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Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau -
 "A Train Wreck of Great Magnitude"

By Peter Franceschina, South Florida Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Dec. 19, 2006 - WEST PALM BEACH -- Palm Beach County commissioners blasted board members of the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau on Tuesday for their failure to oversee the agency and its management during a time when a bureau employee embezzled $1.5 million.

It was the first time the financial scandal at the bureau, which was discovered in late October, was brought before commissioners. The commissioners could have moved to take control of the private bureau, but they put off considering that for at least two months to give the bureau's board time to come up with an action plan.

"There is plenty of blame to go around," said Commissioner Jeff Koons. "This is a train wreck of great magnitude."

The bureau contracts with the county to promote Palm Beach County as a tourism destination, and it is largely funded through hotel bed tax dollars, about $9.6 million a year.

Commissioner Burt Aaronson said he was considering having the county take over the bureau, and he had sharp questions for the bureau's chairman and vice-chairwoman about why the organization should be allowed to continue run the bureau.

"The fact of the matter is no one watched the store," Aaronson said. "Why wasn't it done right in the first place?"

Bureau board chairman Rick Konsavage told commissioners his organization is dedicated to changing the way it operates to provide transparency for the public and tighter financial controls on its operations to satisfy commissioners.

"We take responsibility for what has happened," he said.

The bureau was thrown into turmoil in late October when it was discovered former bureau controller Donna M. Duffer forged 222 checks worth $1.55 million. Duffer was fired and is under police investigation.

The bureau's vice president for finance, Lee Davis, and the bureau's president and chief executive, Warren "Mac" McLaughlin, were forced to resign last month.

An audit of the bureau's books released last week by Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock was highly critical of the lack of oversight in monitoring McLaughlin's spending, identifying tens of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses, including air travel, pricey meals and sports tickets.

Peter Franceschina can be reached at pfranceschina@sun-sentinel.com or 561-228-5503.

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Copyright (c) 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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