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Okaloosa officials grilled over tourism fraud

9:01 PM, Feb 11, 2013   |    comments
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida lawmakers grilled Okaloosa County officials on Monday about how their tourism director managed to spend more than $1.4 million in tax and BP oil spill grant money on a home, yacht and other luxury items.

The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee also ordered the state auditor general's office to conduct an operational audit of the Board of County Commissioners and court clerk's office, which also serves as custodian of county funds.

The Panhandle county's tourism director, Mark Bellinger, committed suicide through a drug overdose a day after he was reported missing and three days after resigning last May.

Bellinger quit after he was accused of using $747,000 in BP money to buy a home in Destin. He also acknowledged spending $710,000 in tax funds to buy the yacht, saying he intended to use it to promote tourism.

BP provided millions to Gulf Coast communities for tourism promotion to counteract negative publicity they had received after a massive spill from one of the company's offshore wells in 2010.

Committee members questioned how Bellinger could have misspent the money without county commissioners and other officials knowing about it.

"What has occurred here is really a travesty," said Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a Wellington Democrat who chairs the panel.

Abruzzo said he also was considering issuing subpoenas to former members of Okaloosa's Tourist Development Council who failed to appear voluntarily Monday. The county board only last week asked them to resign.

County Board Chairman Don Amunds said he had been led to believe they didn't have to appear after the board asked them to resign last week.

"It seems like a deliberate attempt by your board to ensure that they didn't have to be here today," Abruzzo said.

County Administrator Jim Curry defended the timing. He said last week's board meeting was the first since the state auditor general's office completed a report on the misspent tourism funds and law enforcement officials gave the county clearance to act.
State, county and federal authorities had asked the board not to interview employees or officials pending the completion of a criminal investigation, which remains open.

"How could this have happened?" asked Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart. "It's just incomprehensible to me."

"There was a catastrophic failure of controls, across the board at all levels," Curry replied.

Amunds and Curry told the panel the county has made policy changes aimed at preventing it from happening again including putting the Tourist Development Council and its new executive director under the county administrator's supervision.

The auditor general's report says the county never budgeted the tourist development funds, resulting in $4.2 million in over expenditures. Okaloosa also failed to competitively bid contracts and paid $12.1 million to two advertising and marketing firms for expenditures that in most cases were not supported by vendor invoices.

The auditors also found three instances of possible conflicts of interest by a board member and two council members who held executive positions in or owned companies that received tourist development dollars.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Destin Republican who represents Okaloosa, said the outrage of local citizens exceeds that of the lawmakers.

"They're trying to determine whether or not this is just an act of complete and utter incompetence or whether it also includes criminal culpability, but it sort of has to be one or the other," Gaetz said.

Suspended County Commissioner James Campbell is facing multiple charges of perjury, official misconduct and filing false financial statements, which grew out of the Bellinger investigation. Campbell has denied the charges.

He is accused of receiving payments from the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival for recruiting sponsors after it received BP and tourist tax money from the county and then failing to report those earnings as income on his financial disclosure statements.

By Bill Kaczor

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