New VisitDallas CEO says agency will urge transparency on gifts

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The new CEO if VisitDallas, Craig Davis

The Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau will continue to provide city council members and staff with free tickets to its hospitality suite at the American Airlines Center – but with a little something extra.

“Now those [tickets] will come with a note advising the recipient that these should be declared on their [financial] disclosures,” Craig Davis, who took over as CEO of the group last month, said in an interview with The Texas Monitor.

VisitDallas leases the suite from the city for $250,000 a year. A city ordinance requires elected officials to disclose all gifts worth more than $50 they receive from any entity that has a contract with the city.

A VisitDallas official in September insisted the suite tickets were not gifts after an ethics complaint was filed by a local resident against Dallas City Council member Casey Thomas, who did not disclose passes with an estimated value of nearly $1,600 since 2016.

“VisitDallas does not consider City officials’ attendance at the American Airlines Center suite and other VisitDallas functions to be gifts,” VisitDallas spokeswoman Stephanie Faulk said in a September email,  “as their presence serves a business purpose in representing and promoting the City to event sponsors.”

The city’s Ethics Advisory Commission ruled that Thomas had violated the city’s ethics policy and issued him a letter of violation.

Providing such perks to individuals who can vote on the future of the convention bureau, also known as VisitDallas, is seen by critics as a way to influence the city council, especially at a time when VisitDallas was under a microscope and its future funding was in doubt.

“We want those elected officials there, we invite anyone in a public position,“ Davis said. While he can’t force an official to disclose the tickets as gifts, he said, the agency will continue to provide the names of people who request and receive the suite passes.

“We will keep our side transparent,” he said.

Davis also said he will not be spending as much time traveling as his predecessor Phillip Jones.

“I need to be here in the city to work every day with the staff and stakeholders,” he said.

Jones traveled around 100 days a year, including an annual trip to Australia. A cycling enthusiast, he resigned in May shortly after a story revealed he had combined agency trips – both overseas and domestic — with endurance racing contests.

Chief Financial Officer Matt Jones, no relation, was fired at about the same time as the CEO resigned.

Davis is seeking to regain the trust of both the city council and the public after a city audit released last year reported that the agency provided murky, debatable data on hotel occupancy and other key measures of its performance.

The audit also found that VisitDallas mixed its revenue sources  — which total around $30 million a year — without proper accounting, in violation of state law, and failed to make a required annual payment for maintenance of the city’s convention center. The agency is funded with a portion of proceeds of levies on visitors, including a hotel room tax.

Critics, including at least two city council members, say VisitDallas’ money should be cut.

Davis watched things in Dallas unfold from Pittsburgh, as did the rest of the public convention community.

“Things could have been articulated better,” he said regarding how the agency responded to the audit and the ensuing bad publicity.

Since he has taken over, he said, some positions have been eliminated, which resulted in at least one person being let go.

Davis acknowledged that he is seeking to keep VisitDallas fully funded in the coming years.

The agency’s contract with the city ends in October and some council members are seeking to shift funding away from VisitDallas to local arts groups.

“Yes, we want full funding, but we also want a relationship with the city that is based on transparency and trust that allows us to do the thing we need to do,” said Davis, who served as CEO of VisitPittsburgh for five years before coming to Dallas. He said he’s talked with most of the council members and has promised to adhere to stronger reporting reforms put in place after the city audit found massive misspending and dubious performance statistics from VisitDallas.

A recently released IRS filing by VisitDallas showed that the number of six-figure salaries paid by the agency nearly doubled over the past several years.

Dallas City Council member Paula Blackmon, one of two council members on the VisitDallas board, said in an online community meeting on Saturday that a study of the salaries at the agency compared to convention bureaus in similar-sized cities showed that VisitDallas’ figures “are a little off” and will be addressed.

“They will be making some adjustments,” Blackmon said.

The council is expected to discuss the future of VisitDallas in March. 

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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