ORLANDO — The political pressure around a previously secret $1 million marketing contract with musician Pitbull was too much to save the head of Florida's besieged tourism marketing agency.
Even as board members praised Visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe for his work in helping set tourism records four years in a row, they turned around and voted unanimously to fire him, overtly hoping it will save the agency as the Florida Legislature threatens deep budget cuts.
The deal with Pitbull to promote Florida beaches and other mult-million dollar contracts to advertise with a car racing team and a British soccer team have brought scrutiny from the Legislature which determines how much funding the agency will get. Specifically Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran sued Pitbull's management company in December to force him to disclose terms of his contract with Visit Florida when Seccombe refused. That prompted Gov. Rick Scott to call on Seccombe to resign his position and Visit Florida to reform its rules on transparency.
While Visit Florida board chairman William Talbert III lauded Seccombe — who was not at the meeting in Lake Buena Vista — for his work and sounded reluctant to part ways with him, he acknowledged that politically Visit Florida could not afford to lose any of Scott's support for the agency as the political environment gets tougher in the Florida Legislature.
"That is a critical component because the governor recommends and fights for our budget," Talbert said.
Board member Gene Prescott, of The Biltmore Hotel, was even more blunt, suggesting that board members could agree or disagree with the governor's call to change leaders, but there is a political reality looming.
"We have the Speaker of the House who has said he wants to take away all of our funding," Prescott said. "So we really have our work cut out to save our money."
Visit Florida is a quasi-governmental agency that receives more than $140 million a year from mostly private tourism related business and about $78 million from state government. Scott cannot fire or hire CEO, that is left to the board of directors.
Corcoran has questioned the roll Visit Florida has played in hitting tourism records. He said while the agency's funding has grown faster than the number of tourists have grown.
Since 2009 Visit Florida's funding has grown from $29 million to $78 million.
The board also voted unanimously to replace Seccombe with Ken Lawson, the former secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. While Lawson has no experience in tourism marketing, board members said he was a perfect fit because the governor has already given his endorsement of the move and Lawson has experience walking the halls of Tallahassee as a former agency head.
"He knows the process," Talbert told board members.
Lawson said his mission is to instill a "cultural change" in Visit Florida to make transparency and accountability more of a part of the agency's thinking.
"We need to makes sure that folks know clearly who we are and what we are doing," Lawson said.
Unlike other traditional government agency appointments, Lawson's selection does not have to be confirmed by the Florida Senate.
Seccombe, meanwhile, will only get a fraction of the $440,000 he could have received in severance pay. Talbert said through negotiations he was able to convince Seccombe to leave with just $73,000 - and that will all be paid through Visit Florida's private funds.
Seccombe was not available for comment Tuesday, but in the past has defended the soccer, racing team and Pitbull deal as efforts to reach more foreign tourists who stay in Florida longer and spend more and to compete against other states — like California — who have increased their tourism marketing and started to eat into Florida's market share. He said on each of those deals, Florida got big returns on its investment and reached audiences that are increasingly hard to get to through traditional media advertising. However, Seccombe did say he would never do another deal like the one with Pitbull where he could not release details of the contract.
That, however, was not enough to help Seccombe to keep his job leading the agency he has lead since November 2012.