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Internal investigation into money spent on Panama City Beach park

Updated: May. 14, 2021 at 8:23 PM CDT
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PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Improvements to a Panama City Beach park prompted an internal investigation by the city.

This same issue is also the subject of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former Panama City Beach City Manager Tony O’Rourke.

O’Rourke claims public funds had been spent to make significant capital improvements to Popeye Park, which he says is privately owned. He also claims he was terminated in February after expressing concerns about mismanagement and misuse of public funds.

Holland and Knight Law Firm was hired by the city that same month to conduct an internal investigation into the Popeye Park issue.

The results were revealed at Thursday’s city council meeting. The summary of the findings resulted in no evidence employees knew of an ownership issue when park improvements began.

The firm goes on to say the park improvements accomplish a public purpose; however, Holland and Knight says a section of the city charter was violated when it comes to budget and procurement rules.

The law firm recommends the city hire a procurement officer, which has already been done, have mandatory training over purchasing power, and discipline, but not terminate, the city’s current Parks and Recreation Director Jim Ponek.

Vice Mayor Geoff McConnell says he believes the internal investigation speaks for itself.

“It was very detailed and lengthy,” McConnell said. “I think it clearly shows that the city did not violate any state or federal laws. I want to thank Holland and Knight because they did a fantastic job and they were incredibly thorough.”

McConnell says he trusts current City Manager Drew Whitman to make the right call on disciplining Ponek. He says a decision will be made in the next few weeks.

Holland and Knight did not investigate the circumstances and potential legal issues surrounding the February 11th termination of O’Rourke.

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