You Paid For it: Pinellas Film Commissioner funding of Sunscreen Film Fest poses conflict of interest question

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Pinellas County’s Film Commissioner Tony Armer spent two weeks on the French Riviera this year promoting Pinellas County as a filmmaking venue. Armer also enjoyed a personal bonus—the St. Petersburg Sunscreen Film Festival that he sponsors with $40,000 of your tax dollars every year happened to choose Armer’s own short film, A Running Start, to exhibit at Cannes.

It’s hard to put a value on that. “That’s a huge deal for filmmakers,” said independent film distributor Dwight Cenac II. “That’s a huge deal for filmmakers.”

Armer’s boss, David Downing with Visit St.Pete/Clearwater insists Armer had nothing to do with the showing of his film at Cannes while he was there on Pinellas County government business, but our 8 On Your Side investigation reveals a number curious ties between Armer and the Sunscreen Film Festival he founded and ran for years before becoming Pinellas Film Commissioner and in his role as a county official, Sunscreen’s biggest monetary sponsor.

Pinellas County pays Tony Armer $81,723 a year to promote filmmaking in Pinellas County and juice up the local economy with movie production spending. Armer also enjoys a lot of perks with the job. He racked up $103,000 on his Pinellas County credit card for travel and entertainment during one recent eight-month period alone.

He’s also been to the French Riviera three years running to attend the Marche’ Du Film trade show during the Cannes Film Festival at a taxpayer cost of $128,000. Armer claims he has lined up $11 million worth of film projects as a result of those taxpayer-funded trips to Cannes, but won’t disclose any of them. So far, not one dollar has landed back in Pinellas as a return on investment of your bed tax dollars. “I think it’s important for your viewers to understand how this thing works it’s never I’m bringing my film there tomorrow,” said Armer’s boss David Downing who runs Visit St.Pete/Clearwater.

“I think it’s important for your viewers to understand how this thing works it’s never I’m bringing my film there tomorrow,” said Armer’s boss David Downing who runs Visit St.Pete/Clearwater.

This year’s decision by Sunscreen to submit the Film Commissioner’s short film along with nine other selections for screening at Cannes might have been unremarkable except for Armer’s ongoing connection to that tax-exempt organization.

Armer’s Clearwater townhome is listed in IRS annual financial reports filed as recently as April as the Sunscreen organization’s permanent address. He is personally named in Sunscreen’s 2016 IRS report as the keeper of “books and records.” When he accepted a job as Pinellas Film Commissioner, Armer signed a conflict of interest form stating he would continue working for Sunscreen as an advisor and volunteer. On Wednesday, Armer attended a Sunscreen board meeting as a “non-voting board member,” according to Cenac, who also attended and appears as the author of a number of recent articles on the Sunscreen website—including one that promoted the showing of Armer’s own film and others in Cannes.

Cenac assumed control of Sunscreen when Armer left to become Film Commissioner and doesn’t see any conflict of interest between Armer’s role with Sunscreen and his current job as Film Commissioner. “The only problem that this ever brings up is you,” Cenac said. “That’s it!”  Cenac insists the IRS records are incorrect and attributes the erroneous financial reports—one of which he signed–as unintentional clerical mistakes. “Probably because a world of volunteers who have craploads of things to do with the things that actually pay for the food and the roof over their heads we don’t have a lot of time to go through old documentation to change things,” Cenac said.

Tony Armer’s boss David Downing won’t allow Armer to speak with us about any of these issues. But in a written response to our emailed questions, Armer denies he has any conflict between his role as Film Commissioner and his role with the Sunscreen organization.

“I do not think it would be appropriate to withdraw,” Armer wrote.  As a film commission, we have to be involved with the festival.  It is the best thing a film commission can do in its local area.  Sunscreen is the reason I was hired as film commissioner.”

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