Giles Ward
Giles Ward, former senator and chairman of the Mississippi Complete Count Committee

In August, members of the Mississippi Complete Count Committee for the 2020 census scrambled to pull members together and find a marketing firm to flesh out an outreach plan to Mississippi’s hard-to-count communities. After hiring and rehiring a Biloxi-based public relations firm to do the work, questions emerged as the organization’s top official was found liable last week for more than $10 million in a Medicare fraud case.

The Office of the Secretary of State and the Department of Finance and Administration both awarded The Focus Group, a Biloxi-based public relations firm, contracts to develop marketing plans for the 2020 census.

Last week, a jury found Ted Cain, a South Mississippi businessman and president of The Focus Group, his wife and others liable of defrauding Medicare of more than $10 million, by charging the Stone County Hospital for work they never did, the Sun Herald reported.

Cain owns the hospital and can continue doing business but isn’t permitted to transfer assets before a March 26 court date. Because it was a civil trial, the defendants did not face criminal charges. The trial was aimed at recovering Medicare’s money, plus damages and fines.

U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst, who represents the Southern District of Mississippi, said in a news release that the Cain case was one of the “most egregious cases of Medicare fraud we have litigated in the state of Mississippi,” the Mississippi Center for Public Policy reported.

It is unclear if state government officials knew of Cain’s investigation and connection to the public relations firm. Giles Ward, former senator and chairman of Mississippi Complete Count Committee, said he became aware of Cain after the contract was awarded.

“I don’t think it would have made a difference,” Ward said in a phone call with Mississippi Today. 

“His indictment has to do with Medicare which is not even remotely connected to the census information ….  I reached out to the CEO of the Focus Group after the contract had been awarded about any type of arrangement this individual had with day to day operations, and other than ownership their management is independent of this individual. We’re proceeding right along.”

The Focus Group’s website lists Allison Buchanan as the CEO. Buchanan’s name does appear on both contracts with the secretary of state and DFA. However, Cain is registered as director, president, secretary, and treasurer of The Focus Group, Inc, according to the SOS’s website.

In December, then-Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, awarded the group $22,500 to develop a digital media and content strategy plan for outreach for the census. Leah Smith, deputy chief of staff for the office of now Lt.-Gov. Hosemann, said The Focus Group received the contract because it had the lowest and best quote.

“Four marketing agencies submitted a quote in response to the Request for Quotes (RFQ). The submissions were scored based on experience and other relevant criteria,” Smith said in a statement. “In collaboration with the Governor’s Office and Complete Count Committee, the Secretary of State’s Office began requesting quotes from marketing agencies in November 2019 to market and communicate the Census to the wider public.”

In February, the state Legislature appropriated $400,000 to the Department of Finance and Administration to enter into contracts to market, promote, and advertise for the 2020 census. Through a no-bid process, the contract was awarded to The Focus Group. The “valid” reason for this, Ward says, is because they didn’t have “time to go through a formal procedure.”

The 100-page plan can be accessed here and here.

“We awarded the marketing contract and felt like (because of) the size and intricacies of the marketing plan that there was no reason for us not to award it to the same firm to develop it,” he added.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.