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What $150 an hour will buy you

There are two issues with the Erie County Industrial Development Agency's use of public relations consultants, as I report in Wednesday's paper.

First is their cost -- $150 an hour for the firm now on board, $190 for the previous crew.

Those are prices usually associated with high falutin' attorneys. Go much higher and we're talking services that got Eliot Spitzer run out of office. 

The other issue is what they do  their money, which, as my story in today's Buffalo News demonstrates, sometimes involves enough spin and obfuscation to make all but the most-hardened of PR hacks blush.

Long story short, the ECIDA got called out last August for failing to vet the now-infamous loan application by Leonard Stokes to keep his failing One Sunset afloat. The IDA did little more than run a personal credit check and failed to check the public record, which would have set off all sorts of warning flares, Liens, lawsuits, failure to turn over sales tax receipts to the state. Stuff like that.

Rather than simply admitting they screwed up and promising to do better in the future, the IDA, working with Travers Collins & Co., issued a press release that claimed the loan application had been the subject of a "stringent review," that the handling of One Sunset "adhered to loan review guidelines," and that "due diligence is a way of life for us."

IDA Press Release on One Sunset

Having done the original investigation of the One Sunset deal with Pat Lakamp, I knew the press release simply wasn't true.

Which all begs the question: Why is the ECIDA spending money that's supposed to go towards promoting economic development on public relations consultants?

Especially when it involves spin rather than facts.

At $150 an hour, to boot.

Here's what the damage looked like for "due diligence is a way of life" and other efforts at damage control for the month of August.

Travers Collins bill for August 2009

I'll grant the IDA this much. With a staff of 16 -- down considerably from a few years back and less than half of its do-nothing counterpart at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. -- it doesn't seem like the agency has people sitting around with time on their hands.

On the other hand, the ECIDA is far from the only economic development agency working with a leaner staff, and others somehow find a way of surviving without top-dollar PR help. Some make due with what I know is a foreign concept to people in government here -- collaboration with others in government.

Down the road in Rochester, for example, the public information officer for Monroe County helps out the IDA in issuing press releases and fielding calls from reporters. It would be like Grant Loomis, who functions as a spokesman for County Executive Chis Collins, pitching in.

The thing of it is, when left to their own devices, the folks I deal with at the IDA are generally upfront. Decent people, actually, who get a lot more done with way fewer people than their counterparts at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., who snookered them into lending One Sunset the money.  When I find them fibbing or stonewalling, they're usually in the company of their lawyers or PR handlers.

In the case of the "due diligence is a way of life for us" press release, the IDA and Travers Collins outsmarted themselves.

Mayor Byron Brown had tweaked them in the morning paper one day last August about their role in One Sunset, and by the end of that day they had issued the press release in the mistaken belief that The News was planning, in the words of IDA Executive Director Al Culliton "a very negative, one-sided" story on his agency's role in One Sunset.

The trouble is, as I explained to Culliton on the phone last week, that no such story was in the works. Pat and I had spoken our piece on the IDA's role months earlier in our original investigation. We had no plans for a follow-up story.

I remember reading the "due diligence" press release when it was issued and showing it to Pat.

Our jaws dropped.

Then we had a good laugh.

Then our blood pressures rose.

We decided there was a lot more detail that we didn't report back in May that we should put on the record in the face of the IDA's disinformation.

Here's what we wrote.

And here's what I blogged.

That experience, and the subsequent refusal of the IDA to honor a Freedom of Information request seeking the repayment status of active loans made by its Regional Development Corp., got me wondering just how much money the agency is spending to get all this bad advice.

I filed another FOI request to obtain the IDA's contracts with Travers Collins and Harris Beach and found out the answer is $150 an hour for the flak and $125 to $175 an hour for the lawyers.

Actually, the rates for attorneys in Harris Beach aren't out of line. Even if their lawyers don't understand the FOI Law -- or are simply intent on ignoring it

As for Travers Collins, I look at the $150 an hour and think to myself that telling the truth doesn't cost a thing.


Want to nose around for yourself? Here you go ...

Travers Collins contract with ECIDA

Travers Collins bills submitted to ECIDA

Eric Mower contract with IDA

City comptroller audit of One Sunset deal


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Economic Development | One Sunset
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