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Metro Pays PR Firm To Lobby Council to Spend Money

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Whether or not Nashville should build a massive, new convention center has been hotly debated.

But a NewsChannel 5 investigation has discovered, Metro officials may be spending tens of thousands of dollars to influence that debate.

Investigative reporter Ben Hall found that may be part of the reason why so much money has been spent on one of the project's first contracts.

Hotel owner Kirrit Bhikha does not support the proposed convention center. Yet, taxes on the four hotels he owns help pay for the project.

"We're a second tier city trying to behave as a first tier city. We can never be a New York or a Chicago," Bhikha said.

He was shocked when we showed him e-mails sent by a public relations firm hired by the city. Council members said the firm was pushing them to pass the convention center.

"They're using money to lobby the council people? That's horrendous. That's just not good," Bhikha added.

Council member Mike Jameson received the e-mails, but he said the Metro Council never voted to use public money to hire a public relations firm to push the project.

"What we've done is we've given MDHA money, and they've hired a public relations firm which is lobbying the council. It is clearly lobbying, and I think it's inappropriate," Jameson said.

Jameson insisted that he was not opposed to a new convention center, but he was opposed to the way money on the project was being spent.

The Metro Council voted back in February to pay for pre-development activities associated with the convention center, but there was no mention of hiring a public relations firm. 

NewsChannel 5 Investigates revealed that the original public relations contract with McNeely, Pigott & Fox was not supposed to exceed $75,000, but it had already ballooned to more than $458,000.

Proposed Convention Center's PR Bills Already Over Budget

Council member Emily Evans was concerned about the spending. "The contract itself is not being managed, and the costs are getting out of control," Evans said.

E-mails sent by McNeely, Pigott & Fox stated things like: "Express your support for the Music City Center to your council members."

On the day that e-mail went out, the public relations firm billed Metro more than $200 for the e-mail blast.

The day after a critical council meeting in which the council approved buying land for the project, the public relations firm sent out an e-mail that encourages people to thank the members who supported the project. 

Two of the firm's partners attended that meeting and charged Metro more than $1,200.

"The guy who may be opposed to this is thinking to himself my monies are going to pay for a PR firm to lobby the council to support the convention center," Jameson said.

He added, "You can call that arrangement a lot of things, but I don't think it's good government."

The executive director of the Metropolitan Development and Housing Authority that oversees the project, Phil Ryan, denied that the public relations firm was crossing a line.

"I don't think lobbying is going on," Ryan said. "I think they are communicating. They are responding to requests for information."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates showed Ryan some of the e-mails sent by the public relations firm.

Investigative reporter Ben Hall read from the e-mails, "Thanks for your support. We need your support. Is that appropriate?"

"I think it's part of the communication process," Ryan responded.

"It's not lobbying?" Hall asked.

"I think it's part of the communication process," Ryan answered.

Council member Mike Jameson thought it was clear. "That's advocacy. That's lobbying. You can't define it any other way."

Hotel owner Kirrit Bhikha also believed it was lobbying, and he thought it was a misuse of his money. "They should be fair and impartial," he added.

McNeely, Pigott & Fox has been hired before to lobby the council on the convention center.  Local business leaders hired the firm back in 2006 to push the project. 

In the proposal to get the new contract, which was obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, the firm said it had experience ‘selling' the city on the need for a convention center. 

One of the firm's partners, Mike Pigott, said he did support the center, and that the firm was doing exactly what it was hired to do -- publicize the project.

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