Amid investigations, some Workforce Alliance board members seek internal review

Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance interim president Ed Peachey endorsed limits on staff food and beverage expenditures.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance interim president Ed Peachey endorsed limits on staff food and beverage expenditures.

TAMPA — Talk of more transparency, independent audits and closer scrutiny of spending permeated the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance's board of directors meeting Wednesday.

Collective outrage did not.

While a handful of board members spoke up about taking steps to rebuild public trust in the embattled organization, others stayed quiet about the concerns that have prompted investigations by three government agencies.

Attorney Lansing Scriven said investigators from the Agency for Workforce Innovation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Labor Department collected documents from the Workforce Alliance during the first week of March.

Board member Holly Tomlin suggested that the regional workforce board order its own forensic investigations from an outside firm in the future.

"And not just to cover ourselves but to do the right thing, be more thorough," Tomlin said.

She said it was upsetting to learn of revelations about the Workforce Alliance from investigators and news reports.

"I'd rather know about it first," she said.

The St. Petersburg Times reported last week that the president of the agency's largest vendor is a felon and the former sister-in-law of Renee Benton Gilmore, who quit the alliance's chief executive post last month amid accusations of extravagant spending by her agency.

Laurise Thomas' Tallahassee-based consulting company, Strategywise, has secured more than $2 million in contracts from the Workforce Alliance in recent years.

On March 5, the Workforce Alliance paid Gilmore $48,888.43 for unused vacation. According to her contract, she was entitled upon the end of her employment to be compensated at her existing salary rate for accrued but unused annual leave hours.

The payment was not mentioned at Wednesday's meeting. Learning of it afterward, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he asked county attorneys to review the contract.

"I mean, my gosh, $48,000, that's more than a teacher makes for an entire year," Sharpe said.

Sharpe said he will ask the County Commission on April 7 to formally request an independent forensic audit of all the Workforce Alliance's contracts and relationships.

The publicly funded alliance has already drawn heat for what a state inspector report called excessive spending on meals by staff members.

Auditors questioned federal funds being used for approximately $81,000 worth of food purchases during a 13-month period.

They determined that another $24,000 spent on staff meals was not allowed and should be repaid.

On Wednesday, board members approved a new food and beverage policy that is expected to be adopted by regional workforce boards statewide.

Developed by the Florida Workforce Development Association in response to media reports, official investigations and legislators' concerns, the guidelines regulate food and beverage purchases. The policy sets a maximum cost per person at $6 for breakfast, $11 for lunch and $19 for dinner — the same as state employees.

"I think it's very fitting, and it's really clear," said interim president Ed Peachey.

Board members also considered an anonymous whistle-blower hotline but want to see how much it will cost first.

In light of concerns about spending, the alliance has reduced the number of company credit cards used by executive staff members, board treasurer Ron Smith said.

He said the finance committee will now review detailed monthly statements for the remaining two cards.

The strongest reaction from board members came during a discussion about state Sen. Mike Fasano's push for more oversight of Florida's 24 workforce boards.

The bill calls for locally elected workforce board chairmen to be confirmed by the Senate and requires full-time directors of workforce programs to be approved by local elected officials, among other things.

Several members said they appreciate the bill's overall intent. But the actual language, not so much.

It amounts to micromanaging, said board member Randall King.

Smith said he wouldn't want to remain on the board under the proposed guidelines.

"That bill is trying to put board members, from the private sector at least, under a microscope," he said. "And as a volunteer, I don't appreciate being put under a microscope."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Amid investigations, some Workforce Alliance board members seek internal review 03/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 25, 2010 1:02am]

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