Where were the public servants when the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance awarded business to an ex-family member and a personal contractor of its chief executive? When it hired a vendor run by a felon? When it wasted thousands of dollars on graduation parties? Given the extraordinary unemployment rate, the agency should have been squeezing every dollar to put Floridians back to work. Instead it wasted money on food and consultants. These serial abuses weaken support for job training that Floridians need to recover from this recession.
St. Petersburg Times staff writers Colleen Jenkins, Kevin Smetana and John Martin reported last week that an agency contractor, Strategywise, is headed by a felon who served five years of federal probation for using phony identities to obtain nearly $160,000 in credit. The company headed by Laurise Thomas has secured more than $2 million in contracts from the alliance. She was married to the brother of Renee Gilmore, who resigned last month as CEO of the Alliance amid accusations of excessive spending.
Attorneys for Thomas and Gilmore say the two women did nothing wrong, and Thomas' attorney says that Thomas has "paid her debt to society." But Thomas brings more baggage from her previous work with Florida's minority business office, where she solicited contributions from the companies the office regulated for a state employee luncheon. State investigators also found Thomas had accepted gifts from an executive of a company that had just been awarded a minority contract for a state prison. While officials found no evidence she acted improperly during the bidding for the prison project, her conduct reflects the sort of bad judgment that no public agency should tolerate.
The alliance's attorney told board members Wednesday that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and two other state agencies had opened investigations. The Times reported last week that Gilmore approved a contract for a local construction company whose owner later sold her a $367,540 golf course home. While alliance policies require competitive bids for contracts that exceed $100,000, officials say they have no documentation that other bids were sought in 2003 when the agency awarded ATA Construction a $250,000 contract for office renovations. That contract was modified five times by 2005, for a final payout of $1.1 million. Gilmore signed the change orders.
Abuses in Tampa and among the other 23 regional workforce boards throughout the state have prompted state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, to push for tighter ethics and spending rules and greater public control over who runs the regional agencies. It is about time. The alliance's governing board took some baby steps this week to control any future abuses. But it needs an independent auditor to clear the air. The board must also bring much more scrutiny to the agency's hiring, spending and job-training practices. This mission is too important in this tough economic climate to be under cut by lavish spending and self-dealing.