On Tuesday in Pensacola, the Feds filed in federal court a civil lawsuit to seize the home of former Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council Executive Director Mark Bellinger. The FBI alleges that Bellinger bought the house at Kelly Plantation in Destin with $747,000 that he stole from the Okaloosa County TDC’s share of $30 million in BP settlement money.
According to the filing, Bellinger played a shell game with two ad agencies – Lewis Communication and Zimmerman Agency. He allegedly told Lewis Communications, which was the county’s marketing firm, they would be bidding against Zimmerman Agency for a marketing campaign using the BP funds. A Lewis executive said Bellinger told him Zimmerman had won the contract, and ordered him to wire the $747,000 to a “title account” at Wells Fargo Bank. Bellinger then used that money to buy the Kelly Plantation house.
When questionable TDC expenditures came to light, Bellinger resigned on May 1. He disappeared on May 3. The next he was found dead in Pelham, Ala. It was an apparent drug overdose.
Bellinger left a suicide note for his wife:
“I am leaving you for I have been extremely deceptive to you and everyone the past two years. The house is not ours. It was paid for from TDC advertising funds and I alone asked that the funds be directed via wire transfer to the closing title office. No one had any idea to this! I lied to you about receiving a loan from a President of a local bank who I convinced you he was doing us a favor. He does not exist.
“I know you were growing suspicious of the longer than promised time frame I gave to you about not starting a loan until close this summer and that bank President (a fake friend of mine) was helping our financial situation by delaying the made up mortgage payments. The home belongs to the county, not me. I convinced you to sign the closing papers.”
Since then, county, state and federal investigators have scoured TDC records. They’ve uncovered purchases for a $710,000 fishing yacht, 2-custom motorcycles–worth $110,000, and a 2012 Jeep Wrangler and Dodge Durango truck–worth almost $82,000. None these appear to be illegal, if they were in fact for marketing campaigns. However, Bellinger made them without any approval from the TDC board or the Okaloosa County Commission.