TAMPA — For more than a year, "Florida's Largest Home Show" promoter John Turner has complained he got a raw deal from the Tampa Convention Center.
It started, Turner said, when he lost his bookings for the Labor Day weekend show he had done at the convention center every year since 1996.
Turner said the city ignored its own rules and played favorites, giving his dates to a competitor.
"If someone else were to come in and do a show on that exact same weekend, they steal that identity," said Turner, president of Turner Expositions in Riverview. "It's absolutely wrong in every way."
But convention center director Rick Hamilton said he merely reached out to another promoter after his staff spent months asking Turner to pay an overdue bill. Turner's competitor, David Kielhurn, said he got no preferential treatment.
"He put himself in a predicament by not paying his bills," said Kielhurn, whose East Coast Consumer Shows is based on Long Island in New York. "He has amnesia when it comes to that."
Recently, however, city auditors identified several areas where convention center employees did not follow city policies that affected Turner. They include:
• The convention center didn't give Turner required warnings when it sought to collect on the unpaid bill.
• Turner's dates were given to Kielhurn before Turner was told his dates were being released. Moreover, two of Kielhurn's events were booked further in advance than is allowed by established policy.
• In booking events, the convention center did not prioritize the home shows properly. Both promoters received a first-priority status reserved for conventions, trade shows, corporate meetings or events using multiple hotels for multiple days. Neither qualified.
At stake are choice dates for shows with production costs running into six figures. Depending on the circumstances, a show can clear or lose $20,000 to $40,000, Kielhurn said.
After reading the auditors' review, city economic opportunity administrator Bob McDonaugh said city policies and contracts need to spell things out more clearly.
But he did not think the city should redistribute the Labor Day weekend bookings or other dates Turner and Kielhurn have reserved.
Turner, who also does shows at the Florida State Fairgrounds, has scheduled dates outside the Labor Day weekend and is doing his January show at the convention center this weekend.
Kielhurn, who does shows around the state, has the Tampa Spring Home and Garden Show coming up in March.
"I thought that staff had been somewhat inconsistent in following policies and procedures," McDonaugh said. "We need to be consistent. We're a public agency. We're not a private hotel, so we need to be transparent in our dealings with the public. That means being consistent and putting everything in writing so that everyone knows exactly where they stand."
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In 2012, Turner did not plan a Labor Day weekend home show. That's because the Republican National Convention was using every square inch of the convention center.
After Turner's January 2012 show, city officials said he owed $11,428. His staff thought the amount was closer to $9,000.
At the same time, his mother was hospitalized. His son ended up in a second hospital after a crash. Turner himself was in a separate wreck that he said caused internal bleeding.
"Our family was in complete turmoil so we were not as efficient as normal," he said.
The city emailed that his bill was past due in February.
But none of the emails warned that the city could turn the account over to a collection agency, which policy requires for past-due notices at 60 and 90 days.
Nor did the emails say Turner could lose his dates if he did not pay. No city policies mention that, either, auditors noted.
In May, the center's national sales manager emailed a Turner employee: "So sorry to hear about all this craziness! Please tell John to 'hang in there' for me. Don't worry, I will continue to hold this space until things calm down. Did John pay his outstanding bill from January? If not, can you expedite that?"
By late June, the convention center reached out to Kielhurn, whose company previously had contacted the center about doing a different show.
"This is the normal process I would follow with anyone," Hamilton, the convention center director, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "If a client has not paid their bill, I will always look for another event to take their place to keep the center busy."
But Turner believes Hamilton and Kielhurn knew each other before then. To support that, he points to Hamilton's LinkedIn profile, which said he worked with FM Convention Contractors in Orlando before Tampa hired him. FM, he said, also shows up in an online listing as sharing an address with a satellite office of Kielhurn's company.
But after Turner complained, he said Hamilton updated his LinkedIn profile to drop the reference to FM.
Hamilton and Kielhurn said they didn't meet until the summer of 2012.
Hamilton said he knows the owners of FM but has never been to their office. Before he came to the city, they let him sell their services for commission, though he never did. He said he changed his LinkedIn profile because he worked for several entities during that time and updates his page regularly.
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By the end of June, the convention center had created events for Kielhurn's company for Labor Day 2013 and 2014.
In early July, the convention center told Turner it was sending his bill to a collection agency.
In mid July, Turner paid nearly all the bill.
While auditors said that substantially brought his account current, the next day convention center sales and marketing director Eric Blanc drafted a letter to Turner saying all his future dates "have been released for resale to other customers."
With Hamilton's concurrence, Blanc requested that the letter be overnighted to Turner, but auditors say that is "the only indication that the letter was mailed."
Turner said he never got the letter. When he later learned Kielhurn had secured future Labor Day weekends, he said he was "completely blind-sided."
Turner's attorney, Michael Brooks of Tampa, filed an administrative appeal with the city based on Blanc's letter. The appeal led to the auditors' review.
While not a full-blown audit, Brooks said the review is the first time someone is "objectively acknowledging that John Turner got screwed and that something was not right." Brooks continues to press Turner's case with city attorneys and is looking at taking the dispute to court.
On the other side, Kielhurn's attorney, Robert Bolt of Tampa, said auditors did not understand the convention center was "completely within its rights" to release Turner's dates.
"It is fundamental to contract law that if a person contracts for services and then does not pay" then he "is not entitled to the service," Bolt said in an email to the Times. "Turner was not in good standing because he did not pay his bills."
Bolt also said Kielhurn's company had nothing to do with the convention center's decision to terminate its relationship with Turner. The invitation to Kielhurn came purely on the center's initiative, he said.
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Despite the irregularities they found, auditors said the convention center's booking process "compares favorably" with the rest of its industry.
Auditors surveyed or looked at booking policies for about a dozen other municipal convention centers.
Most mirrored Tampa's, which, they said, "appears to reflect industry best practices."