Ex-SC Hospitality employee admits to charges in missing money case

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COLUMBIA— A former employee of the South Carolina Hospitality Association has admitted she embezzled nearly $500,000 from the group whose director killed himself this year, according to federal court documents.

Under a plea agreement with prosecutors signed last month, Rachel Duncan plans to plead guilty next week to federal charges of wire fraud and tax evasion. She faces up to 23 years in prison and $350,000 in fines when she is sentenced.

According to prosecutors, the association’s former accounting director took more than $480,000 from the group from 2006 until February of this year, using much of the money for online gambling.

Prosecutors say Duncan wrote checks to herself from the association’s accounts and used the group’s point of sale credit card terminal to refund money to her own debit card.

Duncan also transferred stolen money to a prepaid Visa card, then used those funds for online gambling, prosecutors said.

As part of the agreement, Duncan agrees to give federal authorities financial information and to pay the money back. Her attorney declined Thursday to comment on the agreement.

Beginning in 2006, Duncan also failed to report any of the illegal income on her personal taxes, saying in 2010 that she made around $41,000 – substantially lower than she actually took in, according to prosecutors.

Federal officials had confirmed they were probing the group that serves as a lobbying group for South Carolina’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry. Association Chairman Rick Erwin said last month that the missing money came from deposits, expenses and payroll.

Tom Sponseller, the Hospitality Association’s executive director, killed himself in February after two decades at the helm of the group he founded. Police say Sponseller left a suicide note in which he detailed his despair over Duncan’s apparent misdeeds, saying he was despondent they happened on his watch and that Duncan was like a daughter to him.

A three-year audit found about $480,000 missing from the group’s coffers, but nothing to link Sponseller directly to the loss.

It took police 10 days to find Sponseller’s body in the parking garage of the building where he worked. Two high-ranking Columbia police officials left the department in the investigation’s aftermath.


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