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State says troubled domestic violence system ‘stabilized,’ ready for new vendor

But efforts to take back state funds illegally spent by the defunct Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence are tied up in court.

TALLAHASSEE — A top state agency head said Tuesday that domestic violence services have now “stabilized,” nine months after the state took control of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence amid revelations that the agency had misused state and federal funds and paid its executive director more than $7.5 million over three years.

“This is another case where the department got too far away from what was happening,’' said Chad Poppell, secretary of the Department of Children and Families at a meeting of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs.

Although DCF was supposed to be monitoring it, the nonprofit agency “stayed within their salary budget but they left 40 percent of their spots vacant and that created a pool of money to move around,’' he said.

Now, Poppell warned, efforts to claw back the taxpayer funds that were illegally used remain tied up in court, and the state has yet to reach a settlement with former director Tiffany Carr.

The private nonprofit agency, which had the exclusive contract to handle domestic violence services at the state’s 42 domestic violence shelters, was ordered dissolved by a Leon County Circuit Court judge in March, and its operations were transferred to DCF.

The Florida House, working on information first disclosed by the Miami Herald, discovered a scheme by the coalition and some members of its board of directors to pad the salary of Carr and allow her to cash in more than $3.7 million in paid time off with funds intended to be used to help victims of domestic abuse.

Carr, who oversaw the nonprofit coalition for nearly two decades and resigned last year amid investigation, and the coalition were sued by Attorney General Ashley Moody and several other organizations. They are also under investigation by the federal government. The state is suing to claw back some of the money given to Carr and other former coalition executives. At the time, Carr owned four homes, most notably a $2 million estate in North Carolina.

Carr’s lawyer argues, however, that the coalition’s directors approved her compensation and the state’s cases are based on “speculation and ambiguity.” Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey has given the parties until Feb. 28 to reach a settlement.

Poppell said that because of the pandemic, calls to the domestic violence hotlines are down by about 9%. But otherwise, he said, there are “beds available, services available in all parts of the state.”

“I’m able to tell you that we’re up and running and we’re in good shape,’' he said.

DCF now has control of 120 contracts and 30 staff members to serve more than 1,000 survivors in shelters daily. The agency also initiates non-shelter services for nearly 3,000 survivors every month. But the relationship with DCF was only intended to be temporary.

Poppell said that in February the state will seek bids to contract with a new agency to run the operation.

Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican, said she wants to see changes to state law to impose clear guidelines for future contractors “so we don’t have repercussions of this type once again.”

Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat who chairs the committee, said the Legislature has learned from the experience and should not write sole-source contracts, like the one FCADV had, into statute.

“I think putting names into statute is dangerous because people think then they are above the law and they are not,’' Book said. “We’re looking at how we can across the board have a little bit more teeth in some of the contracting that we do.”

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