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Bellinger Told Okaloosa County Officials Yacht Purchase Intention was 'Honorable'

By: Eyewitness News, Associated Press Email
By: Eyewitness News, Associated Press Email

May 7, 2012

It's what most people didn't see-- the last recorded footage of Mark Bellinger alive at last week's Okaloosa County Commission meeting trying to explain why he bought a luxury yacht with more than $710,000 in county bed-tax money.

Bellinger committed suicide three days later.

While federal, state, and local authorities are investigating Bellinger's activities, TDC officials are trying to get back to business.

It was an embarrassment for Okaloosa County. Former TDC Director Mark Bellinger spent $710,000 on a yacht over four months ago and the county didn't even know they owned it until the transfer title paper work showed up in the mail.

Last week, just days before Bellinger took his own life, he stood before county commissioners and resigned after the board voted down a motion to terminate him. It's the only explanation we'll ever get from Mark Bellinger--why he bought a yacht without telling the county or his TDC board.

"I sincerely apologize because I lost your trust, you know, just like that, my fault. I take the hit. The buck stops here with me; I've always said that. The intention was honorable, the intention was good. I tried to follow the process, that yes, you folks are probably going to change" said Bellinger before the board last Tuesday night.

The exposure may have been too much to handle. Bellinger committed suicide last Friday after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. That warrant accuses Bellinger of using some of the TDC's BP settlement money to buy an upscale home worth close to $800,000 in Destin.

"That's hard to get your arms around and everyone in the industry itself is trying to figure out what caused him to do this" said the county's Airport Director, Greg Donovan.

Donovan has been appointed Interim TDC Director to assist authorities investigating transactions made under Bellinger's watch. Changes in policy and procedure are likely coming, but in the meantime the county is taking some heat for an apparent lack in oversight.

"I think we have to scrutinize what happened very very carefully. People have a right to know going forward, to ensure something of this nature doesn't happen again, so that's part of our charge" said county official Jim Curry.

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Panhandle County Names Interim Tourism Director

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- May 6, 2012

A Florida Panhandle county has hired an interim tourism director to replace a man who died amid accusations that he misused public money sent by BP after the 2010 oil spill.

Okaloosa County's airports director, Greg Donovan, was named Saturday as interim head of the Tourist Development Council.

Donovan replaces Mark Bellinger, who died Friday of an apparent drug overdose. Bellinger resigned Tuesday after admitting to using tax dollars to buy a yacht he said was for county tourism promotions, though county commissioners didn't know about it. Authorities issued an arrest warrant Thursday related to Bellinger's purchase of a Destin home with money sent to the county by BP for oil spill restitution.

Donovan told the Northwest Florida Daily News (http://bit.ly/J7onRE ) that he'll start working Monday with investigators and auditors.

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DESTIN, Fla. (AP) -- May 4, 2012 - 3pm -

A Florida Panhandle county's former tourism director was found dead after being accused of stealing taxpayers' money to buy a $710,000 yacht and may also have used tourism funds to purchase a home.

Officials said former Okaloosa County tourism director Mark Bellinger, 52, was found dead Friday in Pelham, Ala. of an apparent drug overdose. He went missing Thursday following his acknowledgment that he bought the yacht and his resignation from the council. Officials said he left a suicide note at his Destin house; his wife called the sheriff's office after she found it.

Officials say Bellinger may also have used county tourism council funds to buy his home.

Okaloosa detectives say some of the money might have come from funds BP gave the tourism council following the spill.

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May 4, 2012 - Noon -

An arrest warrant has been issued for a former Western Panhandle tourism director.

Mark Bellinger resigned at the Okaloosa County Tourism Development Council's Executive Director following an unapproved purchase of a $700,000 yacht. Now he's accused of buying a more than $700,000 Destin home with council funds.

The Zimmerman ad agency has worked for the Okaloosa County Tourism Dev. Council for 20 years. Today, owner Curtis Zimnmerman explained his company's limited role in the purchase of the yacht.

According to Zimmerman, there's a very specific procedure for purchases made with the council's money. The Zimmerman Agency acts as a pass-through for any money spent in the marketing fund. Additionally, Zimmerman works directly with the council's director.. in this case Bellinger. Bellinger was supposed to get council approval for the yacht purchase, but didn't do it. Zimmerman says he didn't know Bellinger skipped that step until Monday. He also says that the yacht purchase did not raise a red flag because Okaloosa County, which includes Destin and Fort Walton Beach, spends millions of dollars each year on tourism marketing.

Zimmerman says his agency did absolutely nothing wrong. It's paid a flat yearly fee and made no commission on the yacht purchase. Additionally, Zimmerman says he knows nothing about Bellinger's home purchase, and to his knowledge the agency did not act as a pass-through for the home.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office is looking for Bellinger who reportedly left a suicide note. To put the $710,000 yacht purchase in perspective, Leon County's entire yearly marketing budget for tourism is about $800,000.

Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office Release

ARREST WARRANT ISSUED FOR TDC DIRECTOR MARK BELLINGER

The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, in conjunction with the Northwest Florida Mortgage Fraud Task Force, has obtained an arrest warrant for TDC Director Mark Bellinger. An ongoing investigation by the sheriff's office has developed information that Bellinger used TDC funds to purchase a home in Destin. The $747,000 home is located in the Kelly Plantation neighborhood of Destin and was purchased in August of 2011. Information indicates that some of the funds used to purchase the home may have come from moneys provided by BP to the Tourist Development Council following the oil spill in 2010.

A search to locate Bellinger continues following the discovery Thursday of a suicide note at the Destin residence. Bellinger's vehicle is also missing and is described as a 2011 Subaru Legacy 4 door sedan, bearing Florida Tag 262NFS. Anyone with information of Bellinger's location is asked to contact the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office at 850-651-7400.

The Northwest Florida Mortgage Fraud Task Force is comprised of members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the OCSO and investigates white collar fraud related to the Mortgage Industry.

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May 4, 2012 -

A search is underway to locate Mark Bellinger. Bellinger recently resigned as the Director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development after he purchased a $710,000 yacht with bed-tax money.

Bellinger left a suicide note at his home that was discovered around three Thursday afternoon by a family member.

Bellinger’s car, a 2011 four door silver Subaru Legacy with Florida license tag 262 NFS, is missing.

His current status is unknown.

Anyone with knowledge of Bellinger’s whereabouts is asked to contact the OCSO at (850) 651-7400.

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OCSO Launches Investigation into TDC Director's Bed-Tax Funded Yacht Purchase
by Meagan O'Halloran , WJHG

Okaloosa County Sheriff's investigators are launching an investigation into the former Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council Executive Director Mark Bellinger's purchase of a 44-foot yacht. Bellinger used county bed tax money to buy the vessel but both the TDC and the county were unaware of it.

Bellinger turned in the keys to the $710,000 yacht and had some explaining to do at Monday's county commission meeting. The vessel has been docked at the Marbella Yacht Club in Destin for months. The transaction went undetected because city officials say the purchase was misleading. County officials didn't find out about it until last Friday, when the title paperwork was mailed to the county finance office.

According to an invoice from the county's Tallahassee based advertising and marketing firm, the Zimmerman Agency, the yacht was purchased as a " promotional package" which included giveaways, campaigns and contests--

"I purchased the boat at the end of December with the authority that was invested in me through the TDC ordinance, and the contract with the advertising agency that we have, which is Zimmerman" said Bellinger at Tuesday's commission meeting.

County commissioner Wayne Harris interrupted Bellinger and asked if he was really authorized to buy a boat. Bellinger responded saying "not authorized to buy a boat, but a dollar amount."

City officials say Bellinger told them the yacht was only used twice, but did not know who was on-board, how many hours were put on it, or who paid for the gas or the captain.

Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Don Amunds said he is still proud of the TDC as a promotional agency and driving economic force for the area.

"I'm disappointed in the leadership that Mark has provided. I think the TDC has done a fantastic job promoting tourism based on the market and bringing in the amount of tax revenue that they have" said Amunds.

The yacht is now considered county property. The county says it does not intend on keeping it and are exploring all of the legal options to get the bed tax money back and get rid of the boat.

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SEARCH UNDERWAY FOR MISSING OKALOOSA TDC DIRECTOR

A search is underway to try to locate 52-year old Mark Bellinger of Destin who recently resigned as the Director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development.

Bellinger left a suicide note at his home on Stonebridge Road in Kelly Plantation in Destin. It was discovered today around 3 p.m. by a family member.

Bellinger’s car, a 2011 4-door silver Subaru Legacy with Florida license tag 262 NFS, is missing. His current status is unknown.
Anyone with knowledge of Bellinger’s whereabouts is asked to please contact the OCSO at 850-651-7400.

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Zimmerman Agency prepared statement:

The Zimmerman Agency has proudly represented the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Counsel for more than two decades. Through our marketing partnership with hospitality industry members and the TDC team, the Emerald Coast has experienced tremendous growth, increased revenues and acclaim as one of Florida's most desired destinations. Throughout the 20-year relationship, the agency has managed the budget with a high degree of accountability and transparency under the direction of two directors, the TDC Board and the Board of County Commissioners. We will continue to promote the greatest beach destination in Florida with the integrity for which this agency is known and the community should expect.

The purchasing process utilized by the county requires purchases authorized by the TDC Director to be paid through the TDC marketing funds managed by the contracted marketing partner, The Zimmerman Agency. The same process has been in place for more than ten years.

Again, the difference this time was he failed to get the approval of his superiors in advance of making the purchase and directing us to pay the vendor.

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May 3, 2012 -

Okaloosa County’s Tourist Development Council Executive Director Mark Bellinger is not only out of a job; he could be facing criminal charges.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office announced Wednesday it was launching an investigation into Bellinger’s purchase of a $710,000 yacht with TDC money.

Click above to see the receipt for the Zimmerman Agency invoice.

Sources say Legendary Marine in Destin sold the vessel to the TDC’s Tallahassee advertising firm, The Zimmerman Agency, several months ago. This was at Bellinger’s request.

Aside from Bellinger, no one at the TDC or the county commission knew anything about the deal. That was until the title paperwork for the boat showed up at the county finance office last Friday.

County commissioners fired Bellinger over the deal during Tuesday night’s commission meeting.

Wednesday, Bellinger issued a letter to county officials admitted he made a mistake by not disclosing the deal, but claims he bought the yacht for a marketing concept involving the community’s recent award for being the best place to boat and live.

Wednesday, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s officials announced they were investigating, due to the unorthodox and secretive nature of the purchase.

They say they want to insure there has been no criminal misuse of public funds.


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