Tiffany Carr runs the state's top domestic violence organization, a nonprofit that uses public money — state and federal — to finance shelters and other essential services. And she makes a good living.
How good? In a June 30, 2017 report, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence disclosed she is paid $761,560 annually, a salary that is approved by its board. She hit that mark after receiving pay raises totaling $313,475 over a two-year period.
"That's — it's ridiculous," said Dan Ravicher, a professor at University of Miami School of Law who focuses on nonprofits, business and social entrepreneurship. "We're talking almost 2 percent of the budget being paid to one person. That's pretty unusual."
Carr's coalition, a nonprofit that reports its top salaries on annual Internal Revenue Service forms called 990s, is one of many private organizations that receive state funds to provide social services. In addition, the coalition operates as a pass-through, awarding public funds to smaller domestic violence organizations.
"It is surprising that a private nonprofit organization serving such a vulnerable population requiring critical services would set a salary at more than $750,000," said Mara Gambineri, deputy communications director for Gov. Rick Scott. "This organization should provide a full explanation and give reassurance that the important services they provide are not being diluted by this expense."
In fact, the state, which provides slightly more than half of the coalition's funding, apparently had no idea Carr was pulling down such a hefty salary.
A written statement from Mike Carroll, the secretary of Florida's Department of Children & Families, said the coalition's budget on file with his agency lists her salary as $300,000, "which may be inconsistent with federal tax documents filed by FCADV."
In response to the Miami Herald's inquiries, he ordered a "comprehensive financial audit of all DCF contracted funds allocated to FCADV executive salaries."
He added: "If the audit finds that FCADV was not properly reporting salary expenditures, the department will take immediate corrective action."
A Herald review found that Carr's salary, as reported in the 990s, is far higher than those of the leaders of other state-funded nonprofits, even much larger ones.
For instance, the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, a similar-sized social services nonprofit that contracts with the Department of Juvenile Justice and is also a pass-through organization, pays its executive $164,783. The head of Our Kids, a Miami-based foster care agency that also operates on state money, receives a salary that is less than one-third that of Carr's, despite overseeing a budget and staff more than twice as large.
DCF, which funds Our Kids and more than half of the coalition's budget, pays Carroll $141,000.08 and offers child abuse investigators — front-line personnel in the fight against child abuse — a starting salary of $39,600.
“When I hear that, I think about the number of advocates that could either get raises or that could be hired or shelters improved or built and I just don’t understand,” Kit Gruelle, a veteran national advocate and community educator, said of Carr’s salary. Gruelle was the subject of the 2014 HBO documentary “Private Violence,” about spousal abuse.
Neither Carr nor the coalition’s chief financial officer, Patricia Duarte, responded to numerous requests from the Herald for comment. Among the questions: whether Carr has received any subsequent raises. The coalition did provide a written generalized response saying it complies with all IRS rules.
Scott and several state legislators once criticized the domestic violence organization for overpaying the boss. But that was back in 2012, when it was reported that Carr was making $316,104. In fact, records show, Carr was actually receiving compensation of $457,164.
Carr, who has been with the organization for more than two decades and CEO since the early 2000s, defended her pay in a 2012 interview with the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau.
"I will tell you, this is my life's work," she said. "Everybody knows it. And if there is a decision by my board or the legislature … they can decrease it. This is not why I do this work."
Several state lawmakers expressed surprise when informed of Carr's salary, including the hefty pay increases since 2012.
"I think all of us have a very serious concern about the care of people trapped in domestic violence cases and there's always a shortage of funds on the front lines to deal with immediate services to them," said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on healthcare. "That's disappointing to know that a serious amount of funds are going to administrative services."
"We need to look into this and I think we should," said Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who serves on the same committee. "What we should do is look into it to determine that the state's funding is being used appropriately."
Rep. Amy Mercado, an Orlando Democrat who sits on the House budget committee that oversees the coalition's spending, said she was surprised to learn of Carr's salary — and that the governor had raised questions about it but did nothing more.
"Not only has this practice been condoned by the Republican-controlled legislature and governor's office, but it has been encouraged,'' she said.
Every state has a nonprofit domestic violence coalition, but Florida's has the largest budget due in part to a 15-year-old state law. The law, signed in 2003 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, required that all state funds for domestic violence programs in Florida be distributed by the coalition, vastly expanded its budget and changed its role from primarily an advocacy, training and policy group to one with pass-through funding responsibilities. Bush has remained an active fundraiser for the coalition, and his wife, Columba, sits on the board of the coalition's foundation arm.
Only a few other states, including Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, contract similarly with domestic violence groups to funnel funds through one statewide nonprofit to many local ones. Most just use a state agency to distribute funds to and provide oversight for local shelters.
Scott's criticism of Carr came during a 2012 bill signing for a revision to the state code on domestic violence. He wrote, "I do not believe it is appropriate to designate in statute a specific private entity as the recipient of state funds. Such a practice restricts the competitive procurement process."
But Scott let the issue drop and the legislature has not made any changes to the law that provides money to Carr's organization. The coalition's budget has increased from $33 million to almost $43 million since then, and that budget is made up almost entirely of government money, including funds generated by court fines in domestic violence cases, according to the coalition's most recent financial documents.
In addition to Jeb Bush, Carr and her coalition have enjoyed the support of other Republican leaders for years. Former Gov. Charlie Crist named her to his transition team after he was elected in 2006, and Scott's close ally, Tallahassee and Washington lobbyist Brian Ballard, is one of two outside lobbyists hired by the organization.
Visitors to the coalition's office encounter a framed photo of Carr with Crist upon entering the lobby. Carr has been a contributor to Florida politicians over the years — mostly, but not exclusively, Republicans.
Nonprofit boards decide executive salaries, and Carr's board is made up almost exclusively of current and former executive directors of domestic violence organizations around the state. The board has increased Carr's salary every year since 2011, which is the earliest year for which records are available. Those board members run programs that nearly all receive substantial portions of their budget from the coalition.
"That's a direct conflict of interest that should have been avoided," said Ravicher, the law professor. "If you're a recipient of grants from an organization you should not be on the board of directors. And it shouldn't be that the majority of board members are receiving grants from the organization."
The organization's conflict of interest policy states, "[The coalition] intends to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in all transactions."
The coalition's foundation arm was created as a separate nonprofit in 2012, with the mission to "broaden and deepen the resources of the FCADV," and has raised several hundred thousand dollars every year since. But it has yet to spend any of its money, according to the records. In that time, it has amassed a fund of more than $1.1 million, according to the most recently available financial documents.
Carr has income beyond her base salary. The year she made $761,560, the organization reported an additional $40,050 in deferred compensation and benefits. The coalition also reported she received $105,000 as part of an unusual supplemental retirement plan, although it is not clear whether that is over and above the $761,000 base. Two nonprofit experts consulted by the Herald believed it to be additional compensation, but were not positive, because they had rarely seen anything like it.
Over the past six years, the coalition reported Carr received between $40,000 and $130,000 annually as part of that retirement plan, totaling $540,000.
The Florida coalition is responsible for overseeing the funding of 42 domestic violence shelters across the state. The law requires the coalition to regularly check on organizations receiving funds to ensure they are spending their money properly. But there is no mention in the law about who provides those financial oversight services.
It gets some of its money from the Attorney General's office, but most comes from DCF, which is the main oversight body for the organization. DCF spokesman David Frady said the agency's inspector general reviews a third-party audit of the coalition's contract every year and conducts annual reviews to check that the funds are being spent properly.
Frady noted that "there is not a provision in the contract regarding executive pay."
DCF has not done an inspector general report on the coalition since 2005, when it looked into six allegations, including an alleged "special relationship" between Carr and her then-overseer at DCF, Trula Motta, and a complaint that the coalition was not required to provide a detailed line-item budget to DCF like other contractors. Carr's salary was not mentioned at the time, but DCF employees stated they thought Motta "served at the pleasure" of Carr, rather than the reverse, and that they felt like they "work for Tiffany Carr." One employee described it as "the tail is wagging the dog." The report's findings on these allegations were inconclusive.
Carr has run the coalition for nearly half its 40-year history. Starting under Gov. Bush, the coalition continued to assume more of the responsibilities for distribution and oversight of public money. Since then, Carr has effectively consolidated the power that comes with controlling the purse strings. Her supporters say this has made her an effective advocate and lobbyist for this cause.
The coalition is now getting money from federal grant programs such as the Victims of Crime Act, which those supporters attribute directly to Carr's efforts.
"Florida's government has been exemplary in providing funding," said Kim Gandy, CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which coordinates national level domestic violence advocacy and for which Carr was once the board chairwoman. "The Florida coalition deserves a lot of credit for over many years building up a lot of support from the state leadership."
The majority of the programs that the Florida coalition funds (most of which serve at least one county, if not more) have smaller budgets for the services they provide than Carr took home in salary in 2016.
Local programs are often understaffed and under-resourced — including shortages of beds and legal advocates. In 2017, 49 staff positions were empty across nearly half of Florida's 42 domestic violence centers, most of which were shelter staff or legal advocate positions. During Florida's annual 24-hour census of domestic violence services, coordinated by the National Network To End Domestic Violence, Florida met a greater percentage of requests for aid than other large states like California and Texas. Still, 97 requests were turned away because of a lack of resources. The majority of those were for housing.
"It's so critical to have those resources available," said Gandy. "When a victim is able to find the wherewithal and courage to reach out and seek help, sometimes that's their one opening… and if they reach out for help and there's no one there — no bed available, no counselor available — they may never be able to call back."
In response to a list of questions provided by the Miami Herald, the coalition sent a statement, saying, "As reflected in the 990s, FCADV complies with all IRS requirements, which include obtaining and considering financial data for organizations with comparable functions, responsibilities, and budgets within the appropriate geographical area (i.e. Florida, not other states). FCADV's administrative costs are 4 percent — far below the national average — which allows 96 percent of all funding to be directed to statewide programming and direct services for domestic violence survivors and their children."
After the coalition passes on the majority of funding it receives to local organizations, it has a budget of roughly $8 million for all of its work: programming, training, lobbying, and the administrative tasks involved in distributing and keeping tabs on the money. That's comparable to some of the other large-state domestic violence coalition budgets. Of that roughly $8 million, the top four employees, including Carr, together earn $1.3 million.
When nonprofit boards decide on an executive's salary, they sometimes do a survey of similar nonprofits to help them find an appropriate pay range.
In 2012, when asked about an earlier survey, Carr told the Herald/Times that the board looked at Enterprise Florida, the state's public/private job-creator; the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which provides services to children in poverty; and Disc Village, a Tallahassee-based rehab program.
The most recent financial records for all three list executive salaries between $143,000 and $378,000.
Carr has registered nine for-profit companies over the years. The majority were property management companies around the state, one of which is still active. She also has an active company called "Beacon Hill Advocates LLC," registered in 2017.
Property records show Carr and her husband own three houses: one in Tallahassee, a waterfront home in Port St. Joe, and a Macon County, N.C., home in the mountains of the Nantahala National Forest. The Port St. Joe and North Carolina homes were both purchased in the past five years.
In 2011, Carr sold a previous North Carolina mountain house, worth about half as much as the new one, to Laurel Lynch, a longtime coalition board member and CEO of HOPE Family Services, a Bradenton domestic violence organization funded by the coalition. The sale was notarized by the coalition's CFO, Duarte.
Lynch declined to comment on Carr's salary, and when asked about the house, said only, "That has nothing to do with FCADV."
— This story was written by Adiel Kaplan of the Miami Herald.
Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.