Coral Resorts and dozens of its unhappy timeshare owners will eventually have their day in court to determine if the company misled buyers with false promises of waived maintenance fees and other perks.
When evidence begins piling up in preparation for the big day, a controversial transcript from a S.C. Real Estate Commission meeting should be on top. The document, which details the interaction between company representatives and commissioners during a Jan. 23, 2013, hearing, could be key to sorting out the whole muddled affair. Without it, important parts of the story may be left untold -- and a blow will be dealt to public access.
Timeshare owners, who have filed more than 30 lawsuits against the timeshare company, alleging fraud, misrepresentation and unfair trade practices, want the right to include the transcript in their lawsuits, claiming it will help make their case that Coral Resorts broke the law. Coral Resorts denies the timeshare owners' claims; its attorneys have worked hard to prevent access to the transcript.
Why? The transcript shows Coral Resorts did not pay annual fees required by the state. The lapsed payments raise questions about whether registrations of the company's four timeshares remained intact during the years fees weren't paid. If the registrations did lapse, the owners could argue that the contracts they signed are invalid.
Coral Resorts lawyers insisted at the Real Estate Commission hearing that the unpaid renewal fees did not affect the company's right to sell timeshares.
It's an important legal question that should be quickly answered as timeshares continue to be bought and sold on Hilton Head Island by Coral Resorts and others. These companies, prospective and current timeshare owners and everyone concerned with the health of the local economy would greatly benefit from a judge rendering a ruling.
But two courts and a state regulatory official have sealed the transcript, aiding Coral Resort's information-containment agenda.
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette received a copy of it from an unknown, anonymous source and published it, revealing to all the contents. The sealed transcript should be included in the court cases and the important issues it raises addressed.
Ultimately, the sealed transcript is about more than whether timeshare owners were denied promised perks. In South Carolina, judges can only seal records for specific purposes. But the transcript was sealed without meeting the required level of proof and without completing the required paperwork.
The situation raises bigger questions: What document might next be sealed in what case? And what other information is being kept under wraps that could help the public better understand and assess their community?
The transcript's inclusion in the court cases would make a bold statement that the document was -- and is -- a public record. And it just might send a message to S.C. judges that their presumption should always be to leave public records open.