The Monroe County Clerk's Office released the third audit related to the the Tourist Development Council's financial practices on Feb. 28, 2024. This audit reviewed advertising services.

The Monroe County Clerk’s Office dropped a third audit of the Florida Keys’ multimillion-dollar tourism marketing agency on Wednesday, this time reviewing the advertising services outsourced to a Miami firm.

Clerk Kevin Madok’s office took a deep dive into Tinsley Advertising & Marketing’s financial dealings with Monroe County from Oct. 1, 2020, through Sept. 30, 2023, giving the firm a positive review. But yet again, auditors found problems with the Tourist Development Council’s management.

In reviewing its handling of advertising services, the clerk’s office found a lack of transparency by the TDC, which between fiscal year 2022 and 2023 increased their advertising budget by more than 60% – jumping from $18.6 million to $30.2 million – without providing “any economic justification for such a material increase.”

The TDC’s 2024 advertising budget is even higher, at $36 million, the audit states. That’s a 19% increase from the previous year.

It’s possible there are valid reasons for the budget more than doubling within a year, auditors said, but the budget request prepared by TDC marketing director Stacey Mitchell “did not provide any economic justification for such a material increase,” they wrote, without naming Mitchell as has been their practice in the audits.

“The TDC’s budget documents are not transparent and not easy to understand,” the audit says.

In 2023, the TDC’s overall budget rose by 45%, while their advertising budget for Tinsley increased nearly 88% between fiscal years 2019-2024.

The TDC increased its budget for the Tinsley Advertising firm by more than 60% from FY 2022 to FY 2023, according to an audit of the advertising services released Feb. 28, 2024, by the county clerk’s office. This screenshot of one of the audit’s pages shows that the overall advertising budget rose by nearly 88% from 2019 to 2024.

The Tinsley audit is nothing like the initial scathing audit of the TDC, released Oct. 31, 2023, which found repeated noncompliance with Monroe County’s purchasing policy and lack of management oversight, along with ethical concerns, and a follow-up audit of NewmanPR that used the term “fiscal arrogance,” and exposed that the company used a nonexistent company to seek reimbursement.

Madok’s office recommended the TDC work with the county Office of Management and Budget to develop an annual budget process and reports that clearly show how the TDC intends to expend its allotted budget during the fiscal year.

“Further, any material budget increases/decreases for key aspects of TDC’s operations (e.g., advertising, public relations, research, digital services, etc.) should be thoroughly discussed in TDC’s budget documents.

Also, auditors reviewed the advertising bid process and said the TDC needs a reset.

While the TDC followed the required steps for issuing a Request for Proposals, auditors questioned whether the RFP document they used “impeded prospective vendors from submitting proposals.”

“Due to the severity of the deficiencies, we recommended that the TDC re-bid this contract,” the audit says, referring to the Tinsley contract.

Mitchell remains suspended with pay, while auditing continues at several levels. The county hired an outside firm to review the TDC’s book while meanwhile, State Attorney Dennis Ward hired a forensic accounting firm.

At a special meeting in Marathon on Feb. 20, the TDC’s board rejected a motion from County Commissioner Craig Cates to fire her, in a 7-2 vote. Only Cates and Key West Mayor Teri Johnston voted to fire Mitchell, with four months’ severance pay.

TDC board chairwoman Rita Irwin suggested keeping Mitchell on staff in a sales position, saying she’s an expert in marketing but perhaps lacks the necessary management skills for the top job. The TDC has no chief financial officer and instead relies on the marketing director in overseeing the financials.

‘Fair and square’

Madok’s audit said it’s not questioning the quality of the work performed by Tinsley Advertising. The point is to conduct a competitive process “that is not biased and is fair to all prospective qualified vendors to ensure the county and the TDC secure the best contract at the best pricing for the taxpayers,” auditors wrote.

In a written response to Madok’s office, Tinsley CEO John Underwood said the audit recognizes that they’ve done “an exemplary job of handling the Florida Keys’ advertising budget and found no evidence of mismanagement of funds.”

Underwood asked that the county keep Tinsley Advertising on through 2026, noting the Keys is their only destination account since the county has an exclusivity clause that means they can’t represent other Florida destinations.

“We have turned down offers to pitch other destinations (including Visit FL and Ft. Lauderdale) because of our commitment to the Florida Keys,” Underwood said.

“We have complied with mandatory reviews since 1986 and we have never taken our role as Agency of Record for granted,” Underwood wrote. “We have never received any special treatment from the TDC or the selection committee nor are we in any way involved in the selection committee or RFP Process with the TDC other than our submission.”

Underwood said they found out the day after the submission deadline that they were the only firm that applied.

“We won the account fair and square,” Underwood wrote. “In the 2021 review, we worked as if our lives depended on it and pulled out all stops to create a bulletproof response to the RFP. We did new advertising campaigns, media plans and long-range strategic planning.”

Madok told the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners on Feb. 21 his office has a fourth audit underway on Two Oceans Digital, which handles the TDC’s website.

Andy Newman, president of NewmanPR, speaks at the Nov. 16 Tourist Development Council board meeting. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Tinsley passed the audit

Overall, Tinsley complied with the county contract and had proper documentation on how they spent TDC funds for valid and legal public purposes, Madok’s auditors wrote in an 18-page report included in a 165-page document.

Auditors did find a few instances of reimbursed employee expenses – totaling $1,122 – that “were not in compliance” with county code and state statute.

Tinsley volunteered to repay the county, telling auditors they didn’t know the county prohibits some items, like supplemental insurance on a rental car. If they’d known, the firm said, they wouldn’t have submitted the expenses.

In three cases, an employee submitted about $300-$400 in expenses for optional rental car insurance.

Other problems in these three instances included a 27-cent payment for gas that was due to a math error when adding up receipts and a $50 meal expensed by an employee who had already received a per diem. Tinsley also sought $48.46 for an employee’s purchase of personal items like a razor, candy, wind and over-the-counter medication.

Auditors circled back to TDC’s management on these expense errors, recommending the agency provide vendors with written guidelines on what’s allowed for reimbursement and keep them updated on any changes.

Gwen Filosa
Gwen Filosa is The Keys Weekly’s Digital Editor, and has covered Key West news, culture and assorted oddities since she moved to the island in 2011. She was previously a reporter for the Miami Herald and WLRN public radio. Before moving to the Keys, Gwen was in New Orleans for a decade, covering criminal courts for The Times-Picayune. In 2006, the paper’s staff won the Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news and the Public Service Medal for their coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She remains a devout Saints fan. She has a side hustle as a standup comedian, and has been a regular at Comedy Key West since 2017. She is also an acclaimed dogsitter, professional Bingo caller and a dedicated Wilco fan.