You Paid For It: Call for transparency threatens Visit Tampa Bay’s tax funding

Visit Tampa Bay images

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. WFLA) — A call for total transparency in government spending by Governor Rick Scott and Florida Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran has already caused heads to roll at Visit Florida and the Florida Housing Finance Corporation.

Both agencies are now under a mandate form Governor Scott to disclose 100 percent of their spending including the names and salaries of all workers, all third party contracts and any other audits and financial information that detail how they spend public money.

Now, Visit Tampa Bay —the private agency that promotes tourism with millions of bed tax dollars in Hillsborough County– finds itself under the same kind of serious scrutiny and pressure to reform. “The message is clear and I would say we’re not done,” Corcoran said.”We will make sure those contracts, those expenditures are open and justifiable.”

Speaker Corcoran sued Visit Florida, which is the statewide counterpart of Visit Tampa Bay. Corcoran tells 8 On Your Side he wants every dollar that Visit Tampa Bay spends made public, or he will start taking steps to remove that agency’s bed tax funding.

If he can’t do that, Corcoran says he may yank state funding for Hillsborough County Government as a way to apply indirect pressure for reform at the private tourism agency that Hillsborough funds with the bed tax. “We’re going to zero fund Hillsborough County,” said Corcoran. “You won’t get one single penny of those dollars from the state unless you reveal 100 percent of your expenditures in your economic development group.”

“We certainly have to have a sit down with the Speaker of the House and show him how transparent we are and what those dollars are being use for and make sure he’s comfortable with that absolutely, Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada said. ” We’re in the process of doing that as a matter of fact.”

Corrada insists his agency already discloses every penny of the $12 million or so it receives from the bed tax. “We are incredibly transparent by providing to the county to the penny how we spend the tourist development tax,” Corrada said.” We believe we are extremely transparent in fact we want to meet with the Speaker of the House because we have a lot of respect for him.”

A months-long investigation by 8 On Your Side shows Corrada’s claim of financial openness falls far short of complete transparency. Visit Tampa Bay refuses to release credit card statements and so far has not shared other financial details involving vendor contracts, bonuses and commissions and who gets paid what from the $4.2 million payroll charged to taxpayers out of the agency’s total 4.8 million payroll.

Corrada insists that information in quarterly reports that Visit Tampa Bay gives to Hillsborough County in exchange for $12 million a year in bed tax funding, but those reports do not detail who makes what at the agency, the number of employees or their job descriptions. “I’m not going to show you the payroll,” Corrada told Eight On Your Side.

Last year, Corrada’s compensation topped $285,000 according to IRS records, but he has not yet released his current CEO salary and benefits. During an interview December 16th Corrada told Eight On Your Side he couldn’t remember is current salary but promised to supply that information later, along with all third party vendor contracts for 2016. We’re still waiting.

Speaker Corcoran is threatening to pull public funds unless there is dramatic reform along the lines of what has already been called for by the governor at Visit Florida and the Florida Housing Finance Corporation where top executives have either been fired or have resigned. That has gotten the attention of Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill. “We’ll do everything we can to comply,” Merrill said. “We’ll work anyway we can with the Speaker to get him the information that he wants.”

In Visit Florida’s case, a previously confidential $1 million promotional contract with performer Pitbull triggered a housecleaning. In the case of the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, it was a $52,000 filet mignon dinner, widespread bonuses and an overall failure to distribute Florida’s “Hardest Hit” housing funds to homeowners facing foreclosure that promoted the ouster of its CEO and demands for full financial transparency by the Governor that is a carbon copy of what he is demanding at Visit Florida.

Visit Tampa Bay does file quarterly and annual financial reports with Hillsborough County, but that agency does not reveal most of the fine details of its bed tax spending, such as full disclosure of contracts and payroll figures that the governor and speaker are demanding to be made public with the two other private agencies that similarly count in public tax money for their funding.

Below is the interview between You Paid For It and Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada. Corrada also recorded the interview, saying he was concerned that it would be edited in an manner that is unflattering to Visit Tampa Bay. 

Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada
Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada
House Speaker Richard Corcoran
House Speaker Richard Corcoran
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill

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