WASHINGTON — A presidential commission planning the 500th anniversary celebration of Columbus' voyage to America has been plagued by problems: a tiny budget, few corporate donations and, until this month, almost no publicity.
Now add a conflict-of-interest controversy to its list of woes.
The panel's chairman, Miami real estate developer John Goudie, resigned amid disclosures that a close friend has ties to a company doing business with the commission.
The event's biggest corporate sponsor, Texaco Inc., suspended its donations in September after raising questions about the commission's management. Another potential sponsor, Chrysler Corp., may stay away from the event.
And a congressional subcommittee is looking into Goudie's involvement with the Christopher Columbus Licensing Group Inc., or CCLG, of Miami and New York.
"To have this project blow up in our faces now is making it difficult to deal with future sponsors," said Frederick Guardabassi, a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., businessman who has served on the commission since 1985. "So much damage has been done to the commission. It's a tragedy."
The centerpieces of the celebration are replicas of Columbus' three ships being built in Spain and originally financed with money from Texaco. The commission is $600,000 in arrears in payments for the ships, which are to follow Columbus' route and visit 50 U.S. ports.
Chrysler says it wants to clear up unspecified contractual questions before making a donation of more than $1 million.
Congress has appropriated $210,000 a year for the commission, which pays for staff salaries and office space.
Strapped for cash, the commission turned to CCLG in 1989 because the company was willing to pay $300,000 immediately for the licensing rights to Columbus souvenirs.
The rights potentially are worth millions.
Goudie is a popular fund-raiser for Republican candidates in Florida. His Hispanic background made him a natural for the commission chairmanship, say GOP figures in Miami.
This year, CCLG paid at least $35,000 to Manuel Gonzalez, who describes Goudie as a close friend. The two Miami businessmen have known each other since their days in junior college, Gonzalez said during the course of several interviews.
Other commissioners said they didn't know about Gonzalez' role.
"I was stunned," said Commissioner Charles Ginoli, who served on the finance committee that reviewed the CCLG contract.