Myrtle Beach chamber withholds state hospitality funds during Sponseller investigation

NewsChannel 15 has learned the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce has immediately ceased any further payments to the Hospitality Association of South Carolina, pending an investigation into the state association's finances.

Chamber CEO Brad Dean told NewsChannel 15 the chamber will set aside all dues or collections that would normally go to the HASC in a separate bank account, to be held until the HASC's leaders have had a chance to assess the state association's financial situation. Normally, a portion of each chamber member's dues would automatically go to the HASC, to cover membership in the state association.

Dean said the chamber remains loyal to the HASC and the move to suspend payments was not a "slap in the face" to the state association, but a precautionary step to protect chamber members.

According to a report in the State newspaper Friday, multiple law enforcement agencies are investigating missing money at the HASC. Officials told the newspaper the amount of money was "substantial", possibly up to $900,000.

The investigation into the missing funds comes as the search continues for the Hospitality Association's CEO, Tom Sponseller, who has been missing since Saturday.

The investigation into missing funds came as a shock this week to Grand Strand restaurant owner David McMillan, who serves as the Vice President of Governmental Affairs on the restaurant division of the HASC's Board of Directors. McMillan, who owns Drunken Jack's in Murrells Inlet, told NewsChannel 15 an independent audit of the HASC's finances would begin on Monday. "We have to do our due diligence," McMillan said.

McMillan referred questions about the association's finances to Bob McAlister, a Columbia consultant who was reportedly hired to handle public relations for the HASC following Sponseller's disappearance.

For the time being, McMillan said the chairman of the board's restaurant division, Rick Erwin of Greenville, has taken over duties as the HASC's executive director. "Everybody has pitched in and rolled up their sleeves to do everything we can," McMillan said.

Police in Columbia are hoping that tips that continue to stream in about Sponseller's possible location. Spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said Friday that officers have combed the office building where Tom Sponseller was last seen.

They've also gone through the 61-year-old's cell phone and bank records but have found no clues about where he is.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.