$1.5-million government contract given to Danielle Smith's former campaign manager's firm
Nordic Media came under scrutiny in February for a $72.5K sole-source contract, but it received an additional sole-source contract prior to winning a long-term open bid.
Nordic Media, a digital advertising firm run by Premier Danielle Smith’s former campaign manager, has been awarded a three-year $1.5-million contract after winning an open bidding process with several other bidders, The Orchard has learned.
The company has already received a total of $142,500 from two sole-source contracts from November 2022 to March 2023, raising concerns the government put its thumb on the scale for a close associate of the premier’s.
Matthew Altheim, Nordic Media’s executive producer and part-owner, managed Premier Smith’s United Conservative Party leadership, which she won on Oct. 6.
Less than a month later, Nordic Media was given a $72,500 sole-source contract to post memes, which was reported in media.
Overlooked was the fact that Nordic received another sole-sourced $70,000 contract for an additional month of work beginning days after the first expired.
Now Nordic Media has received a far larger contract through an ostensibly competitive bidding process.
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According to a posting on Alberta Purchasing Connection, the request for proposal from the government’s Communications and Public Engagement department opened on March 15 and ended April 18. The contract was awarded to Nordic on July 10 for “Strategic and / or Media Planning Services” and “Advertising Creative Services.”
Just how open can an open bidding process be if the successful bidder has already received two sole-source contracts to do similar work?
Not very, according to Duff Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch, a non-profit advocating government transparency.
“You have a built-in bias now in favour of Nordic media and it's the main reason why sole-source contracts really shouldn't be allowed except in an emergency,” Conacher told The Orchard.
“They haven't shown that there was any emergency in these two situations when sole-source contracts were handed to the company. It smells really badly.”
The original sole-source contract was first reported by Charles Rusnell in passing at The Tyee in November. At CBC News in December, columnist Jason Markusoff revealed Altheim was contracted “to shape Smith's social media and memes, with a starkly different, more unruly tone than her office's communications staff.”
In February, CBC reporter Joel Dryden revealed the contract was worth $70,500 and lasted for three months from Nov. 1 to Jan. 31. On its sole-source contract database, the government describes the services Nordic provided as “Digital Media Strategic Planning and Asset Development.”
There was another sole-source contract, worth $70,000, given to Nordic Media for “Digital Media Services” from Feb. 3 to March 1.
According to the Request for Proposal for the open-source contract, the successful bidder is expected to provide these services as needed from April 28, 2023, to April 30, 2026. The government can extend the contract for up to two years.
Applicants are encouraged to provide examples of “experience on similar projects.”
As part of its initial contract, Nordic shot at least one commercial for the government, which it posted to its Instagram page.
Dubbed “I Got This,” the video promotes the government’s series of $100 inflation-relief cheques it’s in the process of sending to seniors and families who have children under 18 and make less than $180,000 a year.
Have a watch of the commercial, which depicts children handing out cash to their parents, below to decide whether the government got its money’s worth.
The video, which was posted on Valentine’s Day, was filmed in late-January. The company posted a “behind-the-scenes” look at what appears to be the same commercial on Jan. 26.
The government is mandated to explain why it’s giving out a sole-source contract rather than engage in a competitive bidding process, with alphabetical codes corresponding to different criteria.
In the first case, the government cited clause ‘h’, which is “where an unforeseeable situation of urgency exists and the services, or the goods or services in respect of Construction, could not be obtained by means of open procurement procedures."
The second sole-source contract is categorized as ‘z’, which means it doesn’t fit any existing criteria.
When the original sole-source contract was reported by the CBC, government spokesperson David Sands said an open process beginning in March would determine the permanent vendor
In an email to The Orchard, Sands confirmed that this was the $1.5-million contract.
He said the unique circumstance warranting the initial sole-source contract was a need for “specialized digital media services on an immediate basis” after Smith became premier on Oct. 11.
Nordic was hired to provide “specialized media services[,] including digital graphics, videos, and other digital products required to inform Albertans about government initiatives, programs, and services,” said Sands.
The firm received a second sole-source contract “because it made fiscal sense” to keep them on board while seeking a permanent contractor, Sands said.
He emphasized that the open bid contract is for a “maximum value” [emphasis his] of $1.5 million. Sands said there were five other bidders who participated in “a[n] open, transparent, and fair process.”
The list of bidders on the Alberta Purchasing Connection website, which tracks downloads of the RFP, shows 90 firms expressed interest in the contract.
It just so happened that the open-source contract went to a firm led by the premier’s leadership campaign manager, which has already received two sole-source contracts.
Conacher said all three contracts to Nordic warrant an investigation from the auditor general.
“It's important for the auditor to send a strong signal by making it clear that those smelly situations are always going to be audited,” Conacher explained.
The Orchard reached out to Altheim on Facebook Messenger to request an interview, but hasn’t received a response.
Less than two hours after the inquiry was sent, Altheim changed his Facebook profile picture from a photo with the premier (used as the feature image for this piece) to a family photo.
This piece has been updated to include comment from the government.
It has also been edited to accurately reflect the number of formal bidders.
Edited by Stephen Magusiak