A former Florida tourism director who died last Friday was suspected of having misused some of the compensation money BP paid to help the state lure back tourists after the catastrophic 2010 oil spill, a Florida newspaper has reported.
Mark Bellinger, 52, former executive director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council, died of an apparent drug overdose, the South Florida Times said.
The paper added that Bellinger’s death happened a day after he was accused of misusing public money sent by oil company BP following the 2010 oil spill. Reporters quoted authorities as saying Bellinger was buying a USD747,000 home and had admitted days earlier to using Florida tourism “bed tax” dollars to buy a USD710,000 yacht. He said the yacht was to be used for county tourism promotions, the paper reported, though county commissioners said they knew nothing about any such plans.
Bellinger was found in his car in Alabama and later died in hospital, Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley told the paper. The deceased had been hired as tourism director in May 2010, weeks after the massive BP oil spill hit the Gulf of Mexico.
In a timeline outlined by the paper, Bellinger admitted buying the yacht early last week. He then resigned from the county tourism council. By Thursday, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and the state attorney’s office issued a warrant for his arrest, related to the house purchase. Late on the same day, Bellinger left a suicide note at his house and his wife called the sheriff’s office after finding it.
Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley told the paper investigations would continue.
“Even in light of this tragedy and death, we will still be working with the FBI, our white-collar crime task force and assisting the state auditor in conducting a forensic audit of all tourist development expenditures during Mr Bellinger’s tenure with the department,” the sheriff said.
“We will be determined to uncover everything dealing with tourist development, bed tax and BP oil money.”
Before coming to Okaloosa County, Bellinger had worked in a similar high-profile tourism capacity in Palm Springs, California.
MEANWHILE, another death has hit Florida tourism, happening (entirely coincidentally) at about the same time as Bellinger’s death.
Visit Orlando’s highly respected chief executive and president, 61-year-old Gary Sain, died suddenly and unexpectedly last Friday.
Visit Orlando markets Orlando as a major tourist and meeting destination.
Sain had worked to promote the City of Orlando since 2007. During his tenure, he changed the name and the direction of Visit Orlando, formerly known as the Orlando-Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Sain also started the popular “Orlando Makes Me Smile” campaign.
Visit Orlando will begin searching for a new leader in coming weeks.
Sain was to have appeared before the Orlando City Council early this week to accept a proclamation declaring it National Travel and Tourism Week.
Instead, the week has been dedicated as “Gary Sain Travel and Tourism Week.”
Written by : Peter Needham