Californian bureaucrats using taxpayers' money to praise themselves

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If no news is good news, does that make good news no news? As far as it goes for Southern California’s Central Basin Municipal Water District, that’s exactly the case.

A report out of the Los Angeles Times exposes that Central Basin, the publically-funded plant that pumps water into the homes of over 2 million residents of Los Angeles County, had been paying a PR firm with tax payer dollars to generate overly-positive news stories about them with the intent of being picked up by Google News. And it worked.

Those executing an Internet search for Central Basin are sure to stumble upon a handful of good natured stories in support of the plant. Google would grab articles on groundwater rights, Central Basin’s recycling system and dozens of other pieces of praising prose to display as search results. But those articles cost the Water District nearly $200,000 in taxpayer dollars over the course of only a few short months.

A contract between Central Basin Municipal Water District and the Coghlan Consulting Group allowed for the latter to rake in over $11,000 each month in exchange for the drafting and publishing of watered down stories praising Central Basin for a job well done. The articles were “written in the image of real news,” as per the contract between the parties, and were carried on the firm’s own “news site,” the News Hawk Review. From there the firm fed the fake features to Google News which were thus delivered to a worldwide audience.

"All of us know that getting positive news coverage about the agency is a very difficult challenge," the firm's Ed Coghlan writes in a letter to the district describing their services. "The solution? How about our own news outlet."

In a memo unearthed from The Times, Coghlan writes to the District that the stories are not press releases about meetings, “but more in the vein of news that consumers would find interesting.”

Paying a PR firm for positive press isn’t anything new, especially in Los Angeles. Outrage is erupting, however, now that it’s been revealed that taxpayers are providing for the publicity.

"This is a serious breach of the public trust," Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware, tells The Times. "If it was known and approved by the board, it could be interpreted as the use of $200,000 of taxpayer funds as a self-promotion to help them stay in office."

The district’s public affairs manager, Valerie Howard, tells The Times that the deal must have worked for the water plant. She says that Central Basin has seen a “huge spike” in traffic since the District signed on with Coghlan. A recent memo from the office of Howard quotes her as praising the service because “no other California water agency is using online media tools in this way." It raises the question, however, of why does a publically funded water plant really need that many people logging online to see what’s new with Central Basin?

The deal between the two parties was inked back in November and since then the consultants at Coghlan have put together over 30 stories for the Water District. In April of this year they renewed the deal.

Google has since gotten wind of the lack of credibility at the News Hawk Review, which claims to staff an "experienced and highly knowledgeable" roster of reporters and has severed ties with the outlet following The Times’ expose. Prior to the recent developments, the fake outlet was considered a news channel by Google, and by disguising “communication efforts” as news stories, they were filtered to the same search engine that scours the biggest names in journalism. Google now tells The Times that the News Hawk Review violated its guidelines and will no longer be indexed on their news site, but failed to cite what specific criteria it violated.

Upwards of 50,000 news outlets are indexed to Google News. Danny Sullivan, a Web expert from Orange County, asks The Times, "The bigger issue is, if this site's getting away with it, are there other sites getting away with it?" Maybe Google needs to review what they're allowing."

Los Angeles County prosecutors had already opened up a probe into the Water District within the last year over possible illegalities within the travel ledger of the elected board’s officials.