TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence is a nonprofit, but in many ways, it operates like an arm of state government.
It contracts with the state Department of Children and Families to oversee domestic violence programs across the state. It receives more than $51 million in government funding — from Florida and federal programs — which it parcels out to 42 domestic violence centers. It is even enshrined by name in state law, thanks to a 2003 bill signed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime booster for the organization.
But the coalition, for the last 13 months, has flouted the state’s oversight with little consequence.
The Florida Department of Children and Families started a review of the coalition’s finances last summer after the Miami Herald reported president and CEO Tiffany Carr was paid $761,000 the prior fiscal year. But it has not been able to “move forward” with an audit for more than a year because the coalition won’t hand over documents the department is requesting.
Those documents include basic items like the coalition’s general ledger, minutes from meetings and personnel files containing compensation information for top executives.
Despite being ignored, the Department of Children and Families — which is directed by statute to contract with the coalition — extended its contract with the nonprofit twice through June 2020, as it keeps trying to resolve what it calls “outstanding compliance issues.”
At first, the department said only that it would “continue to seek answers and a clear explanation of the use of taxpayer dollars for executive salaries within (the non-profit).” The Department of Children and Families did not respond to questions asking if it has taken any legal action to enforce its requests for documents or what justification the coalition had provided for not cooperating with the department’s review.
After repeated inquiries by the Times/Herald about the status of the audit, the Department of Children and Families said Wednesday night that it was “not willing to continue working with a provider who will not account for how they are utilizing taxpayer dollars” — that unless the issues are resolved, the state is unlikely to continue its contract with the coalition.
The coalition’s outright refusal to cooperate since last August is “extraordinary, to behave in this way,” said University of Miami professor Frances Hill, who teaches about nonprofit issues and writes a twice-yearly treatise on tax-exempt organizations.
“I’ve never heard of it before,” she added. “The word gobsmacked could perhaps be used in this context.”
Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state representative from Orlando who had reached out several times to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office questioning Carr’s high compensation, said the coalition’s lack of response was suspicious.
“If you haven’t completed a financial audit, then you’re hiding something,” she said.
Carr and Sandy Barnett, the coalition’s vice president, did not respond to a request for comment. They also did not answer multiple questions, including why the coalition has not provided documents and how the board determined Carr’s most recent yearly compensation.
A nonprofit domestic violence coalition exists in every state, but Florida’s is empowered far more than most, if not all, its counterparts. It is tasked with overseeing the funding of 42 certified domestic violence centers in the state, and acts as a pass-through entity for state and federal funds.
In addition to being the largest domestic violence coalition in the country, the Florida organization is also specified in state law as a de facto partner to the Department of Children and Families in addressing domestic violence, though it operates under a contract with the department.
That state law, signed in 2003 by Bush, also expanded the nonprofit’s budget and required all state funds for domestic violence programs to go through the coalition.
Carr, who has run the coalition for nearly two decades, has overseen the growth of the coalition’s responsibilities — and its funds. The nonprofit’s budget has increased to more than $52 million as of last year, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service documents, almost entirely comprising money from state government and federal programs such as the Victims of Crime Act. The budget also includes money generated by court fines in domestic violence cases, according to past financial documents.
Carr’s salary has also grown substantially. In 2012, Carr reported making more than $316,000, prompting then Gov. Rick Scott to question her compensation, though no action was taken.
During the 2016-17 fiscal year, according to annual IRS forms required for nonprofits, Carr’s total compensation was $761,560 — indicating she received increases amounting to $313,475 during the past two years.
During the last fiscal year, Carr’s coalition salary and additional compensation dipped to $636,497 without explanation, according to those documents. Still, it vastly exceeds other leaders’ salaries at similar state-funded nonprofits.
Several members of Carr’s nonprofit board, which determines the coalition’s executive salaries, have been current or former executive directors of domestic violence organizations around the state, with programs dependent on the coalition’s distribution of funding.
After the Herald reported about Carr’s high compensation last year, the secretary of the Department of Children and Families at the time, Mike Carroll, said he was ordering a “comprehensive financial audit of all (agency) contracted funds allocated to (the nonprofit’s) executive salaries” in response to the report.
“If the audit finds that (the nonprofit) was not properly reporting salary expenditures, the department will take immediate corrective action,” he said.
Since that time, the coalition has not complied with multiple requests to provide its documents for financial review, effectively stonewalling the audit.
The documents the Department of Children and Families requested four times from August 2018 to September 2019 include a list of certified domestic violence centers that are members of the coalition, a list of their membership fees, the minutes of private board meetings and sub-committee meetings, the general ledger, and general ledger chart of accounts.
The requests also sought personnel files containing compensation information for the coalition’s top executives: Carr, its president and CEO; chief operating officer Barnett and chief financial officer Patricia Duarte.
None of them have been fulfilled.
Though the department has said it reviewed a third-party audit of the coalition annually, the group had not been audited by the department’s in-house inspector general since 2005, when it examined several allegations, including one that the coalition’s budget submitted to the agency did not have to be as detailed as other contractors’ and that Carr had an alleged “special relationship” with a Department of Children and Families’ employee who oversaw the coalition’s contract. The report deemed the assertions inconclusive.
The coalition’s refusal to cooperate puts an agency like the Department of Children and Families in a difficult position, said Hill, the University of Miami professor.
“It’s a very serious thing because there’s so little money for social services of any kind,” she said. “When the accountability of structures are completely stonewalled it’s a very serious thing … I can’t think of a single reason why a charity would think it could do this.”
Hill added that, generally, relying on specialized large nonprofits can also pose a problem in government contracting when issues arise and there is no obvious replacement for them.
In some situations, “there may not be another organization that could readily step in. So then what happens?” she asked. “What happens to all the beneficiaries? What happens to all the organizations that depend on the flow of money? You don’t want a solution that’s worse than the problem.”
Eskamani said she had heard from advocates that Carr might have been politically shielded by her close ties with Bush, a prolific fundraiser for the coalition whose wife, Columba, served for a time on the foundation’s board.
“We’ve heard that one reason why there’s been a lack of movement on this is because of former Gov. Jeb Bush and his role in choosing Tiffany Carr and protecting Tiffany Carr,” she said. Eskamani acknowledged she had no first-hand knowledge of such an arrangement.
Bush did not respond to a request for comment about his ties with the coalition. DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré said she was unaware of any assertions that Carr was being protected by the former governor.
“We definitely are very concerned [the coalition] is not participating in an audit,” Ferré said, regarding the coalition’s refusal to hand over documents. “This governor is about accountability and in order to be held accountable you have to be able to work with the state agencies to show where the money’s going.”
Other lawmakers said that if the coalition continues to flout the audit, the Legislature could step in to help the department levy sanctions.
“If this is an issue with them, it’ll be an issue with us,” said state Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, who chairs the Senate’s health care budget committee. “We’ve got to have transparency and accountability and it’s hard to argue against that.”
Bean added that there was “a balance between getting good talent and maximizing our state’s efforts to serve those in need and in crisis,” but that with several strains on the health care budget, fiscal responsibility is critical.
“We get so little dollars in the health care silo, appropriated to the maximum power so they can touch as many lives as possible,” he said. “We want to make sure they’re used in the most efficient and effective way as possible.”
But Bean said he was sure the coalition would eventually comply: “We entrust (the Department of Children and Families) to manage our partners and manage our contracts.”