After questions, Port Tampa Bay commissions outside audit of promotional spending

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TAMPA — Six months after television news reports raised pointed questions about port officials’ restaurant and entertainment spending, Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson said Tuesday he is commissioning an outside audit of the port’s business development and promotional spending for the past three years.

It is, he said, an exercise in "utmost transparency" and expects that it will help show how the port has grown its business by recruiting new and different kinds of tenants as well as retaining existing tenants.

"I want to assure this board and community that we’re going above and beyond to make our procedures and operating practices available for public examination," Anderson told the port’s board at its monthly meeting.

The Tampa accounting firm of Rivero, Gordimer & Company will conduct the audit, which is expected to cost less than $100,000 and will look at business development and promotional expenditures since Jan. 1, 2014. Port officials said promotional spending, which includes the cost of hosting, participating in or traveling to about 70 business development events a year, averages about 2 percent of operating revenues.

"We have nothing to hide, and we are proud of what we are doing here to grow this port," Anderson said after the meeting. "It’s a good way to assure any stakeholders that we’ve been doing exactly what our policies directed us to do and operate under and now we’re looking forward."

The audit Anderson is ordering will be in addition to an auditing procedure launched in August to have the same firm review all employee expenses as well as more general comprehensive agency audits done annually by third-party auditors.

"I want to commend you on that," port board member Gregory Celestan told Anderson. "I think that is courageous. I think it is necessary in the current environment. And I think it is the right thing to do."

In June, ABC Action News reported that port executives had charged the port $30,000 for golf club memberships and outings, thousands of dollars for season tickets to the Tampa Bay Lightning and more than $36,000 for meals at restaurants such as Ulele and the Columbia.

"Not the port’s finest hour," Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a port board member, said last month in his evaluation of Anderson, who generally was praised by board members and received a raise totalling 4.5 percent coming off a year of record revenues.

In August, Gov. Rick Scott said the news reports concerned him, so he appointed Mike Griffin, then the chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, to the port’s board and recommended the port pass stronger policies "to prevent wasteful spending by employees."

Two weeks later, the port board prohibited employees from charging golf club memberships or Lightning season tickets. It also tightened requirements for documenting travel expenses and required employees to attend training about the new policy.

Some employees also reimbursed the port for meals or other spending. Anderson’s reimbursements totalled about $13,599. Ed Miyagishima, who left a job as the port’s former vice president of communications and external affairs in March, reimbursed the port $11,151. Other employee reimbursements were significantly smaller.

In September, House Speaker Richard Corcoran cited the news reports about "possible excessive spending" and demanded a long list of records related to port employees’ use of agency credit cards, the approval of such spending, guests whom the port entertained, expenses for entertainment and marketing events, and travel expenses, plus information about port revenues from property taxes and the debt that it owes.

"While Port Tampa Bay now has adopted new policies in an effort to rein in that spending, the House seeks to understand how the new policies will adequately prevent inappropriate and wasteful expenditures going forward," Corcoran said in a letter requesting the records.

In response, the port boxed up an estimated 100,000 documents and sent them to Corcoran’s office last Friday.

"We fully complied with the speaker’s request" and "supplied everything that they asked for," Anderson said. "We know we’re doing our job. We’re seeing the results of doing what you do to grow business at ports and attract global companies to come to this port. We need to tell this great story we have."

Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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