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Lobbyist-Relative of S.C. Congressman Paid Well by Charleston

A lobbying firm run by a cousin of Congressman James Clyburn has been paid $285,250, directly or indirectly, since 2006 by the city of Charleston to push Congress for federal dollars for The Holy City, a review by The Nerve has found.

That amount represents half of the $570,500 the city has spent on federal lobbyists since 2006, according to figures released last week to The Nerve by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s office. Federal lobbying records show that the city spent another approximate $160,000 on other lobbyists in 2004 and 2005.

In at least three recent cases, William Clyburn Jr.’s Washington, D.C., firm, Clyburn Consulting, lobbied for projects that Democratic Rep. Clyburn supported or played a key role in obtaining federal funds for, The Nerve’s review found.

Yet in a written response to a list of questions submitted last week by The Nerve, Riley said William Clyburn “has not discussed lobbying activities on behalf of the City with the Congressman since 2006.”

Riley said it was his understanding that the two Clyburns are not “immediate cousins but are rather distant relatives, outside the definition of family under Federal law.”

Still, the city of Charleston “goes even further than federal rules (governing conflicts of interest) require,” Riley said, noting that the city’s contract with William Clyburn “specifically prohibits him from lobbying Congressman Clyburn to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”

But a representative with Public Citizen, a national nonprofit government watchdog organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, says nepotism is “very commonplace” when it comes to lobbying Congress.

“It’s not just buying access; it’s literally throwing money into the family coffers,” said Craig Holman, who noted that as Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist, “I lobby for lobby reforms.”

The Nerve last week requested an interview with Rep. Clyburn but was informed through his spokeswoman, Hope Derrick, that he was unavailable because of his participation in the funeral last week in West Columbia for the late U.S. District Judge Matthew Perry.

In a written response, though, to questions from The Nerve, Derrick said Congressman Clyburn had “no involvement” with his cousin “obtaining or maintaining” the lobbying contract with the city of Charleston.

“In fact, he was not aware that William had that contract,” Derrick said.

Derrick said when dealing with issues relating to the city, her boss “meets directly” either with Riley or Mike Tongour, another D.C. lobbyist employed by the city.

Federal lobbying records reviewed by the The Nerve show that since 2006, Clyburn Consulting has been paid about $166,000 in subcontracting fees from Tongour’s firm.

Asked if Rep. Clyburn, whose district includes parts of both Charleston County and the city of Charleston, had any potential conflict of interest in light of the fact that his cousin is a federal lobbyist for the city, Derrick replied:

“Congressman Clyburn has relatives, and some of them work for entities that do business with the federal government. Should he stop assisting the State Department of Transportation because his son-in-law works there? Or should he stop assisting various South Carolina school districts because his daughter and other relatives teach in them?”

Riley told The Nerve that he chose William Clyburn “in my role as Chief Executive Officer of the City,” adding that the lobbyist’s services have been budgeted each year by City Council since 2006.

“Clyburn Consulting was chosen because of Mr. Clyburn’s expertise in specific areas where the City needed assistance in Washington, primarily dealing with transportation infrastructure and development,” Riley said.

William Clyburn, a former vice chairman of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and a former staff attorney for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, did not return two phone messages left for him by The Nerve at his Washington, D.C., office.

Family Ties That Bind

Over the past several years, William Clyburn and Rep. Clyburn were involved with at least three projects involving the city of Charleston, The Nerve’s review found.

For example, in his first- and second-quarter federal lobbying reports for this year, William Clyburn said his firm lobbied Congress – though no lawmakers were mentioned by name – for “deepening the Charleston harbor.”

In May, Rep. Clyburn, along with Charleston Republican Congressman Tim Scott and Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of Seneca, jointly announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would provide $150,000 to fund a study on deepening the Charleston harbor for the next generation of super-size cargo ships.

Although the award amount was relatively small, South Carolina’s state and federal lawmakers had been scrambling for months to find federal dollars to launch the study this year – a key step, supporters contend, in keeping up with the city of Savannah’s port-deepening project.

According to a May article in the (Charleston) Post and Courier, Congressman Clyburn met repeatedly with Democratic Vice President Joe Biden on funding for the Charleston port study.

In another example, William Clyburn in lobbying reports from 2008 through last year said his firm lobbied Congress – again no lawmakers mentioned by name – for money for mental health services for Charleston firefighters and their families. In 2007, nine Charleston firefighters died while battling a furniture store blaze, a tragedy that made national headlines.

Records with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget show that Rep. Clyburn was the sponsor of a 2009 federal earmark for $95,000 to Charleston for mental health services for Charleston firefighters and their families.

Federal earmarks are appropriations that lawmakers slip into the federal budget with little, if any, public scrutiny, for pet projects back in their home districts. Congress this year pledged to end the longstanding practice; Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of Greenville has helped lead the recent charge against earmarks.

In her written response to The Nerve, Derrick, Rep. Clyburn’s spokeswoman, said the congressman was “very supportive” of the funding for the harbor-deepening study and for the firefighter mental health services. She added, though, that while the congressman met with Riley on the study funding, the $150,000 will go to the S.C. Ports Authority and not directly to the city.

“As long as there is transparency in the process, the voters can decide whether or not they agree with the Congressman securing funding to ensure the Port of Charleston remains a viable economic engine for our state,” Derrick said. “Or if Charleston firefighters and their families, who went through a horrific ordeal with the tragedy at the Sofa Super Store, are deserving of mental health support.”

Riley said William Clyburn’s expertise helped the city secure federal funding for U.S. 17-Septima Clark Parkway drainage project,” which Riley described as a “very expensive and critical repair to a federal highway in Charleston that the city has been working on for many years with a number of partners.”

The project, which comes with a total $146.3 million estimated price tag, involves redesigning and reconstructing a portion of the highway to include a storm water runoff system to alleviate longstanding flooding problems in the area.

Riley noted that of the $14.7 million in federal grants and authorizations the city has received since 2006, $14 million of it was for the Septima Clark Parkway project.

In written responses Wednesday to The Nerve, both Riley spokeswoman Barbara Vaughn and Derrick said Congressman Clyburn wrote letters of support with the city’s application for a $10 million grant for the project, which was paid with federal stimulus dollars.

Vaughn noted that Sen. Graham and former Republican Congressman Henry Brown of Hanahan also wrote letters of support to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In addition, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., told The Nerve on Wednesday that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met with Congressman Clyburn and other members of South Carolina's delegation to “discuss this project and other transportation priorities for the state.”

Big Lobbying Bill

So far this year, the city of Charleston has paid $80,000 for federal lobbyists, half of which Clyburn Consulting received, according to figures released by Riley’s office. The city spent $70,000 on federal lobbyists in 2006, $92,500 in 2007, $118,000 in 2008, $120,000 in 2009 and $90,000 last year; 50 percent of those totals also went to Clyburn Consulting, city records show.

The city's total federal lobbying tab since 2006 is now up to $570,500, according to figures from Riley's office.

Federal lobbying reports filed by Clyburn Consulting show that the firm received an approximate $246,000 – somewhat less than $285,250 reported by the city – since 2006 for representing Charleston  – about $166,000, or 67 percent, of which was subcontracting payments from another Washington, D.C., lobbying firm known as the TCH Group. Those records also show a slightly higher total approximate amount ($580,000) paid by the city for all federal lobbyists, The Nerve's review found.

Federal lobbying reporting forms, which are filed quarterly, don’t require lobbyists to report specific amounts of income less than $5,000; the forms request that amounts of $5,000 or more be rounded to the nearest $10,000 in a "good faith estimate."

TCH’s managing partner, according to federal lobbying reports, is Mike Tongour, who Derrick said has met directly with Congressman Clyburn on behalf of the city.

Contacted Wednesday by The Nerve, Tongour said Clyburn Consulting was a subcontracting lobbyist with his firm until the last several years; more recently, the city has paid his firm and Clyburn’s separately.

“I just didn’t want to administratively deal with getting a check and dividing it in half with him (William Clyburn),” Tongour said.

Tongour said he and William Clyburn were competing at the same time for the city’s lobbying contract, and that the city decided to hire both of their firms.

“I love representing the city of Charleston even though it isn’t the highest-paying client I have,” Tongour said.

Riley said Tongour’s and William Clyburn’s lobbying activities have benefitted the city.

“Our Washington lobbying team of William Clyburn and Mike Tongour are an extension of our Charleston staff and allow the city to maximize our relationships with federal officials, provide information and analysis of what Congress and the Administration are doing/will do and its impact on Charleston, provide strategic advice to the City, and schedule visits for myself and other city officials with key Federal policy makers,” Riley said in his written response.

‘Extreme Influence Peddling’

Holman, of the watchdog organization Public Citizen, said Charleston has an advantage over other S.C. municipalities that don’t hire relatives of Congressman as lobbyists.

“What better way to buy access than to hire a family member of a representative?” he said.

U.S. House ethics rules regulating lobbying by congressmen’s relatives aren’t very strict, Holman said. Under the rules, a spouse of a House member is banned from lobbying the member or the member’s staff, though spouses can lobby other House or Senate members, he said, adding that the restriction doesn’t apply to other immediate family members.

On the Senate side, all immediate family members – not just spouses – of senators cannot lobby any senators or their staffs, but can lobby the House, Holman said.

The Senate rules were toughened in 2007, the same year Holman said his organization found that more than 50 House and Senate members had relatives who were lobbyists.

“What’s going on is extreme influence peddling,” Holman said.

Contacted Wednesday, Daniel Schwager, the U.S. House Ethics Committee’s staff director and chief counsel, referred The Nerve to House rules regarding lobbyists who are relatives of House members. But he declined comment on questions regarding Rep. Clyburn and William Clyburn, and why the House ethics rules on lobbying are less strict than the Senate’s.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

Accountability City of Charleston Lobbying Transparency