Water panel PR firm lashes back at criticism
By Diane J. Schmidt
Special to the Times
ALBUQUERQUE, June 21, 2012
The firm was hired in April shortly after the commission's and President Ben Shelly's water forums got underway in order to help sway public opinion in favor of the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act.
The Navajo Nation Council is scheduled to vote on the issue on June 27.
On June 12 at a meeting in To'Hajiilee, Resources and Development Committee Chair Katherine Benally, when informed of the PR firm's hiring, said, in part, "...I consider this blatant action akin to spitting in our people's faces. This is wrong."
In a phone interview from Phoenix on June 12, Dave Cieslak countered the criticism of his firm being hired and paid with public funds with his own allegation that the opposition must also have a well-funded campaign that is also using a PR firm.
"It's obvious there is a coordinated campaign by some political leaders, outsiders and Peter McDonald," he said.
When asked what evidence he had, Cieslak cited a May 30 statement from former Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr., in which he advocated against the settlement. Cieslak said the statement looked like it was from a PR professional.
On Monday following the June 14 Navajo Times story "Water panel hires Phoenix PR company," Cieslak demanded the Times investigate and ask "opposition leaders like Peter McDonald (sic) how much they are spending on these contracts."
Cieslak had declined to disclose details of his firm's contract with the water commission.Act of desperation
MacDonald, 84, spoke on the phone from his home in Tuba City on June 19. He said he just spoke before the Northern Navajo Agency Council on Saturday and the members adopted his resolution to oppose Senate Bill 2109, voting 56-0-2.
When asked if he was coordinating a well-funded PR campaign with outside money, MacDonald said, "I don't have any money to pay anybody, but when the truth is on your side you don't need money."
He said the accusation showed desperation.
Daniel J. Quigley, 34, who sent out MacDonald's press release from Phoenix, described himself in the release as a freelance writer, journalist and public relations professional.
He said it was "ludicrous" to suggest he was orchestrating anything.
Quigley described himself on Monday as an out-of-work editor and said that as a favor at the beginning of June, he formatted a statement by MacDonald, added a one-sentence intro, and sent it out for free on June 1 on a press release wire.
He said that absolutely no money had exchanged hands. To underscore his point, Quigley, who graduated from ASU's Cronkite School of Journalism in 2008, said he honestly doesn't know how he is going to pay his next month's rent.
In contrast, the Center for Responsive Politics shows Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., sponsor of the water bill, has raised $25 million in campaign contributions since 1989 and over that period the Salt River Project, the utility that brings water to middle Arizona and electricity to Phoenix, has been his 15th top contributor.
Who are Scutari and Cieslak?
Scutari and Cieslak were previously reporters at the Arizona Republic and went into business together in 2010. They list their services as "Crisis Communications, Media Training, Public Affairs."
Dave Cieslak said he left journalism for public relations work in 2005.
Cieslak said he talks to Navajo water commissioners Leo Manheimer and Ray Gilmore almost every day, but that he has never met the entire commission.
He said the wording for the newspaper advertisements promoting the water settlement that he placed on behalf of the commission is developed through a team effort. He said there was nothing negative about them.
Asked how the water commission found his firm, Cieslak indicated it might be because "the Hualapai tribe has been one of our clients for the last year." Cieslak is routinely identified as the Hualapai tribe's spokesperson in news articles.The Hualapi and PR
The Hualapai got into a legal fight with the developer of their popular Grand Canyon Skywalk, David Jin, a Las Vegas developer, and the tribe took ownership of the Skywalk and its revenues through eminent domain, claiming the developer didn't hold up his end of the deal.
Details of the case, now being appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, can be read online at Turtle Talk, The Indigenous Law and Policy Center Blog.
They include a brief, which has not been accepted yet by the court, that was filed by the developer's lawyers on March 1. It alleges that a secret plan existed to cast the developer in a bad light as the "Leona Helmsley" or "Bernie Madoff" of Arizona.
The brief alleges in part, "...The Tribe's exercise of eminent domain would be portrayed by the public at large as an exercise of raw power. So the Tribe's legal counsel recommended a public relations firm to present the Tribe's actions more reasonably to the public at large."
The brief further alleged that two tribal spokespersons "...were trained by the PR firm on how to spin the negative story. The Tribal Spokespersons began telling the press that the visitors center was a unfinished eye sore because GCSD (the developer) had failed to bring utilities to Eagle Point and had walked away from an abandoned building..."
But, it was also alleged, the tribe knew that it was the one responsible for the utilities.