TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida’s tourism agency agreed Tuesday to pay its outgoing president and CEO $73,000 amid the fallout from the state’s secret deal with rapper Pitbull and a video for his song “Sexy Beaches.”
The Visit Florida board of directors voted to pay Will Seccombe, who agreed to resign after pressure from Gov. Rick Scott. Visit Florida is hiring Ken Lawson, a former federal prosecutor and the current secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to replace Seccombe.
Some of the board members, meeting in Orlando, expressed their discomfort with the arrangement and said that Seccombe had done a good job since he was tapped to lead the agency in 2012.
But they conceded that the agency, which is funded largely with money from state taxpayers, was engaged in a political fight for its existence. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has continued to question why the state should spend money on promoting tourism.
Carol Dover, president of the Florida trade group that represents hotels and restaurants, said it was “imperative” that Visit Florida take action now.
Scott has pushed to increase the amount of state money that Visit Florida uses on advertising to entice tourists to come to the Sunshine State. It has now climbed to more than $70 million.
Seccombe used some of the money on a contract with Pitbull, whose real name is Armando Christian Perez. Pitbull filmed a new video for his song “Sexy Beaches” that featured Florida locations as part of the contract and agreed to promote the hashtag #LOVEFL on his social media sites and at concerts
Visit Florida refused to say how much it paid Pitbull or disclose any details on the arrangement, calling it a trade secret. Corcoran found that unacceptable, saying taxpayers should know just how Visit Florida was spending its money. The Florida House sued in December to release the contract, but withdrew the lawsuit after Pitbull used Twitter to release it.
Scott, who previously had repeatedly praised the job done by Visit Florida, responded to the criticism by calling on Seccombe to resign. Seccombe’s contract could have allowed him to claim more than $400,000 - equivalent to 18 months’ salary - if he was dismissed for no reason. But Visit Florida’s chairman negotiated a deal where Seccombe agreed to accept a payment of $73,000. Board chairman William Talbert said that the money would come from private funds raised by the organization.
Lawson, who currently earns $141,000 a year, will receive a salary of $175,000 and work without a contract. Lawson is an attorney who has worked for the federal government and once was an assistant U.S. attorney, but has no any experience in the tourism industry. Since 2011 he has led the state agency that oversees gambling as well as the regulation of hotels and restaurants.
Scott, who pushed Visit Florida to hire Lawson, said in a statement that “he understands the responsibility we have to be transparent with every tax dollar.” Scott added that Lawson “knows that tourism is important to the economic growth of our state.”
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