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Visitors bureau may face inquiry

Is it time to call off the accountants and call in the bloodhounds?

With more questions than answers about how the defunct Merced Conference and Visitors Bureau racked up $50,000 in unpaid bills, some officials are now wondering whether the District Attorney's Office could solve the mystery.

Yosemite Area Regional Transit System officials voted Monday to talk to the District Attorney's Office about whether the whereabouts of $16,992 the CVB owes YARTS could warrant a criminal investigation.

YARTS Transit Manager Dick Whittington said he'll soon meet with the Merced County District Attorney's Office on the matter. The lost $16,992 is one of the unpaid bills the CVB left behind when it abruptly closed its doors in November. The city canceled the CVB's $373,100 taxpayer-funded contract after a city investigation revealed financial mismanagement at the organization.

The YARTS board has also asked its attorney, Mariposa County Counsel Thomas Guarino, to look into whether YARTS could file a lawsuit to get the funds back.

YARTS is the government-run bus service from Merced to Yosemite National Park. The CVB sold YARTS bus tickets at the California Welcome Center; it was supposed to turn over proceeds from the ticket sales to YARTS every month.

But in February 2007, the CVB stopped making regular payments to YARTS. During the next eight months, the CVB sold $20,999 worth of bus tickets, but it transferred only about $5,000 to YARTS.

YARTS gave the CVB a Dec. 21 deadline to hand over the missing money or face legal action. That deadline passed with no word from the CVB.

YARTS board member Dianne Fritz, a Mariposa County supervisor, said she had "no clue" what the CVB did with the missing cash.

"I know the bus tickets were issued, the rides were taken, the fuel was used and someone did something with the funds instead of turning them into YARTS," said Fritz. "We went into the agreement with them to sell tickets in good faith -- and it was not met."

Merced County Supervisor Mike Nelson, also a YARTS board member, said recovering the $16,992 is important because YARTS works "on a shoestring budget."

The CVB was an independent nonprofit that provided the city's tourism promotion services until November. The city stopped making its regular monthly payment to the CVB in September, when questions arose about the CVB's financial stability.

CVB president Dave Wood told the Sun-Star in September that the organization's financial woes were caused in part by the 2006 rockslide near Yosemite, which he said cut down on the number of visitors to the CVB-run California Welcome Center on 16th Street. The CVB generated some revenue by selling merchandise at the Welcome Center.

But the city traced the cash shortfall in part to an $11,000 renovation the CVB made to the city-owned California Welcome Center -- a renovation that the city never approved. The city's investigation also found that former Executive Director Melyssa Laughlin received a 15 percent pay raise that wasn't approved by the entire CVB board and that the CVB failed to pay about $2,000 in payroll taxes.

Wood and Laughlin did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

The city is now looking for a new organization to take over the CVB's duties. Both the Merced County Chamber of Commerce and Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce have expressed interest in the contract.

Reporter Leslie Albrecht can be reached at 209 385-2484 or lalbrecht@mercedsun-star.com.

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