You Paid For It: Florida House Speaker calls Pinellas Film Commissioner’s trips to French Riviera reprehensible

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Pinellas Film Commissioner Tony Armer insists his annual two-week trips to the French Riviera to bring film business back to Pinellas is a good deal for taxpayers. He’s spent $128,000 bed tax dollars over the past three years and claims he’s lined up $11 million in future film productions here.

But an 8 On Your Side investigation reveals that Armer can’t point to a single dollar of moviemaking money spent here so far as a result of his trips to the Cannes Film Festival. Now, he’s caught the attention of Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

“Show us a contract, show us this $11 million,” Corcoran said. “The fact of the matter is you don’t need to travel to the French Riviera and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to get people and attract people here to the film industry. They’re coming here regardless.”

Corcoran is troubled by the zero return on investment so far and doesn’t like the idea that Armer’s tourism promotion boss in Pinellas County, David Downing, won’t let us interview the film commissioner to ask about how he spends public money during the Cannes Film Festival.

“If they’re not going to allow you to speak to the film commissioner himself then we’ll pass laws that force that to happen that force the accountability and make sure they’re not wasting taxpayer money,” Corcoran said.

The House Speaker was so disturbed by what he saw in our Investigative stories that he’s asked his state staff to research possible action to compel more transparency. One of the issues we revealed is Armer’s cozy relationship with the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Film Society that he gives $40,000 a year to in order to sponsor the Sunscreen Film Festival.

According to IRS annual financial filed for 2015 and 2016, Armer is the keeper of “books and records” for the film society and his home is the organization’s permanent address. The film society’s current executive director insists that’s simply a paperwork mistake but concedes that Armer is an advisor, volunteer and a non-voting board member.

Sunscreen also paid to exhibit one of Armer’s films at Cannes this year along with other Sunscreen movies while Armer was in Cannes representing Pinellas County as Film Commissioner.

Corcoran tells us that kind of relationship is troubling.

“I’ve already sent that clip that you guys did to staff and I’ve asked them to look into it,” Corcoran said.

Armer’s boss at Visit Pinellas, David Downing, insists that Armer works very hard on the French Riviera during the Cannes Film Festival to bring business back to Pinellas and says Armer’s efforts are well worth what they cost in public money.

“Don’t be fooled by the destination,” Downing said.

“Oh, I’d be fooled by the destination,” Corcoran said. “Come on, I mean honestly it’s just so silly it defies words I don’t know what to say it just so wrong. These are taxpayer dollars it’s just ridiculous.”

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