TALLAHASSEE — Few government contractors could orchestrate getting the $7.5 million compensation package the head of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence managed to obtain for three years of work, but Tiffany Carr did it by leveraging connections.
Documents obtained by the Times/Herald depict a picture of a carefully managed and compartmentalized information flow that had Carr at the center of a tightly-knit and devoted group of advocates. Meanwhile, key players — from those hired to lobby on the coalition’s behalf to those assigned to serve as overseers — were kept in the dark.
It began when Carr invited Columba Bush, the wife of former Gov. Jeb Bush, to visit a domestic violence shelter. Carr had spent a decade working to aid victims of domestic violence, and Columba’s mother had been a victim of spouse abuse.
After seeing the work the shelters did, saving lives and protecting families, Columba Bush became a devoted supporter of the cause and joined the board of directors of the agency’s foundation. Carr emerged as a rock star in Gov. Bush’s orbit.
Bush’s former chief of staff, Kathleen Shanahan, became the coalition’s pro bono adviser. By 2003, Carr was rewarded with the rare and coveted status of being a sole source contractor, serving as the single clearinghouse for about $50 million in state and federal domestic violence funds each year.
The Bush family helped Carr raise money for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence foundation through the years, and she returned the favor, serving as a campaign surrogate in the 2016 presidential primary.
Until late last year, Carr, 51, remained at the top of the organization she built — although increasingly she barely set foot in the office.
Under fire for her excessive salary and her agency’s failure to turn over documents to the inspector general who was investigating, Carr resigned in November 2019, citing poor health.
But she didn’t really leave. She signed a contract to work as a consultant until January 2020, was paid two years of severance, compensated for two years of health insurance, life insurance and disability insurance. She kept her email account and her company laptop and remote computer.
She also used her carefully honed network to get information from legislative staff and officials at the Department of Children and Families, enough to inform board members what to resist when lawmakers demanded it. The Department of Children and Families is the state agency that deals directly with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is supposed to have an oversight role.
On Wednesday, after months of obstruction, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence turned over documents to the House that detail the extent of Carr’s compensation scheme. Outraged and frustrated by what they saw, legislators in the Florida House on Thursday issued 14 subpoenas demanding Carr, the top two officials at the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence — the chief financial officer and the chief operating officer — and 11 current and former board members testify under oath.
The revelations — prompted by Times/Herald reporting over 18 months — have rocked the domestic violence community, a group of 42 centers that received funding, training and advocacy from the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Many are asking: How could this happen?
Documents tell the tale
Memos to Carr’s personnel file show that a small group of board members, operating as the compensation committee, sanctioned a compensation package but provided no explanation for how it was to be paid. Instead, the agency submitted the expense to the Department of Children and Families as its “paid time off” pool, and made no indication that Carr was the recipient of millions from the funds provided.
The records show Carr received as much as $5 million in paid time off over four years in addition to a car allowance and her salary.
The board members who usually signed off on the arrangement included directors of domestic violence centers that received state funds: Melody Keeth of Serene Harbor in Palm Bay, Laura Lynch of HOPE Family Services in Bradenton, Angela Diaz-Vidaillet of The Lodge in Miami, and Donna Fagan, a private member from Lehigh Acres.
Carr’s deputies also were paid handsomely for not working. The compensation committee awarded Sandra Barnett, the chief operating officer, $556,905 between 2016 and 2018, including $89,897 for paid time off. It paid Patty Duarte, the chief financial officer, $668,552 with $253,398 in paid time off, according to a preliminary Times/Herald review of documents.
Their working relationship with Carr was almost always long distance. Interviews with Carr’s associates and records turned over to the House indicate she worked almost exclusively from her home in the North Carolina mountains, frequently requiring staff to travel at state expense to meet with her.
Her taxable wages, which began as $43,993 when Bush took office in 1999, soared to more than $4.5 million in 2018, records show.
Scrutiny of Carr’s compensation began in 2012, after a state senator whose wife was on the board of a domestic violence center complained about Carr’s salary. Gov. Rick Scott protested that her $300,000 salary was too high when he signed a bill extending the state’s alliance with the nonprofit coalition in 2012.
Legislators, many of whom knew Carr as the Bush acolyte who served on former Gov. Charlie Crist’s transition team, looked the other way. They asked no questions and made no changes.
Then-Rep. Denise Grimsley, a Republican from Sebring who headed the House Appropriations Committee at the time and was a friend of Carr’s, said she was “perplexed” by Scott’s comments. The coalition, she said, “does an outstanding job.”
Non-salary compensation soars
After Scott’s admonishment, Carr sent a note to the board “waiving the board’s contractual obligation to provide me with a 10% salary increase for June 2011-2012 fiscal year.”
That same year, records show, Carr’s non-salary compensation began to grow. First was a $50,000 bonus, awarded in 2012 by the board’s compensation committee. The bonus rose to $60,000 in 2014, $100,000 in 2015, and $75,000 in 2016 “for exemplary performance” with an additional $135,000 added to her retirement account.
Then came the arrangement to inflate the amount of paid time off she accumulated to allow her to cash it in. The first checks were modest, then they became massive: $700,000 in 2017, $4.5 million in 2018 and $1.7 million last year.
The agency allows employees to cash in their paid time off and fill out a paid time off "buy-out form” which states: “The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence encourages its employees to take vacation time throughout the year. Employees may elect to sell back up to 90 hours of (paid time off) one time per year, subject to the yearly financial position of (the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence).”
Among the conditions: “Employee may submit buyout requests during the last quarter (Oct., Nov., Dec.)“
But Carr didn’t need to follow those rules. An April 10, 2014 note from CFO Patricia Duarte to two staff members read: “please add 83 days or 664 hours of (paid time off) to Tiffany per the executive committee as of March 31, 2014.”
Records indicate Carr had accrued 6,922 hours of paid time off at this point, the equivalent of 865 days off or 2.3 years. She had also already taken 3,702 hours of PTO, the records show, likely over several years.
Six weeks after receiving the 2018 windfall, Carr and her husband, Patrick. Howard, obtained a $1.5 million mortgage and closed on a $1.9 million home in Cashiers, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Carr’s personnel records list Cashiers as her home, and agency financial ledgers turned over to the House show travel and hotel costs used by staff for multiple trips to the area.
Property records show Carr and her husband own at least four houses: one in Tallahassee, a waterfront home in Port St. Joe, the home in Cashiers and another in Macon County, N.C. The Port St. Joe and North Carolina homes were all purchased in the past seven years.
In 2011, Carr sold a North Carolina mountain house to Laurel Lynch, a longtime coalition board member and CEO of HOPE Family Services, a Bradenton domestic violence organization funded by the coalition. The sale was notarized by the coalition’s CFO, Duarte.
Lynch declined to comment on Carr’s salary when the Miami Herald first reported it in 2018, and when asked about the house, said only, “That has nothing to do with (the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence).”
Where are the minutes to meetings?
Although the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence bylaws call for ”records of meetings” to be kept, they did not require meeting minutes. So questions loom: How much state money was used to pay Carr for the paid time off? Why wasn’t that included in the budget submitted to the Department of Children and Families? Why was paid time off allowed in such staggering amounts?
Carr told the Times/Herald in 2012, that her salary is paid partly with private donations and grants, and is set by the coalition’s 11-member board, based on a study of salaries of CEOs of comparable nonprofits.
“I will tell you, this is my life’s work. Everybody knows it,” she said at the time. “And if there is a decision by my board or the Legislature ... they can decrease it. This is not why I do this work.”
When she retired in November the board kept her on a 14-month contract, paying her $81.25 an hour, including travel and expenses. The contract said that Carr was obligated to keep ‘’all information related to her duties confidential.”
After a preliminary investigation, Don Rubottom, a lawyer with the House Committee on Public Integrity and Ethics, concluded that “it looks like her paid time off over the last five or six years was approximately the same as her full salary.”
Legislators suggested Carr and her colleagues may be guilty of criminal violations. Many of the people who worked with her are not willing to speak publicly.
“There is incredible disappointment in the reported deception in use of funds,’’ said Shanahan, the former Bush aide. She said this wasn’t the organization that she and the Bush family got behind, raised private funds for and advised for years.
One of the goals of creating the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence as a clearinghouse, she said, was to centralize purchasing, coordinate advocacy and streamline training, saving money and improving operations, and if the coalition is shut down “the 42 centers are now going to have to individually advocate for their funding.”
Columba Bush served on the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence foundation board from 1999 to 2008, and she and Gov. Bush hosted the annual gala and fundraiser in Miami until three years ago.
Gov. Bush, said in a statement Saturday to the Times/Herald: “If the allegations are true, we are deeply disappointed and more importantly, saddened by the impact this will have for domestic violence shelters around the state.”
Grimsley, the former legislator and friend of Carr’s, stepped in as the interim head of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence after Carr left in November, but she quit after only two months. On Friday, she refused to comment on what she learned and whether she, too, had been stonewalled in her quest for information. But she was not happy.
“I have always believed that any entity that receives state funding should be completely open, transparent and responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars,’’ Grimsley said.
Impact across Florida
Center directors across the state worry that the work they do could be undermined if the Legislature severs the state’s contract with the coalition.
Kelly Sinn, CEO of the domestic violence shelter, Sunrise of Pasco, said the news has left her disheartened.
“You almost feel betrayed,’’ she said. “It goes without question we could have used additional dollars to providing critical life-saving services.”
On Friday, Serene Harbor, the Palm Bay organization headed by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board chair, Melody Keeth, announced it had “parted ways” with its CEO, calling her involvement with the coalition “a distraction from our core mission.”
Carr had used her connections to expand on the coalition’s footprint and now those efforts also could appear to be in jeopardy. Legislation moving through the House and Senate would sever the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s unique ability to be the single clearinghouse for state and federal funds and would have to compete for it with others.
The coalition’s fundraising arm has also been successful at drawing private dollars, holding an annual gala at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. In 2013, it announced a goal of raising $25 million in private funding over the next 10 years to “reduce dependence on government resources.”
At the annual “Door to Hope” event at the Biltmore in 2014, a constellation of Florida big names was in attendance. Bush and his wife were hosts. Former House Speaker Will Weatherford and former Florida Sen. Betty Castor received awards, and co-hosts included current House Speaker José Oliva and former Sen. Dana Young.
Another host was Lorna Taylor, CEO of Premier Eye Care, who chaired the foundation. Taylor was also the only member of the 2019-20 the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board who did not run a domestic violence center. Last week, as the revelations were coming to light, Taylor resigned.
The House is also looking into potential conflicts of interest between the board of directors, nearly all of whom are directors of centers the coalition funds, and Carr. Agency documents indicate she appointed them.
“This appears to involve frequent and recurring conflicts of interest, but the Coalition refuses to share its records so that an evaluation of any potential conflicts may be undertaken,’’ the House wrote in a preliminary report released on Thursday.
“The Coalition’s lack of transparency with respect to these concerns has only enhanced any concerns regarding the Coalition’s administration of public funds and has given rise to a more general concern about the integrity and efficacy of the State’s statutory and contractual arrangement with the Coalition,’’ it said.
Caroline Bettinger-López, a law professor at the University of Miami and former White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, said there are 54 coalitions across the country and none operated like Florida’s.
“A story like this risks being interpreted as the norm rather than a stark exception to the norm, and the FCADV’s funding structure is an outlier and the compensation that’s alleged to have been paid was an outlier,’’ she said.
But she hopes this doesn’t detract from the mission. “It’s so important when the Florida Legislature is looking at the specifics of this case that they not forget the critical role that the state domestic violence coalition has in saving lives and in promoting healing and justice for survivors,’’ she said. “These state coalitions are a formula that works. They save lives.”
What the executives were paid
These figures show wages reported on W2 forms each year.
Tiffany Carr, CEO
2018 wages: $4,525,291
2017 wages: $556,633
2016 wages: $725,560
2015 wages: $593,535
2014 wages: $413,085
5-year total: $6,814,104
Sandra Barnett, COO
2018 wages: $203,641
2017 wages: $182,748
2016 wages: $170,516
2015 wages: $187,104
2014 wages: $154,513
5-year total: $898,522
Patricia Duarte, CFO
2018 wages: $206,995
2017 wages: $268,931
2016 wages: $192,626
2015 wages: $158,300
2014 wages: $139,006
5-year total: $965,858
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald and @MaryEllenKlas. Miami Herald staff writer Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report.