Sawant Spent $46,000 in City Funds on PR Consultant

Screen shot 2015-11-16 at 12.23.00 PMSocialist council member Kshama Sawant, who frequently uses her council podium to rally her supporters around causes beyond the council’s reach, spent nearly $50,000 in city money on a public relations consultant to rally support for pet causes such as rent control, and to meet with individuals and groups who were not among Sawant’s allies, among other duties. The consultant, hired as a “strategic public relations expert,” went on to work on Sawant’s campaign and had previously worked on the 15Now campaign closely associated with the Socialist council member.

Between April 17, 2014, and December 31, 2014,  Sawant’s office spent $46,000 on an unusual contract with Jeff Upthegrove, who also served as treasurer to the Sawant-affiliated 15Now campaign in 2014 and went on to be one of Sawant’s paid political advisors. The contract was unusual both because of its size (according to city contracting records, it was one of just four contracts over $40,000 with the legislative department signed that year), but because of its purpose: To advise Sawant prior to council meetings, serve as a proxy for Sawant in meetings with constituents, and mobilize stakeholders—supporters—to show up at Sawant events and rallies like the one she held at City Hall in support of rent control. Council contracts for other offices were typically related to research and analysis work in complex policy areas, such as a $246,000  contract with the University of Washington to study the impacts of a $15 minimum wage, or $43,000 for a “Seattle Gang Needs Assessment” from Arizona State University.

Upthegrove says his role was basically that of an adjunct, non-political staffer, a way around the limitations the city places on council members’ budget. Every year, each council members gets a set budget for office expenses, including staff, which the council member can divvy up as he or she pleases. Traditionally, council members have divided up their staff budget between two or three staffers, or occasionally four, who do the core work of advising he council member and running her office.  The problem with just hiring Upthegrove outright, according to Upthegrove, was that although salaries come out of a council office’s budget, health care doesn’t, and hiring so many staffers would have put a strain on the legislative department’s benefit pool.

It’s worth taking a step back here to point out that this story was being shopped around before the election by Sawant opponents, which shows you how badly they wanted to see the popular member go down to defeat November 3. As we know, that didn’t happen. But the story of how and why a council member came to spend so much city money on a PR and outreach consultant remains interesting, because it’s extremely unusual, if not unprecedented, for a council member to hire a consultant who also happens to be a political advisor to serve as a de facto staffer.

An analogous example, one council observer argues, would be if Christian Sinderman set up shop in Tim Burgess’ office and met with constituents on his behalf. And in fact, none of the other five-figure contracts with the council are remotely similar. Most are consultants—firms or individuals—hired to advise a council member, or the council, on specific complex issue areas, like how to implement universal preschool, or the pros and cons of a municipal bank. Hiring a consultant to do the work staffers would ordinarily do, like interacting with constituents and setting up meetings, is unusual, according to council staff.

Obviously, that doesn’t happen (nor does Sandeep Kaushik set up a laptop and card table in the mayor’s office.) And Upthegrove says he did abide by the rules, signing in when he came to brief Sawant before committee meetings and spending “most of my time working at home to follow the rules laid out for contractors.” The council sign-in sheets shed little light on what Upthegrove was up to when he visited Sawant; a typical visit is marked as “discussion” or sometimes “housing” or “City Light issues.” Most days, Upthegrove’s contract said he clocked in for 6 to  8 hours doing things like “meeting prep, and “post meeting debrief.”

The unusual arrangement kept Upthegrove out of the office, organizing turnout at events like Sawant’s July forum on rent control at City Hall and meeting with constituents in Sawant’s place. Critics, including her campaign opponent Pamela Banks, frequently complain that Sawant doesn’t meet with people who don’t agree with her, while people who are Sawant advocates insist she’s extremely accessible, including to those with whom she disagrees.

Sawant did not return a call for comment. But Upthegrove confirms that he did meet with Sawant’s political opponents, including “folks who didn’t have a great relationship with Sawant, like [developer lobbyist] Roger Valdez. I would meet with Roger occasionally—not to insulate her, but so I could introduce his point of view.” Upthegrove says he also “met with a lot of people she did like to meet with as well. … I didn’t just meet with people that she didn’t want to meet with. I met with people who were her allies or sometimes people that she didn’t have time to meet with.” Upthegrove’s invoices do not generally detail who was at the meetings he held, only that they were generally with “stakeholder groups.”

Upthegrove says “the notion of folks who can’t get meetings with her,” promulgated most recently by Banks, who said she couldn’t get Sawant to meet about expanding the CareerBridge jobs program, isn’t accurate. “That was a function of the volume of people that wanted to meet with her and the choices she made. She would pick and choose based on what was most important or what staff believed would add the most value to her policymaking, so some people didn’t get meetings and were upset about it.” He says Banks sent a single email seeking a meeting to Sawant’s intern, and “it was lost amongst hundreds of other emails that came in on a daily basis. … I don’t think those kinds of decisions were ever based on political malice or wanting to exclude political enemies or exclude people who disagreed with Kshama.”

After a brief period as an official (though temporary) Sawant staffer, Upthegrove returned to his consulting firm, Sound Consulting. According to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, she paid him $2,500 this year for campaign consulting services.

14 thoughts on “Sawant Spent $46,000 in City Funds on PR Consultant

    • Incorrect. The expense is an allowable expense in their budgets, so I don’t even understand the point of Erica’s article. If it’s legal, and allowed, and not unethical as far as I can tell, what is the purpose of this article to begin with? A witch hunt? If you’re going to go after Kshama Sawant, at least try to have a little more chutzpah than stabbing at empty air. I think Kshama is most likely beyond reproach ethically and legally, and that conservative, corporate neoliberals like you just don’t like her because we’re shutting your sh*t down. FAST. And this is just the BEGINNING. 😉 I already mentioned that Erica’s “journalistic” flashlight should be shone under the beds of other council members. THAT is where she’ll find the cobwebs and boogie monsters with fangs. But she refuses to shine her flashlight in that direction, cos she already knows what she’ll find. Corruption. Bribery. Unethical behavior. And as we saw recently with the developer, ILLEGAL behavior.

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      • God dude, you’re so self important. Aren’t you also the guy who demanded Erica remove Banks’ interview and signed it as a “PCO”? lol. For a guy with a private Twitter account, I suggest you just tweet in your little opaque silo with all the emoticons you want and stop demanding things of our fair journalist here.

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      • But you are implying it’s unethical, correct? She wouldn’t be doing something unethical if it were disallowed by ethics rules etc.
        Let’s talk about ethics with other council members like Tim Burgess and dig deeper. I dare you.

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    • No, this money came from the Legislative Department’s general budget that supports Councilmember initiatives, among other things. An example is Burgess’s study in 2014 on raising the developer fee for low income housing. It’s a huge amount for one office to receive to pay for services that staff should do themselves. It comes at the expense of other CM initiatives such as studying an LGBT Center at the Capitol Hill station development, for example.

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  1. Interesting, but is this against the law or against City/State/County ethics rules? I understand that it may be unusual, however I believe Kshama has helped City constitutents far more than the cost of Jeff Upthegrove’s consultant fees mentioned here. In other words, it seems like a sound investment of city funds, unless it is against the law or rules, because Kshama has brought so much value for struggling City residents and taxpayers, who in the end are the ones paying for the City’s budget. So as a taxpayer, I’m ok with this relatively insignificant amount spent, compared to the obscene amounts spent (aka wasted) by other City councilmembers and City agencies. I think this is a witch hunt. And I think the author should just admit that she is indeed on a witch hunt. If there isn’t a real problem, try to invent and spin one anyway. It is CLEAR that District 3 voters want Kshama to represent them and their interests, and the election, Erica, is OVER. Did Pamela Banks ask you to write this article? It would seem so 😉 Now, let’s try to dig into Burgess’s expenditures and see what we come up with THEN. THAT would be far more interesting to see who is on HIS payroll, or probably more likely whose payroll HE is on (lobbying bribes from Big Business etc.). Or heaven forbid we look into Bruce Harrell and his shenanigans and connections. So take the dare and do an exposé on Burgess and Harrell expenditures and who they are receiving money from. I hereby DARE you. 😉

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    • So Erica, let’s do a comparison. Please write an article/exposé on where different City Councilmembers this election have gotten campaign donations from. Let us analyze that in detail, and let us know what you think the outcome of persons receiving corporate cash will be for the voters. It’d be interesting to know your opinions and discoveries 😉 If you don’t write it, *I* will 😉

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      • This is hardly about campaign donations, it’s much more about the councilwoman getting around the rules every other councilperson plays by to hire another staffer. You can’t write a similar article because as Erica wrote, there are only a few city contracts bigger than the one in question, and we’re all for policy analysis.

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      • of course they don’t when they’re being backed by HUGE corporations and big business and the wealthy giving them stuff for FREE. DUH. Are you dense?

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      • BUT IT IS ABOUT campaign donations and lobbying bribes. It very much is and controls 75%+ of the City Council. Which is why the broadband proposal went down the toilet – due to COMCAST lobbying of council members ($$$ campaign donations and lobbying) as just one small example of the larger problem. I don’t understand what this expense is but since I know Jeff Upthegrove, Kshama and Calvin, I’ll ask them about it, to better understand their point of view. But it’s not the smoking gun Erica insinuates, that’s certain. Kshama is probably the most honest, open, and transparent member on the council, by far. Erica, why don’t you reach out to Kshama’s office for an explanation before publishing garbage like this. Is this a Republican smut rag?

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      • I would appreciate it if you would calm down the tenor of your comments; if you do not, I will have to start deleting, and I really don’t want to have to do that on my blog.

        To answer your question, as I say right in the story, Kshama Sawant did not return my call seeking comment about this matter, as is her usual practice when I contact her office. And as I said during my series of interviews with the candidates, she was the only candidate out of 18 who refused to talk to me, despite persistent efforts on my part.

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