The leader of the Pinellas County job agency that once misspent millions of taxpayer dollars is now facing scrutiny for how she treats employees.
Jennifer Brackney, CEO of CareerSource Pinellas, who earns $189,000 annually, came under an internal investigation after an employee filed a 41-page whistleblower complaint in late October. Among other things, the employee accused Brackney of inflating job placements and creating a toxic work environment.
Those are similar to the allegations that led to federal and state investigations of the agency in 2018 after the Tampa Bay Times exposed years of wrongdoings. At the time, Brackney was a top aide to then CEO Edward Peachey. He was fired and fell under state, FBI and U.S. Department of Labor investigations. The federal investigations are still ongoing, records show.
Brackney declined Tuesday to discuss the allegations or findings about her leadership.
At the urging of CareerSource Pinellas board Chair Barclay Harless, the oversight panel hired an outside law firm to investigate the allegations. Harless called a special board meeting Dec. 15 to review the investigation’s findings.
Harless reiterated the current board doesn’t operate like the board under Peachey.
“I told (the law firm) to follow the investigation to wherever it goes,” Harless said late Tuesday. “We are aware of the issues. The organization is working as it should.”
David S. Harvey, an attorney with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, didn’t find that Brackney inflated job placements, the most serious allegation. Harvey found concerns with the way Brackney manages the public agency, which collects millions in federal tax dollars to help Pinellas’ most vulnerable residents find jobs.
Harvey interviewed numerous employees who each raised similar concerns about Brackney disrespecting employees. Some current and former employees didn’t want their names used because they feared retaliation, records show. Harvey wrote that a “significant majority” of employees said Brackney does not always treat them with dignity and respect.
“It is also apparent that the CEO may share her opinions (too frankly) on the performance of certain employees with individuals on her leadership team,” Harvey wrote, adding that Brackney denies the allegations.
“What the CEO may not realize is that many of her leadership team are longtime friends of these employees and do not appreciate hearing her unveiled criticisms.”
Harvey said a “toxic” workplace doesn’t violate laws but creates a negative environment. CareerSource should address the issues, he wrote.
“The investigation process did reveal a significant perception that such an environment exists and a concern that raising criticism of the organization or its leadership could lead to adverse consequences,” Harvey wrote.
In 2018, the Times reported that Peachey controlled the oversight panels and members rubber-stamped his requests for raises for himself and closest confidants. Board members rarely questioned Peachey’s decisions or the tens of thousands of fake job placements he reported to the state.
CareerSource Pinellas and its sister agency, CareerSource Tampa Bay, paid $3.1 million in incentives and bonuses in recent years to employees who helped them record more hirings than any workforce board in Florida, the Times reported in May 2018. At the time, Peachey earned almost $290,000 a year and kept all records off the agency’s website.
While Harvey investigated the allegations, board members on a compensation committee approved a 5% raise for Brackney, effective Dec. 1, 2021, records show. Harless was the lone member to oppose the nearly $9,500 raise.
“I felt that there have been too many resignations,” Harless said late Tuesday. “It’s not good that we’ve had that many.” He couldn’t provide a specific number of employees who left but called it significant.
Harless said he called another compensation committee meeting Tuesday for the panel to further discuss the issues.
As of September 2021, the agency employed 47 workers, with an average salary of nearly $55,000, records show.
When the CareerSource Pinellas board met Dec. 15 to discuss Harvey’s investigation, the meeting agenda, whistleblower complaint and investigative findings were posted on the agency’s website. The agenda did not — unlike all other meetings — list a way for the public to virtually join the meeting. Sometime after the meeting, the agenda disappeared from the website.
That changed Tuesday when Florida Politics emailed Brackney at 12:30 to ask why the negative report disappeared. It reappeared five hours later.
“It may have been accidentally deleted during the site transition over the past week,” Brackney said in an email.
Once the Times exposed CareerSource problems, Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls carried the mantle to provide more oversight of the state’s network of workforce boards. Sprowls celebrated the passage of legislation in April that mapped out a blueprint to overhaul Florida’s career centers. For decades, the centers operated with minimal oversight.