Councilwoman: PR consultant 'terrible use of money' ahead of Kerrick trial

Claire Fallon talks to WBTV reporter Nick Ochsner (Corey Schmidt | WBTV)
Claire Fallon talks to WBTV reporter Nick Ochsner (Corey Schmidt | WBTV)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - An On Your Side investigation has uncovered new details about the role an outside public relations consultant played in helping city leaders prepare to respond to the verdict in the trial of CMPD Officer Randal 'Wes' Kerrick.

The city hired Mark Weaver, a crisis communications consultant based in Ohio, two weeks after settling with the family of Jonathan Ferrell for $2.25 million.

Ferrell was shot and killed by Kerrick in September 2013. Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter. A jury deadlocked on a verdict in August.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose office was handling Kerrick's prosecution, declined to bring a second trial in the case and has dismissed the manslaughter charge.

In the wake of the trial, WBTV requested all communication between Weaver and employees in the city manager's office, the city's office of corporate communications and marketing and select staff at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department.

The city supplied hundreds of pages of documents in response to the request.

Records show Weaver was first contacted by Sandy D'Elosua, the city's director of corporate communications and marking, in late May.

"We are getting ready to face a very high profile trial in our community involving a police officer shooting and the death of an African American male where the police officer is charged with voluntary manslaughter," D'Elosua wrote Weaver. "As you can imagine in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore among other cities, this is a very controversial case in Charlotte, and the city manager would like to invite you to come here and advise on how we should handle this situation from a communications perspective."

In an interview with On Your Side Investigates, Weaver said he first me City Manager Ron Carlee at a workshop on crisis communications hosted by the UNC School of Government last February.

"The [city's] leadership team, they asked me to come help consult with them to bring national best practices to the preparation to the city's response on the communication side ahead of the Kerrick trial," Weaver explained.

Weaver said that he brought an outsider's perspective to the city's internal PR staff.

"Because I've done work like this around the country and taught in this area, I bring best practices from other situations such as when I worked for the United States Justice Department or when I handled issues when I was the Deputy Attorney General of Ohio," Weaver said. "All of this experience formed the advice I gave Charlotte."

Records show D'Elosua and other senior city staff opted to pay Weaver and his firm a one-time $15,000 fee that guaranteed his services for the duration of the trial instead of retaining him for $7,500 a month with a three month minimum or paying him an hourly fee of nearly $500.

In addition to the $15,000 fee, the city also owes $1,250 for expenses incurred during a trip to Charlotte in June to meet with city leaders ahead of the trial.

Information provided by the city shows Charlotte has hired an outside PR firm at least two other times in recent memory: during the arrest and criminal proceedings against former Mayor Patrick Cannon in 2014 and during proposed legislation and litigation affecting the governance of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in 2013.

In both previous instances, the city hired Capstrat, LLC for $17,000 and 19,000, respectively.

Records provided by the city show Weaver helped craft a nine-page PR plan and additional talking points for elected city leaders and senior city staff.

The plan lays out talking points, gives guidance on how to communication to city employees during the trial and identifies people in the Charlotte community who could help the city spread its message.

Included on the list of 'potential messengers' were city leaders; local and state officials including U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch; former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt; Randy Hagler, president of the North Carolina Fraternal Order of Police; on air personalities at local radio stations including Power 98, V101.9 and Praise 100.9; and others.

The plan also included talking points for how to discuss the hiring of Weaver himself.

At least one member of the City Council voiced disapproval at Weaver's hiring.

Councilwoman Claire Fallon called Weaver's hiring a waste of money and said the council was not consulted prior to his retainer.

"I think it was a terrible use of taxpayer money," Fallon said. "At the time I asked about it and I was told it was the [city] manager's prerogative and we have nothing to do with it."

Fallon, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, said she would have preferred the money spent to hire Weaver be used to purchase additional police body cameras or help fund a new ladder company for the fire department.

The money to pay Weaver came out of D'Elosua's departmental budget after an early possibility that CMPD would pick up the tab.

"If you're worrying about PR it looks terrible. Why do we PR a trial?" Fallon asked. "A trial should take its own course."

Comments Fallon made in an article published by The Charlotte Observer appears to have at least played a part in city staff working with Weaver to revise talking points for council members, emails show.

D'Elosua sent an email to Weaver on the afternoon of August 27 attaching an Observer article about a divide in CMPD caused by the trial.

"Would like to talk with you about this and key talking points when you get a sec. Thx." D'Elosua wrote Weaver.

Weaver sent revised talking points for council members that he called "more memorable" and "less sterile" less than twelve hours later, at 12:18 a.m. on Friday, August 28.

"We know that council members (like Charlotte citizens) may view this topic from different perspectives, so we've provided a variety of talking points for each member to review and consider," an intro to the revised talking points reads. "Since city staff takes no position on the Kerrick trial, we rely on each of our elected officials to decide what he or she would like to say publicly."

For her part, Fallon said she never used the talking points crafted by Weaver and provided by the city's PR staff.

City staff point to the relatively calm protests and lack of violence as justification for Weaver's hiring and the decision to prepare in advance for all possible trial-related scenarios.

"I think because of the strong leadership of the people who lead Charlotte, they helped avoid another Ferguson or another Baltimore," Weaver said. "I played a small consulting role."

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