The Pasco Hernando workforce board, which receives tax dollars to provide assistance and training to unemployed workers, used $6,000 in state funding to pay for employee massages — including some given by the former chief executive officer's wife.
State officials have asked the Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership to repay the money. The board voted Thursday to do so.
The massages were given between 2006 and 2008 by a licensed massage therapist and offered to all employees of the workforce board and the area's three one-stop job placement centers, according to a memo written by Jerome Salatino, the current chief executive officer of the nonprofit agency.
Salatino said the massages were given by Cyndi Ellzey, the wife of former workforce board CEO Lee Ellzey, and one other person. State records show Cyndi Ellzey is a licensed massage therapist, although it is unclear if she was a solo practitioner or an employee of a company.
"This is why people don't trust government," said Pasco County Commissioner Michael Cox, who is also a member of the workforce board. "If the job is so stressful, they need to get a massage on their own dime or work somewhere else."
Salatino, who started work at the agency this month, said the explanation given for the massages was "to improve staff morale." State rules allow money to be spent for that purpose, within reason. Examples of legitimate uses include team-building sessions at a ropes course and restaurant gift cards as rewards for an employee of the month.
"The state says (massages were) not reasonable. We agree," said Salatino, who recommended Thursday that the board reimburse the state from its $15,000 in private money.
The massages were offered under the leadership of Salatino's predecessor, Ellzey. The longtime CEO was fired last summer after a whistle-blower's complaint alleged a number of ethical issues, including one that accused Ellzey of misusing money to do a favor for a company owned by his boss, then-workforce board chairman Steve Jensen.
The whistle-blower told investigators that Ellzey overrode lower-level staffers' denial of a training grant for Jensen's companies and approved $123,000 in in-house training costs.
The rate came out to about $3,844 an hour, which was "extraordinarily high and deviated from established practice," according to the 48-page report by the state Office of Inspector General. The money was never paid to the trainer, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is still investigating the matter.
Jensen resigned from the board. His company has since filed for bankruptcy protection.
The whistle-blower also provided two examples of nepotism, including Ellzey's daughter being hired as an intern and then-vice president Terry Williams hiring his father to do maintenance work. Williams also resigned.
Another complaint alleged that Ellzey spent more than $2,000 on projects at his daughter's Citrus County high school, a claim Ellzey admitted to when questioned in June by the St. Petersburg Times. Ellzey defended the purchases and said the money was spent over a two-year period to buy poinsettias to decorate the workforce board offices and for refreshments at holiday gatherings. His daughter, he said, did not directly benefit.
Ellzey did not return messages left Thursday.
Hernando County Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who also serves on the board, said he was glad things were turning around at the agency with Salatino at the helm.
"There was a real culture problem over there the last few years," Stabins said.
Cox partly blamed the system, saying oversight was too lax. A few years ago, board members adopted a business model that gave the CEO greater latitude in decisionmaking.
After firing Ellzey, members began working to change the rules that govern the organization.
News about the massages is not surprising, given reports of workforce board problems across the state, said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee that has a role in giving money to the state's 24 regional boards. He commended the Pasco Hernando board for reimbursing taxpayers.
Recently, a WFLA-TV investigation revealed that the Hillsborough Workforce Alliance spent $100,000 of taxpayer money on food in one year and last year paid a comedian $3,500 to speak at a meeting.
Fasano said he is working on changes that will provide greater oversight on how workforce boards operate. Abuse is never acceptable, he said, but the agencies are receiving millions in federal stimulus money as the unemployment rate remains stuck in double digits and people need them to help find work.
"It is clear these dollars cannot be spent for massages, for comedians to entertain employees, for food and beverages," Fasano said. "This all has to stop."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.