Rolly: Questions raised about state's pick for anti-smoking campaign
T he State Health Department recently awarded the $700,000 anti-tobacco advertising contract to a firm critics say worked on behalf of tobacco interests in Nevada, and whose principal Utah partner is known as Gov. Gary Herbert's political confidant.
The contract award to R&R Partners was awarded after another bidder, Rescue Social Change Group, filed a protest, alleging R&R had a conflict of interest that it did not disclose during the bidding process. A committee of the State Purchasing Department then held a hearing on the protest and ruled there was not a sufficient conflict to invalidate the winning bid.
State Health Director David Patton initially backed the protest, writing to Purchasing Director Kent Beers, "The failure to disclose R&R's extensive involvement in the campaign to weaken the indoor clean air act in Nevada is contrary to the State's best interest and merits disqualification of their proposal."
But in a statement sent to me Tuesday, Patton said that after evidence was presented in the hearing, he is satisfied that R&R did nothing wrong and he is satisfied the company will do a good job in the tobacco prevention campaign for Utah.
"The Department was deeply concerned by the accusation of the competing bidder, and supported the protest process in order to bring the details of R&R's past work to light. Information presented during the protest gave the Department a much more thorough understanding of R&R's past work," Patton wrote.
"I am confident R&R will be able to develop and execute an anti-tobacco campaign that will continue to build on our success," he added. "Tobacco prevention is a community effort, and I look forward to working with R&R and our other partners to help drive Utah's rate of tobacco use even lower."
But Sharlene Bozack, western region director for the American Cancer Society said R&R's bid for the anti-smoking campaign in Arizona was rejected precisely for the reason it had worked to weaken an anti-smoking law in Nevada.
And Tom McCoy, the government affairs director for the American Cancer Society in Nevada, said R&R has been on the other side of the anti-tobacco lobbyists for years.
Jeff Jordan, of the Rescue Social Change Group, said he filed the protest after learning about R&R's efforts in Nevada in 2011. The company represented the Nevada Resort Association and lobbied on its behalf to change the Indoor Clean Air Act to allow taverns that serve food to also permit smoking.
The Nevada Tavern Owners Association celebrated the change to the Clean Air Act on its blog and personally thanked several individuals it said made the legislation a success, including Billy Vassiliadis, the majority owner of R&R, whose close ties with state leaders have earned him the nickname of "shadow governor."
Likewise, R&R's principal in Utah, Bob Henrie, is known as Gov. Gary Herbert's most trusted political adviser and was dubbed in a Salt Lake Tribune story in 2010 as "Gary's Guru."
But Henrie told me Tuesday that the protest against his company's bid had a fair hearing before the request-for-proposal (RFP) committee and was found to not have a conflict.
R&R, he said, represented the resort association in Nevada, not tobacco interests, and its lobbying efforts were to help that association prevent a loss of business because conventions were going elsewhere after the passage of the Indoor Clean Air Act in 2008.
R&R attorneys argued at the hearing that the company was not compelled to declare its previous work on behalf of the resort association in Nevada because no disclosure of that type was required in the original RFP.
Assistant Attorney General Alan Bachman, who advises the State Purchasing Department, said there was no evidence presented at the hearing that R&R had a conflict preventing it from representing the anti-tobacco interests in Utah.
But at a meeting last week of anti-tobacco groups, including local health departments, several people said they were concerned that a company committed to weakening anti-smoking laws in other states could be equally committed to smoking prevention in Utah.
Henrie told me the company is committed to tobacco prevention, and will mount a vigorous anti-smoking campaign in Utah.