TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House took the first step toward severing the special arrangement the state has with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, advancing a bill this week to require the agency to face competition.
It is only the beginning of the changes ahead for the agency under fire for paying former CEO Tiffany Carr more than $7.5 million over three years as domestic violence victims across the state were denied services. Documents show that Carr was allowed to cash-in more than $5 million of paid time off at the agency that is primarily funded with state and federal taxpayer dollars.
The Senate on Wednesday also assigned its top lawyer to work with the House in an investigation, and fast-tracked its version of the legislation to end the statutory requirement that the Florida Department of Children and Families contract with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence to provide services and training to the 42 centers who serve domestic violence victims.
The bills are expected to be approved and signed by the governor before the session ends on March 13, taking effect immediately and authorizing the Department of Children and Families to take over responsibilities of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence for the remainder of this budget year.
But Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said “there are additional actions that will need to take place in order to address the entire situation.”
Meanwhile, the House has subpoenaed current and former members of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board of directors, along with Carr and her top deputies, to testify under oath to determine whether crimes were committed. The Florida Inspector General is investigating. Two members of Congress have asked for a federal probe, and federal officials — which last year launched an investigation into whether federal funds were being inappropriately used for Carr’s salary — are also asking questions, officials said.
Carr, 51, who led the coalition for 20 years, stepped down in November 2018, citing a “significant health diagnosis.” She used her close relationship with former governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist to establish the rare, statutorily-mandated protection for the coalition in 2003, making it the exclusive clearinghouse of state and federal domestic violence funds.
For years the Department of Children and Families, which has oversight responsibility of the agency, overlooked or dismissed complaints about Carr’s spending and other concerns. In 2005, it investigated a complaint that alleged questionable expenditures, unspent funds and a special relationship between the Department of Children and Families staff charged with overseeing the coalition and Carr but imposed no restrictions.
After reporting by the Miami Herald in 2018 revealed Carr’s inflated salary, the Department of Children and Families launched an investigation and supported the legislation by HB 1087 by Miami Republican Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin and the Senate companion, SB 1482, by Fernandina Beach Republican Sen. Aaron Bean.
“The department has a responsibility to ensure that public funds are being used appropriately to help domestic violence victims,’’ the Department of Children and Families wrote in an analysis of the legislation. “This is critical given that in FY 2016-2017 it was determined that over 5,000 domestic violence victims in Florida were unable to receive the help they needed.”
During House debate on the bill, sponsor Fernandez-Barquin said it is not in the Department of Children and Families’s best interest to contract with just one entity, calling the coalition “a monopoly” that “essentially became self serving.”
“They basically diverted funds to enrich themselves and not provide them to victims of domestic violence,” he said. “They’ve been able to manipulate the finances of this organize and take money away from those that need it.”
Senate Democrats expressed confusion and anger over how the misappropriation of funds could have occurred and wondered whether anything will change.
“How in the world did we miss this for so many years?” said Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, at a Senate caucus meeting.
“This is just one organization that took a boatload of state taxpayer dollars and abused it terribly,’’ she said. “My question is … what are we going to ask for to make sure there aren’t other organizations that are not being audited?”
Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill, blamed it on Republicans’ centralized power.
“This is part of the problem we have when we have the same party in charge of all of the branches [of government],” he said. “The Attorney General’s Office is one of the agencies that should be looking when we have a wrongdoing like this.”
Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who heads the Senate’s Appropriation Committee called the coalition revelations “outrageous.”
“This building better take lessons from it because what you saw was an abuse of power and potentially criminal activity,’’ he said. “This needs to be a wake-up call when you have entities embedded in statute that are single-source entities, there needs to be an extra level of oversight that obviously wasn’t present in this case.”
This is not the first time questions have been raised about Carr’s handling of coalition finances.
In 2005, several contract managers at the Department of Children and Families prompted an inspector general’s investigation when they complained that Trula Motta, then the director of the Department of Children and Families Domestic Violence Program Office, “allowed and ensured insufficient reporting” by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence and did not require the agency to submit a detailed line item budget.
They complained that the budget detail the Department of Children and Families received “was not specific enough to ensure funds are being spent appropriately.” According to the inspector general’s report, Motta stated “it was not the responsibility of the contract managers to ensure proper spending” but was instead the job of another office.
They also accused Motta of having the Department of Children and Families staff do coalition responsibilities and overlooked expensive expenditures at executive retreats and other travel. In their opinion, the inspector general wrote, “they feel like they ‘work for Tiffany Carr’ and Ms. Motta ‘serves at the pleasure’ of Ms. Carr” and said the situation “seems like ‘the tail is wagging the dog.’”
The inspector general concluded that the allegations were “neither supported nor refuted” and recommended that the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence provide more detail budgets.
Seven years later in 2012, Carr and her agency recognized Motta’s “legacy of service, leadership, and dedication” and gave Motta its annual award named after a former state legislator, the “Representative Denise Grimsley Leadership Award.”
Questions surfaced again in 2018, based on the Times/Herald reporting which first exposed Carr’s excessive compensation. The Department of Children and Families asked the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence to turn over many details, including budget documents that would show how much state and federal money was spent on Carr’s compensation, but the coalition refused.
The Department of Children and Families noted in its analysis that after the Herald first published reports detailing Carr’s high salary, the federal Administration of Children and Families contacted the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence and requested specific documentation, triggering the audit.
Last week, the coalition finally handed over more than 100,000 pages of documents that revealed for her last three years, Carr was compensated more than $7.5 million while also receiving her salary, automobile allowance, and travel to and from her home in North Carolina.
Florida lawmakers quickly responded, asking for the board to resign and issuing subpoenas for 14 executives and board members. DeSantis launched an investigation to determine if the organization was guilty of crimes, and the House and Senate committee started to fast-track the bill to sever the coalition’s the sole-source contract with the Department of Children and Families for domestic violence funds.
Meanwhile, the heads of 26 domestic violence centers in Florida are asking for current the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board members to resign. In a letter they sent to DeSantis Sunday, they vowed to “remain steadfastly committed to ensuring that these vital services continue without interruption.”
The governor’s inspector general, Melinda Miguel, notified directors Tuesday that they would be invited to meet with state investigators “to discuss concerns, issues, and allegations regarding any potential misuse of public funds.”
Board member Lorna Taylor, who does not currently run a domestic violence center, resigned from her role last week. Serene Harbor domestic violence shelter in Brevard County announced last Friday that it is “parting ways” with CEO and the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board chair Melody Keeth.
As of Wednesday, no other board members who are CEOs of domestic violence shelters had stepped down from their roles, according to member shelters.
Times/Herald Tallahassee staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @MaryEllenKlas. Samantha J. Gross can be reached at email@example.com and @SamanthaJGross