FORT WALTON BEACH — The Okaloosa County Commission has received a green light from Sheriff Larry Ashley and the state attorney to launch its own investigation of the Tourist Development Council fraud scandal.
Ashley sent a letter to County Administrator Jim Curry on Feb. 1 confirming that he and the state attorney’s office have no objections to the county moving ahead with its internal probe.
Northwest Florida lawmakers blasted commissioners last week for having not fired county employees who approved the numerous questionable expenditures during the tenure of former TDC Director Mark Bellinger.
But county officials say they postponed an internal investigation in early May 2012 at the request of Ashley and State Attorney Bill Eddins.
Curry said that in the days following Bellinger’s suicide on May 4, 2012, the county had “ramped up” an investigation and brought in outside counsel to interview employees and contractors.
But Curry received a letter from Ashley and Eddins on May 9, 2012, requesting that the county hold off on any “independent audit or independent examination of witnesses” during their criminal investigation.
“We were asked not to do anything, to stand down,” he said.
Curry said he cooperated because he didn't want to “compromise” the criminal investigation.
“You always are anxious,” he said. “You want to get in and find out what’s occurred and correct it … Those things need to be done thoroughly. I respect the time it’s taken for the AGO and for law enforcement.”
County Commission Chairman Don Amunds said an internal investigation is crucial to finding out exactly how much money Bellinger — and possibly others — stole from the county.
“I think everything has to be looked at,” Amunds said. “We wanted to do it at the very beginning.”
He said commissioners “fully intend to go after every dollar” they can recover.
“Everything from employees to subcontractors will be looked at and everyone will be held responsible,” he said. “If somebody made a mistake, you gotta step up to the plate and own up to it. That’s the way I look at it.”
During the internal investigation — which must be approved by commissioners — the county also will look at the misuse of 1,047 of the 5,000 BP promotional debit cards given to the county after the 2010 oil spill. The $200 debit cards were to be used to draw tourists to the area.
The state audit found that:
- 46 of the 1,047 cards were used to purchase a variety of items such as furnishings, lodging, alcoholic beverages, food and entertainment;
- 21 of the 46 cards were used by an RV driver hired by The Zimmerman Agency, an advertising firm that contracted with the TDC;
- 11 of the 46 cards were used by two Zimmerman Agency public relations associates working with the TDC;
- 8 of the 46 cards were used by Bellinger;
- 6 of the 46 cards were used by either the RV driver or the two Zimmerman employees;
- 1,000 of the 1,047 debit cards were given to Vision Airlines by Bellinger, and one card was used as a prize in a local golf tournament.
Curry said it is believed that the cards used by the two Zimmerman employees and the RV driver were provided to them by Bellinger for travel and other expenses on marketing trips, but the county has not confirmed that yet.
Amunds and Curry said the county also is moving ahead with efforts to recoup much of the money Bellinger spent in illegal and unapproved purchases.
Curry said the county has sent letters to various people and companies explaining that they had been paid with questionable funds and that the county is seeking to resolve the problem.
“We’ve had some success on one or two of them, in terms of having dialogue, but on some of the others we’ve heard nothing,” Curry said.
Among those expenditures are:
- 25,000 in bed tax revenue paid to The Zimmerman Agency to hire the American Wind Symphony Orchestra to perform a concert that never occurred.
- A $14,960 overpayment to The Zimmerman Agency for a driver hired to take the TDC's recreational vehicle to promotions across the Southeast. The driver was paid to work 123 days at $187 per day plus $1,000 in expenses. But records in support of the driver’s service “showed a potential of only 43 days and $1,000 in expenses,” according to the state audit.
- A $10,800 overpayment to The Zimmerman Agency for a promotional spokesman. The spokesman was paid to provide 32 days of services at $1,200 per day, but records show that the spokesman provided only 23 days of service, according to the audit.
“Even if there’s not criminal action in some of these instances, there may be civil action that the county can pursue,” Curry said.
Curry said the county also has filed paperwork to get the proceeds from the sale of Bellinger’s home in Destin, which was illegally paid for with a BP oil spill grant.
“There may be a sale pending on it,” he added. “So we’re hoping that’s about to take place. And, certainly, we’ve got this yacht we’ve got listed.”
Bellinger bought the $710,000 Marquis yacht with bed tax revenue. The county has taken possession of the boat and is trying to sell it.
Curry said the county also wants to consult with the sheriff's office on any questionable expenses it has uncovered. He said it’s important for the county to know exactly what went wrong so it can make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“There's no doubt there was a master,” Curry said. “There were a lot of people duped by Mark Bellinger. Not just a few, but a lot of people in this community who thought he just walked on water in terms of what he was doing for tourism … In hindsight, you look back and say, ‘Wow, unfortunately, this guy was very good at what he did.’ And you wish more than anything that there would have been additional safeguards in place. And there should have been.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Kari Barlow at 850-315-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KariBnwfdn.