BROOKSVILLE — Ty Mullis had been tending the livestock gate at the 2013 Hernando County Fair for hours.
As the livestock auction and his day of volunteer work drew to a close, Mullis knew he looked a little disheveled, so he headed into the fair office to tuck in his shirt. The only area for some privacy was a small closet.
He slipped in and straightened himself up, then spotted something unexpected. A bag stuffed with money was lying unsecured on top of the safe.
Mullis took it to fair treasurer Shari Klimas.
"I've been looking all over for that,'' Klimas told him.
Her nonchalance gave him pause.
Mullis, then a member of the fair board, took it as one more example of the lax, uncontrolled and curious manner in which he'd seen fair officers handle the association's finances.
Over time, he had found himself questioning numerous procedures at the fair and at the fairgrounds. But Mullis says that as he tried to suggest ways to tighten up the operation and delve into association's financial records, he always hit a wall.
Requests for records were not responded to in a timely manner or were ignored entirely. Suggestions for improvements were rejected.
And Mullis wasn't the only board member who had that same experience. Eventually, all of them were voted off the board.
Just how the Hernando County Fair Association runs its operation has been questioned by a number of directors for several years. When officials from the association appeared before the County Commission recently and asked for financial help from the taxpayers, those questions surfaced yet again.
Sensing that the association was trying to mislead the commission, Mullis filed a complaint with the Sheriff's Office over a financial statement that appeared to have been falsified. Sheriff's officials have opened an investigation after determining there is "reasonable suspicion."
After an emergency meeting last week, the fair board appointed past president Sandra Nicholson to be their spokeswoman and assist in an advisory capacity. She denied that the association had done anything wrong and that records have ever been kept from anyone.
"It's always been open,'' said Nicholson, who served as fair president from 2008 to 2013. "My life is an open book.''
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Despite the fair association's stated mission to abide by its bylaws, former board members describe a frustrating jumble of inconsistency where insiders on the board reap benefits and established policies are routinely abandoned in favor of expediency.
During his time on the board in 2012 and 2013, Mullis said, he saw many things that alarmed him, including a lack of controls over cash transactions, questionable bidding practices with contractors and a general lack of transparency when it came to the association's finances.
When Mullis suggested a ticket system to keep track of how many cars were parked at the fair and how much cash should have been collected, he was told no. When he asked why cups were not inventoried to keep track of how much beer was being sold, he got no answer.
Others who saw problems said that they, like Mullis, were turned aside and eventually driven from the board.
Jan Knowles, who joined the board during the late 1990s as a representative from the county's Tourist Development Council, said she got tired of the lack of straight answers.
"I became concerned about my own liability," said Knowles, who had been the fair's volunteer coordinator when she failed to get enough votes to remain on the board. "It became so contentious, and if you weren't part of the yes crowd, they had no use for you."
Brooksville City Council member and former fair president Joe Bernardini said his concerns about the operation of the fair association led to his motion at a 2008 board meeting to have the association pay for a forensic audit of its books.
The board voted him down but did agree to pay for a standard audit to be completed by 2011. That audit has yet to be ordered.
"I still can't figure it out," Bernardini said. "Having an audit done would answer a lot of questions that people have. As it stands, the suspicions have only grown."
Others who have asked to see the fair's financial records say they were often met with scorn by members of the executive committee. Requests for monthly profit and loss statements either were ignored, delayed or only partially complied with, making it difficult to track where the association's money was going, said Walt Boehme, who served about a year on the board until he resigned in June 2012.
"It would take months to get them, if you got them at all," Boehme said. "They would try to stall you as long as they could or until you quit asking for them."
For months last year, Mullis tried to obtain a copy of the association's check register to verify the association's spending on certain items, but he never was successful.
Though the bylaws require an annual audit of the association, Nicholson acknowledged that she never had an audit conducted during her time as president.
"I'm a layman,'' she said. "I really didn't know the difference between an annual report, an audit and a forensic audit.''
Nicholson denies that she kept board members from seeing financial information and said she encouraged board members with questions to come into the office and look at records, including Mullis. But she said Mullis became difficult to deal with.
"You can't sit at a board meeting and give out the perception and the body language that 'I don't care what you say. I'm not going to believe you,' " she said.
Another persistent question by the past board members is the relationship between Nicholson, association grounds manager Richard Klimas and his wife, Shari, the board treasurer.
Richard Klimas, who is listed in a document filed with the IRS as having made more than $65,000 from the fair association during 2011, also owns Brooksville Pulling Association, which puts on events at the fairgrounds. He was partially paid for upgrading the arena on the grounds several years ago and paid partially in credits. That banked money is used to pay his $500 rent each time his private company uses the arena for an event.
He also used his credits to pay a portion of the costs for a 2012 event called the Baddest Mudder. But the organizer of the event got into a dispute over his portion of the payment, costing the fair association $1,500, Nicholson said. To pay Klimas back for the credits, the organizer provided him with T-shirts and hats printed with the Brooksville Pulling Association logo.
Nicholson said she takes the blame for not following the usual contract form for the event, but saw no problem with Klimas getting shirts and hats.
Nicholson maintains that the Klimas family is integral to the operation of the fair and that they would be difficult to replace. She said she doesn't see a conflict in their relationship with the association because two officers must sign any check made out to Richard Klimas.
However, others on the board did see a conflict, including Knowles, who upon leaving sent an email stating the board "is now run totally by the Klimas family. And I am glad I will not be part of the destruction."
The Klimases declined to comment about their dealings with the fair association. Nicholson said she had been appointed to represent them.
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Past members of the fair association board aren't alone in their attempts to get straight answers from fair officials.
When Nicholson, Richard Klimas and current fair president Robin McAndrew presented their request for help to the County Commission in late January, they misled the board on several points, Nicholson admitted later.
• McAndrew was wrong when she said the association had never in its 63-year history asked the county for financial help.
• Klimas was wrong when he said the association leases the fairgrounds from the county. The association owns the grounds.
• While Nicholson had told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that the association would seek $20,000 from the commission and the Times published that fact prior to the meeting, when she stood before county commissioners she said she had no idea from where that figure had come.
Nicholson says the fair association, in response to a request by county commissioners, plans to put together additional information and come back before the commission in the weeks ahead to discuss its request.
In the meantime, the association continues to deal with internal problems.
The county can't find annual reports for the fair association that Nicholson told commissioners would answer their questions. And recently, the association has had to clear up paperwork glitches that have dissolved the fair as a corporation, temporarily taken away its tax-exempt status and threatened a seizure of its assets.
The association currently has $91,922.72 in all of its accounts, Nicholson told the Times on Friday. But she still doesn't know whether the fair turned a profit last year because the books have not yet been done.
The current directors have asked for those numbers, Nicholson acknowledged.
"I totally agree'' with the board's frustration, she said. "It should have been done. It should have been done months ago.''
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.