The South Carolina Hospitality Association, which The State newspaper reported today is missing money from its accounts, has hired an accounting firm to audit its finances.
The Hobbs Group, Columbia-based certified public accountants and consultants, has begun its forensic audit, said Bob McAlister, a Columbia communications consultant who is serving as the associations spokesman.
The Hospitality Association will share the audits findings with the Columbia Police Department as police investigate the disappearance of Tom Sponseller, the groups chief executive officer, McAlister said.
Sponseller was reported missing Saturday evening by his wife. He was last seen at the associations office around noon on Saturday, police said.
Law enforcement officials have confirmed to The State the existence of an ongoing federal investigation into missing money at the Hospitality Association. The Hospitality Associations director of accounting and member services has been named a person of interest in the missing money case. She has not been charged.
McAlister declined comment on the investigation into missing money.
The Hospitality Association represents nearly 2,000 hotel and restaurant owners across South Carolina. Sponseller is the groups lobbyist and well-known across the state.
Anyone with information on Sponsellers whereabouts is asked to call S.C. Crimestoppers at 1-888-274-6372.
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Multiple law enforcement officials have confirmed an ongoing federal investigation concerning missing money at the S.C. Hospitality Association.
The officials described the amount of money as substantial more than $100,000 and possibly up to $900,000.
The officials told The State newspaper that the associations accounting director, Rachel Duncan, is a person of interest in the missing money investigation. She has not been charged in the case. The officials declined to talk on the record because they are not authorized to speak about an investigation that has not been made public.
Greg Harris, a prominent Columbia defense attorney who represents Duncan, declined comment on allegations of missing money. But he said Duncan has cooperated with city investigators as they search for the Hospitality Associations well-known, missing CEO, Tom Sponseller, who disappeared Saturday.
We have met with authorities on more than one occasion and we have provided them with all of the information we have about Mr. Sponseller and his disappearance, Harris said.
Duncan considers Sponseller a good friend, a close friend, and she is deeply concerned about his disappearance, said Harris, a former federal prosecutor. Duncan also is represented by attorney Matt Bodman, Harris said. Bodman is a former 5th Circuit assistant prosecutor.
Meanwhile, Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott said his department continues its investigation into the whereabouts of Sponseller, who was last seen at the Hospitality Associations Lady Street office in downtown Columbia on Saturday.
As for any links between Sponsellers disappearance and the federal investigation into missing money, Scott said, I am working on his disappearance, and we are following and tracking every lead. That is one of many leads or scenarios we have received.
Attempts to reach Duncan, 41, who lives near downtown Lexington, were unsuccessful.
Xavier Meier, the associations education manager who answered the office phone on Thursday, referred all inquiries to Bob McAlister, a Columbia consultant who specializes in crisis communication. The Hospitality Association retained McAlister earlier this week to handle public relations issues in the wake of Sponsellers disappearance.
In a statement emailed to The State, McAlister said, The Columbia Police Department, in its ongoing investigation, has asked the association not to comment on questions related to the investigation of Sponsellers disappearance.
The association will honor that request. We are confident that all legitimate questions will ultimately be answered when the investigation is completed.
Asked specifically about allegations of missing money, McAlister and association officials declined comment.
Duncan was listed as the associations website as director of accounting and membership services as late as Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, the entire staff contact list had vanished from the website. Association representatives declined to explain why the staff listing had disappeared.
McAlister said the association had four employees last week and it continues to have four people on the payroll. He declined to elaborate.
Sponseller was reported missing to Columbia police about 8 p.m. Saturday after his family had spent about six hours searching for him. He was last seen about noon by a co-worker at the associations office on the 12th floor of an office tower at 1122 Lady St., according to a police report. Sponsellers black Mercedes was found in its usual parking space in the buildings underground garage.
It was common for Sponseller to drop by the office on weekends, family and colleagues have said.
His wife, Margaret Sponseller, had been with friends at a fishing tournament on Lake Murray on Saturday morning. She became concerned about her husband when she could not reach him after the tournament. The familys concern grew when Sponseller did not show up at 2 p.m. for his grandsons Boy Scouts Pinewood Derby event, the family has said.
Scott met Thursday afternoon with six members of the Sponseller family to update them on the missing persons case. Attempts to reach the Sponseller family Thursday were unsuccessful.
Columbia police twice have searched the office tower, including the elevator shafts and underground parking garage, Scott said. Police also searched Sponsellers Mercedes, which is provided by the Hospitality Association, and was found in the garage.
Sponseller is listed as a missing person in a national law enforcement database, and police check all leads called into S.C. Crimestoppers, Scott said.
Investigators also are checking cellphone and credit card records, Scott said. However, those searches take time because investigators must obtain subpoenas and then work with phone and credit card companies to get the records.
Wednesday night, about 300 people gathered on the State House steps for a candlelight vigil for Sponseller. His three adult children and their spouses joined their mother for the vigil.
Sponseller, who lives on Lake Murray, is a well-known throughout the state for his work with the hospitality industry. He lobbies the Legislature on behalf of nearly 2,000 hotel and restaurant owners in South Carolina. He also is the person they call to address industry issues on the federal and local levels. In Columbia, he worked closely with the police departments hospitality task force, a specialized group that patrols the Five Points, Vista, Main Street and Harbison entertainment districts.
Rick Erwin, the Hospitality Associations board of directors chairman, has been named interim executive director, McAlister wrote in his statement. Erwin owns restaurants in Greenville.
The associations priorities are twofold: To do everything possible to help the authorities locate Tom and bring him back safely, and to maintain the strength and integrity of one of the most respected business trade associations in the state. ...
During this difficult period, we ask everyone to remember Tom and his family in their thoughts and prayers.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.