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Politics & Government

VisitDallas Audit Reveals a Well-Run Trough for Piggish Top Executives

It's time for some serious change.
By Tim Rogers |
Jonathan Zizzo

Today the VisitDallas brass will get a good tongue lashing at City Hall for its lax management. That’s how you’d describe the situation if you’re inclined to take a charitable view. I’m not. Having read the 70-page audit of our convention and visitors operation, I’m inclined to take a very dim view of what has been going on over there under the stewardship of CEO Phillip Jones, who has overseen the office for 16 years. I’d like to first hammer home some findings from the audit, then offer a few points of consideration of my own.

— VisitDallas gets most of its revenue from hotel occupancy tax (HOT) and the Dallas Tourism Public Improvement District (DTPID), hotels in the city with 100 or more rooms. It’s a lot of money. Over the last five years, the average has been about $30 million per year. The audit discovered that VisitDallas puts all that money in one bank account. That sort of commingling of funds violates state law. “As a result,” the report says, “the city may not be able to clearly identify the source of funds used for various VisitDallas activity expenses, and the city could be exposed to legal liability … .” VisitDallas is breaking the law. The city could be liable.

— Every year, VisitDallas is supposed to hand over $500,000 for capital improvements to the Convention Center. The audit found that not only does VisitDallas not make that contribution in a timely manner, but when it does pay, VisitDallas takes those funds from the DTPID, which again breaks state law. “Late capital contributions hamper [the city’s] ability to plan and fund needed facility improvements for the Convention Center,” the audit says. “Improperly using DTPID funds could result in legal liability and reputational damage for the city.” VisitDallas is a late payer. More legal liability. 

— But wait. It gets worse. The audit found that VisitDallas “does not have adequate controls over certain expenses.” The audit picked at random 141 expenses and found that 33 percent of them either lacked supporting documentation, exceeded VisitDallas’ own policy limits, or violated state law. Example: VisitDallas employees traveling for work are supposed to spend no more than $180 per day on hotel rooms. They can spend $250 per day only in New York City. During the two years that the audit looked at, Jones, the CEO, racked up 18 hotel stays that totaled $17,069. On average, that’s $950 per night. Oh, yeah, and then there’s that $543 Tumi backpack that Jones expensed. Bear in mind that he makes nearly $700,000, putting him among the top five highest-compensated CVB CEOs in the country. VisitDallas is a spendthrift operation.

— OK. OK. VisitDallas plays a little fast and loose with its money. The important question, though, is whether the office does a good job. Does it increase tourism? Turns out, we have no idea. The audit found that the office doesn’t have any formal documentation for the methodology and formulas it uses to prepare its monthly and yearly reports. When VisitDallas says it had a great year and brought a whole bunch of people to Dallas, the city has no way of verifying that claim. VisitDallas’ performance reports are unreliable.

The audit paints a picture of an organization that is out of control. Or, rather, it is firmly within the control of a CEO whose primary interest is himself. Which brings me to the following:

If Phillip Jones doesn’t show up to the meeting today at City Hall wearing that $543 Tumi backpack, then I have no respect for him. Listen, he’s going to get fired. Or forced to resign. Whatever. It’s going to happen sooner if not later. He’s been caught. He had a nice 16-year run. He got to travel all over the world on someone else’s dime, living high on the hog, schmoozing people. He should let those poor schlubs at City Hall know that he did it his way. He’s a baller.

As for those City Hall bureaucrats, though, they should do one thing before they decide not to renew VisitDallas’ contract next year. They should ask Jones for his work travel schedule for the past five years, everywhere he’s been while performing his solemn duty as ambassador for Dallas. And then they should check those dates and locations against a database of bicycle races, marathons, and triathlons. Jones is an avid cyclist and triathlete. So much so that VisitDallas once had its own cycling team. I say “once,” because I can’t find any recent results of their efforts. Anyway, this is just a hunch. Follow the money. But also follow the wheels.

Jones isn’t the only one who deserves scrutiny here. It’s hard for me to read this audit without thinking that VisitDallas CFO Matthew Jones ought to update his LinkedIn page.

And then there’s the board. There are something like 40 people on the VisitDallas board. You know what happens when you have that many people on a board? No one does a damn thing. The proof is this audit.

So here we are. An 800-word post about VisitDallas without a single “Big things happen here” joke. You’re welcome.

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