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‘I think I was deceived’: In pay scandal, Florida nonprofit’s former chairs claim ignorance

Testimony from three former chairs of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence revealed a stunning lack of intimate knowledge of key decisions and shirked responsibility.

TALLAHASSEE — In a rare exercise of its investigative authority, the Florida House brought in for testimony former chairs of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s board of directors, the state-funded organization under fire for paying its former CEO more than $7.5 million over three years.

Three the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board chairs going back 10 years put on a stunning show of a lack of intimate knowledge of the decisions made by the coalition and shirked responsibility for former CEO Tiffany Carr’s outsized compensation packages.

The former board chairs — Laurel Lynch, Angela Diaz-Vidaillet and Melody Keeth — defended their actions to the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, attempting to answer questions from frustrated lawmakers.

Related: $7.5M payout could lead to jail time for those who approved it

▪ Lynch, a 10-year member of the board and executive director of a domestic violence shelter in Bradenton, said she thinks the paid time off awarded to Carr was changed without Lynch’s knowing when she signed off on the document.

When committee staff director Don Rubottom asked if Lynch felt like she was misled when she was working on the compensation contract, she said yes.

“Sir, I think I was deceived,” Lynch said at the end of her questioning.

• Diaz-Vidaillet, who leads The Lodge, a Miami shelter for victims of domestic violence, said as the investigation heated up she called Carr and asked: “What have you done?’ And she said, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong. Everything I did, I did for the contract.’ ”

She said in her testimony that she was even asked by the coalition’s former attorney to recruit former Gov. Jeb Bush to step in as interim CEO of the organization and help them raise $4 million in private funds to allow Carr to repay taxpayers.

• Keeth, the most recent board chair who was ousted from her role as the executive director of a domestic violence center in Palm Bay in light of her subpoena from the House, said the hundreds of days of paid time off granted to Carr were meant to be used as sick time by Carr, who told board members that she was suffering from a brain tumor.

“I never could have imagined that she would convert time we gave her to use for her illnesses into cash,” Keeth said. “The Tiffany Carr that I knew would not take all this (paid time off).”

All three women said they thought the hundreds of paid days they awarded to Carr were hundreds of hours, not days, drawing skepticism from lawmakers.

“Every time, as a lawyer, I hear witnesses come forward and their testimony is so similar ... it makes you think that they’ve coordinated in advance, but that’s largely a credibility question,” said committee chair Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, after the six-hour hearing.

While lawmakers asked questions of process and operations, they mostly centered on what they called Carr’s “outrageous” compensation packages that included hundreds of paid days off, which she cashed in for millions of dollars.

Coalition’s broad role

The coalition is the clearinghouse for all state and federal domestic violence funds, which has recently come under fire for Carr’s massive salary. The agency manages about $52 million annually in state and federal government funds that goes to 42 domestic violence centers that serve as emergency shelters for victims of domestic abuse.

For 20 months, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence refused to turn over documents to the Department of Children and Families, which is responsible for overseeing the coalition. Carr, who led the coalition for 20 years, stepped down citing a “significant health diagnosis” soon after the investigation was announced.

Without documents to obtain an accurate portrayal of the agency’s finances, Florida House Speaker José Oliva ordered his chamber to launch an investigation.

Last week under pressure from the House, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence turned over documents. Soon after, the House voted to subpoena 14 executives and board members of the coalition and ask for the board’s resignation.

Just Lynch, Diaz-Vidaillet and Keeth testified Monday. On Thursday, Chief Financial Officer Patricia Duarte and Chief Operating Officer Sandra Barnett are expected to be questioned by the committee.

“It’s going to be difficult for those folks to claim a level of ignorance that a board member could claim,” Leek added.

The former board chairs said they couldn’t recall much detail when it came to their roles.

Keeth, for instance, said she had never seen Carr’s personnel file, despite the fact that Carr reported to the board of directors.

Keeth recently retired and has already moved on from Florida to western North Carolina, which is where Carr also lives and owns more than one home, she said.

Carr’s compensation

According to documents provided to the House and obtained by the Times/Herald, Carr’s compensation in 2016-17 was $1.4 million and $1.1 million was from private sources. By 2018-19, her pay rose to $3.7 million.

The committee in 2018 awarded Carr a $450,000 base salary with a $200,000 bonuses and 260 days of paid time off, “in lieu of the 457-F plan which has matured,” documents showed, and an additional 360 paid time off days that she was allowed to cash out.

While the board has fiduciary authority, it made the offer and it was up to Carr to reject it. The 2018 file provided to the House notes that Carr “reviewed the current financial status of the organization and requested adjustments to the proposed compensation package.”

She declined the $200,000 bonus and instead accepted a $85,000 bonus with additional 64 paid time off days, documents show. She cashed out 360 paid days off, took an additional 260 banked paid time off days and “expressed extreme gratefulness for the provision to work in remote locations during warm months.”

In 2015, Carr also turned down some of the board’s offer but accepted a $100,000 bonus, rejected 60 additional paid days off but took 120, according to documents provided to the House and obtained by the Times/Herald.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, pressed Keeth on a series of IRS form 990s from other nonprofits meant to validate Carr’s compensation by offering comparisons to the salaries of other CEOs.

The 990s were filed to the IRS more than a year after the compensation memo was signed and dated, Fine said, as he waved the documents from the committee desk.

Related: 'So shady and disgusting': Florida's nonprofit pay scandal is worse than you think

Keeth said she “didn’t pull these 990s,” and could not account for the discrepancy between the date of the memo and the dates the 990s were filed.

Leek told reporters after the hearing that “this issue will not be brushed aside.”

Cash for vacation days

In the three years of compensation memos signed by Keeth while she was the board chair, the offer included 160 paid days in 2015, 465 paid days in 2016 and 360 paid days in 2019, which could be cashed out at any time.

Lawmakers called it “egregious,” pointing out that there are only 260 work days in a year, not including holidays.

Lynch claimed she only learned of scrutiny over Carr’s compensation packages through the House investigation and through newspaper articles.

Lynch and board members said the paid time off was meant for medical purposes, even though the compensation memo read that Carr can cash the days out at any time. When pressed by lawmakers why they would award her more than a years’ worth of time, the board members had no answers.

Keeth, Lynch and Diaz-Vidaillet made references to Carr’s having a brain tumor. Lawmakers asked repeatedly whether the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board had any documentation about Carr’s medical condition. The answers were repeatedly no, and that information had come from Carr alone.

Lynch couldn’t recall the names of the other board members on the compensation committee but claimed they were asked by Carr if there was enough money in the coalition’s finances to afford the compensation package.

The audit done annually never indicated how much money was spent in paid time off.

The investigation

Lynch told the committee that in February, she exchanged text messages with Carr, who asked her if she was afraid. She urged her to contact the board’s former attorney, Collins, because “he had some sort of a plan.”

“She really wanted to give me information at that juncture about how best to save the coalition,’‘ Lynch said.

Lynch said she’s known Carr for 20 years, but “I’ve never had a social relationship with her.”

She said she went to her home in Highlands, North Carolina, for a Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence meeting, and acknowledged buying a home from Carr and Meredith Reagans in Franklin, North Carolina, but said she didn’t purchase anything else.

Franklin is about 20 miles from where Carr lives in Highlands.

Diaz-Vidaillet, on the other hand, did testify that she was personal friends with Carr. They recently went on a 10-day trip to Paris, she said, because Carr wanted “one last trip” before she weighed getting brain surgery.

Carr told her that if a former staffer hadn’t “leaked” details about how she cashed in $4 million in paid time off, “nobody could have found out for two years,” because that is how long it would take before her 2019 salary would be reported on the IRS 990 form.

Diaz also testified that Collins, attempted to find a cure for the financial mess Carr had gotten into and came up with a plan that would “save the coalition,’‘ Diaz said.

“We were kept in the dark for a long, long time,’‘ she said. The Department of Children and Families did not contact them. “We were under the impression this was about a contract negotiation that involved background checks to employees that the coalition was opposing.”

Earlier Monday, Keeth, Lynch, Shandra Fernandez-Kvam and Diaz-Vidaillet were deposed behind closed doors by the governor’s inspector general.

In addition to the House investigation, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that requires all state agencies to review any single-source contracts that are given protected status in state statute. The House has also passed a bill that would sever the special arrangement the state has with the coalition.

At an event in Bradenton Monday, Attorney General Ashley Moody said her office has had talks of an investigation themselves.

A large portion of grant funding for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence is administered through Moody’s office through what’s called a “VOCA grant,” or a Federal Victims of Crime Act.

“As you can imagine, since some of this came to light, we’ve been meeting routinely and addressing how we’re going to respond to this,” she said.

Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and Bradenton Herald reporter Giuseppe Sabella contributed to this report.

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