The recent Oct. 1 resignation of Fernando Harb as senior vice president of tourism sales for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and VisitorsBureau after nearly 12 years with the organization coincided, as it turns out, with the completion of report of an investigation by the Broward County (Fla.) inspector general that named Harb as one of those who, in effect, allowed a colleague to channel more than $250,000 in business to her boyfriend.
The report, released last week, said that Christine Roberts, the CVB’s former vice president of convention sales, used her position to select the event management companies of her boyfriend, Marcus Michaud, for all but one of eight events under her control during a period that extended from July 2012 to June 2015. The companies in question were Marcus Clovis Productions and Marcus 4 Productions.
The investigative report also found that Nicki Grossman, former president and CEO of the CVB, operated outside of the county’s procurement protocols and that Harb helped Roberts achieve her goal of hiring Michaud “while knowing that the selection was wrongful.” Roberts resigned in July of last year. Grossman had resigned in June 2016 after heading the CVB for 21 years.
Some other specifics the investigation, as reported by the South Florida Sun Times, included the following:
—Roberts used her authority to increase the overall budget for a 2012 International Association of Venue Managers event by $123,275 to account for services provided by Michaud — services that had not been requested by the host group.
—Roberts was able to steer business to Michaud was through her ability to set the specifications for a contract. For one event she required a specific pair of large prop sunglasses that Michaud’s company already owned. Officials said other vendors did not bid because the sunglasses were “too restrictive or too expensive to meet.”
—Roberts tried to give Michaud as much business as possible, and when the tourism agency made that harder to do, “she simply operated more covertly.”
—A selection committee created by the bureau violated the state’s Sunshine Law on at least two occasions in December 2014 by not publicizing its meetings and not having the meetings be open to the public.
—“Even after CVB managers reported the relationship and misuse to Ms. Grossman,” the report said, “she continued to allow her subordinates to operate outside the county’s procurement process and failed to ensure that her unauthorized practices were working to stop her agency’s imprudent spending of taxpayer money.”
The Inspector General’s Office is forwarding its report to the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Broward State Attorney’s Office “for whatever action those agencies deem appropriate.”
According to the report, the conditions that led to the problems no longer exist. Stacy Ritter, who succeeded Grossman as president and CEO two years ago, oversaw an overhaul of the bureau’s financial administrative practices.
The Mayersohn Law Group, attorneys for Roberts and Michaud, said that the report was biased, left out key facts, and that the two did not break any laws. “Roberts and Michaud ‘made absolutely no efforts to conceal their personal relationship’,” said a statement from the law firm. The loan to Michaud, which was needed because he (Michaud) required surgery and didn’t have health insurance, was “an arms-length transaction” that was publicly recorded as a loan against his property, it said.
The statement said the report overstated the authority of Roberts to influence budgets. For example, it noted the International Association of Venue Managers event extras were decided by an event committee — not Roberts — and they were needed because the committee “sought to augment its welcoming/opening presentation.”
Larry Davis, who is representing Harb, told investigators that his client was following established tourism agency policies and that Michaud received contracts despite Harb’s dislike for Michaud and a previous attempt to cut Michaud off from bureau business.
“If Mr. Michaud was improperly engaged by the CVB on any occasion, it was in spite of Mr. Harb, and solely due to Ms. Roberts’ machinations,” Davis said in a statement.
Grossman suggested that she bears some of the blame, saying, “I regret that I did not follow-up on my directives regarding Ms. Roberts, but accepted and relied upon the reports and assurances of my colleagues. As soon as I was advised that such problems were going on, despite my attempts to avoid them, I acted in good faith to ameliorate them. It was, apparently, not enough, and for that, I am truly remorseful and disappointed in myself.”