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Workforce Alliance president resigns amid scrutiny of spending

TAMPA — A "celebration" meeting at the Cheesecake Factory: $238.83. Treats from Cold Stone Creamery: $393.88. Spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, 13 cheesecakes and 10 tiramisu desserts: $614.64.

The real cost of all that food: Renee Benton Gilmore's job.

Gilmore resigned Monday, hours before board members for the publicly funded Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance were to discuss suspending her as CEO and president, amid reports of questionable spending practices.

Calls for action from government officials in Tallahassee and at home bombarded the nonprofit agency's board after a Jan. 20 state inspector general report showed irregularities. Over a 13-month period, auditors found more than $24,000 in unapproved spending of federal funds on food, hotel rooms and events, and more than $81,000 in questionable expenses requiring further documentation.

Compared with yearly food and beverage spending by other regional Workforce Alliances, Tampa Bay's was the highest at more than $99,000. The Pinellas agency and Hernando and Pasco joint agency each spent about $13,000.

Workforce Florida, the umbrella organization that oversees regional alliances, called Feb. 11 for Gilmore's suspension. Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Workforce Alliance board member, said he spoke with Gilmore and recommended she resign.

"We have an obligation to be conscientious stewards of the public's money and there is no excuse," Sharpe told fellow board members Monday.

According to the inspector general's report, staff members were verbally told to restrict spending to $10 per person for meals, but agency executives had not been given spending limits. Individual spending sometimes exceeded $30 for one meal.

The ordering of food happened so frequently, it became a routine procedure for everyday business meetings, the report said.

Records show more than $283.16 paid to Stonewood Grill & Tavern for a staff development meeting with seven people in attendance, as well as orders from Jason's Deli, Outback Steakhouse and the Columbia Restaurant for similar meetings.

Many of the meals ordered for lunch time meetings included extra charges for delivery when a "full food concessionaire was just a few steps away" from the meeting place, the report said.

Incomplete records of credit card charges and receipts added to the overall problem, the report said, as well as a lack of checks and balances.

At the meeting, board treasurer Ron Smith said no red flags were raised because staff spending didn't exceed the overall budget.

Sharpe said that's because the details on the spending were not available in an itemized way, a problem he said will be corrected.

The board must now decide on an interim CEO to fill Gilmore's place until a permanent selection can be made. A decision is expected during a special meeting on Feb. 25.

In the meantime, the current vice president of service support, James Blount, will fill the spot.

Blount is named several times in the report for attending meetings with lavish menus, including the staff development meeting at Stonewood, which cost about $40 per person.

After being named to the temporary position Monday night, Blount said he was aware of the spending but did not always partake of the meals.

Despite the situation, support for Gilmore, who had led the Workforce Alliance since 2002, was still evident Monday night.

Gilmore brought the struggling organization to where it is today, said board member Holly Tomlin.

"Yes, there have been some missteps, but I would like some of these positives to be known," she said.

The board and the organization must now work together to decide how to repay misdirected federal funds, Sharpe said.

"It's not going to be with local money, not with taxpayer money," he said.

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at (813) 226-3374 or srossetter@sptimes.com.

Workforce Alliance president resigns amid scrutiny of spending 02/15/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 12:15am]
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