COLUMBIA, S.C. (WACH, AP) -- The South Carolina Hospitality Association has launched an external audit of its finances as the search for its missing president continues to baffle law enforcement.
Interim president Rick Erwin has contacted a Columbia accounting firm to go over the association's books.
Erwin is standing in for Tom Sponseller, who was reported missing by his wife on Feb. 18 and was last seen at his office in downtown Columbia that day. Association consultant Bob McAlister says Erwin requested the audit to assure the association's membership that their financial contributions are secure.
Hospitality association board member David McMillan initiatlly confirmed the audit to WACH Fox News.
"Until we find out exactly the circumstances, I'm not willing to speculate and our board certainly doesn't want to encourage any speculation. We want to rely on the facts," said McMillan.
The agency's finances are also the subject of a federal investigation into hundreds of thousands in missing dollars. The federal probe appears to be tied to the SC Hospitality Association's former accounting director Rachel Duncan.Court records show Duncan, who handled the association's financial accounts, is currently being foreclosed on. She also filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and has been charged three times with submitting fraudulent checks, though she does not appear to have served any prison time. Duncan had no comment Friday when approached by Fox News outside her home in Lexington. A family friend who answered the door at Sponseller's home Friday said she does not believe the money investigation is related to his disappearance. "She [Duncan] is in big trouble," the woman said, "But I donâ??t think it has anything to do with Tom. He is a straight up guy and he is probably the one that reported it missing."
The investigation into the SC Hospitality Association's missing funds is having repercussions across the state. Until the matter is cleared up, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce will stop any of its payments to the association.
Chamber president Brad Dean tells our sister station WPDE he is setting aside all chamber dues that would normally go to the state association, until the investigation is over.
"We want the Hospitality Association of South Carolina to succeed and prosper," said Dean. "We just need to give them a little time to get their feet under them. A lot of businesses are asking a lot of questions and unfortunately there are very few answers."
Dean adds he still thinks highly of Tom Sponseller and is praying for his safe return, but hopes the missing money investigation doesn't damage the hospitality association.Authorities have combed the 61-year-old Sponseller's office building twice looking for any sign of the missing man. Sponseller's Mercedes-Benz was found in an adjoining parking garage where police say he would normally park. Investigators have also looked to track Sponseller's movements in and around his downtown Columbia building by reviewing surveillance video. However, a source tells WACH Fox News that the building's cameras were not working properly last weekend due to a recent power surge. They add Sponseller's Lady Street building is also not in the sightline of some of the cameras positioned at other nearby businesses. Investigators say they have reviewed Sponseller's cellphone and bank records, but police say that so far, they've learned nothing new. Columbia police are simply focusing on the missing CEO's disappearance and are not commenting on the federal investigation. They urge anyone with information about Tom Sponseller to call Crimestoppers at 1-888-CRIME-SC.
(The Associated Press, Fox News and WPDE contributed to this report.)