Kenneth Lawson
Kenneth Lawson

The board of Visit Florida has hired the state's top business regulator as its new CEO.

Kenneth Lawson, who has headed Florida's 1,600-employee Department of Business and Professional Regulation since 2011, will take over the post Wednesday at a salary of $175,000. He replaces Will Seccombe, whose resignation over the fallout from refusing to disclose the terms of the $1 million promotional contract Visit Florida signed with the rapper Pitbull in 2015 was accepted by the board Tuesday.

Board members promised an era of increased transparency and public accountability as they unanimously accepted the recommendation of chairman William Talbert III to hire Lawson.

"He knows how to walk those halls. He knows the process. He does understand that we take government dollars," said board member Carol Dover, who heads the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. Visit Florida is funded by public and private money.

Seccombe agreed to step aside with a severance of $73,000, all of which is to come out of private funds, Talbert said. Under his contract, if the dismissal were to have been deemed without cause, he could have demanded 18 months of severance at his salary of $293,000, plus 18 months of benefits and earned performance compensation of approximately $60,000. Seccombe's departure comes pursuant to a Dec. 16 request by Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Visit Florida is receiving $78 million from the state in the fiscal year that ends June 30. But Florida House speaker Richard Corcoran has threatened to pull all funding from next year's budget.

Corcoran led the charge against secrecy in the organization late last year, which ultimately led Pitbull to disclose the financial details of his contract. Under the contract, the rapper featured Visit Florida's Twitter hashtag on video screens at his concerts as well as on his 2015 New Year's Eve special from Miami that was broadcast on Fox. He also filmed the video for his single "Sexy Beaches" on Florida sands.

The video, which features bikini-clad models and provocative lyrics, irked Corcoran, a Republican from the Tampa suburb of Land O' Lakes, who called the lyrics, "degrading and horrible," in a late December blog.

In threatening to block funding for Visit Florida, Corcoran has questioned how much impact the entity's promotional work has had in drawing tourists to Florida and also whether the public should be subsidizing the marketing campaigns of Fortune 500 companies.

With his appointment, Lawson, a lawyer by trade, takes over a marketing organization that has traditionally been headed by people with a marketing background. Dover said that Visit Florida has plenty of marketing professionals working underneath its CEO. What the entity needs now, she said, is a leader who can help it operate with accountability required of an organization that receives public funding.
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Correction: Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation has 1,600 employees. A previous version of this report had the wrong number.

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