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President of Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services resigns after contract controversy

After three decades leading Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, one of the area's largest nonprofit social welfare agencies, organization president Michael Bernstein has resigned.

The departure comes following disturbing revelations about a contract the nonprofit has with the state Department of Education to place mentally and physically disabled people in jobs.

Lisa Brock, owner of a public relations firm in Tampa and Gulf Coast's designated spokeswoman, said the resignation was not linked to any mishandling of the contract on Bernstein's part.

"When an organization has had the same leadership for several years," Brock said, "it's sometimes just time for a change."

Bernstein, 57, did not immediately respond to phone messages late Wednesday.

News of Bernstein's departure came in a statement from David Abelson, the chairman of Gulf Coast's board of directors.

"The board will convene a search committee to begin the process of hiring a new president and CEO and we look forward to a healthy future under new leadership," Abelson said in the statement.

Gulf Coast has roughly 700 employees working in 32 counties across Florida, including the bay area. It reported revenue of nearly $33 million in 2007, the last year for which federal records are available.

According to Gordon Lightfoot, a contracts administrator at the state Department of Education, Bernstein visited his office in late March or early April.

Lightfoot said Bernstein told the state an internal review had found irregularities in Gulf Coast's handling of the contract. The state launched a review of Gulf Coast's performance between January 2008 and early June.

The state looked at Gulf Coast's operations in three geographic regions. One includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Manatee and Sarasota counties; the two others are in South Florida.

The state found that Gulf Coast had invoiced the state for having gotten jobs for clients, but it produced inadequate evidence that the placements had actually occurred.

Also, it was found that Gulf Coast placed some clients in jobs that the state had determined would not be appropriate for them.

Gulf Coast was ordered to repay $132,000 to the state, which it did in mid September.

Lightfoot said most of the problems had occurred in South Florida and that the review turned up no evidence of illegal activity, though that possibility could not be ruled out.

It's possible, he said, that the trouble was merely inadequate record keeping.

The Department of Education is considering whether to terminate its contract with Gulf Coast. According to Brock, the Gulf Coast spokeswoman, the contract is worth $1.2 million to the nonprofit.

Brock said that after the trouble was discovered, Gulf Coast chief financial officer Diana Robertson resigned. Also, she said, two of the nonprofit's Miami employees were fired.

She said an internal review concluded the employees had improperly documented job placements but had not committed theft or any other crime.

Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board and the regional office of the State Department of Children and Families have contracts with Gulf Coast for social services work.

Both groups said that following the news about the nonprofit's trouble, they reviewed Gulf Coast's performance on their contracts and found no reason for concern.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

President of Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services resigns after contract controversy 10/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 7:58pm]
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