How Kennett Township spent over $38K in PR costs to spin $250K“ethics review”
Was anyone monitoring the team of lawyers and consultants conferring together at $1,300-$1,900/hour?
We recently drew attention to Kennett Township’s public relations (PR) consultants when the Supervisors paid a whopping $38K bill from Envisian Strategic: the bill was paid with no discussion minutes before Supervisors cut all funding for programs supporting families in need. Our investigations have revealed that Kennett has paid Envisian more than $276,000 since 2019, without ever signing a contract and without setting any limits on scope or costs. We will begin to break down these expenses in several posts, with the help of detailed billing records obtained through Right to Know requests. We focus this first post on Envisian's bills for 2022.
A total of $38,405,25 was spent on PR consulting provided by Envision in 2022. Virtually all of these PR costs centered on the $250k “independent ethics review” undertaken by BlankRome. The review followed a complaint to the State Ethics Commission about conflicts of interest involving Township Manager Eden Ratliff, who failed to notify Kennett Township Supervisors that his wife was hired to a new position with Longwood Fire Company created immediately after Longwood received significant new funding engineered by Ratliff. Since then, Longwood has requested – and been granted - back-to-back funding increases of 30%, revealing years of deficit spending overlooked by Ratliff in his analysis of Longwood’s operations in months before his wife’s hire. These back-to-back increases led Kennett Township to raise property taxes by over 20% in its 2023 budget passed just before the holidays. In the same budget, Kennett’s Supervisors eliminated its $5000 contribution to Kennett Area Community Service, the principle provider of support to local families facing food- and housing insecurity.
Envisian’s work with the Township began in May 2019 after the bank flagged suspicious actions by Township Manager Lisa Moore, setting of a chain of events that eventually led to her conviction on charges of embezzling more than $3.2M. Kennett initially paid Envisian a $15,000 retainer for “professional advisory services re township employment issue”. It is unclear how or why Envisian was chosen. Envisian’s LinkedIn page lists it as operating since 2001. Its website appears to have been put together in a flurry of activity between 2015 and 2016, mainly by reprinting opinion pieces penned by others. Envisian’s CEO Carl Francis earned his degree in Journalism and Media from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1974. Bruce Mowday, Envisian’s principal consultant in this work, is perhaps better known as the author of more than a dozen books of local history on the topics like the Wyeth, Herrs, and the Battle of Brandywine.
Envisian’s rates have significantly increased since 2019. Francis began by charging $275/hour while Mowday charged $200/hour, with a 15% discount offered for the first year. Francis’ rate increased almost 20% to $325/hour in May 2021, and Mowday’s hourly rate for the 2022 billing has now increased by almost 50% to $325. Kennett has provided no contract in response to our Right to Know requests.
Though some of the activities undertaken by Envisian in 2022 are not surprising, the total costs certainly are. For example, most of the charges were incurred in the two weeks leading up to and then the week after the release of the “independent ethics review”. But the amounts are staggering – Envisian charged almost $24,000 during this 3 week period. Close to $14,000 was spent over a 4 day weekend alone to craft a 1400 word press release accompanying the report. In fact, most of the press release simply summarized the report - only about 350 words were actually statements attributed to the Supervisors.
How did the costs become so high? One reason is that Francis and Mowday rarely worked alone, resulting in a combined hourly rate for both at $650 in 2022. Another reason is that they were assigned tasks that the supervisors or others in Kennett Township could have easily undertaken - like scanning local media for related coverage, or ensuring that the press release was sent to various media outlets.
Worse still, there are multiple references to emails or calls with BlankRome attorneys. Activities involving Francis, Mowday and 1-2 attorneys appear throughout the record, corroborated by parallel invoices from BlankRome. With BlankRome's lawyers paid $625/hour, this brought the combined hourly rate for multiple meetings to $1300-$1900/hour. Envisian’s $38,000+ bill does not include the time Kennett paid BlankRome attorneys $625/hour to consult with them.
The invoices also make it clear that Envisian's public relations spin was directed entirely by Supervisor Richard Leff, who interacted with Envisian almost weekly throughout this period. Were Supervisors Stevens or Gamble aware of the tens of thousands of dollars in costs being racked up by Leff? Multiple interactions between the PR consultants and Ratliff also reinforce the impression that Ratliff was involved in shaping the resulting “spin” - if not the report itself. This contradicts multiple claims by BlankRome lawyers and others that Ratliff was completely “walled off” from the review and the resulting report.
It is clear that Envisian’s role was to spin the final report as favorably as possible (as they had spun the $3.2M embezzlement scandal), but these invoices raise a more disturbing question: what role did PR play in shaping the final report itself? Francis certainly felt this was appropriate, spending 1.5 hours on March 17th recommending “elements to be included in the final report”. And BlankRome lawyers conferred with PR consultants for hours in the weeks leading up to the report’s release.
We have argued elsewhere that BlankRome’s report functioned to downplay basic ethical concerns by focusing narrowly on whether Ratliff violated specific provisions of the Pennsylvania Ethics Act. Such a narrow focus sets a much higher bar - requiring the kind of hard evidence (e.g., emails documenting an attempt by Ratliff to influence Longwood's decision to hire his wife) that those peddling influence are rarely careless enough to leave behind. The decision to adopt such a narrow focus effectively guaranteed that the report would completely exonerate Ratliff, given that the Ethics Commission had already ruled on this specific question.
We would not be surprised if Envisian played a role in the decision to narrow the focus of BlankRome's report in an effort to spare Kennett Township yet more embarrassment surrounding the actions of yet another manager. If so, Envisian's actions come at a significant cost, because BlankRome's $250,000 report makes no recommendations whatsoever about the the need for Kennett Township to establish the most rudimentary standards for ethical conduct. And one year later, Kennett Township has yet to take any concrete steps to prevent ethical misconduct. After spending almost $300,000, Kennett Township appears to be right back where it started.