The broadcasting icon’s fake interview with a Russian journalist went viral on social media, spread by accounts tied to China’s government.
Jacobi Niv had paid Larry King a few thousand dollars apiece to narrate half a dozen videos for companies or projects in Israel, where King is still a big name. But what Niv wanted King to tape on March 27, 2019, wasn’t the usual infomercial. It was more like a disinfomercial.
An Israeli with designer clothes, a buzz cut and a long history of failed businesses and inflated credentials, Niv had known King for nearly a decade. King sometimes taped Niv’s promotional videos at the same Glendale, California, studio where the longtime television host filmed “Larry King Now” and “PoliticKING” for Ora Media, the digital TV network he started with his wife, Shawn. The crew resented the way Niv would stride into their homey, basic studio, bringing extra work for them. But he had ingratiated himself with King, in part by sending him lavish floral arrangements and other expensive gifts on Jewish holidays, King and others said.
That morning, Niv emailed a script to King’s executive producer, Jason Rovou, who recognized that it wasn’t Niv’s typical fare. It was about China, not Israel, and the content appeared to be news-related.
After a 300-word preamble on the U.S. trade deficit with China, King was to introduce a guest, Russian journalist Anastasia Dolgova. The first of King’s scripted questions for her was open-ended: “How can we strengthen the relationship between the 2 countries?”
It soon got more pointed. “Dolgova, you wanted to present us with a case that you mentioned on your show as well,” the script read. “There were several Chinese people who worked in China and allegedly committed crimes there who then fled to the United States and Europe, continuing on with their normal lives while leaving many angry people behind.”
Dolgova’s answers were not in the script. They were plugged in separately. King was expected to tape his questions without speaking to her. His skill at the give-and-take of interviewing, of sensing the moment and asking the right question that draws a revealing response, would not be of any use.
Rovou sensed trouble. The idea of lending the set — and his boss’s reputation — to a potentially controversial video that Ora couldn’t control disturbed him, according to three people familiar with the incident. Rovou worried that King could be helping a foreign government spread false information, reminiscent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — a topic King routinely discussed with guests on “PoliticKING.”
When Niv showed up at the studio, intent on making the video, the usually laid-back Rovou confronted him. “It annoyed the holy hell out of Jason, like I’ve never seen him,” said Ian Smith, then a director at Ora. “Jason, to his face, told him how annoyed he was with him. Everyone knew he didn’t like what Larry was being asked to do.”
Niv took Rovou’s outburst in stride. “Jason didn’t want to do this video, not this video, any video,” Niv recalled. “He would say, ‘Why do you come here without telling me in advance?’ So I told him, ‘Look Jason, I set it up with Larry.’”
Rovou implored King not to do the video. King waved away his concerns. The then-85-year-old host, who was in poor health, also made it clear that shooting elsewhere — he occasionally taped Niv’s videos at a Beverly Hills hotel — would be a burden. Continue Reading…
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses were temp agencies. Many have been able to turn the government loans into profits.
As millions of small businesses suffer to the point of going under, some in one industry have found a way to benefit: temp agencies.
Companies typically seek contracted temp workers because they don’t have to pay them benefits and can pick them up and let them go easily. For sudden needs brought on by COVID-19, such as conducting temperature checks and sanitizing workplaces, staffing companies can recruit, vet, hire and supply workers on a few days’ notice.
“It’s amazing, but our demand for services has just gone through the roof,” said Charles Tope, the CEO of Monterey, California-based Employnet, which works in industries ranging from health care to warehousing.
So it may come as a surprise that temp staffing companies like Employnet were among the biggest beneficiaries of small-business loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, which is designed to help hard-hit firms keep paying their employees. More than 11,000 such companies took in a total of between $3.6 billion and $7.9 billion, with about 4,600 of those getting more than $150,000 each. (So far overall, 4.9 million companies have received about $518 billion.)
And there was an oddity in the numbers: 174 claimed they saved 500 jobs each, the maximum under the law, at a rate seven times higher than the share of recipients overall that said they retained 500 jobs. Most temp companies don’t have that many people on their permanent office staff. The explanation? Many were counting workers contracted by other companies as saved jobs, according to lenders, industry experts and staffing companies themselves.
That means many temp companies were able to double dip, getting paid twice for the same worker, once by the client and then again by taxpayers.
Employers were allowed to claim loan amounts of 2.5 times their average monthly payroll in 2019. The loans become grants if companies spent most of the money on salaries and the rest on other specified expenditures.
Because temps are technically a staffing company’s employees even though they’re working for someone else, the staffing company can claim forgiveness for all the wages they’re paid.
The program is administered by the Small Business Administration, which in early July released data showing loans of more than $150,000 in five ranges.
Employnet got a loan of between $5 million and $10 million, the highest bracket, while bringing on 3,500 new workers on client accounts, Tope said.
For its part, Employnet claimed it used the cash to save 490 jobs. Tope did not respond to questions about why it needed the PPP assistance.
For the world’s best-known corporate-management consultants, helping tackle the pandemic has been a bonanza. It’s not clear what the government has gotten in return.
In the middle of March, as the coronavirus pandemic was shutting down the country, McKinsey & Co., the giant management consulting firm, saw opportunity. The firm sprang into sales mode, deploying its partners across the country to seek contracts with federal agencies, state governments and city halls. Government organizations had been caught unprepared by the virus, and there was a lot of money to be made advising them on how to address it.
That month, a partner in McKinsey’s Washington, D.C., office, Scott Blackburn, got in touch with an old colleague. Deb Kramer had just been promoted to become an acting assistant undersecretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where Blackburn, whom McKinsey declined to make available for an interview, had held senior roles between 2014 and 2018. During that period, the two had overseen a major overhaul of the agency called “MyVA,” a project McKinsey had worked on as well. Blackburn had worked at McKinsey before going to the VA, and he returned to the firm afterward. He and Kramer were in touch repeatedly in the middle of March, according to a person familiar with the exchanges.
On March 19, Kramer made a highly unusual request: The VA, she said, needed to hire McKinsey within 24 hours. The VA runs a sprawling health care system that serves 9 million veterans, many of them older and plagued by chronic health problems, and typically takes many months to solicit and accept bids and vet bidders for a contract. The health system’s leadership wanted to sign a multimillion-dollar contract with McKinsey to spend up to a year consulting on “all aspects” of the system’s operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kramer told a VA contracting officer, Nathan Pennington. Pennington memorialized parts of the exchange in a public contracting document.
“There is no time to spare,” the contracting document stated, “every day wasted by a lack of situational awareness down to the community level, and the inability to model scenarios and test alternative courses of action, increases the risk to the citizens of this nation, to include Veterans and our own employees.” The VA, the document observed, needed help with “life-and-death decision-making today.”
The exigent circumstances left no time to seek competing bids or to fully vet McKinsey’s proposal, Kramer argued. It was the only contractor she and her colleagues were aware of that could provide the required services without needing “ramp-up” time the VA couldn’t afford. Pennington conducted no market research and only a minimal review of the cost, “as there was no time,” he wrote. Kramer approved the $12 million price tag. The contract was signed on March 20.
That would turn out to be just a down payment for McKinsey. Ten days later, the Defense Health Agency was added to the VA contract, upping its value to $22.5 million, and the week after, the Air Force hired McKinsey — also with a no-bid contract. The firm’s assignment for the Air Force was to serve on a task force developing a strategy to get defense contractors, many of them McKinsey clients, to produce medical supplies during the pandemic. To justify the $12 million value of that contract, an Air Force contracting document cited what the VA had agreed to pay McKinsey. It did not mention the VA price tag’s largely unvetted nature. Finally, in early May, the DHA expanded the scope of McKinsey’s work, signing an additional contract worth up to $6.1 million.
A VA spokeswoman, Christina Noel, said that the agency “adhered to all federal contracting laws” in hiring McKinsey and that “no-bid contracts can help provide VA the flexibility needed during this national emergency to deliver the services required to support clinical needs and save lives.” A DHA spokesman, Richard Breen, said McKinsey had “expertise needed and an existing contract with [the VA] for COVID-19 modeling support with a separate and distinct scope.” An Air Force spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions.
In a matter of weeks, McKinsey had extracted a total of $40.6 million in no-bid contracts out of its initial agreement with one federal agency. Continue Reading…