Myrtle Beach, SC - MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - BOOST President Robert Kelley is urging Congressman Gresham Barrett and anyone else who received what he called questionable campaign donations to return the money or donate it to charity.
In a press conference Monday morning, Business Owners Organized to Support Tourism says a series of contributions from the same 24 companies were made to several local, state and federal lawmakers, including Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes, City Councilman Randal Wallace, former Councilman Charles Martino, State Rep. Thad Viers, Tracy Edge, Alan Clemmons, Nelson Hardwick, Liston Barfield and Sen. Raymond Clearly.
BOOST says the donations were made by shell companies operated by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We find it sad and disappointing that a fringe special-interest group continues to repeat old accusations and unfounded allegations about the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce," MBACC President/CEO Brad Dean said in a statement Monday afternoon. "Many of our nearly 3,000 members are politically active and we encourage them to support pro-business candidates that represent their views, but the chamber of commerce does not fund political campaigns."
The allegations originally came out in October 2009 when members claimed campaign funds were used to thank and reward elected officials who voted on the then-recently passed Myrtle Beach tourism tax.
"In the past, the Chamber has denied any involvement in this scandal," Kelley said Monday. "But now Brad Dean admits he set up the lunch with lobbyist Mark Kelley and he handed Mr. Barrett the envelope full of checks and he even admits that the Chamber serves as a 'clearinghouse' for campaign donations."
Kelley said businesses should contribute money to campaigns, but full transparency is necessary.
"If it's true that businesses were encouraged to contribute to politicians through the Chamber, who did they make their checks out to?" Kelley questioned. "Did they even know which elected officials their money was going to, or did they just write checks to the Chamber and trust them to get it right? Or is the truth that these companies didn't write any checks at all and that some other Chamber funds were used and the donations were simply attributed to LLCs?"
Kelley says now is the time for healing, and urged Barrett "to do the right thing."
"We are pleading with Mr. Barrett to give back the $84,000 he received for his governor's race, or else donate it to charity," Kelley said, noting there are a number of organizations that could use the money. "We're asking any other elected official who received these donations to do the same thing - if they've not already spent the money, either give it back or give it to charity.
"We're all going to learn a lot just by finding out who they send the money back to," he added.
Kelley went on to ask for full transparency in the spending of all money by the MBACC over the past 18 months, and urged the State Legislature to amend the 1 percent tourism tax "to open up the process of marketing and advertising the Myrtle Beach area to competitive bidding."
"It's just plain wrong that only the Chamber of Commerce has access to spending $18 million of our money every year," he said.
Dean noted the chamber publishes its financial reports online at www.myrtlebeachareachamber.com, and includes detailed expenditures of all public funds invested through out.
"In fact, our reporting far exceeds any requirements set forth by local or state governments," he said.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) began looking at the complaint in October 2009. Allegations were made earlier in October in a message board post on www.discovermyrtlebeach.com, stating funds were used to "thank" and "reward" elected officials who voted on the recently-passed Myrtle Beach tourism tax.
Officials from BOOST stepped forward and said they are the ones behind the claims.
The web post claims South Carolina State Ethics Commission records reveal each candidate received $1,000 contributions from the same 24 companies. BOOST alleges the companies are shell businesses operated by the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce.
"The Chamber has never, ever given me one dime towards any type of political campaign," Rhodes said.
Three of the 24 entities listed as donors are members of the organization. Those named on the web post are former directors of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, but were not serving.
"I am disappointed, but not entirely surprised, that yet another nameless, faceless accuser would spread misinformation about our organization," Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Chamber, said at the time. "The Chamber does not make political contributions. Apparently, our efforts to grow tourism and create jobs while actively supporting property tax reductions and investments in infrastructure have irritated critics who don't mind falsely attacking us behind a veil of secrecy."
Chairman Brant Branham of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce said he was the contributor behind the donations, given to those he believed, as an individual and businessman, deserved re-election.
"I don't see how me - in a volunteer position at the Chamber of Commerce - compromises my right as a private citizen to participate in the political process in any way I can," said Branham.