2021-05-28

Oppo research firm VR Research is tied to mega-firms SKDKnickerbocker and GMMB

Anita Dunn

As it works to save its $11.5 billion merger with North Carolina’s Cone Health, Sentara Healthcare appears to have hired a politically connected Washington, DC, crisis management public relations firm.

The evidence of such a move comes in the use of an opposition research firm that has frequently worked for two of the country’s largest political consulting and crisis management firms – SKDKnickerbocker and GMMB.

While we cannot determine at this point whether it is one of these two firms or another that Sentara has hired, SKDKnickerbocker might be especially attractive to Sentara because one of its principals and founding partners is now a top White House advisor to President Biden, Anita Dunn. Although Dunn is currently on leave from her firm, the Hill newspaper has reported that Anita Dunn, who is arguably the most powerful un-elected woman in the country, “is not expected to remain at the White House long-term.”

Our emails to SKDKnickerbocker and GMMB have gone unanswered.

Tradecraft Missteps Exposed VR Research

The involvement of a crisis management firm, which we determined through the firm’s missteps, is likely due to our reporting on Sentara’s business practices. This reporting has included potential conflicts of interests involving Virginia’s Certificate of Public Need (COPN) process, which Sentara has used to crush competitors while building up $6 billion  in net assets – despite Sentara’s status as a tax-exempt, nonprofit  charitable organization with the IRS.

Two weeks after Checks & Balances Project (C&BP) filed a complaint with the Virginia State Bar against Jamie B. Martin, Sentara’s long-time outside counsel, on March 1, a “Robert Burden” of “Request Archive” filed a records request with Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) asking all sorts of questions about C&BP and others. We discovered the Request Archive FOIA through our own FOIA to EVMS.

Our research showed that Request Archive is actually a “trade name” used by VR Research, an opposition research firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and California that works with Democratic political campaigns.

We called Robert Burden on April 29. He answered the phone. After we identified ourselves, he said he “didn’t want to talk” and hung up.

Between 2014 and 2020, VR Research worked with SKDK on six Democratic campaigns, including those for U.S. Reps. Josh Harder and Scott Peters of California and Kathleen Rice of New York.

In 2020, VR Research and GMMB worked on the campaigns of Harder, Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., and now-Vice President Kamala Harris.

Both media firms are owned by larger companies. SKD Knickerbocker is part of the  Stagwell Group, which bills itself as “digital-first, full-service marketing and communications group that works with simplicity and speed at scale.” GMMB is part of Omnicom Public Relations, a conglomerate that also owns Fleishman Hillard and Ketchum, two firms that do a lot of crisis work.

We also have noticed that someone from The Stagwell Group, SKDK’s parent company, was reviewing our profiles on LinkedIn.

What’s at stake

It’s not surprising the Sentara may have hired a high-profile, politically connected firm out of Washington, DC, to keep this deal alive.

After all, C&BP has broken the following stories and taken actions about the company’s activities:

We might never know which firm Sentara hired unless they report the spending on federal tax forms or one of the companies claims credit for their work. But someone has left fingerprints for the public to see.

 

Ray Locker is enterprise and investigative editor of Checks and Balances Project, an investigative watchdog blog holding government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP is provided by Renew American Prosperity and individual donors.

 

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