Is a three-wheeled car technically an automobile?
A pair of former Trump campaign officials are trying to convince the federal government that it is as they flaunt their ties to the president on behalf of their new client.
Mike Rubino and Jason Osborne, two high-level Trump campaign operatives, recently launched a lobbying firm with a conspicuous name. Turnberry Solutions is based in D.C. But its title evokes the Scottish town that is famously home to one of President Donald Trump’s golf clubs.
Last month, the firm registered its first client, a financially plagued automotive company named Elio Motors that is operating a former General Motors plant in Louisiana. Elio is trying to secure federal handouts to keep its three-wheeled “auto-cycles” in production, and lobbying disclosure filings indicate the company has enlisted Turnberry to qualify those vehicles for those handouts.
Without Turnberry’s help, Elio’s days could be numbered. “The Company has not generated operating revenues since inception and has never paid any dividends,” it told shareholders in July. There is “substantial doubt about our ability to continue as a going concern.”
Enter Rubino and Osborne. The two recently departed from Avenue Strategies, the lobbying firm co-founded by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who left the firm in May, and campaign adviser Barry Bennett.
Turnberry currently has no other reported clients. But the firm still represents Trumpworld’s latest penetration of the Washington influence industry—an industry that was frequently derided by the president on the campaign trail and since his election as part of the Beltway “swamp.”
Elio is hoping to extract government goodies through programs generally opposed by the president and national Republicans. Chief among them are potential revenue streams through the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which set average mileage requirements for U.S. automobiles. The program allows manufacturers to amass credits for their high-mileage vehicles, which they can then use to offset their lower-mileage models—or sell to other manufacturers who might not otherwise meet the higher standards.
Elio’s fleet consists entirely of high-mileage vehicles. The company says their fleet gets 84 miles per gallon, which leaves it with no need for the credits. There’s just one problem: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which administers CAFE standards, doesn’t consider the three-wheeled, two-seat Elio an “automobile” under the standards’ definition.
“We could generate extensive future revenues through the sale and transfer of these credits to other auto industry manufacturers,” the company said in a recent statement to shareholders. But “we do not qualify for participation in the CAFE program, since the Elio is not an automobile. We have been working with members of Congress and with the former acting head of the NHTSA to permit participation in the program by autocycles.”
Turnberry hasn’t yet said which government entities it is lobbying, or how much it’s being paid for its services. But its initial disclosure filing says Rubino and Osborne will provide “guidance and counsel on auto cycle classification.”
Neither Rubino nor Osborne responded to requests for comment,
Absent government support, Elio could be in serious financial trouble. As of June 30, the company was sitting on just $40,000 in cash. “We have experienced recurring net losses from operations, which have caused an accumulated deficit of approximately $145.5 million,” Elio told shareholders. Losses are expected to continue through next summer, it said.
Elio is also seeking a major government cash infusion by way of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, which supports electric, alternative-fueled, and high-mileage car manufacturers. It’s in the process of applying for a $185 million federal loan through the program.
To boost that effort, the company previously brought on a different lobbying firm with clout on the other side of the aisle. In September 2016, when nearly every political insider was predicting a victory for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Elio hired the firm Heather Podesta + Partners, named for its principal Heather Podesta, a major Clinton fundraiser.
Podesta was brought on to “monitor issues associated with” the ATVM program. Two months later, a Clinton-aligned lobbying firm was less valuable to the company. A day after Trump was inaugurated, Elio terminated its Podesta contract.