A recent county audit of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (TDC) — the Florida Keys’ multimillion-dollar tourism marketing agency — revealed significant concerns with its financial oversight and operations.
“The audit found repeated noncompliance with Monroe County’s purchasing policy, … a lack of controls and management oversight, … appearances of potential self-dealing by certain employees as well as possibly one of the TDC’s agencies of record.”
The county clerk’s audit of the TDC covered the five-year period from October 2018 through September 2023 and resulted in a 32-page report of its findings and recommendations.
The TDC’s marketing director, Stacey Mitchell, who heads the agency, is identified only by title in the report. She spoke with the Keys Weekly on Oct. 31 about the audit report.
“I’m still digesting it,” said Mitchell, who had been at a TDC meeting in the Upper Keys in the morning and then received news that her friend and TDC predecessor Harold Wheeler had died on Oct. 31. “I just received the report. Obviously we’ll work in full cooperation with all county departments to implement the recommendations and improvements. I’m honestly still processing this after learning of the death of Harold.”
TDC Chair Rita Irwin echoed Mitchell’s comments.
“I’m very much process and rule bound,” she said, adding that she would be included in an internal staff meeting set for Nov. 2 to discuss the report with Mitchell and County Administrator Roman Gastesi, among others. “We’re taking this seriously, looking at the recommendations and behaving in a professional manner to respond. We’re also in the process of scheduling a public meeting of the TDC board, which requires proper public notice.”
Causes for concern
- Auditors report that the TDC’s longtime public relations firm, NewmanPR, submitted reimbursement requests of about $14,000 last year that may represent “double billing,” as they were paid to a company the auditors believe doesn’t exist. Andy Newman, who owns NewmanPR, told auditors he had started the company in question 35 years ago to be paid for services that he himself performs for NewmanPR such as photography. But the audit report states that those services are included in NewmanPR’s contract with the TDC, which should not be billed for them separately. “Due to the serious nature of the potential double-billing and the use of an entity that likely does not exist, the clerk’s office finds it necessary to immediately alert the BOCC of this audit finding. The clerk also is exercising the Right To Audit clause that is in the NewmanPR contract to review additional invoices to determine the legitimacy, compliance with contract, and adherence to Monroe County purchasing policy. Given the severity of the issue, finance cannot process any further payments for NewmanPR on behalf of the TDC until there is some resolution to this matter,” the report states.
- Auditors are currently conducting additional audits of the TDC’s three partner agencies — NewmanPR, which handles public relations; Two Oceans Digital, which handles website and digital marketing and Tinsley Advertising & Marketing, which handles advertising for the TDC. The additional audits will be released separately when completed, the report states.
- Auditors report “serious ethical concerns” over an agreement between Mitchell and local photographer Rob O’Neal, who since 2008 has produced an annual Florida Keys photography calendar for the TDC. The report notes that Mitchell and O’Neal also have a long-term personal relationship that calls into question the TDC’s impartiality in selecting vendors. The TDC gives away the calendars as a marketing tool, but then gives O’Neal some of the calendars to sell himself for a profit, the report states. “It appears that the marketing director misused her official position to allow Mr. O’Neal to profit from the photo calendar, especially since no other vendors were given an opportunity to bid on its production…,” the report states. “The clerk’s office believes the purchase of the calendars … could be … improper payment and, therefore, has declined to pay Mr. O’Neal’s invoice for the 2024 calendars, which totals $14,850,” the report states.
- Auditors found several instances in which invoices for services and reimbursements were paid without proper documentation or details of services rendered, and often were approved by someone without proper authority given the agency’s practice of sharing secure online login credentials and passwords. They have recommended tighter controls and additional staff training.
- Auditors “found that the TDC’s annual financial reports that were presented to the BOCC and the public materially misstated the TDC’s fiscal year revenues and expenditures,” the report states. When compared to the county’s audited financial statements, the amounts differed by $2 to $6 million, according to charts in the report. “Due to the importance of TDC’s financial reporting being accurate as well as being transparent to the public, consideration may be given to requiring one TDC member having a financial background and/or requiring TDC’s executive office to have an annual compliance audit,” the report states.
The county commission will likely discuss the audit report at its regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 8 in Key West, Monroe County Mayor Craig Cates told the Keys Weekly on Oct. 31.
“Kevin Madok, as the county’s clerk of court and comptroller, is a constitutional officer and it’s his responsibility to make sure all public funds are spent and accounted for properly,” Cates said. “This audit was part of normal procedures and now the county commission will have to discuss how to proceed.”