Somewhere in Tallahassee, locked securely inside a government office, is an explosive, top-secret file that only a few select operatives have ever seen. It’s so sensitive that even lawmakers haven’t been allowed to peek at it.
These protected documents have nothing to do with an imminent ISIS threat, the Zika outbreak or the alarming rise in sea levels in Florida.
The subject of the confidential file is a 35-year-old man named Armando Christian Perez. Otherwise known as Pitbull, Mr. 305 himself.
Last year a state agency, Visit Florida, hired Pitbull to do some tourism promotion. Because the hip-hop star was paid with public funds, many people reasonably assumed that the details of his deal would be openly disclosed.
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The state refused. Visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe stated that Pitbull’s contract included “proprietary trade information” and therefore was exempt from a public-records request. Pitbull’s contract ended in June, but the file remains unpublished to this day.
It’s significant as part of a policy of secrecy that has annoyed incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a fiscal conservative who wants to slash Visit Florida’s funding. One touchy issue is how the agency spends state money.
Since 2009, Visit Florida’s annual budget has swollen 169 percent, from roughly $29 million to $78 million.
In addition to recruiting Pitbull, Visit Florida sponsors a Le Mans race car team and a soccer squad in England. The benefits to tourism that flow from such exotic marketing are difficult to quantify.
In August, Visit Florida made an exception to its closed-book ways by revealing that, for the second straight year, it has spent $1.25 million to put its logo on soccer jerseys worn by the Fulham Football Club in London.
What’s the connection to Florida? The owner of the Fulham soccer team is Shad Khan, a major donor to Gov. Rick Scott. Khan, who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars, lives in Naples. Tourism officials say he gave them a really good deal on the logos. Maybe British soccer fans will flood to South Beach because of those enchanting jerseys, or maybe they’ll come for the same simple reason that other tourists do — to escape the cold and the rain.
Maybe even more of them would come if we could persuade Pitbull to drive a Florida race car around a soccer field a dozen times. It’s impossible to know the true value of such promotions if we can’t find out what they cost.
The governor insists all the big spending is paying off. Tourism jumped about 29 percent from 2009 to 2016, up from 82 million visitors a year to about 106 million. This rebound has coincided with the steady recovery of the U.S. economy, though Scott gives most of the credit to Visit Florida. But like another of his expensive pet projects — Enterprise Florida, with its ludicrous giveaway incentives to lure corporations — Visit Florida is facing fire in the Legislature.
Nobody’s been able to get a line-by-line accounting of how the tourism agency allocates its hefty budget. An audit initiated by the governor found no wrongdoing, but it urged Visit Florida to operate more transparently.
The deal with Pitbull got lots of attention because, well, it was Pitbull — and also because the terms were kept quiet. Florida has hired celebrities before, but taxpayers knew how much money was being shelled out.
In the late 1970s, the citrus commission was paying Anita Bryant $100,000 to sing the glories of orange juice (she lost the gig after campaigning to repeal a Miami-Dade gay-rights law). In 1994 the state cut a controversial $1 million deal with Rush Limbaugh to rhapsodize about OJ on his radio show (he lost the gig after juice sales stalled).
It’s unclear whether it was Pitbull or tourism officials who demanded that his contract fee remain confidential. Labeling it “proprietary” undoubtedly irked lawmakers such as Corcoran, already skeptical of Visit Florida’s budget.
After Pitbull signed on, he went right to work. His promotional efforts included a hype-rich Miami Beach video for his Sexy Beaches single, and a live concert from Bayfront Park for a national TV audience on New Year’s Eve.
Over several months, he also posted Visit Florida’s #LoveFL hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the rap star promoted sun and fun in Florida 17 times to his many millions of followers on social media.
When Visit Florida’s Seccombe raved about Pitbull’s tourism impact, he used Trumpian extremes such as “huge,” “incredible” and “extraordinary.”
Those same words would probably also apply to the size of Pitbull’s paycheck. We don’t know for sure, because it’s a state secret.