When Scranton businessman Louis DeNaples was charged with lying to investigators about his alleged ties to organized crime, Kevin Feeley sprang to his defense. "He's innocent," said Feeley. The charges were "outrageous."
When a city agency announced it lost a key file in a controversial tax case involving State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, the mea culpa fell to Feeley, the agency's paid spokesman. "They moved heaven and earth to try to find it," he said.
And when a city school learned that one of its teachers was a fugitive wanted on rape charges, it was Feeley who scrambled to explain.
The Philadelphia PR man is everywhere these days, or so it seems. Feeley, a lawyer turned public-relations consultant, has parlayed his political ties and legal savvy into a business that regularly lands him in the headlines.
That can mean publicly tackling delicate or embarrassing issues. Feeley's approach is to be direct and aggressive.
"Participate in the game," he says he tells his clients. "If you're getting killed in the newspapers, get in. Don't run away from it."
Hence, the string of recent headlines.
"It goes with the territory," said Larry Ceisler of Ceisler Jubelirer, one of the city's top PR firms. "He happens to have had a string of controversial, high-profile clients.
"You can't always be out there representing the angels," said Ceisler. Sometimes, the job is about damage control. "This is what people pay you for and what people need you for."
Two of Feeley's current clients are government agencies. The head of a Harrisburg watchdog group said that in general, taxpayers should not be paying outside consultants to spin their public message.
"Certainly we would hope that most people would be of sufficient talent to answer their own questions," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause PA. "It's just a matter of explaining the truth in a way that people can understand."
Feeley, 51, can bring an almost missionary zeal to his work. Asked about the school that hired a fugitive, he explained that a background check on teacher Arnesx Honore showed that the criminal charges had been withdrawn. The charges were later refiled, but school officials did not know that, he said.
"And they certainly didn't know that - good God - it involved a minor," said Feeley. Officials at the Hunting Park campus of Community Education Partners, he said, were alternately "furious" and "weeping" over the case, in which the now-fired teacher stands accused of assaulting and fathering a child with a 14-year-old girl.
He then launched into an ardent defense of the school, which teaches students with disciplinary problems under a contract with the school district. "I think they do God's work," he said.
Feeley grew up in Hammonton, the youngest of four boys born to a schoolteacher who was widowed at 43. Feeley was 4 years old at the time. He and an older brother were later sent to Philadelphia's Girard College, a private boarding school for fatherless boys.
The school paid half his tuition when he was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied political science. After graduation, he set out to find work as a reporter, a profession he chose because he had been editor of his high school newspaper.
Feeley remembers placing an eager call to the Philadelphia Daily News, only to be advised by an editor who addressed him as "kid" that he should instead "volunteer" at his hometown newspaper.
Feeley called the Hammonton News, but struck out when they told him they already had a reporter.
But the next day, the reporter quit. And Feeley's newspaper career was born.
He moved on to the Philadelphia Journal, the Philadelphia Bulletin, and the Wilmington News-Journal before deciding the work wasn't for him and heading off to law school at Temple.
He practiced law for about five years, handling civil litigation at Drinker Biddle and later at Clark Ladner. But politics, a passion from his days at Penn, tugged at him. When a college friend introduced him to Ed Rendell, who was running for mayor in 1991, he moonlighted writing issues papers for the campaign and was later asked to join the mayor's transition team.
Feeley signed on as Rendell's press secretary, a job he recalls as "the best working experience of my life."
He was a key player on the mayor's team when the city faced a crucial public-relations challenge: convincing city unions and voters that Philadelphia truly was on the brink of fiscal collapse. The resultant turnaround was so sweeping and popular that it catapulted Rendell into national prominence.
When the mayor left office in 2000, Feeley started Bellevue Communications. The PR firm is part of a joint venture with the lobbying firm headed by Stephen Wojdak, a former state representative known for his close ties to politicians, particularly Fumo.
Given that, some political insiders raised eyebrows when Feeley, on behalf of the city tax board, insisted that Fumo had received no special treatment when he received a $250,000 assessment on a 27-room mansion.
In an interview, Feeley repeated that the board treated the Fumo case properly. As for the missing file, he said: "Believe me, we wished we had a better story, because we knew we were going to get killed."
Feeley has a staff of 10, but handles many high-profile cases himself. His clients include the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, which hired the firm on the strength of Feeley's work in the Rendell administration, and the city's Board of Revision of Taxes, where officials also pointed to his work at City Hall as a factor in his hiring in 2006.
The toll bridge commission, Feeley said, is one of only two state contracts he's gotten since Rendell became governor. The other was a six-month stint working for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that paid $60,000.
Since July 2004, the commission has paid Feeley's firm $5,000 a month to augment the work of its in-house media relations staff. Last year, when the agency's director of communications quit, the firm took on that role, too, and was paid an additional $96,000.
Frank G. McCartney, the commission's executive director, praised Feeley's ability to get the word out on toll issues, construction projects, and other agency business. "I think it's a valuable investment," he said.
Feeley lives in Chestnut Hill with his wife, Lisa, and their three children, Charles, 17, Bridget, 15, and Kevin Jr., 11.
He and his wife, a childhood friend from Hammonton who lost her father when she was 8, are mindful of the void left by an absent parent and determined that the children will not feel that.
"It's important to us both that they know we're there," said Feeley, who coaches his children's soccer and baseball teams.
While Feeley says he wouldn't rule out a return to government work one day, he's relishing his job, fielding phone calls from reporters and managing various crises.
No matter what the issue, he said, he's never advised a client not to comment when questioned by a reporter.
"Science and newspapers abhor a vacuum," said Feeley. "If you don't participate, you're ceding your side of the story to someone else.
"No one can tell your side of the story better than you."
Except maybe, of course, him.