Local

Is it OK that Executive Bruce Dammeier’s aide owns firm doing business with county?

A photography and video business co-owned by County Executive Bruce Dammeier’s executive assistant has won $102,444 in work from the county since 2017, according to records obtained by The News Tribune.

The work done by Matty Photo & Motion accounts for more than two-thirds of the contracts and public funds awarded for outsourced photo and video work over that time, according to documents received as part of a public records request.

Alice McDaniel, Dammeier’s assistant, owns the business with her husband, Matt. In her county job, Alice McDaniel is the gatekeeper to Dammeier, schedules his calendar and last year made a salary of $106,000. She worked as County Council Chairman Doug Richardson’s assistant for five years before joining Dammeier’s staff in 2018.

Matty Photo & Motion is a Tacoma-based video and photo company. The downtown studio does family, graduation and newborn photography and also works with commercial clients both locally and nationally. The McDaniels have worked on online campaigns, advertisements and government work, according to the site.

Washington law makes it illegal for municipal employees to use their positions to secure special privileges or receive any compensation from “the employing municipality” other than for doing their specific public job.

Pierce County code prohibits employees from using their position to secure “anything of value,” which is defined as any personal benefit to county personnel, members of his or her immediate family or a business with which the county worker or family member is associated.

Pierce County officials, including Dammeier and Richardson, told The News Tribune that McDaniel has not used her position to secure contracts for her company. They also said the county has taken steps to ensure Matty Photo & Motion is not given an unfair advantage when bidding on county work, including the creation of a request for proposals system for certain work.

Dammeier told The News Tribune earlier this month he stopped using Matty Photo & Motion when McDaniel became his assistant.

“I did that because I hold myself to the highest possible standard,” he said. “Not because I question whether there’s a conflict of interest, but I want to make sure that no one could ever even question it.”

Dammeier said the county has gone “above and beyond” to ensure the process is “above board.”

“If there was a conflict of interest — at all — not only would I not be doing business with them, but I wouldn’t allow anybody in Pierce County to be doing business with them,” he told The News Tribune.

The McDaniels both are listed as governors of Matty Photo & Motion, according to business registrations with the Secretary of State. They also are listed as owners in 2017 paperwork sent to the county. The couple did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In August, their company’s YouTube channel included seven videos on “Exploring Pierce County,” which showcased work Matty Photo & Motion had done for the county. The videos have since been removed. Video work with The Pierce County Auditor’s Office and head shots of Richardson remain on the site.

Despite the safeguards county officials say are in place, awarding contracts to a business owned by the county executive’s assistant is problematic, according to some people who study government ethics or watch over how governments operate.

Hana Callaghan is the director of the Government Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

“People in public service have a duty to preserve trust in government,” Callaghan told The News Tribune. “They have a duty to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”

Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the arrangement between the county and Matty Photo & Motion is concerning.

“I still have this gut feeling that if I were in their place, I would stay as far away as I could to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest,” Nixon said. “How do they escape people thinking that this is rigged? It’s suspicious that this could be based on personal relationships and donations.”

Nixon said he hopes that an independent entity, like the Pierce County Ethics Commission or the Office of the Attorney General, would investigate the relationship between Matty Photo & Motion and Pierce County. The ethics commission will only investigate if a complaint is made, said Peter Donor, the commission chairman.

“My gut feeling is that this is a problem. This needs to be investigated,” Nixon said. “The whole purpose of these ethic laws is so the public is serving the public — is that (taxpayers) are getting the best value for their dollar, and they aren’t looking out for their own interests but the public’s.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why we did this story

Holding elected officials and government agencies to a high standard is an essential part of local journalism and one we take seriously at The News Tribune. We received a tip earlier this year that the executive assistant of Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier owned a company that was doing business with the county. We felt that needed to be investigated.

Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

How we did this story

We used public records, including business registrations with the Washington Secretary of State’s Office and invoices and contracts with Pierce County, to confirm the employee’s firm was in fact doing business with the county. We used the same records, obtained through a public disclosure request, to enumerate contracts the company won and how much it was paid.

We then researched the ethics codes of Pierce County, the state and local cities and interviewed the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a university professor who studies ethics in government about our findings.

We then presented our findings to Pierce County officials and sought their comments, including a number of conversations with the county’s communications director.

We repeatedly offered the owners of the company, including the county employee, the opportunity to comment for the story. They declined.

Talking to taxpayers

Government agencies often use video and photography to communicate their work to taxpayers, news outlets and others.

Pierce County government live streams many public meetings and also uses videos online and on social media to promote projects and explain legislation.

Much of that work is done by Pierce County TV, a county department with five workers.

Pierce County TV took in $191,876 from 2017 to July 2019, records obtained by The News Tribune show. Outside of live streams of public meetings, the department produced 35 video projects from 2017 to July 2019, according to The News Tribune’s analysis of those records.

Pierce County’s Communications Department contends the number of PCTV video projects outside of live streams is 64. That number includes any project that could have been done by a private vendor but was not necessarily open for competitive bid.

Other video and photo work is outsourced to private vendors, including Matty Photo & Motion.

According to records obtained by The News Tribune, there were 47 video and photo projects done by 10 private businesses between 2017 and July 2019. Of those projects, Matty Photo & Motion was chosen to produce 31.

The company also did work for the county in 2016, before Dammeier took office and Alice McDaniel became his assistant, records show. That year the company was paid $22,702 for eight projects.

In total, Matty Photo & Motion has made $125,147 from county contracts since 2016.

Working with Matty Photo

In 2017, the county’s Communications Department decided it wanted to work more with Matty Photo & Motion, said Libby Catalinich, the county’s communications director.

To avoid “the appearance of a conflict of interest,” the department created a request for proposal process, Catalinich said.

Asked by The News Tribune if creating a different process to work specifically with Matty Photo & Motion was a form of preferential treatment, Catalinich said her department chose that process because it levels the playing field by producing more than one vendor.

Callaghan, the Santa Clara University professor, said the county’s efforts there could be seen as a problem.

“It certainly calls into question the fairness of the process if they were predisposed to a certain company before the bidding process,” Callaghan said. “Regardless of the legality, does this create the question of the fairness of the process?”

Six photography and video companies submitted applications that qualified for further consideration for retainer contracts under that process, according to the records obtained by The News Tribune. Two were chosen: Life Tree Studios and Matty Photo & Motion.

Barry Gregg, owner and 40-year veteran photographer of Life Tree Studios, has gotten one job since being put on the retainer list, being paid $750 for an executive staff photo session.

“It was a waste of my time,” he said of applying to be on the retainer list.

Catalinich said the county only used Life Tree Studios once because its work was “inferior.”

Dammeier: No conflict

Because Alice McDaniel is not the decision maker in choosing who wins multimedia contracts, Dammeier said working with Matty Photo & Motion is not a conflict of interest.

“If you start applying some sort of different standard of ‘happens to know’ or ‘might have a relationship,’ then you are significantly disadvantaging all of our friends and neighbors who are involved in a variety of businesses and nonprofits,” he told The News Tribune.

Records obtained by The News Tribune show Matty Photo & Motion was paid $4,500 for two videos with Dammeier, including work associated with the 2018 State of The County adress. Both of the projects were completed before Alice McDaniel became Dammeier’s assistant.

More than 74 percent of the private video and photo work for County Council members has been produced by Matty Photo & Motion since 2017, according to records obtained by The News Tribune.

Before working directly for Dammeier, McDaniel was hired in 2013 to be Richardson’s assistant.

Other than PCTV, Richardson has worked exclusively with Matty Photo & Motion in the past three years on video and photo work for his office, awarding the company $20,369 in contracts. Matty Photo & Motion donated a portrait to Richardson’s 2016 campaign, according to the Public Disclosure Commision. Richardson’s image also is featured on the company’s website.

“There are two things that end up in my process of selection,” Richardson told The News Tribune in response to questions about his work with the company. “One is the quality of the product produced, and, secondly, are they competitive cost-wise, are they affordable?”

Council member Derek Young said he first saw Matty Photo & Motion’s work in a Republican ad and was “blown away.” Young has worked with the McDaniels’ company on at least two projects costing $8,280.

Young said he understands the appearance of a conflict of interest but that it’s hard to avoid doing business with people you know or have a rapport with.

“I guess in local government you are going to do business with a lot with people you know,” Young said. “If it’s cheaper and I like their work, then I choose them.”

Council member Pam Roach said she had never heard of the company but believes all photo and video work should be done in-house.

“There are people in the county who can do this themselves,” Roach said. “There is no reason to have a company do it.”

Council members Marty Campbell, Jim McCune, Connie Ladenburg, and Dave Morell did not respond to requests for comment.

Photo and video contracts

Here is a list of the private companies awarded photo and video work by Pierce County from 2017 to July 2019. Pierce County TV, a county department, earned $191,876 for video work and live streaming of public meetings over the same period.

Matty Photo & Motion, $102,444

EZTVspots, $19,153

Videos Crafted, $16,129

Cre8TV, $3,525

Envisage, $2,950

Martina Machackova, $2,518

Fiverr, $435

Life Tree Studios, $750

Visiting Media, $662

Yearwood Studio, $202

Source: Pierce County

Josephine Peterson covers Pierce County and Puyallup for The News Tribune and The Puyallup Herald. She previously worked at The News Journal in Delaware as the crime reporter and interned at The Washington Post.
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