Okaloosa County commissioners have directed special counsel Greg Stewart to review a $228,000 marketing agreement that former tourism head Mark Bellinger made with Legendary CEO Peter Bos in July 2011.
The scrutiny is part of the board’s ongoing effort to recoup the financial losses resulting from Bellinger’s thefts and unauthorized spending during his two-year tenure from May 2010 to May 2012.
The five-year marketing agreement was discovered in the weeks following Bellinger’s suicide from a drug overdose in early May 2012.
County officials discovered that Bellinger had used bed tax money to pay Bos the first installment of $42,000. In return, Bellinger got a 2,256-square-foot building to use as a welcome center at HarborWalk Village in Destin.
Bellinger persuaded commissioners to approve the lease by telling them the rent would be only $1 a year for five years. He never disclosed the five-year marketing agreement.
Now commissioners want to know how that money was spent, but have stopped short of asking Bos to return the $42,000.
“I would like to … see how the dollars were spent and whether it included provisions for marketing for the Emerald Coast or was it just marketing for Peter Bos’ businesses,” Commissioner Dave Parisot said. “That’s part of our internal investigation. … We need to get the facts before we start making decisions.”
Commissioner Kelly Windes said the transaction “absolutely” is worth examining.
Bos said he fully supports the county’s review because Bellinger “clearly was a thief.”
“I think they need to investigate everything,” he said. “Everything that Mr. Bellinger did should be suspect. Some things he did were good. Some things were bad. … And some things were just plain subjective.”
Bos said he has sent Stewart a large stack of documents related to his agreement with Bellinger.
Stewart told commissioners last week that Bos had been “incredibly cooperative and forthcoming” thus far.
But Bos said he doesn’t plan to return the $42,000 to the county.
“I do not feel any obligation to nor intend to refund any money because we spent the money on promotions for the county and the Emerald Coast,” Bos said. “I can’t tell them specifically what it was used on. That’s like trying to unscramble an egg.”
He said the $42,000 “was well spent.”
“As far as I’m concerned … it was authorized and (the county) got more than their money’s worth,” Bos said.
But commissioners say the agreement was never authorized and that Bellinger paid Bos without their approval.
In an email sent July 5, 2011, Bellinger told Bos he was going to “begin lobbying efforts” for the HarborWalk building with each county commissioner.
“I am going to let them know that the building lease is $1 per year and that it will come furnished for us, as you and I have discussed. My marketing and advertising initiatives are a different topic all together with Legendary. … My sales pitch to them is the numerous reasons why I need to have a welcome center and additional office space in the City of Destin.”
Included in the email was a letter about a five-year “cooperative marketing and advertising initiative” conditional upon the commissioners’ approval of the $1 lease for the HarborWalk building. Under the agreement, Bellinger would pay Legendary $42,000 a year for the first two years and $48,000 a year for the remaining three years.
In an email to Bellinger the same day, Bos said he had received letter regarding “marketing annual contributions and it is fine.” He told Bellinger there was some furniture in the building but that he’d “better plan on accessorizing and computers.”
Bos said the emails show that the entire transaction was out in the open.
“I don’t have any idea what Mark told the commissioners,” he said.
Bos said he trusted Bellinger because he was the head of the Tourist Development Council and authorized to make those decisions.
“What he said was submit the bill. We did and we get a county check. What more do we do?” Bos said. “Does every decision to buy every brochure, every pen and pencil and book have to go before a city council and a judge? You couldn’t run a government.”
Bos said he didn’t find Bellinger’s marketing agreement unusual because similar types of arrangements are common in advertising.
“I’ve got leases right now where I trade rent for radio time. That’s not weird to me,” he said. “That’s advertising. … We trade all kinds of things. It’s part of the hospitality business.”
Bos said Bellinger pushed for the lease because he wanted a space in a picturesque setting to take travel writers and other important visitors.
“He came to me and he said, ‘Look, I’ve got to get a space here where I can show off the Emerald Coast,’ ” Bos added. “It was all about never getting a second chance to make a first impression.”
He said Bellinger often complained that his office at the TDC headquarters on Okaloosa Island had no view of the Gulf of Mexico.
Bos said the money he received from Bellinger’s marketing agreement was used to fund many of the 163 public events held at HarborWalk during that time.
“All those events helped tourism because they make a fun experience,” he said. “If you have a fun experience, you’re going to tell your friends when you get home.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Kari C. Barlow at 850-315-4438 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KariBnwfdn.