Recording alleging extortion in Horry County given to SLED

Recording alleging extortion in Horry County given to SLED

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division now has the recording at the center of extortion allegations in Horry County.

Sandy Davis, director of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation (MBREDC), told WMBF News she met with a SLED agent Friday afternoon to provide that recording.

On Thursday, SLED spokesperson Thom Berry said the agency was looking into allegations of extortion in Horry County after a request was made that morning.

Berry told WMBF’s news partners at My Horry News that SLED started investigating at the request of Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge.

Eldridge claims newly sworn-in Horry County Councilman Johnny Gardner tried to manipulate Davis during a meeting with his associate Luke Barefoot.

WMBF obtained a memo from My Horry News written by the county’s attorney Arrigo Carotti that detailed the meeting and events since then.

The memo said that Gardner’s associate, Luke Barefoot, threatened to have Grand Strand Daily blogger Paul Gable write a disparaging story about Davis’ lack of education unless the MBREDC hire Donald Smith for the organization’s public relations work.

Smith’s attorney Scott Bellamy said Smith had no knowledge of this meeting.

On Thursday, Gable wrote a response where he claimed he, "never talked to Luke Barefoot, or anyone else, about doing an article about Davis’ education.”

He further stated he, “never had in my mind at the time doing such an article.” He does confirm he’s written multiple stories criticizing the MBREDC, but no one ever paid him to do so.

Davis declined to comment on what was said during the meeting but said the purpose of it was to get Gardner familiar with the MBREDC’s work.

She told WMBF she had no idea her meeting with Gardner would lead to this and just wants to continue recruiting for Horry County and keep out of politics.

Davis said a recording was taken of the meeting to provide the corporation’s chairman with notes about the meeting, since he was unable to attend. This was the recording she gave to SLED on Friday afternoon.

The memo stated certain county officials already listened to the recording, including Carotti, Eldridge and councilmen Mark Lazarus and Gary Loftus.

Carotti wrote in the memo, “I could hear Sandy’s voice and a gentlemen’s voice, who I assumed was Luke Barefoot. What I recall specifically was the gentleman saying that Donald Smith was in the shadows and could influence votes or was somehow in control behind the scenes. He also mentioned ‘the figure we had discussed’, could be paid to Donald Smith for something having to do with the Beach Ball Classic, and that ‘would give you political cover.’”

Loftus said only a few minutes of the recording was played and he didn’t hear anything that would support any extortion.

He said he’s been trying to sort out the players and find out the real agenda, but hasn’t come to any conclusions.

Loftus said he doesn’t remember anything remarkable about the recording but said it is hard to interpret from a tape.

Councilman Danny Hardee said he received the memo and it is hard to draw an opinion about it because the investigation is still uncovering the facts.

Councilman Bill Howard said the information is concerning but doesn’t really know what is going on.

Howard said council members support their chairman.

Carotti said in his memo that Davis told him, "Luke Barefoot did all the talking, and Johnny Gardner just sat there listening.”

WMBF News talked to Gardner about the allegations after he was sworn in as Horry County Council Chairman on Thursday.

“I’ve heard rumors about that, I’ve also heard that there’s a SLED investigation. If that’s the case then everybody knows we will cooperate fully. I look forward to it, get it behind us, but that’s all I have to say about that," Gardner said.

SLED investigating Horry County extortion allegations

Horry County said it would be “inappropriate to comment at this time.”

On Saturday, MBREDC held a special executive committee meeting to discuss a legal matter.

Shortly after beginning, the committee called for a closed executive session.

MBREDC board member and former County Council chair Mark Lazarus challenged the motion.

“I don’t think under the executive session rules that that is an appropriate use of executive sessions. It is for personnel matter or contractual matters," Lazarus said.

The board’s chairman Neyle Wilson responded that the matter did involve personnel.

“If this is to decide whether or not we’re going to release a tape to the administrator by his request and the county attorney’s request, I don’t see why that can’t be done in open forum," Lazarus said.

The committee overruled Lazarus and he walked out of the meeting.

Following the executive session, Neyle said no decisions were made and confirmed the recording was handed over to SLED.

No members would comment further on the meeting or the recording.

Davis did say many of the members of the executive committee were not aware of everything that was going on.

She said there is no timeline yet on when the SLED investigation might conclude but it would be some time after Christmas.

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