COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper and his real estate company are the focus of a criminal investigation to see if they misused any public money in their failed effort to build a practice facility for the NFL team in South Carolina.
The York County Sheriff's Office said state agents and local prosecutors are aiding its investigation, and that the probe does not mean that any crime happened.
“An investigation is simply an inquiry and should not create any inference that wrongdoing has been committed by any party,” York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson and Solicitor Kevin Brackett said in a joint statement Thursday night that named Tepper and GT Real Estate, the company created to oversee the construction project.
Tepper's company denied any criminal wrongdoing and suggested the timing of the announcement might be meant to disrupt a settlement the team reached with York County to repay more than $21 million, an amount roughly equivalent to the sales tax money the project received to improve roads around the facility.
“This is a straightforward commercial matter that is being fully resolved. The underlying disputes arise under contracts that were jointly negotiated by the parties and are publicly available. The funds paid by the county were handled consistent with the terms of those contracts,” the statement from Tepper's GT Real Estate said.
Tepper, a hedge fund manager who is one of the NFL's wealthiest owners, and the Panthers announced plans for an $800 million practice facility, team offices, sports medicine complex, hotels and entertainment near Rock Hill in 2019.
Both local and South Carolina leaders cheered the investment offering incentives and relishing getting a piece of the NFL team away from North Carolina and Charlotte, where the team plays its games about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away.
But after less than two years, Tepper's company abruptly stopped work on the facility before its steel superstructure was finished, and declared bankruptcy. Work continues on an interstate interchange promised by the state, and Tepper’s company is trying to sell the land in the busy, growing region.
Tepper’s company blamed Rock Hill for failing to issue bonds and said the city and other governments failed to come through with funding and other promises.
York County and Rock Hill have denied those claims and what Tepper's company is responsible for is being contested in federal bankruptcy court.
York County announced shortly after the bankruptcy that Tepper's company took $21 million of sales tax money that was supposed to be spent on roads and spent it on a “failed vanity project.”
“Rather than cover the ballooning project budget themselves, the Tepper Defendants took money from York County and its taxpayers,” the county said in a lawsuit.
The criminal investigation was announced only days after the Panthers and York County announced they settled that lawsuit. As of Friday morning, the settlement had not been filed in court or approved by a judge.