MB Hospitality leaders say work will go on during missing money investigation

Columbia police are launching an internal investigation into why it took officers 10 days to find the body of missing South Carolina Hospitality Association President Tom Sponseller.

The Richland County coroner says Sponseller, 61, shot himself in the head around the same time he was reported missing on February 18th.

There was a suicide note in his desk and his body was found in his own office parking garage.

Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott says officers found the body in a locked room during a fourth search of the garage after they found out about the note.

The note referenced a federal investigation into several hundred thousand dollars missing from the hospitality association.

Federal agents say they started investigating months ago and their person-of-interest is the association's former accountant, Rachel Duncan.

Grand Strand Hospitality Association leaders say their thoughts and prayers right now are with Sponseller's family, but the work of the hospitality industry has to go on and now is the time to rally around the state association and keep moving forward.

Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association president Stephen Greene said an ongoing fight over hotel pool enclosures and the legal definition of seasonal employees are a couple of the main issues of concern for the hospitality industry.

Right now, the state association representing the industry has no lobbyist, but Greene said the organization can still push ahead successfully on those matters without one.

"We feel very confident that we can handle it, working with the state association closely, that our local issues are heard and continue to move forward with momentum."

But headlines about missing money lead to questions about the state association's reputation. Board member Bob Barenberg, who manages the Hilton Hotel properties in Myrtle Beach, said public image is always a concern, but the organization is cooperating fully with the investigation and will come out stronger than before.

"I think also people understand that the association is bigger than that and we will persevere in this process," he said.

Barenberg said he thinks all those in the hospitality industry will take a closer look at their own procedures now, to make sure that what happened at the state association doesn't happen again.

"We all are going to look at this and whatever lessons there are to be learned in this, we will apply those lessons and move positively from this point forward."

Greene said the state association has been around since the mid-40's and its current situation, though tragic, shouldn't impact its mission or goals.

Board chairman Rick Erwin, who owns a restaurant in Greenville, has taken over running the state association until a new president is hired.