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WorkNet Pinellas, former worker cleared of wrongdoing in petition-gathering exercise

The U.S. Department of Labor has closed an investigation into how a federally funded youth group of WorkNet Pinellas collected petitions for County Commission candidate Beverley Billiris.

The agency was looking into whether WorkNet Pinellas misspent stimulus money for the Youth Build program by collecting signatures for Billiris on March 9. It also investigated whether there were any violations of a federal law that bars public money from being spent to influence elections.

WorkNet Pinellas, based in Clearwater, is a nonprofit work force agency whose charter bars it from political activities. The students who were collecting signatures that day ran into Jack Latvala, the former husband of County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who is running against Billiris.

Susan Latvala ripped the activity as illegal.

Within days, WorkNet Pinellas fired the youth program director, Robyn Poppick, who coordinated the activity. WorkNet Pinellas president Ed Peachey called the petition gathering unethical and said Poppick did not have permission to conduct the activity.

Billiris, who said she didn't know the effort wasn't approved, faces Latvala and wine and spirits broker Carl Folkman in the Aug. 24 Republican primary. The winner will run against Democrat Bob Hackworth in the Nov. 2 election.

"I'm glad that WorkNet had no involvement," Latvala said Monday, adding that any blame rests with Poppick.

An investigator's report says U.S. attorneys decided not to prosecute because there was insufficient evidence of criminal activity.

None of the 20 petitions were turned into the Supervisor of Elections Office, meaning they had no effect on Billiris making the ballot — a necessary facet to prosecution. Investigators also found no evidence that WorkNet misspent stimulus money on the Youth Build program during the 45-minute exercise.

The petition activity cost less than $100. WorkNet has spent nearly $149,000 in stimulus money as of April 22.

Poppick, 48, said she was pleased she was "cleared of any wrongdoing" and the report showed "fiscal responsibility." But Poppick, who provided the report given to her by the Labor Department in a July 18 letter, said her life is upside down. She has had trouble finding a job since her termination in March.

Poppick maintains she was trying to provide a civics lesson, not campaign for Billiris, a former Tarpon Springs mayor. Poppick donated $50 to Billiris in December, and became a volunteer for Billiris after her firing.

Poppick said she contacted Youth Build's national organization, which told her the petition gathering was "a gray area, but seems okay" and suggested contacting the Labor Department, the investigation report says.

A voice mail to Poppick from a labor official suggested approval of "whatever exercise Poppick had requested approval for," the report says.

"Actually, to be honest, I was asked to direct that program wholly and completely, and only to go to someone else if I had a problem," Poppick said Monday. "I never asked anybody for curriculum approval." She said the firing has left her living on unemployment benefits and her husband's salary as she pursues a doctorate.

Peachey, the WorkNet Pinellas president, did not return phone and e-mail messages Monday.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

WorkNet Pinellas, former worker cleared of wrongdoing in petition-gathering exercise 07/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 12:21am]

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