Okaloosa County’s Tourist Development Council Executive Director Mark Bellinger is not only out of a job, he could be facing criminal charges.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office announced Wednesday it was launching an investigation into Bellinger’s purchase of a $710,000 yacht with TDC money.
Sources say Legendary Marine in Destin sold the vessel to the TDC’s Tallahassee advertising firm, the Zimmerman Agency, several months ago at Bellinger’s request.
Zimmerman Agency submitted a bill to the county for $710,000 in December of 2011. A line in the invoice could be interpreted to represent the Marquis yacht but also contained language masking the purchase as a promotional campaign.
The 44-foot Marquis 420SC can sleep six and boasts a master suite, a "VIP suite" and has bathrooms complete with showers.
Aside from Bellinger, no one at the TDC or the county commission knew anything about the deal. That was until the title paperwork for the boat showed up at the county finance office last Friday.
At their regular meeting on Tuesday, county commissioners heard a convoluted explanation form Bellinger that again couched the yacht purchase as a promotional campaign that he invented.
Bellinger claimed he was authorized to spend $710,000 in bed-tax funds. When questioned by the commission about whether he had been authorized to buy a yacht, Bellinger admitted he had not.
Commissioners tried to fire Bellinger on the spot but the motion to do so was voted down, 3-2, in favor of allowing Bellinger to resign, effective May 11.
However, Bellinger was nowhere to be found on Thursday. County officials say he had turned in his keys and his cellphone and could not be reached.
Wednesday, Bellinger issued a letter to county officials admitted he made a mistake by not disclosing the deal, but also claiming he bought the yacht for a marketing concept involving the community’s recent award for being the best place to boat and live.
Bellinger admitted he had told no one about the purchase, even though he had taken possession of the boat in January.
Okaloosa County Sheriff’s officials announced they were investigating, due to the unorthodox and secretive nature of the purchase. They say they want to ensure there has been no criminal misuse of public funds.