TALLAHASSEE — Four minority-owned public relations firms sued the state Friday, arguing that a recent contract awarded to publicize the Census was discriminatory.
On Feb. 26, the state awarded a $2.1 million contract to five marketing firms. The awareness campaign was split into 12 groups of historically under-counted communities, such as minorities, college students and the homeless.
The four black-owned firms bid on two portions of the contract to reach out to black residents in South Florida and those in Central And North Florida. Those portions are worth $405,600.
The process was "highly questionable and raised concerns from the beginning," LaKeitha Grey, the CEO of Tallahassee-based N-Tersections Communications, told reporters on Friday.
Three other black-owned marketing firms and the Florida Black Chamber of Commerce are also included in the lawsuit. They are suing Gov. Charlie Crist, the Department of Management Services and the winner of the black portions of the contract, the Moore/Ketchum partnership.
The suing firms argue that one of the contract evaluators, Hue Reynolds, was biased and gave them drastically lower scores compared with the winning partnership. Reynolds is the deputy communications director at the Department of Education.
Taking Reynolds' scores out of the average would slightly lower the score for Moore/Ketchum and increase N-Tersections's score. But Moore/Ketchum's score would still be higher.
Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said the Governor's Office is reviewing the legal merits of the suit and available options.
In a letter to Sen. Gary Siplin, the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, Crist's general counsel, Robert Wheeler said bidding process was fair, but the governor hopes the winning contractors will "work with minority businesses" to maximize the state count.
Siplin, an Orlando Democrat, said the black caucus will withhold a final statement on the contract until formal bid protests are complete, but the black-owned firms are a sound choice, given their community ties.
"Blacks know how to get the black community," he said. "We can explain to them that they ought to get counted."
Terrie Ard, a senior vice president with Moore Consulting Group, said the black-owned ESP Media will do 85 percent of the work and receive that portion of the award. ESP produced the campaign materials and is doing the outreach. Moore will coordinate the effort and report results to Crist's office.
The lawsuit seeks to halt the Census contract and re-open it. Census forms are due April 1.
Grey acknowledged the suit comes late in the process, but said Crist's office delayed awarding the contracts three times, resulting in missed opportunities to reach black residents, such as Martin Luther King Day.
Ron Sachs Communications won the portions of the contract for American Indians, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and migrant farm workers. Sachs is one of the more well-known public relations firms in Tallahassee. It was hired as a consultant for GOP House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon of Winter Park to put on a jobs summit in January.
Moore/Ketchum also will advertise to college students, part-time residents and those in rural areas.
Moore/Ketchum is a combination of Tallahassee's Moore Consulting, and Ketchum is an international marketing firm based in New York City.
The Florida Association of Broadcasters won the contract to reach out to the homeless, and Salter-Mitchell was picked to reach-out to the disabled. MGSCOMM of Miami won the bid to reach out to Hispanics.