As fallout continues one month after the release of video capturing the SLO County Jail death of Atascadero resident Andrew Holland, the county revealed Monday it paid more than $21,000 to a public relations firm to handle crisis communications about Holland and other inmates' deaths.
In response to questions from The Tribune on Monday, County Chief Administrative Officer Wade Horton sent an email alerting the county Board of Supervisors to the contract, which one member replied was "distasteful, counter-productive and biased."
The board had previously not been informed about the contract. In his statement to The Tribune, Horton wrote that when the jail video was released, the Administrative Office and County Counsel "worked quickly to respond to media inquiries, to address safety concerns and death threats to our employees and to provide information to the public about what the county has done and continues to do to address mental health issues in our jails and our community."
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He continued: "In order to assist us, we hired AMF Media (formerly Barnett Cox & Associates) to provide advice on how to most quickly, efficiently and clearly address this serious matter."
An email forwarded by county Supervisor Adam Hill shows that Horton notified them of the total — $21,625 — for an unspecified amount of work. Horton later explained that up to $25,000 was approved for work through April 1.
The Sheriff's Office already has a crime prevention and public information unit, which includes a full-time public information officer. But critics say the contract is a taxpayer-funded gift to Sheriff Ian Parkinson's re-election campaign, in which he's facing competition from private investigator Greg Clayton.
"This had nothing to do with an election," Horton said.
Maggie Cox, marketing president for AMF's Central Coast region, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Holland, 36, died Jan. 22, 2017, on the floor of a County Jail holding cell shortly after being released from a plastic restraint chair to which he had been tethered for nearly two straight days.
The county paid a $5 million settlement to Holland's family, who have donated $25,000 a piece to the campaigns of Clayton and District Attorney candidate Judge Mike Cummins, as well as $40,000 to Jimmy Paulding, who is challenging District 4 county Supervisor Lynn Compton.
There have been 12 inmates to die in jail custody since 2012, nearly three times the national average, and the FBI formally launched an ongoing civil rights investigation into the jail in May.
Parkinson has faced calls for his resignation and to quit his race for re-election. In an interview with The Tribune last week, Parkinson said he would "absolutely not" quit and defended his department's handling of Andrew Holland's restraint and subsequent death.
After Horton emailed the Board of Supervisors on Monday afternoon alerting them that he was providing a statement to The Tribune, county Supervisor Adam Hill replied, calling the contract "distasteful."
"This is very disappointing to find out, Wade. And to find out in this manner is even more disappointing," Hill wrote to Horton. "While you may not have to check with the board on such matters, let me tell you right now I find this and other attempts to 'handle' this tragic issue to be distasteful, counter-productive and biased."
Later Monday, Hill told The Tribune he's very unhappy with "this PR effort" and said county government owes it to the public "to be as straight and honest and non-political on this matter."
Tave Holland, Andrew's cousin and an attorney representing the Holland Family Alliance, wrote in an email statement Monday: "Hasn’t Parkinson cost the taxpayers enough? Exactly how much money must we spend trying to make his increasingly desperate statements appear to be true? No PR firm in the world can make a lie the truth, and no PR firm can put polish on a homicide."
He continued: "Board majority, you’re on notice. When are you going to stop permitting the continuing coverup and county-sponsored protection of Ian Parkinson? Just how bad does it have to get before you will put the county back to work for its citizens instead of its politicians? Enough already."
Bay Area firm AMF Media Group bought San Luis Obispo-based Barnett Cox & Associates, one of San Luis Obispo County's leading public relations, marketing and crisis communications firms, in November 2017.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with more detail from Wade Horton.