In unusual move, Berkshire DA used part of state budget to hire media relations firm during first year in office
It’s common practice for many elected officials, including district attorneys, to have a staff member focused on communication with the public and the press. But one district attorney in western Massachusetts also hired an outside public relations firm.
During Harrington's first year as district attorney, her office hired Kivvit, a Chicago-based media relations group. Her office also had contracts with The Management Action Center, a Washington-based organizational management firm, that first year and again in 2021.
It's unusual for DAs to spend part of their budgets on media firms, according to interviews with prosecutors and a review of documents obtained from public records requests to the three district attorneys serving western Massachusetts.
According to one of the documents, Kivvit had an agreement with Harrington to work on a “Juvenile Justice Program Rollout.”
The agreement said Kivvit's work included "Intense Communications Support" and "Message Development." The Management Center, described as a "sister organization" of The Management Action Center, worked with Kivvit on "Transitioning the Comms Office," which included a "Rapid response structure."
Harrington's contract with Kivvit lasted about three months, beginning July 23, 2019, and overlapping with the September announcement of an expansion of a juvenile justice program designed to help keep young people out of court.
“We need to address the root cause of kids’ minor offenses, rather than subjecting them to prosecution and incarceration, that research shows will lead youth to a cycle of re-offending," Harrington told reporters outside the Boys & Girls Club in Pittsfield. “That not only gives you the better chance of success, it is cost effective and makes our community safer.”
At the time, Jeanne Kempthorne served as chief of appeals and general counsel in Harrington’s office. She started working in the DA's office after Harrington's inauguration in 2019, and resigned about a year later following a dispute with Harrington over the release of documents to The Berkshire Eagle.
Kempthorne said she doesn’t know the name of the media firm, but she remembers when Harrington announced the juvenile diversion program.
"I mean, that program I was responsible for putting together," Jeanne Kempthorne said. "[Harrington] prepared with these consultants all manner of, you know, brochures, et cetera, which I happened to just see, you know, like the day before it was going out. I had never seen them before. So, you know, the content was not key."
Harrington declined to be interviewed. In a statement, she said her “small and under-resourced office accomplished these bold reforms in part by working on a limited basis with well-respected expert consultants.”
Her office serves the smallest population of any district attorney in the state and has the smallest budget. In 2019, it was about $4.5 million. That same year she spent about $13,000 on the media firm.
"That would not fly here. I’ve never even considered it, to be honest," said Jean Peters Baker, the elected prosecutor in Jackson County, Missouri.
Peters Baker is also chair of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a national nonprofit. She said she doesn’t like to judge other DAs.
"It’s dangerous for prosecutors to give lots of opinions about how others run their office when I've never visited that jurisdiction," Peters Baker said. "I know here I have never thought of such a thing, but ... it would not get approved" by the officials that authorize her budget.
John Flynn is president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association and the DA in Erie County, New York. Flynn said this is the first time he has heard of a DA hiring a media relations firm.
“I don’t know anyone who has ever done that. I just have Kait and Kait taught me," he quipped.
Kaitlyn Munro is Flynn’s public information officer. Like Flynn, the DAs in western Massachusetts, including Harrington, have one staff member who responds to questions from reporters.
But Flynn said he thinks it’s OK if a DA hires a media relations firm.
"If that company or individual is able to help the office do their job, protect the public and enhance public safety and is able to allow the residents to understand what's going on in the office," Flynn said, "then I got no problem with it."
District Attorney David Sullivan is the chief prosecutor in Hampshire and Franklin counties, as well as Athol in Worcester County. Although he does have one press person who has received some training, he said he hasn’t hired a media relations firm since he took office in 2011.
“The best thing to do is, you know, be out there with the public and make sure that you're in communications with them," Sullivan said. "So I don't need any media specialists to tell me where the community is at, because if you've been in touch with your community, you should know what they want, what they need."
Harrington has framed herself as a progressive criminal justice reformer, launching new policies like reducing the use of cash bail.
“I mean, I guess if you're trying to make a transition that the public's not used to, then maybe it is worth having somebody tell you how you might communicate that," Sullivan said. "But I just haven't seen a need for [a media relations firm] in our district.”
Jeanne Kempthorne concedes there is a public information component to doing progressive criminal justice work as a DA, such as bail reform.
“But I can't say that it's a major function, warranting enormous attention from the person in charge, the DA herself," Kempthorne said. "It seemed to me very disproportionate — the amount of energy that was spent on it, on media."
A district attorney's job is to represent the government when someone is accused of a crime, and to decide the best path toward criminal justice. But to do the work, they have to win elections.
"You can quibble about that," Jean Peters Baker said. "But you can’t really poke prosecutors for the system by which they have to maneuver."
If there is any maneuvering, it’s about to begin.
In Berkshire County, Harrington’s first term is up at the end of the year. Across the state, anyone who wants to run for DA has to get their nominating papers in by early May.