MARTA panel: Waive conflict policy for Kaufman’s daughter
A conflicted committee of the MARTA board today recommended hiring a company that employs the daughter of one of its members.
Edelman Public Relations is clearly the best choice to run a marketing campaign aimed at marshaling public support for MARTA during the 2010 state legislative session, agency staffers told the board’s ad hoc ethics committee. The contract would run for 120 days and pay no more than $100,000.
Here’s the problem: The rapid-transit agency’s ethics code forbids MARTA from doing business with a company in which a board member, or someone in his or her immediate family, has an interest.
Jennifer Babbitt Bodner, daughter of MARTA board member Barbara Babbit Kaufman (right), is a senior vice president at Edelman. She is on maternity leave and does not work in the division that’s bidding for the MARTA contract.
Kaufman took part in today’s discussion but recused herself from the vote.
MARTA’s Board of Ethics, which is a separate body, decided last month it would be a conflict of interest for MARTA to give Edelman the contract, regardless of whether Bodner played a role in the transaction. Members of the Board of Ethics include outside lawyers and businessmen, a state legislator, two MARTA employees and a MARTA board member.
Charles Pursley, MARTA’s general counsel, said today that the ethics board’s decision was only advisory.
Most members of the MARTA committee seemed to believe that Edelman would do the best job. But they clearly worried about the potential public relations flap over the conflict of interest.
“Wouldn’t it be ironic if we do what’s best for MARTA and then it has the impact of making our situation worse in the Legislature?” board chairman Michael Walls asked.
“We’re in a pickle no matter which way we go,” Kaufman noted.
MARTA general manager Beverly Scott said she values Edelman’s rapid-transit experience and its grasp of MARTA’s public relations needs. That’s particularly important, she said, as MARTA will only have 120 days to prepare its marketing and PR blitz before Georgia legislators convene in January.
“I don’t really want to spend 60 days of this doing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, challenges,” she said.
Edelman’s experience includes managing the fallout from the METRO train wreck that killed nine people in June in Washington, D.C.
The committee wound up voting 5-3 to support a waiver for Edelman. The full board will consider the waiver at its September meeting.
Voting yes: members Clara Axam, Harold Buckley, George Glaze, Michael Tyler and Walls.
Voting no: Juanita Abernathy, Gloria Leonard and Steve Stancil. Leonard serves on the Ethics Board that issued an opinion on the proposed deal last month.
Most committee members agreed today that the ethics code is too restrictive and probably should be amended to give the agency more flexibility. But, Axam noted, “we really need to think it through.”