ROCKY: FROM JUNKETEER TO PITCHMAN.
FOR politicians, a sweet perk of the profession is the junket - an all expense-paid vacation, paid for by wealthy benefactors. These trips, elected officials tell us, are just happy, informational visits, with no favors expected in return. But does anyone believe that?
Consider just one example - the 10-day junket Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo took to Israel last fall.
Last week, Delgadillo submitted an op-ed to the Daily News reflecting on the trip, which he took, along with City Councilmen Alex Padilla and Jack Weiss, at the ``invitation of the government of Israel and the Jewish Federation'' of Greater Los Angeles. We declined to publish the piece on the op-ed page opinion column, mostly because it read like something that belonged in a paper's travel section - among the advertisements. For example:
--``(Israel's) airline, El Al, is the safest in the world and has set the global aviation industry's standards for security and safety. ... (E)very tourist destination in Israel including hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, museums, and sporting arenas, is well guarded by highly skilled security personnel.''
--``Israel is not - and will never be - fairly characterized by what appears in the pages of our newspapers. Indeed ... the best, if not the only perspective ... comes to life only by visiting and experiencing the place for oneself. My trip to Israel uplifted my spirit, my soul and my perspective.''
All that was missing was the ``visit Israel'' URL and 800 number.
Delgadillo's praise - which also touted Israel's industries, diversity and youth - sounded like something that could have been written by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.
And apparently, it was.
Curiously, the piece hadn't come from Delgadillo's office, but a New Jersey-based public-relations firm, the MWW Group, best known in these parts as the flaks for Browning Ferris Industries, operators of the Sunshine Canyon Landfill. Among MWW's accounts is a three-year, $6 million deal with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.
Had MWW written the piece on the city attorney's behalf? I put a call into Delgadillo to ask him, but he was in Boston for the Democratic National Convention, and unavailable for comment. But his aide, Jennifer Krieger, assured me that Delgadillo was the lone author of the piece. MWW merely handled distribution because, with ``all the work we're doing,'' Delgadillo's PR staff was too busy to, um, handle Delgadillo's PR.
The folks over at MWW told a different story.
The firm's Amado Zavala claimed the piece ``was drafted by Delgadillo's office,'' but his company ``provided counsel'' on it. Noam Matas, the western regional director of Israel's Ministry of Tourism, offered yet another version of events: ``Rocky wrote (the piece) together with our ambassador of tourism, and sent it back to our ministry, then we authorized MWW to approach newspapers in order for the op-ed to get published.''
Eight months ago, Jack Weiss wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that echoed many of the same themes as Delgadillo's. And, for what it's worth, Weiss, Delgadillo and Padilla all taped promotional TV spots for the tourism ministry during their visits.
There's nothing wrong, of course, with promoting Israel - the one democracy in the Middle East, and, along with England, America's truest ally in the War on Terror. But there is something unseemly about the prospect of public officials taking expensive junkets (the Jewish Federation paid $3,800 for each L.A. dignitary), apparently in exchange for becoming tourism pitchmen. There's also something unsettling about elected officials doing the PR bidding of a foreign government.
The Israeli government didn't pay for Delgadillo's trip, but the Ministry of Tourism was obviously involved enough to coordinate the TV tapings and encourage these public leaders to publish op-eds urging Americans to come to the Holy Land. The Israeli government was involved enough that, when Delgadillo chose to write an op-ed, he distributed it by way of the tourism ministry - assuming, of course, the ministry didn't write the piece itself.
So I won't be shocked if, some time next week, Delgadillo submits a new piece, this one extolling the virtues of Boston - Revamped roadways! Birthplace of American liberty! Groovy young folk and baked beans!
Nor will I be surprised if the article comes in by way of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.