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Hospitality Group Missing $480,000 From Bank Account

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Stock image of money. (Credit: STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Stock image of money. (Credit: STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A three-year audit found about $480,000 missing from the bank account of a South Carolina tourism lobbying group, but nothing to directly link the missing money to the founder of the organization, who committed suicide last month.

But the chairman of the South Carolina Hospitality Association said Thursday Tom Sponseller was allowed too much control over the organization he founded two decades ago, and the members were stunned to hear the results of the audit. He blamed a second worker in the four-employee office, financial director Rachel Duncan, for taking the money. Sponseller mentioned in his suicide note he was disappointed with Duncan, saying she was like a daughter to him.

“Let me be blunt. What we heard was shocking, it was sickening and it is inexcusable. It happened because there was little oversight and accountability by the management and the association and the governing board for many years,” Hospitality Association Chairman Rick Erwin said.

Friends, family, business associates and Columbia police looked for Sponseller for 10 days after he went to work on a Saturday and never returned home. Officers searched the garage four times before finally finding Sponseller dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a room in the garage behind two locked doors on Feb. 28 hours after a colleague discovered the suicide note in his desk.

Sponseller’s suicide note mentioned the hundreds of thousands of dollars missing from his organization’s account.

Sponseller founded the Hospitality Association more than two decades ago and was involved in almost all aspects of the group. He was its public spokesman, it chief lobbyist and prepared its financial statements, reporting them to the board along withDuncan.

Duncanis the target of a federal investigation into the missing money, said U.S. Secret Service Special Agent in Charge Michael Williams, but no charges have been filed against her.Duncan’s lawyer, Greg Harris, declined to talk about the case after Erwin spoke to reporters Thursday.

The money missing from the association came from deposits, expenses and payroll, Erwin said.

Duncan, who handled the association’s payroll, reported around $70,000 in income on tax statements last year, and she should have only made about $40,000, Erwin said.

Members of the Hospitality Association were disappointed that so much money could have left the organization and the problems could have lasted that long without Sponseller knowing or reporting them, Erwin said.

“Absolutely, Tom should have known,” Erwin said.

The Hospitality Association only paid for an audit starting in 2009 on advice of an outside accountant. But the review found money may have started disappearing before then, and Erwin said the organization may check its books further back.

The organization, which brings in about $1.1 million per year, will put new checks and balances in place to correct the problems found in the audit. The group will also will make sure employees no longer perform duties that aren’t compatible with each other.

“Anybody writing the checks, I don’t want them picking up the mail,” Erwin said.

 (© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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