Chattanooga Boo-Boo

By Bill McAllister
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 1999; Page A27

There is a big, bitter water fight in Tennessee, and Burson-Marsteller, the giant public relations firm, just got hosed by Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey.

In what the mayor's top aide calls a "take no prisoners" feud, Kinsey has accused Burson's Washington operatives of dirty tricks and "outside-the-Beltway bumbling." Burson is leading the fight against Kinsey's proposal for the city to take over the local, privately owned waterworks run by Tennessee-American Water Co., a Burson client.

The flap was triggered by J.B. McCraw of Arlington, who recently wrote to the Chattanooga newspapers expressing concern over research Burson had her do on the mayor. It was "behind-the-scenes dirt digging," fumes the mayor. A simple check of the public records, counters Burson's public affairs director, Craig G. Veith.

Whatever it was, the mayor and Ken Hays, his chief of staff and a former deputy chief of protocol in the Carter White House, were furious.

Hays noted with delight that letters generated by Burson and sent as part of a direct-mail campaign aimed at local business executives invited them to call a water company executive with comments. The letters, however, gave the telephone number of an English professor.

The mayor, who called Veith a "DC Burson flak/political hack," accused Veith, an aide to former representative Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), of going to Chattanooga "to orchestrate a stunt" that supposedly would split the city council over the water issue.

Veith isn't taking any of this lightly.

"These allegations are absolutely and completely false," he said. Burson's water campaign is based "on the facts," he said. The water fight is far from over and Veith said Burson plans to press on while the city studies a takeover. As for the attacks on him, Veith adds: "A taxpayer-funded personal attack may be all they have."

Hays seems delighted at the uproar. "These big boys are spending money foolishly," he says.