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July 29, 2008

Joanne Lukacher contributed to this article.

burson-marstellerToday, the New York City Board of Elections announced its contract with global public relations firm Burson-Marstellar for a $6.5 million campaign to “educate” New York residents about the wholly non securable computerized voting systems NY plans to implement in 2009.

Also today, B-M announced it appointed former U.S. Army Reserve Public Affairs Officer Pamela Keeton as a managing director in its U.S. Public Affairs Practice.  Earlier this month, B-M hired Karen Hughes, the former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, as Global Vice Chair based in Washington, D.C. 

This $6.5 million expenditure follows yesterday’s Financial Control Board meeting where Governor Paterson admonished city workers for “failing to appreciate” the economic crisis faced by the city and the state.  Mayor Bloomberg warned that since he expected a $1 billion deficit in FY 2009 and a $2.3 billion deficit in 2010:

“That’s why we’ve put the lid on City-funded spending… We’ve directed City agencies to be very judicious in identifying where and how to save, in order to maintain our essential services and our economic competitiveness.” 

The lid has slipped, Your Honor.  The NYC Board of Elections cannot justify $6.5 million in promoting a brand new, high-tech, exorbitantly expensive voting system that doesn’t workNor is it “essential” to switch to a new system when fiscal prudence demands that NYC retain its secure, reliable lever voting machine in light of such grave fiscal deficits.  

Burson-Marsteller’s Clients

According to Wiki, B-M’s most notorious client is Blackwater USA, the mercenary group alleged to have murdered 17 Iraqi civilians last year.  Though the Iraq Prime Minister’s office sought murder charges, Blackwater has never been brought to justice.  Blackwater’s Iraq contract was extended for another year in April.  Apparently B-M did its job. 

B-M also headed the PR campaign to dispute allegations of genocide against the Nigerian government, and represented Argentina’s military junta government of General Jorge Videla to attract industrial investment. 

The military takeover ended a protracted civil war and was hailed by world media as a prelude to peace in Argentina. Burson-Marsteller’s client was the Ministry of the Economy. During the Videla government’s reign, thousands of Argentine citizens disappeared and many more were tortured for their political beliefs, known as the Dirty War. Burson-Marsteller has maintained through the years that it was never asked by its client to defend human rights violations.

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein states:

“Victor Emmanuel, the Burson-Marsteller public relations executive who was in charge of selling the Argentine junta’s new business-friendly regime to the outside world, told a researcher that violence was necessary to open up Argentina’s ‘protective, statist’ economy. ‘No one, but no one, invests in a country involved in a civil war,’ he said, but he admitted that it wasn’t just guerrillas who died. “A lot of innocent people were probably killed,’ he told the author Marguerite Feitlowitz, but, ‘given the situation, immense force was required.'”

No stranger to defending oppressive regimes, B-M also represents multinational corporations, like:

Union Carbide Corporation, jointly responsible for the Bhopal disaster that killed some 2,000 employees and nearby neighbors and seriously injured thousands more.  The plant was a joint venture of Union Carbide Corporation, a long time B-M client, and the Indian government. While originally operated by Union Carbide, it was taken over by local Indian management prior to the accidental discharge of a deadly gas used in the manufacture of insecticides.” (Wiki)

Corporate Watch reports this list of B-M clients:

BP Chemicals – In 1992, it was found that BP’s Hull facility discharges twice the level of methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) – a chemical which can cause genetic damage, fetal damage or birth defects at unsafe levels of exposure – into the water than the total amount of MEK released in the United States.

Kerr McGee – owners of a uranium mine in the Navajo Nation, New Mexico. Accused of paying low wages and not informing the workers about the hazardous effects of uranium. Deaths are being recorded every month.

Malaysian Timber Industry Development Council – has felled vast areas of tropical rainforest, particularly in the states of Sarawak and Sabah, threatening the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples who lived there. BM has been hired to “repel falsehood and lies spread by evil-minded environmentalists.” However, even the pro-business Malaysian Government has reported that 5 states have over-logged; and although the International Tropical Timber Organisation warned the loggers in 1990 to cut their output to 9m m3/yr it has remained at 16-19m; and at the present rate the primary forest will be finished in 7-8 years.

Monsanto and Eli Lilly – both companies produce the growth hormone BST to increase milk yields in cattle. It has been criticised for risk of infection in the cows, the fact that there is already a milk surplus, and unknown effects of this hormone on human beings. Acting on this concern, state legislators in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California and Vermont attempted to enforce labeling of milk produced with, and containing, this hormone. Their efforts were thwarted by Burson-Marsteller acting on behalf of these companies.

Pfizer – a pharmaceutical company accused in 1990 by the US Generic Pharmaceutical Industry of fraudulent and deceptive practices for its failure to report severe side effects of its Feldene drug before it obtained US approval. Listed by the Multinational Monitor as one of the ten worst companies in 1988 for supplying faulty heart-valves. At least 394 of these valves ruptured killing 252 people by 1990. The company has also conducted extensive tests on animals, was listed by a US group as one of the top fifteen corporate contributors to global pollution based on 1987 figures and had one of its plants listed by Greenpeace as one of the ten worst polluters in the South East of England.

SmithKline Beecham – A pharmaceutical and research company which, in the year to March 1991, exceeded its toxic waste discharge quota into the rivers and sea more than 30 times. The company also owns its own animal testing facilities and has been accused of unnecessary cruelty in housing its animals.

Unilever – food, chemical and household goods manufacturer. Implicated in pollution of rivers in the UK and convicted for water pollution offences between 1/9/89 and 31/8/91. Owner of Birds Eye Walls – a food manufacturer which admitted in 1991 to annually importing 30,000 tonnes of beef from Brazil (where much grazing land is felled rainforest). In June 1989, 87 workers at the plant in Sao Paulo, Brazil were fired for occupying the plant in an attempt to achieve better pay and conditions.

Why This Heavyweight Corporate Spin Doctor for NY Elections?

New Yorkers reasonably must question why a global PR firm tied to such disreputable companies has been hired for $6.5 million by a cash-strapped board of elections to “educate” voters about the new election system. 

Perhaps it’s because 50+ scientific studies have proven that software driven voting systems can be hacked without detection.  (For 12 fully cited quotes on what computer security experts say about the new systems, see Debunking Pre Election Testing Myths. For top shelf, crème de la crème, most succinct, in-plain-English, best quotes by computer security experts, see Warning: This Product Is Hazardous To Your Freedom.)

Beyond the damning evidence against using software driven voting systems, perhaps B-M was also hired for its specialization in “Grassroots Outreach” where it boasts:

Our boutique, in-house Communications Center is built to manage larger scale data management and outreach activities directed at individuals and organizations relevant to a campaign.

We can narrowcast messages, or wide-cast them to thousands via strategic online outreach.  We deliver products ranging from online targeting and recruitment to managing data for future activations.

Complete Market Failure

As expert spin doctors, B-M no doubt has been set upon New York voters to hoodwink them, despite that software driven voting systems can be hacked without detection, despite their exorbitant price, and despite the widespread failures of these products. 

None of the vendors hawking computerized technology meet NY’s guidelines for doing business only with responsible vendors Last year, attorney Andi Novick sent a 60-page, well-researched memo to NY officials, providing details of the shady connections, failed performance, and efforts of vendors to suppress damning evidence of their product.  She later supplemented that research with a 21-page memoYet, as she points out, NY officials proceed with Eyes Wide Shut

Sequoia’s ballot marking devices which allow special needs voters to prepare their own ballot unassisted (when they work) cost $12,000 each.  Nassau County reported an 85% failure rate of over 250 machines, while the statewide failure rate stands at 50%.  As Nassau County Commissioner William Biamonte said, “Can you imagine buying a $2,000 computer from Best Buy and it doesn’t work right out of the box?”  The cost for BMDs is sixfold his example.

New Yorkers can resist the move to computerized elections by signing this PETITION, and by following the reports at Election Transparency Coalition.