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  1. Pinellas

Pinellas tourism leader David Downing took vacation on taxpayers' dime

The way David Downing recorded payroll hours helped him collect thousands in payouts for unused vacation time.
David Downing, the CEO and director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, attended his last Pinellas County Tourism Development ahead of his resignation for the tourism agency on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (SARA DINATALE | TIMES

While crossing the globe to lure tourists to Pinellas County, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO David Downing often mingled personal excursions with public trips.

On at least two overseas trips in recent years, Downing wrote memos to say he departed early at no expense to taxpayers.

But the personal trips did cost taxpayers.

He logged the extra days scheduled as work time — not vacation hours, according to Pinellas County payroll records.

And at the end of each year, Downing collected payouts for unused vacation time worth thousands of dollars.

A review of hundreds of pages of records shows top Pinellas County administrators didn't monitor how Downing logged vacation hours or how he amassed hundreds of flex hours for working weekends.

"This is an indication of poor organizational structure because there was no administrative oversight," Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said. "There was no accountability. I'm hopeful it will be corrected now that we know it."

Downing, who earned a $215,000 salary, resigned Monday after 12 years at Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

For more than a week prior, the Tampa Bay Times had been requesting records related to Downing's travels and the way he operated the agency.

From January 2014 through December 2018, Downing recorded only seven vacation days, including none between 2014 and 2017, according to payroll records. Overall, that's an average of less than one per year.

A county program allows employees to exchange up to 160 hours for a lump sum payment.

Since 2013, Downing has exchanged 960 hours — or 120 days -— for $78,389, according to payroll records.

Downing called the payroll discrepancies "clerical errors" and said the "extraordinary amount of travel required to bring record tourism to Pinellas County" caused him to lose more than 90 vacation days in five years.

"I have forfeited nearly 4½ months of personal time in support of the 104,000 residents directly employed by the tourism industry in Pinellas County," a statement said.

County Administrator Barry Burton, who joined the county two months ago, said the agency delivered "record tourism" dollars but has "a messed-up policy" for recording time off.

"I intend to review the policies and procedures ... and implement best practices to ensure that in addition to being an outstanding ambassador to the world for Pinellas County," he said in a statement, "they are fully transparent and accountable concerning their business practices."

The way Downing recorded hours shows no supervisor monitored the records.

In 2015 and 2016, Downing combined personal travel with business trips to the United Kingdom and South Africa for international conferences. Memos he wrote to a county accountant stated he was traveling early for "personal business." He logged seven regular work days, not vacation days or flex days, payroll records show.

A six-paragraph policy, created for the tourism bureau in 2006, allows 37 exempt staffers to earn flex hours when they travel and work on weekends.

Staffers must use the days within three months, and each employee tracks their own hours, officials told the Times. When entering the hours in the payroll system, workers must list the event that earned the hours.

In the past six years, Downing logged 50 flex days but did not list the events to show how he earned the time, payroll records show. Instead, he logged "per CVB policy," records show.

Assistant county administrator Paul Sacco said he takes responsibility for not making sure Downing followed policies.

A 2015 version of the policy said employees cannot carry time from fiscal year to fiscal year. An update to the 2016 policy removed that rule. Downing approved the change, Sacco said.

In recent years, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has broken records for the tax dollars it collects from tourists and others who stay in the county.

By the end of 2018, Pinellas County collected about $60 million in bed tax dollars, meaning about $1 billion was spent on overnight stays — a 9 percent increase from the year before.

Elected officials and members of the Tourist Development Council praised Downing this week for how he helped bring so many tourists to the county. A trade group will honor Downing this month in New York for his marketing work.

When Downing departs Feb. 1, he will not receive a payout for any flex hours, Sacco said.

The 2,000 other employees under the county administrator and County Commission have no flex policy and cannot amass hundreds of hours to use at later dates. Commissioner Kathleen Peters said it's unacceptable for Downing to collect regular pay for personal travels.

"There should have been, and should be going forward, transparency and oversight on personal travel versus business travel," she said. "There really should be more accountability over this, regardless of where the money comes from."

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

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