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Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance must repay $34,000 for excessive spending on food

TAMPA — One day last June, the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance charged taxpayers more than $1,000 for food consumed during routine staff meetings.

Executives, for instance, spent $500 on meals from the Cheesecake Factory and $330 on takeout from an Indian restaurant.

A state investigator now says the local workforce board must reimburse the government that money and thousands more.

Earlier this year, an Agency for Workforce Innovation inspection determined that the embattled Workforce Alliance misused $24,000 in federal funds for staff meals over 13 months.

After further review, AWI Inspector General James Mathews has deemed that at least $34,000 is owed. He continues to examine whether another $23,000 in related expenditures was allowable.

The Workforce Alliance must find nonfederal funds to repay the state agency, which oversees Florida's 24 regional workforce boards. Otherwise, Hillsborough County will be on the hook.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who sits on the Workforce Alliance board, said he won't let that happen.

"They better find a way to come up with it," he said Tuesday. "To include going back to the individuals who made the expenses, because this is not going to come out of the county."

Renee Benton Gilmore resigned as the local workforce board's chief executive in February, a month after the inspector general's initial report found excessive spending on food.

She and other executive team members, most of whom saw their jobs eliminated last week, had argued that the time spent in lengthy meetings justified the food deliveries. Investigators disagreed.

Investigators also pored over food costs incurred for employee recognition and other events. They deemed costs that benefitted staff members rather than program activities to be a waste of taxpayer money.

The Workforce Alliance will not be required to repay an additional $76,359 in food and beverage expenses. In a letter sent Monday to board chairman Dale Schumacher, Mathews cited "the absence of clear guidance mandating the repayment of the expenditures" as the reason.

But he added: "Please note that while these expenditures will not have to be repaid by the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, the Office of the Inspector General is in no way approving or finding that the expenditures were prudent or advisable."

In a separate letter to the AWI director, Mathews said "a significant portion" of the workforce board's expenditures on food and beverages during the 13-month period would likely be prohibited by proposed legislation aimed at bringing stricter oversight to the state's workforce boards.

A moratorium on using state or federal dollars for food and beverages is in place for all the boards through June 30.

"We've stopped any plans for events or sponsorships or memberships," said Ed Peachey, the Workforce Alliance's interim president. "We're not going to be doing any of that."

Peachey said he had not had time to review in detail the findings released Monday.

Attorneys are reviewing some funds that the workforce board believes it could use to repay the disallowed costs, Peachey said. If the dollars are not available, the county is ultimately responsible as the fiscal agent of the Workforce Alliance.

Mathews informed the agency that his office will forward its findings regarding the related expenditures in the next few weeks.

In addition to AWI's inquiry, the Workforce Alliance is being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Labor Department.

On Monday, Peachey said the Workforce Alliance was cutting ties with its largest vendor, Strategywise, run by a felon who is the former sister-in-law of Gilmore.

The company secured more than $2 million in contracts from the agency. Workforce Alliance officials are still trying to gather expense information from Strategywise to determine whether its spending was allowable.

Times staff writer Kevin Smetana contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance must repay $34,000 for excessive spending on food 04/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 12:49am]
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