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Feds launch probe into nonprofit that paid ex-CEO $7.5M

The U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, Larry Keefe, served a subpoena on Tuesday, seeking information from the coalition, said Mark Herron, the attorney for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Tiffany Carr, executive director of Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, left, speaks at a news conference held by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004.
Tiffany Carr, executive director of Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, left, speaks at a news conference held by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004. [ PHIL COALE | AP ]
Published Mar. 11, 2020
Updated Mar. 11, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Federal prosecutors have launched an investigation into the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, adding the prospect of criminal charges to the government actions mounting against former chief executive officer Tiffany Carr and the agency’s board of directors, accused of misusing millions in taxpayer dollars.

The U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, Larry Keefe, served a subpoena on Tuesday, seeking information from the coalition, said Mark Herron, the attorney for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in an interview with the Times/Herald. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice would not comment on the pending grand jury probe.

The investigation is the latest response to revelations that members of the board allowed Carr to be paid $7.5 million in executive compensation over three years.

Two weeks ago, state lawmakers passed a bill to end the state contract with the coalition, which had been the clearinghouse for $52 million in annual state and federal funding for 42 domestic violence shelters in Florida.

Last week, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and the Florida Department of Children and Families sued Carr, the coalition, and board members, accusing them of conspiring to defraud the state. Moody is also asking the court to put the agency into receivership and recover millions in taxpayer funds.

The governor’s chief inspector general and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates charities, are also investigating, Herron said. Documents show the foundation had $1.4 million in unspent assets.

Will Carr be a no-show?

Meanwhile, the Florida House’s Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, which has already called three board members and two of Carr’s deputies to testify under oath, has attempted to subpoena Carr at her North Carolina home to testify at a meeting on Thursday.

After numerous attempts to serve Carr notice of the subpoena — using email, Twitter, telephone and law enforcement escort in North Carolina — House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee staff director Don Rubottom said Tuesday: “We think she has notice.”

If Carr fails to show up for the Thursday committee meeting, the committee will decide how to hold her in contempt, he said. It will also decide who else to subpoena, and it will hear an update on the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence investigations.

Although Carr has refused to respond to requests for questioning, she has returned three boxes of the coalition’s files, including her personnel files, that she had shipped to her at her mountain home in Cashiers, North Carolina, when she retired in November, Herron said.

Carr’s Tallahassee attorney, Chris Kise, arranged to have the boxes returned to the coalition’s Tallahassee offices, Herron said. “They’re back.”

The House’s committee staff also asked that Herron seal the boxes and leave them intact, which he said he has done. “I can tell you they’re big, and heavy,’’ he added.

Although Carr was receiving some $3 million in paid time off in her retirement, the chairperson of the board of directors, Melody Keeth, had allowed her to sign a contract to work as a consultant for $81 an hour. That contract was halted when the House began its investigation.

Receivership

Meanwhile, two Leon County Circuit Court judges have been assigned the Department of Children and Families and attorney general’s cases against Carr, her former top deputies Sandra Barnett and Patricia Duarte, and nine current and former board members.

The coalition this week accepted a motion by Moody to have a circuit court judge appoint a receiver to take charge of the coalition’s finances, and the finances of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence Foundation, in an effort to recover millions of taxpayers funds.

“We said: ‘What’s the point in fighting it?’ ’’ Herron said, noting the avalanche of negative sentiment that emerged after documents turned over to the House committee revealed the unusually large payments to Carr.

Herron said the court could appoint an attorney, an accountant, a forensic auditor or another professional to dissolve the two non-profit corporations and disperse the assets. “Frankly, having a neutral receiver is probably better than anybody else,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, Department of Children and Familieis is managing the coalition until a new contract is signed with another provider.

Timeline

Both the Department of Children and Families and attorney general’s lawsuits note that the revelation that Carr was making an exorbitant salary first emerged in July 2018, when the Miami Herald reported that Carr listed a salary of $762,000 on the coalition’s annual IRS Form 990.

The report prompted Department of Children and Families to order an audit, but the coalition refused to turnover a complete set of documents for it to complete its financial review.

In October 2019, more than a year later, the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald bureau wrote about how the coalition was stonewalling Department of Children and Families. In January 2020, the House committee launched its investigation.

But only after the House threatened subpoenas in February did the coalition turn over the documents, which the Times/Herald obtained. That is when the scheme to disguise the salary payouts to Carr and her deputies became apparent.

Shell game

The attorney general’s complaint, filed in the Second Judicial District in Leon County, accuses Carr and her deputies of engaging in an “accounting shell game.” It involved a “pattern of giving generous bonuses and [paid time off] allotments near the end of fiscal years, in order to wipe out any remaining excess funds rather than return them to the (Department of Children and Families), as the contract required.”

After the Herald first reported Carr’s lucrative salary in July 2018, the complaint notes, “(The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence) sought to justify CEO Carr’s lavish compensation” and “a document may have been forged, backdated, and slipped into (the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s) files to support that position.”

The attorney general argues that the judge should dissolve the coalition and appoint a receiver because there is now a leadership void and it is “highly unlikely” that the organization will be entrusted with significant amounts of money again.

“Rather than honor that trust, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s officers, in collaboration with its directors, have engaged in a scheme to enrich themselves personally to a shocking extent,’’ the complaint alleges.

The agency’s “gross mismanagement and violation of fiduciary duties” allowed for significant state and federal resources to be diverted to “(Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence) officers, particularly Tiffany Carr, when instead those resources should have been directed to their intended beneficial purpose of aiding the victims of domestic violence.”