CLEARWATER — A lawyer for two Tampa Bay career centers laid out potential problems with how the agencies report job placement figures to the state on Friday, a revelation that could further call into question how many people they helped find work.
The report came amid federal, state and local investigations into whether CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay exaggerated job placement figures and received state incentive money based on inflated reports.
The lawyer, Charles Harris, spent the last week digging into the publicly-funded nonprofits’ system for reporting who they helped find jobs. He determined that thousands of people CareerSource claimed to have helped find work in the last two years may never have sought the agencies’ assistance, but instead were pulled from hiring lists provided by employers and entered into a state system.
The jobs centers, he said, claimed credit for helping place the people into positions because CareerSource staffers had run their names through a series of databases to determine whether the workers and their employers were eligible for federally funded training programs. Harris said CareerSource considered those searches a "service" rendered, enough to take credit for the job placements.
The most direct way for job centers to take credit for placements, Harris said, is to recommend a person for an open position, not to receive word of the potential hire from an employer.
Harris said he was not sure if taking credit for placements after only running the searches was allowed under federal and state guidelines. He presented his findings to an ad-hoc committee of the CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay boards, which decided to send the report to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to ask for clarity.
"It’s possible that it could all turn out that there is nothing wrong," said Pinellas County Commissioner and CareerSource board member Pat Gerard. "But I suspect not."
If the reports are found to be illegitimate, Harris said, as many as about half of the roughly 114,000 job placements the offices claim to have made in the last two fiscal years could be discredited.
Harris said the two agencies have received thousands of dollars in state incentive funding during that time, in part based on their placement numbers. Furthermore, he said, at least a couple of dozen employees in CareerSource’s business services division receive incentives, "part of which is based on placements."
Edward Peachey, the president and CEO of the career centers in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, said he created the incentive structure but doesn’t know if other workforce agencies have similar programs.
"Of course I was aware that people were paid incentives," Peachey told reporters after the meeting. He has been placed on unpaid administrative leave in Hillsborough while the investigations continue. He was also suspended with pay from his post in Pinellas last week by the job center’s board chairman.
Peachey has asserted that "no criminal acts" happened at the career programs.
The ad-hoc committee also decided Friday to investigate an allegation by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri that someone at CareerSource forged the signatures of himself and one of his employees on official documents. The paperwork included training schedules, part of the approval process for the Sheriff’s Office to receive federal funds as partial reimbursement for the salaries of 10 new employees while they were trained on the job.
"This could be a serious problem across everything we do," said CareerSource Tampa Bay board chairman Dick Peck.
Harris, the lawyer, told the committee he does not know if the faked signatures were isolated or part of a systemic issue.
"Does the CEO know of this practice?" Harris said. "I don’t know the answer to that either."
Peachey said he didn’t "understand the disconnect" on the documents with the Sheriff’s Office. He said the law enforcement agency worked with CareerSource and shared payroll and other hiring information as part of the federal reimbursement programs.
Gualtieri forwarded a letter describing the forged signatures to the state Department of Economic Opportunity, which is investigating the CareerSource offices along with the U.S. Department of Labor. The investigations were touched off by questions from the Tampa Bay Times about the agencies’ job placement reporting.
Several workers who CareerSource claims to have placed into jobs told the Times they never sought the centers’ help. Employers said they provided full hiring lists to CareerSource that included workers who did not receive assistance.
Members of the ad-hoc committee said they want the investigation to move faster.
"We’d like somebody down here now," said Jack Geller, a member of the CareerSource Pinellas board, adding that investigators can help the committee determine what changes are needed at the job centers.
Gerard, the Pinellas commissioner, vowed to urge Gov. Rick Scott to expedite the process.