Former PRT director to head scandal-ridden hospitality association
Seeking a fresh start from a tragic embezzlement scandal, a statewide hospitality industry group began rebuilding itself Thursday by hiring a former South Carolina tourism chief and shedding its old identity.
John Durst, who was director of S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism from 2000 to 2003 under former Gov. Jim Hodges, was tapped to lead the newly named S.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association as president and chief executive officer.
Durst takes over the former S.C. Hospitality Association as the Columbia-based group tries to distance itself from an embezzlement uncovered in early spring that sent an employee to prison and prompted the former director to commit suicide.
Durst said Thursday that his top priority will be to meet with as many of the organization’s 1,400 members as he can and find out how to represent their interests better.
“We are totally committed to ensuring our association meets, and hopefully exceeds, its goals, especially so that each present and future member will attest that membership in our association is an investment in his or her business that brings an extremely high rate of return ... from the state’s No. 1 industry, tourism,” Durst said.
The association’s former bookkeeper, Rachel Duncan, admitted to stealing from the organization from 2006 until early 2012. She was sentenced this year to 30 months in prison.
After learning in February that Duncan was being investigated for the stolen money, which added up to nearly $500,000, the association’s longtime CEO, Tom Sponseller, shot and killed himself in an underground parking garage.
The group’s new chairman is David McMillan of Murrell’s Inlet. He said the association has been through “some rough waters” the past few months, but he stressed that new policies have been put in place to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
Among those, he said, are new internal and external controls, an audit committee and a requirement for two signatures on checks.
McMillan said the name change was as much about de-stigmatizing the agency as it was about seeking to better represent the various industries it serves.
“The board felt it was time to better reflect exactly who we are as an organization,” McMillan said.
Formed in 1993, the Hospitality Association grew out of the former S.C. Hotel and Motel Association and the S.C. Restaurant Association, which Sponseller headed before becoming director of the merged entities.
Susan Cohen, an executive committee member for the newly named group and director of corporate development for Charleston-based Charlestowne Hotels, said Durst has the expertise to distance the trade group from its sullied past.
“He is well known across the industry and in the Legislature,” Cohen said. “We are a trade group, and lobbying is such a big part of what we do. John has a good reputation as well.”
Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, also praised Durst’s selection.
“He is an amazing administrator and a man of high integrity,” Hill said. “I cannot be more thrilled to have a man of his caliber as the executive director of the new Restaurant and Lodging Association.”
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise