TAMPA — Sen. Arthenia Joyner is no stranger to Laurise Thomas, a felon whose consulting company has secured more than $2 million in contracts from the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance to help the working poor.
The Tampa Democrat has sponsored legislation with Thomas' mother, a state lawmaker from Orlando. She hired Thomas' company, Strategywise, as a campaign consultant the same year Thomas completed her probation for fraud charges.
Between 2002 and 2006, Joyner's campaign paid Strategywise $56,203, campaign finance records show.
And despite recent news accounts that raise questions about Strategywise and its contract with the publicly funded Workforce Alliance, Joyner stands behind Thomas and continues to champion the program her company runs.
"I think it's a great program," she said this week.
Joyner acknowledged concern about reports of how some of the program money is being spent. The St. Petersburg Times found that Strategywise received more than $250,000 to hold three "graduation" ceremonies at the upscale Pepin Hospitality Centre in Tampa and thousands more for field trips to Tallahassee.
But Joyner is not troubled by Thomas' past.
Thomas — the 46-year-old daughter of Democratic state Rep. Geraldine Thompson and senior appellate judge Emerson R. Thompson Jr. — was fired in 1995 from her administrator job with Florida's minority business office after soliciting contributions from companies she regulated. She was investigated, but not prosecuted, for accepting personal gifts from an executive of a construction firm that won a large minority business contract from the state.
From 1997 to 2002, she served federal probation for using phony names and Social Security numbers to obtain $158,618 in credit.
"This is America," Joyner said. "When someone has paid their dues to society, what does it matter? In this country, we forgive people.
"I spent 14 days in the Leon County jail in the 1960s myself. If trespassing had been a felony, I might not be a lawyer or a legislator. She has moved on."
Geraldine Thompson said she is proud of her daughter.
"She's built a solid business," Thompson said. "Because of her missteps, I think that she's uniquely qualified to identify with the clients she serves."
Since 2007, the Workforce Alliance has paid Strategywise to provide services through the Passport to Economic Progress program, which is designed to help former welfare recipients become self-sufficient.
Joyner has met with participants who travel to the state capital to learn about how the legislative process affects their lives. In June, she introduced the guest speaker at the Passport program's year-end ceremony.
She said many of her constituents have benefited from the program.
"I have people who have called me saying they have been able to double their pay and open businesses after going through the program," she said.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, chairs the appropriations committee that oversees spending for the Passport programs that operate in three regions of the state. He said Joyner has asked him the last few years to fund the initiative.
But the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee recently voted to redirect the $2.5 million Passport budget "for better purposes" in the next fiscal year, Fasano said.
The Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance had received $1.35 million for the current fiscal year, the largest slice of the Passport money.
Fasano lost faith in the program after hearing complaints about Strategywise's spending and performance and learning that Thomas was the former sister-in-law of Renee Benton Gilmore, the Workforce Alliance's chief executive until she quit last month.
"I said no, we're not going to fund it any longer because the money was going to this particular company that many had brought concerns to me about," said Fasano.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has confirmed it is investigating the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance and its vendors.
Sen. Tony Hill, vice chairman of Fasano's committee, is hoping to salvage funding for the Passport program in Duval County, where Strategywise also holds a contract.
Participants from Jacksonville and Tampa visited his Tallahassee office this week and impressed him with their accomplishments.
Hill feels the Passport program is worth fighting for, whether or not Strategywise runs it.
"I think the program is much bigger than Laurise or anybody else," he said.
Times staff writers John Martin, Lee Logan and Kevin Smetana contributed to this story. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.