ST. PETERSBURG — For the first time, federal agents this week are interviewing employees at the offices of CareerSource Pinellas, the embattled job placement center in the middle of a year-long scandal over allegations of phony hiring reports and questionable spending.
A Clearwater-based FBI agent and a special agent from the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General are working the case.
“They’re outlining all the stuff they want to do,” new CareerSource Pinellas CEO Jennifer Brackney said. She said the agents interviewed employees who handled job placements.
Led by CEO Edward Peachey, CareerSource Pinellas and its former sister office, CareerSource Tampa Bay, came under intense scrutiny last year following a series of Tampa Bay Times reports detailing how the centers overstated their success at using tax dollars to help people find work. The agencies took credit for finding jobs for people who never sought their help and used a bonus program to reward employees with money for reporting high job placement numbers. They drew down millions in federal funding and were hailed as jewels of Florida's network of 24 CareerSource agencies under then-Gov. Rick Scott.
In October, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office took over multiple investigations that began in February 2018. For months, public officials have questioned whether the investigations are still active.
Jack Geller, CareerSource Pinellas board chair, said the agency will provide federal investigators with anything they need. He said current employees have been told to answer all questions.
“We told them to cooperate,” Geller said.
It’s unclear what the agents are focusing on. They have not served any subpoenas.
CareerSource Pinellas board member Scott Wagman said the agency's lawyer, Charles Harris, told members that federal agents would be calling some former officials who served during the controversies. Harris, Wagman said, instructed them to contact him if they heard from the agents. Two former board members told the Times on Thursday they have yet to be contacted.
Following the Times series last year, Peachey was ousted by boards in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The agencies split and stopped sharing staff members or services. One of Peachey's top deputies, Haley Loeun, who oversaw the employees in charge of recording placements, was also fired. In recent years, three of her relatives were hired to work in the offices.
Under Peachey, local CareerSource leaders instituted a bonus program that rewarded employees for recording higher job placement numbers. They acquired hiring lists from dozens of Tampa Bay companies and logged the names of new workers from the lists as if they had directly placed them into the positions. But a number of people whose names appeared in the records said they never asked the local CareerSource offices for help.
Meanwhile, the agencies handed out millions of dollars in prepaid credit cards to people, sometimes in exchange for hiring information. Board members later said the program, which included mailing out some cards like cash without regular tracking, suffered from inadequate oversight.
At a public meeting last year, Peachey said he approved the placement incentive program and set performance goals along with his business services director — most recently Loeun. Both denied the claims of current and former staffers that they were romantically involved. But she answered the door at Peachey’s house in July when reporters requested a comment from him. He did not answer his door Thursday when reporters knocked. An attorney who represented him last year did not return a request for comment.
Sean Butler, the new head of the CareerSource Tampa Bay board, sent an email to other members Wednesday, explaining that the center's lawyer had been contacted that day by the FBI "regarding additional requests from the Department of Justice/FBI, and their intention to interview additional current and former staff, in matters related to the ongoing investigation."
He wrote: "The Board of CareerSource Tampa Bay welcomes the FBI's assistance and looks forward to the results of their work. We believe in accountability and transparency and we know that this investigation will help bring those values to bear. ... Over the last several months, we have seated new board members which has been significantly more engaged with the direction of the organization."
Harris, the lawyer, later clarified that the investigators had not reached out to him directly about any interviews.
"Instead, the (Department of Labor) contacted a former employee who then called my office to inform (me) that she had been contacted," Harris wrote in an email to the Times.