Gov. McMaster hired federal lobbying firm for $15K monthly fee, records show

August 16, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Gov. Henry McMaster last December quietly hired a large law firm to lobby the federal government under an open-ended, “emergency procurement” contract that is costing taxpayers $15,000 a month, according to records released to The Nerve by the Governor’s Office.

Ironically, then-Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003 issued an executive order banning the governor’s Cabinet agencies from hiring outside contractors to lobby the state Legislature, though it didn’t address federal lobbying.

The Adams and Reese law firm hired by McMaster, which has 18 offices across the South and in Washington, D.C., also lobbies S.C. agencies through its Columbia office on behalf of multiple corporate clients and private organizations, State Ethics Commission records show. Former S.C. Rep. Kenny Bingham of Lexington County is one of the firm’s registered state lobbyists, as The Nerve reported in March.

In an email response this week to The Nerve, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor hired Adams and Reese to “help secure” federal disaster aid in the wake of Hurricane Florence last year, citing a Sept. 20, 2018, letter from McMaster, a Republican, to the state’s congressional delegation asking for their support for an estimated collective $1.2 billion in federal disaster-recovery requests.

“When there’s over $1 billion for South Carolinians on the line, Governor McMaster will leave no stone unturned,” Symmes said, adding that Adams and Reese staff are “widely considered to be experts” in the area of federal disaster-recovery funding.

But under the contract between the state and Adams and Reese, a copy of which the Governor’s Office provided to The Nerve last week under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, the firm can work on “any other special projects directed by the Client,” including preparing the state in “any and all congressional or federal issues that might arise.”

Symmes didn’t respond to a follow-up written question seeking specifics of work done by Adams and Reese related to Hurricane Florence. The Nerve pointed out that in a Nov. 5, 2018, letter to McMaster, U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, an Horry County Republican, said “(w)ithin 10 days after Hurricane Florence made landfall,” the S.C. and N.C. congressional delegations “were able to successfully appropriate $1.68 billion to address long-term recovery needs.” The contract between Adams and Reese and the state of South Carolina was dated Dec. 13, 2018.

Symmes took issue with The Nerve’s questions about Sanford’s 2003 executive order banning Cabinet agencies from hiring outside state lobbyists, contending the “circumstances outlined in the Executive Order and Governor McMaster’s efforts to secure disaster recovery funds on behalf of South Carolinians could not be more different.”

Asked if McMaster, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina and ex-S.C. attorney general, faced any potential conflicts of interest by hiring Adams and Reese, given that the firm lobbies S.C. agencies on matters that McMaster might consider, Symmes replied that to “even suggest that Governor McMaster’s decision-making would be affected by having worked with Adams and Reese is completely absurd.”

In a contract addendum dated March 20 – when the Legislature was in session – the law firm asked Richele Taylor, McMaster’s chief lawyer, to “please confirm that the Office of the Governor does not view it to be a conflict of interest and does not object to the Firm representing other clients in dealings with other areas of South Carolina state government.”

Matthew Majure, one of three Adams and Reese staffers in Washington, D.C., who were designated in the contract as the “primary firm contacts” with the state, didn’t respond to phone and written messages this week from The Nerve. Federal lobbying records submitted by Majure show that through June, the state paid the firm a total of $45,000 for “lobbying activities” related to “supplemental disaster appropriations.”

Online state comptroller general records show that the Governor’s Office paid Adams and Reese a total of $60,000 from March 14 through June 17, while according to records provided to The Nerve by the Governor’s Office, the firm was paid a collective $75,000 from Jan. 15 through May 8.

Under the contract, the firm will be paid a $15,000 monthly fee – totaling $105,000 this year through July – plus any “expenses and reimbursement of costs advanced by the Attorney on behalf of Client.” The contract also says it “shall remain in effect until it is cancelled,” noting, “While it is anticipated that this engagement will last a minimum of nine (9) months, there is no requirement that the parties continue this contract for nine (9) months.”

Trey Walker, McMaster’s chief of staff, sought the contract under the state’s emergency procurement law, according to a separate signed document provided to The Nerve. Walker in the document said the Governor’s Office was “procuring emergency services to assist the State in receiving appropriate levels of federal disaster relief funding for damage from Hurricane Florence,” adding Congress was “debating a disaster relief appropriation bill and making allocation decisions for disaster relief funding for affected states.”

In a March 14 email to Marcia Adams, director of the S.C. Department of Administration, Taylor, McMaster’s chief attorney, said the Governor’s Office is “not using Adams & Reese for any legal advice, but for consulting purposes only.”

Whether the hiring of Adams and Reese was necessary is debatable, however. In his Sept. 20, 2018, letter to the state’s congressional delegation – about three months before the firm was hired – McMaster pointed out that he had asked President Donald Trump to “authorize federal disaster recovery funds.”

McMaster, the state’s former lieutenant governor, was one of Trump’s earliest supporters and became governor in 2017 after Trump tapped then-Gov. Nikki Haley to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Symmes did not directly respond to The Nerve’s written question about whether anyone in the Governor’s Office, S.C. Department of Administration, state Emergency Management Division or state Disaster Recovery Office was capable of handling federal disaster-recovery funding issues related to Hurricane Florence.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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