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Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance cancels contract with largest vendor, Strategywise

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance has notified its largest vendor that it is terminating a lucrative contract intended to help the working poor.

Strategywise, a Tallahassee consulting company, has secured more than $2 million in contracts from the Workforce Alliance since 2007. Its current agreement is for $710,275.

The company is run by Laurise Thomas, who was convicted of bank fraud before she formed Strategywise in 2001. She is the former sister-in-law of Renee Benton Gilmore, who recently resigned as chief executive of the Workforce Alliance amid allegations of lavish spending.

Strategywise's contract was supposed to run through June. But the Workforce Alliance decided to exercise a provision allowing either party to end the deal without cause after giving 30 days' notice, Ed Peachey, the agency's interim president, said Monday.

That decision comes as the Workforce Alliance, a publicly funded job-training center, struggles to right itself after a series of embarrassing disclosures.

The St. Petersburg Times first reported Thomas' involvement with Strategywise, her criminal past and her ties to Gilmore, who quit her CEO post Feb. 15.

Two weeks ago, a Workforce Alliance manager was fired after it was discovered a company she founded had received a $23,000 contract from the agency. That manager, Shantae Gilmer, was earning $65,000 a year at the Workforce Alliance.

Last week, the embattled agency announced the elimination of 20 management positions. Five belonged to top administrators.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the Workforce Alliance and its vendors. FDLE officials have not said whether Strategywise is a target. The U.S. Labor Department and the Agency for Workforce Innovation are conducting separate investigations of the agency.

In recent years, Strategywise has been responsible for providing services related to the Passport to Economic Progress program, which aims to help former welfare recipients become self-sufficient.

Workforce Alliance officials are still trying to gather expense information from Strategywise. If it is determined that unnecessary spending occurred as a result of the contracts, Hillsborough County would most likely be responsible for paying back the state, Peachey said.

"We don't want to continue to make payments on a contract where the costs may be disallowed," he said.

Those payments include more than $250,000 in the past three years for graduation ceremonies at the upscale Pepin Hospitality Centre.

Strategywise has also charged the Workforce Alliance tens of thousands of dollars for field trips to Tallahassee.

Among the costs in the current contract: $286,525 for a series of career-advancement workshops, $95,000 for another graduation, $25,000 for a leadership and entrepreneurship reception and $27,500 for "continued success kits." The kits include a travel tote, economic resource guide and leather-bound planner.

"We don't know what the expenditures are behind all that," Peachey said.

Kevin Smetana can be reached at ksmetana@sptimes.com or (813) 610-1650.

Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance cancels contract with largest vendor, Strategywise 04/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 11:14pm]
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