In audit's wake, angry backlash

A chamber president is targeted by an audit and residents.

Published May 6, 2007

TARPON SPRINGS - The recent report by Pinellas County auditors questioning how grant funds were handled by the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce president gave chamber critics a fresh opportunity to plead their cases before the City Commission last week.

During the public comment portion of the Tuesday meeting, business owner Tim Dorr brought up the audit, sparking an avalanche of comment that left the audience stunned with allegations of skimming funds, stalking and lewdness.

Adding to the spectacle was a backdrop of more than 100 Tarpon Springs students - on hand to be honored for their good grades - who sat on a stage behind the commission, listening as the drama unfolded.

Parents erupted, causing Mayor Beverley Billiris to postpone the public comments, apologize to the crowd and send letters to parents the next day.

"Some of the conversation got a little too graphic in description, " Billiris said after the meeting. "They had no regard for the youth in the room, both sides. But this drama is not ours, this is a chamber issue and the chamber is not an arm of the city."

The uproar was the latest public window into a heated business dispute that has been brewing in this small coastal town for more than two years.

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Dorr, 31, and Dale Jacquay, 36, are both business owners in Tarpon Springs, a community of about 23, 000 known worldwide for its huge annual Epiphany ceremony. Theajo "TJ" Davis is the president of the Tarpon Springs chamber. She and the chamber's board chairman declined requests to be interviewed for this article.

But court documents and police records show that one thing that Dorr, Jacquay and Davis all agree on is that the two men's dealings with Davis and the chamber soured quickly. However, they disagree on who's to blame, resulting in a lengthy civil suit that has yet to play out in court.

For Dorr it all began in September 2003, when his company, Sun N' Fun Maps, agreed to a one-year contract with the chamber to publish a map of the city. Dorr says he agreed to print the map and pay the chamber 15 percent of advertising revenue in exchange for the chamber's assistance in selling ads and promoting the map.

He negotiated the contract with former chamber president Richard O'Neill, who was terminated in May 2004. Dorr said that after O'Neill's departure, he contacted the chamber several times to talk about the map but got no response. Dorr said he quit sending checks to the chamber when they quit holding up their end of the agreement.

Davis asked Dorr about the ad revenue after she became president in October 2004. Dorr said he offered to give the chamber $1, 000 and more free advertising to settle the dispute, but explained his one-year contract was never extended. "I was almost done with the sales for the next year's map, with no help from the chamber, " Dorr said.

Things heated up a few months later when the chamber's March 2005 newsletter was sent to members. An unsigned, front-page letter said that Dorr had agreed to contribute a portion of the ad proceeds for the duration of the project and that Dorr started selling ads for the next map without notifying the chamber.

"It's not arguable that it was a one-year contract, " Dorr said. "I quit paying them because they quit doing their job."

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Little did Dorr know that as he was fighting his battle, another Tarpon Springs business owner was embroiled in his own controversy with Davis and the chamber.

Dale Jacquay, owner of the Rustic Apple, joined the chamber in early 2004. Jacquay's wife sells handmade gifts and crafts at their shop on East Klosterman Road. From there, Jacquay runs a graphic design and printing business.

In the spring of 2004, Jacquay entered a business arrangement with the chamber, through O'Neill, to design and print the chamber's monthly newsletter for one year. To do so, he told O'Neill, he'd have to sign up for a three-year service and maintenance contract in order to handle the volume of newsletters. "I would never have gotten into that volume otherwise, " Jacquay said.

In December 2004, Davis told Jacquay his services were no longer needed, Jacquay said. He said he continues to pay monthly fees on the service contract that he no longer needs.

"It's been emotionally taxing and a financial burden. I'm standing on principle on what is right, " Jacquay said.

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The center of the recent controversy with Davis, 42, revolves around a report released April 18 by the Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court's internal audit division. In it, chief deputy director Robert Melton said a conflict of interest may have existed because River Graphic, a business owned by Davis and her fiance, Steve Baughn, profited from a grant.

The $30, 000 grant from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau was to promote the 2006 Watersports Carnival and Illuminated Fleet Parade. Davis told the St. Petersburg Times earlier last week that River Graphic did buy materials from another company and charged a small markup, but that she never profited from the arrangement. Davis said the extra charges were only to cover the costs of distributing materials and posting signs, which no other local printing company would do.

On the advice of her attorney, Davis declined to comment on the lawsuit or the audit for this article. But previously, she has said that there was nothing unethical about the contract between her company and the chamber for the marketing grant.

This year's water carnival, a revival of a popular festival held in the city during the 1920s, is scheduled for June 1 to 3. On Tuesday, city commissioners voted to go ahead with the carnival, though Commissioners Peter Dalacos and Robin Saenger both objected to chamber plans to fence off Craig Park, charge admission and close the public boat ramp.

Mayor Billiris cautioned the panel to treat each nonprofit organization and community group the same. "It's sad that every time the chamber comes before us, we have an issue."

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In their lawsuit, Dorr and Jacquay accuse Davis and the chamber of libel and breach of contract. Davis has filed a countersuit on the same charges.

Davis has filed several police reports against the two men. She has accused Jacquay of sending her a threatening note in a box of candy and making inappropriate comments to her son at last year's water carnival.

Jacquay said the candy, a box of Atomic Fireballs, was a goodwill gesture. The note included, which cautioned the recipient that the candy was hot, was a disclaimer and not a threat, Jacquay said.

In a petition for injunction against Jacqay, Davis said the note with the candy caused her to be "afraid for her life, " but a judge denied the injunction. After that hearing, a sheriff's report shows, Davis said "in a very loud voice that she was going to obtain a concealed weapons permit so that she could carry a gun to protect herself."

"I'm always looking over my shoulder. I am in fear of my life over these people, " Jacquay said.

Both Jacquay and Dorr say that the verbal exchange with Davis' son at last year's water carnival came after Davis' son had been following them and calling them "faggots." But they deny Jacquay's comment was lewd. Though Davis filed a police report saying Jacquay's comments were homosexual in nature, no charges were ever filed in the incident.

In June 2005, Davis accused Dorr of breaking into her home to steal information from her home computer. Tarpon Springs police investigated the incident but did not charge Dorr, citing a lack of physical evidence or witnesses to support Davis' claims. Dorr said he was not even in town during the alleged incident.

Dorr and Jacquay said that Davis is trying to derail them because they have publicly criticized her in their Chamber Disconnect newsletter and Web site, www.chamberdisconnect.com. "They're trying to portray us as the ones who are escalating this, " Jacquay said.

"We're just sticking up for ourselves, " Dorr said.

Dorr and Jacquay say they are anxious for their civil trial to begin. But they say harm has been done. "My personal reputation has been damaged. People's opinions of me have been made and I don't even know them, " Jacquay said.

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At Tuesday's meeting, Bill Harton, the chamber's board chairman, said he supported Davis. "We the board, and I do speak for the board of directors of the chamber, stand behind our president and will stand behind her as she continues her tenure with us."

Late last week, Lee Daniel, assistant director with the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Business Bureau, said his office will seek to recoup some of the money the county auditor said Davis' company overcharged.

Wayne Gross, a former member of the chamber's board, said he believes the chamber's actions are damaging the city's reputation.

"What I'm concerned about is what the chamber is doing to businesses and families in the community, " Gross said. "It's wrong what they're doing."