Ex-Fla tourism official wanted in theft found dead

May 4, 2012, 9:28 PM

Associated Press

DESTIN, Fla. (AP) – A Florida Panhandle county’s former tourism director died of an apparent drug overdose Friday, a day after being accused of misusing public money sent by BP after the 2010 oil spill to buy a $747,000 home, authorities said.

Mark Bellinger, 52, also had admitted just days earlier to using tax dollars to buy a $710,000 yacht. He said the yacht was to be used for county tourism promotions, though county commissioners said they did not know about those plans.

He went missing Thursday and was found late Friday morning in his car in Alabama and later died at a hospital, said Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley. Bellinger had been hired as tourism director in May 2010, just weeks after the massive BP oil spill began in the Gulf of Mexico.

He acknowledged buying the yacht and resigned from the county tourism council Tuesday. By Thursday, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and the state attorney’s office had issued an arrest warrant related to the purchase of his $747,000 Destin home with money sent to the county by BP for oil spill restitution.

BP PLC paid restitution to communities across the Gulf Coast meant to lure valuable tourists back to the region. Tar balls washed ashore during the spill, and resorts reported a decrease in the number of tourists after that happened. Officials worried for months how much of the coast would be covered in oil.

Authorities said that he left a suicide note at his house late Thursday and that his wife called the sheriff’s office after she found it.

Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley said Friday that Bellinger’s death would not end a complex investigation into the tourist council’s spending.

“Even in light of this tragedy and death, we will still be working with the FBI, our white-collar crime task force and assisting the state auditor in conducting a forensic audit of all tourist development expenditures during Mr. Bellinger’s tenure with the department,” Ashley said. “We will be determined to uncover everything dealing with tourist development, bed tax and BP oil money.”

Before coming to Okaloosa County, Bellinger had worked in a similar capacity in Palm Springs, Calif.

His Destin home, with four-bedrooms and three-bathrooms, was purchased last August, according to property records.

Okaloosa County leaders were unaware of the yacht’s purchase until recently, when the vessel’s title paperwork was delivered in the mail. Bellinger then acknowledged he bought the yacht.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, state Sen. Don Gaetz, who represents the area, requested the forensic audit of the tourism funds.

“The deeply troubling circumstances in Okaloosa County raise a larger question about the uses of BP funds by others who have received these funds,” he wrote.

In September, Okaloosa tourism business leaders held a celebratory breakfast gathering at a local conference center to tout the region’s recovery from the BP oil spill and preview winter and spring tourism promotions. The crowd was gathered at round tables marked with the names of condo rental agencies, BP executives, public relations companies and Panhandle businesses.

Bellinger was an enthusiastic speaker, announcing that the county had record tourism levels for June and July.

He highlighted a BP vacation package giveaway for the Panhandle’s most-deserving mom that included a stay in a beach home and an SUV.

“It was just an unbelievable summer, and I don’t know how we could top this off next year, folks,” he said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Ex-Fla tourism official wanted in theft found dead