America Scams You: Allison Barber's Many "No-No's"

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PR Watch

America Scams You: Allison Barber's Many "No-No's"

by
Dianne Farsetta

There's a telling email exchange quoted in the Defense Department Inspector General's report on America Supports You (ASY), a Pentagon program launched in 2004, ostensibly to boost troop morale.

Allison Barber, who founded and led ASY until her recent resignation as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Internal Communications and Public Liaison (and who infamously helped President Bush stage a teleconference with troops in Iraq), asked in a June 2004 email: "Overseas, we make troops [not living on military bases] buy a digital receiver for their televisions so they can see AFRTS," the American Forces Radio and Television Service. "Is there a way for me to make this situation know [sic] to corporate America and offer them the option of 'sponsoring' a receiver? So the receiver might have a sticker on it that says 'brought to you by Sears'."

An attorney with the Defense Department's Standards of Conduct Office responded sharply: "Of course, you may not solicit anyone, especially corporate America, to sponsor the receivers. That's a no-no."

Judging by the Inspector General's report -- which was 18 months in the making -- Allison Barber was responsible for quite a lot of "no-no's." Among the report's major findings are that ASY was run in a "questionable and unregulated manner ... not consistent with the program's primary objective"; that Susan Davis International, the PR firm that was paid $8.8 million "to promote or 'brand' the ASY program," used taxpayer money inappropriately; that $9.2 million in ASY funding was funneled through the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, against Pentagon rules and with such inadequate oversight that officials "lost visibility of about $4.1 million"; and that a private non-profit established under the ASY name "creat[es] confusion" between it and the Defense Department program, implying government endorsement and "presenting additional liability for any misuse of donations" by the private group.

It's a surprisingly strong report. Maybe that's why the Inspector General's office released it late on December 12, a Friday -- a notoriously difficult time of the week to attract media attention.

Too cozy with corporations

Defense Department policies clearly forbid asking for donations, as well as implicitly or explicitly endorsing non-government entities. To avoid potential conflicts of interest and undue outside influence on the nation's military, U.S. law specifically directs how gift funds may be used to benefit service members. Pentagon lawyers periodically reminded Allison Barber of these restrictions, but she seemed not to understand or care that she was breaking the rules.

In a September 2005 email quoted in the Inspector General's report, Barber asked if she could accept a "token check" from the PGA Tour at one of their events. The Tour "had raised over [$]300,000 for the military charities," Barber wrote. "[I]sn't that great?"

The response she received was less than enthusiastic. Department of Defense (DoD) officials "could not endorse the PGA or solicit funds," cautioned the Standards of Conduct Office attorney. Instead of accepting the check, the lawyer suggested that Barber "thank the PGA and stand on the perimeter of the presentation of the bogus check to a representative of the military relief societies." Then the lawyer asked, "Is this event appropriate for DoD to participate in? Is it a fundraiser?"

It's clear from the Inspector General's report that ASY poured significant time and resources into seeking corporate support. Several examples of Barber eagerly courting companies can also be found in the Pentagon pundit documents, as I reported previously:

In an April 2006 email referring to an upcoming event with some 50 members of the Business Council, Barber excitedly wrote to fellow Pentagon public affairs staffer Dallas Lawrence that "we could have our entire corporate outreach for asy [sic] done in one meeting!" ... The agenda for a June 2006 Pentagon meeting with the National Association of Manufacturers lists Barber as giving the "welcome and America Supports You update." ASY is the only program mentioned by name. Other documents name NASCAR, Ringling Brothers and Babies "R" Us as ASY corporate contacts.

ASY's emphasis on corporate outreach happened by design. Susan Davis International (SDI), the private firm that did public relations work for ASY, developed a "corporate toolkit" to recruit companies. "The toolkit makes many promises of publicity for corporations in return for their support of the ASY program," notes the Inspector General's report. As described in ASY's "corporate toolkit," these quid pro quo offers included features on the American Forces Radio and Television Service and the Pentagon Channel, ads in the Stars and Stripes newspaper, and mentions in ASY's "weekly e-newsletter ... delivered to thousands of key supporters nationwide, to Congress, and to the news media."

In addition, the America Supports You website featured the logos of its corporate supporters, in violation of Defense Department policies. (That page has since been removed from the ASY site, but an archived version can be seen here: http://web.archive.org/web/20071011121537/http://www.americasupportsyou.mil/americasupportsyou/corp_logo.html.)

Lastly, ASY gave "Office of the Secretary of Defense Exceptional Public Service Awards" to individual and corporate ASY supporters. SDI suggested giving the awards, to create hooks for "op-eds, regional media, newsletters, member radio / TV shows." The Inspector General's report questions this "recognition program," noting that "there are no written criteria for selecting the recipients of this award." In other words, public honors could be given out to the highest bidders.

Public relations problems

One public relations firm, Susan Davis International, received a whopping $8.8 million of the $9.2 million in ASY funding through fiscal year 2007, or more than 95 percent of the program's total expenses. As the Inspector General's report states repeatedly, ASY was established "to communicate public support to the troops," not to "brand" ASY, get media coverage, or solicit corporate or celebrity support. Yet, SDI used taxpayer funds to pitch Allison Barber to "Fox and Friends," sponsor a "Weekly Reader" supplement that urged schoolchildren to hold "Freedom Walks" on September 11, purchase and decorate an ASY float for a Memorial Day parade, and design, produce and promote dog tags with the ASY logo.

Further complicating the SDI / ASY picture is the personal friendship between Allison Barber and Susan Ann Davis, who heads the PR firm. Their friendship is hinted at in the Inspector General's report, which mentions in passing that "SDI frequently traveled with the Deputy Assistant Secretary [Barber] on the same flights and used the same lodging locations." SDI also billed ASY for staff hours spent drafting a letter nominating Barber for a "Communicator of the Year" award, "a service unrelated to the ASY contract," as the report notes.

Add to this murky situation an almost-complete lack of specific goals for or oversight of SDI's work. Given such wide latitude, SDI staff charged "annual rates" for their ASY work of up to $662,945, which the Inspector General's report admits "appear excessive for public relations support." The firm also sought and received payment for "specifically unallowable" expenses, such as alcohol, first-class airfare and expensive hotel rooms, in addition to duplicate expenses. Other "questionable" payments to SDI include "entertainment expenses" for performers at ASY events, such as actor Gary Sinise's Lt. Dan Band and country star Clint Black, and labor charges for "well-known Republican political strategist" Ed Rollins.

Yet, SDI retained the lucrative contract for America Supports You. In early 2008, when ASY's PR contract was up for renewal, the Pentagon supposedly opened it up to bids by outside firms. However, the process limited who could bid, gave outside firms less than three weeks' notice and evaluated bids on terms that clearly benefited SDI. The head of one firm complained, "The process ... leads me to believe that it has been designed to retain the incumbent agency." The Inspector General's report agrees that no firm other "than the incumbent had a fair opportunity."

Susan Davis has called the findings of the Inspector General's report "outrageous," adding: "We are extraordinarily proud of our work." Presumably, Davis would say that SDI helped draw public attention and support to the more than 300 military charity groups associated with ASY. Yet, SDI and ASY angered many of those groups by playing favorites. One group, Operation Homefront, was frequently featured in SDI's media pitches and chosen as a beneficiary of corporate ASY fundraisers. Another group, ThanksUSA, was given $50,000 worth of SDI's PR services. In January 2006, SDI was authorized to spend another $600,000 on "assistance with [the] launch of the ThanksUSA nationwide treasure hunt."

Barber's "involvement in the entire procurement process" -- from obtaining funds for ASY to awarding contracts to her friends at SDI and then overseeing those contracts -- was the major cause of the program's problems. Simply put, Barber had "too much power and influence," the Inspector General's report concludes. ASY was supposed to have a steering committee, to oversee and direct the program. But instead of establishing the committee, Barber stalled and then insisted on appointing herself as its head. Rather than fight Barber, the Pentagon's public affairs office gave up on the steering committee idea.

Since Barber's resignation, ASY has stopped using the SDI firm. The ASY program has also been refocused on its "original mission" of "communicating support for U.S. troops and their families," promised Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Robert Hastings. "You won't find any of us out there building or driving that activity," Hastings told Stars and Stripes. "We're simply communicating."

The ASY Fund

One legacy of Allison Barber's (and hence ASY's) lack of boundaries is the ASY Fund. The ASY Fund is a private group that obtained nonprofit status in mid-2007. The group's placeholder website uses the Defense Department's ASY logo, and variously gives its full name as the "America Supports You Fund" and the "America Salutes You Fund."

The ASY Fund's apparent affiliation with the Defense Department program "causes confusion for the public and constitutes implied endorsement by DoD," concludes the Inspector General's report. It also allows the private group to "unfairly" benefit "from DoD branding the ASY program name."

Barber initially wanted the ASY Fund to be a Pentagon program. It was only established as a separate entity after Congress rebuffed her repeated attempts to obtain permission for the Defense Department "to solicit and accept monetary donations from citizens," according to the report.

Yet the ASY Fund has, at times, functioned like a Pentagon program. Susan Davis International billed ASY for public relations work done on behalf of the ASY Fund. Barber helped obtain the ASY Fund's largest donation to date, $50,000 from Bank of America. The confusion between the Defense Department's ASY program and the private ASY Fund is further illustrated by the fact that Bank of America sent its ASY Fund donation to SDI.

The ASY Fund's board "consists of former senior Federal employees," notes the report. According to the group's 2007 financial report, these include president Grant S. Green Jr., a marketing executive and former Undersecretary of State who Barber asked to establish the ASY Fund. The board's chair is Lawrence Di Rita, a former Defense Department public affairs official who was involved in the Pentagon's covert pundit program and who now serves as a spokesperson for Bank of America. Also on ASY Fund board is Celia Hoke, Barber's former assistant at the Pentagon, and Patricia Meadows, who works at Green's marketing firm for military contractors.

The Inspector General's report states that the ASY Fund's board "will be reconstituted in the near future," but questions the private group's use of the Defense Department program's name and logo. Pentagon lawyers are studying the matter, the report notes, and will provide a "more detailed response ... within 30 days."

Where is Allison Barber?

In an interview with the Navy Times, Assistant Secretary of Defense Hastings stressed that the Inspector General's report on America Supports You was "an audit of management practices" and "declined to speculate on any future actions to audit report's conclusions could spark." It's also unclear what Allison Barber has been doing, since her October 2008 resignation.

Will Allison Barber be held accountable for the nepotism, misuse of public funds and multiple breaches of Pentagon policy -- not to mention the misdirection of resources intended to benefit U.S. service members -- that have been documented at ASY? Or will she quietly return to the private sector, perhaps providing PR advice to the same companies to which she once gave Defense Department awards?

It's easy to be cynical, but a cynic wouldn't have dreamt that the Inspector General's office would author such a damning report on ASY. The various Defense Department offices involved are supposed to respond in full to the report by January 12. Stay tuned.

Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's (www.prwatch.org) senior researcher.

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