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Public Theatre

Over the past several months, a public drama has been played out in the Valley news media. The drama has familiar themes: the large multinational company versus local activists. A relatively small group of angry citizens assails government officials who insist they are working for the broad public good. Business fights environmentalists.

The final scenes of this drama seem familiar, too.
The government grants the company, Sumitomo Sitix, quick approval to build a massive silicon-wafer plant in what had been a residential development in northeast Phoenix. The plant's opponents, mostly angry citizens who live near the proposed plant, are left with few options outside court action that offer small chance of success.

There may be a reason the drama surrounding Sumitomo's arrival in Phoenix has seemed so predictable.

A series of remarkable memorandums obtained by New Times shows how Sumitomo's public relations firms mobilized public officials and private agencies over a period of months to counter, confuse and marginalize opposition to the wafer plant.

"We couldn't believe they would type something like that up and put it in a city file," says Liane Waselus, a member of the Coalition of Valley Citizens Opposed to Sumitomo.

Public documents unearthed by coalition members, when combined with New Times research, show that Sumitomo painstakingly scripted a campaign to discredit Sumitomo critics and win over public opinion.

Those documents reveal that Sumitomo or its public relations firms:
* Provided "talking points" for speeches given by Governor J. Fife Symington and Mayor Skip Rimsza in praise of Sumitomo's arrival in Phoenix.

* Directed city employees to act in support of Sumitomo's efforts.
* Aided the infiltration of meetings held by residents opposed to the plant and sent reports on those meetings to city employees.

* Asked members of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council to travel to Japan with a "friendly reporter" from the Arizona Republic in hopes of obtaining favorable coverage of Sumitomo's factories there.

It is hardly unusual for a corporation to engage public relations representatives to burnish the firm's image. It is reasonable for those representatives to create a public relations plan--even a detailed script--for their client to follow.

The extent to which Arizona public officials were willing to follow the stage directions of Sumitomo's PR script is, however, extraordinary indeed.

The earliest memo New Times has obtained detailing Sumitomo's self-promotional campaign is dated November 20, 1995, just a few weeks after opposition to the wafer plant flared up among residents of the Desert Ridge development in northeast Phoenix.

The memo was written by Suzanne Pfister, an employee of Nelson Robb Duval & DeMenna, the Valley's third-largest public relations firm. It's addressed to 11 people: five city employees, two Sumitomo officers, two members of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and two people at the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, a quasi-public organization created in 1989 to coordinate municipal efforts to bring new businesses to the Valley.

Under the heading "Status of Activities to Be Conducted," Pfister lays out a to-do list. The list includes a few things for employees of the city of Phoenix to do.

Item one: "Bridgett Hanna [then a city public information officer] is still working with the Arizona Republic to see if the article providing questions and answers on the Sumitomo site will be placed." Hanna is also charged with getting a pro-Sumitomo program on the city's cable-television station. David Kreitor, a city staffer in the business development department, which had been negotiating with Sumitomo since at least the middle of June 1994, is set to write his own opinion piece for Valley editorial pages.

The memo also lays out how the city will deal directly with the plant's protesters: "The City sent out its response to the first letter from the 'Coalition.' No response will be made to their second letter."

Pfister then turns to the Chamber of Commerce and Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC), which are expected to line up support among their own members and send in additional opinion-page pieces and hold a reception so "business leaders in the Valley can attend to show their support for Sumitomo."

For its part, Nelson Robb Duval & DeMenna would be sending out sample letters to the editor to "interested groups"; the samples could be retyped and sent in to local newspapers. The PR firm also sent a letter to 90 legislators, city council members and members of the governor's staff, telling them to contact NRD&D directly if they had questions and concerns about the wafer plant. "Special meetings" would be set up for the benefit of legislators and City Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood, who represented the Desert Ridge area.

The campaign also would include direct mail to residences, fact sheets for members of homeowners associations, briefings for civic and business groups and more fact sheets for members of the village planning commissions involved with the Sumitomo issue. ("[P]ersonal meetings," the memo notes, would be scheduled with "selected members" of the commissions.)

 

In addition to describing efforts to steer governmental, business, media and citizen response to the Sumitomo plant, the memo makes it clear that those protesting the project should be watched. And the city government would help with the watching.

"Reconnaissance activities have been conducted with City staff, and with people who are familiar with the special interest groups who are not in support of the plant," Pfister wrote, adding: "Efforts are also being made to identify residents who can voice their support and counter some of the potential intensity from these opponents."

The PR firm also planned to meet openly with various members of the opposition, hold meetings with Intel Corporation officials, lobby KTAR radio and KAET-TV, Channel 8, for segments discussing the plant, and hold "editorial briefings" at the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette.

Nine days later, Pfister sent out another memo. A few names were added to the list of addressees, including Denise Resnik of Denise Resnik & Associates, a public relations firm that has represented the developers of Desert Ridge.

Some new items had been added to the campaign, others updated. For example, Bridgett Hanna, the city information officer, had apparently been successful in her efforts to persuade the city cable channel to join the pro-Sumitomo effort: "The City has agreed to produce a show on Sumitomo."

Pfister also notes that the city's David Kreitor had managed to finish his opinion piece supporting the Sumitomo project. Another editorial, this one signed by GPEC and Chamber of Commerce representatives, was being shopped to Arizona Republic editorial pages editor Paul Schatt by the chamber's Lisa Noble.

Meanwhile, Pfister writes, "NRD&D staff will continue with selected editorial briefings with the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette."

A third memo was obtained by New Times from the Greater Phoenix Economic Council.

Dated December 12, 1995, this Nelson Robb Duval & DeMenna document, again written by Suzanne Pfister, appears to provide a script summary, or talking points, for Governor J. Fife Symington and Mayor Skip Rimsza to follow as they celebrate the consummation of Sumitomo's lease of state land for its new manufacturing facility.

The "press event," as Pfister calls it, would take place at the Capitol, with the governor up first. According to the memo, Symington's talking points are three in number and rather brief:

"A. The importance of Sumitomo to the State's semiconductor industry.
"B. How pleased the state is to welcome Sumitomo to the Valley.
"C. This is the kind of economic development which this state needs: clean, light industrial processes which support our computer chip manufacturing and provide high quality, high-wage jobs."

Rimsza is to speak next. His lines:
"A. This is a great day for the City of Phoenix.
"B. Sumitomo is the start of a strong employment core in our northeast Valley.

"C. There are currently over 147,000 people living within a 5-mile radius of the plant.

"D. This silicon-wafer facility, along with the other companies which may soon be moving to this area, will strengthen this community and provide a true village core. This will allow people to live and work in the same area, reduce some of our traffic congestion and improve their overall quality of life."

A state land commissioner is scheduled to give some technical explanation, and Sumitomo Sitix Corporation President Reijiro Mori is set to thank city and state leaders.

Fast forward to February 27, 1996, and it's time for another update on the campaign. In a memo written by both Pfister and Resnik, the to-do list has reached seven pages. It is addressed directly to Mayor Skip Rimsza and Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood and copied to several city staffers.

The memo includes some activities that might be viewed as ordinary public relations efforts:

"The February 26 Phoenix Gazette editorial is being distributed to Homeowner Associations presidents, community leaders and interested residents."

"An event acknowledging the $5000 donation by Sitix of Phoenix will be held Saturday, March 16 at 10:00 am. Details currently are being coordinated."

Under the heading "Support From Strategic Allies," however, the memo notes that Nancy Russell of the Arizona Association of Industries "has agreed to facilitate discussions with the Business Journal and serve as a source to the Arizona Republic on select articles, including those relating to [opposition leader] Mr. [Steve] Brittle."

The Greater Phoenix Economic Council, another ally, would "fund an honorarium for an ASU professor, if necessary, to provide a third party review of the Sitix plant." Gail Howard, in the ASU business development office, was charged with "identifying" an engineering professor for the job.

 

Meanwhile, GPEC's president, Ioanna Morfessis, "has agreed to travel to Japan with a friendly reporter to view the plant in Kyushu" (emphasis not added).

"Selected reporters" would also be invited by the Chamber of Commerce when it held a "welcoming breakfast for Sitix of Phoenix that includes CEOs."

"Select media" will also be on hand for other "future events that promote positive messages."

After dealing with the press, NRD&D could look into other matters. Robert Robb, one of the firm's partners, was "further researching" whether People for the West, a "wise use" organization best known for opposing efforts by environmentalists to limit logging and cattle grazing on federal lands, was "an appropriate counter organization" to the coalition opposing the Sumitomo plant.

When taken together, the four public relations memos obtained by New Times are singularly optimistic. Cooperation from public officials is taken for granted, as if a private corporation could literally script the actions of men and women elected to represent whole populations.

The memos give the impression that Arizona politicians and business leaders would, over a period of months, provide unquestioning aid to a multibillion-dollar company at the direction of its public relations representatives.

And that's exactly what happened.

In December, letters to the editor that looked remarkably similar to one another began pouring into the Valley's newspapers. Some of the letters that reached New Times were hastily signed photocopies of form letters; others were carefully recast and put on company stationery.

Dozens of letter writers uncannily reported having the same experience: "I once heard someone say that when it comes to new job growth, we need more McDonnell Douglas', not more McDonald's."

The deluge of letters prompted a Republic story which reported that the form letters had been sent to thousands of area business people with a cover letter signed by Mayor Skip Rimsza, GPEC Chairman and APS President Mark DeMichele and Phoenix Chamber of Commerce Chairman Frank Placenti.

The story noted that nearly identical letters had managed to appear in the Republic, the Phoenix Gazette and New Times. R&G editorial pages editor Paul Schatt didn't appreciate being used so indelicately: "We have little enough space for legitimate letters," he was quoted to say. "It's a deplorable tactic, because it's not sincere."

Rimsza, however, defended using city funds for the letter campaign: "Not only do I think this is the right thing to do, I think we should do more of it. We should not depend on the media," the mayor said.

The same month, David Kreitor's guest editorial praising Sumitomo appeared in the Arizona Republic. A positive show about the Sumitomo plant was shown on Channel 11, the city's cable-television station.

And what happened to the editorial submitted by GPEC and the Chamber of Commerce to the Republic? The Chamber's Lisa Noble says that the Republic came out with its own unsigned editorial using "some of the information from that piece we had submitted."

Although largely ignored by the press, the ceremony to celebrate Sumitomo's land lease--the ceremony for which the governor, Phoenix's mayor and other officials received a list of talking points--did take place.

In May, GPEC President Ioanna Morfessis, three other GPEC officials and Dr. Peter Crouch, dean of ASU's College of Engineering, made a two-week trip to Japan with Republic business reporter Kerry Fehr-Snyder. Fehr-Snyder wrote a four-part story that appeared June 23. The front-page headline: "Sumitomo plant a good neighbor, Japanese say."

Fehr-Snyder refused to comment on the public relations memo suggesting that Sumitomo representatives would attempt to get coverage from a "friendly" Republic reporter. GPEC official Dan Dever says the Republic paid Fehr-Snyder's way, and he sent New Times copies of a letter to the R&G's managing editor, Pam Johnson. The letter shows that GPEC asked for a reporter to accompany council officials to Japan without making any references to demeanor, friendly or otherwise. Brittle, leader of opposition to the Sumitomo plant, says he showed the memo to Fehr-Snyder and she was upset by the implication she might be considered "friendly" to the firm.

While its strategic allies plied the Republic with requests for coverage, guest editorials and letters, NRD&D's "reconnaissance" activities--spying on the coalition of residents in Desert Ridge who opposed the Sumitomo project--produced reports that were copied to city files.

"I attended last night's meeting of the Coalition to Stop Sumitomo, and wanted to provide you with another summary of what was discussed," wrote Tom Evans of NRD&D to Robert Gill, Sumitomo's chief operating officer in Phoenix, on February 23. "Thursday's meeting was better theater than last week's. Turnout was smaller--between 150 and 200 people--and several members of the audience were actually Sumitomo supporters, which led to a couple of heated exchanges and shouting matches."

 

The reports by NRD&D staff focus on details of the coalition's strategies: Sumitomo knew when the coalition would hold rallies and honed its messages specifically to counter the information the coalition shared in its meetings.

And, as scripted by Suzanne Pfister and Denise Resnik, virtually all of the many meetings, formal receptions, power breakfasts, political speeches, job fairs and direct mailings detailed in NRD&D's memos have come to fruition.

Denise Resnik, co-author of the February 27 memo, is speaking very slowly, as if she's checking every word for three or four alternatives.

"That [memo] was an attempt to channel the, uh . . . let's see, just trying to pick my words carefully . . . it was an attempt to coordinate the involvement of leaders and organizations wanting to lend their support. That's all it was. It in no way was intended to tell the city or anybody else what needed to be done. But clearly to coordinate those folks . . ."

Resnik quickly corrects herself and continues: ". . . or coordinate those activities, and information, that needed to get out to dispel some of the distorted information and fear-inducing statements that have been spread by opponents."

After she learned that the February 27 memo was being circulated, Resnik says, she called the Republic and apologized, knowing that the "friendly reporter" remark wouldn't go over well.

"That was nothing more than a sincere expectation of fairness. And I and Suzanne jointly apologized for the word choice since that is not what we had expected. We wanted a fair reporter."

"It was an unfortunate remark," says Pfister. "We had seen several instances where the reporting from a number of papers was not accurate, including New Times. And so what we wanted was a fair representation, and that really would have been the correct term."

"We've said from the beginning," says Pfister, "that we were doing a comprehensive program to get the information out to people. Reading more into that is inaccurate."

The talking points she submitted to Governor Symington and Mayor Rimsza, for example, were simply compilations of public statements the two officials had already made, Pfister said.

Resnik, however, admits that portions of the memo look bad. "Looking at it later, we would have left certain words out . . . so it wouldn't be subject to misinterpretation. Those words are too open for interpretation. Clearly, we should have taken more time to edit it more thoroughly."

City economic development staffer David Kreitor defends city actions outlined in the memos: "We were under attack by [Don't Waste Arizona president] Steve Brittle, and I think you would be remiss if you wouldn't defend yourself in that type of a situation. I can't speak for Sumitomo's PR firm, but I think that all of the things that the city did were appropriate given the way that we were being attacked."

Mike Evans of Common Cause, however, calls the memos "truly troubling" and says they present a case study in unethical government behavior. "If the governor and the mayor and then by extension the state and the city are willing to do so much to bring a corporation to the state, how do we know that the rest of the public's interests are being served?"

Steve Brittle and the Coalition of Valley Citizens Opposed to Sumitomo have moved part of their anti-Sumitomo efforts from the court of public opinion to a court of law.

Arguments and responses in the coalition's lawsuit against the city are proceeding. Brittle is confident that his side will win, mainly because the city was so eager to consummate the deal with Sumitomo in the first place.

"They shot themselves in the foot. If they had done this the correct way, the legal way all along, there might have been some outcry, but by the time people realized and got things organized and tried to refer that zoning decision, it would have been too late," Brittle says.

If it proves its case, the coalition says, construction in the desert will grind to a halt. The city will be required to rezone the land, and even if rezoning is approved, the plant's opponents, now highly organized, could easily gather the approximately 3,000 signatures needed to subject the ordinance to a referendum. And the public, alerted to environmental concerns about the Sitix plant, would reject it outright, Brittle claims.

Jay Dushoff says other outcomes are more likely. An attorney who has handled similar cases, Dushoff says that judges often will dismiss legal challenges, even when they have merit, if a costly construction project is already under way. The existence of technical defects in the city's zoning procedures may not be enough to persuade a judge to halt work.

 

On the other hand, Dushoff adds, even if the coalition won the court battle and forced a rezoning effort to a referendum, there is no guarantee Sumitomo would lose the election. He cites the case of Maeve Johnson, who successfully rallied her neighbors to resist the building of the Squaw Peak Parkway. The project was forced to a vote, but then passed easily. "That happened," Dushoff explained, "because if you don't live in the neighborhood, you're thrilled to have another freeway."

There is another lawsuit in preparation that could present Sumitomo real legal problems.

Tim Hogan, director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, says the center's board of directors has approved litigation that he will file in the near future. The center's lawsuit will challenge Arizona's special tax status for companies operating in foreign-trade zones.

The center's lawsuit will challenge the constitutionality of those tax breaks. If such a suit were successful, Sumitomo would stand to lose $11 million a year in tax reductions over the life of a 99-year lease of state land.

The company--once again, through a PR representative--has already reacted to the potential economic threat.

In March, Denise Resnik, working for Sumitomo, obtained a copy of the board of directors for the Center for Law in the Public Interest and sent it to Sumitomo ally and GPEC boss Ioanna Morfessis, asking her to brief board member Karen Scates on the "misinformation campaign by Steve Brittle's organization."

But Sumitomo's efforts to influence the center's board seem to have gone nowhere. Perhaps unwittingly, Resnik chose one of the least active members of the board in Karen Scates. Less than a month later, citing difficulties in making it to meetings, Scates resigned. In June, the rest of the board approved plans to litigate the foreign-trade-zone issue.

Jana Ronan, the center's secretary, isn't surprised to find out that Sumitomo and a quasi-public official had attempted to influence the center's board and, in so doing, blurred the lines between public and private policy.

"It's the way hicks do politics," she says.

On a recent Thursday night, the multipurpose room of the Paradise Valley Community Center is filled to capacity. About 100 people are listening as Chris Wilson, a chemical engineer originally from the Bronx, urges them to send guest editorials to local newspapers. She also encourages them to call up editors, particularly at the Arizona Republic, to complain about "unbalanced" coverage.

That causes several people to cast furtive glances at the back of the room, where Republic reporter Kerry Fehr-Snyder is taking careful notes.

Near the door, Steve Brittle is waiting to go to the podium. He's asked if he spots any spies in the audience. Brittle takes a long, slow look around the room.

"Not tonight, anyway," he says.


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