You Paid For It: Visit Tampa Bay blinks in showdown with House Speaker

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Visit Tampa Bay (VTB) Chief Marketing Officer Patrick Harrison said Monday that his tourism promotion agency  “will respond in full” by Wednesday to growing demands from the Florida Legislature to disclose how his private organization spends millions of your tax dollars.

A letter from the legislature sent to VTB President and CEO Santiago Corrada Friday presses the tourism promotion agency for full disclosure.  That includes payroll, travel spending and basically everything else VTB spends out of more than $10 million a year it receives from Hillsborough County in bed taxes.pitbull

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is directing the initiative to force disclosure by VTB, is taking a hard line against all of the private tourism agencies around Florida that spend bed tax dollars.

“We’re going to force every single person who takes a hard earned tax dollar out of someone’s pocket, and if they have problems with that, we’ll see them in court,” said Corcoran. “We’re going to go and use whatever resources we have, whatever clout and power we have on behalf of the people, on behalf of the taxpayers, to hold everyone into account who’s spending those taxpayer dollars”

For the past four months, Visit Tampa Bay has refused to share financial information involving payroll, credit cards and third party vendors with 8 On Your Side.

As recently as this morning, Harrison handed us a letter advising us that Visit Tampa Bay is “not part of county government — and, therefore, not bound by Florida Statute 119, known as the Government Public Records Law.”

A few minutes later, Harrison called to say VTB was cooperating with the Speaker’s demands for full disclosure after all.

Public records show that VTB derives 88 percent of its revenue, about $10 million a year, from the bed tax. Corrada earns about $285,000 a year, based on federal records filed for the period ending in September 2015. That’s about twice as much as the Mayor of Tampa earns.

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran said he believes VTB and other private agencies contracted by state and local governments to promote tourism should be accountable for every penny they receive from taxpayers.

“We’re determined to see what that is and hold people accountable for it,” Corcoran said.

State Representative Mike La Rosa, under the direction of Corcoran, has directed VTB to hand over all of its financial data to the Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee by 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

“We trust you will provide this information voluntarily and without further delay,” wrote La Rosa in a letter mailed Friday to VTB President/CEO Santiago Corrada.

Harrison said Monday that Corrada is now on vacation and unavailable for comment. Harrison later said he’d just been told by the VTB Board that the private agency is now responding to legislative demands for disclosure following threats of legal action.

“We were very detailed in what it is that we want from them, and we gave them that list… with specificity, and we expect that information to come back to us,” Corcoran said.

For months now, Corrada has been stonewalling our request for the same information.

In December, Speaker Corcoran expressed displeasure in VTB’s refusal to reveal all of it’s spending to 8 On Your Side and pledged to either take away the bed tax, or stop state funding of Hillsborough County government projects if Corrada didn’t make his tourism marketing organization’s finances 100 percent transparent.

Monday, Corcoran said that some political leaders in Hillsborough County were working behind the scenes to pressure VTB to disclose its finances.

Corcoran’s similar displeasure with Visit Florida’s secret $1 million marketing deal with entertainer Pitbull resulted in public disclosure of that “trade secret” contract and a major shakeup of Visit Florida’s management staff. Corcoran now wants to revoke all state funding for Visit Florida and dissolve that agency.

Corcoran started demanding financial disclosure from more than a dozen private tourism promotion agencies in letters sent out last month. In one of those letters sent to Hillsborough County’s Economic Development division, which contracts with VTB to spend millions in bed tax revenue, Corcoran warned that if Hillsborough chooses not to provide the requested financial data by February 1, “you may be compelled by subpoena duces tecum to produce such information.”

Last month, in response to that letter, Hillsborough County government officials handed over limited information given to the county by VTB. The county referred Corcoran directly to Corrada and the VTB staff for the private agency’s payroll data, travel expenditures and other specific financial figures requested by the Speaker.

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