MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) – The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce appeared to not share vendor names for approximately $30 million of transactions paid for with taxpayer money, according to a News13 analysis of “transparency reports” published by the chamber. The transactions instead had generic terms like “email marketing” — “other” is listed for more than $95,000 of spending — or described spending as events like “DC Press Trip” without saying who was paid.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce holds a press conference to address the lawsuit claims.

The “transparency reports” document how the chamber spent $74 million from taxpayers between 2015 and 2017. The money comes from the accommodations tax collected for hotel stays and the tourism development fee, a one-percent sales tax charged in Myrtle Beach. Much of the money goes to the chamber to advertise the Myrtle Beach area.

News13 reviewed more than 13,000 transactions in the reports. For each transaction, the reports give three columns of information. One categorizes the spending by investments such as “internet advertising” or “public relations.”  The second column gives a vendor name for many transactions and a generic description for others. The reports also list a dollar amount for the transactions, but the chamber doesn’t share an itemized list of what was purchased.

Approximately $29 million of the generically-identified spending was tied to “internet advertising” and “digital advertising.” Where other transactions listed vendors, these transactions used terms like “display advertising,” “email marketing,” “mobile marketing,” “other digital marketing,” “search marketing,” “social media marketing,” “video advertising,” and “other.”

“Other” accounted for $95,509.29 of the chamber’s spending of taxpayer money.

Click here to see the total spending for each apparent generic term used instead of a vendor name.

Generic spending also included terms like “video shoot” ($89,536.59), “photography” ($370.47), “consulting” ($2,500), “golf trip giveaways/promotion” ($15,079.63), “pr promo items” ($32,593.64), and more. The reports don’t indicate who was paid.

The chamber appeared to identify some transactions as events rather than naming the person or company paid: “media visit” ($59,671.84), “Atlanta Press Trip” ($10,133.14), “site visit” ($40,856.67), “Toronto Sales Mission” ($32,910.57), and others were listed on the reports.

Who was paid?

Julie Ellis, the public relations and communications manager for the chamber, told News13 most of the generically-identified “internet advertising” purchases were tied to Visibility and Conversions, LLC, but not all of them. Ellis’ statement didn’t say what other companies were paid. She also didn’t address the “other” purchases made for “internet advertising.”

Click here to read the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce’s full response.

Karon Mitchell, a former Myrtle Beach city council candidate and ex-hotel owner, filed a lawsuit against the chamber last week, claiming the chamber funneled tax dollars to eight “crony companies” tied to current and former chamber employees. One of the companies named was Visibility and Conversions, LLC.

The chamber has said it followed the law when spending tax money.

“The reason things like ‘display advertising’ are seemingly ‘generic’ is because it includes the total amount spend with hundreds of companies including Google, Yahoo, etc.,” Ellis wrote in an email. “It is put together so people can get a general idea as to where the funds are going. To list each and every vendor/provider, would take hundreds of pages.” She told News13 by phone Visibility and Conversions, LLC facilitated many of these transactions.

That explanation doesn’t address more than $1 million of expenses tied to generic terms that seem to describe events, trips, and other non-digital expenses. When News13 asked about nine of those terms mentioned in this article, the chamber’s statement responded to one. “’Media Missions’ include all expenditures attributed to the mission, including cab fare, water at the airport, etc.,” Ellis wrote. “It is a way to show where monies are being spent without providing tedious details.”

Ellis gave a similar explanation by phone about “video shoot” expenses. She said they might cover snacks purchased for a crew or a payment to “talent.”

The chamber’s statement didn’t respond to News13’s request for vendor names for all transactions.  

Spending oversight

“The city of Myrtle Beach and Horry County failed to conduct any meaningful review of the ‘reports’ provided by the MBACC for the last 8 years,” Mitchell said in her lawsuit, which named the city and county as defendants, in addition to the chamber. The lawsuit didn’t give any evidence that the city and county didn’t review “reports.”

Horry County refused to answer questions about how it oversees the spending because, spokesperson Kelly Moore said, it doesn’t comment on “substantive matters” related to pending litigation.

City of Myrtle Beach spokesperson Mark Kruea told News13 the “transparency reports” are posted online. “In addition, the city receives a copy of the Chamber’s annual audit, as we do for all of the nonprofit organizations which receive grants or funding from the city (at least those big enough to require an annual audit),” Kruea wrote.

Kruea also pointed to a state law requiring the chamber to certify, among other things, it properly spent tax dollars and chose its spending based on research-based outcomes.

Asked whether the chamber’s disclosures met the city’s expectations, Kruea responded, “To my knowledge, Council has been satisfied with the level of reporting, to date.”

Mayor Brenda Bethune didn’t respond to a text message asking the same question.

City council will vote on an ordinance Tuesday to extend the controversial tourism development fee for another ten years and continue giving much of the money to the chamber. The ordinance passed the first of two readings in March. 

The fight for more information

The South Carolina Supreme Court is deliberating whether organizations that receive accommodations tax dollars, like the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, should have to follow the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The chamber said it shouldn’t have to follow the public records law, which could force it to turn over emails, receipts, invoices, and more.

The chamber isn’t a defendant in the case — the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce was sued — but it filed a “friend of the court” brief.

The Myrtle Beach chamber claimed in the brief it “publishes a quarterly list of expenditure details, including dollar amounts, payees, and descriptions.” News13’s analysis of the “transparency reports” found the chamber used generic descriptions instead of identifying “payees” for some of its spending of accommodations tax money.

“…The FOIA does not provide access solely for access’s sake,” the chamber said in its brief. “It is intended to meet citizens’ need for information regarding governmental actions, not to satisfy the public’s curiosity.”

“The application of these laws to private entities would impose enormous costs on those entities without creating any benefit to the public in terms of furthering the goals of FOIA,” the chamber said.

The South Carolina Press Association responded with its own brief. “One of the central principles of the FOIA is that citizens are entitled to learn who is receiving public money, and what the public is receiving in exchange,” it said. “Part of the impetus for allowing citizens to learn who is getting their money and what they are doing with it is to guard against self-dealing.”

When the South Carolina Supreme Court will release its decision is unclear.