TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators learned Thursday the cost of their decision to direct millions of taxpayer dollars to a private domestic violence agency and ask few questions.
After months of obfuscation, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence revealed for the first time that for the last three years it compensated its chief executive officer more than $7.5 million from state and federal funds — including nearly $5 million in cash compensation for “paid time off.”
Embarrassed and outraged, Florida lawmakers responded swiftly.
The Florida House voted to subpoena 14 executives and board members of the coalition and ask for the board’s resignation. Gov. Ron DeSantis launched an investigation to determine if the organization was guilty of crimes. And a Senate committee gave swift approval to a bill to sever the coalition’s unique status as the sole source contract for the Department of Children and Families for domestic violence funds.
“After many months of obstruction by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the governor’s office received deeply disturbing information regarding the organization’s practices over the past several years,’’ DeSantis’ office said in a statement. “These practices include exorbitant compensation payouts, abuse of state dollars, withholding of information, and breach of public trust.”
The revelations come after the Times/Herald first reported in July 2018 that the CEO, Tiffany Carr, received an annual salary of more than $761,000.
After the Times/Herald story, the Department of Children and Families, which oversees the agency, ordered an audit of the agency in August 2018. Carr, who led the coalition for 20 years, then stepped down citing a “significant health diagnosis.”
Despite those revelations, lawmakers continued to steer millions to the coalition which oversees domestic violence programs and passes through about $50 million in state and federal government funds to 42 domestic violence centers. State law gives the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence the rare position of being a statutory sole-source contractor on the services for those agencies and the victims they serve.
The Times/Herald reported last October that the coalition was stonewalling the Department of Children and Families by refusing to turn over 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.
Without the documents to obtain an accurate portrayal of the agency’s finances, Florida House Speaker José Oliva ordered his chamber to launch an investigation.
Last month, the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee questioned Sandra Barnett, the coalition’s COO, but she testified she didn’t know who decided on Carr’s salary as CEO.
After the House threatened to subpoena the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence officials last week, the coalition turned over more than 100,000 records to the House and the governor’s office, revealing never-disclosed details of the elaborate compensation scheme for Carr and two of her top deputies.
The contracts with Carr, obtained by the Times/Herald, reveal that the coalition’s compensation committee, comprised of shelter operators and friends of Carr, gave her 50 days paid time off annually starting in 2010. That expanded to the cash equivalent of a minimum of 260 days of paid time off in 2015 and 2016, 465 in 2017 and 360 days in 2018 and 2019. Those figures come from memos written by the chair of the board of directors.
The records show she received $4.2 million in paid time off over four years in addition to a car allowance and salary. The documents show compensation totals of $541,000 in 2016-17, $1.4 million in 2017-18 and $3.7 million in 2018-19 and another $1.7 million in 2019 before Carr resigned. The documents also show that Carr cashed in her retirement fund, valued at about $850,000.
The compensation committee awarded Barnett $516,000 between 2016 and 2018, including $46,000 for paid time off and paid Patty Duarte, the chief financial officer, $472,000 with $64,000 in paid time off.
“I’m a little stymied here,’’ Leek said after reviewing the numbers. “This appears to be more than a breach of the public trust, this in fact may be criminal. It appears to me the only sensible decision this board of directors has made is to lawyer up now.”
He noted that after meeting with lawyers for the coalition, lawmakers were told the board and remaining executives would resign their posts this week. Instead, on Wednesday, they announced they would not resign, he said.
“The only people refusing to quit were the board of directors,’’ Leek said. He urged them to “resign effective immediately.”
Lots of people quit
In response, the lawyers, lobbyists and communications consultants hired to handle the crisis all quit Thursday morning.
“We were honored to represent survivors of domestic violence, and we’re very proud of their work, but when we found out about the grossly-excessive compensation, and the indefensible numbers, we had to step down,’’ said Brian Ballard, president of the lobbying firm that had long represented the coalition since it got its start under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
“We’re paid to defend our client in front of the Legislature,’’ he said. “We can’t in good conscience advocate and defend the indefensible.”
Mark Herron, attorney for the coalition, told the committee he was retained late Wednesday after the coalition’s previous attorney resigned and was charged with conducting an internal investigation. He advised the House that the coalition would turn over all documents going forward.
Herron said the board “felt it was inappropriate” for them to resign but he did not offer any reasons.
To keep the pressure on, Leek’s committee voted to issue 14 subpoenas to Carr, Barnett, Duarte and several board members and, in a rare bipartisan gesture, the full House voted Thursday afternoon to support the subpoenas.
The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a private not-for-profit corporation, has unique statutory protection as part of an arrangement created in 2003, when Bush signed a law designating it as the sole recipient of state domestic violence money. Bush’s wife, Columba, was a member of the coalition’s foundation board.
The revelations prompted the House and Senate to fast-track legislation to repeal that statute and allow the Department of Children and Families to take control of the coalition’s activities.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee gave SB 1482 swift approval Thursday and legislators said they want to move that and HB 1087 through both the House and Senate as early as next week.
“The light has been turned on,’’ said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, chair of the Senate committee. “The question is, how fast can we pass a bill?”
Lavish compensation and benefits
Despite the media scrutiny and inquiries from the Department of Children and Families over the previous year, the coalition board decided in June 2019 to increase Carr’s compensation by another $3 million.
In a June 10, 2019, memo to Carr’s personnel file titled “Compensation Committee Discussions, Contract Renewal and Annual Review,” the chair of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board of directors, Melody Keeth, said that the compensation committee “unanimously agreed” to pay Carr:
▪ “An additional 360 pto [paid time off] days to [be] deposited into her account prior to June 30th with the same provisions included last year that allows her to cash out at anytime or retain in her account until she departs the organization or use the time as needed.”
▪ “Continue the special condition to work from North Carolina, expanding this special condition to include any months of the year.”
▪ “Increase Ms. Carr’s car allowance by 10%.”
▪ “Send Ms. Carr to an Executive Retreat at the place of her choosing.”
▪ “Implement the 10% base salary increase included in the current employment contract.”
▪ “Provide a net $200,000 bonus for exemplary performance.”
▪ “Open [an] Executive Compensation account where funds can be deposited and used for bonus for the CEO or other employees and/or expenses as the CEO sees fit.”
“The Committee unanimously agreed that again this year, Ms. Carr’s performance exceeded all expectations as she worked to keep survivors and their needs at the forefront as she represented all of us with uncompromising integrity throughout the fiscal period,’’ Keeth wrote.
The documents show little documentation of how the board arrived at Carr’s compensation. She appointed both the executive committee and a compensation committee.
Former state Sen. Denise Grimsley, a Republican from Sebring and a friend of Carr’s, briefly stepped in as unpaid interim president and CEO late last year but resigned after two months.
Don Rubottom, staff director of the House committee, said he spent most of Wednesday night reviewing the documents and concluded that for 210 days the agency paid Carr twice.
Rubottom said he suspects that the organization may have falsely filed federal 990 forms, the forms the IRS requires of non-profits.
Members of the House committee were concerned that the organization would use the funds to pay for attorneys and considered finding a way to freeze its accounts. They also expressed concern that the abuse of power may also be occurring at the organizations running the domestic violence centers across the state.
“If there’s chicanery going on at the state level,’’ said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Jacksonville, “... should we consider taking this down to the next level?”
“Many of us are almost speechless for what we’re learning today,’’ said Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, and suggested that the Legislature should start requesting salary information from the organizations it contracts with.
Bean said that after the legislation is signed to strip the state’s required partnership with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence from statute, he expects the Department of Children and Families to consider canceling the contract with the coalition for this budget year and contracting directly with the domestic violence centers.
“As a bonus, (the Department of Children and Families) will not charge membership fees to be a part of the network so they’ll just pay them and give them money without charging them for it,’’ he said.
Bean said the scrutiny will also continue at the coalition and has heard the federal government “is not happy about membership fees” the coalition was charging to serve as a pass-through for its funds.