Watchdog blog the Checks and Balances Project (CBP) is facing criticism over its links to the Tigercomm public relations firm. On November 9, 2020, the Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) signed a contract with Tigercomm during a conflict with major Virginia health care network, Sentara. On November 13, CBP published its first story about Sentara. This month, The Washington Post and The Virginian-Pilot reported on the ties between Tigercomm and CBP.
“Yet a closer look suggests the [CBP] is not always the independent crusader it appears to be,” The Post reported in an article titled, “The new journalism — and the PR firms behind it,” earlier in June. “When it investigated the hotel industry, it was after it had received a grant from Airbnb. A high-profile investigation into Arizona utility regulators came after Checks and Balances received money from a solar power company, the company disclosed in 2015.”
According to its website, Tigercomm is focused on serving organizations working for clean energy and sustainability. Its founder and president is Mike Casey, who also founded CBP. CBP is supported by sustainable economy non-profit Renew American Prosperity (RAP), according to RAP’s website. Tax filings for RAP show links to Tigercomm.
“Renew American Prosperity, Inc., engages the services of Tigercomm, LLC, to act as the primary source of management,” RAP’s 2018 Form 990-O states.
The Post complained the Checks and Balances Project didn’t disclose the relationship before its reporting on the blog:
But the relationship was not divulged to readers, nor publicly acknowledged until The Washington Post inquired about it — an arrangement that unnerves transparency advocates who have been keeping tabs on a proliferation of unconventional news sites and watchdog outfits that may be blurring the lines between PR and journalism.
However, a Checks and Balances Project spokesman said EVMS had never paid for or controlled the blog’s reporting.
Battle Between EVMS and Sentara
EVMS is partially funded by public funds and also by Sentara. Sentara Director of Brand Engagement Dawn Bushey explained, “Sentara and EVMS are separate, not-for-profit organizations. For more than 50 years, Sentara has been one of Eastern Virginia Medical School’s (EVMS) steadfast supporters and partners.”
“We have provided millions of dollars to help train generations of doctors and other health professionals to serve our community,” Bushey said.
According to The Virginian-Pilot, last November a consultant recommended that Old Dominion University run EVMS, while Sentara would absorb EVMS’ medical practices.
“EVMS initially participated in what we were told was a study conducted by the Manatt Health consulting group at how neighboring health care and educational institutions should align,” EVMS Chief Communications and Marketing Officer Vincent Rhodes said.
He told The Star, “When we learned that Sentara’s CEO was on the board of the organization that hired Manatt, our Board of Visitors voted ‘no confidence’ in Manatt, withdrew from the process and requested our money back.”
Rhodes said they hired Tigercomm “to hear from the community that founded us about how we should advance our operations and organizational relationships.”
“No EVMS funds have been used to support the Checks and Balances Project blog. We did not and do not direct or request any content or coverage from it. We have no more influence over it than we do other news outlets that have been critical of Sentara,” he said.
“Early in our discussions with the consultancy, the founder disclosed he’d helped found the Checks and Balances Project blog roughly a decade ago, and that it had been active on a range of issues in Virginia. We were clear that we were not seeking any involvement with this blog, nor providing funding for it or any other similar platform. There has been no contractual relationship between EVMS and the Checks and Balances Project or Renew American Prosperity,” Rhodes said.
Tigercomm’s Client Service Agreement dated November 9, 2020, lists services Tigercomm will provide to EVMS, including a strategic branding plan. Tigercomm could charge up to $125,000 for creating and executing that plan.
New client services agreements were signed in January 2021 and April 2021. Rhodes said the contract is expiring at the end of June. The Pilot reported that the contracts add up to $497,000 worth of payments.
CBP Pivots to Sentara Coverage
CBP’s first story about Sentara, “Will Sentara Healthcare’s Expansion Plans Hurt Eastern Virginia Medical School’s Ability to Serve Southeast Virginia?” was published November 13, 2020. On November 20, CBP published “Records Suggest Sentara Pushing EVMS Funding Onto Virginia Taxpayers To Ease $11.5B Merger.”
CBP now has dozens of posts mentioning Sentara under the ‘Virginia’ tab on its site. “Checks and Balances Project is conducting a survey of the Hampton Roads community to find out more about the billing practices of Sentara Healthcare,” the site states.
June 2021 CBP posts include, “Did Sentara Healthcare Abuse Its IRS Tax-Exempt Status?,” “Sentara Called Off $11.5 Billion Cone Health Merger After Months Of Scrutiny,” “Sentara’s Merger With Cone Health is Off,” and “Sentara Hires Virginia Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne as Chief of Staff to Defend Cone Merger.”
CBP Enterprise and Investigative Editor Ray Locker told The Star, “We have reported on other issues related to accountable government at the national level and in several states.”
Locker listed several articles, including three based in Virginia. On October 15, 2020, CBP called for the revocation of Trump’s physician’s medical license for downplaying COVID-19. A 2015 post criticizes then-Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax) for opposition to campaign finance reform. A 2013 article criticizes then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for receiving campaign funding from Consol Energy amid a dispute between landowners and Consol.
Locker said CBP only began covering Sentara after The Virginian-Pilot and the longtime conservative blog Bacon’s Rebellion published multiple stories about Sentara and EVMS.
After CBP began covering Sentara, Bacon’s Rebellion quoted and linked to several CBP stories.
Bacon’s Rebellion Publisher James Bacon told The Star:
Sentara makes significant profits, and as a nonprofit enterprise, it is morally obligated to invest some of those profits for the public benefit rather than building a horizontal and vertical monopoly that extends from hospitals and clinics to physicians practices, diagnostic centers, and insurance carriers, and now, apparently, the region’s medical school.
No one is holding Sentara management accountable – not the board of directors, not government regulators, not the local media.
He added, “Anybody who is willing to invest resources investigating Sentara’s practices and bringing them to public light is performing a valuable service, and I don’t care where they get their money.”
Locker said, “We routinely receive tips from various sources. Someone suggested looking at Sentara, particularly following the reports that Sentara funded the consulting report that suggested spinning much of the financial responsibility for EVMS to the state.”
He said local media has failed to properly scrutinize Sentara.
“For an investigator, I have found Sentara to be a very rich story,” Locker said.
Locker said, “Here’s the important thing: They have never challenged anything in our reporting as inaccurate. As you can see from our work, all of our reporting is documented, often by Sentara’s own records.”
Sentara spokesperson Bushey disagreed.
She told The Star in an email, “Their one-sided ‘stories’ routinely contain inaccuracies, omissions and opinions devoid of fact that lay bare their anti-Sentara agenda.”
She said, “When [CBP] began writing about us last November, we acted in good faith and responded to several of their inquiries. As their ‘stories’ became increasingly outlandish and their tactics unorthodox, we suspected that they had ulterior motives and realized they were not a legitimate media outlet.”
EVMS and Sentara’s Ongoing Relationship
Bushey said, “We only recently became aware of [CBP’s] connection to EVMS. This activity is disappointing, disheartening, and unsettling, especially given Sentara’s role as EVMS’ biggest donor.”
She said Sentara has partnered with EVMS for over fifty years and provided millions of dollars to the organization.
“To learn that EVMS had any association with the recent smear campaign against Sentara is disheartening and unsettling given our role as one of their biggest supporters. Despite this issue, it is our goal to continue this longstanding relationship with EVMS,” Bushey said.
But EVMS spokesperson Rhodes said, “If the blog is publishing something untrue about it, Sentara should address that concern with the Checks and Balances Project.”
He said, “We greatly appreciate the funding Sentara has provided over the years. However, when comparing its funding to national models for how and to what magnitude teaching hospitals support their respective medical schools, it is easy to see that EVMS has been dramatically underfunded since its inception.”
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