March 11, 2013
State lawmakers may take over a BP-financed tourism program as troubles have cropped up in how the money has been handled in a couple Panhandle counties, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, told the Pensacola News Journal. Gaetz’ comments came late last week as the Greater Pensacola Chamber board agreed to find out what happened to about $600,000 in American Express gift cards that were intended to lure tourists back to Escambia County in the wake of the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. "These unfortunate and scandalous problems occurring in Okaloosa and now apparently to some extent in Escambia County will cause the state Legislature to think twice about how much money should be entrusted to local officials and local economic developers and under what conditions," Gaetz told the News Journal. "Any money that comes to local governments has to be accompanied with accountability." On March 4, members of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, expressed displeasure that an Okaloosa County commissioner advised several local Tourist Development Council members that by resigning they could possibly avoid a subpoenaed appearance before the state committee. The committee is reviewing how Okaloosa County’s late tourist development leader Mark Bellinger siphoned bed tax and BP oil-spill compensation money into a posh home in Destin, yacht, Porsche and other personal items. TDC Chairman-elect Warren Gourley said that the perception from county officials is that state lawmakers from the area are using the scandal to gain control of the oil spill restoration money.
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