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Florida Tourism Chief Out After Pitbull Controversy

Dec 19, 2016
Originally published on December 19, 2016 4:37 pm

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Friday requested the resignation of the state's tourism-marketing leader amid a controversy over an expired $1 million contract with a Miami hip-hop artist whom the governor praised for his "devotion to our great state."

Visit Florida President and CEO Will Seccombe agreed to resign from the $120,000-a-year position he's held since November 2012.

In a letter to Visit Florida Chairman William Talbert, Scott backed the need for the tourism-marketing agency while outlining reforms he'd like to see. Visit Florida has come under intense scrutiny over its contract with hip-hop artist Armando Christian Perez, better known as Pitbull, and ongoing sponsorship deals with the London-based Fulham Football Club and an IMSA racing team.

The letter also included the call for Seccombe's departure.

"I believe it would be best for the future efforts of Visit Florida for Will to step down and allow new leadership to come in at this critical time," Scott wrote.

The request came after the positions of two agency officials, Chief Financial and Operating Officer Vangie McCorvey and Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps, were eliminated without any public explanation earlier in the day. Phipps was involved in the $1.25 million Fulham contract.

A spokesman for Visit Florida said Seccombe agrees with the leadership changes outlined by Scott.

"In the coming weeks, he will be working with the Visit Florida Board of Directors on (the) next steps," Visit Florida spokesman Tim DeClaire said of Seccombe.

Before taking the helm of Visit Florida, Seccombe spent nearly five years as the chief marketing officer for the agency. Scott advised Talbert to consider several changes during a Jan.9 Visit Florida meeting at Disney's Contemporary Resort, including publishing online details about agency spending, employee salaries and vendor contracts.

However, Scott also maintained in the letter his support for the agency, as Florida continues to set record tourism numbers.

"Visit Florida and its work to advertise our state supports our tourism industry, which is made up of hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect jobs all across our state," Scott wrote. "Anyone who disputes that fact or argues for no longer using Visit Florida's advertising to promote tourism here simply does not understand the business world or the nature of our economy."

Scott's action came as House leaders have aggressively questioned a proposal to earmark $76 million next fiscal year for the agency's marketing efforts. "Our job is to decide if Visit Florida should exist and if so how much should it be funded," House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, tweeted on Friday. "We're not engaged in their hiring and firing decisions."

The controversy about the Pitbull contract drew widespread attention Tuesday when Corcoran had House attorneys file a lawsuit in Leon County circuit court seeking a ruling on a claim by PDR Production that the contract from the 2015-2016 fiscal year included trade secrets that kept terms of the deal out of the public. PDR is the artist's production company.

Perez on Thursday released the contract, which outlined his payment and what the state expected in return.

Part of the deal was a video for his song "Sexy Beaches," which has drawn questions related to "Florida values" from some state lawmakers. Seccombe repeated this week that the agency no longer enters agreements that can't be made fully public.

He also contended Visit Florida has received $8.50 in media attention for every $1 invested in the Pitbull program. Even as he requested changes at Visit Florida on Friday, Scott praised the hip-hop artist.

"Lastly, I appreciate Pitbull and his devotion to our great state," Scott wrote in the letter to Talbert. "His willingness to help promote tourism in Florida is a great example for other entertainers to follow."

On Thursday, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, called the contract a “mistake” that shouldn't be held against the accomplishments of the agency.

Latvala pointed to the state's increased tourism numbers as Visit Florida has broadened its marketing reach and the fact that people in the tourism industry praise the agency's work.

"I have traveled the state, I've had tourism forums in Fort Walton Beach, in West Palm Beach, in Key West, and in my community in Clearwater, and one thing rings true from the people who are in the accommodation business … their very high regard for Visit Florida," Latvala said.

The state has seen its tourism numbers grow from 87.3 million in 2011, when Visit Florida received $35 million from the state, to 106 million last year, when lawmakers allocated $78 million for the agency.

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