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Complaint asks whether Joe Cunningham can call himself an ocean engineer in campaign ads

Joe Cunningham

Joe Cunningham, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress for South Carolina's First Congressional District speaks at his campaign office opening Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

Is it just election year posturing or is Democratic candidate for Congress Joe Cunningham improperly calling himself an ocean engineer? 

A complaint to the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation alleges Cunningham is misrepresenting himself in his campaign ads.

"As an ocean engineer, I've spent a lot of time on the water and in it. And I've always opposed offshore drilling," Cunningham said in his latest 30-second spot.

The ad shows him treading water and saying his experience is key in the race against Republican Katie Arrington in Charleston's 1st Congressional District.

Cunningham's claim has drawn fire from James Island engineer Keane Steele who contends Cunningham is breaking state law and filed the complaint. State officials did not comment on anything being received.

According to the state's legal code, it is unlawful for someone to use the title "engineer" without being registered as an engineer or firm. Cunningham does not have an engineering license in South Carolina but has worked as one. He was an engineer intern in Florida as well as a project engineer there before he became an attorney.  

"I'm proud to have a degree in ocean engineering and even more proud of the work I did as an ocean engineer for several years," he said in a statement to The Post and Courier.

He added, "My background in engineering is the main reason why I currently practice construction law where I am licensed in two states."

Steele is a candidate for a nonpartisan seat on the James Island Public Service District and supported Arrington in the GOP primary. But he said politics weren't behind his filing.

"I just think it's dishonest," Steele said. "Engineers have done a disservice to our profession as a whole by not protecting our titles."

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Cunningham spokesman Tyler Jones called the claim a "desperate and laughable political stunt" by Arrington and her allies.

"While she continues to sell lies, Joe will keep giving out the truth," Jones said.

Arrington's camp said they were not behind the complaint. 

“This is someone who is unaffiliated with the campaign, who is a professional engineer who is understandably concerned about protecting the reputation of a respected profession," said Arrington campaign consultant Andrew Boucher. 

From 2005-2010, Cunningham worked for Turrell, Hall & Associates, a marine and environmental consulting firm based in Naples, Fla. Public records from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation show Cunningham obtained his engineering intern license in December 2008, although he never obtained his professional engineer license.

By the time Cunningham moved to Charleston in 2014, he was already a practicing attorney.

His campaign did not say whether it would change its ad, saying it has not been notified by any legal authority.

Arrington started the election backing President Donald Trump's offshore drilling stance but after the primary, she nuanced her position to say she opposed it off South Carolina.

Though Cunningham is not advertising himself as an ocean engineer to solicit engineering work, the use of the term is problematic, said Adam Jones, the director of the S.C. Society of Professional Engineers.

"It is a sticky situation," Jones said. "If this candidate is calling himself an engineer but is not licensed, ethically and, I guess in a legal sense, he's not supposed to do that."

After a complaint is received by the state it is reviewed to determine if a violation may have occurred. The S.C. State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Surveyors can then either accept recommendations from investigators, like issuing a cease-and-desist letter or a fine, or could dismiss the case altogether.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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