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Hart was forced to resign

November 06, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Ben Hart was forced to resign as executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau on Oct. 27 following an internal investigation into allegations of misappropriation of CVB funds, CVB board Chairman Ron Vitkun said in a letter he made public Wednesday.

Hart was placed on paid administrative leave Oct. 16 after a bureau checking account showed more activity than it should have, Vitkun said.

Hart has not responded to requests for comments on his resignation.

The Hagerstown Police Department has confirmed it is conducting a criminal investigation at the request of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Lt. Rick Johnson on Wednesday would not predict when the investigation would be completed.

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A letter to Hart dated Oct. 27 and signed by Vitkun said: "As you are aware, the Board of Directors of the Hagerstown/Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau made the decision to place you on administrative leave with pay, effective 10/16/03, pending further investigation of issues related to the misappropriation of CVB funds.

"After further investigation and consideration of the facts in this matter, the Board of Directors has made the decision to terminate your employment effective 10/27/03," the letter continued "This action is taken in accordance with section 9, termination of your employment agreement.

"This section refers to misconduct as applied to all CVB employees and outlined in the current Policies and Procedures Manual specifically lists in item number 4, theft, pilfering, fraud or other forms of dishonesty," the letter said.

Vitkun provided a copy of the letter to The Herald-Mail after the newspaper requested it.

Vitkun, owner of Yogi Bear's Jellystone Resort in Williamsport, would not reveal the amount of money in question.

Vitkun said, "I was angry, I was extremely angry," when he heard of what he called Hart's "transgression."

Vitkun said he had hoped the internal investigation would show that nothing was wrong.

"In the back of your mind, you keep hoping there is some explanation," Vitkun said.

Forcing Hart to resign was one of the hardest things he ever had to do, he said.

He said he asked Hart for an explanation but would not disclose what Hart said in response.

Vitkun said he did not want to comment further on the allegations.

In a letter to the editor submitted Wednesday to the newspaper's editorial page, Vitkun wrote: "I would like the citizens of Washington County to know that the CVB has control systems in place that discovered the infraction that resulted in the release of our CEO."

The bureau is audited annually, with the last audit covering the time period ending Dec. 31. The problem occurred after that date, Vitkun alleged.

The Herald-Mail on Friday filed a Maryland Public Information Act request to obtain information on Hart's salary.

Vitkun said he did not want to publicly release Hart's salary until he confirms he can do so without running a risk of being sued.

In 1997, Hart's first year at the bureau, his salary was reported as $50,000.

On Wednesday, the newspaper filed a Maryland Public Information Act request for Hart's travel and expense account receipts and records. Vitkun said he would need time to assemble that information.

As executive director, Hart was responsible for all operational and administrative aspects of the CVB, includingmarketing, sales and public relations.

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

Of the $768,301 the bureau budgeted $386,653 for marketing and promotion programs. The budget allocated $251,241 for administration costs. The budget included $148,407 for operations.

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.

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

The bureau received about 126,000 requests for the visitors guide.

About 71,000 unique visitors went last year to the Internet site.

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