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  1. Florida Politics

Before budget ax fell, Visit Florida executives ran up hefty travel bills

Florida Governor Rick Scott, left, and Ken Lawson, the CEO of Visit Florida, back in March. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 21, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's tourism chiefs at Visit Florida spend a lot of public money taking trips to exotic places to promote Florida as a top worldwide destination.

Four former top-level staff members at the state's tourism promotion and its current top executive spent a combined $150,000 on travel in the past 14 months, at a time when Visit Florida was under scrutiny by the Legislature for questionable spending, including a hidden $1 million deal with the rapper Pitbull, whose suggestive video for the song Sexy Beaches helped cost Visit Florida's former chief executive his job.

From San Francisco to Singapore and everywhere in between, the mission of promoting the Sunshine State at home and abroad never ends.

The state's ability to attract visitors is a staple of Scott's message of Florida's economic vitality as he lays the foundation for a U.S. Senate candidacy in 2018.

Scott's goal is for the state to draw 120 million visitors in 2017, who stay in hotels, dine at restaurants and visit attractions that all fortify sales tax collections, which in turn pay teachers' salaries and keep the lights on at state prisons.

Worldwide travel remains a staple of Visit Florida's marketing program, and so were hotel rooms that cost as much as $300 a night — twice the maximum nightly charge of $150 now permitted by the state budget Scott signed in June.

A high-paying marketing job at Visit Florida can also be a ticket to see the world, as top officials attended promotional events in the past year in Toronto; London; Mexico City; Buenos Aires; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Brisbane, Australia; Berlin; Chengdu, China; and Reykjavik, Iceland.

It wasn't all glitz.

On a drive home from a tourism conference in Orlando, one Visit Florida official spent $6.85 for a Subway sandwich in rural Cross City.

Ken Lawson, a former state chief of business and professional regulation brought in to restore Visit Florida's reputation, spent more than $25,000 in travel between February and October of this year, according to records the agency provided in response to a Times/Herald request.

Lawson's predecessor, Will Seccombe, spent nearly $15,000 on travel over a four-month period that ended in January.

Shari Bailey, Visit Florida's former chief international marketing officer, rolled up $43,000 in travel during a nine-month period that ended in June when she resigned.

Alfredo Gonzalez, Visit Florida's former vice president for global trade, logged $42,000 in travel for nine months ending in June, when he resigned.

Former Visit Florida marketing executive Paul Phipps spent $25,000 over three months ending last December.

All three officials resigned earlier this year during an extensive Visit Florida reorganization prompted in part by the Legislature's changes to the agency.

"When Ken Lawson became president & CEO, Visit Florida put in place new, more accountable travel policies that mirror those at state agencies," said a spokesman for the agency, Stephen Lawson. "This includes following the state rate at $150 per night for hotels and strict restrictions on travel expenses."

The policy was codified in state law during a special legislative session in June, and state employees can stay at more expensive hotels, but must pay the difference with personal funds.

State fiscal analysts have repeatedly warned against using total visitors to measure Visit Florida's success because it is extremely unlikely that the agency is responsible for all visitors.

Scott salvaged Visit Florida's $76 million budget during a special legislative session in June, but only after agreeing to a set of accountability measures, including capping employee salaries and requiring legislative oversight of big contracts.

Scott is asking legislators to increase the agency's budget to $100 million next year.

Testifying before the Legislature, Scott's appointee to run Visit Florida, CEO Ken Lawson, said saturation news coverage of Hurricane Irma's devastation to parts of the state makes it all the more urgent to "make sure Florida is open for business" with TV spots, digital billboards and social media, especially on Facebook.

By law, all state agencies are required to report official travel to the Legislature every 90 days, including a justification that all trips were "mission critical" and that alternatives, such as video conferences, were unavailable.

The state's chief tax collector, Department of Revenue executive director Leon Biegalski, has attended conferences in recent months at top-tier hotels such as the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., the Westin Seattle and the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans.

The agency said the highest hotel room rate was $169 a night and in one case, a sponsoring group paid Biegalski's travel expenses

"The Department of Revenue complies with state law and makes every effort to carry out its public service responsibilities in the most economical and beneficial way," Biegalski's spokeswoman said.

The Florida Department of Transportation spent nearly $70,000 on travel during the three months ending on Sept. 30, including paying for department executives to attend conferences in Norfolk, Va.; Providence, R.I.; Dallas and Boca Raton.

"Florida is a national leader in transportation, which often requires our employees to travel to other states," said DOT spokesman Dick Kane.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow
@stevebousquet.

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