Investigation: Hattiesburg Convention Commission changes story on Tiffany & Co. purchases

Investigation: Hattiesburg Convention Commission changes story on Tiffany & Co. purchases

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - With every meal bought at a Hattiesburg restaurant, and every hotel or motel room booked in the Hub City, taxpayers are hit with an additional two-percent tax that funnels around $4 million annually into the bank accounts of the Hattiesburg Tourism and Convention Commissions.

The two commissions use the tax dollars to help operate places such as the Hattiesburg Zoo, Lake Terrace Convention Center, and the Saenger Theater.

However, public records obtained by On Your Side show tax dollars were also used to purchase high-end jewelry.

One purchase was for a board member, and emails indicate another purchase was intended for an employee.

Executive Director, Rick Taylor, made the two online purchases from Tiffany & Company. One was for a $593.85 bangle bought in December 2013. A second item, a $214 pendant, was purchased in August 2014.

Throughout a series of interviews conducted by On Your Side reporter and anchor Mike McDaniel, the commission's reasoning for the jewelry purchases changed.

In a 2015 interview with Executive Director Rick Taylor, On Your Side was told both pieces were ordered for the upcoming Miss Hospitality pageant winner.

"In 2014, two of our staff members, me being one of them, ordered a piece, simultaneously, thinking we were covering the same activity," Taylor said. "There are two pieces under lock and key for this coming year."

In 2016, a new explanation came from Convention Commission board member and spokesperson Bud Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick said one of those items was for a board member.

"It was bought to be a gift for someone who [the commission] thought was retiring for the tourism board," Kirkpatrick said. "They put in many years of service, but the person didn't retire, and that jewelry is still out there in a safe."

Complicating the story, emails point to a different reason for purchasing Tiffany & Company Jewelry.

In an email exchange between Taylor and Tourism Commission board member Catherine Price, On Your Side discovered that the August 2014 purchase was intended for a paid employee.

Taylor wrote,

"… I think something nice (maybe Tiffany, since [employee] was so involved with the Ms Hosp program) from the Board would be great."

More emails show that board members considered naming a room after the employee.

On August 8, 2014, Taylor wrote,

"Regarding the recognition for [paid employee], I have a few thoughts. I think naming the Visitors' Center 2nd floor conference room would be a great gesture."

Taylor also suggested to Price to exclude all media from the event writing,

"While they [the media] would probably understand it, some folks in the community might not understand why a room was named for a compensated employee."

However, on 8/15/2014 commission members decided against renaming the room, but agreed to purchasing a piece of Tiffany & Company.

Receipts show Taylor bought a $214 Tiffany & Company pendant the same day.

Kirkpatrick said he thought tax dollars going towards gifts for board members was appropriate.

"Well, if the level of a gift warrants, yes," Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick did not have any knowledge of jewelry being purchased with the intent to give it to a paid employee.

"How are those benchmarks set? Is every board member entitled to jewelry," said Mike McDaniel.

The Convention and Tourism Commission released a statement Wednesday with a third story about the jewelry, claiming the $593 bracelet bought in December 2013 was for a board member who worked closely with the Miss Hospitality program.

However, records show that when the bracelet was purchased it was listed as a Miss Hospitality expense.

In a 2/14/14 email from Taylor to his bookkeeper, Taylor wrote,

"This is to be booked Ms Hosp."

The statement also said no tax dollars were used to buy the jewelry, but rather it was bought with profits from the Miss Hospitality program.

Documents obtained by On Your Side tell a different story.  Looking through claims dockets you can clearly see where thousands of dollars in Miss Hospitality expenses are run through the tourism commission claims dockets.

Further, the Convention and Tourism Commission would have to close shop if it were not subsidized by tax dollars. When adding up all the revenue generated from all the commissions entities, there's simply not enough money to keep the doors open. In fact, during several fiscal years, the revenue generated by the commissions, was not enough to cover the payroll.

On Your Side also uncovered new information about a trip to Chicago in 2013. Taxpayers paid $726 for six people to eat one meal. On the ticket were $51 steaks and Hendrix Martinis.

When WDAM asked Taylor about the meal in 2015 he said,

"We not only hosted the USM group that came up in Chicago, we also hosted Rick Gresh, the chef of the restaurant who was producing an event at the convention center later that year in Hattiesburg. So, yes, I took the opportunity to host that group of university faculty and supporters that work with us."

Through more digging, WDAM found that the only Southern Miss faculty member at the dinner was Tourism board member Catherine Price, who worked for The University of Southern Mississippi at the time.

Price's nephew and his boyfriend, who both live in Chicago, were also at that meal.

"Are you comfortable with board members and their extended family dining on the taxpayers dime?" said McDaniel.

Two other convention center employees and Taylor were also at the meal. The restaurant's executive chef, Rick Gresh, did not dine with them.

Both Taylor and Price said the dinner was a thank you to Gresh and Amanda Puck, of the Wolfgang-Puck family, for their involvement with a fundraiser. Price said her nephew played a part in making the connection.

"We all make connections through people we know," Price writes. "Without [nephew] advocating on our behalf we never would have gotten Amanda or Rick Gresh."

WDAM has requested multiple on-camera interviews with Taylor. At this time, all interviews have been declined.