KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Officials at the General Services Administration have confirmed that the agency spent tax dollars on a $234,000 contract with a public relations firm at the height of the NBC Action News investigation that has identified more than 400 sick or dead workers at the Bannister Federal Complex.
"We needed a team of experts that could come in quickly, analyze the situation, and help GSA move successfully forward," said GSA Spokesman Angela Brees. "We initially did not have the communication resources to effectively analyze and tackle the developing situation."
Many former workers were angered when notified of the GSA public relations expenditure.
"It's stupid to spend a quarter million dollars on a public relations firm when you should be looking at taking care of what has happened," said Former Bannsiter Worker Katie Sutcliffe.
Sutcliffe has skin cancer and breathing disorders.
"Am I frustrated, yes," Sutcliffe said. "Are we going to go away. No. We don't ever go away."
The GSA shares a building at Bannister with Honeywell which makes parts for nuclear bombs under contract with the Department of Energy.
GSA awarded the PR contract to Jane Mobley Associates in Kansas City. No one at the firm returned calls for comment.
The publicity contract was awarded to Jane Mobely Associates one day after Senator Kit Bond (R-Missouri) called for an investigation in February after seeing NBC Action News reports about the growing list of sick workers and contradictions in GSA claims.
"Senator Bond calls for an investigation and the very next day the GSA hires a public relations firm," Sutcliffe said. "Why not hire someone to investigate what was going on."
"GSA's priority should be working to identify the problems at Bannister, fix them, and provide current and former workers answers, not a taxpayer funded PR campaign," Bond said Thursday after learning of the GSA public relations contract.
"This contract, like many things at the facility is worth looking into," said Danny Rotert, spokesman for Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri). "The (Inspector General) report released this week points to decades of poor communication at GSA."
Rotert suggested the hiring of outside communications experts may have brought the recent improvements cited in the IG report that blasted the agency for misleading workers in the past.
"The report also says they have turned a corner toward transparency and concrete steps to deal with the facilities issues," Rotert said. "If this firm helped to advise them toward that better direction, then I wish they would have been hired 20 years ago," Rotert said."
About half of the sick workers identified by the NBC Action News investigation are current or former employees from the bomb part facility.
A month after the GSA hired the PR firm, Pitch Newspaper Reporter Nadia Pflaum ran a story headlined, "Russ Ptacek's Bannister investigation reveals the GSA's poor PR skills."
The article lampooned, and other Kansas City blogs lampooned the GSA's response to the NBC Action News investigation which has identified 785 toxins at the Bannister Federal Complex along with more than 400 sick or dead workers.
Brees said the firm handled responsibilities beyond public relations including inter-agency communication, research, and developed the concept of a community council to to address health questions at Bannister.
Brees said GSA has spent twice as much money on environmental testing as it did in for the public relations contract.
"Since that time frame, working closely with the EPA, we've also began building and implementing an extensive environmental testing program," Brees said. "GSA was then and is now concerned about the welfare of current and former workers at the Bannister Federal Complex, which is why we asked the doctors and scientists of NIOSH to evaluate the complex in February, and even expanded the scope of that investigation this last spring."
No one from the firm has returned NBC Action News requests for comment.
GSA Administrator Martha Johnson has failed to respond to multiple requests from NBC Action News about the illnesses and deaths of the agency's employees and tenants at the Bannister Federal Complex.
NBC Action News is working on this story and will have additional details as they become available.
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