|By David Damron and Jason Garcia, The
Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
January 16, 2009 - The private agency that spends tens of millions of public dollars marketing Orlando to tourists failed to document whether its full leadership approved major personnel and policy decisions, including a nearly $750,000 separation package granted to its former chief executive, a long-awaited audit released Thursday shows.
The probe by the Orange County Comptroller's Office also chided the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau for being unable to prove that it has adequately monitored some long-running contracts with vendors that provide everything from retirement planning to advertising in the United Kingdom.
But the review ultimately deemed as "adequate" the financial controls at the visitors bureau, which has come under scrutiny for how it spends the county's hotel taxes. And Comptroller Martha Haynie said in an interview that the audit showed the bureau is "a well-run organization."
"We believe they take their public responsibility seriously," Haynie said, praising the agency's cooperation with auditors.
Visitors bureau Chairman George Aguel would not comment, but in a statement, agency leaders pronounced themselves pleased with the results.
Larry Campbell, chairman of the visitors bureau audit committee and senior vice president of internal audit for Darden Restaurants, called the comptroller's report "exactly the stamp of approval that the organization hoped to receive."
The Comptroller's Office launched its audit in 2007, amid concerns about lax oversight at the bureau and as the organization was about to receive a record amount of public money for advertising that ultimately totaled nearly $100 million over two years. Its last public audit was in 1997.
Concerns about oversight at the bureau have grown in recent months after reports of controversial spending inside the agency. A majority of Orange County commissioners, who ultimately decide how much public money the agency receives, have begun calling for changes that would force more public disclosure at the visitors bureau.
Auditors, however, opted not to delve too deeply into some controversial areas.
The Comptroller's Office, for instance, did not review the bureau's international-travel policy, which came under fire late last year, after much of the auditors' work was completed. The controversy followed an Orlando Sentinel report that bureau President Gary Sain used $9,271 of agency money to buy a business-class ticket to Dubai, while two other local tourism executives on the same flight paid with private money and flew coach.
Sain traveled to Dubai in October of last year, but county auditors reviewed only receipts from Oct. 1, 2006, to Sept. 30, 2007. No international trips were included in the sampling of agency expenses that auditors ultimately reviewed.
Auditors did inspect some of the bureau's domestic travel, including trips to New York and San Diego. The Comptroller's Office said those inspections turned up nothing irregular.
And while a sampling of private-fund expenditures was inspected, the audit did not deal directly with how those and other funds were spent, instead focusing on whether the bureau was in compliance with a now-defunct 1996 agreement with Orange County governing how its public money should be used.
Auditors described that 1996 agreement as "vague" on many control and spending issues. It was replaced by a more detailed and restrictive contract with the county in 2007.
Still, Haynie said she was confident that Orlando's tourism agency is not engaging in the kinds of inappropriate behavior -- from overly cozy relationships with contractors to outright fraud -- that have been documented at other visitors bureaus across the country.
Auditors ultimately recommended nine broad changes, including:
*Keeping detailed minutes of board of directors meetings that document all major actions. Auditors said they could find no evidence that the agency's full board ever formally approved either a $744,441 separation package for former President Bill Peeper or the current contract and salary terms of Sain, his successor. The agency keeps all board-meeting minutes confidential. In a response included with the audit, the visitors bureau pledged to keep more detailed minutes, though it defended leaving executive-compensation matters to a smaller committee of top directors.
*Rebidding a contract to serve as the trustee for the visitors bureau's 401(k) retirement plan. Auditors found that the agency has not solicited competing bids for the service since it launched its 401(k) plan in 1997. The visitors bureau responded that it will request proposals from other providers.
*Doing a better job of documenting contract terms and monitoring contractors' performance. Auditors found that the visitors bureau has had an open-ended contract with a British advertising firm since 1999 that does not include an end date or a maximum value amount; the visitors bureau gave $744,373 to the vendor during the audit period. The visitors bureau acknowledged that it could not document any evaluation of the advertising contract and said it will put "additional focus" on making sure clear terms are included in future contracts. But it also said it generally has strong controls in place to select vendors competitively and that it conducts thorough evaluations before extending contracts.
David Damron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5311. Jason Garcia can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5414.
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Copyright (c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
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