If you didn’t know any better, you might think that Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism cheerleader, was actually a front for the CIA, MI6 and Mossad. Everything is so, so secret.
Indeed, the big shots running Visit Florida could tell you —if they wanted do — how they spend taxpayer money hyping the state to potential tourists. But then they’d have to kill you. And that’s no fun.
The inner workings of Visit Florida are so “For Your Eyes Only” that CEO Will Seccombe (also known as M) refused to tell the Orlando Sentinel how much money it paid Miami-based rap singer Pitbull to promote Florida around the globe. Well, perhaps Seccombe might reveal the number if you uttered the right code phrase.
How about: “The kumquat does the hokie-pokie by the light of the moon.” But we digress.
Visit Florida receives $75 million in taxpayer money to sing the state’s praises. But how does the agency actually spend your money? The answer to that is to shut up and mind your own beeswax.
Although Visit Florida is a public-private organization that receives a generous handout from Tallahassee, the agency considers virtually all its contracts exempt from the state’s public-records laws. As well, Visit Florida also enjoys a cozy relationship with the Florida Legislature, which has not exactly been a pillar of curiosity in exercising auditing oversight of the agency.
For example, Visit Florida has refused to release the details of its relationship with Mr. Pitbull, who so far has advanced the cause of tourism by posting 17 comments as to how delightful Florida is on his Twittter and Facebook accounts, which reach an estimated 80 million followers. Very nice.
Nor would Visit Florida operatives release any details on an advertising contract reached with the British second-tier soccer club Fulham FC, except to say it was in the “high six figures.” No doubt to reveal much more just might bring Florida tourism to its knees.
What is the value of Mr. Pitbull’s endorsement? Visit Florida won’t say, claiming that do to so would reveal DEFCON 1 super-duper “proprietary trade information that, if divulged, would harm Visit Florida’s ability to get a good deal.” Cue the Spectre theme.
Really now. It’s not as if Visit Florida is charged with protecting the nuclear codes or the Coke formula. It’s an agency with a mandate to promote the state’s sunshine, its beaches and its many attractions. This isn’t exactly a highly classified mystery to anyone.
Regaling Florida’s many charms to the rest of the world does not quite rise to the challenging marketing level of attempting to lure Brazilians to North Dakota in January.
It would hardly represent a WikiLeaks-like scandal for Visit Florida to merely divulge how much they are paying Mr. Pitbull with taxpayer money and just what he is expected to do in return beyond occasionally posting an air kiss to the state on social media. Then again, if you are looking for a riddle to solve, it might be how Mr. Pitbull emerged to become such an international entertainment sensation by essentially recording the same snappy rap song over and over and over again. Well, it worked for Justin Bieber, too.
No doubt all the employees and anyone else associated with Visit Florida are absolute paragons of virtue.
But $75 million in basically unaccounted for public money sloshing around in Visit Florida’s budget can do funny things to people, especially when you have a Legislature seemingly indifferent to how the money is being spent.
If Visit Florida wants to operate as if it is the SEAL Team 6 of tourism, that’s fine. Give up the $75 million in taxpayer money it doesn’t want to account for publicly. After all, in addition to the taxpayer subsidy, Visit Florida also received $141.8 million in funding from the tourism industry in 2014. Then Visit Florida would be free to covertly pay Mr. Pitbull whatever it wants for the rapper to tweet about how snazzy the state is for tourists.
Certainly Visit Florida has done an admirable job promoting the state. Thanks. But when $75 million in taxpayer money is at stake, the public has a right to trust, but verify that the money isn’t being mauled by a bureaucratic pitbull.