Florida County Approves Changes After Oil Spill Fraud

By MELISSA NELSON | May 18, 2012

Amid a criminal investigation into the alleged misuse of funds paid by BP after the 2010 Gulf oil spill, a Panhandle county made big changes Tuesday in the way it oversees spending for promotion of the area’s world-famous beaches.

An attorney advising Okaloosa County commissioners said they could not wait for state auditors, the sheriff’s auditors and the FBI to finish investigations into misspending of bed tax and BP funds before making the changes.

“These changes are not the end, they are merely the beginning but we feel they are crucial to the integrity of the process,” attorney Greg Stewart told commissioners. They approved changes that included requiring all purchases over $25,000 by the Tourism Development Council be approved by the county’s administrator or the county commission.

The move came less than two weeks after the county’s former tourism director died of an apparent suicide. Investigators had unearthed more than $1.4 million in questionable spending on his home and a yacht.

The sheriff’s office said last week it was expanding its inquiry, but said the investigation was ongoing did not release details.

The state is conducting forensic audits.

Also Tuesday, commissioners required that the agency’s contracts conform to the rules for other county departments. Other departments require task orders detailing the purposes of the expenditures and requiring various levels of approval, Stewart said. The TDC contracts had no-such safeguards. Stewart said many other county tourism agencies in Florida require such task orders.

Interim tourism director Greg Donovan said he has spent his first week on the job fielding questions and trying to figure out the “jigsaw puzzle” that is the Okaloosa County Tourism Development Council. Donovan was the county’s airport director before stepping into the interim post.

“Our first priority is to make sure we facilitate all law enforcement requests; that is paramount,” he said.

But Donovan said there is another concern: What could happen if the Fort Walton Beach area falls behind in the aggressive competition to market itself as a vacation destination.

“There are thousands of communities out there competing and if you live in Tennessee and you are out there making that decision of where you are going to vacation and this location falls of the map for a year or two because of our lack of promotional capability, it will hurt us.

The TDC cancelled a plan to take an RV to South Carolina to promote the region in a “Boast the Coast” event, but the agency wants to continue a Father’s Day giveaway of week’s beach vacation and Jeep. Donovan told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he didn’t immediately know how much the Father’s Day package cost or if the money came from BP or bed tax funds. He said he would provide that information later Tuesday afternoon.

BP provided millions to Gulf counties after the oil giant’s massive oil spill. Much of the money went to promote tourism along Florida’s white-sand beaches after hotels, restaurants and other tourism-dependent businesses complained that the 2010 tourism season was ruined because of the perception that the oil had reached their beach.

The oil washed ashore on Pensacola Beach and tar balls and tar mats came on shore further east from Navarre Beach to Panama City. Nonstop news coverage of the spill cleanup and environmental monitoring and anxiety about the spill spreading throughout the Florida cause tourism to plummet for months.

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