Outsider hired for Obama speeches

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On top of the more than half a million dollars it spends on speechwriters, the White House is using tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a public relations firm headed by Democratic image maker Michael Sheehan — once dubbed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as an “extraordinary media coach” who helped her master the teleprompter.

Mr. Sheehan’s firm, Sheehan Associates, could receive more than $100,000 under a current contract and has been providing occasional speech and consulting services to the White House since 2009, federal purchasing records show.

Although Mr. Sheehan has a reputation of helping politicians look good speaking in public, neither his firm nor its White House client has anything to say about the contracting arrangement. Sheehan Associates failed to respond to telephone and email inquiries about the hiring arrangement this week and last, as did the White House press office.

Spending records show that the company was hired under three contracts since late 2009 and has received a total of $60,000. The records variously describe the company as providing “speech preparation training,” “speech writing services” and “speech coaching services.”

It’s unclear what speeches the firm was assigned, but its hiring marks the second time that the White House has paid for outside public relations help. It approved contract work for up to $100,000 for Jeff Nussbaum, a speechwriting aide to vice-presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden during the 2008 election campaign, The Washington Times reported last year.

At the time, a spokesman for Mr. Biden, Jay Carney, who has since been promoted to White House press secretary, told The Times that Mr. Nussbaum’s hiring was permitted under the sole-source provision of federal contracting rules.

Weeks before taking office, Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden pledged to end abuse of no-bid contracting and require competitive bidding on nearly all contract orders for more than $25,000.

However, Mr. Carney said at the time that Mr. Nussbaum was able to “provide unique services where no other person can fulfill the contract requirements” and the White House needed extra speechwriting help. He said Mr. Nussbaum wrote up to six “important and substantial” speeches each month.

According to a 2010 payroll report, the White House employs seven speechwriters earning a combined $624,200. The team is led by Jonathan E. Favreau, the director of speechwriting, who earns $172,200, according to the report, which was released by the White House. Two other senior presidential speechwriters are paid $100,000 each. A pair of presidential speechwriters are paid $75,000 each, and a speechwriter and speechwriting assistant earn $60,000 and $42,000, respectively.

The Obama White House isn’t alone in looking for outside speechwriters. The Bush administration in 2007 approved a $25,000 sole-source speechwriting contract for Matthew Scully, who previously worked as a special assistant and deputy director of presidential speechwriting in the Bush White House.

David Williams, president of the nonprofit Taxpayers Protection Alliance, said the White House should explain why it needs outside public relations help at a time when every dollar counts.

“You find an excuse to be transparent,” he said.

Mr. Sheehan hasn’t made a secret of his work for Mr. Obama. A picture on his firm’s website features Mr. Obama and Mr. Sheehan talking together. The firm also lists among its “media hits” prominent mentions of Mr. Sheehan in books, including “Living History” by Mrs. Clinton.

“I seized upon the village theme, and we swiftly drafted the speech around it,” she wrote. “Then I went to the tiny room in the basement of the United Center for one last rehearsal with Michael Sheehan, an extraordinary media coach who made Herculean efforts to teach me to use the teleprompter, which I had never worked with before and couldn’t seem to master.”

In a February, the Daily Beast, a news website, reported that Mr. Sheehan preferred to downplay his work with Mr. Obama, but quoted him on what it’s like to work with the president: “I get more done with him in two hours than I would with others in eight,” he said.

Mr. Obama is well known for his use of the teleprompter. He made light of it during his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner over the weekend with a spoof movie trailer about life for Mr. Obama if he lost funding for his teleprompter.

The Sheehan Associates website says that since 1988, Mr. Sheehan “has been called upon to coach” every presidential and vice-presidential debate as well as featured speakers at the Democratic conventions.

“For the Obama and Clinton administrations alike, he has coached Inaugural addresses, States of the Union, prime time addresses and press conferences,” the site says.

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