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Auditors warn visitors bureau

St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau disputes the findings of the Clerk of Court's office.

By EDIE GROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


The office responsible for promoting Pinellas County as a convention and tourism mecca could do a better job keeping track of the millions it spends in that pursuit, according to an audit completed by the Clerk of Court's office.

Although the report found no evidence of money disappearing or being misspent, the audit of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau stated that the potential for problems exists because the office does not watch closely what it spends.

CVB officials dispute those findings, which are to be presented to the Pinellas County Commission this morning.

According to the audit, the bureau gave contractor Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown $4.6-million to market the area during 1998-99. But the agency should have done a much better job doling out that money, the audit found.

For instance, invoices turned in by Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown often were not accompanied by the proper paperwork justifying the expenses. Yet the bureau paid them anyway, auditors found.

The bureau also should have asked for breakdowns of expenditures by the advertising contractor, accountants said.

For instance, the contractor requested $2.9-million for an advertising campaign that covered five countries and included a range of media: magazines, TV, newspapers, billboards and Internet. The bureau should have forced the contractor to itemize each expense, the audit said.

Auditors also criticized the bureau for:

Overpaying Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown for specific projects.

Paying in advance for services that should not have been paid for until delivered.

Not keeping a strict policy governing what items bureau employees can accept from tourism industry representatives or how much employees can spend entertaining them.

Carole Ketterhagen, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said employees host travel writers, tour brokers and other industry executives from around the world. The bureau's policy does spell out what actions are acceptable and is in compliance with Florida's Code of Ethics, she said.

She also said the bureau had plenty of paperwork to back up its payments to Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown.

"The auditor just did not choose to accept a lot of the support documentation. The auditor does not understand many times what is correct documentation for advertising backup," she said. "You certainly welcome having an audit because there may be procedures that need to be changed. But part of it is understanding the normal and standard business practices of what you're looking at."

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