Robert “Shep” Guyton, the Myrtle Beach attorney who funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations through more than a dozen corporations in 2009, faces 167 state ethics charges, most stemming from excessive contributions to candidates for local and state offices, according to public records.
Guyton, a former chairman of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce board, could not be reached for comment Friday. He was originally scheduled to appear before the ethics commission in 2010, but ethics officials said they waited to pursue the case until federal authorities completed a criminal investigation.
Herb Hayden, the commission’s executive director, said he was recently told the U.S. Department of Justice had declined to prosecute the case. Once he receives an official notice from the DOJ, Hayden said the ethics commission will schedule a hearing on Guyton’s ethics charges, possibly as early as February.
Eric Klumb, an assistant U.S. attorney who worked on the case, said the Department of Justice doesn’t comment on why it declines to prosecute someone.
The ethics commission could fine Guyton up to $2,000 per violation, Hayden said. None of the candidates who received the contributions have been accused of ethics violations.
Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes, who received some of the Guyton donations, said he did not know about the ethics case until he was contacted by the Myrtle Beach Herald. Rhodes did say he recently learned federal officials were abandoning their investigation.
“I thought that when the FBI closed the case, it was over,” Rhodes said. “This is honestly the first I've heard about this.”
The Guyton ethics complaint is the ethics commission’s oldest unresolved case and stems from the 2009 election season.
During that time, Guyton was listed as the registered agent for at least 10 limited liability corporations in the Myrtle Beach area, according to the ethics commission’s records.
On June 8, 2009, numerous cashier’s checks were issued from South Atlantic Bank payable to at least a dozen political candidates, records show. Checks of $1,000 each were written for local candidates and $3,500 checks were written to then-U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, who was running for governor at the time. Those amounts were the maximum amount allowed under state law.
Although the checks listed different corporations, the money did not come from those companies, according to the complaint. The ethics commission concluded the contributions were made from a bank account Guyton controlled and thus they exceeded the legal limit.
The commission’s 61-page hearing notice spells out the allegations against Guyton:
• He made an excessive campaign contribution to Barrett by donating $3,500 as a personal donation and providing additional $3,500 contributions through more than a dozen companies he personally funded.
• He made excessive campaign contributions to Rhodes, Myrtle Beach City Councilman Wayne Gray, Myrtle Beach City Councilman Randal Wallace, former Myrtle Beach City Councilman Chuck Martino, state Sen. Ray Cleary, state Rep. Alan Clemmons, former state Rep. Liston Barfield, former state Rep. Thad Viers, former state Rep. Nelson Hardwick and former state Rep. George Hearn by making the maximum personal donations and then funneling other $1,000 contributions through companies he personally funded.
• He made excessive contributions to three political committees (Myrtle Beach Residents for Tourism, Local Residents for Tourism and Good Government for Myrtle Beach) by making the maximum contributions through his personal business and $3,500 through other corporations.
News of the contributions initially drew criticism from some business leaders who said the local donations appeared to be payback for politicians’ support of the Myrtle Beach tourism tax, which passed in 2009.
The tax adds a one percent sales tax to most retail purchases. Most proceeds of the tax are given to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce to promote tourism.
When the contributions were first questioned, former chamber chairman Brant Branham acknowledged he’d helped raise thousands of dollars for area politicians’ campaigns. He said he collected the donations “as an individual businessman.”
Chamber President Brad Dean also said he delivered an envelope filled with checks to his friend Barrett in June 2009, but he said he did so only to ensure that checks mailed to the chamber were properly delivered.
The chamber later adopted a policy of not accepting political contributions.
Dean could not be reached for comment.
Some local leaders were interviewed by the FBI and the IRS after the investigation began. Former state Rep. Tracy Edge, who did not accept any of the questioned contributions, said federal authorities told him they became suspicious of the donations after learning that some of the corporations that had donated money were facing foreclosure lawsuits and because of the cashier’s checks from South Atlantic Bank, where Guyton was a board member.
Wallace, the Myrtle Beach councilman, was also interviewed by federal authorities. Like the mayor, he said he’d heard the federal case was closed. However, he had not heard about the ethics case against Guyton.
“I never dealt with Shep directly during this,” Wallace said. “Brant Branham delivered the checks to me and I didn't think anything was unusual about it. Shep is a friend of mine and I wish him well.”