State Politics

With one big contract, veteran political pitchman leads list of Idaho’s public relations consultants

The top-earning outside public relations consultant contracted by the state of Idaho is a veteran political pitchman and well-connected Republican who holds a $4,000-a-month contract working about 10 hours a week with the state treasurer’s office. His total billings in the last five years exceed $250,000.

Mike Tracy, the onetime communications head for former Sen. Larry Craig, has held PR contracts with the state since 2007, working for the Department of Lands from 2007-2011 and for the state treasurer since 2012, when he was hired by Treasurer Ron Crane, initially to help manage a crisis for the office.

The Idaho Statesman looked at contracts and billings since 2010 by outside firms hired by state agencies for public relations or for promotions and publicity work. The public relations work typically was of more limited scope, involving media relations and some promotions and advertising. Work in the promotions/publicity category involved larger and more varied assignments and was therefore more lucrative. All work except Tracy’s and an interagency contract through the state Department of Environmental Quality was awarded after a competitive bidding process.

In that promotions/publicity category, Boise-based advertising and marketing agency DrakeCooper far outpaced other firms in billings since 2010. It has billed the state $6.5 million for its work, including pass-along deals for advertising, merchandise and other marketing materials. Most of the agency’s billings, nearly $5 million, were with the Department of Commerce for work in 2010-11 and from 2014 to the present. The agency has worked on promotion with the state lottery since July 2014, billing $567,000, and with the Department of Agriculture from 2010-11 and from 2014 to the present, billing $464,000.

Among public relations consultants, five firms, including Tracy’s, have accounted for more than three-quarters of the $1.2 million spent in that category since 2010, according to state records. Tracy, at nearly $255,000 since 2010, has billed the most — $141,000 under contract to the state treasurer since April 2012 and the remaining $114,000 with the Department of Lands in 2010-12 and for one project in 2013.

In a joint interview, Crane said Tracy’s work was both valuable and cost-effective, while Tracy said he felt unfairly singled out for his political connections, and mentioned that he has bid unsuccessfully on numerous other state PR or promotions contracts for nine years.

“Why do I always get targeted? I know exactly why I’m targeted,” Tracy said. “It’s no mystery to me and I don’t have any problem with it. I think not only do I deliver fair work for a fair price, I think I deliver more experience to Ron and to my clients than any other PR professional in the state of Idaho, period. I’ll put my experience against anybody.”

Not subject to bidding or time limit

What distinguishes Tracy’s contract from the others reviewed by the Statesman is that his is not subject to competitive bidding requirements and can be extended indefinitely. State contracting laws exempt elected officials from both competitive bidding requirements and rules on contract extensions.

The state Division of Purchasing does delegate to some departments and agencies limited authority over contract time frames and amounts. In most cases, however, contracts lasting longer than one year or greater than $100,000 must go to bid.

Tracy’s scope of work includes typical PR activities. In his initial work proposal, he defined his scope as writing and distributing press releases and guest opinions; handling social media; counseling the treasurer on working with the media and speaking publicly; setting up media interviews; media monitoring and clipping; and other consulting as needed.

Work done by the other PR consultants was more specialized than typical public relations, involving more technical expertise, or was more specific to projects. The firm Parametrix, for example, was paid $200,000 in 2014 by the Department of Lands for environmental consulting work. The Langdon Group, a firm that specializes in stakeholder relations and public outreach, received $192,000 from the Idaho Transportation Department to develop an online outreach tool to guide project planning.

Red Sky Public Relations has held a competitively bid contract, renewed annually, with the Idaho State Historical Society since 2010. It has billed $123,000 for typical public relations work in the period, submitting itemized monthly invoices and billing an average of $1,600 a month. Red Sky also earned $20,000 for work in 2011 for the Idaho Commission for Libraries.

And the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, or COMPASS, a nonprofit intergovernmental organization, was paid $66,000 by the Department of Environmental Quality in the last year for developing an ongoing media campaign that promotes citizen efforts to improve air quality in the Treasure Valley. DEQ is a member of COMPASS, along with city and county governments.

What other state officeholders do

Of the seven statewide elected officials, the governor, attorney general and superintendent of public instruction have full-time communications staff. The lieutenant governor’s chief of staff handles PR duties. The state controller and secretary of state have no dedicated communications person.

“We don’t have the budget for it and we’ve determined that we’re getting it done without one,” said Secretary of State Lawerence Denney. “It’s a conscious decision not to have one.”

Deputy State Controller Dan Goicoechea said his office eliminated a dedicated spokesperson years ago. Most public inquiries are handled directly and informally by staff, he said.

The Statesman reviewed salaries for 57 state employees whose job titles or functions include serving as a department public information officer. The range was from $88,000 for new ITD chief spokesman Vince Trimboli to $19,900 for a part-time Department of Insurance position. The average of the 57 salaries was $53,000. The cost of benefits is additional, typically amounting to 46 percent of salary, not counting vacation and personal days.

‘Somebody I could trust’

Crane said he hired Tracy in 2012 following a period of bad publicity over failing to document his use of a state gas card and his office’s use of limousines on business trips. He said he was “very, very happy with his services.”

“I was kind of shell-shocked there for awhile and realized I was way in over my head when it came to dealing with the media and I needed some help, somebody that was professional,” Crane said. “I knew Mike. I trusted Mike. I knew he was an expert in his industry. I’ve observed him working for Sen. Craig for many, many years, and also as a private businessman. And I know he was somebody I could trust and somebody who could do me a good job.”

Both Crane and Tracy said the consultant route was more cost-effective for the state because Tracy, as an outside contractor, does not receive benefits.

Tracy’s contract with the treasurer started in March 2012 at $3,000 per month for an initial period of six months. It was extended for six months in September 2012, and was extended thereafter in one-year increments. The contract was bumped up to $4,000 per month in November 2013 to include public relations and marketing for the state’s Unclaimed Property division, which falls under the treasurer.

Most of Tracy’s monthly invoices — 30 out of 37 for the period July 2012 through July 2015 — list only his monthly contract fee with no breakdown of work performed. Tracy said it was his custom to submit invoices that way when working under contract. He said he works five to 10 hours per week on treasurer’s office matters. He began to add more detail on his invoices this year.

Tracy said his level of work experience put him “more in line with a senior staff person.” At other firms, he said, “Nine times out of 10 you get an underling. You don’t get the principal with the serious experience. I bring 40 years of experience to the table for Ron, and to the constitutional office of the treasurer, and for the state of Idaho. No other PR firm does that. I guarantee you if a staff person is doing it, that’s probably somebody between the age of 25 and 30.”

He continued: “I constantly get pinged because I’m a Republican and I do work for Republicans. ... There’s never been a story written about Democratic operatives in a PR advertising firm in Idaho. I’ve been watching for 25 years.”

Tracy said that the treasurer’s contract is the only one he holds with the state.

“I’ve got nothing to hide,” Tracy said. “I’m very proud of the work I do for Ron. And it’s an honor for me to work for him and for the state of Idaho.”