Okaloosa County Sheriff's investigators are launching an investigation into the former Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council Executive Director Mark Bellinger's purchase of a 44-foot yacht. Bellinger used county bed tax money to buy the vessel but both the TDC and the county were unaware of it.
Bellinger turned in the keys to the $710,000 yacht and had some explaining to do at Monday's county commission meeting. The vessel has been docked at the Marbella Yacht Club in Destin for months. The transaction went undetected because city officials say the purchase was misleading. County officials didn't find out about it until last Friday, when the title paperwork was mailed to the county finance office.
According to an invoice from the county's Tallahassee based advertising and marketing firm, the Zimmerman Agency, the yacht was purchased as a " promotional package" which included giveaways, campaigns and contests--
"I purchased the boat at the end of December with the authority that was invested in me through the TDC ordinance, and the contract with the advertising agency that we have, which is Zimmerman" said Bellinger at Tuesday's commission meeting.
County commissioner Wayne Harris interrupted Bellinger and asked if he was really authorized to buy a boat. Bellinger responded saying "not authorized to buy a boat, but a dollar amount."
City officials say Bellinger told them the yacht was only used twice, but did not know who was on-board, how many hours were put on it, or who paid for the gas or the captain.
Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Don Amunds said he is still proud of the TDC as a promotional agency and driving economic force for the area.
"I'm disappointed in the leadership that Mark has provided. I think the TDC has done a fantastic job promoting tourism based on the market and bringing in the amount of tax revenue that they have" said Amunds.
The yacht is now considered county property. The county says it does not intend on keeping it and are exploring all of the legal options to get the bed tax money back and get rid of the boat.