State Hires PR Firm for $195,000, Then Cancels Due to Conflict of Interest

The California Office of the Surgeon General in April signed a $195,000 contract with a public relations firm to provide services during the COVID-19 pandemic, then canceled the $250-an-hour deal due to a conflict of interest.

The California Office of the Surgeon General was created last year by Governor Gavin Newsom. The governor appointed Nadine Burke Harris, a San Francisco Democrat who is a nationally recognized expert on the effects of childhood trauma, to lead the office. The office has a taxpayer-funded communications director.

Documents posted to a state website indicated the California Health and Human Services Agency signed the deal with Matchstick Communications on April 15 to provide Burke Harris with research, “content strategy” and “content development," including speeches and ghost-written commentaries.

“Jennifer Pitts, founder of the San Francisco-based communications firm, was to perform the work and has written a keynote speech for Oprah Winfrey and ‘constructed messaging’ for Bill Gates and Mike Bloomberg, according to her resume attached to the contract,” Politico reported. “Matchstick Communications specializes in messaging, speech writing, storytelling and creative direction.”

Burke Harris previously served as chief executive officer for the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. Tipping Point Community, a Bay Area nonprofit where Pitts served as a managing director, raised more than $4 million for the center in 2010, according to its website.

“Burke Harris thanks a Jennifer Pitts for ‘wise mentorship’ in the acknowledgments of her 2019 book, ‘The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity,’” Politico reported.

The office’s communications director told Politico that “the contract has been voided by the office, with no billing or costs to the state.” The employee later said the office had “identified a conflict of interest,” but did not describe the conflict or specify when the contract was canceled.

The state plans to secure a similar contract “with a revised scope of work and a different vendor,” the spokesperson said. The initial contract, which was to run through the end of the year, indicated that Pitts would “provide expert consulting services to assist the OSG in the responding to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.” The work would include “content strategy and production services, including specialized research, writing, editing and, consultation."

Newsom’s May budget proposes spending $10 million from the general fund for the OSG to “engage leading experts and consultants to develop a series of trauma-informed training materials and execute a public awareness campaign.” (Sources: Politico, May 19; Governor Gavin Newsom’s revised state budget proposal, May 14.)

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