Last month, President Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, got an anonymous email advising him, “Resign Now,” according to ProPublica. Kasowitz shot back by email, “You are f––king with me…Watch your back, bitch…You piece of s––t.” Kasowitz’s publicist, Michael Sitrick, explained that the inelegant outbursts came at the end of a long, tiring day. Sitrick advised Kasowitz to apologize and also pooh-poohed several media charges, such as that Kasowitz is a heavy boozer. Now, Kasowitz seems to have been shoved to the deep background, or may be out the White House door.
Sitrick is perhaps America’s best-known expert in crisis communications — convincing the media that clients in deep doo-doo are really in a tub of hot chocolate. He essentially got started in this business representing San Diego’s Wickes Companies, which moved out of town after going bankrupt. Now Sitrick’s Los Angeles–based company has five offices around the U.S.
Sitrick has represented a number of San Diego companies in self-inflicted trouble — Metabolife and Peregrine Systems, for example, although not all his clients are trying to slither out of scandals.
First, what about Sitrick? On his website, he notes that he has been called “The Wizard of Spin,” “The spin doctor’s spin doctor,” “The Flack for When You’re Under Attack” and, most eye-poppingly, “The Winston Wolfe of Public Relations.” Winston Wolfe was the Mafia fixer in the movie Pulp Fiction. On assignment from the mob, he would wash away blood, guts, and gore left by hit men.
That’s what Sitrick does — with words. He brags, “You can give me a set of facts and I can write you four stories from the most negative to the most positive without changing a single fact.”
I came to San Diego in 1973 and one of the first flacks I met was Sitrick, head public relations executive for Wickes Companies. Wickes’ top managers had moved to San Diego, leaving the bulk of company administration in freezing Saginaw, Michigan. “We couldn’t manage the company” from that distance, a former top official admitted to me. And the top dogs really mismanaged Wickes, while Sitrick sang their praises. In 1980, Wickes bought a hodge-podge consumer company, inheriting a bundle of debt while interest rates were soaring. A San Diego Union reporter asked Sitrick if the company was considering bankruptcy. He ridiculed the idea. The company’s chief executive puffed the company on TV at the Wickes Andy Williams San Diego Open in 1982. Shortly thereafter, Wickes filed for bankruptcy.
Sanford Sigoloff, a notorious hatchet man, took over Wickes. Sitrick said the company would remain in San Diego. Fred Muir, a Union reporter, fished through company documents and found Sigoloff’s contract, which said the company would move to Santa Monica, which, of course, it did. Sigoloff got mixed up with junk-bond king Michael Milken and sold off much of Wickes while making even more acquisitions. Sitrick told the press how astute this asset-shuffling was. In 1989, Sitrick set up his own shop to convince the media that if it quacks like a duck, it’s really a golden goose.
One of Sitrick’s clients was San Diego’s Metabolife, which built a huge pyramid-marketing business convincing people that its ephedra-laced product was a great dietary supplement. Sitrick took the account even though the two founders had run afoul of the law for operating a methamphetamine lab. Metabolife spread money around politicians, thus delaying revelation of the truth, which was that the product was causing serious health problems, including death. I was chasing the story and talked with Sitrick. Sweetly, he oozed, “Don, we have worked together for many years…” as he explained how clean this company was. But the company had concealed from the government its many reports of health problems. A cofounder went to prison for that. The company paid a criminal fine of $600,000 for income-tax evasion and went bankrupt. The outside accountant admitted falsifying Metabolife’s tax returns, helping set up money-stashing accounts in the Cayman Islands, and ignoring other sins. When he realized the feds could nail him, the accountant put a bullet through his head.
Sitrick’s company did the flacking for the software firm Peregrine Systems, San Diego’s biggest scam, in which shareholders lost $4 billion and nine executives were incarcerated. But the board, including longtime chairman John Moores, who had jettisoned most of his huge pile of stock before the collapse, got off with a $55 million wrist slap.
Other Sitrick clients were Titan Corp., a defense company, which hired former mayor Susan Golding to add class to the joint. It was to no avail: the company got in federal trouble for under-the-table payments overseas, lost a bundle of money, and finally was sold. Titan had spun off SureBeam, touted for irradiating foods. It hired Sitrick. Like Titan, it had enjoyed big run-ups of its stock followed by rapid runs downward. SureBeam got into trouble with its accounting firm and went out of business.
Leap Wireless, which provided wireless services through its Cricket Communications operation, hired Sitrick. Originally, the company was spun off from Qualcomm. Its stock zoomed to over $100 in the tech boom before the year 2000 bust. In 2003, it went through bankruptcy reorganization. In 2007, the company’s chief financial officer resigned and Leap refiled financial statements, admitting it had overstated revenue over four years. Eventually, the company was sold for more than $1 billion in 2013.
Both San Diego Gas & Electric and its parent, Sempra Energy, signed on with Sitrick. San Diego Gas & Electric, particularly, has long been unpopular in its home market because its rates are among the highest — if not the highest — in the United States.
Hollis-Eden Pharmaceuticals hired Sitrick. In 2009, it fired its founder and chief executive “for cause,” which could mean anything from harming the company in some way to committing fraud. The company clammed up on the reason, changed its name twice, and has struggled.
Other local companies that have used Sitrick’s services have been real estate firm OliverMcMillan, Kyocera Wireless, Bumble Bee Seafoods, and Jenny Craig. And the County of San Diego also signed up at one point.
Oh, yes. Another former client of Sitrick was Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts. Fortune magazine calculated that over 13 years when Donald Trump was chairman, the company lost $1.1 billion and went bankrupt twice, while Trump himself raked in $82 million. Maybe airbrushing that is how Sitrick got into the Trump inner circle.
Sitrick did not return a call seeking comment.