In 2011, after a spending scandal rocked Orlando’s job placement center, chief operating officer Alice Cobb was one of several top executives forced out.
In explaining the departure, the new board chairman brought in to fix the reeling agency told the Orlando Sentinel that Cobb was "associated with all the questionable practices."
"She was involved intimately with the entire operation and all key management decisions," Kevin Shaughnessy said.
But Cobb was not unemployed for long.
Just a month after the Sentinel reported her resignation, payroll records show she was hired into a high-level position at Pinellas’ job placement agency.
CareerSource Pinellas, and its sister center, CareerSource Tampa Bay, are now at the center of the latest controversy to hit the state’s career placement centers. This time, investigators are looking at whether the agencies overstated their record of helping people find jobs.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the state’s CareerSource agencies, has said it is taking a thorough look at all facets of the job placement centers but has not pointed the finger at anyone specifically.
In response to questions about Cobb from the Tampa Bay Times on Friday, the agency said only that it was a conflict of interest for her to serve as both the equal employment opportunity officer and human resources director. The agency asked officials to appoint a new equal employment opportunity officer by Friday.
In a letter to the president and CEO of CareerSource Tampa Bay and CareerSource Pinellas late Friday, a DEO official explained that Cobb "is heavily involved in … decisions to hire, discipline, and terminate employees," and it is thus "impossible" for her to also serve as the equal employment opportunity officer "impartially."
Cobb, who payroll records show earned $150,693 last year and also holds the title of special projects director, did not respond to requests for comment.
Through his lawyer, president and CEO Edward Peachey told the Times on Friday that he hired Cobb for "her knowledge, skills and abilities" and "was not aware of details of Ms. Cobb leaving Central Florida." He added that Cobb "conducts herself in a professional manner and is very effective in her duties."
The local workforce boards make their own hiring decisions, which are overseen by county officials, according to the DEO. They don’t need approval from the governor or any other state agency.
Cobb’s hiring and prominent role have left several local leaders with even more questions about Peachey’s leadership and oversight of the two CareerSource agencies, which received about $32 million in tax dollars in 2016.
"It certainly does raise further concerns," said Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard, who recently joined the CareerSource Pinellas board, which has not yet held a meeting this year.
Fellow Pinellas Commissioners Janet Long and Ken Welch have served on the CareerSource Pinellas board in recent years and said they knew nothing about Cobb’s past or hiring.
"I do have concerns about the issues," Welch said.
Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman, a member of the CareerSource Tampa Bay board, said she was not aware Cobb worked for the Orlando agency.
"The policy should be if somebody is let go by any CareerSource board in the state of Florida, they shouldn’t be able to be hired by another CareerSource board in another city," she said. "That’s common sense."
The Orlando scandal blew up after the Sentinel reported on problematic spending. Leaders of the job placement agency had paid about $150,000 to buy 10 PT Cruisers just two months after saying they had to make staff cuts due to budget reductions. The Sentinel also reported that the organization was giving contracts to companies connected to its board members. The agency was further lambasted for a planned $73,000 marketing campaign, which included handing out thousands of red superhero capes to unemployed people.
Shaughnessy, the board chair who took over in Orlando, told the Sentinel that Cobb was involved in many decisions during the time of the questionable spending. He was especially bothered by the newspaper’s report of an accounting mistake in 2008. A former controller for the agency said he learned it was double-posting expenses, which made it seem like it had a budget shortfall and prompted executives to recommend layoffs.
The controller said he informed Cobb of the double-posting, hoping to stop the job cuts, the newspaper reported, but she would not go to the board to clear up the mistake. Cobb denied that account, according to the Sentinel. Shaughnessy said other people backed up what the controller said.
The Orlando agency house cleaning occurred a year after Peachey had been tapped to take over the Hillsborough agency. The previous Hillsborough leader resigned amid criticism of lavish expenses for food and staff during routine meetings, including $500 in meals from a Cheesecake Factory restaurant that was charged to taxpayers.
In 2013, after the scandals in Orlando and Tampa, Gov. Rick Scott rebranded the state’s 24 regional jobs programs into CareerSource centers.
Both of Peachey’s CareerSource organizations, publicly funded nonprofits, are now under investigations by the DEO inspector general and Florida House to determine whether they inflated the numbers of job placements they reported to the state. On Friday, Scott urged the boards of the two agencies to call emergency meetings and "consider appropriate disciplinary and administrative action."
The DEO is looking into allegations that the agencies are using hiring information provided by companies and government agencies to claim they helped people land jobs even when they played no role.
Some workers, for instance, told the Times they never used CareerSource and didn’t know the agency was taking credit for helping them get their jobs. Several employers also said they were unaware the job center was claiming placements of people it had not assisted.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri recently severed his agency’s ties with CareerSource after calling the placement system a "scam."
"This seemed like a system to backfill job placement numbers," he said.
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