Edward Peachey quickly earned a reputation as a fix-it guy after he arrived in Pinellas County.
The local job placement center had hired him as chief financial officer, but within six months he was executive director, charged with cleaning up the agency’s messy bookkeeping.
Over the next 15 years, the certified accountant blossomed from a numbers cruncher into one of Tampa Bay’s most influential industry leaders. He was tapped to take over the Hillsborough County job placement center when it became mired in a spending scandal in 2010.
Peachey was praised for navigating government regulations and for his apparent Midas touch in connecting workers to jobs. His two agencies routinely ranked near the top in the state for job placements.
Now, Peachey, 54, faces a controversy that in years past he might have been brought in to fix. State and federal legislators have called for investigations into whether CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay inflated those vaunted job placement figures by taking credit for getting people jobs who they didn’t actually help.
The Department of Economic Opportunity says it is executing a "full and thorough investigation" into both agencies, including whether the state paid out incentive money based on exaggerated placement numbers.
Just last week, the governor called for local authorities to convene emergency board meetings and "consider appropriate disciplinary and administrative action."
The fast-moving controversy has surprised several of Peachey’s supporters and bosses, who described him as a cerebral and strategic workaholic.
Former Pinellas board member Tony Leisner called him "diligent" and "a good team builder."
"It’s a mystery to me that this is going on," Leisner said. "It’s so contrary to the guy that I knew."
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Peachey joined the Pinellas career center in 2002, after the previous CFO turned out to not have graduated from college. Soon after, the director resigned, too, amid reports of bookkeeping and accounting problems.
Peachey had attended high school in a small railroad town in central Pennsylvania before earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh in 1987. He moved to Florida after college, according to his resume, and worked for a Tampa accounting firm. Peachey, who is licensed as a certified public accountant, eventually joined the Pasco workforce center, before becoming the vice president of finance for the center that oversees Citrus, Levy and Marion counties.
It wasn’t long before Peachey’s bosses in Pinellas were doling out kudos.
Then-chairman Leroy Sullivan, wrote in a letter that there were "no words sufficiently expressive" to convey the board’s appreciation "for your tireless efforts and extensive hours spent to straighten out the financial records."
Over the next decade, former board members said, he impressed his colleagues as a competent, shrewd manager. An early performance evaluation in his county personnel file gave Peachey perfect scores for ethics, job knowledge and dependability.
Pinellas School Board Chairwoman Rene Flowers recalled how Peachey opened a center at Pinellas Technical College on 34th Street S and promoted equal access to job training in minority communities.
"He had ideas about how to embrace the community, some programs to put in place, so we were making sure that individuals were trained in the areas where there were needs," Flowers said.
Craig Brethauer, a former BayCare Health Systems executive and Pinellas jobs board member, remembered working with Peachey on an award-winning nursing program that helped trainees who could not afford to enter the field.
During the recession, Leisner recalled, Peachey held numerous job fairs by calling on businesses to sponsor some of the programs, overcoming a lack of public funding when people needed help most.
In 2010, his growing reputation helped him land the top job in Hillsborough, where the agency was enveloped in a spending scandal. Since then, Hillsborough County commissioners and agency board members have often lauded him.
"Ed, you’ve done a fantastic job," board chair Richard Peck said at an executive board meeting last December. "That’s why you’re No. 1 in the state."
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A crack in Peachey’s relationship with local leaders first emerged publicly in 2016.
Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch accused him of ending a contract with an auditing firm without board approval. Peachey terminated the deal after he learned the firm had hired the agency’s former chief financial officer.
Then weeks ago, Welch led commissioners in not approving some of Peachey’s recommended appointments to the agency’s board, saying Peachey did not provide qualifications for nominees or explanations on why some people were excluded. That prompted a Tampa Bay Times article. Peachey pushed back.
"CareerSource Pinellas has been extremely successful for the past 14 years under the leadership of the President and CEO and the board of directors," he wrote in a letter criticizing the article and commissioners. "... We don’t hear this lauded at the (commission) meeting nor do we read it (in) the papers."
While generally responsive, several former board members said Peachey can grow irritated when challenged.
"He always had the answers, and he had the rationale," Leisner said. "Though Ed did have an aggressive streak in him. If he felt very strongly about something, you knew it."
Welch said Peachey’s relationship with the Pinellas board has changed in the last few years.
"For one reason or another he has not appeared before the County Commission, sends updates through staff, so it’s been distant," Welch said.
Peachey, who according to payroll records earned about $291,000 in 2016, and the agencies’ lawyer did not respond to a call or email requesting comment for this article.
By necessity, Peachey has long brushed shoulders with the area’s leaders, but few seemed to know him outside of work. He has seldom donated to political campaigns. Several of his neighbors in St. Petersburg’s Broadwater community said they only know him from passing greetings when he’s walking his dog.
"I don’t think I’ve ever had a drink with him," said Brethauer, the former board member and Baycare executive.
"Ed’s always been very quiet," said former Pinellas board member Deveron Gibbons. "He’s seemed to be very cerebral."
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman said last week that before the investigations, she knew Peachey to be "very strategic and just very hardworking." But now Murman, who is on the CareerSource Tampa Bay board, said she wants "to wait and see how the investigation comes out."
One person who said he considered Peachey a personal friend is Rusty Skinner, his old boss who still heads the CareerSource agency in Citrus, Levy and Marion counties. Skinner’s daughter works for Peachey in Tampa.
Skinner said Peachey was a competent employee and a steadying force at the jobs training program in the late 1990s.
"When you’re in a situation where there’s a lot of stress, you hope that people will cover your (back) and will help you bring out your own integrity," Skinner said. "It’s my hope that when the dust settles for all this, that he’s able to have that, too."