Florida sues nonprofit and its former CEO who was paid $7.5M

The lawsuit, filed in the Second Judicial Circuit by the Department of Children and Families, accuses the nonprofit, its former CEO and the board of breach of contract, “breach of implied duty of good faith,” and breach of fiduciary duty.
Tiffany Carr, former CEO of Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, left, speaks at a 2004 news conference held by Gov. Jeb Bush.
Tiffany Carr, former CEO of Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, left, speaks at a 2004 news conference held by Gov. Jeb Bush. [ PHIL COALE | AP ]
Published March 4, 2020|Updated March 4, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — The state of Florida launched two legal actions Wednesday against the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, its board of directors and three current and former executives, alleging the organization defrauded the state and demanding that millions in taxpayer money used to pad the compensation package of former CEO Tiffany Carr be repaid.

The double-barreled shot from Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody comes as Carr and the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence are under investigation by the Florida House of Representatives, the governor’s chief inspector general, and Moody over revelations that the coalition allowed Carr to pad her paid time off and cash it in for more than $4 million.

“I am disgusted at the mismanagement and greedy misuse of public funds that were meant to assist victims of domestic violence,” Moody said. “The damage caused will take time to repair.”

DeSantis’ lawsuit, filed in the Second Judicial Circuit, accuses Carr, the coalition and the board of breach of its contract with the Department of Children and Families, “breach of implied duty of good faith,” and breach of fiduciary duty. In addition, Carr is being sued for fraudulent concealment, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation and civil conspiracy.

“The coalition’s deliberate abuse of state dollars, inexcusable lack of transparency and calculated breach of public trust is untenable,’’ DeSantis said in a statement. “We will continue with our efforts to ensure those involved are held accountable for their actions, while also ensuring that survivors are being provided with proper care and support.”

Saying her goal was “to preserve assets and claw back any funds that were misappropriated,” Moody asked a court to recover as much of the money used on executive compensation and collect evidence for use in future investigations.

Related: The homes that domestic abuse funds bought for nonprofit's ex-CEO, Tiffany Carr

Moody’s complaint, also filed in the Second Judicial Circuit Wednesday, seeks to recover all or part of the estimated $7.5 million paid to Carr over the past three years, as well as dissolve the coalition and reorganize it.

Although the governor’s lawsuit alleges the coalition violated federal law, the lawsuit seeks a civil resolution and is not a criminal complaint.

Moody acknowledged that more charges may be forthcoming, saying: “all options on further action remain on the table.” She said state and federal entities are “reviewing interactions” with the coalition for potential future litigation.

“Miss Tiffany Carr should be very worried,” Moody said. “This wasn’t just money put into assets. It also went to the federal government, to the IRS. Florida taxpayer money.”

Since 2003, the coalition has managed about $52 million annually as the single state clearinghouse for 42 domestic violence centers that received funding, training and advocacy from the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. During that time, evidence shows, a small group of members of the board, appointed by Carr, operated as the compensation committee and allowed Carr to claim she had a brain tumor, while she padded her compensation and produced no evidence of a medical condition.

Related: Florida nonprofit's misspending trickled down into Tampa Bay's domestic violence shelters

Although Carr is the focus of most of the blame, the board of directors is accused of being deeply complicit in the scheme. Board members testified they were either ignorant of the compensation plan, failed to ask questions or were deceived by Carr and her staff.

“This funding was provided for the public purpose of coordinating and administering statewide activities related to the prevention of domestic violence, not for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board to award exorbitant salaries, bonuses, and paid-time-off, to Ms. Carr, in exchange for personal gain,’’ the governor’s complaint said.

“(The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence) refusal to provide complete and accurate documentation and accounting, as requested by the (Inspector General), perpetuated, facilitated, and advanced the breaches of contract, breaches of implied duties, and unjust enrichment that allowed Ms. Carr to live lavishly at the expense of domestic violence survivors, their children and centers across the state,’’ it said.

This is likely to be the first in a series of claims against Carr, other Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence executives and the board as federal and state prosecutors continue to build a case against them, said Daniel Ravicher, professor of law at the University of Miami and an expert on nonprofits.

The civil complaint “is a way to get more evidence that can be shared with criminal authorities,’’ he said Wednesday, and it will also allow the state to recover financial losses, legal fees and any penalties.

In response to the salary scandal, the Legislature and DeSantis swiftly passed a bill that took effect last week that ends the coalition’s role as the sole source for allocating the money and puts the Department of Children and Families in charge.

On Feb. 27, DeSantis signed a bill that severed the special relationship the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence had as the sole contractor for domestic violence funds. The bill went into effect immediately.

The day after the bill was signed, the Department of Children and Families put out a request for interested parties who would be interested in bidding for the contract.

In a letter to the 42 domestic violence centers, Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell outlined the progression of the pay scandal, and noted that for over a year, the agency’s requests for financial documents were refused. He assured the centers that uninterrupted care for domestic violence survivors and families is a top priority.

Poppell said Wednesday Department of Children and Families workers are taking a close look at the coalition to ensure dollars are still going to the domestic violence centers, and have supported the 65 existing coalition employees as they make the transition to working under state control “with no service interruption.”

“For the last three days we’ve been on the ground at the domestic violence coalition, assuming operational control,” Poppell said at the press conference. “

He added that it’s not the Department of Children and Families intention to keep domestic violence services “in house” permanently.

Earlier in the week, Poppell sent domestic violence victims a separate note and said that continued services and support will be a focus through the transition.

In an email obtained by the Miami Herald, the coalition’s chief operating officer, Sandra Barnett, told employees that they are expected to work “side-by-side” with the Department of Children and Families, whose staff would be observing them in the weeks to come.

“[The Department of Children and Families] may provide an opportunity for continued employment at the end of the transition period,” Barnett wrote.

Employees have not yet been told whether they would be keeping their jobs.

Poppell acknowledged that the morale among employees has many concerned, “but we’re working through that.”

This week, the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee released additional documents that reveal more evidence about the extent to which Carr and her deputies were engaged in manipulating personnel files to allow her to pad her paid time off and cash it in for what appears to be about $4.9 million in compensation that exceeded her salary.

In a closed-door deposition with House of Representative lawyers, a former chair of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board alleges that documents relating to Carr’s compensation were significantly altered after she agreed to a plan to give Carr her added bonus.

Laurel Lynch, CEO of Bradenton-based HOPE Family Services, Inc., told attorneys for the House committee that when she asked if the coalition could afford the bonuses and lucrative compensation packages, Carr and the chief financial officer of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Patricia Duarte, said it was being paid with private funds.

“I asked directly, again, ‘Can we afford this, is this private money?,’ ’’ Lynch recalled. “And I was told yes. We were talking specifically about her compensation package.”

However, she acknowledged, this claim was never put in writing, and she never asked for it.

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 that, Carr’s former deputies said in testimony last week, was funded with extra grant money.

Lynch and two other board chair also talked in depositions about how dues were assessed for each of the 42 domestic violence centers. Lynch said that the coalition originally intended to use the money to pay for a lobbyist because, as a 501(c)3, the coalition was barred from using taxpayer funds to pay for lobbying.

The coalition first hired Jack Cory, a veteran lobbyist, Lynch said, and “it was just dues for lobbyists.”

Cory told the Times/Herald that he did not agree with Carr’s approach with legislators because she was “often disrespectful.” He said he did not work with Carr long and did attend board meetings.

Cory said he watched as Carr “was picking and choosing board members, telling them ‘you’ll get more allocations’ ” for their service.

“Some of the board members don’t have clean hands,’’ he said.

Lynch said during her deposition that she did not know how much paid time off Carr cashed in, and how sick Carr really was. But the board members also testified under oath that they never verified if Carr really used paid time off for her illness as they repeatedly allowed her to exchange it for cash.

Oversight of the coalition’s finances has been the responsibility of the Department of Children and Families but the agency only started investigating Carr’s compensation after the Miami Herald revealed in 2018 that Carr’s reported salary was $761,000.