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Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner is sworn into office at the Horry County Courthouse. Photo by Janet Morgan/Myrtle Beach Herald janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

The Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. (EDC) on Friday provided the State Law Enforcement Division with a recording of a private meeting between EDC leaders and new Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner that has sparked allegations of extortion.

"We have released the recording to SLED," EDC President Sandy Davis said. "We're cooperating with their investigation."

The EDC's executive committee plans to discuss the situation at a special meeting on Saturday, Davis said. The meeting will be a closed-door session. 

SLED began investigating the case Thursday at the request of Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge.

At issue is a private meeting that Gardner and his associate Luke Barefoot had with Davis and Sherri Steele, the EDC's director of investor relations. Although Davis maintains she never felt threatened or coerced during that meeting, Steele secretly recorded it on her phone and various interpretations of that conversation led to a story on a popular political blog and the SLED investigation.

A five-page confidential memo written by Horry County Government attorney Arrigo Carotti was published on the blog Fitsnews.com Thursday morning under the headline "Horry County Government Rocked By Recording of Alleged Extortion Attempt." Myhorrynews.com has also obtained a copy of the memo, in which Carotti writes about information he said Davis relayed to him. 

During the meeting, Barefoot threatened to have Grand Strand Daily blogger Paul Gable write a disparaging story about Davis’ lack of education unless the EDC hired political consultant Donald Smith for the organization’s public relations work at a cost of $30,000 or $40,000, according to the memo.   

The EDC receives more than $1 million in public money each year to recruit companies to the county. The agency offers incentives to these businesses as well as to local firms looking to expand. In exchange for receiving those perks, these companies hire workers here. Gable has been a frequent critic of the EDC. 

Despite the existence of a tape, there is disagreement about what transpired at the meeting between the EDC leaders and Barefoot and Gardner.

Davis told myhorrynews.com that she wanted to speak with the EDC board’s executive committee before offering any specifics about what she believes is inaccurate in the Carotti memo, though she stressed the extortion narrative about the meeting is false and the recording reflects that.

“A lot of it’s fabricated,” she said.

Gable and Gardner have also said the allegations of extortion are untrue. 

Through a spokeswoman, Eldridge and Carotti declined to comment on the case.

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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I'm the editor of myhorrynews.com and the Carolina Forest Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Horry County, South Carolina. I cover county government, the justice system and agriculture. Know of a story that needs to be covered? Call me at 843-488-7236.

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