Last year, the chief justice of North Carolina’s Supreme Court gave a speech complete with sharp technology and slick video to federal judges in Charleston, S.C.
The cost of Mark Martin’s presentation: $36,000.
Martin’s speech was the first step in a no-bid contract struck with FleishmanHillard, a prominent national public relations firm, that eventually cost more than $700,000 in a little more than a year, documents and interviews show.
Court officials defend their decision as a prudent investment of tax dollars, but they have since declined to renew the contract.
The initial contract for Martin’s presentation in Charleston was for $28,000, but a few days before the April 2016 speech, FleishmanHillard said it had exceeded its budget. Court officials agreed to pay an extra $8,000 to complete the project.
State court leaders then changed the contract to add $549,500 for an array for public relations, branding and social media work designed to educate North Carolinians about the role of the courts in society.
More contract amendments followed, bringing the total cost to $716,500 for 15 months of work.
The court system’s procurement rules at the time called for all contracts above $25,000 to be put out for competitive bidding.
Martin said the no-bid contract was justified because the court system faced a crisis of communications demands. He said the court system had a combination of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the state’s modern court system, including the creation of district courts.
“We had a rare combination of things that don’t happen every day,” Martin said. “We tried to figure out the best way to deal with those demands in a way the people would be proud of.”
Martin said the courts got more than just the Charleston presentation for the $36,000. He said the court system continued to use some of the themes developed during the original contract in its ongoing public relations campaign.
Martin is the state’s highest-ranking judge and appoints the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the office that oversees the court system.
Marion Warren, the AOC director, manages a $517 million budget, 92 percent of which is used to pay salaries. About half of the budget is equivalent to the fines and fees collected in the state’s 100 county courthouses.
A lengthy rehearsal
The FleishmanHillard contract began about a year after Martin established a commission to recommend improvements in the state court system. The N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice studied technology, civil and criminal justice and public trust in the court system.
In a March 10, 2016, email to a contracting officer, courts communications director Sharon Gladwell requested the initial FleishmanHillard contract “to produce a high-tech presentation for a very high-profile national audience.”
There would be other work to outsource, she wrote, but the speech to federal judges was the highest priority.
“Chief Justice Mark Martin would like to exercise his authority to sole source the Judicial Branch’s marketing communications needs to FleishmanHillard,” Gladwell wrote to the courts’ contracting office four days later. “His decision was communicated as part of a conversation last Wednesday regarding a project with near-term delivery and our growing and ongoing need for this type of work.”
Martin’s April speech focused on changing the courts from a system run on paperwork to one that operates digitally. FleishmanHillard produced a video to open the speech and worked up a PowerPoint-style display to accompany it.
The contract called for a 3.5-hour rehearsal and coaching session the Friday before the speech. A FleishmanHillard employee traveled to Charleston the day before the speech to run audio and video.
The day before the rehearsal, the courts added $549,500 to the contract for work to include:
▪ $17,000 a month for media relations work: writing articles, press releases, pitching stories to the media and hiring a photographer for press events with the chief justice and Warren, the AOC director. “Ex: Immediate need to interview Judge Warren about his role at AOC and write an article for placement in State Bar Journal.”
▪ $10,000 a month to publish and monitor content on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
▪ $10,000 a month for graphic design work on images for newsletters, brochures and websites.
▪ $82,000 for one-time tasks including an annual report, photo library, website redesign and templates for stationery and labels.
In addition to ghostwriting the article on Warren, the firm wrote a profile for the State Bar Journal of Melvin Wright, who was retiring from the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism.
Martin said the firm’s work was instrumental in getting one of his top priorities passed into law. Under the “Raise the Age” law, North Carolina became the last state to stop automatically prosecuting all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
Warren, who was a District Court judge for 15 years in Brunswick County before becoming AOC director, agreed.
“I can’t think in all my years of state service the chief justice and the director of the AOC and a team from the Judicial Department actually having a press event at the General Assembly,” Warren said. “We had two.”
Contract not renewed
Martin, 54, is a Republican who worked as legal counsel to Gov. Jim Martin (no relation), who appointed him to be a Superior Court judge in 1992. After two years as a trial judge, Mark Martin won election to the state Court of Appeals and then to the state Supreme Court, where he has sat since 1999. In 2014, he was elected to an eight-year term as chief justice, a job that pays $150,086.
Along with working to handle more teenagers as juvenile offenders, Martin has repeatedly spoken about the need to fight substance abuse, to update court technology and improve public access to the courts.
The leader of one government watchdog group criticized the contract.
“We think the bidding process should be open,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. “No-bid contracts are not good for promoting citizen confidence.”
Andrea Moody of FleishmanHillard said her team was proud of the work it did for the court system. She referred questions about the contract to court officials.
In an interview, Martin acknowledged meeting with Warren and Gladwell to discuss his communications needs. He emphatically said he was not involved in the procurement process but rather delegated it to Warren. Martin pointed out that he was not copied on emails about the contract.
“I never approved any contract, including this one, and I did not make the decision to not competitively bid any contract, including this one,” Martin said.
Warren said that he approved the no-bid contract.
Martin said one benefit of the contract was that the AOC’s small communications team, Gladwell and her assistant, acquired new skills by working closely with the PR firm.
The courts did not renew the contract when it expired at the end of June. Fleishman Hillard had submitted design work with quality that was “unacceptable,” Gladwell wrote in April 2017. She said that forced her assistant to spend hundreds of hours redoing the work.
Warren said he decided to hit the pause button on the media relations part of the contract to evaluate its results.
“I wanted to see how we were doing,” Warren said. “How many fish did we catch?”