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Agency given $1.5 million in federal funds

U.S. Congressman James Clyburn set aside $145,500 in the federal budget in 2005 for a building his nephew's architecture firm planned to design for the Five Rivers Community Development Corp.

The building was never completed, although Five Rivers paid the architecture firm $69,653 for initial design work, according to Five Rivers' federal tax returns.

Five Rivers, a nonprofit agency that uses public money to help teach low-income residents how to buy homes and start businesses, plans to revive the project - a combination community and training facility - later this year at another site near Choppee in Georgetown County, according to executive director Beulah White.

Five Rivers will have to find another architect because Clyburn's nephew's firm has disbanded. White said that firm's drawings and plans can't be used at the new site.

The money Clyburn set aside in last year's budget is part of $1.5 million in federal budget appropriations, also known as earmarks, that Five Rivers has received since 2003. That is more than three times the amount earmarked for the state's other community-development-related nonprofit agencies, according to congressional budget records.

Only the S.C. Association of Community Development Corporations, a nonprofit trade group, received more than Five Rivers, with $1.66 million in federal earmarks.

Clyburn, D-S.C., said last month he did not know a family member was involved in the Five Rivers project when he made the budget appropriation in the fall of 2004. Clyburn said he decided to earmark tax dollars for the project after White made a presentation to him during a Five Rivers fundraising trip in 2004.

Clyburn said there is nothing wrong with setting aside federal tax dollars for projects that could benefit his family.

"I have a bushel of family members," Clyburn said. "I earmark stuff for the state of South Carolina, and my daughter works for the state. I earmark stuff for Sumter, and several of my nieces and nephews work for Sumter. I've earmarked millions of dollars for I-73. Should I not do that because my son is an engineer with the highway department?"

Tom Finnigan, spokesman for watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, said it is common for federal earmarks to benefit relatives of Congress members, but that doesn't make it right.

"A member of Congress will always say that his earmarks have merit, but when personal ties keep cropping up, it shows that the process is anything but objective," Finnigan said. "A group gets federal funding, not because it is the most deserving, but because it has the right connections or the money to hire a lobbyist."

Derrick Ballard is one of the four founders of Evoc Interactive, the architecture firm hired to design a community and retail center for Five Rivers. Ballard is the stepson of Charles Clyburn, who is James Clyburn's brother.

Charles Clyburn declined to comment about the Five Rivers project.

White said she did not solicit competitive bids for the architecture work. She said she initially asked Charles Clyburn if he would design the community and retail center because she was impressed with a church he had built in Sumter.

"It was a very unusual structure," White said. "I asked him if he would help us design our building."

White said Charles Clyburn declined to do the work because he is not a licensed architect.

"He told me his son was an architect, and we ended up talking with Evoc," White said.

At the time, Evoc was a fledgling architecture firm based in Albuquerque, N.M.

In mid-2004, Evoc prepared some initial drawings and a project manual for the community and training center to be built on land Five Rivers owned near the intersection of U.S. 521 and U.S. 17 Alternate, an area commonly known as Nine Mile Curve.

James Clyburn announced in a news release in November 2004 that he had earmarked public money for the project. The news release did not include information about Evoc or Clyburn's relationship with Ballard.

The city of Georgetown, working with Five Rivers, started accepting bids for construction of the center toward the end of 2004.

The bidding process was stopped in February 2005 because the state's Department of Transportation would not give Five Rivers an encroachment permit needed for construction. The DOT turned down the permit application, White said, because the state's long-range plans for a cloverleaf intersection at Nine Mile Curve was too close to the Five Rivers property.

Hope Derrick, a spokeswoman for James Clyburn, said the money Five Rivers paid to Evoc came out of a $1 million appropriation Sen. Ernest Hollings made for the project in 2004. She said the $145,500 that Clyburn appropriated is still available for the project because Five Rivers has asked for an extension of time to use the money.

By July 2005, Evoc had been evicted from its Albuquerque office space, according to Barnalillo County, N.M., court records. The architecture firm's landlord, Berger Briggs Real Estate, obtained a $9,484 judgment against Evoc in September for unpaid rent, court records show.

White has been negotiating with Georgetown County this year to swap 3.03 acres of land Five Rivers owns near the Nine Mile Curve for three acres of county-owned property along Choppee Road. Five Rivers also would pay the county about $18,000 for two more acres of land at the Choppee site, for a total of five acres.

Georgetown County provides community outreach and health care services at its Choppee Regional Resource Center adjacent to the site that Five Rivers wants, and county officials say Five Rivers' project would complement those services.

The county wants the Five Rivers land because it is adjacent to one of its fire departments. Georgetown County Council gave initial approval to the land swap and sale on Aug. 8 and could give final approval on Sept. 12.

If the swap-and-sale is approved, the 14,000-square-foot building would have office and classroom space for Five Rivers and four retail spaces for people who take part in the agency's business program, White said.

Five Rivers would make money by renting those spaces to business owners and by renting larger meeting space to community groups, White said.

The agency has not announced any new programs that would result from the extra space available at the center.

White said money for construction is available from a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, a loan from the Federal Home Loan Bank in Atlanta, Clyburn's appropriation and the nearly $1 million Hollings appropriation.

Rep. James Clyburn | D-S.C.