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Stunned, speechless, shocked: Florida lawmakers react to misuse of funds

In a scandal first revealed last year by the Miami Herald, lawmakers say they were blindsided by misspending by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The Florida Capitol. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times] [SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times]
The Florida Capitol. [SCOTT KEELER | Times] [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Feb. 13
Updated Feb. 14

TALLAHASSEE — After years of giving sole-source status to the state’s largest domestic violence organization, lawmakers said Thursday they were blindsided by reports of what they called “excessive salaries” and “a breach of public trust” that used taxpayer money to dole out more than $7.5 million to a single executive in the last three years.

“When I was first advised of the amounts we were talking about, it was hard to put together words about what it means because it was so beyond what any of us thought was out there,” said Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, who chairs the House’s committee on Public Integrity and Ethics.

“Initially we were told there was about $750,000 in executive salary and that raised the question. To find that $750,000 in executive salary somehow gets to approximately $7 million over the course of three years, it’s shocking.”

Related: DeSantis orders investigation of Florida nonprofit that paid former CEO $761,000 salary

Documents received by the House and reviewed by the Herald/Times show that Tiffany Carr, the former chief executive officer of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, received more than $7.5 million in compensation since 2016, including an estimated $5 million in cash payouts for paid time off.

The House committee voted to issue subpoenas to Carr, Chief Operating Officer Sandy Barnett, Chief Financial Officer Patricia Duarte and several board members in order to augment its investigation.

“It appears the board members were also recipients of the funds,’’ Leek said. “We need to get to the bottom of that.”

Fast-tracking response

It wasn’t only the dollar figures that shocked lawmakers.

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said the continual avoidance of accountability by the coalition’s board members was offensive.

She noted how this was the second time the committee was hearing from someone who was brand new to representing the coalition “who has no answers for us.”

“At this point this is completely unacceptable,” Sullivan said. “I hope that we can get to the bottom of this quickly, however, based on [the board’s] current behavior I have a feeling they’re going to drag this out as long as possible.”

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee gave swift approval to a bill to repeal the unique statutory status of the agency and give the authority over the funding to the Department of Children and Families.

“The light has been turned on,’’ said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach and chair of the Senate committee.

Related: Nonprofit? She gets paid $761,560 to run this domestic violence group

Both the House and Senate said they were working swiftly to get the bill to the governor by next week, and DCF officials told the Senate committee they were determined to make sure there is no break in service to victims because of the fallout.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, emphasized that the issue was “an administrative problem” and not a reflection on what she said is “excellent service” offered by the domestic violence shelters.

“It’s very troubling when you think about, yes, the local agencies that are striving to do good work how much good work could they do if the monies were getting to them instead of being pocketed into the ... bad actors,’’ said Sen. Gary Farmer, a Plantation Democrat.

“This is a reminder to us all that just because someone is labeled a not-for-profit entity that financial shenanigans cannot occur,’’ he said, suggesting the state should “claw back” the money from the former executives.

‘Many of us are speechless’

House lawmakers asked how they could prevent the coalition from using state funding to pay for its lawyer, or whether there should be a court order to freeze their accounts, Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville said, adding that the situation felt surreal.

“I know many of us are almost speechless with what we’re hearing,” she said, before proposing that the Legislature needs to “take more responsibility” over contractors who are given special status in state law.

After the committee met, Leek said lawmakers will be discussing how to prevent this from happening again.

“We have to seriously investigate whether we give anybody special status within the statutes,” he said, noting that the Legislature had good intentions when it originally put the coalition in state law 20 years ago, but that was “perverted along the way.”

House Speaker José Oliva said “there probably is not sufficient statutory oversight in the legislation” when the law was created in 2003. “That’s something that now we will make sure to look at anytime we’re creating any such agency.”

But, he added, “these are extraordinary circumstances.”

Related: This Florida nonprofit boss got flak for $761,000 salary. Now she’s retiring.

Bean said he expects there to be closer scrutiny of other non-profit agencies that contract with the state to provide social services.

“I know that right now that there’s going to be a review of every vendor that’s listed in a contract,’’ he said.

The coalition, which has a rare sole-source contract with the state, oversees domestic violence programs and passes through about $50 million in state and federal government funds to 42 domestic violence centers across the state. It also charges those centers annual dues.

Retribution

Carol Wick, who served as the Executive Director of the Harbor House domestic violence center in Orange County for 10 years, said she came to lawmakers months ago with concerns with the coalition.

During her time running the domestic violence center, she said she found it strange that the board of directors was so secretive and that as a member center, she couldn’t even attend a board meeting if she wanted to.

Wick, whose center paid about $23,000 in membership dues to the coalition each year, said she often felt that she and others had little power over how much funding the centers received. She once applied to be on the FCADV board to get more involved and was told by Carr “that’s not how this works,” she said.

She said while her center paid thousands in dues, the center was “just scraping by.” The floors were rotting, they had to buy cots to create more bed space and in some circumstances, they turned people away.

In 2016, the center applied for funding, which comes to the coalition from the state budget. While Wick thought the center was a “shoo-in,” the center did not get the funding. However, board members who ran domestic violence centers did.

She called Barnett, and said she planned on contesting the decision.

“She said, ‘If you do, I’ll destroy you,’ “ Wick recalled.

In 2016, Wick gathered other executive directors of domestic violence centers to meet and come up with ideas, as she felt they were not being supported by FCADV. Barnett was sent to attend the meetings, Wick said.

Soon after, Wick was asked to resign.

On Thursday, Wick said while she had some insight into FCADV, she “had no idea is that it was this bad.”

“I think about how much more money is going to go to survivors when this is all said and done,” she said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas.

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