HILTON HEAD

Hoagland sues Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber over financial records

gsmith@islandpacket.comJanuary 15, 2013 

Skip Hoagland

SUBMITTED PHOTO — submitted photo

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce is a public body that must open its books for inspection, a critic of the organization argues in a lawsuit.

Skip Hoagland, a local businessman who has been pushing the chamber to turn over detailed financial information, including invoices, contracts and checks, filed suit Monday in Beaufort County.

At issue: Is the chamber -- and dozens of other organizations that accept public money from local governments -- required to fully disclose its financial statements and other details to taxpayers?

Hoagland claims the chamber is a public body because it receives accommodations tax dollars -- money Hilton Head and Beaufort County award to the chamber each year, generated by tourists who stay in hotels, motels and other overnight lodging.

S.C. law "provides that 'any person has the right to inspect or copy any public record of a public body,' " Hoagland contends in his lawsuit. He has also claimed the chamber is wasteful with money; pays some employees exorbitant salaries, including CEO Bill Miles' compensation of more than $320,000; and unfairly competes against local companies that are chamber members.

"The legal process for accountability and transparency will begin," said Hoagland, who has run several advertisements in The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette arguing his points. "Hopefully, the courts will agree that the chamber has to account to the public as to how it expends public funds. Things will get very interesting."

Chamber officials say their organization, a 501 (c)(6) that uses accommodations tax dollars for marketing, is not a public body. Although they have already turned over some financial and other information to Hoagland and also share their audited annual reports with visitors to its website, they say they are not required and not willing to turn over some of the records he has requested, including the gender, race, and pay rate of its employees.

Chamber spokeswoman Charlie Clark said no one from the chamber has seen the lawsuit yet, but is surprised to hear it has been filed because the organization has already disclosed how it spent accommodations tax dollars to Hoagland and others who have requested it.

"We've always followed, and will continue to follow, the letter of the law," Clark said. "We always provide and make publicly available detailed financial information on how accommodations' tax dollars are spent by the chamber for marketing, as well as making the detailed financial audits available to the public and posted on our website."

Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, disagrees with the chamber's assessment. He and other attorneys point to a 1991 state Supreme Court decision, which expanded the number of organizations deemed public bodies.

Bender -- acknowledging that he is not familiar with the specifics of how the Hilton Head chamber conducts business -- said "chambers are desperate to keep (financial information) secret because the real issue is inside dealing."

Bender said chambers of commerce favor companies that are members when they purchase goods and services, to the exclusion of companies that are not members.

Robert Stepp, the chamber's attorney, disagreed.

"It is unfortunate that Jay Bender has chosen to engage in wildly inaccurate speculation about a situation that he admits he knows nothing about," he said. "The chamber has properly declined to provide private financial information to Mr. Hoagland because the chamber is not a public body and is not subject to (the state's open records law)."

The Island Packet also has been denied access to information from the chamber. Requested information included employees' pay, a list of contractors and organizations paid by the chamber for goods and services, revenue sources and more.

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