Doug Dowie, who’s often described as “tough,” “blustering” and “hard-charging,” has seen plenty of fights. After all, he was a Marine who served in Vietnam, he was a pugnacious editor at the Los Angeles Daily News and he was the subject of a criminal trial that ended in his imprisonment on fraud charges related to overbilling the Department of Water and Power for public relations work.
Now, at 66, he is in the beginning stages of another fight: rebuilding a career at a time many of his colleagues are retiring or thinking about it.
Dowie finished his sentence 11 months ago and in the summer hung out a new shingle, Evolution Communications. He still has just one client and less than a handful of freelance associates, and he works from home. He realizes some people might not be able to look beyond his past and that it will take a lot of work to get even close to where he was before.
“To some people, I have more baggage than the Queen Mary,” he said.
At one time considered one of the most powerful public relations executives in Los Angeles, Dowie was general manager of Fleishman-Hillard Inc.’s L.A. office from 1998 to 2004. It was there that Dowie helped the firm secure a $3 million annual contract with the DWP, a deal that would ultimately become his undoing.
Amid a swirl of pay-for-play allegations during the administration of Mayor James Hahn, a jury convicted Dowie and a co-worker in 2006 of conspiracy and wire fraud stemming from charges that they overbilled the DWP by about $500,000.
Upon the advice of his lawyers, Dowie never took the witness stand in his defense, a decision he still regrets.
“My attorney said if we make the wrong decision here and you get convicted, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,” Dowie remembered. “And I have now told him he was correct.”
Sitting at John O’Groats restaurant in West Los Angeles in early January and eating a bowl of oatmeal, Dowie, sporting a black shirt, circular-rimmed eyeglasses and close-cropped gray hair and goatee, continued to proclaim his innocence.
In order for Fleishman-Hillard to get paid on the account, the firm had to submit detailed hourly records of its work to the DWP. While Dowie doesn’t deny that too many billable hours were turned in by his employees, he suggested he had no reason to overcharge the city because he never saw any of the cash; it went to the Fleishman-Hillard headquarters in the Midwest.
“Why in God’s name would I want to throw it all away?” he said of his career and reputation. “To satisfy my bosses in St. Louis?”
It seems possible that Dowie might have done so if he feared his job were in danger, but he said that wasn’t the case.
“I never felt as though (my job) was on the line,” he said. “I had a really successful office.”
Despite his vigorous denials of any criminal wrongdoing, Dowie acknowledged that he bears some responsibility for what happened, though he stops short of using the word “guilt.”
“Looking back, I was too tough a guy,” he said, suggesting that his employees might have felt they could be fired if they didn’t meet their hours. “It’s my fault that I allowed that environment for those people to feel intimidated about succeeding. Either I should have gone to my bosses and said, ‘What you’re asking is unreasonable’ or I should have been a little bit more tender.”
After Fleishman-Hillard fired Dowie in January 2005, he was forced to sell his house and liquidate his retirement savings in order to provide for his family. By the time he went to prison, Dowie had racked up nearly $4 million in legal bills.
He said he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection last year in order to get a “fresh start.” He now supports himself with income from a sole PR client, his Social Security reimbursement and pensions from the Daily News and United Press International, where he worked as a reporter and bureau manager between 1978 and 1985.
Dowie’s friends concede the former Marine sergeant, who served 13 months as an intelligence officer in Vietnam, could be difficult to get along with – and work for.
“He was a bully to a lot of people, and he made a lot of people stronger and better,” said Ron Kaye, who worked as an editor at the Daily News under Dowie while he was managing editor in the late 1980s.
Yet Kaye and others said they’ve noticed changes in Dowie’s personality over the past year.
“You could say it has humbled him a little,” said Lissa Zanville, who runs LMZ Communications out of her home in Valley Village and has known Dowie for more than 30 years. She said Dowie is far less snarky in conversations than before and he listens more intently than he used to.
“You can’t come out of a situation like that unchanged,” she said. “If you do come out unchanged, you were a bad person to begin with.”
When you consider that Dowie’s wife and mother passed away while he was locked up, a transformation becomes easier to understand.
His wife, Karen, had been diagnosed with lung cancer, but Dowie said her death came out of the blue. He was granted a few hours of leave to attend the funeral as well as some extra phone time, but he said he still feels guilty about not being there for his two adult children during that difficult time.
“It was the worst moment,” he said.
Dowie and Kaye remained close through the years despite some ups and downs, and it was Kaye who drove Dowie to a Van Nuys halfway house in September 2013 after he was released from Taft Federal Correctional Institution, about 45 miles southwest of Bakersfield.
Dowie lived in the halfway house for a month, but he was allowed to finish the remaining five months of his sentence under home detention after securing a consulting contract with the United States Veterans Initiative, a non-profit headquartered in downtown Los Angeles that offers a variety of services for homeless and jobless military veterans.
Dowie moved into his girlfriend’s Brentwood apartment, which continues to serve as his office.
“It took a bit of time once that was over to sort of adjust to normalcy,” he said.
He officially launched his firm in the summer, but his relationship with his lone client goes back further than that.
In 2010, while waiting for an appeal of his conviction to be heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, Dowie was looking for opportunities to volunteer.
“I think he had to do a charity thing to have any chance” of winning the appeal, said Kaye.
Dowie discovered that his attorney, Tom Holliday, a former partner at the L.A. office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, was on the board of U.S. Vets. Coincidentally, U.S. Vets was founded in 1992 by Judge Harry Pregerson, a member of the Ninth Circuit – the very body that wound up affirming Dowie’s conviction and sending him to prison.
Dowie, who enlisted at 18 and served in Vietnam between 1968 and 1969, during the Tet Offensive launched by the North Vietnamese army, was eager to help.
“We had lunch and (Holliday) introduced me,” Dowie recalled of his first meeting with U.S. Vets. “I thought I might be serving food somewhere. I didn’t realize they needed PR. It was a blessing.”
Dowie even received what he described as a moderate retainer for his work.
Stephen Peck, son of legendary actor Gregory Peck, assumed the presidency of U.S. Vets in August 2010 and still serves in the position. Peck, who served as a Marine lieutenant from 1969 to 1970 outside the city of Da Nang, didn’t know Dowie during their time in the service but the pair have worked together for more than four years.
Peck said Dowie was brought on board to handle the group’s media relations work and raise its public profile – which he did.
“He was instrumental in helping us to get media attention” said Peck, noting that Dowie successfully pitched a number of stories to print and TV outlets.
According to Peck, no one on the organization’s board had any reservations about hiring Dowie, despite his record.
“I don’t remember that anyone had any reticence about it,” he said. “For me it was a totally positive thing and it was completely appropriate that he would come on board for however long he had. I’ll go out of my way to help other Marines.”
Dowie had plenty of time on his hands at Taft, a low-security prison where he occupied himself by exercising and reading everything he could get a hold of, including the entire works of Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard.
Dowie shared a cubicle in a large open dormitory.
“It wasn’t horrible, but I want to make it really clear: Losing your freedom is devastating,” he said.
And he continued to consult with U.S. Vets at no charge while incarcerated.
“I corresponded with him fairly regularly and would use him as a sounding board for stories. He helped introduce us to the Huffington Post,” said Peck, who has since authored numerous blog posts for the site.
When he got out, Dowie said he was eager to keep the business relationship going between U.S. Vets and his new firm. Last month, U.S. Vets signed Evolution to a yearlong consulting contract.
Dowie is trying build on the work from the non-profit to add to his roster, especially companies going through a crisis – or those who want to prevent one from happening in the first place. He hopes to woo them by turning a massively negative experience into a positive.
“There could be opportunities where my experience is actually a selling point,” he said.
Indeed, two other PR executives caught up in the DWP scandal have rebounded.
Steve Sugerman, a former Fleishman-Hillard executive who pleaded guilty and was sentenced in September 2006 to three years’ probation and community service after testifying against Dowie, is now president of West L.A. public relations firm Sugerman Communications Group Inc.
Dowie’s co-defendant in the case, John Stodder Jr., was also convicted and received a 15-month sentence. He now works as a senior adviser at Hershey Cause Communications, a PR firm in Santa Monica.
Sugerman did not respond to an interview request; Stodder declined comment.
Despite those precedents, Dowie’s resurrection is by no means assured.
“The agency-client relationship requires trust and that is precisely what’s in question here,” said Erik Deutsch, a principal at ExcelPR Group in Hollywood, who noted that Dowie does not make any mention of his conviction in his bio on Eveolution’s new website.
“Everybody loves a comeback, but I think there are a number of prospective clients who are likely to think twice. He might have to be his own primary client for some time to come,” he said.
Denise Ferguson, a public relations expert and associate professor of communication at Pepperdine University, said people might be taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Potential clients and public relations professionals may be watching Dowie for words and behavior that demonstrates that he takes responsibility for betraying the public trust and violating his profession’s ethical standards, and that he is committed to acting with integrity and transparency going forward,” Ferguson wrote in an email.
Dowie has recruited four unsalaried associates to work with him at Evolution, one of whom is his son, and he doles out work, and pay, as it comes.
One is Bill Knoedelseder, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who now works part time as a senior associate at the firm while continuing his career as an author. The two met before Dowie went to prison through a mutual friend.
So far, Knoedelseder’s helped out on a few projects related to U.S. Vets, including a revamp of its website.
Knoedelseder said no one has questioned why he’d choose to affiliate himself with Dowie, and the prospect of any criticism doesn’t concern him.
“Anybody who would say that, I would guarantee you, doesn’t know Doug,” he explained. “They might know the headline or know that Doug was a really tough boss. I know Doug on a different level.”
When Dowie thinks about what might lie in store for himself and his new business, the former rainmaker was upbeat about his chances.
After all, how much worse could it get?
“I got through something that was horrible,” Dowie said. “There’s no point hating people and being angry. It is a cliché, but that doesn’t do anything to benefit my life. And the people you hate, they don’t give a shit.”
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