FORT WALTON BEACH — An extravagant county Christmas party and a public relations trip to Niagara Falls are among expenses state and local authorities are investigating as they try to unravel Mark Bellinger’s fraud scheme.
“We have met with the (state) Auditor General’s Office and have been provided with preliminary information regarding their investigation,” State Attorney Bill Eddins said. “Throughout the investigation, the office has issued subpoenas for a tremendous amount of records regarding purchases by the county.”
One of the more eye-popping discoveries appears to have been a county Christmas party last year.
“My recollection of the approximate cost of the Christmas party was in the vicinity of $40,000,” Eddins said.
Bellinger, the former director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council, killed himself May 4 after it was revealed he had purchased a $710,000 yacht with county bed tax money.
Since then, the list of items he bought 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.
On the day of Bellinger’s death, as the extent of his spending of bed tax money and BP oil spill grants was coming to light, Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley requested authorization for an audit by the Florida Auditor General’s Office.
Eddins said until the auditor general’s final report is completed, “our (local law enforcement) review is still preliminary.”
The Daily News has learned through investigation and interviews that the Sheriff’s Office questioned county commissioners about the extent of their knowledge of TDC spending under Bellinger.
Each of the commissioners has been grilled regarding what they knew about the $40,000 Christmas party, which was held in the main ballroom of the Emerald Coast Convention Center.
The party “was a gala,” Commissioner Bill Roberts said.
“It was a surprise, I guess you could say, to walk in and see the setup of the room and how nice it was,” he recalled. “Honestly, I thought Mark had done a good job with what he had done … with what he had told us he had gotten done.
“If any of the commissioners had realized the true cost of it, it would have never happened.”
Roberts said he was not aware of the cost of the party beforehand.
“If I’d have known the truth, we would have done it like we’d done it the previous four or five years, where we got together at the fairgrounds and the commissioners cooked for the employees,” he said.
Commissioners Dave Parisot and Wayne Harris said Bellinger told them the party’s food and other amenities had been donated.
“I did ask Mark how everything was being funded,” Parisot said. “He said everything was donated by various businesses and vendors.”
Parisot recalled a fun party with beautiful decorations, a large dinner buffet and Wii games such as bowling.
“There was a band there and there was a cash bar,” he said.
Harris, who also attended, said he didn’t question Bellinger’s explanation.
“It’s not uncommon in that world that businesses like Aramark would donate things,” he said. “It’s not an uncommon practice.”
Aramark holds the catering contract at the convention center.
The county allocated $3,000 for food for the party from a fund created by accumulating credit card expenditure rebates.
Sandee Launch, who works in County Administrator Jim Curry’s office, said she told Bellinger “repeatedly” that no more than the allotted $3,000 could be spent for the party.
The budgeted $3,000 shows up in one county expense report, and another check for $1,525 — also to food-provider Aramark — turned up in another invoice that passed through Gary Stanford’s office.
Stanford, who works for the Clerk of Courts office, serves as the county’s finance director.
The invoice states the second check to Aramark was written for a Dec. 10 event at the convention center.
Stanford, in complying with a Daily News public records request, found both Aramark expenditures and $1,292 in other holiday event invoices. The $1,292 included the $839 for the Wii games.
Launch said she is sure more was spent on food than the $3,000 she believed the county to have spent.
She also had noted that Bellinger mentioned a company called Showtime Events that donated decorations for the party.
“He said everything was being taken care of by donations,” she said.
Commission Chairman Don Amunds said he remembers the party as “nicer than normal.”
“It was disappointing that we were told one thing, that it was in-kind services … and then later on you find out it wasn’t,” Amunds said. “It’s not a good thing.”
The Sheriff’s Office also has taken interest in the county’s participation in a trip to Niagara Falls sponsored by Vision Airlines in December 2010.
The trip was Vision’s inaugural flight from Northwest Florida Regional Airport.
Numerous county officials, business leaders and media representatives went along. They included Harris, Curry, county public information officer Kathy Newby, county Airports Director Greg Donovan and Deputy Director Mike Stenson.
Media members invited included radio, television and newspaper reporters.
The county paid $3,202 for 13 hotel rooms and food costs, and $2,448.09 in plane fare, records indicate.
Much of the food and apparently all of the sightseeing expenses were covered by entities other than Okaloosa County, available records show.
Harris said the weekend in Niagara Falls “was truly a business trip” to mark Vision Airlines’ inaugural flight from Okaloosa County.
“There was nothing untoward about it,” he said. “I think the sheriff’s getting a little carried away with himself.”
Ashley declined to comment on the investigation.
Asked his response to the Sheriff’s Office’s overall scrutiny of county spending, Harris said he sees it as “payback for the budget.”
Ashley and commissioners grappled for weeks over the Sheriff’s Office’s fiscal 2013 budget until they reached a compromise in late September.
“It bothers the hell out of me,” Harris said. “They’re casting a really wide net. They’re just looking at every little thing to find something wrong.”
Each new revelation holds consequences for the commissioners, who have been saddled with much of the blame for Bellinger’s misdeeds.
Roberts said he looks back “a lot” at what Bellinger was able to pull off at the county’s expense and “absolutely” regrets not seeing through his deception.
“We know where the buck stops,” Roberts said. “We just got comfortable with the way it had operated for the prior 20 years. We fell into the trap.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Kari Barlow at 850-315-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KariBnwfdn.