Saturday, February 17, 2018
Politics

Seccombe out as Visit Florida CEO, Ken Lawson named as replacement

ORLANDO — Political pressure mounting around a previously secret $1 million marketing contract with musician Pitbull was too much to save the head of Florida's tourism marketing agency.

Even as board members praised Visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe for his work in helping set state tourism records four years in a row, they voted 26-0 on Tuesday to fire him, a move they said will hopefully save the agency as the Florida Legislature threatens deep budget cuts.

The board then, in a voice vote, approved as an immediate replacement Ken Lawson, the former secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. While Lawson has no experience in tourism marketing, board members said he was a perfect fit because Gov. Rick Scott already endorsed the move and Lawson has experience in Tallahassee as a former agency head.

"He knows the process," Visit Florida chairman William Talbert III told board members.

It's a process that has been complicated of late by extra scrutiny on Visit Florida's spending.

Its 2015 deal with Pitbull to promote Florida beaches, plus other multimillion dollar contracts to advertise with a car racing team and a British soccer team, have been roundly criticized by lawmakers — specifically Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

Corcoran sued Pitbull's management company in December to force the disclosure of the contract with Visit Florida after Seccombe refused to do so. After Pitbull disclosed that the contract cost $1 million, Scott called on Seccombe, 50, to resign.

While Talbert lauded Seccombe — who was not at Tuesday's meeting — he acknowledged that Visit Florida could not politically afford to lose Scott's support for the agency.

"That is a critical component because the governor recommends and fights for our budget," Talbert said.

Board member Gene Prescott, president of Coral Gables' Biltmore Hotel, was even more blunt. He suggested a looming political reckoning unless action was taken.

"We have the speaker of the House who has said he wants to take away all of our funding," Prescott said. "So we really have our work cut out to save our money."

Corcoran said Seccombe's departure changes nothing. He said Tuesday's termination meant board members were equally responsible for bad decisions.

"Our position with Visit Florida is philosophical," Corcoran said. "We question whether the government should be in the business of private companies' advertising.

"If somebody has been asked to resign, then de facto, they did something wrong. There was a failure of the mission," Corcoran said.

Visit Florida is a quasi-governmental agency that receives more than $140 million a year from mostly private tourism related business and about $78 million from state government. Scott cannot fire or hire the CEO. Only the 31-member board of directors can do that.

Corcoran has questioned Visit Florida's role in hitting tourism records. He said the agency's funding has grown faster than the number of tourists have grown.

Since 2009 Visit Florida's funding has grown from $29 million to $78 million.

Lawson said his mission is to instill a "cultural change" in Visit Florida to encourage greater transparency and accountability.

"We need to makes sure that folks know clearly who we are and what we are doing," Lawson said.

Unlike other traditional government agency appointments, Lawson's selection does not have to be confirmed by the Florida Senate.

Seccombe will only get a fraction of the $440,000 he could have received in severance pay. Talbert said through negotiations he was able to persuade Seccombe to leave with just $73,000 — to be paid by Visit Florida's private funds.

Corcoran was unimpressed by the negotiated terms: "If it's for cause, he's not supposed to get anything."

Seccombe was not available for comment Tuesday. In previous interviews, he has defended spending on soccer, a racing team and Pitbull as part of a strategy to reach foreign tourists who stay in Florida longer and spend more and to compete against other states — like California — that have increased tourism marketing and started to eat into Florida's market share. He said on each of those deals, Florida got big returns on its investment. However, Seccombe did say he would never do another deal like the one with Pitbull where he could not release details of the contract.

That, however, was not enough to help Seccombe keep his job leading the agency he has guided since November 2012.

Lawson agreed to a $175,000 salary, or about $120,000 less than what Seccombe was paid.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Jeremy Wallace at [email protected] Follow @JeremySWallace

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