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Florida State Fair executive director resigned after accepting Rays tickets and hot tub

Charles Pesano, who resigned on  Feb. 25, also is accused of using his position in an inappropriate way to receive a Model 650 hot tub valued at $3,846.65.
Charles Pesano, who resigned on Feb. 25, also is accused of using his position in an inappropriate way to receive a Model 650 hot tub valued at $3,846.65.
Published Mar. 23, 2016

TAMPA — Florida State Fair executive director Chuck Pesano resigned after a state investigation found that he used his position to funnel business to his family's company, get Tampa Bay Rays tickets and have a hot tub installed in his Valrico home.

The findings by a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Inspector General's investigation put an end to an 11-year tenure for Pesano, 63, who was paid $146,250 a year. He submitted a one-sentence resignation Feb. 25, the day after the investigation was published. The report concluded that there was evidence to show he did business with his own agency, entered into conflicting relationships and accepted gifts.

Hillsborough State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox confirmed Tuesday that his office has been asked by state officials to investigate allegations of financial impropriety related to Pesano's Fair Authority job.

Pesano did not return calls or emails Tuesday.

Much of the investigation centers around Seventh Avenue Apothecary, a soy candle company in Ybor City that Pesano owns with his wife and daughter.

According to the report, Pesano suggested that employees at Cracker Country, a sprawling history museum on the fairgrounds, purchase candles from the family business to sell. An employee who ordered merchandise for Cracker Country told investigators she wasn't told to purchase candles but felt obligated, even though they were not the type that would be found in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Pesano approved the purchase of $618 in candles, the investigation found. He acknowledged the candles were bought from a company in which he has an interest, and told investigators, "I should have used different judgment on that."

Pesano also is accused of "inappropriately" receiving a Model 650 hot tub valued at $3,846.65.

Alongside cookware and massaging recliners, hot tubs are a staple in the state fair's expo hall. The one Pesano got from Spa Manufacturers included a waterfall, the report said.

Pesano told investigators his family's candle company "bartered" with Spa Manufacturers — a hot tub in exchange for an open tab for candles for the spa company. He said the deal was between his wife and the hot tub business. Asked if he benefitted, Pesano replied, "We have a spa," the report said.

Pesano told investigators he didn't know how many candles had been ordered. He wanted to stay out of it "because I wanted to not make it look like I was involved in that negotiation," the report said.

The president of the spa company turned over a packing slip for a shipment of 148 private label 4-ounce mini candles.

A Fair Authority official responsible for negotiating contracts told investigators that a month before the candle-spa barter, Pesano began "circumventing" her and negotiating directly with the hot tub company. She reported that he planned to give away $5,000 to $10,000 in benefits that were not in Spa Manufacturers' original contract. Pesano told another fair official it was a "no-cost trade" that could attract other large display vendors, according to the report.

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Pesano denied using his position for personal benefit. The spa company president denied getting any favors from him.

The investigation also found Pesano accepted food, beverages and tickets to sporting events from Centerplate, an exclusive food service vendor of the Fair Authority and concessionaire to the Tampa Bay Rays. Investigators found emails regarding food orders from Pesano for a 2013 Rays game, which included an invoice from Centerplate for $823.83. The email indicated that the bill was paid by Centerplate and that Pesano had attended a previous game with a similar food order.

Other emails revealed he attended a Rays game in 2014 with admission to the Hancock Bank Club, a private suite serviced by Centerplate. Last year, he was given four tickets to three separate Rays games.

Pesano told investigators this was an opportunity to see how the operation works and that it was "normal routine" for contracted businesses to offer free games. Asked if he had to attend multiple times in a season to see the operation, Pesano said they "do things different at different times, so … do you have to do it multiple? I guess you don't have to do it multiple."

"I agree that looking at it, in the totality of things, that it gives a perception that may not be favorable," he said.

The report found Pesano asked Fair Authority employees to make business signs for Seventh Avenue Apothecary at a reduced price. It also said he "essentially asked" the marketing director for Lazydays RV during a meeting at the fairgrounds if the company wanted to buy candles.

Fair Authority board members did not return calls or could not be reached Tuesday. County Commissioner Les Miller, a board member since 2010, said he was only told Pesano resigned. Miller said he wasn't aware of the investigation.

Miller said the board gets regular financial updates from Pesano and nothing appeared amiss. He praised how Pesano worked to make changes after 14-year-old Andrew Joseph III was ejected from the fair in 2014 and died trying to cross Interstate 4.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who oversees the Fair Authority, tapped Cheryl Fulford Flood, recently the Department of Agriculture's director of external affairs, to serve as acting Fair Authority executive director. Putnam's office is accepting applications through April 8.

"We look forward to an open, transparent selection process for a new executive director, as well as a seamless transition," said his spokeswoman Jenn Meale.

In a Feb. 27 letter to friends and family explaining his decision, Pesano did not mention the investigation. He said he was proud of running the authority "like a true entrepreneurial business" and turning an annual $1 million net loss into $1 million net income. He said it seemed the perfect time to begin his "next chapter."

"I have a lot of comfort and pride knowing that I have left the Fair Authority in a much better place than when I first came in," he wrote.

Pesano wasn't sure where his career would take him next, but said he could be found at the family candle shop in Ybor City, tackling "a long list of construction projects."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @TMarreroTimes. Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.