One of Charleston's toniest hotels has accused a prominent Republican group of pulling a high-stakes dine-and-dash maneuver and skipping out on a tab totaling more than a quarter-million dollars.
Charleston Place has filed a lawsuit alleging that the Southern Republican Leadership Conference ran out on a bill of $227,872 after putting on a poorly attended gathering during the party's January primary.
Conference officials deny they were trying to slide out on their tab. They insist the four-star hotel is trying to sensationalize a legitimate dispute over the final bill while failing to mention that the group already paid a sizable chunk of cash up-front.
"They are trying to make it sound like SRLC showed up, ate a bunch of food, had guests stay in the rooms and then left under the cover of night," the group's attorney, John Harrell, said. "And that is not at all what happened."
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The legal dispute is swirling with dueling accusations of unprofessional conduct and worse. It's a messy finale for a gathering that co-sponsored a nationally televised debate among the final four contenders for the GOP nod.
And it features rare bad publicity for a luxury hotelier better known for pampering well-heeled clientele and raking in national accolades. Rooms at the 440-room hotel go for $240 to more than $1,800 a night.
The Southern Republican Leadership Conference lined up a Jan. 19-22 stay back in March and booked nearly every room in the downtown hotel, according to Charleston Place's lawsuit. Political consultant Robert Cahaly signed the agreement on behalf of the conference.
The group has described the resulting event "as among the most successful Republican conferences ever." But Charleston Place alleges that the conference was "grossly undercapitalized," insolvent and so poorly attended that many sponsors pulled out and former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich bailed on a planned appearance.
When it came time to pay the bill, the lawsuit said, conference officials skipped out on their obligations and left Charleston Place holding the bag for the attendees' lodging, food and beverages.
On Jan. 22, conference leaders canceled a planned meeting to settle the bill, sending Charleston Place an email filled with fabricated claims about billing discrepancies, ill treatment by the hotel's staff and a hotel manager's attempt to get a conference staffer to engage in unspecified illegal activity, the lawsuit said.
The hotel wants to hold Cahaly and others personally responsible for the tab, arguing that the Southern Republican Leadership Conference is nothing but a corporate shell Cahaly uses to hide from his obligations, the lawsuit said.
Cahaly has been mentioned in state GOP circles as an up-and-coming operative with growing influence. In 2010, he made headlines after he was accused of making illegal robo-calls to potential voters while working for Lt. Gov. Ken Ard's campaign.
Cahaly did not respond to a request for comment Monday, but the conference issued a statement disputing the lawsuit's claims and promising that its own counter-claim is on the way. The statement read: "After prepaying over $235,000 to the Charleston Place Hotel, we at SRLC 2012 had an unprofessional experience that directly and indirectly breached our contract causing great harm and distraction to our attendees, sponsors, and staff. The Charleston Place's attempt to mischaracterize this legitimate dispute as the SRLC's walking away from a bill is in keeping with the pattern of deception and misrepresentation that is a significant part of our ongoing disagreement.
"We continue to seek a reasonable and equitable settlement even as the Charleston Place's Management seeks to sensationalize. We sincerely hope that cooler heads at the Charleston Place will prevail and they will acknowledge serious errors and actions resulting in a fair agreement."
Harrell said the group had questions about its final bill and asked the hotel to provide an itemized invoice before payment was made. The conference was still waiting on that invoice when Charleston Place chose to "ambush" them with a lawsuit, he said.
Harrell said the conference is a nonprofit corporation in good standing with a board made up of prominent political figures, though he declined to name them. He said he had no figures on attendance at the January conference.
Allan R. Holmes, attorney for Charleston Place, said he had no comment on the group's assertions.