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Florida lawmakers investigate top domestic violence nonprofit

Lawmakers Thursday embarked on an investigation into the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which has come under fire for its former CEO’s high salary and its disregard of a state audit.
Sandra Barnett, chief operating officer of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Sandra Barnett, chief operating officer of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. [ Florida Channel ]
Published Jan. 30, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — As impatient lawmakers questioned the chief operating officer of the state’s largest domestic violence nonprofit about the inner workings of her organization, the 10-year veteran executive had very few answers to satisfy them.

Sandra Barnett, chief operating officer of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, came before the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee and said that despite spending a decade as former CEO Tiffany Carr’s second in command, she bears little responsibility for what has gone on inside the nonprofit and that she will comply with a House and ongoing Department of Children and Families investigation.

Lawmakers Thursday embarked on an investigation into the coalition, which has come under fire for its former CEO’s high salary and its disregard of a state audit that has been underway for over a year. The House’s investigation, which comes after Times/Herald reporting that illuminated Carr’s more than $761,000 annual salary, was ordered by House Speaker José Oliva on Monday.

Barnett told lawmakers she doesn’t know who discussed and decided on Carr’s salary as CEO. She couldn’t say how members are chosen to serve on the board of trustees. She didn’t know how much coalition members pay in dues, or how much in total dues is collected annually.

She also said that she has never been to a coalition board meeting, nor did she request to go or read the minutes of the meetings.

“I’ve had a pretty narrow role with the coalition to date,” she said. “I didn’t request [to go to meetings].”

Lawmakers didn’t buy it.

Related: Watch Thursday's Public Integrity & Ethics Committee meeting

“COO is a pretty big job. And you didn’t go to board meetings?” asked Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican. “That never occurred to you that that was a problem?”

Fine added that without “good corporate governance” in place, “bad things happen.”

“If only one employee sits in on board meetings … that’s about as bad as it gets,” he said. “That is a decision that was either not well thought or done for nefarious reasons. I am incredulous that the COO of an organization would not be invited to board meetings.”

Carr, who led the coalition for 20 years, stepped down citing a “significant health diagnosis” last year. Former state Sen. Denise Grimsley, a Republican from Sebring and a friend of Carr’s, briefly stepped in as unpaid interim president and CEO but resigned after two months.

In a statement at the time Carr stepped down, the coalition’s board chair, Melody Keeth, said she had begun discussing her departure six months earlier. For 10 years, Barnett was second in command.

On Monday, House Speaker José Oliva directed the committee to start an investigation into the coalition “immediately,” telling committee chair Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, to “look into any matter relevant to the integrity, effectiveness and efficiency … including aspects of the internal management of the coalition.”

The Miami Lakes Republican gave the committee a deadline of March 3.

For 18 months, the state Department of Children and Families, which under law must contract with the coalition, has been attempting to examine the nonprofit, which is responsible for the distribution of tens of millions in state and federal dollars every year.

The audit began after the Miami Herald reported Carr was paid more than $761,000 in the 2016-17 fiscal year. But the investigation has not been able to move forward for 18 months because the coalition has refused to turn over documents like membership lists, the coalition’s general ledger, personnel files containing compensation information for top executives and minutes from board meetings, on the grounds that it has no contractual duty to do so.

The coalition achieved its special status in 2003, when former Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law designating it as the sole recipient of state domestic violence money. Bush’s wife, Columba, was a founding member of the coalition’s board.

Keith Parks, DCF Inspector General of 16 years, told lawmakers Thursday that while 97% of the funds used by the coalition come from public sources, the coalition has still failed to provide any documents to show how the money was spent or how decisions were made.

Parks said he’s never encountered a situation where a nonprofit so determinedly avoided an audit. DCF has made five different requests for information and held a nearly three-hour in-person meeting, he said, and has been unsuccessful in gaining any information.

“The lack of cooperation to this extent is beyond something I’m accustomed to,” he told lawmakers. “And we don’t have a choice as an agency. We must contract with them specifically.”

In a letter to the coalition Monday, Leek asked Keeth, the coalition’s board chair, that relevant documents be provided by Feb. 12, and demanded the coalition cooperate with the committee investigation as well as the IG audit.

“House leadership believes the state should not engage in non-competitive procurement with organizations that insist on spending or managing public funds in secrecy,” Leek wrote.

Leek also told Barnett at the hearing Thursday that if she does not cooperate, the House “will take every legal remedy” to obtain the relevant documents.

In addition to scrutiny by DCF and the new House investigation, the coalition is also the target of a pair of bills moving through the legislative process that aim to remove the state’s required partnership with FCADV. The bills would allow different nonprofits — including FCADV — to seek a contract if the state’s Department of Children and Families decides to bid out those services.

The House bill, which is being pushed as a DCF priority, passed unanimously through Leek’s committee Thursday. It has one committee stop before it goes before a full House vote. The Senate version passed unanimously through its first committee Tuesday.

The House sponsor, Miami Republican Juan Fernandez-Barquin, said he hopes the coalition produces the documents, but that the DCF Inspector General’s comments were not promising.

When asked if the IG thought the coalition would comply and come to the table with documents, “he said unequivocally no.”

“That was really telling,” Fernandez-Barquin said. “If they were to continue stonewalling, I’d start [subpoenas] with the board of directors and Tiffany Carr and Sandi Barnett. Or, we continue with my bill and we get a new slate.”

Barnett did not take questions from reporters.