In the first big campaign-drama blowup of the election season, a political group called Citizens for a Better Charleston created two websites and mailed out flyers that criticized Riley’s 36-year stint as mayor while promoting one of his opponents in the election, City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, as a Reagan-style conservative. Because the group is not officially affiliated with a candidate, it is not required to publicize its list of funders.

But by Tuesday morning, Riley knew the names of at least seven people who had supposedly given $5,000 or more to Citizens for a Better Charleston. The way he found out was dumb luck — or perhaps dumb fundraising.

It is no secret by now that Riley is a friend of the State Ports Authority. When downtown residents started raising Cain about the renovation of Union Pier and the potential for growth in the annual number of cruise ships visiting the terminal, Riley stood by the SPA, which owns and maintains Union Pier. And when two downtown neighborhood associations, the Coastal Conservation League, and the Preservation Society of Charleston sued Carnival Cruise Lines, the SPA’s biggest customer at the terminal, Riley jumped onboard and made the city a codefendant with Carnival.

So when Columbia-based political consultant Desiree Watson called SPA Chairman Bill Stern and asked him to consider supporting Citizens for a Better Charleston, he was intrigued.

“What’s the purpose?” Stern remembers asking Watson on the phone. “She said, ‘We are very unhappy with the mayor on the way he has handled the cruise ship issue and other port-related issues.'” At this point, Stern says he realized the woman calling him must not have known who he was or how strongly he supported the mayor on “port-related issues.” So he played along.

“I said, ‘That’s interesting.’ I said, ‘Who’s behind these groups?'” Stern says. “She said, ‘If you want to give me your e-mail address, let me get some of the names for you and I’ll be happy to release them to you.” She sent him the e-mail Friday afternoon, and he forwarded it along to Riley campaign chairman Capers Barr Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon, Riley held a blistering press conference in which he handed out copies of the forwarded e-mail and called out the group’s donors for, as he said, deciding to “hide behind the schoolhouse and throw rocks at our city.”

“Hiding and bullying and not taking personal responsibility for your actions — these are not characteristics of the good people of Charleston,” Riley said.

The e-mail listed Steven Dopp, owner of the Francis Marion Hotel, as “something of the ringleader.” Others on the list were Henry Fishburne, Bill Blaylock, Henry Fair, Jim McNab, Larry Burtschy, and Tony Merck. So far, only Burtschy has come forward to confirm his contribution to the group.

What troubles Stern about his exchange with Watson is how he was contacted in the first place. He says he remembers Watson saying she got his number from a list of S.C. Republican Party donors. SCGOP Political Director Alex Stroman says the party does not release its list of donor contacts to any other organizations, but Watson could have gotten a list from the State Ethics Commission and looked up all the phone numbers herself.

Watson, reached by phone on Tuesday, was unwilling to comment on her conversations with Stern.

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