WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - It's now become a significant issue in the race for State Senate, the subject of thousands of mailers sent out to voters across New Hanover County over the past couple weeks.
Five months ago, WECT broke the story about candidate Andrew Barnhill and allegations of his handling of a charity trip to South Africa as a representative of Furman University. Barnhill's former Furman classmates contacted us with these allegations shortly after he announced his plans to run for elected office.
Specifically, they claimed that Barnhill made only a token visit to see a cargo container that Furman students had upfitted to be used as a classroom for impoverished South African school children. Even though that was the purported purpose of the trip, the classmates claimed Barnhill spent most of his time enjoying himself at an upscale casino and resort.
The people who contacted us spoke to us on background for fear of backlash from fellow alumni, but the director of the charity went on the record and confirmed their allegations. Specifically, Cargo of Dreams Director Mars van der Colff called Barnhill a liar and an "extreme manipulator" who was unfit for public office.
We worked on this story for months before eventually publishing it in April, in part to allow Barnhill the opportunity to respond. While we exchanged more than a dozen emails, Barnhill consistently refused to meet with us to discuss the allegations. In the end, he provided this limited response through a statement sent by email.
On Barnhill's recommendation, we also contacted the three classmates who traveled with him to ask them about the trip. One never responded. One said he would call us back but never did and a third sent a vague email response but declined our request to discuss the trip by phone.
In early August, months after our story aired, the North Carolina Republican Party sent out a mailer to voters. It pulled quotes from the charity director used in our article, questioning Barnhill's character. The GOP mailer concluded, in their own words, "If Andrew Barnhill isn't mature enough to know it's wrong to use a charity trip to party…[he] isn't mature enough to represent us in the State Senate."
Barnhill is 28 years old.
Shortly after that mailer went out, Barnhill went on the record with a different news organization. The Wilmington Star News reports Barnhill said they spent a week at the mission and spent the last night of their trip at the Sun City resort compound. He says they never visited the casino.
The Star News also quoted Ryan Singhi, one of the other students who traveled with Barnhill to South Africa who declined to speak to us. Singhi said they spent "'the majority' of the trip at a reservation site for the charity in basic huts," according to the article, and that "the group used the hotel for the night before they left because it was closer to the airport."
We followed up with van der Colff to get his response to the rebuttal article. The charity director said he wasn't contacted for comment for their article about the trip.
Further, he said Singhi's explanation doesn't make sense. Van der Colff explained the Sun City Resort is over 50 miles in the opposite direction from the airport, and you'd have to come back past the charity site to get to the airport. According to MapQuest, Sun City Resort is a two and a half hour drive from the OR Tambo International Airport near Johannesburg, and there are dozens of hotels which would be much closer.
"In addition, I don't think there are ANY huts close to the [charity] site," van der Colff said of Singhi's claims they'd stayed in on-site huts. He maintains Barnhill only spent about an hour and a half of his time in South Africa at the Cargo of Dreams location.
Van der Colff, who holds dual citizenship in the US and South Africa, said he agreed to the interview because he felt it was the right thing to do, so voters would know his concerns about a man running for one of the highest elected offices in the state.
"Our organization is obviously important to me, so having an interview where we open ourselves up to scrutiny in some shape or form like always happens with political stuff…(inaudible) But I'm passionate, I'm very fortunate, I'm also a US citizen as well, but it's important that people who are elected, especially now, be people of moral character who stand up for the right things," van der Colff said.
Van der Colff maintains Barnhill declined repeated offers from Cargo of Dreams to help with accommodations, including free transportation, meals and lodging, and only spent an hour and a half at the charity site.
"Ultimately when he arrived in the country, we didn't pick him up at the airport. He said he'd arrange his own car, he'll arrange his own accommodations because he had all these other commitments that he needed to attend to, so the project is just a small part of it," van der Colff said.
After the GOP mailers went out, Barnhill thanked the Star News on Facebook for "correcting the record on the lack of professionalism from [WECT reporter] Ann McAdams and the GOP."
Barnhill has indicated that our news reports about the trip were politically motivated, and called our article inaccurate, although he has not said what in our article is allegedly inaccurate. Barnhill continues to decline our requests for an interview about the trip.