TDC scandal to be addressed at legislative delegation meeting

lifeguard nwfdn file photo

A lifeguard scans the beach behind The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island. A report issued this week by the state Auditor General David W. Martin said Okaloosa County’s use of bed tax revenue to pay for beach patrols, lifeguards and a beach shuttle is not allowed under state law.

FILE PHOTO / Northwest Florida Daily News
Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 13:01 PM.

NICEVILLE — Okaloosa County’s mismanagement of millions in taxpayer dollars and BP grants will be under scrutiny at the next meeting of Northwest Florida’s legislative delegation.

The meeting will be from 5 to 6:30 p.m. next Wednesday at Niceville City Hall.

The Florida Auditor General’s Office will make a presentation on the findings of its audit of the Okaloosa County Commission’s oversight of the Tourist Development Council and the use of bed taxes and BP funds.

Read the state auditor general’s final report for yourself.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, who set the agenda for the meeting, said he believes “a full vetting” is necessary for the public to get the answers it deserves.

“It’s devastating that our county was being run with such lax oversight,” he said. “No one person should be able to steal this amount of money from the taxpayers. We can’t be that vulnerable.”

County Administrator Jim Curry said Commissioner Dave Parisot, vice chairman of the board, is scheduled to represent the county at the meeting.

The auditor general’s report on the County Commission focused on the management of the TDC from May 2010 to May 2012. Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley, along with Matt Gaetz and his father, Senate President Don Gaetz, requested the audit in May 2012 after county officials discovered a fraud scheme put in place by former tourism head Mark Bellinger.

County commissioners discovered May 1 that Bellinger had purchased a $710,000 yacht with bed tax money without their authorization. Three days later, Bellinger took a fatal dose of Benadryl in Pelham, Ala. That same day authorities revealed he had also used $747,000 in BP oil spill money to pay for his home in Destin.

In the months following, the list of purchases Bellinger made illegally or without county approval grew to include two RVs, Visa debit cards, furniture, food and entertainment. One of Bellinger’s first thefts — the purchase of a $48,000 Porsche Cayman — occurred three months after he was hired in May 2010.

Matt Gaetz said the meeting will give lawmakers and residents a chance to ask questions about the audit or comment on the findings.

“I hope a lot of people take the time to attend,” he said.

The Auditor General’s Office issued its final audit report late Wednesday. That document also includes the corrective action report the county was required to submit to the state in response to the findings.

Don Gaetz said he is eager to hear what the auditor general has to say about report and the county’s response.

“Clearly, the auditor general’s report on the financial stewardship of Okaloosa County is a huge local issue,” he said. “To be able to ask them questions in public is the right thing to do.”

He said he has read the county’s corrective action report and found it “a useful document.”

“I think the question, obviously, is whether the citizens of the county and whether policymakers at the state level can trust that the County Commission has learned its lesson and is going to operate in a different way,” he said.

Don Gaetz said the director of the TDC was never meant to function as a “one-person authority.”

“It is supposed to be a system of oversight, checks and balances,” he said.

Matt Gaetz said he wants to hear more details about the lack of oversight that led to the theft and misuse of public money.

“I believe there may be individuals (within county government) who are criminally culpable for their conduct,” he said.

WANT TO ATTEND? The legislative delegation will meet at 5 p.m. next Wednesday at Niceville City Hall.

Contact Daily News Staff Writer Kari Barlow at 850-315-4438 or kbarlow@nwfdailynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @KariBnwfdn.



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