$5,324 In Gifts, $2,500 Cake, $1,900 Gourmet Apples. All Bought With Taxpayers Money.
WTSB News and the Dunn Daily Record has worked together to review hundreds of pages of financial documents from the Johnston County Visitors Bureau . The documents raise questions about how taxpayers money is being spent by public officials. Among the items, a $2,500 cake and numerous gifts to board members paid for with taxpayers dollars.
In those documents, obtained through a Public Records Request, several items purchased on the Johnston County Visitors Bureau credit card stand out. The Johnston County Visitors Bureau is operated by President/CEO Donna Bailey-Taylor but has county oversight.
Gifts For Board Members
In total, $5,324 has been spent in the past five years on gifts for board members, AAA offices and welcome center staff. AAA offices help tourists find attractions and hotels around the country.
The Johnston County Visitors Bureau bought 83 items from Miss Debbie’s Specialty Apples of the Benson area, costing nearly $2,000. The apples are noted as gifts for AAA offices and for board members. The Johnston County Visitors Bureau purchased 53 boxes of candy apples at $30 each and 30 assorted apples at $7.95 each, with a total of $1,969 spent on candy apples for board members and AAA offices.
“Miss Debbie’s, that was a direct mail to the AAA offices,” Ms. Bailey-Taylor said. “There’s 10 or so left over and we always do this in December so that’s what we give the board at the Christmas dinner.”
The Johnston County Visitors Bureau purchased a $50 gift card from DeWayne’s in Selma and from Carolina Premium Outlets as retirement gifts for the outgoing I-95 South and South Welcome Center directors. The Johnston County Visitors Bureau also spent $98 at Harry And David on chocolates, trail mix and tea. The receipt is coded as a travel and trade show expense and no explanation is written in the notes.
The Johnston County Visitors Bureau spent $1,889.70 on gifts, including $1,543 at Harry And David on gifts for AAA offices in North and South Carolina and Virginia. There are two charges at Harry And David, one for $397.50 and the other for $1,145.58.
“I’m Not Breaking Any Laws. This Is How We Do Business…”
Ms. Bailey-Taylor, president and CEO of the Johnston County Visitors Bureau, said the gifts are to promote the county. “It’s our strategy to promote Johnston County using Johnston County products,” she said. “There is a general statute that allows you to give gifts to employees and board members. That’s legal, I’m not breaking any laws. This is how we do business, this is how we promote the county, this is what we’re doing to tell people about our local business.”
Harry And David is a national chain with a store in the Carolina Premium Outlet mall. There are no known products the store carries from Johnston County.
The Johnston County Visitors Bureau also spent $126.62 on poinsettias for board members.
In 2012, 2013 and 2014, the Johnston County Visitors Bureau bought clocks for outgoing board members, spending a total of $551. “The clocks are gifts to outgoing board members, it’s a thank you for your service thing,” Ms. Bailey-Taylor said. “If you serve three or six years on the board, we get you an outgoing clock and thank you for your time. It’s almost a play on words that you get a clock to recognize the time you spent with us.”
Other Tourism Authority Group Does Not Allow Gifts
The Dunn Tourism Authority does not give gifts to its board members. “If we get pens or T-shirts or something that’s promotional, they can keep that,” said Dunn Tourism Director Sharon Stevens. “But no, we don’t give them gifts.”
Ms. Bailey-Taylor said the Johnston County Visitors Bureau is not breaking any laws by giving gifts to its board members. “There is a general statute that allows you to give gifts to employees and board members for ‘motivation, fringe benefits, incentive that promote the hiring and retention of capable, diligent and honest people,’” she said. “That’s legal, I’m not breaking any law.”
In 2011, a $2,500 cake was also purchase by the Johnston County Visitors Bureau for the Ava Gardner Festival, with no receipt attached to the credit card statement, only a photo of the cake.
Expenditures charged as advertising and marketing expenses should be used to promote the Towns of Smithfield, Selma, Kenly, and Benson, among others. Instead marketing and advertising dollars were used to buy $12.27 in air fresheners at Lowes, rent a U-Haul for $51.11, and $40.49 for a table cloth and clothes stain remover. Other questioning items include a $35.17 meal at Holt Lake Barbecue billed to taxpayers as a printing expense. $69.73 was paid for room service at The Peabody, and $9.95 to PeopleSmart.com for a reverse phone search.
The Johnston County Visitors Bureau operates under the principals of several core values. Among them are a pledge for “…commit(ment) to serve with honesty and integrity and achieving real results that earn the public’s trust.”
Ohio Visitors Bureau Ordered To Repay Money
In 2012, more than $6,500 in improper spending was uncovered by an audit of the Ross County, Ohio Convention and Visitors Bureau. The former director was ordered to repay funds misappropriated with the use of a credit card for travel, supplies and merchandise, where receipts were not provided, or the charges were contrary to bureau policy.
Among the items not allowed were purchases of alcohol.