Despite scrutiny, Florida's tourism agency paid out bonuses

Posted at 7:07 AM, Aug 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-25 08:51:25-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's tourism marketing agency — which came under fire for approving a secret $1 million deal with rapper Pitbull — paid nearly $441,000 in employee bonuses this summer.

Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for Visit Florida, said that while the bonuses were paid in July, they were actually approved by the agency board back in May 2016.

Visit Florida paid the bonuses to 119 employees with amounts ranging from just a few hundred dollars to nearly $29,000. The president and CEO of Visit Florida did not receive a bonus.

Lawson said that the organization used private money and not taxpayer dollars to pay for the bonuses.

"Visit Florida will not be using this bonus pay structure in the future," Lawson said in a statement. "Visit Florida is reviewing payment and compensation moving forward."

But the move came just weeks after a bruising fight in the halls of the Capitol where top Republicans in the Florida House had initially proposed cutting state support for Visit Florida by two-thirds. As part of a deal worked out between Gov. Rick Scott and legislators, the organization received $76 million.

But legislators did pass a law this year that prohibits both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency, from using any public money to pay bonuses to employees. Peter Antonacci, an ally of Scott who was recently tapped to lead Enterprise Florida, is considering scrapping all bonuses for his organization regardless of the funding source.

Antonacci said this week that he wants to come up with a compensation system that "avoids pitfalls in public debate."

Both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida have weathered scrutiny in the past year, especially from House Republicans who have questioned the need for taxpayers to pay for economic development efforts.

Visit Florida in 2015 signed a secret $1 million contract with Pitbull to promote Florida that included the rapper doing a new video for his song "Sexy Beaches" touting the state's beaches and hotels. Pitbull, whose real name is Armando Christian Perez, disclosed the contract after House Speaker Richard Corcoran sued late last year to get the contract made public.

Scott has repeatedly praised the work of Visit Florida because the number of tourists visiting the state has continued to grow.