TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance should repay a state agency more than $55,000 after splurging on food, entertainment and swag at taxpayer expense, a Tallahassee administrative law judge decided Friday.
But those behind the spending didn't do anything criminal, an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has concluded.
Judge R. Bruce McKibben, in his decision, found improper spending that included $20,044.50 on awards ceremonies, an $8,138.78 year-end celebration dinner, a $5,161.26 corporate brunch meeting and a $5,555 staff meeting at the Improv comedy club.
"The agenda and speaking points make clear that the primary purpose of this event was not to disseminate technical information," McKibben wrote. "These costs are directly associated with a social event, i.e., food and a show at the comedy club."
McKibben gave the Workforce Alliance — which provides job training to the unemployed and working poor — 90 days to pay the statewide Agency for Workforce Innovation, once that agency orders payment.
The jobs agency defended the lavish dinners by saying the events had to be "upscale" to attract business and community leaders, according to McKibben's order. The judge disputed the necessity of that.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has closed its investigation into the Workforce Alliance, saying it couldn't confirm executives at the publicly funded agency received kickbacks for lucrative contracts.
The state launched its investigation last year amid allegations that the agency didn't take competitive bids for contracts worth more than $3 million.
A tipster told the FDLE that then-president Renee Benton Gilmore favored Strategywise, a Tallahassee consulting company owned by her ex-sister-in-law, which received more than $2 million in contracts.
In its report, the FDLE did not criticize expenditures, saying simply that "Strategywise appeared to provide the services they were contracted to perform."
And after scrutinizing bank records, FDLE inspector Brett Lycett reported he couldn't find evidence Gilmore received kickbacks from Strategywise.
Gilmore, who resigned in February 2010 amid scrutiny of the agency's spending, did not return a call for comment Friday.
Also under scrutiny was Gilmore's purchase of a 2,100-square-foot house from ATA Construction and her hiring of ATA for home renovations. ATA was awarded $1.1 million in contracts with the Workforce Alliance.
The FDLE also investigated Julie Sanon, the Workforce Alliance's then-senior vice president. She approved contracts and had roofing work done by ATA Construction.
In a letter, prosecutor Michael Schmid said the Office of Statewide Prosecution won't be pursing criminal charges against the Workforce Alliance, Gilmore, Sanon, Strategywise or ATA Construction.
Sanon was let go in April 2010 as part of a restructuring that cut 20 management positions. And that month, the Workforce Alliance's interim chief, Ed Peachey, cut the agency's contract with Strategywise.
The U.S. Labor Department is reportedly investigating some, if not all, of the 24 regional work force agencies in Florida, according to Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
"It may not be a criminal issue. It may just be about spending habits," he said Friday. "But it's been proven that the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance was spending tax dollars foolishly and questionably."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.