TAMPA — Lavish banquets? Promotional koozies? VIP tickets to meet a country music star?
Those expenses and more were necessary to get the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance's name out to the public, the agency says in a report to state officials released Wednesday.
"Establishing relationships with business leaders, local elected officials, and media representatives is critical to the success of our programs," the Workforce Alliance explained to the state Agency for Workforce Innovation.
The response comes as part of an investigation into claims that the Workforce Alliance misspent thousands of dollars of federal funds between 2007 and 2009 that were supposed to help the unemployed get jobs.
The investigation is led by James Mathews, inspector general of the Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees the Tampa Bay agency, a publicly funded job training center.
Already this year, the state governing agency determined that the local workforce board must reimburse the government $34,000 for improper food spending, including $500 on Cheesecake Factory meals, $330 on Indian restaurant takeout and $1,000 spent on a single day for routine staff meetings.
The findings prompted Renee Benton Gilmore, then chief executive of the Alliance board, to resign in February.
Now the state agency has turned its eye toward an additional $224,177 in questionable and $39,831 in "disallowed" expenses, for which the inspector general wants explanations.
They include 1,000 neon pens, 500 water bottles, 1,725 mouse pads, 1,000 pocket spray sanitizer bottles, 88 shirts, 25 picture frames and 300 koozie drink holders. There's also $20,000 for banquet decorations, photography, and table covers; a $1,000 corporate table at an American Red Cross bash that included VIP tickets to meet country music star Julie Roberts; and $4,500 to sponsor a banquet for a nonprofit that helps Hillsborough youths and parents.
"There is no evidence that this activity benefits any workforce program," the state agency wrote of the latter charge.
Over and over, the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance responded by saying the charges helped with networking and highlighting its activities and accomplishments to partner businesses, government leaders, the media and the public.
Other costs, such as $15,167 for "various" expenses, were said to have contributed to "employee morale," among other things.
"We believe our response is thorough and provides a clear explanation of why these costs are allowable," Dale Schumacher, chairman of the Alliance board of directors, wrote in a memo to the state.
The state Agency for Workforce Innovation will review the explanations before deciding whether costs must be repaid.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]