All in the Family: Charleston Lawmaker’s Ties to Relative’s Airport-Related Businesses

May 2, 2013

Investigative Reports

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AirlinerIn 2007, longtime S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse co-authored a bill that put himself on the Charleston County Aviation Authority, which owns and operates Charleston International Airport.

More recently, as the immediate past chairman of the aviation authority board of directors, the Charleston County Republican was at the forefront of a $200 million makeover plan for the airport and a separate $12.5 million deal to sell airport land to aerospace giant Boeing.

“This is a major Christmas present to the Lowcountry,” Limehouse said at a December board meeting about the proposed sale of 320 acres to Boeing, according to a Charleston Post & Courier article. “We’ve tied our hat to the rocket ship Boeing.”

The Boeing land deal and airport expansion also could be financially beneficial to airport-related businesses connected to a close relative of Limehouse, an investigation by The Nerve has found.

What the longtime lawmaker, who remains an authority board member though is no longer its chairman, hasn’t revealed publicly is that three hotels at or near the airport, along with a charter airplane service operating at the airport, are run by companies with ties to his uncle, George Fennell, according to state and local records reviewed by The Nerve.

One of the hotels was built after Limehouse became chairman and during the time he presided over the start of the airport-expansion project, records show.

Limehouse, 50, is the broker-in-charge at Limehouse Properties in Charleston, which was founded by his father, Buck Limehouse, a former director and board chairman of the S.C. Department of Transportation. The elder Limehouse and his wife bought and renovated three historic hotels in downtown Charleston – the Indigo Inn, Jasmine House Inn and Meeting Street Inn – that are managed by Limehouse Properties, according to the real estate company’s website.

In an interview last week with The Nerve, Chip Limehouse, who joined the S.C. House in 1995, denied he had any conflicts of interest with his membership on the aviation authority board.

“If I saw any conflict of interest, I wouldn’t be on that board,” he said.

Asked if plans to expand the airport would benefit his uncle’s businesses at or near the airport, Limehouse replied: “We are working hard to make the airport better.  … Whether his (Fennell’s) businesses benefit or don’t benefit is irrelevant.”

Later in the interview, though, he noted that “to my knowledge, there have been no actions (of the aviation authority board) that directly benefit any business (currently at the airport) one way or the other.”

Limehouse pointed out that until contacted by The Nerve, no media had ever questioned him about his uncle’s airport hotels, noting, “I have nothing to do with that company.”

But Limehouse and his uncle made news in 1997 over Limehouse’s involvement in a controversy over competing proposals for a new or expanded landfill in the Charleston area; one of the proposals was made by a waste-removal company headed by Fennell, according to a Post & Courier story. Limehouse had requested a public hearing on the competitor’s proposal, the story said.

“Just because he’s my uncle does not mean he has to be treated any differently than anyone else,” Limehouse said then. “All I did was ask for a level playing field.”

Fennell did not respond to several phone messages left for him this week by The Nerve.

Limehouse’s latest state-income disclosure statement filed with the State Ethics Commission doesn’t list any of his private sources of income, though he is not required to do so under state law. As an unsuccessful candidate for the 1st Congressional District seat formerly held by now-U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of Charleston, Limehouse was required to submit a federal income-disclosure form.

That form shows Limehouse received $69,435 in salary last year from Limehouse Properties; $33,629 from another company he identified as 173 Meeting Street Inn, Limited, which is the listed owner of the historic Meeting Street Inn in downtown Charleston and has the same mailing address as Limehouse Properties; and $86,000 from a third company known as 5L Holdings Inc. He also listed $16,194 in salary as a state lawmaker, bringing his total reported pay last year to $205,258.

In addition, records at the S.C. Secretary of State’s Office show another company registered under Limehouse’s name, known as ICT Solutions U.S. LLC, which isn’t listed on his federal income-disclosure form.

Limehouse said “there’s nothing going on with” ICT Solutions, though he declined to discuss specifics about that company or 5L Holdings.

“I’ve disclosed everything I have been required to disclose,” he said.

Conflict Questions Raised

Contacted this week by The Nerve, Sue Stevens, the aviation authority director for the past six years and who has been with the authority for a collective 27 years, said she couldn’t recall any time when Limehouse, after joining the airport authority board in 2007, publicly revealed his uncle’s ties to the airport.

Asked if she believed there were any conflicts of interest with Limehouse’s membership on the board, Stevens replied, “I don’t really have an opinion on this.”

Efforts this week by The Nerve to reach Andy Savage, a Charleston attorney who assumed the board chairman’s post in January after Limehouse announced he was running for Congress, were unsuccessful.

Board member Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and chairman of the Charleston County legislative delegation, told The Nerve when contacted this week that he was not aware of any public statements by Limehouse about his uncle’s connections to the airport.

Asked if he believed Limehouse had any conflicts of interest serving on the board, Campsen, an attorney, replied, “Not necessarily … Generally, a conflict of interest is much stronger if it’s an immediate family member,” referring to Limehouse’s uncle.

State ethics law bans public officials from using their public offices for personal gain, though Campsen said that doesn’t apply if their actions financially benefit businesses in general, even if that includes the official’s business. Cathy Hazelwood, the State Ethics Commission’s chief lawyer, earlier told The Nervethat lawmakers would not be in violation of state law under the “large-class exception” by voting on bills that benefit their businesses and other businesses within their industries.

As the Charleston County legislative delegation chairman, Campsen is guaranteed a seat on the 13-member aviation authority board under the 2007 law pushed by Limehouse, who also gets an automatic seat as the delegation’s vice-chairman.

But Campsen, who previously was the delegation’s vice-chairman before becoming the chairman in January, said he has never attended any board meetings since joining the authority in November, contending that to do so would be to violate the state constitutional separation-of-powers requirement and a ban on dual office-holding. Instead, Campsen said that to comply with the law co-authored by Limehouse, he appointed a proxy to his seat, over whom he says he has no influence.

During his run earlier this year for a congressional seat, Limehouse named a proxy to serve in his place on the aviation authority board.

The South Carolina Public Interest Foundation, a Greenville-based government watchdog organization, and Waring Howe, a Charleston attorney and former chairman of the aviation authority, asked the S.C. Supreme Court in 2011 to rule the 2007 law unconstitutional, as The Nerve reported then, but the high court declined later to hear the case.

The plaintiffs have continued their fight in Charleston County Circuit Court, though a judge earlier this year initially ruled that they didn’t have standing to sue and dismissed the case, court records show. A final written order has not been issued.

In an affidavit as part of the lawsuit, Limehouse said as a member of the aviation authority board, he works to “improve the area by bringing business and jobs to the area, building a better infrastructure, increasing tourism, and improving the quality of life for local citizens.”

“I bring the skills and network I have developed as a legislator to my service on the CCAA (Charleston County Aviation Authority), which helps bring more economic development to Charleston and Berkeley Counties,” he said. “During my tenure on the CCAA, enplanements have increased and more airlines have begun serving the airport.

“These developments have resulted in more jobs and increased revenue for Charleston and Berkeley Counties.”

Airport-Related Businesses

Charleston County property records show that two hotels on International Boulevard within walking distance of the airport  – the Hilton Garden Inn and Holiday Inn – are owned by Lowcountry Hotels LLC and Lowcountry Hotels II LLC, respectively. Both companies are registered with the state under the name of Limehouse’s uncle, Fennell, and list a mailing address for the Holiday Inn, which houses the offices of Fennell’s holding company, Fennell Holdings Inc., according to records and company staff.

A third hotel – a Holiday Inn Express, located less than three miles from the airport on West Montague Avenue – is owned by Lowcountry Hotels III LLC, which also is registered with the Secretary of State’s Office under Fennell’s name.

Charleston County records show that hotel, which bills itself on its website as an airport hotel, was built last year when Limehouse was the aviation board chairman and in the same year that a massive makeover at the airport began.

A fourth hotel that is part of Fennell Holdings Inc. – the historic Ansonborough Inn – is located near the three downtown Charleston inns managed by Limehouse Properties, records show.

In addition, Fennell Holdings Inc. has another company, G.F. Air LLC, which operates a charter air service at the airport. According to its website, the company offers “executive aircraft charter services” on its seven-passenger Beechcraft King Air B200.

Limehouse became the aviation authority chairman in September 2010; a year later, news broke that the airport wanted to extend its $4.50 fee on departing passengers by about 18 months to help pay for a massive makeover of its terminal, projected then to cost $143 million, according to media reports. Limehouse was present last October when airport officials broke ground for the project, which has since been estimated to cost $200 million.

Nearly 2.6 million passengers flew out of and into Charleston International Airport last year, according to airport records.

Limehouse also was the board chairman when the aviation authority voted on Dec. 20 to start the process of selling 320 acres of airport property on International Boulevard to the Boeing Co., across the street the aerospace giant’s 787 Dreamliner assembly plant.

Limehouse was among 115 state House members who voted April 17 in favor of a bill (S. 578) that would authorize the sale of $120 million in taxpayer-financed bonds for Boeing to be used as part of a reported $1 billion expansion project, the details of which have yet to be released publicly. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley on April 23 – just two weeks after it was introduced.

Boeing’s political action committee (PAC) last June 8 donated $1,000 – the maximum-allowed amount for a state legislator in an election cycle – for Limehouse’s re-election bid to the S.C. House, according to campaign-disclosure records with the State Ethics Commission.  He was among 16 lawmakers and other elected state officials, including Haley, who received donations in 2012 from Boeing or the company’s PAC, records show.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter@thenervesc.