TAMPA, Florida - The 10 News Investigators have discovered a local agency gutted two years ago for outrageous spending practices has squandered tax dollars once again; this time, by allowing an unqualified company to claim limited federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) funds.
Several WTSP viewers contacted the 10 News Investigators after a week-long training class from Tampa-based company Knowledge Quest Inc., arranged through the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance. The unemployed or under-employed workers all claimed they were promised full-time customer service jobs if they went through the training.
Except not only were there no jobs for half the class, the "students" complained the expensive training was a waste of time, teaching them menial tasks like how to write a cover letter.Yet Knowledge Quest still collected $1,995 for each of the 15 students in the week-long April session.
"I feel hurt, I feel deceived, and I feel cheated," said Opal Raglin, who says she was promised a job if she attended the training."I started telling people in the class, 'something is just not right with this thing.'"
"What angers me," said unemployed veteran Mike Flanagan, 58, "is taking advantage of not only a veteran who served our nation but also other individuals that participated in my class."
Knowledge Quest raked in nearly $30,000 for the class and because the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance had just added the company to its approved vendors list, the entire training was paid for by WIA funds, which Workforce oversees.
However, after speaking to more than a half-dozen people in the class and nearly 50 public records requests, the 10 News Investigators found Knowledge Quest's application to Workforce contained numerous falsehoods.And Workforce never bothered to verify them.
Among the misrepresentations on its application:
- Knowledge Quest claimed accreditation through FLDOE's Commission for Independent Education
- Knowledge Quest promised to report data to through the state's FETPIP system, which it was not registered with
- Knowledge Quest's April training would last 72 hours, yet a course syllabus included less than 40 hours of training
Tampa Bay Workforce CEO Ed Peachey, who took over the helm of the agency after the 2010 scandal over employee spending on of food & beverage, told 10 News that Workforce may not have fully vetted Knowledge Quest's qualifications earlier this year before recommending approval to the board in March.
However, after 10 News started asking questions and Peachey spoke to Knowledge Quest, he said in August he was content with the company's explanation for why it wasn't accredited: it was teaching accredited classes.
But the 10 News Investigators learned Knowledge Quest simply provided Peachey with old - and sometimes unfunded - contracts with USF, Pensacola Jr. College, and Florida Keys Community College. All three institutions told 10 News that the classes were non-credit, non-accredited classes - something Workforce could have found out with a simple phone call or email.
Knowledge Quest has since removed claims of being "college-accredited" from its website, although archives of the claim from 2010 still exist.The archive also saved Knowledge Quest's boast of "15 Years of sound executive leadership experience entrenched within our current staff along with an additional 17 years of technical and telecommunications experience."Yet now, two years later, those numbers have jumped to 25 and 27 years, respectively.
Peachey blamed any oversights on Workforce's contract company, ResCare, which ran the agency from mid-2010 to mid-2012 after the spending scandal.The upset students in the April class indicated they were solicited out of the blue by Knowledge Quest, which got 88 potential names from ResCare.
Peached told 10 News that the names "probably shouldn't" have been provided to Knowledge Quest and potential students shouldn't have been contacted unsolicited. Yet when Peachey started hiring employees back under the Workforce umbrella this summer, he says almost all of the ResCare employees were retained.
Regional workforce boards like Tampa Bay Workforce play pivotal roles in helping Floridians get back to work.They oversee Florida's One-Stop Career Centers, and are responsible for distributing federal funds designated for unemployed, under-employed, and displaced workers.
New laws went into effect this summer to ensure more accountability among regional workforce agencies after multiple scandals around the state.
Knowledge Quest's president, Cesar Ruiz, repeatedly declined formal interview requests with 10 News but said via phone that the reason the unhappy viewers contacted 10 News was not because of worthless training, but because background checks wound up costing them the jobs.Ruiz said jobs were lined up - but never promised.
However, Ruiz later changed the story, saying leadership changes at the hiring company froze the positions they expected to fill.
Knowledge Quest may also have exaggerated a number of its other relationships, including that it "partners with public school districts across the country."Among its claims, a relationship with the Hillsborough County School District: in 2011, Knowledge Quest ran a STEM-themed summer program for students at Middleton High.
But while Middleton's principal said it was a good experience for his students, public records requests to the district yielded no documents in connection to the course: the district has never paid Knowledge Quest, nor have any Knowledge Quest grants gone through the school.District officials say the training may have been provided for free, allowing Knowledge Quest an opportunity to claim a relationship with the district.
Knowledge Quest, while unsuccessfully chasing a $776,720 school "turnaround" contract in Monroe, La., claimed a history of working with schools across the country.However, the 10 News Investigators learned most - if not all - of the company's claimed "experience" in working with schools was from Vice President Jose Otero's tenure working with Rescare, prior to going to Knowledge Quest.
School board members in Monroe, who narrowly voted down the lucrative proposal last year, said they had no faith in Knowledge Quest based on its lack of references.
At this point in time, they have no track record of what they have turned around," Monroe Federation of Teachers and School Employees president Sandie Lollie told The News-Star at the time."I can find no documentation as to the validity of what they claim they can do."
In its dealings with Tampa Bay Workforce, Knowledge Quest also claimed a relationship with USF, including the misrepresentations on page 4 of its application and an indication on its website that USF professor Dr. Willie Moreno was the head of one of its division.
USF officials tell 10 News there has never been any contractual relationship between the university or Moreno.While Moreno says he taught one class for Knowledge Quest in 2008, USF says its only proposed relationship - a 2011 youth program - was never funded.
Public records requests paint a picture of Knowledge Quest's relentless pursuit of public grants and contracts:
- At leastthree trainingcontracts through Suncoast Workforce (Sarasota/Manatee) paid Knowledge Quest more than $15,000 in WIA funds
- At least 606 employed workers were trained (for an undetermined sum) through Pasco-Hernando Workforce from May 2010 to June 2011 using Employed Worker Training (EWT) funds.
- Knowledge Quest received $10,470 contract from the U.S. Navy in 2011 for computer training.
- Knowledge Quest began an application to get on Texas Workforce's approved vendor list but has yet to complete it.
Hillsborough Co. Commissioner Sandy Murman, a member of the Tampa Bay Workforce Board, says she plans on bringing up the 10 News investigation at the next board meeting on Sept. 20.
"There has to be stronger oversight and stronger accountability,said Murman, who was not at the March meeting when Knowledge Quest was unanimously approved as a vendor.
At the federal level, many Republicans have criticized Democratic-supported stimulus programs, including WIA and EWT, for lack of oversight. But Democrats don't necessarily disagree with the need for more oversight:
"Companies should be held accountable for taking advantage of innocent people who are trying to train and land good jobs," said Congresswoman Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, when told of the investigation. "We need more oversight and accountability at the local level to check up on companies before they are given taxpayer dollars.
"Companies that don't follow through should have to pay back their contract amount with interest," Castor continued.
Murman reports that Peachey told her all Knowledge Quest funds will be frozen while the agency continues to investigate, but Knowledge Quest already collected its $30,000 from the April training.
And there's no telling how many other grants and contracts it's chasing elsewhere.
"(I'm) totally outraged about the situation," said the veteran, Flanagan. "Your hard earned money is paying for what I refer to as a 'sham.' "