Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes has reported a $4,000 “business incentive trip” that he said took him to Monte Carlo as he tried to negotiate broadcasting for local sporting events.
But he did not note other high-profile trips in a financial disclosure he filed with the S.C. Ethics Commission last month. Those trips were partly paid for by the local chamber of commerce and foreign hosts as he courted business from Chinese investors and tried to promote Myrtle Beach as a destination for international tourists.
“If I leave on city business, representing the city, I don’t have to report it,” Rhodes said in a phone call Monday. “That is the understanding I have, that as long as I’m on city business, then I don’t have to report it.”
The trip Rhodes did report, to Monte Carlo, was paid for by Sinclair Broadcasting, the same entity that owns the local ABC affiliate WPDE-15. (The Sun News and WPDE are part of The Grand Strand Alliance, a group of news agencies that share some content.) It took place in the middle of October 2016, Rhodes said.
In addition to duties as mayor, Rhodes is the executive director of the Beach Ball Classic, an annual tournament of high school basketball games that is broadcast by Sinclair. That link, and his work to establish some new sporting events in the area, led to the trip, Rhodes said.
“When they invite me to go on a trip with them to have a … meeting, then I’m going,” Rhodes said. “It’s all been about basketball.”
Billy Huggins, the general manager of WPDE, said in an email that Rhodes was invited on excursions by “upper management.”
The trip was listed in a Statement of Economic Interests report, which had a March 30 deadline and must be filed annually by public officials across South Carolina. Politicians and top government staffers report their public income; sources of private income; relationships to companies that have government contracts; and gifts, the section in which Rhodes reported the Monte Carlo trip.
But his disclosure did not include other trips, which he said were taken as a function of his office. The trips, mostly to China, were largely underwritten by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and foreign hosts.
Steve Hamm, the interim executive director of the S.C. Ethics Commission, declined to comment on a specific case but said generally, disclosure does not require public officials to report on travel expenses associated with their office.
“That is not a ‘gift,’ under the statute,” Hamm said. “We don’t ask everybody to file all their travel expenses because that’s just outside of our jurisdiction.”
Chamber President Brad Dean said that in many cases, host cities will pay for incidental costs, meals and on-the-ground transportation. Rhodes said that during his travel inside China, he was often traveling at the host’s expense from meeting to meeting and they sometimes paid for accommodations.
The chamber paid $2,490.60 for Rhodes’ airfare in September 2016, when he visited Yinchuan, China, for a U.S.-China tourism summit. Chinese hosts paid for transportation inside the country for the rest of his stay. And earlier in 2016, in January and February, Chinese officials paid many costs as Rhodes took a trip with Horry County Chairman Mark Lazarus. Myrtle Beach paid $3396.20 for Rhodes’ airfare for that trip, in addition to $900 in expenses.
And in a complicated itinerary in the fall of 2015 that involved several stops, Rhodes traveled from Tiberias, Israel, a projected sister city to Myrtle Beach, to Athens, to Budapest, and finally back to China for a travel trade show. The chamber paid a total of $2,946.76 in airfare, sponsoring the Israeli and Chinese stops on the trip. Rhodes said he paid for the costs of two days in Athens, and the Budapest stop was a $3,500 Sinclair trip that Rhodes did report in his 2016 disclosure.
“We do find on occasion it’s helpful and necessary to include elected officials on trips,” Dean said.
Rhodes said his visits to China have all focused on bringing tourism and investments to Myrtle Beach. He said other cities, and state-level officials, also regularly court investment from the country.
“It’s all about bringing business over here,” Rhodes said. “See, when I go to try to bring some business over here, it’s like, ‘My God, I’m selling Myrtle Beach out to the Chinese!’ Which is absolutely ridiculous.”