Tourism bureaus in Fresno, Calif., and Palm Beach County, Fla., are fighting to survive after independent audits in December discovered convention and visitors bureau (CVB) employees were using taxpayers’ dollars in questionable ways.
In Fresno, shopping sprees at stores ranging from Starbucks to Victoria’s Secret between June 2005 to July 2006 resulted in corporate credit card charges totaling $67,000, putting the nonprofit organization’s relationship with the city in jeopardy. In charge of bringing conventions to the city, the Fresno CVB has until March to clean up its books or it risks being fired by SMG, the private company that manages the Fresno Convention and Entertainment Center.
Charges that a Palm Beach County CVB employee embezzled $1.55 million prompted chief executive Warren “Mac” McLaughlin to resign in November after 19 years of leadership. The audit that followed discovered McLaughlin used taxpayer money on lavish travel, meal and entertainment without properly documenting why the money was spent. Typical expenses in question were a $1,383 dinner ($230 per person) in Manhattan, and several $2,500 first-class airline tickets, purchased between January and November 2006.
McLaughlin and the CVB maintain that the money used was from private membership dues, and that attracting business to the city is an expensive enterprise. Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock, who conducted the audit, pointed out some of the questionable ways the CVB converted public funds into private money. She also stated that it was impossible to investigate McLaughlin’s travel history prior to 2005 due to insufficient records, cited conflicts of interest inherent in the board of directors, found 222 improper checks on the books, and recommended the county take over management of the CVB and its sister agencies, which promote the city as a destination for sports, culture and film.
The tourism agencies currently distribute $23 million a year; an amount raised by a tax on hotel and motel rooms. County commissioners met before the first of the year to determine whether or not to dismantle the agencies. The CVB was given 60 days to prove that it is fiscally responsible.
Sources: The Palm Beach Post, The Fresno Bee