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Florida’s nonprofit pay scandal points to a cover-up

House lawyers suspect that as the agency refused to turn over documents relating to Carr’s multimillion dollar compensation package, someone may have forged documents.
A signature analysis of two documents signed by Melody Keeth, former board chair of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, show signatures from separate documents signed on the same day were nearly exact, as demonstrated in the combined signatures on the third line. Legislators are disputing the authenticity of one of the documents, noting that it includes information that didn’t exist until a year after it was purportedly signed by Keeth. [Florida House of Representatives]

TALLAHASSEE — When a Florida House committee reconvenes Thursday to question the two deputies of Tiffany Carr, the former CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the focus will be not just on the salary scandal, but on what lawmakers see as increasing evidence pointing to a cover-up.

House lawyers suspect that as the agency stonewalled state officials and refused to turn over documents relating to Carr’s multimillion dollar compensation package, someone may have forged documents — in an attempt to show the agency followed state and federal legal requirements.

The House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee has scheduled a two-hour hearing Thursday to continue its probe into the salary scandal that has shaken the agency that serves as the sole clearinghouse for about $52 million annually in state and federal domestic violence funds. It will hear from Patricia Duarte, chief financial officer at the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and Sandra Barnett, the chief operating officer. Both women have been subpoenaed to appear and will testify under oath.

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

The inquiry is part of a House investigation prompted by Times/Herald reporting over 18 months and the failure of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence to respond to an audit by the Department of Children and Families.

On Wednesday, the Florida Legislature moved with extraordinary speed to end the unique relationship the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence has to serve as the sole contractor to manage state and federal domestic violence funds in Florida.

The Senate unanimously passed HB 1087 and sent it to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature. It will immediately put management of the coalition in the control of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

House Speaker José Oliva said he hopes to find a way to “go after” the millions Carr cashed out in the scheme that has allowed her to inflate her paid time off and cash in more than $4 million.

“It’s one of the ugliest things I’ve seen in my time in the Legislature,’’ said Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican and eight-year House veteran. “It’s like a perfect storm of really bad behavior.”

DeSantis has assigned his chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, to investigate the “exorbitant compensation payouts” to Carr, and on Monday Attorney General Moody directed her Inspector General’s Office “to audit and review reimbursements” to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The Attorney General’s office receives grant funding through the federal Victims of Crime Act for domestic violence victims and steers that money to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence to manage. Moody’s office will ensure payments are “legally justified and not fraudulent’’ and refer any violations to law enforcement, said Lauren Cassady, Moody’s spokesperson.

Carr, 51, resigned in November 2019 from the agency she had worked at for more than two decades as attention to her compensation package grew. She cited poor health but took a contract with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence as a paid consultant. She lives in North Carolina and has refused to respond to requests to appear before the House committee.

Oliva told reporters he hopes to “find a way to bring her to face the consequences of what she’s done.”

Tiffany Carr, former executive director of Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, left, speaks at a news conference held by Gov. Jeb Bush, during a 2004 news conference. [PHIL COALE | AP]

As questions swarm over how much taxpayer money was used to pay Carr, particularly what appears to be $4.9 million above her base salary over the last 15 years, House investigators have more questions.

Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, chair of the House committee that spent six hours interviewing three former board chairs on Monday, said the inconsistencies related to these documents are not insignificant.

“It’s either a stunning lack of diligence or fraud,” Leek said. “I can assure you that will not be brushed aside.”

Questionable signatures

The coalition’s internal policies and Carr’s contract require that it conduct an annual analysis comparing the salaries of CEOs at comparable organizations to justify Carr’s pay. The document must be submitted and reviewed by the board of directors.

House investigators found important discrepancies that raise questions about whether the agency was following the law:

▪ Tax documents used to compare the salaries at organizations in 2016 didn’t exist on the date the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence analysis was filed.

▪ The signature of the former board chair, Melody Keeth, who signed the memo citing the analysis, appears to exactly match another document she supposedly signed on that day.

The House conclusion: The signature had been replicated and affixed to the compensation analysis after the fact, and not independently signed.

“The only thing you can conclude is, it’s the same signature,’’ said Fred Piccolo, spokesperson for House Speaker José Oliva.

On Monday, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay questioned Keeth on the tax documents used in the compensation memo she signed May 2, 2016.

He asked if she had reviewed the IRS form 990 tax documents that showed the CEO salaries from Disc Village, a substance abuse provider, Eckerd Youth, a community-based care provider, and Big Bend, another community-based child welfare provider.

Keeth said she didn’t prepare the packet, but she did “review it and sign it.” She confirmed that it was her signature on the document, but didn’t answer whether she signed each memo separately.

Fine then told her the three 990s she claims to have reviewed didn’t exist until 2017, one of them more than a year after she claims to have signed and dated her memo.

He questioned the authenticity of the second memo that included IRS data.

“Do you believe that you signed these twice?” he asked. “You believe this wasn’t one signature replicated multiple times? Independently signed and dated twice?”

Keeth offered no explanation except to say she didn’t prepare the memo with her signature and couldn’t remember what date she was asked to sign it.

“I can’t tell you I saw these forms before I signed that memo,’’ she said, telling Fine: “I would never back-date anything.”

Hours or days?

Legislators also honed in on questions about how Carr was able to collect more than $4 million in paid time off.

Carr’s contract with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence includes no mention of paid time off given in hours, but consistently refers to “days” allowed and accrued. Her most recent contract, signed in 2018, is the first one that included a clause allowing Carr to purchase or use the time off.

A summary of the accrued PTO balance, in dollars, presented to the committee showed she accumulated $1.7 million in 2017, $2.6 million in 2018. By 2019, after Carr had cashed out the bulk of her paid time off, she had a balance of $244,863.

Three of the subpoenaed board members who served on the compensation committee told the committee on Monday that they thought the hundreds of paid days they awarded to Carr were hundreds of hours, not days.

“The first time I noticed this was two weeks ago when these documents were sent to us,” board chair Angel Diaz-Vidaillet testified. “What used to be hours, all of a sudden it says days.”

Angela Diaz-Vidaillet testified before a Florida House committee on Feb. 24, 2020 that she called former CEO Tiffany Carr and told her to ask former Gov. Jeb Bush to serve as interim CEO and that she needed to pay back $4 million. [Florida House Majority Office]

They said it was intended to help her through what they were told were serious medical issues related to a brain tumor.

“From what I understand she had severe medical issues,’’ Keeth said. “This is what we were being told. We were trying to give her space to take are of those medical issues. It was not intended to increase her salary, it was not intended as a bonus. It was intended to be used as medical leave, like sick time.”

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

The consistent answers from the former board chairs prompted Leek to suggest the board members had coordinated their responses.

Contracts between the board of directors and Carr stated that she would receive 240 hours of paid time off every year, and in the final two years of the five-year contract, she would receive a total of 2,080 hours of additional paid time off.

But Carr’s personnel file includes no mention of paid time off in terms of “hours.” The reference always was in terms of “days.”

Policy didn’t apply

Skeptical legislators, however, questioned how the board could have strayed so far from the written coalition policy. According to documents obtained by the House and reviewed by the Times/Herald, employees who have worked at the agency for 20 or more years, such as Carr, were allowed to earn up to 50 PTO days each year. But those same employees were allowed to receive payouts of no more than 320 hours — or eight weeks — per year.

Among the other limits in the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence policy:

▪ “Any non-medical (paid time off) request of 160 hours or more, whether taken incrementally or in whole, in the same calendar year must be approved by the President/CEO or designee.”

▪ Employees are allowed to cash out, or sell “up to 90 hours of PTO one time per year, subject to the yearly financial position of (the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence).’’

▪ And, “the President/CEO may reset the payout schedule based upon special circumstances.”

Carr not only didn’t follow those rules but her employment contract allowed her to be treated differently.

“These days were provided only for medical use,” Keeth said in her testimony Monday. “From what I understand, she had severe medical issues. We were trying to give her space if she needed to take care of medical issues … the Tiffany Carr that I knew would not take all this (paid time off).”

Keeth testified that the switch from hours to days “obviously was a typo. We miscalculated,’’ she said.

Fine replied: “That may be the understatement of this hearing”

The first time additional paid time off was addressed in Carr’s contract was in 2010, when she was offered an extra 240 hours — 30 work days — each year, on top of the normal paid time off she accrued each pay period. During the last two years of the five-year contract, she would also receive 2,080 hours of paid time off — the equivalent of 260 days.

In the 2010-15 contract, Carr was also offered a $750-per-month car allowance, compensation for a “professional conference” and a base salary of $259,875 annually. The salary came with a caveat that every year she would receive a 10% raise and a bonus at the discretion of the executive committee.

Thought she ‘was dying’

The 2018 contract gave her an additional 160 days of paid time off, maintained a car allowance, bumped her base salary to $450,000 a year and increased her severance from 18 to 24 months.

During questioning Monday, Laurel Lynch, a 10-year member of the board and executive director of a domestic violence shelter in Bradenton, told the committee she thought she was awarding Carr paid time off because “I thought we were making a reasonable accommodate for somebody that was dying.”

She said she thinks the document she signed that allowed Carr to cash out millions in compensation was changed without her knowledge.

“I’m not sure this is an accurate memo that I did,’’ she said.

The documents obtained by the House also include other discrepancies that raise questions about whether it was a cover-up or incompetence that led to the way the coalition handled Carr’s compensation.

The 2017 balance sheet, as produced by the coalition’s auditor James Moore & Co., indicates that “accounts payable and accrued expenses” related to Tiffany Carr totaled $1.7 million, but the 990 form submitted to the IRS for 2017 indicated that Carr’s total salary, benefits and compensation was listed as $636,497. Her base salary that year was listed as $593,633.

Keeth testified that in 2019 Carr rejected some elements of compensation the board offered her, including a 10% salary increase, a $200,000 bonus, 360 paid days off, a 10% increase of her $750 car allowance and an executive retreat. That same year Carr resigned from the coalition for medical reasons, cashing in her remaining paid time off and her retirement funds, and walking away with $1.1 million.

House members have also raised doubts about Carr’s medical status, the details of which have been redacted from the files because of federal privacy laws. The three board chairs each referenced Carr’s having a brain tumor or needing brain surgery in their testimony Monday.

Keeth testified that while she had never seen any medical documentation of Carr’s condition, Carr frequently spoke about it and the board responded by giving her ample amounts of paid time off.

“Tiffany told us all she was going to have brain surgery and it may take up to a year to recover,’’ Keeth said. “That year, I recall we made provisions in case that needed to happen.”

But Carr never took the time off “so we didn’t verify the need for the leave,’’ Keeth said.

Payroll records

Payroll records turned over to the Florida House show that Carr received bonuses and extra payments above her base salary starting in 2004. That was the year she succeeded in getting the Legislature to pass a law designating her agency as the sole source contractor for all state and federal domestic violence funds.

Her bonus payments increased over time, with the first six-figure amounts occurring in 2015. Here is the breakdown, based on the analysis of payroll vouchers:

▪ 2004: $10,102

▪ 2005: $6,735

▪ 2006: $11,061

▪ 2007: $7,235

▪ 2008: $32,312

▪ 2009: $33,222

▪ 2010: $57,405

▪ 2011: $57,634

▪ 2012: $50,000

▪ 2013: $60,000

▪ 2014: $60,000

▪ 2015: $146,765

▪ 2016: $301,769

▪ 2017: $148,899

▪ 2018: $2,711,310

▪ 2019: $1,187,636

Total compensation: $8 million. Total extra payroll payments: $4.9 million.

Source: Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence