An attorney for unhappy Coral Resorts timeshare owners said Friday he's running for mayor of Hilton Head Island to shed light on what he says is an "unscrupulous" industry with deep ties to Mayor Drew Laughlin.
Joe DuBois is among five candidates vying for the mayor's seat in the Nov. 4 election. Others include David Bennett, R.W. "Cork" James, Rochelle Williams and Laughlin.
DuBois said Laughlin, an attorney whose clients include Coral Resorts, contributes to the town's tendency to ignore timeshare practices that he says defraud vacationers and threaten the island's reputation.
DuBois represents clients in more than 30 lawsuits that allege fraud and unfair trade practices.
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Laughlin represents Coral Resorts' four homeowners associations -- Port O'Call at Shipyard Plantation, Island Links, Coral Sands and Coral Reef resorts -- in many of those lawsuits.
DuBois cited dozens of complaints from timeshare owners that he says the mayor can't act on because he works for the company.
The mayor forwards those complaints to town manager Steve Riley to avoid any conflict of interest, he said.
"The mayor has an absolute ability to instill change," DuBois said. "But because of his allegiance, he is unwilling or unable to deal with the serious problem of vacationer fraud."
Laughlin said Friday that he has never used his position "to influence town policy in any matter that affects my clients and I never will. That includes my involvement with Coral (Resorts) and the homeowners associations. If it affects my clients, I don't participate."
He also said state law prevents the town from regulating the timeshare industry, which is policed by the state Real Estate Commission.
DuBois also took issue with the mayor's sworn testimony before the commission on behalf of Coral Resorts.
In January 2013, Laughlin was paid to appear at a hearing where he testified that punishing the company would hurt the island's economy. Laughlin was introduced as mayor and did not mention he was representing the company, according to a transcript of the hearing. The mayor said later he should have disclosed that information and had no nefarious intent.
"To me these are examples of using the public office for private interest," DuBois said.
Laughlin said DuBois was entitled to his opinion. The mayor stood by his testimony that the industry benefits the economy.
He cited progress made during his four years in office and said he was looking forward to upcoming projects, among them the Coligny area re-development, Chaplin Linear Park and a University of South Carolina Beaufort campus on Office Park Road.
"I'm going to run a campaign that talks about my community, what we have done and what we can do," Laughlin said.
"I'm much more interested in talking about what this community can do to improve itself than I am in responding to personal attacks by somebody who has an agenda."
DuBois dismissed claims that his candidacy was a publicity stunt designed to draw attention to the lawsuits.
"I genuinely want to give more people in this town a voice," he said. "I'm not interested in businesses with deep pockets, and I'm not beholden to anyone for favors."
OTHER MAYORAL CANDIDATES
James, a former publisher of a Hilton Head music magazine, said he's concerned with re-development on the island. He wants less construction and more land preservation.
"Let's put it on hold; we don't need any more grocery stores."
He also said he wants to set aside more money for the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office to address neighborhood crime.
Williams, a physical therapist, said she will fight for paved roads, sewer and stormwater systems in low-income neighborhoods.
She also said she would encourage the hospitality industry to provide more local jobs and rely less on out-of-town interns.
Attempts Friday to reach Bennett were unsuccessful.
Attempts late Friday to reach Ward 5 candidates Williams and Lennox also were unsuccessful.
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.
- Coral Resorts lawsuits advance; hearing scheduled for September, Aug. 13, 2014
- Hilton Head mayor was paid to testify for Coral Resorts, July 11, 2014