Auditors target chamber head

They say her printing company may have overcharged the convention and visitors bureau for promotional materials.

Published May 1, 2007

TARPON SPRINGS - Pinellas County auditors have questioned whether it was appropriate for the president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce to use her company to fulfill part of a grant contract with the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Chamber president Theajo "TJ" Davis said River Graphic, the printing business she owns with her fiance, did contract with the chamber for promotional materials for last year's Watersports Carnival and Illuminated Fleet Parade, but there was nothing unscrupulous about it.

"Chambers of commerce do business with their members and partners all the time and nothing illegal or unethical was done here, " Davis said.

But in a memo released April 18, the Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court's internal audit division noted several concerns in the way the grant funds were managed.

The audit found a conflict of interest because it said Davis profited from an arrangement where River Graphic bought materials from another company and resold them to the chamber for profit. Further, auditors found that Davis may have overcharged the convention and visitors bureau for those markups and additional sales tax.

The issue pertains to the 2006 carnival and parade at Spring Bayou. The event is a revival of a popular winter carnival held in the city during the 1920s. The county auditor's report comes as this year's festival is being planned for June 1-3. City commissioners will decide tonight whether to approve this year's event application and whether to provide city support.

The CVB awarded a $30, 000 New Product Marketing Grant to the chamber to market the carnival last year. The grant is for new events or projects only and is intended to pull additional visitors - and tourism dollars - into Pinellas County.

Davis said that River Graphic did buy printed materials from another company last year and charged the chamber a small markup. But neither she nor her fiance profited, she said. Instead, Davis said, her company offered to provide the materials and distribute them for the same price as the highest bidder offered only to print the materials. She said no local printer offers distribution services.

Robert Melton, chief deputy director for the Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court's internal audit division, said his department began the audit after a tip came into the department's hotline from a plaintiff who is suing Davis in another chamber matter.

Melton said he was unable to determine the exact amount of overcharges because Davis would not submit the original invoices to his department.

In the audit, Melton's office estimates Davis' markups and a disputed sales tax charge may amount to as much as $1, 468, assuming she used a common 20 percent markup margin.

"She was uncooperative relating to providing the amounts that her company paid or the related invoices. She did, however, admit that her company did mark up the invoices, " Melton said.

Davis said she did not release the invoices because of concerns it would compromise an ongoing lawsuit with city resident Tim Dorr, who has charged in the past that the chamber terminated his membership without cause and reneged on an agreement with him to help sell advertising for his maps. Dorr is the one who called the county's hotline.

"This doesn't involve me. This is a report from an independent auditor that she ripped off the taxpayers, " Dorr said.

Lee Daniel, assistant director with the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said his office plans to meet today with the county attorney who represents the CVB to determine what, if any, actions are necessary in regard to the audit.

Davis maintains she did nothing wrong. Regarding a rumor that she may be leaving the chamber in a few months, Davis responded to the contrary. "I don't intend on going anywhere. ... I've been the best chamber president this city has had, " she said.