The job training program financed by the Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership needs an expanded course offering — business ethics. The nonprofit, which runs the employment centers known as Career Central, is correctly undergoing a leadership housecleaning after state auditors found financial irregularities, the most egregious of which was an exorbitant payment for training at the company owned by the chairman of the volunteer board overseeing the agency.
At at time of high unemployment in a recession exacerbated in the region by the collapse of the housing market, the public needs to have faith federal stimulus dollars intended to retrain the jobless are used efficiently and for their stated purpose.
Instead, an auditor's report from the state Office of Inspector General indicates a culture of excess at the partnership fueled by conflicting interests, nepotism and a ho-hum attitude toward accountability.
Among the allegations in the state report that were first flagged by a whistle-blower:
• President and chief operating officer Lee Ellzey overruled his staff and authorized $61,000 for training at a company owned by Steve Jensen, who doubled as head of the board that supervised Ellzey. The company, Optima HVAC of Port Richey, used one of its own employees to do the training. There is no documentation that the instructor received the money, which equated to more than $3,800 for each hour of the instructor's time. Ellzey's rationalization — that the training had already started and his staff fell down on the job by not financing it earlier and that the cost didn't seem pricey because he had approved higher payouts in the past — shows a disregard for avoiding conflicting interests and for taking seriously the fiduciary responsibility that accompanies oversight of public money.
It also fails to account for the company's application listing the trainer as an outside consultant, not an in-house employee. Two more dubious applications from Jensen's company were canceled, one of which listed the trainer as a man Jensen later identified as the company's groundskeeper.
• Ellzey spent more than $2,000 of agency money buying sodas and poinsettias from the school his daughter attended, Citrus High School, and $1,000 of gym memberships for three staff members. Boosting sales for school fundraisers and offering employee perks is not demonstrative of constrained spending habits.
• Senior vice president Terry Williams Jr. pressured subordinates to hire his father as a maintenance worker, and the elder Williams asked staffers to falsify payroll records and make his payroll check payable to his wife.
In the aftermath of the highly critical audit, Williams, Ellzey and Jensen are no longer affiliated with the partnership board, and the state Department of Law Enforcement is reviewing the findings for potential criminal activity.
The 35-member board of directors moved swiftly and reasonably to dismiss Ellzey. Williams resigned in anticipation of his termination, and Pasco County commissioners bounced Jensen as one of their appointees.
But the work doesn't end there. The task ahead for the board is to find responsible senior leadership that will ensure the substantial state and federal investments in retraining the local work force isn't frittered away by people turning a blind eye to unscrupulous behavior.