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Update October 20th: Due to the FOIA request, The Sun News has uncovered a $300,000 volley that involves the Chamber, Coastal Uncorked and The Brandon Agency.
The Sun News has a timeline that summarizes the events for this one particular transaction. See that here. Deeper details that elaborate on how this has caught the Secretary of State's attention is in this write-up.
The Chamber insists none of this money involves the public tax dollars that they receive as the designated marketing organization for the City of Myrtle Beach for the purposes of tourism promotion. The Chamber is also a part of an ongoing investigation for questionable campaign contributions that they helped facilitate during the 2009 and 2010 elections.
Coastal Uncorked has also had its share of local criticism. In addition to confusion over the organization's non-profit status, some have questioned if the amount of money spent (which has included accomodation tax funding) has been spent wisely.
First Report: This past week the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce complied with a Freedom of Information Act request from The Sun News. The Chamber gave The Sun News access 50 boxes containing thousands of shuffled documents.
The documents were unorganized, and made available to The Sun News at one of the Chamber's non-air-conditioned warehouses. The Sun News staff waded through the mountain of documents while an employee ran a forklift in the small area... all while rocking out to three songs simultaneously played on repeat over the warehouse speakers. The Sun News has published video of the bizarre scene they describe. It must be seen (and heard) to be believed.
We just recently published a story about how North Myrtle Beach spent almost $50,000 to deny a FOIA request they were ultimately ordered to comply with anyway. According to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, that's also the price tag of complying with this FOIA request.
Read Brad Dean's take on the request in the Chamber newsletter cited by The Sun News in this PDF document. (Page 9). In an open letter to the membership, Brad Dean writes:
We could have simply rejected the request. In fact, you might prefer us to do so, and I fully empathize with that viewpoint. But if we had said ‘no,’ can you imagine the negative publicity that would have resulted? Immediately, the requestor could blame us for withholding information and conspiracy theorists would spring into action. All too often, it seems we are “guilty until proven innocent” (not the other way around). The only solution is to continually demonstrate an unyielding commitment to transparency and hope that common sense prevails.
If you disagree with our handling of this request, please know that I understand your viewpoint and respect your opinion. In fact, we’ve already heard from numerous chamber members who are furious with those responsible for this waste of valuable resources. I’ve also heard from attorneys who encourage us to consider legal recourse to address this matter.
The Sun News also issued a FOIA request to the City of Myrtle Beach in regards to accountability in spending the proceeds from the Tourism Development tax. It sounded like a much more pleasant experience.