State attorney charges Vision Airlines with grand theft

Kari C. Barlow | Northwest Florida Daily News

State Attorney Bill Eddins has charged Vision Airlines with grand theft for failing to pay more than $100,000 in fees owed to Okaloosa County.

Eddins and Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley announced the charge at a joint press conference Monday.

“We have charged the airline as a corporation,” Eddins said. “We have not charged any individuals that work with the airline. ... We have notified the company they have been charged, and they have indicated they contest the charges.”

The unpaid fees stem from passenger facility charges collected by Vision Airlines while operating at Northwest Florida Regional Airport from December 2010 to July 2012. Under federal regulations, airlines are required to collect the fees on a monthly basis for each airline ticket issued.

Under its lease with the airport, Vision agreed to keep 11 cents from each $4.50 passenger facility charge it collected and give the remaining $4.39 to the county.

“They’re required to remit that to the county within 30 days,” Eddins said. “Once they collect it, that money belongs to the county.”

In 2011, the county made repeated demands that Vision pay the fees. In December 2011, the airline agreed to pay $25,000 per week until the fees were paid, but the county received only a small portion of the revenue.

Vision still owes the county $117,659.98 in passenger facility charges.

A few minutes before Monday’s press conference began, the county was notified by Vision Airlines’ attorney that the company would pay the $117,659.98 Tuesday.

Eddins said it was too early to say whether the grand theft charge eventually could be dropped. He said he will cooperate with Vision and will seek to find a “just conclusion” to the matter.

David Meers, senior vice president of Vision Airlines, called the grand theft charge “ridiculous.”

“That whole place down there is full of shenanigans,” he said.

Meers also accused Okaloosa County of failing to “fulfill its obligations to the airline.”

He said the county didn’t follow through on more than $400,000 in advertising spending it committed to Vision as an incentive to locate at Northwest Florida Regional Airport.

Meers said the county aggressively courted Vision to land its business in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, promising to advertise the destination in areas across the country.

“We were very important to the community early on,” he said. “Once the tourists returned, we weren’t that important anymore.”

Meers said the advertising was pledged by Mark Bellinger, former director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council, and County Airports Director Greg Donovan.

“We invested and when it came time to follow up on the commitments, Bellinger and Donovan were nowhere to be found,” he said.

Meers said Vision began “pulling down routes” because the advertising funding dried up.

“They didn’t want to spend the money; that’s the long and short of it,” Meers said.

But county officials say Vision dropped its end of the deal by canceling service to and from Okaloosa County.

“There was a commitment made, but they stopped flying,” into Northwest Florida Regional Airport, said Mike Stenson, deputy airport director.

During the press conference, Eddins and Ashley said the charge against Vision is “a part” of their ongoing criminal investigation into the fraud scheme put in place by Bellinger during his tenure at the TDC. Bellinger is accused of misusing millions in bed tax revenue and BP oil spill grant funds from May 2010 to May 2012.

Eddins said he “cannot connect” Vision’s failure to pay the passenger finance charges to the Bellinger fraud.

He said the complex fraud investigation is made more difficult by the “untimely death of Mr. Bellinger.”

“We were left to piece together (information),” Eddins said.

Bellinger committed suicide May 4, 2012, just days after county commissioners discovered he had spent $710,000 in bed tax money on a 40-foot Marquis yacht and $747,000 in BP grant money on a home in Destin.

Since Bellinger’s death, the list of items he purchased illegally or without county approval has grown to include two RVs, furniture and custom motorcycles.

County records show that one of his first thefts — the purchase of a $48,000 Porsche Cayman — occurred three months after he was hired in May 2010.

Eddins said the criminal investigation — being handled jointly by his office and the Sheriff’s Office — will last “several more months.”

Ashley said 45 state subpoenas have been issued thus far in the investigation. Investigators are also scrutinizing internal county transactions as well as companies that did business with the county and the TDC during that time, he said.

“There’s not a rock out there we’ve not turned over and looked under,” he said. “We’re examining everything.”