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Resignation, possible firings place Pasco-Hernando workforce board in upheaval

BROOKSVILLE — Two top executives of the regional workforce board facing accusations of fiscal mismanagement should be fired, according to the top officers who met Monday.

Lee Ellzey, the president and chief operating officer for the Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership, and his senior vice president, Terry Williams, will be terminated if the full board approves on June 26.

Also, board chairman Steve Jensen resigned Monday, although it was not clear whether he agreed to give up his board position or just the chairmanship.

According to a report released last week by the state Office of Inspector General, the workforce board approved $123,000 in training costs for Optima HVAC and Axon Technologies, Port Richey companies owned by Jensen.

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.

Ellzey and Williams were suspended last Thursday without pay, pending an investigation, and Jensen had been asked to relinquish his leadership role.

Members of the board's executive committee are assuming he's quitting the board. Jensen did not return calls from the St. Petersburg Times on Monday.

"None of us brought this upon ourselves, but it's fallen to us to do," board member Mark Barry said of the firings.

Board member Mary Jane Stanley, who serves as chief executive of the Pasco County Economic Development Council, did not vote on the matter of Ellzey's firing, citing his role as a member of her board.

However, she did say the report showed "a recurrence of bad judgment."

Board members expressed concern about using the report as the sole basis for firing the two staffers. The investigation, conducted by the state Office of Inspector General, is being reviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

"I want to avoid a knee-jerk reaction," said board member Emile Laurino.

But Barry said he had faith in the report.

"You don't need criminal charges to terminate somebody," he said. "How am I going to do any better? These aren't just allegations. These are allegations with findings."

According to the Inspector General's report, Ellzey had approved giving federal dollars for workforce training to Jensen's companies, even after his staff had denied the application.

Ellzey did not return messages Monday. But he told the Times last week that he approved the application based not on the per hour rate, but on the bottom line dollar amount, which "didn't raise a red flag." He said the agency had made "a verbal commitment" to Jensen's companies to use the program, which has been used by other board members at their companies.

The report 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.

Williams could not be reached for comment Monday.

However, on Monday, workforce board staffer Chris Pietrass told board members that he merely speculated that the elder Williams might be drawing unemployment when investigators asked him why he wanted someone else's name on the checks. "I didn't know for sure," he 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.

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Resignation, possible firings place Pasco-Hernando workforce board in upheaval 06/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 15, 2009 9:01pm]

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