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Corruption inquiry puts Pasco job agency's CEO Lee Ellzy out of work

For 17 years, Lee Ellzey flew under the radar. His nonprofit agency helped people on welfare find jobs. The economy was booming, and the agency ran like clockwork. Never a hint of scandal.

Ellzey enjoyed a good relationship with his 35-member board of volunteer business leaders. He got good evaluations and his salary eventually rose to more than $95,000. He served on boards of other organizations. In his hometown of Inverness, he was a booster of his children's school and a pillar of his Southern Baptist church. He lived in a comfortable, yet not extravagant, neighborhood, and commuted to his Hernando County office in a modest silver sedan.

Then the housing market collapsed. Ellzey's agency, the Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership, saw its $6 million budget soar to $13 million as the federal government granted stimulus money to help people find work or train for new careers.

Lines grew longer at the agency's one-stop job centers, called Career Central, which became a household name for those down on their luck.

As Ellzey and his 26 full-time staffers worked to handle the extra burdens placed on them by a dismal economy, it seemed to at least one person that the agency itself suffered corruption.

That person became a whistle blower, raising six concerns, the most serious being that Ellzey did favors for his board chairman's companies, paying excessive fees for employee training programs. That one got the attention of criminal investigators, who are still looking into the case.

The others ranged from nepotism to the improper disposal of equipment, to using board money to pay for some staffers' gym memberships and buying items from his children's high school.

A day after news of the investigation broke, Ellzey was suspended without pay. The board fired him on Friday.

After 17 years of helping others find work, Ellzey, 49, is now unemployed himself.

• • •

The state put its findings into a 45-page report. One cost Ellzey's senior vice president, Terry Williams Jr., his job. He was accused of having his father hired to do maintenance work and giving a copier to a friend's business.

The most serious allegation, the one being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, involved Ellzey and his board chairman, Steve Jensen, who owns two Pasco companies, Optima Technologies and Axon Technologies.

Jensen wanted to participate in a program that pays half the cost of employee training. The company pays the other half. It's not illegal or unusual for board members' companies to take advantage of the program.

But what was unusual was how the trainer, one of Jensen's own employees, was to be paid.

Board policy says in-house employees are to be paid half of what they normally earn per hour.

With the company matching the other half, the trainer ends up making no more than his or her regular salary. Outside consultants are paid negotiated fees.

Jensen's employee was listed on the application as a consultant, with a fee of $123,000. That translated into an hourly rate of $3,844, which was flagged as excessive. Workforce board staff members denied the request. Ellzey overrode it and approved the application, investigators said. The result was a $61,000 payout to the trainer, who the report says never received the money. What happened to it remains a mystery.

Two more applications were later submitted to the agency.

They listed Ralph Newman as the trainer and two consulting firms. Investigators looked up the firm names in state corporate records but could not find anything listed. And Newman? He's the grounds keeper at Jensen's company "and not qualified to provide such training," Jensen told investigators.

In the end, no money ended up being spent. The applications were canceled.

• • •

Ellzey has not returned calls in the past few weeks for comment. At a meeting after news stories were published, he refused Pasco County Commissioner Michael Cox's public call to resign. He declined to talk about the allegation regarding Jensen's companies, citing the criminal investigation.

This week, commissioners voted unanimously to remove Jensen from the board.

Ellzey told investigators that when he approved Jensen's application, he looked only at the bottom line. His agency had approved training for larger amounts, so it didn't raise a red flag.

He also told investigators there was no official ceiling on overall costs.

However, the report said, "Mr. Ellzey said that in hindsight, it would have been better to negotiate the cost of training in a different way."

• • •

Ellzey's personnel file shows a leader who met board goals and received regular pay raises.

"I sincerely appreciate Lee's efforts and his ability to be a self-driven employee. We are fortunate to have him in our organization," previous chairwoman Denise O'Berry wrote in 2006.

The year before, he got an 8 percent pay raise and a 2 percent bonus.

He holds a membership in the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals and is a 1994 alumni of Leadership Hernando.

What the file does not contain, and what nobody can locate, is a resume. It is unclear what he did before taking over the workforce board, although records show he moved from Tallahassee.

His Twitter account mentions that he graduated from Auburn University.

Friends in Ellzey's hometown of Inverness say his personal life revolved around church, his son's Citrus High basketball games and Florida State University football. His wife, Cindy, is a massage therapist. They have a mastiff named Duke.

Dwight Hooper, who owns a funeral home in the heart of Inverness, said he and Ellzey became friends through their wives, who were part of the same local sorority. They have tailgated together at football games. Both attend First Baptist Church.

Hooper said he was surprised at the allegations in the report and doubts Ellzey knowingly did anything wrong.

"I'd trust Lee Ellzey with my checking account," he said. "If Lee has made a mistake, he's the type who'll admit it and make it right."

Hooper describes Ellzey, who leads a Sunday school class, as a strong Christian who goes the extra mile to help others.

He recalled how a woman pregnant with twins was hospitalized in Leesburg after experiencing complications.

Ellzey, a deacon, made the drive to pray with her.

He also sang in the choir at the church's blended worship service. In recent years, he had experienced a re-awakening of his faith, and was heavily influenced by an inspirational book called Crazy Love.

When news of the investigation surfaced, Ellzey stopped singing at church.

"He didn't want to be seen as a hypocrite," Hooper explained.

Hooper said Ellzey sees the crisis as a way for God to redirect his path.

"I could see him doing something in ministry," he said.

The Rev. Donnie Seagle, called Ellzey "a man of honesty and integrity."

"I know there's an awful lot of politics on the workforce board," he said. "I trust Lee. He's the real deal."

Lisa Buie can be reached at or (813) 909-4604.

Corruption inquiry puts Pasco job agency's CEO Lee Ellzy out of work 06/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 29, 2009 9:30am]
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