The Black Brilliance Research Project beginning to end, part 1

On June 15th, the final financial statement on the $3 million Black Brilliance Research Project was filed with the city, closing out the books on a tumultuous, nearly-year-long effort to gain insights into community safety in Seattle’s BIPOC communities. SCC Insight has gathered those financial records, along with other source documents, an ocean of public records, and interviews with key figures to create this four-part series looking at the Black Brilliance Project from beginning to end and attempting to shine a light on what was going on behind the scenes, where things went both right and wrong, and how the money was ultimately spent.

Part 1: the money and the contract

Part 2: the research and the break-up

Part 3: following the money

Part 4: accountability and other parting thoughts

For reference, this page includes links to the major documents and financial records generated over the course of the project.

Part I: The Money and the Contract

The Black Brilliance Project has its roots in the events of early last summer following the murder of George Floyd, the protests against police violence, and SPD’s heavy-handed and widely criticized response. On July 7, 2020, a press conference hosted by King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle was held to introduce a four-point proposal to cut SPD’s budget by 50% and reinvest the money into community-based programs to increase public safety. A week later, representatives from King County Equity Now (KCEN) and Decriminalize Seattle presented a “blueprint for police divestment/community reinvestment” to the City Council. Among the presenters was Shaun Glaze, at the time a city employee and volunteer for KCEN with a background in social science research. One month earlier Glaze had pitched to KCEN leadership the creation of “the largest Black-led research collaborative with Black community researchers and data scientists” to ensure that Black communities were fully and accurately represented in research and demographic studies and that the data collection systems serve Black communities better.

Glaze’s proposal was well represented in the blueprint presented to the Council: it proposed a $3 million community-based research effort in the summer and fall of 2020 that would explore the true sources of community safety in Black communities and form the basis for a participatory budgeting program in 2030 to fund community safety programs. King County Equity Now would play a central role in coordinating the effort from the beginning, as noted in the blueprint.

The blueprint included a draft spending plan for the $3 million dollars: roughly $1.1 million for staffing, training, support and materials; $283,000 for COVID-related support; $375,000 for removing institutional barriers to participation; $516,000 for data collection and analysis; $313,000 for data reporting; and $500,000 of cash assistance and direct support for community members.

This conversation took place while the City Council and Mayor were debating a “rebalancing” of the city’s 2020 budget, since revenues were projected to come in well below original projections due to the COVID shutdown. Councilmember Tammy Morales took the lead on proposing a budget amendment to fund the $3 million “Black Brilliance Research Project” as proposed by KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle, with the co-sponsorship of Councilmembers Gonzalez, Herbold and Mosqueda. Early drafts from Morales, including her review comments, make clear that the intent from the beginning was to award the contract to KCEN, though there is discussion as to whether the official appropriation should remain vague (even Angelica Chazaro of Decriminalize Seattle, perhaps sensing the awkwardness of an organization demanding money for itself from the city, advised Morales not to list KCEN in the budget amendment document). The $3 million appropriation made it into the Council’s rebalanced budget, though after the Mayor vetoed that version Morales floated the idea of reducing the amount before the Council ultimately voted in early September to override the Mayor’s veto – retaining the full $3 million for the Black Brilliance project.

Normally contracts of this size would be managed by an executive branch department, and in this case the original budget amendment placed it under the auspices of the Office for Civil Rights; however, since the Mayor’s Office did not support a $3 million appropriation for a research contract, Morales instead amended the proposal to keep and manage the funds through the City Council – a very unusual arrangement for a contract of this size. The Council does execute several of its own consultant contracts each year, often with the help of the City Auditor’s office (which maintains its own research arm that regularly contracts out studies), but it is very rare, if not unprecedented before this one, for a consultant contract anywhere near as large as $3 million to be run through the legislative branch and the City Auditor’s office. For that matter, it’s extremely rare for any consultant contract (as opposed to a services contract) to be as large as $3 million.

Even though KCEN did not yet have a contract with the city, it wasted no time in recruiting and signing up subcontractors for the project: Freedom Project for $543,000, Bridging Cultural Gaps for $78,000, East African Community Services for $348,000, and the Black Trans Prayer Group for $24,000. The contracts for East African Community Services and Bridging Cultural Gaps were signed on September 22; the Freedom Project contract was signed one week later, on October 1. In a statement to SCC Insight, KCEN explained its reasoning for jumping the gun: “City Council made clear that research had to start and be completed within the timeline it took in order to inform the City budget decisions. The Mayor vetoed funding multiple times, pushing funding timeline out further. Throughout, KCEN was forced to invest its own funding to stay on track.”

The city’s contract with King County Equity Now turned out to be problematic. Under city law (and as explained previously by SCC Insight), any contract over $54,000 must be bid out through a competitive process; however, there is an exception for non-profit organizations, and Councilmember Morales and her staff intended to use this provision to avoid an RFP process and award the contract directly to KCEN. However, KCEN, which started out earlier in 2020 as a coalition of other organizations rather than a standalone nonprofit, was still in the process of applying to be a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and therefore didn’t qualify for the exception. To work around that, Morales and Council staff invoked a second provision: using a separate registered nonprofit as a “fiscal sponsor,” officially on the books it would contract with the city and handle the money and paperwork, but executing on the contract would still be in the hands of KCEN. It’s a common occurrence for small community-based organizations doing business with the city to have fiscal sponsors; however, it’s far more unusual for the city to invoke both the non-profit exception for no-bid contracts AND use a fiscal sponsor on the same contract; even more so for one as large as $3 million.

The first choice for a fiscal sponsor was the Marguerite Casey Foundation (MCF), a well-established and highly reputable Black-led nonprofit that was also providing funding to KCEN for the Black Brilliance effort. In an interview Herbold asserted that her expectation, dating back to the early discussions in July, was that the Casey Foundation would “act in sort of the lead contract role.” However, the Casey Foundation had never contracted with the city before, and especially with the added complexities of a fiscal-sponsor relationship it proved tricky – and time-consuming – to get their lawyers and the city’s to agree to contractual terms. Those negotiations dragged out through the month of October and into early November.

In the meantime, KCEN’s subcontractors were already working hard – and accruing payroll expenses. The Freedom Project in particular, who had hired their research team by September 16 (a full two weeks even before it signed its contract with KCEN) had accrued nearly $300,000 of payroll expenses to the contract by the end of October – and there was still no contract with the city, and thus no way to pay them.

Entering November, emails between city staff and KCEN make clear that the time it was taking for the Casey Foundation to resolve its contractual negotiations with the city on the fiscal sponsor contract was become a dire cash-flow problem for both KCEN and Freedom Project: Freedom Project had people to pay, and KCEN was on the hook for the money to pay them.  Attention quickly turned to finding a backup option in case the negotiations with the Casey Foundation continued to drag or stalled out, and they landed on Freedom Project as the best alternative.

Freedom Project, a registered 501(c)3, fit the basic criteria to be a fiscal sponsor; however, there are multiple reasons why they were a poor choice. First, a $3 million contract was out of their league: up until 2018 the organization had an annual budget of $250,000, and in October 2020 it had also signed another contract with King County Public Health for nearly $330,000; this contract would likely stretch it to its limits (Councilmember Herbold raised this as a concern but got on board after being informed that Freedom Project has served in a “fiscal sponsor” role for other contracts). But the more important reason was that not only did Freedom Project have a conflict of interest given its large sub-contract with KCEN related to the project – placing it in a position of overseeing a contract with itself – but the sub-contract placed it under significant financial duress due to the delay in signing the contract and the related cash-flow issues.

Nevertheless, and after briefly flirting with a “two-contract” option, KCEN and the Casey Foundation went their separate ways, and Freedom Project was brought on in the additional role of fiscal sponsor. The fiscal-sponsorship agreement between KCEN and Freedom Project (FP) authorized FP to charge 5% of the full contract amount, or $150,000, as a fee for its services. KCEN and FP signed their agreement on November 13th. Councilmembers Morales, Herbold and Mosqueda jointly signed a “consultant request form” for the $3 million contract with FP, and Council President Gonzalez formally approved the request and signed the contract on November 18.

As part of the contract negotiations with the city, Freedom Project was required to complete and submit a standard questionnaire regarding, among other things, potential conflicts of interest. It did not record its subcontract with KCEN and the conflict that it created. This despite the fact that in the days leading up to the signing of the contract the communications between KCEN and the city acknowledge that FP’s delinquent payroll was one of the reasons that there was an urgency to get the contract done. In response to a question regarding the apparent conflict of interest, Freedom Project responded (via email):

“In August we were asked about subcontracting to support a team of researchers for the Black Brilliance Research project and signed a Subcontractor MSA to support a team of 30 researchers from October – December. In November, we were asked to serve as fiscal agents for a 5% fee, for the purposes of contracting with the city and serving as Fiscal Sponsors. Since we already had a clear deliverables-based Subcontractor MSA for the researchers, we did not see this as a conflict of interest. Our original Subcontractor research contract was delivered on time and under budget.”

The contract itself, as SCC Insight has previously reported, was poorly written. It was scant on details other than four high-level deliverables with corresponding payments, and didn’t even include a project plan and schedule (that was written into the contract as “Deliverable 2”). That set up the effort for more problems down the line, as we shall see.

Next: The Research and the Break-up

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