Florida Keys state attorney taking tourism agency to grand jury over financial issues

The ongoing saga of potential financial mismanagement and double billing within the Florida Keys taxpayer funded agency in charge of tourism marketing is now headed to a grand jury, Monroe County’s top prosecutor said Thursday.

State Attorney Dennis Ward’s decision to elevate the investigation comes a day after county commissioners unanimously voted to recommend suspension of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council’s marketing director, Stacy Mitchell, and a week after the county’s comptroller issued a scathing audit of the agency.

That audit found, among other issues, “repeated noncompliance” with the county’s purchasing policies, “as well as a significant lack of internal controls and management oversight” into the TDC’s financial transactions and annual financial reporting, Monroe County Clerk Kevin Madok, the author of the Oct. 31 report, wrote.

Madok’s staff also found that the TDC’s contracted administration office, Visit Florida Keys, had staff engaged in “potential self-dealing,” and that the president of the TDC’s public relations firm of record, NewmanPR, may have created a non-existent company that was possibly used to double bill the county, according to the audit.

Mitchell and Andy Newman have declined to comment on the audit.

Rita Irwin, chair of the TDC’s nine-member board of directors, declined to comment specifically on the grand jury, but said the board meets next Thursday and will discuss the audit and the county commissioners recommendations on suspending Mitchell and to hire an outside auditing firm to look at the TDC’s books and and accounts in addition to providing temporary financial and management assistance in the absence of Mitchell.

“I am diligently working through the information shared at the [county commission] meeting yesterday so the TDC Board is prepared to have a comprehensive conversation at our meeting next week,” Irwin said.

If the board goes along with the county commission’s recommendations, Mitchell would be suspended with pay pending the outcome of the outside audit.

A representative from the Coral Gables accounting firm the county is recommending conduct the outside audit, Cherry Bekaert, told commissioners Wednesday that its investigation could take up to 16 weeks and come at a price tag of between $75,000 and $300,000.

Ward told the Herald he was bringing the matter to the grand jury because of the seriousness of the allegations in Madok’s report.

“It’s a very concerning audit and there are allegations of possible criminal conduct,” Ward said. “The TDC is a very important aspect of Monroe County government.”

Ward said he will hire Miami accounting firm Berkowitz Pollack Brandt Adivors and CPA to conduct an audit of the TDC and take the findings to the grand jury. On Thursday, he did not have an estimate of how much money the audit could cost.

The TDC is funded through a 4% tax that everyone who books a Keys hotel room or short-term rental is charged. From October 2022 through September 2023, the county collected $58.9 million to support the TDC’s operations.

“That’s a substantial amount of money,” Ward said.