Monroe County will hire an outside accounting firm to investigate the Florida Keys’ multimillion-dollar tourism marketing agency, a week after a county clerk audit revealed significant concerns with its financial oversight and operations.
In a unanimous vote Wednesday at their meeting in Key West, the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners agreed to bring in Cherry Bekaert, an accounting firm based in North Carolina with offices in South Florida, to take a deeper dive into the books kept by the Tourist Development Council.
Commissioners also voted to recommend the TDC board, which meets next week, put its marketing director Stacey Mitchell on paid leave and hire Cherry Bekaert for financial and management help.
Additional auditing is the appropriate next step, said Kevin Madok, the county clerk whose audit was released on Oct. 31 with a list of problematic practices his office found over a five-year period from October 2018 through September 2023.
“It’s not an indictment of anybody, just an uncomfortable necessity,” Madok said.
Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward and his chief assistant Joe Mansfield attended Wednesday’s meeting, held at the Harvey Government Center. Ward told The Keys Weekly his office is reviewing the clerk’s audit.
“We’re taking a hard look at it,” Ward said Wednesday. “I have my concerns. I know some forensic auditors myself.”
Before the BOCC vote, Cherry Bekaert executives made a presentation about their services. Their list of priorities for the TDC audit included analyzing all financial records, “to identify and quantify improper expenditures,” offer help with “improving internal controls,” and “interview whistleblowers, employees with knowledge of suspicious transactions and others with relevant knowledge who would maintain confidentiality.”
Commissioners directed staff to draw up a contract with the firm.
Madok’s audit prompted county staff, including County Administrator Roman Gastesi and County Attorney Bob Shillinger, to recommend commissioners take action, including asking the TDC board to suspend Mitchell with pay.
But the five-member commission made clear they would only recommend to the TDC board to place Mitchell, whose annual salary is $205,749, on administrative leave pending further audits. Mitchell is not a county employee.
“It’s not saying anybody’s guilty of anything,” said Commissioner Craig Cates, of Key West. “This is for transparency and the public’s trust.”
The TDC has scheduled a special meeting for Nov. 16 at the DoubleTree Resort in Key West.
Mitchell, a 24-year TDC employee, was promoted to marketing director in 2017. She told Keys Weekly on Nov. 7 she can’t discuss the matter because she first must speak with the full board.
TDC board chairwoman Rita Irwin spoke up for Mitchell at Wednesday’s BOCC meeting, saying the audit didn’t show concerns about the marketing process and that Mitchell’s expertise is needed.
“Stacey came along in the eye of a hurricane, literally,” Irwin told commissioners. “There’s been a hurricane, a two-year pandemic and huge growth because of how fabulous the Florida Keys are and everybody came to see us.”
Only one local openly criticized the TDC at Wednesday’s meeting.
“The thing is broken and we have to get to the bottom of it,” said Richard Tallmadge, a longtime Key West business owner who recently closed his long-running Restaurant Store and Cole’s Peace Bakery. “It’s a cash cow and it just generates tons of revenue. There are no checks and balances.”
Arlo Haskell, who helped launch the Key West movement to reduce cruise ship traffic and also runs the Key West Literary Seminar, which receives TDC funding, said, “We all survive on tourism and they’ve done a great job building that up. You have a big opportunity here to build a better TDC.”
The clerk’s office is currently still auditing the three partner agencies: NewmanPR, which handles public relations; Two Oceans Digital, which handles website and digital marketing and Tinsley Advertising and Marketing, which handles advertising for the TDC.
The TDC audit by Madok’s office found “repeated noncompliance with Monroe County’s purchasing policy,” and “appearances of potential self-dealing by certain employees as well as possibly one of the TDC’s agencies of record.”