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'Fiscal arrogance' found in new audit of company working for Florida Keys tourism agency

Sander Eshuis, a tourist from Holland, poses for a photo as he is doused by waves at the Southernmost Point marker in Key West, Florida, on Sept. 27, 2022. He and his wife, Lenneke, had never experienced a hurricane before and the proximity of Hurricane Ian to Key West allowed them to see some of the effects of the storm from a distance.
Jose A. Iglesias
/
The Miami Herald
Sander Eshuis, a tourist from Holland, poses for a photo as he is doused by waves at the Southernmost Point marker in Key West, Florida, on Sept. 27, 2022. He and his wife, Lenneke, had never experienced a hurricane before and the proximity of Hurricane Ian to Key West allowed them to see some of the effects of the storm from a distance.

A second audit of the Tourist Development Council — the entity that handles tens of millions of public dollars to bolster tourism in the Florida Keys — finds that a long-term contractor used a fake company to request reimbursements for services.

The latest audit, released Thursday by the Monroe County Clerk of Circuit Court & Comptroller, follows a scathing audit released last October by the same auditor. The previous audit reviewed the TDC's financial documents, alleging mismanagement and 'potential double-billing' from the tourist council's public relations contractor, NewmanPR.

Auditors report that NewmanPR, which has provided public relation services for the tourist council for years and receives an annual agency fee of $733,688, is alleged to have created a fake company called Graphics 71.

The audit reports that the PR agency admitted that Graphics 71 does not exist, and that NewmanPR’s president Andy Newman “appeared to use this nonexistent company as a method to pay himself in addition to the agency fee NewmanPR received monthly from Monroe County.” It goes further to say that NewmanPR admitted that checks made payable to Graphics 71 "were ultimately destroyed because no bank would cash the checks made out to a nonexistent company."

NewmanPR remains under contract with the TDC until 2025, according to Newman.

Auditors also write that the company repeatedly violated the terms of their contract with the county by submitting “misleading certifications” that vendors were paid in full. It also found that they invoiced the tourist council before providing services.

As a whole, auditors write that these practices demonstrate “a fiscal arrogance” from NewmanPR.

Newman told WLRN via email that the audit “reflected a hostile bias” toward him and his team.

“NewmanPR never represented to the auditor or the county that Graphics 71 is a separate legal entity,” Newman stated. Newman said he was reviewing the audit for "several confusing and incorrect points." He previously made statements to the TDC's board that the initial audit was a "rusty dagger stabbed through [his] heart" that contains "extremely disconcerting accusations."

Clerk of Court and Comptroller Kevin Madok, the county’s auditor, said the newest audit outlines findings that show a lack of accountability and attention to the expenditure of public funds. He also refutes Newman’s claim that the audit and subsequent recommendations are biased.

“I don’t have any personal relationship with him,” Madok said. He defended his audit, citing that a team of auditors, not just Madok, help produce the report before release. “I believe if you read it with that in mind, you’ll see that it’s independent.”

In late October, an initial audit report shrouded the Tourist Development Council in scandal by alleging financial mismanagement, lack of managerial oversight on financial filings, potential self-dealing and ethical concerns among leadership.

READ MORE: Monroe County grapples with scathing audit of Keys Tourist Council

It also found that the tourist council incorrectly reported its revenues and expenditures to the public.

Later, the tourist council's board placed its Marketing Director, the TDC's head executive, on administrative leave with pay.

Monroe County Attorney's Office analyzed the auditor's inital report and determined that "no double-billing exists." County Attorney Bob Shillinger shared the findings in a memo to county commissioners.

The authors of Thursday's audit report disagreed with the county attorney, noting the analysis was limited and that it did not absolve NewmanPR of wrongdoing.

County Attorney Bob Shillinger did not respond to WLRN for comment on the new audit.

Two more audits of other companies that contract with the Tourist Development Council are expected to be released by Madok and his team in the future. In early November, the Monroe County Board of Commissioners also hired an outside fraud examiner that’s working on a 16-week timeline to provide a forensic accounting perspective on the tourist council’s practices.

“I just think it’s part of my office’s job to inform the public of what is happening with their tax dollars,” Madok said.

Julia Cooper reports on all things Florida Keys and South Dade for WLRN.
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