DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – VisitDallas on the defense today. The agency tasked with luring convention and visitors to town, now responding publicly to a city auditor’s report that has raised concerns about a lack of financial oversight of the agency and questionable expenses.
“We look forward to addressing key items in a recently released audit,” said Mark Woelffer, VisitDallas Chair and General Manager of the Sheraton Dallas Hotel during an afternoon press briefing, adding that they would welcome “another layer of checks and balances.”
Backed by tens of millions in taxpayer dollars, VisitDallas is now being asked to prove that it’s paying off.
Long time President & CEO Phillip Jones stressing that there were reasonable explanations for issues that initially appeared scandalous– like the city’s reimbursement of a $500 backpack. Jones told reporters today that the backpack cost should have been billed to airline that damaged his.
“As soon as it was brought to my attention, I wrote a personal check to cover the cost of the backpack. It was a simple clerical error. It was not a pattern of abuse…certainly not something I’ve done on a regular basis.”
Even so, it is now the agency’s reputation in need of repair.
“To me, it’s really time for house cleaning over there,” says District 1 Councilmember Scott Griggs, a vocal critic of the agency post audit. “VisitDallas has been running like slush fund. You’ve got a man highly paid, between salary and bonus making $700,000 — highest paid person with city of Dallas taxpayer dollars.”
Others defended Jones’ salary, saying it was comparable with peers in other large cities.
“Fifteen years ago when Phillip was first hired, the convention and visitors’ bureau was $3 million in debt and booked about 500,000 room nights. The organization is now debt-free and financially sound and booked 2.5 million room nights last year,” says Arthur Hollingsworth, the Vice Chair of the Finance Committee.
Councilmember Griggs acknowledged that Jones inherited a mess. But, still says it’s time for what he called a “culture change”.
“I think he turned around a corrupt group at one time,” says Griggs, “and I think it’s slipped back into corruption.”
Meanwhile, VisitDallas leaders insist that they are managing their mission well.
“We believe that we have to be good stewards of these dollars and we have to provide a strong return on investment, which we think we have,” says Jones, “but if there are internal practices, policies and protocols that we can improve upon, I can guarantee you, we will.”
A special meeting is planned for February 19th to address council concerns with the audit findings.