As Okaloosa County commissioners begin trying to recoup many of Mark Bellinger’s questionable purchases, they have not ruled out legal action against Lewis Communications and The Zimmerman Agency.
“We’re going to do everything we can to recover what money we can,” Commission Chairman Don Amunds said Thursday.
The board recently authorized Tallahassee attorney Greg Stewart to sue either of the advertising firms if necessary.
The Zimmerman Agency of Tallahassee and Mobile, Ala.,-based Lewis Communications are advertising firms that held lucrative contracts with the Tourist Development Council. Zimmerman held its contract for about 20 years while Lewis Communications was brought onboard in the spring of 2011 by Bellinger, the former director of the TDC.
Almost 11 months after Bellinger’s fraud scheme was discovered, county officials continue to scrutinize the transactions the two firms made under their respective contracts.
Stewart said the county has notified Lewis that it will seek damages for the four-bedroom house in Destin that Bellinger purchased illegally with $747,000 in BP grant money. Bellinger bought the house using an invoice filed through Lewis Communications.
“Lewis wire transferred the money that was supposed to be used for marketing services,” Commissioner Dave Parisot said. “They didn’t do the marketing. They bought a house.”
The federal government seized the house in Kelly Plantation last August. It is scheduled to be sold this month for about $620,000.
“We are hopeful that the house will be sold and that it will be sold for the highest amount available and the county will be reimbursed for those funds,” Stewart said. “However, if there’s a shortfall between what was paid for the house and what we return on the house … we would look to Lewis for any shortfall.”
Parisot agreed. He noted that the county “ain’t going to get it from Bellinger” and that Lewis Communications bears “primary responsibility.”
Lewis Communications’ attorney, Gus Fontenot of Mobile, could not be reached for comment.
County commissioners also have withheld two payments due Zimmerman — one for $54,000 in July 2012 and the other for $65,000 in September 2012 — until the county completes a final review of invoices.
The county wants to examine allegations made by the state auditor general that Zimmerman billed separately for certain expenses that should have been included in its monthly retainer fee, Stewart said.
“We wanted to review that and see whether an offset was due,” he added.
Zimmerman is opposed to the county withholding the payments and has formally notified Stewart of its intent to sue.
“To my knowledge, that has not been filed yet,” Stewart said.
Company President Curtis Zimmerman could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Commissioners said they also are reviewing Bellinger’s illegal purchase of a 2008 Porsche Cayman for $48,000 — a transaction made through Zimmerman.
“What we are looking at in terms of the Porsche is whether there is any responsibility on Zimmerman’s part because of the Porsche,” Stewart said.
The Porsche was Bellinger’s first theft. He bought it in August 2010, about three months after he was hired. He eventually traded the sports car for a 2011 Subaru Legacy sedan and pocketed about $6,000 from the trade-in.
The Subaru has been returned to the county, which plans sell it at auction.
“Once we know what we’re able to get from the sale of the Subaru, then we’ll know the difference between what we paid for the Porsche and what we ended up getting out of the Subaru,” Stewart said. “That’s just an additional item we’re looking at.”