MYRTLE BEACH — Contractors with the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce donated thousands of dollars to political money groups connected to the chamber, according to an updated lawsuit.
The amended filing says that political action committees controlled by the Grand Strand Business Alliance received more than $60,500 from 2010 to 2018 from Visibility & Conversions, LLC; William Rosenthal, that company's founder; and advertising firm Fahlgren Mortine. Both companies are contractors that receive public-money funding handled by the chamber for tourism promotion.
Julie Ellis, a spokesperson for the chamber, said the group is not commenting on the pending litigation. Fahlgren Mortine's offices were closed on Monday evening, and Rosenthal could not immediately be reached by phone.
The Business Alliance is a political interest group closely linked with the Myrtle Beach chamber. President Steve Chapman said it would be wise for companies that do tourism promotion work to throw their weight behind candidates who support the tourism industry.
"Why should they not be able to make political contributions? There's nothing irregular about that," Chapman said.
The amended complaint also lists several other political donations, including to the Palmetto Leadership Council and "various political candidates." It does not name any of those candidates. The suit claims that the chamber funneled public money to preferred candidates by moving it through some of the chamber's contractors.
All told, the updated suit mentions more than $240,000 in political donations from multiple firms, made from 2010 onward.
Karon Mitchell, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the companies are allowed to give political donations, "but they better hope not a penny of it's our (public) money."
The chamber receives millions in public money each year from accommodations taxes and the Tourism Development Fee, a special 1 percent sales tax levied only in Myrtle Beach. A Post and Courier analysis showed that $40 million in TDF spending over the past five years could not be tied to a specific recipient in the chamber's spending reports.
The complaint against the Myrtle Beach chamber originally was submitted in early April by Mitchell, a former motel owner. It alleges that the chamber has played favorites with the companies it chooses to do business with as it spends public money on tourism promotion. It mentions several firms that do work for the chamber as being "crony companies" that secured work through their connection to the business group, but does not name the contractors as defendants.
Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the chamber held a press conference during which Carla Schuessler, the chair of its board of directors, called the suit a "baseless, vindictive attack."