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  1. Opinion

Editorial: FBI should take a hard look at CareerSource

Published Oct. 19, 2018

Since evidence began mounting that the lofty job placement figures coming out of Tampa Bay's two CareerSource agencies were too good to be true, state officials have had harsh words for the local agencies and their CEO. Now the FBI is further looking into whether the state Department of Economic Opportunity provided adequate oversight, in addition to taking over investigations of CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay. The state is supposed to be the watchdog in ensuring prudent spending of tax dollars by the job centers, and the FBI should thoroughly scrutinize whether it failed in that role.

The tally of mismanagement at CareerSource runs long and it starts with Edward Peachey, the longtime CEO who was ousted by the Pinellas and Hillsborough agencies this year as the scandal has grown. (The Pinellas board hired a new CEO under a one-year contract this week.) Under Peachey, the two agencies claimed to match more than 126,000 people in jobs over the last four years, far outpacing other CareerSource centers around the state. But the Tampa Bay Times' Mark Puente and Zachary T. Sampson found the agencies took credit for employing thousands of people who never set foot in CareerSource. The agencies asked local employers for lists of every person the companies hired — not just CareerSource clients — then took credit for all of them. It wasn't a minor math error. For example, CareerSource claimed to have placed 3,353 workers at WellCare in Tampa, but the company said only 15 employees came to it through CareerSource.

There's plenty more outrage. Employees of the two centers collected hefty bonuses for producing those impossible job placement figures, more than $700.000 total over four years. The spoils also went to job seekers, who received more than $6 million in Visa and gas gift cards with little to no controls over the spending. Some people received them in the mail long after they'd found a job. Puente and Sampson also found that a quarter of all of the CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay entries in a state database contained a fake phone number for the client: 999-999-9999. That happened more than 35,000 times over four years. The findings reinforce the image of a culture at CareerSource that was all about producing big numbers — legitimate or not — and raise legitimate questions about whether anyone in Tallahassee was paying attention.

With every revelation, state officials have vowed to investigate and crack down. To its credit, DEO maneuvered to stop the Pinellas and Hillsborough boards, which stood by Peachey for too long, from paying him large severance packages when they pushed him out. And the DEO inspector general has had an investigation of Peachey and the two agencies running since January. But given the depth and breadth of the misspending, it's valid to ask why the state didn't notice any irregularities earlier.

Gov. Rick Scott, whose first campaign slogan was "Let's get to work," made job creation his top priority and continues to tout it as his biggest accomplishment as he campaigns for U.S. Senate. During his eight years in office, Scott has pushed to lower the state corporate tax rate, awarded generous incentives to lure major employers to Florida and in 2013 rebranded the state's 24 workforce agencies as CareerSource, tax-funded entities that train displaced workers and connect them with employers.

Such a fevered effort to stimulate job creation must come with accountability, and it's not clear that happened. Puente and Sampson reported that the federal Department of Labor will audit state oversight policies, monitoring reports, organizational charts and guidelines for determining whether job seekers were qualified for federal programs. Federal auditors will review DEO operations, financial records and files for people placed in jobs between 2014 and 2017. The results are sure to be revealing.