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Water district pays for favorable stories listed on Google News

September 13, 2011 |  8:48 am

Central Basin pays firm for positive stories on Google News
Central Basin agreementThe Central Basin Municipal Water District is paying nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money for promotional online articles "written in the image of real news" designed to get to the top of a Google News search, records show.

Agreements reviewed by The Times show the water district hired a consultant to produce the upbeat stories. Readers who typed "Central Basin Municipal Water District" into Google News got a story hailing the benefits of a new recycled water system. Another prominently listed piece praises the agency it its legal battle over groundwater rights.

The articles appear on News Hawks Review, which resembles professional news website. The site is indexed on Google News, carries advertisements and boasts an "experienced and highly knowledgeable" staff of editors and reporters. But records show it is directly affiliated with a corporate communications firm doing work for Central Basin.

It's fairly common for private-sector businesses and celebrities to game search engines to generate positive buzz or better sales. But Web experts said they had never heard of a public entity employing such a strategy to increase its visibility online. They also question whether Google would continue to classify News Hawks Review as a "news channel" if it knew the articles were paid for by the district.

District officials portray the arrangement as innovative, noting that people who search for "water conservation" or "recycled water" on Google News were now more likely to find stories about Central Basin.

Valerie Howard, the district's public affairs manager, said the articles caused a "huge spike" in traffic to Central Basin's main website and proved far more effective than traditional news releases.

Advocates of open government said the district was blurring the line between promotion and real news.

"This is a serious breach of the public trust," said Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware. "If it was known and approved by the board, it could be interpreted as the use of $200,000 of taxpayer funds as a self-promotion to help them stay in office."

The water district, a public agency that serves more than 2 million residents in southeast Los Angeles County, hired Coghlan Consulting Group last November to run the agency's news operation. Under the agreement, Central Basin pays the firm $11,500 a month in exchange for four stories and other promotional services. The deal was extended in April.

Central Basin officials are pleased with the results. In an interview last week, Howard said she didn't consider the News Hawk Review site misleading and characterized the coverage on it as fair.

Howard said the district has been fighting what she described as inaccurate news articles and blog posts.

Central Basin has been a subject of negative media coverage in the last year. Los Angeles County prosecutors are investigating travel expenses the district paid for its elected board members and their spouses. The Times reported in June on contracts totaling more than $2 million that the district awarded to a nonprofit run by George Cole, a former Bell city councilman charged with public corruption. And in recent months some local politicians have called for a state audit of Central Basin's finances.

-- Sam Allen

Photo: Central Basin Water District General Manager Art Aguilar speaks at a board meeting in Commerce. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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