Bureau asks for police probe

November 01, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

The Hagerstown Police Department has started an investigation requested by the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Chief Arthur Smith said Friday.

Board Chairman Ron Vitkun said the investigation is of finance-related allegations involving Ben Hart, the former bureau executive director. Police, citing policy, would not confirm Hart was the target of the investigation.

Hart has resigned his position at Vitkun's request.

Hart was placed on temporary leave during an internal investigation and later was asked to resign. Vitkun would not say what the investigation entailed or who conducted it.


Hart's last day was Monday, Vitkun said.

The actions in question "had to do with policy and procedure, and rules were broken," Vitkun said Wednesday.

On Friday, he said the rules had to do with finances but that he could not elaborate.

On Wednesday, Hagerstown Police Lt. Rick Johnson, of the Criminal Investigation Unit, said bureau members approached investigators within the last week. Johnson, who would not provide details of that contact.

Smith on Friday confirmed only that an investigation has been started at the visitor bureau's request.

Hart, communicating by e-mail, has declined to comment.

As executive director, Hart was responsible for all operational and administrative aspects of the bureau, including marketing, sales and public relations.

Vitkun said he did not want to publicly release Hart's salary until he confirms he can do so legally. In 1997, Hart's salary was reported as $50,000.

The Herald-Mail on Friday filed a Maryland Public Information Act request for the salary information.

According to a copy of the budget made public by the bureau Friday, $514,101 of the bureau's $786,301 revenue comes from the hotel-motel tax.

Administrative savings

The Convention and Visitors Bureau was an arm of Washington County government until July 1, 1997, when it became a private enterprise. The main reason the bureau was privatized was because some members wanted more of its money spent on promotion and marketing and less on administrative costs, Hart has said.

The bureau has accomplished a great deal since it privatized, including improving a visitors guide, creating an Internet site and other projects, Vitkun said.

Del. Chris Shank, R-Washington said he thinks there will probably be increased scrutiny of the bureau in future years.

Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and Commissioner William J. Wivell said the circumstances involving Hart did not make them change their opinion that the group should be private.

"It has worked well over the years. The board of directors has done a good job," Snook said.

"I think the (bureau) has worked well under its current structure," Wivell said.

Commissioners James F. Kercheval and Doris J. Nipps said they see no reason to change the current structure. Commissioner John C. Munson did not return phone calls Friday.

"If the board was doing its job and they caught whatever mistakes were made, as far as I am concerned there are steps. I do not see a need to interfere," Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, said.

Shank said he would not even consider changing the structure until first being "debriefed" by the board on the allegations against Hart.

A 1979 graduate of the University of Colorado, Hart has been executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau since 1997, following three years as executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau in North Dakota.

According to his résumé, Hart worked in Colorado for nearly two decades - as president and owner of Hart of Rockies Tours in Denver from 1986 to 1994, as executive director of the Colorado Tourism Board from 1983 to 1986 and as director of tourism for the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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