CLEARWATER— New board members at a troubled job placement center received a call for oversight Wednesday — something all but absent in recent years at the agency.
"Question, question, question," said CareerSource Pinellas board chair Jack Geller during an orientation. "That’s what didn’t happen before."
The missive diverged from recent standards at the organization, which has drawn state and federal investigations under a disengaged board. The orientation came as the agency seeks to improve transparency over how it spends millions of tax dollars to find people jobs.
Reggae music greeted members, who huddled in teams at tables. As the interim leader talked, a facilitator sketched scenes with markers on a whiteboard. A photographer snapped pictures. Geller donated lunch.
But the message remained urgent.
"I’m here to help this organization sail through some pretty troubled waters," said new board member and business executive Scott Wagman.
A leader from the state Department of Economic Opportunity, which is investigating the agency along with the U.S. Department of Labor, schooled members on their duties.
Interim director Jennifer Brackney showed a slide of newspaper headlines about scandals at the job placement center, which is accused of inflating hiring numbers in reports to the state. One of the first exercises was about how to talk to reporters.
"We know there have been mistakes, absolutely," Geller said. "We’re trying to correct them as quickly as possible."
After the orientation, members moved on to the first board meeting and appeared to take the message seriously.
Barclay Harless, a local banker, bemoaned how late the board received an agenda for the meeting. Wagman questioned the purchase of the former Science Center of Pinellas County, which has a $586,000 balloon payment due next year. He referred to former agency president and CEO Edward Peachey, saying "one person’s misadventure" brought the nonprofit so many troubles.
CareerSource Pinellas, along with its sister agency, CareerSource Tampa Bay, fired Peachey earlier this year. Now the two centers are separating. The DEO and Labor Department investigations are ongoing.
CareerSource Pinellas handed out thousands of dollars in untaxed bonuses to employees through prepaid gift cards. A board member asked whether it needs to pay the IRS.
The agency gave incentives to business services staffers — who logged the job placements under scrutiny — in a unique arrangement among the state’s 22 other workforce centers. Brackney said that practice will end Aug. 31, but the new board needs to review whether to increase salaries.
Then there is the matter of Peachey, whose lawyer threatened to sue as the boards contemplated his future this spring.
"Where do we stand now with the whole Peachey thing?" Wagman asked.
CareerSource Pinellas lawyer Charles Harris explained that he has not talked to Peachey’s attorney in six weeks.
For now, he said, "It’s been quiet."