South Florida

When her $90K pay wasn’t enough, a state worker set up a jewelry store — in her office

Part of the product line at Magnolia and Vine
Part of the product line at Magnolia and Vine

Facebook and Twitter may be the fashionable time-sucks for employees bored by their jobs. But a Florida Department of Health boss topped them, according to a report from the agency’s inspector general, opening what amounted to a pop-up store selling jewelry in her state office, using state workers as a sales staff and giving underlings time off for lunches as which the merchandise could be hawked without the annoying intrusions of work.

Lola Pouncey, who makes more than $90,000 a year as the operations chief of the health department’s division of medical quality insurance, “conducted a personal for-profit business during state work hours and on state property” selling jewelry and fashion accessories, said the inspector general’s report issued last week.

But though the report says Pouncey “knowingly and intentionally violated laws and agency rules” and tried to thwart the state’s investigation with “evasive and misleading” statements, she wasn’t fired or even suspended, just “counseled appropriately by her supervisor,” said health department spokeswoman Mara Gambineri.

Reached by the Herald, Pouncey — who’s now out of the jewelry business — said she couldn’t comment without permission of the health department, which wouldn’t grant it.

But the 14-page inspector general’s report — prompted by an anonymous tip and based on interviews with more than 30 of Pouncey’s health department coworkers — provides a detailed account of Pouncey’s adventures in office capitalism.

She was peddling merchandise for Magnolia And Vine, a fashion company that, like Amway and Avon, recruits its own customers to work as a freelance sales force — a practice sometimes known as pyramid sales or network marketing.

The freelance sales people not only hustle merchandise but create their own mini-business-conglomerates by recruiting their friends to be sub-salesmen and sharing in their profits.

Pouncey kept jewelry on display on a table in her office, organized sales lunches known as “socials” that often spilled into work time, recruited four other health department employees —some of them under her supervision — to become her sales persons, and berated them if they weren’t meeting their quotas. “You’ve got to get moving,” one health department worker said she was told after her sales dipped. “You’ve got to get your $1,500 goal.”

When her sales person approached Pouncey to discuss business, she would breezily declare, “Okay, in that case, we are officially on break.” The rest of the staff quickly learned to stay away. “A couple of witnesses” told investigators that there were times when they needed to talk about health department matters with Pouncey “but did not because [she] seemed to be discussing jewelry with other employees.”

To avoid the distracting intrusions of health department affairs, Pouncey on at least eight occasions organized jewelry sales meetings at Tallahassee steakhouses. The meetings were scheduled for health department lunch hours, but often stretched into the afternoon workday, sometimes by as much as an hour, the report said.

When her sales person approached Pouncey to discuss business, she would declare, ‘Okay, in that case, we are officially on break.’ The rest of the staff quickly learned to stay away.

“A couple of employees were told by supervisors they did not have to adjust their timesheet for for the extra time spent at socials,” the report said.

Some health department workers believed the socials weren’t exactly voluntary. “Some felt if they did not attend the socials, they would not be seen as ‘team players,’ ” the report said. “One new employee said she was told that it would be in her ‘best interest’ to attend because in the ‘boss’ is in the business.”

When investigators confronted Pouncey in a late-December interview, she said nobody was ever pressured to do anything and her employees just admired her fashion sense and wanted to imitate it.

“It’s hard when people — you are sitting at a conference room table, waiting for others to show up, and people are talking about what you are wearing,” Pouncey explained. “So it wasn’t like I was intentionally trying to violate policy.”

Emails recovered from Pouncey’s work computer show she hooked up with Magolia and Vine in early May of 2016 and by June was already staging the socials. In July, she successfully asked the health department for approval for outside employment, but promised her work for Magnolia and Vine would take place only between 6 and 8 p.m., after her state office closed for the day.

Investigators found more than a dozen emails and posters created on state equipment in her work computer.