TAMPA — As state law enforcement investigates the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance and its vendors, the St. Petersburg Times has learned that the president of the agency's largest vendor is a felon who has been investigated before.
Laurise Thomas, 46, served five years of federal probation for using phony names and Social Security numbers to obtain $158,618 in credit.
She was ousted from her $55,000-a-year administrator job with Florida's minority business office after hitting up companies she regulated for contributions to a state employee luncheon.
And while at that office, she accepted personal gifts from the vice president of a construction firm that won a $12 million minority business contract for work on a state prison.
Despite her past, Thomas' Tallahassee-based consulting company, Strategywise, has secured more than $2 million in contracts from the Workforce Alliance. Until last month, Thomas' former sister-in-law, Renee Benton Gilmore, ran the publicly funded job training center.
Gilmore, 52, quit the chief executive post Feb. 15 amid accusations of extravagant spending by her agency at a time of record-breaking unemployment in Florida.
Strategywise hasn't pinched pennies either. Tasked with helping the working poor, the company has received more than $250,000 in Workforce Alliance money to hold "graduation" ceremonies and thousands more for field trips to Tallahassee.
Though Thomas and Gilmore's brother divorced long ago, city utility records for Gilmore's home at 10408 N Forest Hills Drive are in the name of Thomas' sister.
Attorneys for Gilmore and Thomas said the women have done nothing wrong.
"You're suggesting that because (Thomas is) a felon then there's something wrong with the process," said lawyer Barry Cohen, who represents Gilmore. "And that's not a fair inference."
"The past is just that. The past," said Gary Roberts, Thomas' attorney. "She paid her debt to society and has moved on."
But Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who sits on the Workforce Alliance board, declared himself "disgusted" by the revelations.
"It's government performing at its worst," he said. "It makes everyone look bad. There's no excuse. None."
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Thomas, who cut her political teeth working on the campaign staffs of Democrats Buddy MacKay and Jesse Jackson, is no stranger to scrutiny.
Hired at the age of 27 by the Minority Business Advocacy and Assistance Office in Tallahassee, she was expected to bring new energy and a higher profile to the fledgling state agency.
Four years later, she left under a cloud.
First, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reviewed her decision to seek contributions of up to $1,500 from minority businesses for a state luncheon. Some of the business owners said they felt Thomas was using her influence to take advantage of them.
The solicitation helped get her fired. But a prosecutor declined to file charges because no contributions were made and there was no evidence that the funds were sought for personal gain, according to an investigation summary.
FDLE agents then turned their attention to gifts Thomas accepted in 1994 and 1995 from the vice president of a construction company that had just been awarded the state's largest-ever minority contract.
The gifts included 19 plane tickets, a $1,200 watch, a $1,338 refrigerator, a set of tires for her leased Lexus and office furniture, FLDE agents found.
Again, Thomas avoided prosecution. Though it was revealed that she and the construction company executive were romantically involved and Thomas advocated for minority contractors during the bidding process for the prison project, investigators found no documentation proving that she improperly intervened.
Her actions outside work, however, landed her in federal court for fraud.
Charged in an 11-count indictment, Thomas faced prison time for buying clothes, furniture and luxury cars with loans and credit cards that she got using false Social Security numbers.
She pleaded guilty. On Aug. 21, 1997, she went to court to learn her fate.
The courtroom windows were covered for the hearing. Reporters weren't allowed inside.
Officials denied that the secrecy had anything to do with the prominence of her parents.
Thomas is the daughter of Geraldine Thompson, now a Democratic state representative from Orlando, and senior appellate judge Emerson R. Thompson Jr.
According to an FDLE memo, prosecutors announced that Thomas had provided "substantial assistance" to a federal corruption investigation involving local government in the Miami area.
A judge sentenced her to five years of probation. Her punishment included eight months of house arrest with electronic monitoring and $36,783 in restitution.
A year later, she narrowly avoided prison after a judge found her guilty of violating her probation by traveling to Miami without prior approval. Because she was in the late stages of a difficult pregnancy, the judge decided that six more months of house arrest was an appropriate sanction.
"She is working hard to turn her life around," Thomas' attorney at the time wrote in court papers. "She has made mistakes, but she is trying to correct those mistakes in order to maintain a productive and rewarding life."
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Thomas still had a year to go on her probation when she founded Strategywise in 2001.
Her current husband, John C. Thomas, who serves as director of policy and political affairs for the Florida League of Cities, is listed as a managing member of the company.
State corporate records show that the Thomases run the business out of their $1.2 million home in Tallahassee. They bought the home in 2007, after entering into their initial contract with the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance.
The company is a certified minority vendor in Florida, according to the state Office of Supplier Diversity.
FDLE won't say whether Strategywise is a target of its investigation. Sharpe said he plans to ask for a forensic auditing of every Workforce Alliance contract and relationship.
Thomas' criminal record and her relationship to Gilmore do not appear to preclude her company from getting contracts with regional work force boards. Still, Sen. Mike Fasano questioned the Tampa agency's decision to hire Strategywise.
"They hire a company 225 miles away?" said Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who is pushing for stricter state scrutiny of all 24 of Florida's workforce boards. "What's the logic in that?"
Fasano said complaints about Strategywise's spending and performance prompted the appropriations committee that he chairs to vote Friday against funding the programs the company has overseen.
Laurise Thomas isn't the only Strategywise employee with a felony arrest record.
Vice president Freddy Barton, who serves as project manager for the company's Workforce Alliance contract in Tampa, pleaded no contest to a grand theft charge he picked up in 2000 while a student at Florida A&M University.
Records show Barton confessed to stealing laptop computers, car radios and other items from the UPS terminal where he worked. He was ordered to serve three years of probation and 30 days of weekend jail, plus pay $3,350 in restitution. Adjudication was withheld.
Since 2007, the Workforce Alliance has paid Strategywise to provide services to the working poor through the Passport to Economic Progress program. The publicly funded program aims to help former welfare recipients become self-sufficient.
The current contract, which runs through June 30, totals $710,275.
It calls for a series of career advancement workshops ($286,525), a leadership and entrepreneurship reception ($25,000), and "continued success kits," which include a travel tote, economic resource guide and leather-bound planner ($27,500).
Strategywise also arranges an annual trip to Tallahassee for a select group of Passport participants at a cost of $10,000, vendor contracts show. The trips are meant to expose participants to the legislative process, said Tom Stewart, vice president of workforce solutions at the Tampa agency.
Each June for the past three years, Strategywise has organized graduation ceremonies to recognize Passport candidates who complete their goals.
The graduations are held at the upscale Pepin Hospitality Centre in Tampa. This year, the Strategywise contract allocates $95,000 for the event for up to 500 people, including participants and their guests. There are about 300 people currently enrolled in the Passport program.
By comparison, the Hillsborough County School District will pay a total of just under $75,000 this spring to put on 13 high school graduations at the state fairgrounds, a schools spokeswoman said. Each of those ceremonies has an average attendance of 3,500 people.
The other two work force boards that receive tax dollars for the Passport program either hold a low-key gathering or no graduation event at all.
The Suncoast Workforce Board, which serves Manatee and Sarasota counties, spent $5,630 on its year-end program last year, a spokeswoman for that agency said.
Stewart, a Workforce Alliance administrator in Tampa, said the Passport program is one of the nonprofit's most significant services. Last year, three people bought houses and four started businesses after going through the program's training.
"To propel them into true self-sufficiency for the long haul," Stewart said, "you can't measure the value of that."
Times staff writers Jeff Testerman, Lucy Morgan, Janet Zink and Lee Logan contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337. Kevin Smetana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 610-1650.