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TV Ads Put Focus on Reiner

Times Staff Writer

Police sirens wail as a scruffy teenager, clutching a bag, runs frantically through the streets. Entering a schoolyard, he reaches into the bag. Out comes ... a graduation gown, which he dons to receive a diploma.

The scene is from a television ad, paid for with tax money and made by consultants close to Hollywood producer Rob Reiner. It aired across California this winter, touting the benefits of preschool. “When kids go,” the narrator says, “we all benefit.”

The release of the ad, and two others, by a state commission Reiner heads coincided with his launch of a ballot initiative that would tax the rich to fund preschool for all California 4-year-olds.

Although Reiner did not directly approve the spots, their timing and substance highlight ties between the public commission and his private political campaigns and raise questions about whether the state-funded commercials were used to boost the initiative’s prospects.

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State law generally prohibits the use of public funds for campaign activities. Reiner’s campaign attorney said the ads were legal and not political.

Reiner heads the First 5 California Children and Families Commission, a panel of seven members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. It was created by an initiative Reiner sponsored in 1998 to promote early childhood development.

The measure, which raised cigarette taxes by 50 cents per pack, has generated $4 billion so far, much of it used for childhood healthcare, preschool and anti-tobacco efforts. Under Reiner’s leadership, the commission has:

* Spent $23 million for the “Preschool for All” ads, which ran from November to mid-January, making it one of the largest state-funded advertising campaigns ever in California. In January, Reiner’s new initiative, also called “Preschool for All,” qualified for the June ballot as Proposition 82.

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* Given $230 million in advertising and public relations contracts -- including the preschool ad blitz -- to firms that helped Reiner create the First 5 commission. As companies competed for the business, Reiner wrote a letter recommending one firm, which won.

* Paid $206,000 of the tax money to three political consultants, though they had no contract. One of them -- Benjamin Austin, a former Los Angeles deputy mayor -- said they helped coordinate the government activities of Reiner, the First 5 commission and the media consultants. Austin and the others subsequently joined the Proposition 82 effort, with Austin as campaign manager.

The contracts for the ads and the public relations work were awarded legally. But given the winning companies’ relationship with Reiner, “there is a question of ... who really has a chance of getting a contract,” said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution fellow and former Pete Wilson administration official. “Insider connections are rewarded.”

The twinning of First 5’s ads and Reiner’s initiative campaign troubles state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles).

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“Taxpayer dollars should not be used to sway election results,” she said. “Do that with campaign money.”

Reiner campaign attorney James Harrison said the ads were legal.

In particular, he cited a court ruling in late December, which stems from a Salinas ballot measure and is being appealed, saying government can use tax money for campaigns as long as it doesn’t expressly urge people to vote for or against an issue or candidate.

“The ads were legal and entirely proper,” Harrison said.

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Reiner, who noted that government staffers -- not First 5 commissioners -- chose the recipients of the ad contract, said the commercials were not related to the Preschool for All ballot initiative. Rather, he said, he concluded that the timing for such a measure was right, there was voter support and universal preschool would help California’s children.

“I want to do things right for kids,” Reiner said in an interview at a location he chose: a preschool funded by First 5 in South Los Angeles. “I want help to fix the school system.”

*

Reiner, 58, gained fame for his role in the 1970s TV series “All in the Family.” He since has produced, directed or acted in dozens of movies, including “Rumor Has It,” “A Few Good Men” and “This Is Spinal Tap.” For more than a decade, his political cause has been childhood development, though he and others say he has no personal financial stake in it.

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To finance his vision, Reiner sponsored Proposition 10, which created First 5. The proposition gives counties 80% of the tobacco tax proceeds. Reiner’s panel gets the other 20% -- $800 million since the commission’s creation in 1999.

Written to his specifications, the law dictates that 6% of the tax revenue be allotted to communications efforts.

“This is a big state,” Reiner said, noting that ads are costly. “We knew the programs weren’t going to be successful unless people knew about them and how important they are.”

The law does not specify that any ads focus on preschool. It says the money should be used to “encourage proper childhood development”; good parenting; information about child care, health and social services; the prevention of tobacco and drug use by pregnant women; and information about the “detrimental effects of secondhand smoke on early childhood development.”

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First 5’s lead public relations consultant is the Rogers Group of Los Angeles. The firm billed the Proposition 10 campaign $230,000. Its First 5 contracts extend to 2008 and will total $62 million. The company must distribute about $30 million of that amount as grants to community organizations.

The commission awarded Rogers an initial contract in 1999 without soliciting bids and two later ones in a competitive process. In its written bid for a new contract last year, Rogers noted that its president, Lynne Doll, was “a lead strategist on the communications efforts” for the Yes on 10 campaign.

Asked whether Rogers’ work on Proposition 10 helped it secure commission work, Doll said, “I’m sure it didn’t hurt.”

She added that the company won its competitive contracts because its bids were lowest, its work has been effective and it has “experience in the anti-smoking world ... and in early childhood issues.”

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Rogers long has held the public relations contract for the state Department of Health Services’ tobacco-control program.

The Reiner commission’s ad firm is GMMB -- formerly Greer, Margolis, Mitchell & Burns. It has a 12-person office in Santa Monica and is a subsidiary of Fleishman-Hillard Inc., headquartered in St. Louis.

One of GMMB’s partners, Roy Behr, was a key consultant to the Yes on 10 effort and led a successful statewide fight in 2000 against a ballot measure that would have overturned Proposition 10. GMMB billed the two political campaigns $3.2 million in 1998 and 2000. It has won $169.5 million in state contracts through 2007 from the First 5 commission.

The bulk of the money has been used to buy air time and ads in newspapers, including The Times. Some went to subcontractors.

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Like other bidders seeking to do First 5’s advertising in 2004, GMMB submitted a thick binder detailing its finances, subcontractors and vision for the ad campaign. Unlike its competitors, GMMB came highly recommended by the First 5 chairman.

Reiner wrote the cover letter for the firm’s bid package, praising its work on his public and private endeavors. The letter, dated March 10, 2004, said the commission tapped GMMB to write First 5’s “long-range Preschool Advocacy Plan” in 2003.

“Preschool for All is our top priority and we knew that nobody else had a better understanding of our goals and how to accomplish them,” Reiner wrote.

Behr said the company’s “knowledge of the issues” was partly why it won the contract. He added: “We certainly talked about [the firm’s political campaign work] as one of the things that gave us the credentials.”

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In the interview, Reiner said both firms “have shown expertise and tremendous effectiveness.”

“If I know somebody can do a job and do it well, it wouldn’t be very smart of me not to go and see if I could get those people to do the job,” Reiner said, adding that he hopes “people think we are hiring the best.”

The panel that selected GMMB included three employees of the First 5 commission and a fourth member who works for the California Department of Health Services. The four reported being unimpressed that GMMB’s bid enjoyed Reiner’s backing. “The cover letter from Rob Reiner was considered inappropriate and showed bad judgment on the part of Mr. Reiner and GMMB,” the panel wrote in an otherwise glowing assessment of the firm’s bid.

The panel “chose not to be influenced either way” by Reiner’s letter, said Colleen Stevens, the Department of Health Services official who served on the panel.

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First 5 met its legal obligation by publicly inviting companies to bid on its ad contract. Only three did. It was surprising, some advertising executives said, given the contract’s prestige and size: $67.5 million over three years.

Some ad executives said privately that they assumed the incumbent would win, and that the laborious bidding process would waste their time.

As part of its latest First 5 work, GMMB produced three TV commercials, including the one with the running teenager. A second ad featured a mound of clay morphing into a child and a schoolhouse, then into a business tableau, as a narrator intoned that when children go to preschool, they stay in school, “and our businesses end up with a better-educated workforce.”

In a third commercial, a school principal lamented that too many children who don’t attend preschool enter kindergarten unprepared, “get discouraged and drop out.” Part of the commission’s money was spent to air a fourth ad, made earlier and not focused on preschool.

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*

Reiner and Behr said they have taken pains to avoid conflicts. Behr said he would not work on the June initiative.

“While it is true that First 5 cannot and should not advocate on behalf of the potential initiative,” GMMB wrote in a document submitted to the commission last year, “it is equally certain that the goals of the Preschool for All campaign can only be achieved through legislative or electoral action.”

Others affiliated with GMMB and the First 5 commission are involved in the campaign for Proposition 82, which would raise income taxes by $2.4 billion a year on wealthy Californians.

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Austin -- the former deputy mayor -- worked for GMMB on First 5-related matters in 2002 and 2003, then moved to Reiner’s political team, then returned to consulting for GMMB and received bimonthly First 5 commission checks.

During an 11-month period ending in April 2005, GMMB billed First 5 California $206,000 to pay Austin and two other aides. Austin’s share was $111,000, invoices show. All three returned to the Reiner campaign payroll in June.

Proposition 82’s office is at the same Beverly Hills address Austin gave when he was consulting for GMMB and the state.

Austin and the other aides did not have contracts with First 5. Austin said his duties were outlined in multiple conversations with the commission’s staff and Reiner. His work was part-time, and he said he had no involvement in the First 5 ads.

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“Literally the only thing we have been motivated by,” Austin said in his office last week, “is preschool for kids.”

Meanwhile, William Deaver, a former member of the Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces campaign laws, has asked his former agency to investigate whether the juxtaposition of the preschool ads and the Proposition 82 initiative effort violated the law.

An FPPC spokesman declined to comment.

Deaver, a Republican who served on the FPPC from 1999 to 2003, said the promotion of preschool is “admirable” but added: “I don’t think you can use public money to support a ballot measure. I don’t care what it is.”

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