FORT WALTON BEACH Okaloosa County Administrator Jim Curry says he welcomes scrutiny of county spending as local and state authorities investigate the Mark Bellinger financial scandal.
"I don't have any problem with any examination of practices," Curry said. "There may be some recommendations that come out of the (state Auditor General's audit) that help things be tightened up and improved, and that's a healthy thing that needs to occur."
Curry's remarks about the deepening probe come as more details emerge about an extravagant employee Christmas party hosted by Bellinger at the Emerald Coast Convention Center in December 2011.
Bellinger, the former director of the county's Tourist Development Council, died May 4 from a drug overdose after county officials discovered he had bought a $710,000 yacht with bed tax money.
In the past five months, the list of items he purchased illegally or without county approval has grown to include a $740,000 home in Destin, a $48,000 Porsche, RVs, customized motorcycles and a building lease.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, the state Auditor General's Office and the state attorney's office are investigating the Christmas party, which officials said cost about $40,000.
It is believed that Bellinger likely used bed tax money or BP grant money to pay for the lavish event, which featured a live band, large dinner buffet, cash bar and Wii games.
County officials have said Bellinger misled them by claiming various businesses had donated the food and other perks at the party.
But county documents obtained by the Northwest Florida Daily News show that Aramark, which holds the catering contract at the convention center, billed the center for the buffet.
The gourmet spread cost $16,272 and included a cascading salad bar, Guatemalan pickled vegetable salad, a roast beef carving station, smoked chicken breast and wild boar sausage, herb-crusted fish, scalloped potatoes with smoked gouda and fennel, New York cheesecake with pomegranate strawberry sauce, pumpkin fool and assorted holiday cookies.
An additional $2,442 was spent on to-go orders for 77 county workers with the EMS, corrections, water and sewer, dispatch and facility maintenance departments, according to Aramark's invoice.
The documents show that Bellinger wrote off the cost of the ballroom and furniture rental for the party.
Local band Jones and Company billed Bellinger $200 to perform, according to a county invoice. Musician and lead vocalist Cheryl Jones said she worked directly with Bellinger toward the end of their negotiations for the band's appearance.
Curry said Bellinger asked permission to host the party at the convention center.
"My message (to Mark Bellinger) was pretty consistent — 'You've got a budget there and you're going to have to stay within that budget,'" Curry recalled. "The reassurance that myself and everyone else kept getting was, 'We are, we are.'"
Curry said he is anxious to see the results of the AGO audit.
"We're awaiting their findings so we can track these things down and see what was done and how they were done," he said. "I've been told they're close (to being finished.)"
The Christmas party expenditures came eight months after Bellinger authorized an even more expensive gala at the convention center to debut the TDC's new marketing logo. He spent almost $90,000 on the March 2011 party, which included a $16,000 gourmet menu, $56,000 on audio visual equipment and marketing, and more than $15,000 for decorations.
In addition to the Christmas party spending, questions have been raised about missing BP grant money in the form of debit cards.
"There were a number of BP cards that had been unaccounted for," Curry said. "Our hope is that through the AGO and law enforcement, they're going to be able to track those to find out if they're just unspent … or whether any of those are misused and if we can track that to individuals."
Curry said he and other county officials want to know everything that occurred under Bellinger and minimize the potential that it could happen again.
Daily News Staff Writer Tom McLaughlin contributed to this report.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Kari Barlow at 850-315-4438 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KariBnwfdn.