CLEARWATER — Board members at an embattled Pinellas jobs center couldn’t decide Wednesday how to handle the growing controversy over whether it overstated thousands of people it got hired into jobs.
"We want to do what’s right," said CareerSource Pinellas board chairman Jack Geller. "We just aren’t sure what it is."
Pinellas County Commissioner and board member Pat Gerard said she is convinced from her review of the law that CareerSource Pinellas intentionally exaggerated the number of people it recorded as placing into jobs, taking credit for workers who never sought assistance.
"There is no way that somebody could misunderstand that a person who never had contact with CareerSource could be counted as a placement," Gerard said. "There’s no way that was a mistake."
Other members of the executive committee that met Wedneday were not convinced. They declined to take the suggestion of local CareerSource lawyer Charles Harris to temporarily change how staffers report job placements.
They lamented a lack of guidance from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity on whether the local jobs centers broke any rules, and if others of the state’s 24 CareerSource centers are following similar flawed procedures.
"We can’t be left in limbo," said board member Karla Leavelle. "Some of this is not difficult information to come by."
DEO spokeswoman Tiffany Vause would not comment on the multiple investigations from state and federal government.
"Over the last seven years, Florida’s workforce system was transformed empowering local communities to make the best decisions for their local businesses and jobseekers. It is imperative that local boards, such as CareerSource Pinellas, provide leadership and ensure accountability for their local workforce development board," Vause wrote in a statement.
"It critical that the CareerSource Pinellas Board of Directors ensure that the board continue to serve those who need these services with integrity, transparency and accountability. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s thorough investigation is currently ongoing in coordination with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, U.S. Department of Labor, Florida House of Representatives, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office in 6th Judicial Circuit."
CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay receive millions in tax dollars each year to put people to work. Geller said rank and file employees are working, but management is floundering. He said he is "extremely uncomfortable" with how the two agencies and their merged staffs have two separate oversight boards.
The meeting came the same day the Tampa Bay Times published a story about how CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay used hiring lists to take credit for placing thousands of people into jobs who never sought the agencies’ help. Harris, the nonprofits’ lawyer, acknowledged last week that there are problems with how the agencies reported figures to the state.
A representative from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office monitored Wednesday’s meeting and took notes.
Meanwhile, the board members voted to accept a recommendation from Pinellas County School Board to withdraw an application filed Feb. 1 to open a charter school.
"I personally think we’ve got plenty on our plate at this time," Geller said.
They voted to place president and CEO Edward Peachey on administrative leave with pay but said the organization was already being led by interim director Jennifer Brackney, after previous board chairman Aundre Green tried to unilaterally suspend Peachey two weeks ago. Peachey was similarly placed on unpaid leave from the top post at the Hillsborough County jobs center two weeks ago.
Board member Tom Bedwell questioned media reports of improper job placement figures at CareerSource, saying "all we have is smoke, show us the gun."
"Everyday he’s out of this office, it makes it harder for him to come back if he gets to come back," Bedwell said of Peachey, motioning to set an end date on the paid leave of March 8.
Peachey attended the meeting with his personal lawyer, Marion Hale. They left before it was over.
Board members will again convene next Wednesday, Geller said, for a workshop on how to move forward. They hope members from CareerSource Tampa Bay’s executive board, which is scheduled to meet Thursday, also attend.
Among the expected topics for discussion are hiring a crisis public relations firm and the management structure of the two job centers.
"We’ve got to plan for the future one way or another," Geller said.