Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Is Center Maryland Open for Business? (Updated)

Center Maryland, the “news” website established by a group of Democratic campaign contributors and former government officials, is showing signs of being anything but a news website. In fact, the site is starting to look like a servant of some of its founders’ clients.

To understand Center Maryland, you have to first understand the business interests of some of its founders. Steve Kearney (a former employee of Governor O’Malley) and Damian O’Doherty (a former employee of Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith) are principals of Kearney O’Doherty Public Affairs LLC (KO), a political consulting firm based in Baltimore. And while Center Maryland’s website does not disclose this fact, fellow founder and former Baltimore Sun editor Howard Libit is also a KO employee.

KO discloses very little about itself on its website, but its officials are slightly more open on their Linkedin profiles. Kearney says:

KO Public Affairs is a strategic communications firm that helps clients win where business, government, politics and media meet. The firm’s clients include leading corporations and associations in the real estate, energy, health care, technology, transportation, retail and sports/entertainment industries.

O’Doherty says:

O’Doherty has built a high-profile lobbying and public affairs practice, counseling clients on matters relating to state and local government and development.

And Libit says he is:

Working with corporate clients who are involved with government and political activities.

Kearney, O’Doherty and Libit are three of Center Maryland’s six founders, alongside three business owners. One of them, Martin Knott, owns a construction company. O’Doherty was a registered lobbyist for over sixteen months from 2006 through 2008. During that time, he was paid $251,121 by fourteen clients in the power, real estate/development, traffic camera and other industries.

KO does not disclose any lobbying activity, but § 15-701 of the state code could conceivably be interpreted to cover its operation of Center Maryland, which is after all a vehicle for communicating with state office holders, except for one thing: the code exempts “actions of a member of the news media, to the extent the actions are in the ordinary course of gathering and disseminating news or making editorial comment to the general public” from the definition of lobbying subject to disclosure.

The site declares in its banner that it runs “the news you need, straight down the middle.” Its founders want us to believe that its product is objective news.

But true to Kearney O’Doherty’s business interests, Center Maryland has been a playground for the real estate, development and power industries – all represented by KO. Consider the following:

1. Queen Anne’s Federal Project
On January 25, Center Maryland ran an opinion by “Clayton A. Mitchell, Esquire” of Stevensville favoring a federal project in Queen Anne’s County without disclosing any information about him. Mitchell is the son of former House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. and once worked for a lawyer who had been disbarred for bribery. He is an Eastern Shore land use lawyer. While the project supported by Mitchell is owned by the federal government, it may very well create development opportunities for nearby private land owners. Whether Mitchell stands to enjoy any financial gain from the project is unknown as Center Maryland did not elaborate on his role. After posting Mitchell’s opinion, Center Maryland followed up with coverage of a poll conducted for the “Eastern Shore Leadership Council” describing public support for the project and a video promoting it. Post reporter Aaron Davis presented a more balanced view of the development. Does Kearney O’Doherty represent any clients who are involved with this project?

2. Jobs vs. the Bay
On January 25, Center Maryland ran the results of another poll claiming that Marylanders favored job creation even if it meant polluting the Chesapeake Bay. The poll was financed by the Maryland State Builders Association and Center Maryland did not describe any countervailing views of it in its coverage.

3. Stormwater Regulations
Center Maryland has paid significant attention to the prospect of new stormwater regulation in Maryland. The site’s posts about the issue have been a mix of skeptical articles by former Washington Times reporter Tom LoBianco and freelancer Julie Turkewitz and opponent commentary by the Maryland State Builders Association (again). After weeks of this, the site finally allowed guest posts by environmentalist groups before the state builders struck back. Center Maryland’s “coverage” of this issue looks like little more than an attempt to prevent Kearney O’Doherty’s clients from being burdened by the costs of new regulation.

4. Electricity Competition
On February 19th, Center Maryland put up a poll of Marylanders indicating significant support for electricity competition. (Incidentally, we agree with that view.) The post states, “Disclosure: Several founders of Center Maryland were involved in commissioning the poll and work with the coalition on electricity issues.” This is raw evidence that the site is being used to spread information paid for by Kearney O’Doherty’s clients.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. This blog has never pretended to be an objective endeavor and has run many guest posts. And we have disclosed our affiliations again and again and again and again.

The difference with Center Maryland is the undisclosed role of corporate money and the deceptive claim of providing objective news. Center Maryland founders Steve Kearney, Damian O’Doherty and Howard Libit make their living representing clients “where business, government, politics and media meet.” The nexus between the founders’ business interests and Center Maryland’s coverage suggests that the site allows those industries that hire Kearney O’Doherty to spread their viewpoints disguised as “the news you need, straight down the middle.” KO’s clients would no doubt value a readership of 5,000 (which Center Maryland claimed even before the site launched) as an audience for their arguments. If Center Maryland’s founders want the site to be taken seriously, they must disclose KO’s client list and indicate whether they work for customers in the industries discussed by every article. Otherwise, the site should be regarded as a mere extension of the offline services KO provides to their clients.

Update: Red Maryland’s Mark Newgent asked Center Maryland’s Howard Libit whether the site was publishing material connected to KO’s clients. Libit did not respond.