The deceptive actions of the Florida Youth Conservation Corps call into question whether the agency is fulfilling its mission or just making a mint.
A Times Editorial
Published June 28, 2005
The Dade City-based Florida Youth Conservation Corps is grabbing millions of dollars in no-bid government contracts to clean highway rights of way. Its stated mission is to provide training and scholarships to disadvantaged youths, but the most prevalent lessons are deceitful behavior and ducking accountability.
The private, nonprofit agency which gets up to $4.5-million a year, most from the state of Florida, refuses to detail its finances or document its scholarship spending. The reluctance might be attributable to some of FYCC's exorbitant spending elsewhere including $457,000 over the past four years on travel and conference expenses, mostly for its top managers. Or maybe the agency is coy because none of the 30 ex-employees interviewed by Times staff writers Collins Conner and Bridget Hall Grumet can name a single scholarship recipient in recent years.
It is an abuse of a public trust and exploits young, unskilled laborers who have little recourse. One recruiter said FYCC misled its employees and their families by not delivering on its promises. A former crew chief characterized FYCC as a place using cheap labor to turn a profit. There is little evidence to dispute their assessments.
In exchange for the $7-per-hour roadside chores, the workers, usually high school dropouts, are supposed to be eligible for $500 bonuses for earning a GED or attending community college, tuition reimbursement and a $4,725 scholarship for those staying with FYCC for a year.
The agency will not say how many it helped and now feigns bewilderment. Its controller told the Times in a June 21 letter, "For reasons that are not known to us, the (trainees) have not used the benefits at the rate that we expected."
The state Department of Transportation should demand a public accounting. FYCC should detail why it needed to send top brass, including its lobbyist, St. Petersburg City Council member Jay Lasita, on a junket to the Dominican Republican to oversee an $8,000 investment in a youth baseball league. It could explain how the agency deceived state legislators, telling them the executive director Bartolome Colom was no longer part of the organization. Colom not only runs the place, he put nine relatives on the FYCC's board of directors, ensuring little oversight from anyone outside his own family. Colom's previous sleight of hand included inflating his academic and professional credentials, portraying himself as a practicing attorney until the Florida Bar made him stop.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, attempted unsuccessfully to cap FYCC's state contract at $600,000 after becoming weary when the agency inaccurately portrayed him as one of its directors. Others should share his skepticism.
Lasita, in particular, should question his affiliation with FYCC which paid him $20,000 last year, plus expenses and company vehicle. As a steward of public money and as an elected office-holder who must comply with Florida's government-in-the-sunshine laws, he shouldn't be party to the agency's dubious actions.