City of Charleston pays D.C. lobbyists

The Capitol Dome on Capitol Hill in Washington. File/J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The city of Charleston has spent more than $1 million on Washington, D.C., lobbyists since 2004, an annual $80,000 expense that Mayor John Tecklenburg continued when he took office last year.

In his first budget City Council approved for 2017, Tecklenburg decided to keep paying the two firms that the city has contracted for at least a decade, TCH Group and Clyburn Consulting, who are each scheduled to receive about $35,000 this year.

While the city is one of the Lowcountry's only local governments with its own Washington lobbyist, it’s pretty common for cities and counties to pay firms to advocate for their interests on Capitol Hill, according to Dan Auble, senior researcher with OpenSecrets.org, a database run by the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Basically, they are lobbying on appropriations bills and transportation issues, and they’re trying to get grant and federal money from Medicaid to water management and that kind of thing,” he said.

Rick Jerue, one of Tecklenburg’s senior advisors, said the city's two lobbyists primarily work with federal agencies to identify opportunities for federal grants and programs the city might be interested in.

“We email them at least a dozen times during any week to talk about what’s going on in D.C., what should we be looking at, because they can in many ways identify trends or some things that are going to be funded that we might not even know of until it’s too late,” he said.

“It’s all about federal dollars.”

Return on investment

Jerue said the city pays two different firms because TCH Group, operated by Michael Tongour, has relationships with Republicans, while Clyburn Consulting is known for its expertise working with Democrats. Clyburn Consulting is run by William Clyburn Jr., cousin of Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

“When you had a Democratic president, William probably had more access to the agencies because they were appointed agency heads by a Democratic president,”Jerue said. “Now with President Trump, Michael will probably have better relationships with the leaders of those departments.”

Jerue said the lobbyists helped the city secure a $3.6 million grant last year from the Justice Department’s National Office of Victims of Crime, which was awarded to the Medical University of South Carolina, the Charleston County Sherriff’s Office, the Charleston Police Department and other local entities.

The grant, intended to help the community recover from the Emanuel AME shooting in June 2015, provided funds for a programs such as crime-related mental health treatment, and the creation of a resiliency center offering those affected by the tragedy a hub for therapy sessions and support groups.

Jerue said that grant was one of the reasons Tecklenburg decided to keep contracting with the lobbyists this year.

“We saw the benefit of their contacts and their relationships to help us get that grant,” he said. “We feel like we’re getting value.”

He said it’s too soon to know what federal grant opportunities might become available under the new administration, but he hopes President Donald Trump will deliver on his promise to fund major infrastructure improvements.

In the meantime, the lobbyists have been working to recruit candidates for city positions in the wave of federal employees leaving their jobs. The city is looking for a director of transportation, a superintendent of environmental services and several other key positions.

“Whenever you have a change in administration, all those people change their jobs,” Jerue said. “There’s tremendous expertise there.”

A leg up?

City Councilman Bill Moody said he questioned the city’s annual expense on lobbyists a few years ago when Mayor Joe Riley was in office, but he said he doesn’t have an issue with the activity now that he knows how much grant money it generates.

“Every time you look at a City Council agenda you’ll see we’re applying for some federal grant, and supposedly they (the lobbyists) maneuver and help us get through those things,” he said.

In 2016, municipalities spent a combined $68 million on federal lobbying firms, down from about $72 million the year before, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Los Angeles County spent the most, about $961,000, but many large cities also paid six figures for lobbyists, such as the City of Atlanta, which spent $400,000.

Auble, the researcher, said he’s not aware of any studies that examine whether municipalities with lobbyists receive more federal money than those without lobbyists. But in general, it is a helpful tactic, he said.

“Building these connections and spending this money does tend to give a return on investment, if you will, and it’s not always obvious what’s getting done because some of it is inserting one line into a bill, or removing one line from a bill,” he said.

Dorchester County is the only other local government in the Lowcountry with a Washington lobbyist: It has paid Nelson, Mullins et al about $80,000 annually since 2008, according to OpenSecrets.

The Town of Summerville paid Keller, Mcyntyre and Associates $40,000 in 2014 and $60,000 in 2015, and ended the activity last year, the website said.

Mount Pleasant, North Charleston and Charleston County don’t have a lobbyist.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.