When Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin visited the jungles of Ecuador on what she described as a fact-finding mission recently, all her travel expenses were paid by the Ecuadorian government through a New York public relations firm called MCSquared – a fact she failed to initially report on public disclosure forms.
Now that same public relations firm is suspected of hiring phony protesters to demonstrate outside the Chevron shareholders meeting in Midland, Texas, last month. The protest was part of a “faux campaign” launched by Chevron’s opponents, who want the company to pay billions of dollars in damages stemming from an Ecuadorian court judgment – a judgment an American court determined was based on fraud and bribery.
McLaughlin’s association with the MCSquared public relations firm and her decision to accept the travel payments as a gift from the Ecuadorian government raise new questions about how far she is willing to go to battle Chevron, Richmond’s largest taxpayer.
The mayor’s six-day trip to Ecuador was in support the South American nation in its ongoing battle against Chevron, which it falsely blames for polluting the rain forest. She returned saying she had gained a “broadened perspective and steeled resolve to continue her struggle against big oil,” according to the West County Times, even though, as the video below reveals, the case against Chevron in Ecuador was based on fraudulent reports.
Despite telling people the trip was paid for by the Ecuadorian government, the mayor failed to initially report the trip on state conflict-of-interest forms, and only amended the report after she was contacted by the West County Times. The amended Form 700 notes that she was indeed paid $4,499 from the office of the president of Ecuador, but also notes that the payment was funneled through the MCSquared public relations firm in Brooklyn.
MCSquared is a small, boutique firm that appears to have few clients outside of the government of Ecuador. Since October, it has issued 16 press releases, all regarding Ecuador or the government’s activities against Chevron. It has a satellite office in Quito, Ecuador, and one the three employees listed on its website, Jean Paul Borja, writes for El Ciudandano, the state-run newspaper in Ecuador.
In an interview with Businessweek, Maria Garey, another employee listed on the MCSquared website, denied paying the phony protesters to attend the meeting May 28, although she admitted being at the protest with Borja to assist two indigenous tribe members who traveled from Ecuador to Midland.
But Karen Hinton, the publicist for Steven Donziger, the New York attorney at the center of fraudulent Ecuadorian court judgment, referred the Businessweek reporter to Garey. “Call MCSquared,” Hinton told Businessweek. “They handled (the protest).”
The promise of payments managed to draw only a few dozen largely uninterested protesters outside the meeting – despite MCSquared’s PR effort to attract “environmentalists, human rights activists, corporate accountability groups and Ecuadorian indigenous.”
Businessweek concluded that such PR misdirection and deception is “emblematic of the dishonesty that has come to permeate a two-decade-long activist campaign focused on oil contamination in Ecuador.”
Requests to the Mayor’s Office seeking comment from McLaughlin on her association with MCSquared have not been returned.