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Pay scandal prompts DeSantis to order Florida agencies to review contracts

The governor’s announcement was prompted by what he said were revelations that the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence used state and federal funds for “exorbitant” payouts.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. [STEVE CANNON  |  AP]
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. [STEVE CANNON | AP]

TALLAHASSEE — Responding to the absence of effective oversight of the state-funded Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday issued an executive order that requires all state agencies to review any new single-source contracts that are given protected status in state statute.

The action is likely to affect less than a dozen private agencies but could reach other social services providers that administer state and federal funds. Among them are the privately-run nonprofits such as community-based care providers that offer child welfare services to local communities; early learning coalitions that monitor Florida’s pre-kindergarten program; PRIDE Enterprises, which trains inmates and sells products; the Able Trust, which serves the disabled; and the Schools of Hope, charter schools created to serve students in low-performing district schools.

The governor’s announcement was prompted by what he said were revelations that the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence used state and federal funds “to subsidize exorbitant executive leadership team compensation payouts.”

Related: How a Florida nonprofit paid $7.5M to its CEO: The Tiffany Carr Story

The coalition serves as the clearinghouse for all state and federal domestic violence funds and, documents show, it compensated its long-time chief executive officer Tiffany Carr more than $7.5 million over three years, despite being monitored by the Department of Children and Families.

DeSantis is giving state agencies 45 days to identify all sole-source contracts with private agencies and all agencies that receive more than 50% of their funds from state and federal sources. He wants them to review their IRS 990 forms, and if the salary exceeds the limits allowed in state and federal law, the agencies will be investigated by his chief inspector general.

DeSantis also wants state agencies to make sure the nonprofit organizations are properly audited and is demanding they start requiring a list of all “bonuses, cashed-in leave, cash equivalents, severance pay, retirement benefits, deferred compensation, real-property gifts, and any other payout.”

On Thursday, the Florida House unanimously passed HB 1087 by Miami Republican Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin which would sever the special relationship the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence has as the sole-contractor for domestic violence funds.

Fernandez-Barquin said the mismanagement of funds at the coalition “shocks the conscience.”

“This issue has kept me up at night,” he said. “It’s not our money. It’s the state money given to us and entrusted to us by taxpayers.”

The fast-moving measure is expected to be approved by the Senate and sent to the governor for his signature as early as next week. It will take effect immediately and authorize the Department of Children and Families to take over responsibilities of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence for the remainder of this budget year.

The agency manages about $52 million in state and federal government funds to 42 domestic violence centers that serve emergency shelters for victims of domestic abuse.

After years of failing to scrutinize the budget of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, approving two budgets after the Miami Herald first reported in 2018 that Carr’s salary exceeded $761,000, lawmakers are now eager to crack down.

Ongoing investigation

The House has subpoenaed current and former members of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board of directors and Carr’s two top deputies are expected to be deposed under oath on Monday. Current and former board members, who approved her compensation, will be interviewed by the House Committee on Public Integrity and Ethics on Monday afternoon.

Carr is also being subpoenaed, but because she does not live in Florida she has been hard for House lawyers to serve with legal documents.

After the Times/Herald story, the Department of Children and Families, which oversees the agency, ordered an audit in August 2018. Carr, who led the coalition for 20 years, stepped down in November 2019, citing a “significant health diagnosis” but was hired to serve as a consultant.

DeSantis also ordered the Florida inspector general to investigate, and two members of Congress have asked for a federal probe.

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.

In a November 2019 letter to the Department of Children and Families, the coalition’s attorney, Karen Walker of Holland and Knight, argued that the Department of Children and Families’s “Contract Oversight Unit routinely monitors the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and has done so for many years, with no findings.” Walker accused the Department of Children and Families of “singling out,” the coalition and, while she acknowledged bonuses were paid to staff, “no bonuses have ever been paid out of any state or federal funds.”

Last week, under pressure from the Florida House, the agency turned over documents that 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.”

DeSantis told reporters Thursday he was troubled by the failure of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence to turn over the documents sought by the Department of Children and Families auditors and asked staff to at contracting practices to find efficiencies and increase accountability.

“What you have is something that’s kind of self-perpetuating entity in statute, where you have the head of it selects the board and on and on it goes,’’ he said. “And that’s not the type of accountability and oversight that you need in order to do well.”

Documents turned over to the House last week included salary data for Big Bend Community Based Care, which is the child social services agency serving North Florida, which was intended to be used to compare Carr’s salary. The Big Bend CBC reported to the IRS that its CEO Mike Watkins earned more than $577,000 in 2017.

“I think we have to carefully consider all these types of agencies and organizations that the state created because unfortunately, many times when they are created, it is with a political preference in mind,’’ she said. “That applies to all parties, not just one.”

Rep. Patricia Williams, a Lauderdale Lakes Democrat, proposed an amendment to HB 1087 to a cap the salary of any CEO who contracts with the state at $150,000 or 5% of the contract total, whichever is less. She agreed to withdraw the amendment but said she wanted to address the issue in the future.

DeSantis suggested the federal government is also investigating the coalition’s finances.

“When you have federal funds at issue, that opens up another layer to that,” he said.

Times/Herald staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report

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