PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — The former city manager of Panama City Beach has filed a whistleblower lawsuit saying former city leaders violated the city charter and current city leaders tried to prevent him from cooperating with an FBI investigation.
However, one of the key facts of his lawsuit is false, according to Bay County’s Property Appraiser.
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Tony O’Rourke said he raised concerns about “significant capital improvements” to Popeye Park.
The park is listed as a public park on the city’s website and according to the lawsuit it sits between 16405 and 16303 E. Lullwater Drive. The lawsuit notes that 16405 E. Lullwater Drive is the home of the son of former Mayor Mike Thomas.
“The current City Attorney, Amy Myers, and former City Manager, Mario Gisbert, both knew the lot was privately owned and therefore not owned by the City. Additionally, former City Manager Gisbert used funds that were not specifically budgeted for, not approved by the City Council, and in violation of City Charter procurement regulations to make improvements to Popeye Park.”
However, Bay County’s Property Appraiser, Dan Sowell, said Thursday that the park is owned by the City.
A title report provided by Panama City Beach officials states that the Fee Simple title owner is Hearn & Curran, Inc. a dissolved Florida corporation. The cooperation dissolved in 1982. The park was created when Hearn and Curran built the subdivision it sits in on the beach. The subdivision and others like them often had areas that were for common use. This particular area was given to a city known as West Panama City Beach. When West Panama City Beach was dissolved the ownership of the little park was handed over to the City of Panama City Beach, Sowell said.
Meanwhile, O’Rourke’s lawsuit states that the FBI was investigating expenditures of taxpayer money related to Popeye Park. O’Rourke says he participated in the investigation over the objections of other city officials and was eventually fired because of it.
The lawsuit does not name which city officials objected to his cooperation. A memo he wrote to city leaders about the situation is in the possession of the city. The city has declined to release the memo to the public saying that is part of an ongoing internal investigation.
Former Mayor Mike Thomas said the lawsuit is an attempt to get more money out of the city from an employee who was not up to the job.
“I figure that the guy failed and he’s hunting a check on the way out. There’s nothing wrong with this park,” Thomas said. “There’s nothing wrong with the way it was done.”
Thomas said he asked then-City Manager Mario Gisbert to look at making improvements to the park after the widow of the man the park is named after asked him why it looked bad and was overgrown. Gisbert had money in a parks budget to do the work and had it done. Officials connected to the project said Thursday that it cost less than $20,000 on the improvements.
“It’s a pretty silly lawsuit,” Thomas said. He also noted that was no longer the mayor when O’Rourke was fired.
Gisbert said he did not want to comment on the situation until the city finishes an internal investigation.
Panama City Beach is one of several municipalities and government agencies that have been required to supply records to the FBI as part of a public corruption investigation. As News 13 first reported Lynn Haven has received much of the focus so far. Five individuals have already pleaded guilty in that case and four others, including former Mayor Margo Anderson, are facing a trial in August.
Investigators have also gathered records from Panama City, Springfield, and Bay District Schools as part of the probe.
“The FBI does not confirm nor deny the existence or status of any ongoing investigation, nor release details regarding interactions with witnesses of potential federal crimes,” the FBI said in a statement to News 13.