Once the pride of Northwest Florida, another sad chapter is playing out in Okaloosa County, and once again, the central themes are money and politics.
Last month, the federal government sued to seize the home of the late Mark Bellinger, former executive director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council. The FBI says Bellinger bought a posh Destin house with $747,000 from the BP oil-spill compensation fund, money targeted for an advertising campaign called “Boast the Coast.”
That’s not all. Bellinger also is accused of spending $710,000 in bed-tax money on a 40-foot Marquis yacht.
After his purchases came to light, Bellinger resigned, then disappeared on May 3. The next day, he was found dead of an apparent drug overdose. In his suicide note, he admitted having deceived his wife and that the Destin home was purchased with tourist council funds.
While details are squishy, it’s believed Bellinger hid the purchases by securing invoices for services from two ad agencies that do business -- and want more business -- with the tourist council. County commissioners now say the tourist council lacked accountability, but it was this same commission that gave the tourist council greater independence under the guise of reducing government oversight.
The federal lawsuit is yet another black eye for Okaloosa County, which three years ago saw its former sheriff, Charlie Morris, convicted on charges of fraud, corruption and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He is serving six years in prison.
Also three years ago, Okaloosa’s state representative, Ray Sansom, and its community college president, Bob Richburg, were indicted for allegedly using state funds to build a hangar for a big campaign contributor. The charges were dismissed, though, after a judge’s ruling disallowed certain evidence at trial.
Not so long ago, Okaloosa County was the shining jewel of Northwest Florida. Eglin and Hurlburt Air Force bases were rapidly expanding. The county seat of Crestview was blossoming with the housing boom. And billions of dollars were being poured into Destin commercial developments, making the county an economic powerhouse.
Population and political influence followed. The state House and Senate districts got redrawn to remove political influence from neighboring Santa Rosa and Escambia counties, and state funds poured in. Soon, sleepy Okaloosa-Walton Community College became Northwest Florida State College and now boasts the finest facilities west of Tallahassee.
Meanwhile, Okaloosa’s tourist development council became the envy of similar Florida commissions. In the last decade, taxable tourism sales jumped over $100 million, hitting a high of $820 million in 2007. Then came the money BP sent to mitigate damages from the oil spill.
Unfortunately money and power have a third companion—corruption. It’s not that power and money corrupt. No, they corrode, slowly destroying the public trust and placing the interests of a few above the many.
Sadly, I’m not sure we’ve learned any lessons here in Northwest Florida. Escambia County had four county commissioners removed from office a decade ago. And Santa Rosa County State Rep. Bolley Johnson, a Speaker of the House in 1990s, served a two-year sentence for tax evasion.
No one in Okaloosa County paid attention until newspapers and law enforcement began snooping around. The corruption wasn’t hard to find.
Now those who turned the other way as public money was again misspent must try again to rebuild the public trust. Will it ever end?
Rick Outzen is the publisher/editor of Pensacola's Independent News.
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