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Police Search Continues for Lobbyist, Tom Sponseller, CEO
of South Carolina Hospitality Association, Missing Since Saturday

By Noelle Phillips, The State, Columbia, S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 21, 2012--Columbia Police Department investigators were using credit card and cellphone records and reviewing video footage from downtown security cameras Monday in their search for the missing lobbyist for the state's hospitality industry.

Tom Sponseller, 61, was reported missing by his family Saturday night after he failed to come home from work or return phone calls.

Sponseller is chief executive officer of the S.C. Hospitality Association, a trade group that represents the state's hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses. Sponseller is the face of the tourism and hospitality industry at the State House, where he lobbies the Legislature on behalf of those interests. He was scheduled to attend the S.C. Governor's Conference on Tourism and Travel in Greenville, which opened Monday.

Sponseller was last seen around noon Saturday at the hospitality association's offices on the 12th floor of a downtown office building at 1122 Lady St. It was common practice for him to drop by the office on weekends, said Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott.

After Sponseller did not return phone calls or text messages from his wife, his family began searching for him. Their search lasted six or seven hours, Scott said.

Sponseller's wife called police around 8 p.m. Saturday, according to an incident report.

Sponseller's car was found in its usual parking place at his office. His wallet and cellphone have not been found, Scott said.

Foul play has not been ruled out, the police chief said.

While Scott said Sponseller's family had not reported any medical condition that could have led to his disappearance, his wife, Margaret Sponseller, told police about a serious car accident he was involved in in January 2011, according to the incident report.

In that accident, Sponseller was driving on I-20 when his vehicle left the road and hit a tree. He was on crutches for a while, but had fully recovered from the accident, said Rick Patel, a Columbia hotel owner who serves on the hospitality association's board of directors.

The incident report noted, "The victim was in a car accident approximately one year ago in which he blacked out at some point prior to the accident, possibly had a seizure."

Friends and colleagues of Sponseller's said Monday it would out of character for him to disappear.

"This is not right," Patel said. "Something's gone wrong."

Patel said he has known Sponseller for 15 years and works with him weekly on issues that impact the hotel industry. Most recently, Sponseller has been working with hotel owners and the U.S. Department of Justice on an interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act that could require every hotel to install a lift for handicapped guests at every pool, Patel said. In Myrtle Beach, some hotels have multiple pools, and Sponseller was part of a group working to persuade the federal government that one lift at a single pool per hotel would be sufficient. He also recently worked with the S.C. General Assembly to defeat a bill that would have required water tank inspections at hotels.

Sponseller "keeps us in business," Patel said.

Sponseller graduated from The Citadel and, served as an Air Force officer and worked in the food industry before becoming an industry lobbyist in 1990.

"He was punctual, returned phone calls and the military discipline is part of who Tom is," said Ike McLeese, chief executive officer of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

Anyone with information is urged to call Midlands Crime Stoppers at (888) CRIME-SC of the Columbia Police Department at (803) 545-3500.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.


(c)2012 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

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