Hilton Head’s mayor and a town councilman are being criticized, directly and indirectly, for failing to publicly disclose their personal and financial ties to a key player in the proposed $100 million Bay Point Island resort development before a September vote on the project.
Mayor David Bennett and Councilman David Ames paid Tom Gardo and Gardo’s Hilton Head communications firm, Denarius Group Inc., a total of more than $27,000 through their respective election campaigns for his work during the elections, State Ethics Commission records show. And the Town of Hilton Head Island has paid Gardo nearly $2,500 to write speeches for Bennett, town records show.
Gardo also is the main spokesman for the Bay Point Island project.
Gardo’s relationship with Bennett and Ames is no secret in Hilton Head political circles. Gardo is widely known as a member of Bennett’s inner circle, and Bennett and Ames have been closely aligned since Bennett made his first bid for mayor in 2014.
All three say they see no issues with their current arrangement, and it is simply the nature of Gardo’s public relations work to build relationships with government officials and others. But the closeness of their relationship, and the failure to disclose it to the public, does not help a project already dogged by questions about transparency.
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in September reported that Town Council members met privately with developers and resort officials in the months leading up to a decision to start an annexation process for a second island. It was Gardo who set up many of those meetings, according to council members.
The annexation of the 347-acre island is being sought to make way for a proposed five-star, “eco-friendly” resort run by Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas out of Bangkok, Thailand.
Bennett had nothing but praise for the proposal when it was first presented.
“This represents a significant opportunity for the Town of Hilton Head,” Bennett said in September before the vote. “This could enhance Hilton Head’s brand.”
Bennett and Ames, along with the rest of the seven-member Town Council, voted unanimously on Sept. 20 to accept an application for annexation, despite residents calling for it to be tabled. The vote came just four days after the public was first made aware of the issue via the release of a Town Council meeting agenda.
John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause South Carolina, a nonprofit government watchdog group, said Bennett and Ames should have at least sought a legal opinion before voting, describing their actions as “careless and imprudent.”
State ethics law bans public officials from using their positions to “obtain an economic interest” for “an individual with whom he is associated,” or “in any way attempt to use his office … to influence a governmental decision in which … an individual with whom he is associated … has an economic interest.”
Two other council members, while not directly criticizing Bennett or Ames, say they would have handled the situation differently.
Councilman Tom Lennox said if faced with a similar situation, he would have considered recusing himself from the September vote, and that he would likely seek legal counsel before voting.
“Everyone has their own definition of friend,” Lennox said. “It is easier to define the adviser role than a friend. I think the issue of adviser has to be considered as a disclosable relationship, especially when the adviser is representing an applicant coming before you.”
Councilman Bill Harkins said he believes it is “wise protocol” for council members to publicly disclose in advance their relationships with those involved in town projects.
“I think the public has a right to know what your position is, and what logic prevailed, and what sources you utilized,” he said. “It is a matter of courtesy to the public we serve.”
Bennett described Gardo as an adviser to him as mayor and a friend.
“He is someone who helped me with our campaign in terms of PR and marketing, and he occasionally does some speech writing for me,” Bennett told the newspapers.
Bennett said he didn’t think state ethics law applied to his relationship with Gardo because he isn’t invested in Gardo’s business.
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette’s review of State Ethics Commission records found that Gardo and the Denarius Group were paid a total of $14,105 in campaign funds for work on Bennett’s 2014 mayoral campaign, while the Denarius Group was paid a collective $13,121 to help Ames with his 2016 election to Town Council.
In addition, Gardo also was paid a total of $2,475 by the town to write three speeches for the Bennett in January and February of 2015, town records obtained by the newspapers show. Gardo isn’t the only paid speech writer for Bennett, according to records.
Ames and Gardo say they have been friends and worked together in different ways since they arrived on the island at about the same time in the 1970s when the population was only about 3,000 people.
“I am able to differentiate my longstanding personal relationship with Tom Gardo and my duties on the council,” Ames said when contacted by the newspapers.
Ames said he couldn’t comment on state ethics law because he isn’t aware of the provisions in question.
“I am new in this position,” he said. “If I am making a mistake out of lack of information, I want someone to point it out.”
Crangle, the longtime director of Common Cause South Carolina, said public officials should be careful about their relationships with those who might have business before governing entities.
“When confronted with the issue, politicians should at least seek legal advice,” he said. “To me, it seems their behavior (Bennett’s and Ames’) has been careless and imprudent.”
Crangle, an attorney, said public officials statewide typically “either say they don’t know what the (ethics) law is, or they say it doesn’t apply to them.”
Brian Hulbert, Hilton Head’s town attorney, told the newspapers when contacted that neither Bennett nor Ames consulted him before the September vote, adding that if they had done so, he would have advised them it was “their personal decision” about recusing themselves from voting. The pair said they didn’t contact either private attorneys or the State Ethics Commission for advice about the matter.
Gardo has been working as the point man on the Bay Point Island project since July. He said Bay Point representatives contacted him for the job.
“They needed a PR component,” he told the newspapers. “This is my line of work.”
Gardo pointed to a resume that includes handling public relations for major developments such as Del Webb’s Sun City and Palmetto Bluff, as well as various political campaigns over the years, including the election of Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling.
Ned Tupper, an attorney and a Beaufort Municipal Court judge, said when contacted he is involved in the Bay Point Island project because of a friendship he has with the island’s owner, European investor Philippe Cahen. Tupper said Bennett and Ames were not involved in the decision to hire Gardo.
Gardo was easily the best choice for the public relations job once developers decided that annexation of Bay Point by Hilton Head Island was an option, he said.
“I heard he is the best, so I called Tom,” Tupper said.
Despite the September vote, town officials say no overall decision has been made on the project. They have said at least four public hearings and numerous Town Council meetings will be held before any final decision is made.