A recent county audit of the Monroe County Tourism Development Council (TDC) — the Florida Keys’ multimillion-dollar tourism marketing agency — revealed serious concerns about financial oversight and operations.
“The audit found repeated non-compliance with Monroe County’s purchasing policy, … a lack of management control and oversight, … acts of potential self-harm by certain employees, as well as possibly one of the TDC agencies.”
The TDC district officer’s audit covered the five-year period from October 2018 to September 2023 and resulted in a 32-page report with its findings and recommendations.
TDC’s marketing director, Stacey Mitchell, who leads the agency, was identified only by title in the report. She spoke to Keys Weekly on Oct. 31 about the audit report.
“I’m still digesting it,” said Mitchell, who was at a TDC meeting in the Upper Keys in the morning and then received the news that her friend and TDC predecessor Harold Wheeler had died on Oct. 31. “I just got a report. Obviously, we will be working in full cooperation with all county departments to implement the recommendations and improvements. Honestly, I’m still processing this after learning of Harold’s death.
Reasons for concern
- Auditors report that TDC’s longtime public relations firm, NewmanPR, filed refund requests for about $14,000 last year, which may constitute “double billing” because they were paid to a company that auditors believe was not exists. Andy Newman, who owns NewmanPR, told auditors he started the company 35 years ago to get paid for services he himself performed for NewmanPR, such as photography. But the audit report states that these services are included in NewmanPR’s contract with TDC, which should not be billed separately for them. “Due to the serious nature of the potential double billing and the use of a legal entity that likely does not exist, the Clerk’s office finds it necessary to immediately notify the BOCC of this audit finding. The employee also exercises the right to audit clause in NewmanPR’s contract to review additional invoices to determine legitimacy, compliance with the contract and compliance with Monroe County purchasing policy. Given the seriousness of the issue, Finance cannot process any further payments to NewmanPR on behalf of TDC until there is some resolution to this matter,” the report stated.
- Auditors are currently conducting additional audits of TDC’s three partner agencies — NewmanPR, which handles public relations; Two Oceans Digital, which handles website and digital marketing and Tinsley Advertising & Marketing, which handles advertising for TDC. Additional audits will be published separately when completed, the report said.
- Auditors reported “serious ethical concerns” about the arrangement between Mitchell and local photographer Rob O’Neill, who since 2008 has produced an annual photography calendar of the Florida Keys for TDC. The report notes that Mitchell and O’Neill also have a long-term personal relationship that calls into question TDC’s impartiality in selecting suppliers. TDC gave out the calendars as a marketing tool, but then gave O’Neill some of the calendars to sell himself for a profit, the report states. “It appears that the marketing director abused his position to allow Mr. O’Neill to profit from the photo calendar, especially since no other seller was given the opportunity to bid on its production…” , the report said. “The clerk’s office believed that the purchase of the calendars … may have been … an improper payment and therefore refused to pay Mr. O’Neill’s invoice for the 2024 calendars, which totaled $14,850,” the statement said. the report.
- Auditors found several instances where invoices for services and reimbursements were paid without proper documentation or details of services provided and were often approved by someone without proper authority, given the agency’s practice of sharing secure online credentials and login passwords. They recommended increased controls and additional staff training.
- Auditors “found that TDC’s annual financial statements, which were presented to the BOCC and the public, materially misstated TDC’s revenues and expenses for the fiscal year,” the report stated. Compared to the county’s audited financial statements, the amounts varied from $2 million to $6 million, according to charts in the report. “Due to the importance of TDC financial reporting being accurate as well as transparent to the public, consideration may be given to requiring a TDC member to have a financial background and/or requiring the TDC executive office to have an annual compliance audit,” the report states .
The County Commission will likely discuss the audit report at its regular meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 8 in Key West, Monroe County Mayor Craig Cates told Keys Weekly on Oct. 31.
“Kevin Maddock, as Clerk of Courts and County Comptroller, is a constitutional officer and it is his responsibility to make sure that all public funds are properly spent and accounted for,” Cates said. “This audit was part of normal procedures and now the county commission will have to discuss how to proceed.”