Federal and state lawmakers are calling on Congress and the Florida House of Representatives to investigate whether two regional workforce centers inflated the number of people they helped find jobs.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D–St. Petersburg, and state Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, called for the investigations Tuesday to make sure no wrongdoing occurred at the agencies, which use millions in tax dollars to train job seekers and match others to employers.
The calls come after the Tampa Bay Times asked the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity about whether CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County improperly boosted their job placement numbers by claiming credit for people they hadn’t assisted.
"I am disturbed by what I read," Crist said late Tuesday. "This is an important function for the people who need jobs. It’s incredibly disturbing."
Crist called on U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, to investigate because Florida received $286 million in federal workforce funds to operate the agencies in fiscal year 2017.
Sprowls asked state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, "to take immediate action in our oversight capacity to request documents" from each agency to determine if either or both "were engaged in fraudulent behavior, malfeasance or misuse of taxpayer dollars." He asked the speaker to assign the investigation to the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee.
"We must find if there were any ethical violations, criminal conduct or conduct that would require immediate legislative oversight," Sprowls wrote.
Edward Peachey, the CEO and president of both agencies, did not respond to a request for comment.
Gov. Rick Scott vowed to hold officials accountable if investigators uncover any wrongdoing. He rebranded the state’s 24 former "workforce" agencies in 2013 after programs in Tampa and Orlando misspent money. The DEO is responsible for overseeing how CareerSource agencies spend money.
The governor looks forward to the findings of the DEO Inspector General, spokesman McKinley Lewis said in a statement.
"The allegations made against CareerSource Tampa Bay and CareerSource Pinellas are troubling and any behavior like this is unacceptable," the statement said. "Anyone responsible for wrongdoing of any kind needs to be held fully accountable."
The DEO also expanded its investigation to include Florida’s other 22 CareerSource boards. The agency plans to review policies at all of them and to put safeguards into place if necessary, spokeswoman Tiffany Vause wrote in statement.
"DEO expects all workforce development boards to comply with state and federal funding requirements and act in the best interest of the jobseekers and businesses they serve," the statement said. "Anyone who is found to not be meeting these high standards will be held accountable."
Last week, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity launched an investigation into the two Tampa Bay-based CareerSource boards after the Times asked about the criteria required to take credit for placing people in jobs. .
Several employers told the Times they didn’t know the CareerSource agencies were taking credit for placing workers in the jobs. Some workers the Times contacted didn’t know, either.
The two agencies received a total of $32 million in 2016, records show.
In asking for the investigation, Sprowls also cited "disturbing allegations" from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The Times reported late Monday that CareerSource Pinellas told DEO that it placed 624 sheriff’s employees since 2014.
The sheriff said he has no record of CareerSource Pinellas ever sending his agency any potential job candidates to review, let alone help get them hired. He also said at least five of the employees never worked, or even applied, at the agency.
The job center offered to provide pre-screened individuals for the Sheriff’s Office to consider for civilian positions, the sheriff said. Instead, the sheriff said the job center took credit for placing people in jobs using a list it obtained of the agency’s new hires. He ended the contract, telling the Times: "This looks to be a scam."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente