Snyder fund foots bill for PR firms in Flint crisis

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s tax-exempt nonprofit fund is footing the bill for public relations specialists as his administration grapples with the Flint water contamination crisis.

A top Snyder aide said Friday that “extreme interest” from state and national media over Flint had led to the hire of Mercury Public Affairs of Washington, D.C., and Bill Nowling of Finn Partners, a New York firm with an office in Detroit. But it was not clear from where the money would come to pay them.

Moving Michigan Forward — a 501(c)4 “social welfare” fund that voluntarily posts information about donors and expenses online — is paying the outside communications firms, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray told The Detroit News, noting that no state money is involved.

Both PR firms have ties to the governor’s office. Chief of Staff Jarrod Agen’s wife has worked for Mercury, which bills itself as “a high-stakes public strategy firm.” Nowling, now a senior partner at Finn, was a spokesman for Snyder’s 2010 campaign and ran press for former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

“Gov. Snyder is committed to making sure the people of Flint get clean, safe water they need immediately as well as protecting their health and welfare now and long into the future,” Murray said. “Every resource is being brought to bear on helping Flint, and that includes the additional communication help we’ve brought in.”

Snyder created the Moving Michigan Forward fund in late 2014 as a more transparent replacement for his controversial New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify Fund, which had been paying the salary of top adviser Rich Baird and living expenses for Orr.

Such funds are not required to disclose donors. Snyder declined to name past contributors to the now-defunct NERD fund but vowed to voluntarily detail contributions to and expenses by the new fund.

Moving Michigan Forward reported donations from two sources through the first three quarters of 2015, including $270,000 from a group called Celebrating the Power of Michigan, which is also a tax-exempt nonprofit that is not required to disclose donors.

The fund reported spending about $350,000 through the first three quarters of last year, mostly on travel reimbursements for staff, contract services and general operations.

The fund’s website has been overhauled to focus on the water crisis and is now soliciting donations to help ensure “information, resources and free clean water is distributed to the people of Flint.”

Moving Michigan Forward will engage in advocacy efforts in Flint, Murray said, and will update residents on where to find water resource sites, bottled water, filters, replacement cartridges and testing kits.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon earlier Tuesday criticized Snyder for hiring the PR firms and initially failing to identify the funding source.

“No. 1, he shouldn’t be hiring PR firms to help with this crisis,” Dillon said. “It’s not about his image, it’s about the health of the city of the people of Michigan.”

Dillon also called the Mercury hire an example of “cronyism” in the administration.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat who is supporting the governor’s request for supplemental funding for his hometown, also questioned Snyder’s PR hires.