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State scrutinizing Pasco, Hernando county jobs agency

A whistleblower's complaint alleging fiscal mismanagement at a local agency responsible for helping the jobless find work has prompted state law officers to review the matter and a state lawmaker to call for the director's ouster.

An investigation by state regulators revealed several allegations regarding operations at the Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership Board. Among them:

• That companies owned by board chairman Steve Jensen were paid $123,000 for training sessions, an amount that equated to $3,844 per hour for the instructor, who was also an employee at the company. The whistleblower, whose name was kept confidential, alleged that the training was "pushed forward" by workforce board executive director Lee Ellzey "at a high cost per trainee."

The regulators' report said the instructor charged 44 to 86 percent more than some well-known training programs and for equivalent courses. The training was provided in 2008 to employees at Optima HVAC, a Port Richey company that makes parts for laser printers, and Axon Technologies, which makes custom computers and parts for government agencies.

The 48-page report said the state Office of Inspector General, which assisted the state Agency for Workforce Innovation, met Feb. 25 with representatives from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and that the matter is "currently under review."

Jensen could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Ellzey told the St. Petersburg Times that the reimbursement was not the highest the agency had ever given and that presenting it in terms of an hourly wage was misleading.

He said the agency, which approved the company for the program after the training had already begun, did so because it had made an earlier commitment and "staff did not follow through with it."

"That put us in a bind," he said.

Partnership board staffers told investigators they had denied the application because they could not provide funding for training already in progress.

The program, paid for with federal money, allows companies to split the cost of training with the government.

Ellzey declined further comment, citing the involvement of the FDLE.

• Another allegation involved a copier that sat unused after officials replaced it. The copier, listed on an inventory sheet as "broken beyond repair," disappeared one day and later turned up at a for-profit ink cartridge business. State regulators said in their report that proper disposal procedures were not followed.

Ellzey agreed and said that stricter policies had since been put into place to prevent future problems, although he said the copier had "zero value."

• Another complaint alleged that board money was spent on Ellzey's child's school projects. Ellzey said he disagreed with that description. He said the money, a total of $2,015, was used over a two-year period to buy poinsettias and sodas from his daughter's school, Citrus High School, for holiday gatherings and to decorate offices of Career Central, the name of the employment agency the board oversees. He said the money did not directly benefit his child.

If spending federal money on those items was a problem, he said the agency could simply use nonfederal funds to reimburse the government. "I don't think the public will be shortchanged," he said.

• Another allegation was that Ellzey's daughter worked for the agency. Ellzey acknowledged that, but said other employees' children also worked there, most of time on clerical work such as scanning documents. He said policies do not prohibit relatives from working there; they just can't be directly supervised by family members. He said his daughter reported to another staffer. "It wasn't like Lee Ellzey went out and hired his daughter," he said.

• Ellzey spent $1,000 of board money on gym memberships for three staffers. According to the rules, money can be spent on those if the memberships were offered to all employees as a benefit.

"Mr. Ellzey offered gym memberships to some employees, but not all — which made the costs unallowable," the report said.

Ellzey said he offered everyone the memberships but only a few took advantage and only three ended up renewing them, making it no longer practical. "We stopped that for everyone," he said.

The report drew outrage from state Sen. Mike Fasano, who called for Ellzey to resign or be removed. He also called for Jensen, who is a volunteer, to be replaced.

"Here we have a time when people are in desperate need of a job, in desperate need of paying their electric bill, and we have a board chairman and a director that are not just wasting money but they're violating every ethic that's in the book," he said, adding that Florida work force boards are receiving $160 million in federal stimulus money.

He said any money that was spent improperly should be repaid and "any board member who was aware of what was going on should resign immediately."

He also said the Agency for Workforce Innovation should "take over until they can figure out what was going on."

County Commissioner Michael Cox, who was appointed this year to serve on the board, expressed shock.

"I feel my blood pressure rising by the second," he said. "We will get to the bottom of this and clean it up. This is why the public doesn't trust government and these types of agencies and these programs."

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

State scrutinizing Pasco, Hernando county jobs agency 06/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 10, 2009 9:16pm]
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