Last Updated: 5:30 p.m.
Matt Dunn, Flagler County government’s tourism director for the past five years, was placed on paid administrative leave this morning pending the outcome of a criminal or administrative investigation. Dunn’s future with the county appears tenuous.
“I put him on administrative leave this morning due to some pretty fast-breaking allegations,” Cameron said. “It was brought to our attention that there were activities that indicated severe problems.” The allegations were severe enough that county officials met with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and asked the agency to look into the matter, though no formal complaint has yet been filed. Cameron said he would likely be filing one.
By 5:30 p.m., that complaint had been filed–the county’s Jarrod Shupe, a senior administrator, filed it on behalf of Cameron. “It has the potential for public corruption, and we haven’t done the evaluation on it yet to see who may be the appropriate agency to investigate it,” the Sheriff’s Chief Mark Strobridge said. “There may be the more appropriate investigate outside the sheriff’s office.” The evaluation will take place Friday.
“There’s going to be an investigation externally,” Cameron said. “It may not necessarily be the sheriff’s department. It could be the state attorney’s office, it could be FDLE,” the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Because the matter will be investigated, Cameron said he could not provide details about the allegations. Asked if this was a whistle-blower’s action, he said “it could be.” Dunn meanwhile has no access to his office or electronic access to his county-issued accounts–email, website and so on.
But the matter was brought to his attention through Commissioner Donald O’Brien, who was approached by a whistle-blower very recently. “When I was presented with information I turned it over to the administration to work on it,” O’Brien said. “It disturbed me greatly, but again, I’m not law enforcement, so I think Mr. Cameron did the right thing.”
The tourism office itself is not in financial jeopardy. “I would characterize it more as cutting corners and not following policies and procedures. I didn’t see anything that was outright embezzlement, if you will,” O’Brien said. Nor does O’Brien think tourism policies and procedures need revamping.
“I just think the policies and procedures weren’t followed.” As to how he was approached by the potential whistle-blower(s), “I think there was just a comfort level of people approaching me, I can’t even speculate as to why, but that is what happened.”
O’Brien wasn’t the only commissioner alerted to possible issues at the tourism office. In early February, Commissioner Joe Mullins raised questions about Dunn’s management, asking Dunn for numerous budget documents, including a five-year history of the discretionary fund and the overnight-stays fund. Dunn, Cameron and Mullins met at Hijacker’s Restaurant, where Mullins spoke of issues with, among other things, the discretionary fund.
“I had some concerns, we’ve looked into them,” Mullins said today. The administrators office then called him this morning “and informed me there had been some action taken on the concerns I had.”
The last time a Flagler County official called for a criminal investigation goes back 20 years, and it wasn’t carried out. Then-Commissioner Hutch King called for an investigation after nearly $1 million in county equipment under different department heads seemed to be missing from the county’s inventory. An internal investigation produced all but $100,000 of the missing equipment, with the disparities attributed to poor record-keeping. There never was a criminal investigation.
Dunn, 44, was hired in January 2014 to succeed tourism director Georgia Turner and manage the county’s tourism dollars. At the time, the tourism office was funded through county sales surtax dollars but was part of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce. It was then-Chamber President Rebecca DeLorenzo who hired Dunn. But a year later, then-County Administrator Craig Coffey maneuvered to make the tourism office a county department, and Dunn started answering directly to Coffey, who gave him a wide berth. The chamber had advertised the job as a $70,000 a year position. By last year, Dunn was making $92,000. He had yet another recent raise, bringing his current salary to $95,500.
The tourism office has a nearly $3 million annual revenue generated by the 5 percent surtax on hotels, motels and other short-term rentals in the county. The tourism director’s responsibilities are focused on the promotions and marketing portion of tourism dollars, this year budgeted at $1.4 million. Some $500,000 of that is budgeted for advertising, and $240,000 is budgeted for “discretionary event funding” and special events, money provided to for-profit and non-profit companies or organizations as subsidies to entice them to bring their events to the county, ostensibly to generate overnight stays that then feed into the county’s tourism-tax coffers. Subsidies can range from as little as $1,000 to as much as $40,000, at times for events whose trickle-down benefit, measured by tourism tax dollars, are more speculative than certain.
As the county’s acquisition of the tourism office was unfolding, the close relationship between Dunn and Coffey was central to Dunn’s arrangement, sweetened by a $25,000 subsidy, to bring an extreme-sports event involving some 6,000 racers to Princess Place–a plan, first revealed in these pages, that blindsided the County Commission and that did not take into account the naturally sensitive nature of Princess Place. Commissioners forced Dunn and Coffey to retreat, and the event was pulled from the preserve.
As the county was acquiring the tourism bureau, concerns were raised about Dunn moonlighting at his own agency: he ran a company of his own even as he was the county’s tourism chief. His company paralleled his activities for the county, and was advertised through a website he maintained. Coffey defended Dunn, saying his company was a placeholder rather than an active company.
The Tourism Development Council, a collection of elected officials from the county, Palm Coast and Flagler Beach, and hospitality industry representatives, is intended to provide the first line of oversight for those and other dollars (such as capital spending and beach protection spending, the two other pots that make up the tourism budget). The TDC is chaired by County Commissioner Greg Hansen. It is seldom more than a rubber stamp, with some of its members benefiting directly from tourism-dollar subsidies steered their way through events Dunn secures for their venue.
This morning other commissioners were informed of the suspension, but given no details. “The only word I had was that he was given a leave of absence for unknown, specific reasons,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan said. He was participating in a meeting of the Northeast Florida Regional Council meeting all morning when he got the call. “That was the absolute first I heard anything about it.”
Cameron was interviewed twice today. In mid-afternoon, he said: “We will be filling out a report for the sheriff so his involvement could become official. In the meantime, we’re in a holding pattern. When the sheriff reviews the documentation, should he decide there’s not enough to proceed with a criminal investigation, then we’re right back to that administrative process. But it is a question of public trust, and if there’s any hint of criminal activity, we have an absolute obligation to notify law enforcement. That’s the most serious situation an employee can find themselves in, is a potential breach of public trust.”
Fourteen minutes before this story published, the county’s public information office emailed all county staff, subject heading “regrettable internal situation,” informing employees of Dunn’s suspension “pending the result of an active investigation.”
Julie Murphy’s note continued: “Mr. Cameron said the county is proceeding with extreme caution to protect Matt’s reputation, and stressed he has not been found guilty of anything.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Commissioner Donald O’Brien previously chaired the Tourist Development Council. He has not served on the council.