Every time the two local jobs centers help find someone work, the person's address, birth date and other information is entered into a state database.
In more than a quarter of all their entries — more than 35,000 over a four-year period — CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource TampaBay included the same unusual phone number:
Most of the other 22 CareerSource offices in the state used the fictitious number fewer than 20 times a piece, state records show. In fact, two never used it, and two others used it only once.
The huge total of fictitious numbers is the latest revelation in the ongoing investigations into whether the two local agencies inflated their job placements figures or committed any crimes.
"There's a pattern and practice of unacceptable behavior," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "The Inspector General raised the strong possibility of criminal actions. It's egregious. The evidence is strong."
At a meeting Wednesday, local officials could not explain why CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay used the 999 phone number so often. They plan to investigate.
At the same meeting, the board of CareerSource Pinellas voted to fire the president and CEO of the agency, Edward Peachey, and offer him a settlement worth about $117,000 if he agrees not to sue the jobs center. CareerSource Tampa Bay made Peachey the same offer last week.
The firings come amid sprawling investigations from the state DEO, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Just hours after the Pinellas board's meeting, DEO executive director Cissy Proctor sent letters to the chairmen of both agencies strongly urging them not to pay settlements to Peachey amid "allegations of serious misconduct and potential criminal conduct." The letter did not mention the fictitious phone numbers.
"Should the conclusion of these investigations result in criminal charges, the boards' decision to pay Mr. Peachey a severance package or a settlement package of six-figures could be viewed as a flagrant misuse of public funds," Proctor wrote.
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Last month, the Tampa Bay Times requested information about how often all of Florida's CareerSource agencies used the 999 phone number. On Wednesday, the DEO sent the information to the Times and the two local agencies.
From 2014 through 2017, CareerSource Tampa Bay, which serves Hillsborough County, used the number for 20,303 people who they reported helping find work. CareerSource Pinellas used it 15,418 times. In that same timeframe, the agencies reported a total of 126,633 job placements.
The CareerSource office that used the number most frequently outside the two Tampa Bay centers was CareerSource Palm Beach County, with 405 entries.
"It looks like somebody wasn't doing their job properly, or they were trying to hide that contact information," said Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard, who's also a CareerSource Pinellas board member.
"It concerns me that there's a big discrepancy," said CareerSource Pinellas chairman Jack Geller.
The frequent use of the number in Pinellas and Hillsborough puzzled leaders from the state's other career centers.
Anthony Gagliano, business and economic development director at the CareerSource office in Manatee and Sarasota counties, said his agency uses the fictitious phone number occasionally, when homeless people or others don't have phone numbers. But he could not think of a reason why an agency would need to use the number thousands of times.
"There could be a legitimate reason for some cases," said Gagliano, whose agency recorded the 999 phone number 56 times during the same four years.
Jerome Salatino, CEO and president of CareerSource Pasco Hernando, said it would be "very rare" to enter that kind of phone number into the system. His agency, for instance, used the 999 number just 18 times, the records show. In some cases, he said, people fill out their information themselves and might not want their personal contact shared. But the high totals for CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay clearly stand out, he said.
"That's a huge discrepancy," Salatino said. "That many of them doesn't sound right."
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman said the fictitious phone numbers represented just the latest issue in a growing list of controversies at the jobs centers.
State and federal authorities launched investigations after the Times began asking questions about how the two local agencies were reporting their job figures to the state. Since then, the Times has reported that both CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay took credit for getting jobs for thousands of people who never sought their assistance in recent years.
"It just seems like there's a problem at every single step," Murman said.
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Meanwhile, the CareerSource Pinellas board voted 15-1 to fire Peachey on Wednesday. The lone no vote came from board member Tom Bedwell, who then made the motion that Peachey should receive a settlement equal to five months pay and benefits.
"That's the least we can do," he said. The vote to approve the settlement was 9-6.
After the votes, board members said they were ready to begin rebuilding the agency. Their counterparts in Hillsborough had shared the same sentiment a week earlier.
Just a few hours later, the DEO took issue with the boards' actions.
"Floridians deserve to know their hard-earned tax dollars are not going toward a severance or settlement given the ongoing investigations," Proctor, the agency's director, wrote in her letters.
She noted that the local CareerSource boards have not been able to provide a valid employment agreement for Peachey and gave them three business days to come up with such a document before DEO pursues "all available legal remedies to prevent state and federal funds from being used for Mr. Peachey's severance packages."
Even if the jobs centers produce an employment agreement, Proctor wrote, "DEO will disallow a severance or settlement package in light of these ongoing investigations." She also expressed concern that the boards were trying to evade a law that could limit Peachey's severance package by calling it a "settlement."
"This thinly veiled attempt to skirt federal law governing severance payments would be entirely inappropriate," she wrote.
The boards approved the settlements to be paid with private, unrestricted funds — not tax dollars. Dick Peck, chairman of the CareerSource Tampa Bay board, said he has to review the letter in greater detail and will likely direct the local CareerSource lawyer, Charles Harris, to call Proctor on Thursday to get clarity on next steps.
"We have to determine what the law is," Peck said. "No taxpayer dollars will be used to pay Ed Peachey a separation or severance."
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson. Contact Mark Puente at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.