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Lawmakers Call for Probe of BP Funds as Official Dies

May 6, 2012 - 6:00pm

A pair of Panhandle lawmakers are calling for state law enforcement officials to investigate the use of funding meant to help communities recover from the BP oil spill after an Okaloosa County official accused of misusing tourism dollars died Friday of a suspected drug overdose in Alabama.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, asked for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to join in the local investigation of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council.

But the pair also said the Legislature should probe the use of BP dollars in the wake of some of the accusations.

"Because these funds become public funds with public accountability when they are placed in the accounts of (tourist development councils) or local governments, it is our intention to work with our colleagues in the Legislature to initiate a review by the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee of the sources and uses of such BP payments subsequent to the oil spill," the two wrote.

The former executive of the Okaloosa Tourist Development Council, Mark Bellinger, was found in Pelham, Ala. -- located about 20 miles outside of Birmingham -- on Friday morning after a search was prompted by a suicide note found at his home. Bellinger, 52, soon died at an Alabama hospital.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office said Bellinger was under investigation for using public funds to buy a $710,000 yacht and his $747,000 Destin home. An arrest warrant had been issued for theft in connection with Bellinger's purchase of the house.

The investigation began Wednesday, the office said, after Bellinger told county commissioners about the "unauthorized" yacht purchase. The suicide note was found Thursday.

Sheriff Larry Ashley's office said the Florida auditor general would help with the investigation. The Gaetzes asked in their letter, dated Friday, for either the auditor general or FDLE to step in.

"We believe it is essential that such a forensic audit be undertaken immediately, in full cooperation with Sheriff Ashley," they wrote. "It is critical to determine who knew what, and when."

The original investigation of the yacht focused on the use of county bed tax funds, which Bellinger said were going to be used in a marketing plan, according to a report in the Pensacola News Journal. But investigators say at least a portion of the money to buy the house might have come from BP oil spill funds.

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