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Regional jobs board suspends top executives

NEW PORT RICHEY — Lee Ellzey's first tweet of the day: "Satan charges hard. Don't let him win."

The statement, posted at 7:45 a.m. Thursday on Twitter, came a day after state investigators issued a report indicating that Ellzey, the president and chief operating officer of the regional workforce board, had paid an excessive amount of money for training at companies owned by his boss, board chairman and Pasco businessman Steve Jensen.

Members of the Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership Board responded swiftly. By Thursday afternoon, Ellzey and his senior vice president, Terry Williams, were suspended without pay pending further investigation.

The board also asked Jensen, a volunteer who was not at the meeting, to step down as chairman during the investigation. Board members asked the state Agency for Workforce Innovation to provide leadership until the matter is resolved and a new executive can be hired. Board members also agreed to reconsider the agency's business model, which gives the staff wide latitude in decision making.

"There's definitely going to be more oversight," said Michael Cox, a Pasco County commissioner and a workforce board member.

Cox opened the meeting by moving to suspend the regular agenda and "deal with the 800-pound gorilla in the room."

Three times he called on Ellzey to resign. Ellzey refused, saying the board didn't know the whole story.

The 48-page report by the state Office of Inspector General, which assisted the state Agency for Workforce Innovation, outlined several allegations. It said that Ellzey, the top employee of the workforce group that administers Career Central, had approved $123,000 in training costs for two companies owned by Jensen even though the staff had denied the application.

The rate comes out to about $3,844 an hour, which was "extraordinarily high and deviated from established practice," the report said.

The agency split the cost with Jensen's companies, paying $61,000. The checks, however, never went to the trainer, an in-house employee, the report said.

It also outlined other concerns and said Williams "used his position to influence his subordinate to hire his father." His father, who was receiving unemployment checks at the time, asked that paychecks be made out to his wife, the report said.

The workforce board is one of 24 in the state. It receives federal funding to help local businesses train their employees. It also provides programs to help people find jobs.

The board's audit and executive committees will together conduct their own investigation into the allegations. The report says officials at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have also been briefed on the findings, and that agency is reviewing the matter.

Jensen, whose Port Richey companies Optima HVAC and Axon Technologies received the training at the heart of the controversy, could not be reached for comment Thursday. A man who answered the phone at one of his businesses said Jensen was out of town.

The report also mentioned two later applications for training at Jensen's companies. The trainer named on the application was Ralph Newman, who was listed as a consultant with Superior Training Consultants and Azaria Training Consultants.

But investigators said they couldn't find any record of those firms in state corporate records. Jensen told investigators Ralph Newman is the groundskeeper at his company.

The applications ended up being canceled and no public money was spent.

Board member Mark Barry, who moved to suspend the top executives and strip Jensen of his leadership role, praised the rank and file and said it was important to "avoid even the appearance of retribution" for the whistleblower and staffers who might be sympathetic.

Ellzey couldn't be reached immediately after the meeting. But at 3:46 p.m., the man who described himself in his Twitter profile as a "husband, father, Christian, Auburn grad, FSU fan" and basketball lover, left this tweet:

"I'm looking for what God really wants me to do."

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Regional jobs board suspends top executives 06/11/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 11, 2009 8:15pm]
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