Top official at public-affairs firm tapped for Little Rock festival contributed at least $4,000 to mayor’s 2018 campaign

A top official at Think Rubix, the public-affairs firm the city of Little Rock recently selected to help produce a first-of-its-kind festival set for later this year, personally contributed at least $4,000 to Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. ‘s 2018 campaign, records show.

Additionally, Scott’s campaign reported paying Think Rubix $1,500 in August 2018 for what a campaign-finance report described as consultant fees.

Little Rock officials have decided to partner with Think Rubix to produce a new festival set for October called “LITFest: A Return to the Rock.”

The campaign contributions from Think Rubix Managing Principal Tristan Wilkerson occurred while Scott was seeking a first term as mayor.

The initial round of voting in the 2018 contest to succeed then-Mayor Mark Stodola took place in November, followed by a December runoff election in which Scott defeated opponent Baker Kurrus.

Wilkerson contributed $100 to an exploratory committee tied to Scott’s campaign in January 2018, records show.

An amended campaign-finance report from December 2018 shows a $500 contribution from Wilkerson to Scott’s campaign in July 2018 as well as a $1,000 contribution in Sept. 2018. A final campaign-finance report from after the election reflects a $2,500 contribution Wilkerson made in late November 2018.

During the same reporting period (July to late October 2018) when Scott’s campaign paid Think Rubix for consulting work, the campaign also reported paying consultant fees to a series of other firms, including McLarty Consulting and Pine Street Strategies.

In addition to his role at Think Rubix in Washington, DC, Wilkerson’s LinkedIn page describes him as a general partner at High Street Equity Partners in Little Rock.

Wilkerson previously served as a special adviser for the Democratic Party super PAC Priorities USA and a senior policy adviser for the PICO National Network, a faith-based community organizing coalition now known as Faith in Action, his profile says.

In April, the firm announced it had hired Charles Blake, who served as Scott’s chief of staff for much of the mayor’s term before resigning Jan. 31.

One week after Think Rubix announced that Blake had joined the firm, Little Rock announced that Think Rubix had been selected to produce and manage LITFest.

According to the city, Think Rubix submitted the only response during a request for qualifications process that ran from Jan. 20, when the solicitation went out, to Feb. 17, when the city selected Think Rubix.

The April announcement from the city said that Blake was not involved with the submission of Think Rubix’s response or the firm’s selection.

Scott has promoted LITFest as an arts-and-industry showcase, drawing comparisons to Riverfest, the long-running Little Rock music festival that had its last edition in 2018.

Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore signed the contract with Think Rubix on June 9.

According to a copy of the event-promotion agreement signed by Moore and Wilkerson, as well as two other city officials, the city will pay Think Rubix up to $45,000. Contracts of less than $50,000 that go through a competitive bid process do not have to receive the formal approval of the Little Rock Board of Directors.

Earlier this month, Little Rock announced LITFest will take place from Oct. 7-9.

“Not only will this be a time for Little Rock residents to gather, this is also a citywide homecoming,” Scott said in a July 5 statement. “Keeping with that theme, there will be a special emphasis on spotlighting current and former Little Rock residents who are recognized as leaders in their fields to participate as performers and panelists.”

An official with Ghidotti Communications, a firm tapped to handle external public relations for Think Rubix, said Wilkerson was unavailable for an interview.

In response to questions about Wilkerson’s contributions to Scott’s campaign, the Ghidotti official, Angela Rachels, referred on Friday to the public record of campaign contributions and provided a written statement from Wilkerson.

While he referred to the importance of investigative journalism, Wilkerson argued that “applying a lens of scrutiny unevenly sets a dangerous precedent that threatens rights to participate in the democratic process.”

“Engaging in both our democratic process and the business marketplace are simultaneous liberties to which all Americans should have equal access,” he said. “In particular, we should encourage historically disadvantaged communities’ participation in our democratic and free marketplaces.”

Wilkerson described Think Rubix as “the state’s largest minority owned and led public affairs firm” and said its work “is motivated by impact, not financial gain.”

“We would hope that the Arkansas Democrat Gazette applies the same level of scrutiny on every individual or organization that made a legal campaign contribution to any side of the past mayoral campaign and then later engaged in city business through a fair, transparent and legal process rather than unequally targeting that scrutiny on individual groups,” Wilkerson said.

In an email Friday, mayoral spokesman Aaron Sadler wrote, “We’ve answered repeated questions about this City contract and will reiterate: Think Rubix was the only respondent to the Request for Proposals, a committee of city employees evaluated the proposal and recommended the contract , the city manager signed the contract and the city attorney has stated the contract process was handled appropriately and ethically.”

Sadler added, “Campaign contributors aren’t prohibited from seeking government business, nor should they be, since appropriate steps are in place to choose the right vendor in the right way.”

Moore as well as Little Rock Procurement Manager Vitesh Patel have said that prior to the request for qualifications that resulted in the selection of Think Rubix, an earlier request for qualifications yielded one bid that was deemed non-responsive.

An entity called “Quintessential Queens” submitted the response as a joint venture with “Out DA Box Film & Music Productions,” Patel said recently.

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