The lawsuit was filed May 23 in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee.
In an affidavit, FBI investigators cite evidence that Mark Bellinger, the former executive director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council, used public money to buy the $747,000 home in the Kelly Plantation neighborhood in August 2011.
The lawsuit comes about a month after the FBI and the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office launched a joint criminal investigation into Bellinger’s alleged misuse of bed tax money and BP oil spill funds.
Bellinger died May 4 in a suspected suicide amid charges of grand theft. Three days earlier, he admitted to Okaloosa County commissioners that he used bed tax money to buy a $710,000 Marquis yacht without their approval. Bellinger told commissioners he planned to use the 40-foot yacht in a yearlong tourism promotion.
The FBI declined to discuss the lawsuit Wednesday.
“It is an ongoing investigation, and we’ll have to let the public records speak for themselves,” FBI spokesman Jeff Westcott said.
The U.S. Attorney is “seeking seizure of the house as proceeds of the crime of wire fraud,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Rhew-Miller said in an email to the Daily News.
If the Bellingers’ house is seized, “proceeds from the forfeited property will be distributed in accordance with federal law,” Rhew-Miller added.
The four-bedroom house at 4384 Stonebridge Road is believed to have been vacant since Kathleen Bellinger left town sometime in the past several days.
“She did send me a text thanking me for helping her and her children … and saying she would keep in touch,” TDC Chairwoman Kathy Houchins said Wednesday.
In the lawsuit, authorities have sketched out a timeline and general description of how Mark Bellinger “devised a scheme by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises for his own benefit.”
That scheme involved shifting two amounts of money — $78,000 and $747,000 in BP oil spill funds — between the county and Lewis Communications, a Mobile, Ala., firm that provides marketing services to the TDC.
The lawsuit says Bellinger contacted a Lewis Communications employee in July 2011 and wired the money to the company on the pretense that the firm had won a $747,000 contract to advertise the county’s “Boast the Coast” television campaign. He also told the employee that the money had to be spent by a specific time, “thereby creating a sense of urgency,” the lawsuit says.
The $78,000 was paid to Lewis Communications “for work anticipated to be performed,” the affidavit says.
But in early August 2011, Bellinger told the Lewis employee in an email that the firm had not won the contract. He directed the firm to wire the $747,000 to a Regions Bank account, according to the affidavit.
The FBI says Bellinger used the $747,000 wired to the Regions Bank account to pay Title Works, the real estate closing firm that handled the Bellingers’ home purchase.
Mobile attorney Gus Fontenot, who represents Lewis Communications, said the company was misled by Bellinger and was unaware of the fraud when it was happening.
“The county was told this campaign was going on,” Fontenot said. “Lewis believed it. The county believed it. But Bellinger was using that apparently to funnel the money from the county to Lewis, and then he told Lewis they didn’t get the project and made them return it.”
Fontenot said Lewis Communications is “voluntarily cooperating” with investigators.
“We’ve asked for and received permission from the county to talk to the authorities, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” he added.
The FBI’s lawsuit also cites as evidence an excerpt from a suicide note Bellinger left for his wife in their house May 3.
According to the affidavit, the excerpt states: “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 (Tourism Development Council) advertising funds and I alone asked that the funds be directed via a wire transfer to the closing title office. No one had any idea of 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.”
In recent weeks, authorities have painted Bellinger as a big spender who repeatedly conducted business in secret and without the approval of county commissioners.
In addition to the yacht and house, Bellinger also is accused of spending thousands of dollars in bed tax money on an unauthorized lease to house the TDC’s newest welcome center, more than $100,000 on custom motorcycles and $45,000 on a Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle.
Lee Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge in Crestview recently released the county from 100 percent of the lease, Greg Donovan, the TDC’s interim executive director, said Wednesday.
©2012 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)
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