Okaloosa County is slowly but surely recovering its financial losses from the fraud scheme concocted by former tourism head Mark Bellinger.
Most recently, county commissioners agreed to sell the 40-foot yacht that Bellinger bought for $710,000 in 2011 with bed tax money. He purchased the boat without the board’s approval.
Commissioners voted unanimously last week to sell the 2011 Marquis 420 SC to Ralph Fernandez of Coconut Grove for $458,000. After brokers' fees, the county will net about $412,000.
Commissioner Kelly Windes, a charter boat captain in Destin, told fellow board members it was a smart move.
“As much as I don’t like it, I hate to throw good money after bad,” he said. “This boat is what I call a niche-type boat. It’s not a common brand. It’s not a popular brand. It’s not a fishing boat. It’s kind of like a high-maintenance girlfriend … from what I can remember.”
If the county turned down the offer, it would be stuck with a “never-ending cycle” of storage and repair costs, Windes said.
Commissioners also have filed suit against the American Wind Symphony, a Pennsylvania-based orchestra that was paid $25,000 for a concert that never took place. Bellinger paid the group with bed tax money.
“It’s a slow process and the key is to try to recover as much as we can of each of these expenditures that we think were inappropriate,” said attorney Greg Stewart, special counsel to Okaloosa County. “It will take time … and we are going to do our best to get back as much of the taxpayers’ dollars as possible.”
The county also will try to recoup Bellinger‘s unauthorized purchase of two customized Bourget motorcycles for $118,100 with bed tax money.
The motorcycles are being sent from the manufacturer in Arizona and should arrive within a week to 10 days. They will be stored at the county’s facilities maintenance yard.
County officials have not decided how to dispose of the motorcycles.
Commissioners also are planning a response to a recent lawsuit by The Zimmerman Agency over two payments the county has withheld from the advertising firm.
“We are working on an answer and a counterclaim,” Stewart said.
Zimmerman was under contract with the county for 19 years to provide marketing and advertising services. Authorities found that Bellinger used the company to make several unauthorized purchases, including the purchase of a $48,000 Porsche.
Stewart said the county had declined to make the payments — one for $54,000 in July 2012 and the other for $65,000 in September 2012 — until it completes a final review of all of Zimmerman’s invoices.
The county wants to examine allegations made by the state auditor general that Zimmerman billed separately for certain expenses that should have been included in its monthly retainer fee.