems in the city, potentially due to water, Snyder said he would check with officials, who continually told him the water was safe.

“This is a sad event; this is tragedy that never should have happened,” Snyder said in another part of the hearing. “In terms of looking at this, I kick myself every day asking what more questions I could have asked, what more could have been done.” 

“I’m making a commitment to solve this problem because the people of Flint deserve better,” he said.

Democrats, while criticizing the EPA’s response, called for Snyder’s resignation.

“I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies,” Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) told Snyder.

“People who put dollars over the fundamental safety of people do not belong in government, and you need to resign, too, Mr. Governor,” Cartwright said later.