E-mails sent between members of Gresham Barrett's gubernatorial campaign staff last fall point to Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, as the person who raised political donations funneled through corporations that now are the focus of a federal criminal investigation.
Dean has denied raising the money for Barrett and other politicians, and said no chamber money was used to make political donations.
However, an advocate for open government said Barrett's perception that Dean or the chamber of commerce raised the money would be just as effective in garnering influence, regardless of the ultimate source of the donations.
"If a politician has it in his mind that the money came from a certain business or individual, he'll keep that in mind when it comes time for legislation that could affect that business or individual," said John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause South Carolina, a nonprofit group that advocates for more accountability in government.
Dean declined to comment on why thee-mails cite him as the person responsible for arranging contributions to Barrett and others following passage last year of a tax increase that benefits the chamber.
"I have not seen the e-mails you mention and, as such, I have no way of knowing the context of the e-mails nor can I know if they are authentic," Dean said.
The FBI and the Internal Revenue Service are investigating the source of the funds and why the donations were made through a series of sequentially numbered cashier's checks purchased on the same day at South Atlantic Bank, according to those who have been interviewed by the federal agencies.
Myrtle Beach lawyer Shep Guyton, who was a board member at South Atlantic Bank, is the registered agent for the corporations under investigation. It is not clear whether Guyton remains on the bank's board of directors. His name and photo have been removed from the bank's website.
Guyton and Wayne Wicker, the bank's president, have not returned telephone calls to The Sun News. Joy Klein, the bank's director of marketing, did not respond to a request for information about Guyton's status.
Dean declined to say whether he has been interviewed by the FBI or IRS.
"It is [the chamber's] policy not to comment on pending legal matters," he said.
The e-mails, obtained by The Sun News, show Barrett's staff attempting to pin down the source of the campaign donations after an Associated Press reporter raised questions about them in an Oct. 14 e-mail to B.J. Boling. Boling was communications director for Barrett during the Republican's failed gubernatorial run.
"There may be an issue with these donations," AP reporter Jim Davenport wrote in the e-mail to Boling. "Want to get your head around the sources and get back to me?"
Boling forwarded Davenport's e-mail to other campaign staffers, including Justin Stokes, Barrett's deputy campaign manager.
"These guys are tied to the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce," Stokes said in an e-mail to Boling and two of Barrett's political consultants - Warren Tompkins and Heath Thompson.
"Brad Dean, the chamber's president, worked behind the scenes to pull these together last quarter," Stokes said in the e-mail.
Tompkins, in another e-mail, told staff members that he "cannot figure what the issue would be" with the donations.
"Try Mark Kelley, our Horry expert, or perhaps Allan [sic] Clemmons," Tompkins wrote in the e-mail, suggesting that those two could answer questions about the donations.
"Talk to Mark Kelley," Stokes told Tompkins and the others in another e-mail. "He would be familiar with these contributions and the connection" between the corporations and the chamber of commerce.
Kelley is a former legislator who now is the chamber's lobbyist.
The e-mails do not make clear why Barrett's staff thought Kelley would be familiar with the contributions. The S.C. Ethics Commission has strict rules that prohibit lobbyists from participating in campaign fundraising for state politicians.
Kelley and state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, did not respond to requests for comments.
Clemmons also is among the politicians who received donations from the 14 corporations that are under investigation.
Those corporations made $239,500 in campaign contributions to seven state legislators and four Myrtle Beach City Council incumbents in the weeks after they approved a 1 percent sales tax hike for the city last year.
Barrett - one of Kelley's political allies - also received the donations, although he had no role in passing the tax.
Crangle said the use of shell corporations to hide the true source of campaign donations is one of the biggest problems in S.C. politics, often allowing individuals to exceed contribution limits without detection.
That type of corporate giving "is inherently corrupt and ought to be banned," he said.
Crangle said he doubts legislation reining in such donations will occur, however, because the politicians benefiting from the system are the ones making the laws.
The state Ethics Commission has been reviewing whether the donations violated state laws, but that agency has not referred any information to Attorney General Henry McMaster, who would prosecute such violations, according to McMaster spokesman Mark Plowden.
"We are not involved in that situation down there with the chamber," Plowden said. "That's the feds' show right now."
Cathy Hazelwood, general counsel for the commission, said she "can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a complaint" about the campaign donations or possible violations by Kelley.
The donations that are under investigation are among at least $324,500 in political contributions made to Barrett and others by chamber-related businesses and individuals in the weeks after the tax passed.
Most of the money from the tax, which is expected to generate about $18 million a year for the next decade, goes to the chamber to pay for tourism marketing programs.
Barrett - who lost his bid for governor during a primary runoff against eventual Republican candidate Nikki Haley - told The Sun News in May that Dean delivered an envelope with $84,000 in campaign donations, including those from Guyton's corporations, during a lunch meeting last year.
Kelley also attended that meeting, Barrett said.
Dean has repeatedly said that the chamber does not raise money for political candidates. He said he delivered the contributions to Barrett because he knew the politician would be in town for an unrelated fundraiser.
Dean said the chamber last year acted as a clearinghouse for political donations - business owners would send the contributions to the chamber's headquarters and the money then would be distributed to politicians. Dean said the chamber has stopped that practice.