TALLAHASSEE — Two state lawmakers filed bills this week to remove a required partnership with Florida’s largest domestic violence nonprofit from state law amid questions about the organization’s executive compensation and compliance with an audit conducted by the state’s social services agency.
The bills — sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach and Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, D-Miami — would strip the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence of its contract long guaranteed in state statute. For decades, the nonprofit has been written into the law as a de facto partner of the Department of Children and Families to pass government funds to 42 domestic violence centers across the state.
Bean, who chairs the Senate’s health care budget committee, said he filed the legislation in part because of past reporting on the former coalition CEO’s $761,000 salary as well as the coalition’s reluctance to fully provide documents requested in a state audit started in 2018.
“Putting a vendor in statute kind of ties [the Department of Children and Families’] hands with what they do — it makes it tougher to negotiate and to work with a vendor if they’re in statute and have to go with them,” he also said.
The legislation would allow the coalition, which is also the largest such state coalition in the country, to seek the contract again if the state’s Department of Children and Families decides to bid out those services.
For several years, the coalition has contracted with Department of Children and Families to oversee domestic violence programs in the state, in addition to acting as a pass-through for state and federal funds. Under its longtime former president and CEO Tiffany Carr, the coalition’s responsibilities and funding have expanded dramatically, especially with its inclusion in state law in 2003 as the agency’s required partner.
Carr’s compensation also rose substantially over that period of time, eventually reaching up to $761,000 annually, according to 2017 Internal Revenue Service documents. Though those increases drew attention from politicians as early as 2012, lawmakers took no action at the time.
When the Miami Herald reported on possible discrepancies between Carr’s federally reported compensation and her salary on file with the state in 2018, the Department of Children and Families started a review of the coalition’s finances. But the agency said last fall that progress on the audit had stalled for more than a year because the coalition had not fulfilled requests for certain documents, and that it was weighing action on its contract.
After the Herald reported on the stalled audit, Carr stepped down from her leadership posts, citing a long-running “significant health diagnosis.” She remains a consultant for the coalition.
A spokeswoman for the coalition around that time disputed that the organization was obligated to provide all requested records to Department of Children and Families as a private entity. Its interim leader, former state Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said in a statement Wednesday that the bills “will have a significant, negative impact on the victims of domestic violence if adopted.”
“We look forward to sitting down with the sponsors of Senate Bill 1482 and House Bill 1087, as well as any lawmaker who has questions, and working with them in a manner that addresses their concerns; but, we will also strongly urge them not to take such a draconian approach to addressing the administration of domestic violence in the state through the legislation they have filed,” she said.
The coalition also retains the powerful lobbying firm Ballard Partners, founded by Republican lobbyist and Trump confidant Brian Ballard, that is expected to fight the bill.
Asked about the bill’s chances of success, Bean acknowledged the legislation would be a “tough sell.” “Has the other side hired Ballard, one of the top most effective lobbying firms? That’s who I’m going up against.”
He also suggested he is open to changing the bill, calling Grimsley a friend from her time in the Senate. But he said the bill in its current form has the support of the Department of Children and Families, which, he added, worked jointly with him in putting the legislation together.
The Department of Children and Families did not answer questions about its work on the bill, the status of its ongoing negotiations with the coalition, or if requested documents had been provided.
Even if the bill does not pass, Bean hinted just filing the bill had put the coalition on notice: “It’s brought a spotlight on them — whether it passes or not we’ve already made positive changes.”