NY Councilman's Role in Sister's Hiring Is ExaminedWhy is this sort of a scandal, but the First Lady having the equivalent make-work diversity racket job at the U of Chicago Hospitals, and getting paid $117k when her husband was chairman of the Illinois Senate Health and Human Services Committee and then getting her salary more than doubled when her husband got elected to the U.S. Senate, not a scandal?
by Ray Rivera and Russ Beuttner
A few years ago, when New York City was pressuring advertising agencies to hire more black executives, City Councilman Larry B. Seabrook, chairman of the Council’s Civil Rights Committee, approached one of the largest companies with a plan to address the issue.
The company, the Omnicom Group, ultimately endorsed Mr. Seabrook’s plan to create a high-powered diversity committee and agreed to spend $2.25 million on initiatives. It also decided to retain a consultant from Atlanta whom Mr. Seabrook had proposed to help run the committee.
The City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, praised the plan. H. Carl McCall, a former state comptroller, agreed to serve on the committee. And Omnicom saw the plan as an effective response to concerns that just 2 percent of the higher-ranking jobs at New York advertising firms were held by blacks.
But Ms. Quinn, Mr. McCall and the company say they were never told that the candidate recommended by Mr. Seabrook in early 2007 was his sister.
Omnicom officials said they did not learn of the sibling relationship until they discovered it on their own, shortly before they settled on Mr. Seabrook’s sister, Priscilla A. Jenkins, for the job of coordinating the committee’s work.
Ms. Jenkins was a former college administrator who ran a consulting business out of her home. Company officials said they were not concerned that Mr. Seabrook never mentioned the relationship to them. And the officials would not say what the company pays Ms. Jenkins.
The company decided to retain Ms. Jenkins as the committee’s executive director because of her “extremely impressive résumé,” said Weldon H. Latham, the company’s outside legal counsel on diversity.
“Her experience in management, administration, education, diversity and corporate and community liaison made her an attractive candidate,” added Mr. Latham, who said he could not release her résumé. He said that apart from recommending Ms. Jenkins, Mr. Seabrook played no role in the decision to retain her.
City regulations prohibit elected officials from using their positions to obtain financial gain or personal advantage for themselves or close family members.
“Obviously, now that we have knowledge of this, it’s an issue we take very seriously,” Ms. Quinn said.
Mr. Seabrook, a Bronx Democrat, and his sister did not respond to several requests for comment. But Cleveland Beckett Jr., a spokesman for Mr. Seabrook, said the company had reviewed other candidates and had complete control over the selection. “This was by all means an open process,” he said.
Ms. Jenkins’s duties include administrative, communication and coordination tasks, and she plays a role in setting the committee’s agenda, the company said. In addition to hourly consulting fees commensurate with industry standards, Ms. Jenkins is compensated for her expenses, including travel costs from Atlanta, Mr. Latham said. The committee and its subcommittees have met numerous times and “have been instrumental in helping shape and enhance Omnicom and its agencies’ diversity efforts,” he said.
When Mr. Seabrook came up with his plan to address diversity, the city’s Commission on Human Rights, a mayoral agency, was just finishing a two-year investigation of hiring practices
agencies and was threatening to hold potentially embarrassing hearings if the companies did not sign pacts agreeing to set hiring goals and to report on their progress annually. Patricia L. Gatling, the agency’s commissioner, said she had not been aware that Mr. Seabrook was working with Omnicom on a separate plan.
Most of the companies signed agreements with the commission. But four agencies affiliated with Omnicom objected to numeric hiring goals and instead pursued the proposal by Mr. Seabrook, who was also planning hearings.
As a result of its discussions with Mr. Seabrook, the firm agreed to provide $1.25 million to the eight-member committee over five years to finance programs on diversity and to devote an additional $1 million to establish a marketing and communications curriculum at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. Omnicom’s plan with Mr. Seabrook did not satisfy the Human Rights Commission, however, and two weeks later, the company signed the pact with the commission.
In the most recent numbers released by the city, the advertising industry reported that it was largely meeting the hiring targets that it had agreed to with the commission. In 2008, for example, 30 percent of those hired into upper-echelon positions were minorities, according to the industry numbers.
Before assuming her role with Omnicom, Ms. Jenkins, 55, directed the Center for Academic Excellence and Leadership at Morris Brown College in Atlanta. She worked at the small historically black college for 15 years, until 2003. Many staff members left the college after it lost its accreditation in 2002. The program she had managed was designed to offer remedial assistance and to help students find internships, and she oversaw a staff of two to four people, according to Milford W. Greene, a former professor and a former assistant dean at Morris Brown.
She also helped the school’s staff apply for grants, Dr. Greene said.
“Priscilla was a very dedicated and hard worker who was very serious about her work,” he said.
After that, she set up a consulting business with her sister. The scope of the consulting work Ms. Jenkins has performed is unclear. Omnicom would not specify her professional credentials.
According to city records, Ms. Jenkins has also done consulting work for at least three Bronx-based nonprofit groups financed by Mr. Seabrook through City Council discretionary funds.
The groups, the Mercy Foundation, the Northeast Bronx Redevelopment Corporation and the African-American Legal and Civic Hall of Fame, were run at the time by Gloria Jones-Grant, a close associate of Mr. Seabrook’s. The groups are among those that investigators are scrutinizing as part of an investigation that began last year into how the Council spends its discretionary funds.
Since Mr. Seabrook joined the Council in 2002, the groups have secured more than $1 million in city contracts, mostly through Mr. Seabrook.
The Mercy Foundation, which paid Ms. Jenkins $7,500 in 2007 to help with what city records describe as an immigration seminar, has received nearly $200,000 in grants from the Council. It is unclear how much Ms. Jenkins has been paid by the groups in total because the city would not release additional documents, citing the continuing investigation.
In the mid-1990s, when Mr. Seabrook was a state legislator, federal investigators looked into his role in financing the Northeast Bronx Redevelopment Corporation and how the money was spent. The investigation did not produce any criminal charges, but a state audit later criticized how the group had spent $260,000 it had received, saying that it should return $46,000 because it had not adequately documented the expenses.
In approaching Omnicom, Mr. Seabrook envisioned an industrywide committee, with a full-time executive director, that would work with the Council and use a combination of public and private money, Mr. Latham said. Later, Mr. Seabrook gave the company a list of recommendations for committee members and one name for executive director, Ms. Jenkins’s, Mr. Latham said.
As discussions continued, he said, Omnicom realized that it would be the only source of financing and that this would be, essentially, its committee. Omnicom made the executive director position part time, Mr. Latham said, and discovered that Ms. Jenkins was Mr. Seabrook’s sister. He said the company never brought it up with Mr. Seabrook.
Mr. McCall, the Omnicom committee’s chairman, said of Ms. Jenkins: “The fact is she had a job and she did the job. I don’t know how she got the job.”
The best answer I can come up with is that Civil Service laws are supposed to prevent favoritism in government hiring. Still, private interests, like the U of C hospitals, really aren't supposed to bribe elected officials by hiring their loved ones to make work jobs and then giving the loved ones huge raises when the elected official gets elected to a higher office. (The existence of the Diversity Racket makes all this easier because it's obviously unimportant whether they accomplish anything. The less they accomplish in, say, getting no-bid contracts for minority firms, the better for the general public). Maybe it's not illegal, but isn't it a little unseemly? Especially since Mr. Obama carefully positioned Mrs. Obama as this home-and-children-first Earth Mother during the campaign, so how in the world can she be said to have "earned" $317k in the year after his election to the Senate?