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Convention bureau rejects requests for info on Hart

November 18, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

The Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau has rejected, at least temporarily, requests for information about Ben Hart, who was forced to resign as the bureau's executive director on Oct. 27.

Hart's resignation followed an internal investigation into allegations of misappropriation of bureau funds, CVB board Chairman Ron Vitkun said in a letter he recently made public.

The amount of money in question has not been released.

According to a copy of the budget given to The Herald-Mail, $514,101 of the bureau's $786,301 in revenues comes from the Washington County hotel-motel tax.

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On Monday, Vitkun said the bureau's decision not to release requested information at this time came at the suggestion of its attorney, Thomas DiGirolamo, who said in a Nov. 13 letter that the Maryland Public Information Act does not apply to the bureau.

The CVB "is not a unit or instrumentality of the state government or of a political subdivision and, therefore, is not legally obligated under the Maryland Public Information Act to comply with the requests for documentation," he wrote.

While the bureau has met requests for copies of its budget and its board membership listing, "As more requests for records are being made, however, particularly requests for salary information, the CVB is becoming concerned about the ramifications of providing such information and its exposure to potential liability," DiGirolamo said in a letter.

"The CVB is considering your request for records as contained in the aforementioned correspondence and will respond to you in the near future in regard to whether or not it is in a position to produce the requested records."

Mary R. Craig, the newspaper's attorney, said the bureau's lawyer may be correct and that the requested information does not legally have to be handed over.

After examining the county bylaws and articles of incorporation creating the bureau as a non-stock corporation, Craig said the bureau's status is not a legal issue so much as an ethical one.

She questioned the wisdom of having the county set up a group that gets hotel tax funds, but does not have to disclose how the money is spent. The result of the structure is that there is no accountability, she said.

On Oct. 31, The Herald-Mail filed a Maryland Public Information Act request to obtain information on Hart's salary and benefits package, and a copy of his letter of resignation.

Vitkun has 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 Nov. 5, the newspaper filed a Maryland Public Information Act request for Hart's travel and expense account receipts and records.

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.

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

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 and the allegations against him.

The Hagerstown Police Department has confirmed it is conducting an investigation at the request of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

On Monday, Lt. Rick Johnson said the police are conferring with the Washington County State's Attorney's Office on the case.

A letter to Hart dated Oct. 27 and signed by Vitkun said in part, "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 termination letter to The Herald-Mail after the newspaper asked for Hart's resignation letter.

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