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    Lawmaker: Investigate agency

    Rep. Bill Andrews wants to know whether fraud was committed in the state Occupational Access and Opportunity Commission.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 13, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Rep. Bill Andrews paused a moment before responding to allegations he had just heard of cronyism in the state's vocational rehabilitation program.

    "Looks like we've got a little embarrassment on our hands," Andrews, a Delray Beach Republican and chairman of the Committee on Workforce and Technical Skills, said during a hearing on allegations that the people overseeing the program are mired in conflicts of interest.

    Andrews wants a criminal investigation of the state Occupational Access and Opportunity Commission, which oversees the privatization of vocational rehabilitation.

    Then he plans to file legislation to "kill it dead."

    "Obviously there are some things here that appear to be criminal in nature," Andrews said. He said he plans to ask the committee next week to formally ask Attorney General Bob Butterworth to investigate whether fraud was committed.

    Butterworth declined to comment.

    The committee heard reports by state auditors of conflicts of interest among several current and former board members, who have awarded state training contracts to their own companies.

    Under the commission's rules, board members can bid on the contracts they award as long as they declare a conflict of interest, which they have done at least 15 times in the agency's 21/2-year history.

    One of those contracts went to former state Sen. George Kirkpatrick, who resigned from the commission last month. Kirkpatrick played a key role in creating the OAOC several years ago, when he was in the Legislature, and later took a seat on the commission. Months later the commission granted a company he represents a $1-million contract, although Kirkpatrick said he did not personally gain from the deal.

    Kirkpatrick could not be reached Tuesday.

    Other current and former board members have been criticized in state audits for steering business to favored customers, and a recent audit urged legislators to abolish the commission outright.

    One former commissioner even called the commission a "personal money tree" for its members.

    Current OAOC member Warren Jernigan, who hasn't been the subject of a state audit, told lawmakers Tuesday he supports the call to abolish the commission. Even the commissioners often weren't given all the information they needed, he said.

    For example, Jernigan said, he once received only nine pages of a 31-page federal report about the state's vocational rehab program. The federal government has declared Florida's vocational rehabilitation program "high risk," jeopardizing $100-million in federal funds.

    The vocational rehab program gets $4 in federal money for every $1 the state pays. Under the old program, state workers counseled disabled workers on their options for training, including training provided by private companies. Under the privatization pilot program, private companies can provide the counseling and the training services.

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