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Two groups vie to replace disgraced domestic violence coalition in Florida

Two candidates are in the running to replace the disgraced Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which was shut down following revelations that its head had been paid $7.5 million over three years.
FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004, file photo, Tiffany Carr, then executive director of Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, left, speaks at a news conference held by Gov. Jeb Bush, background right. The coalition shut down after officials learned that Carr received $7.5 million in compensation during her final three years leading the agency that was, by law, the only entity that could funnel state money to domestic abuse shelters around Florida. (AP Photo/Phil Coale, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004, file photo, Tiffany Carr, then executive director of Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, left, speaks at a news conference held by Gov. Jeb Bush, background right. The coalition shut down after officials learned that Carr received $7.5 million in compensation during her final three years leading the agency that was, by law, the only entity that could funnel state money to domestic abuse shelters around Florida. (AP Photo/Phil Coale, File) [ AP ]
Published Jul. 19
Updated Jul. 20

TALLAHASSEE — After more than a year of transition, Florida officials are about to choose a private vendor to replace the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which was shut down in disgrace after it was discovered that its board of directors was complicit in a scheme to compensate former executive Tiffany Carr $7.5 million over three years using federal and state funds.

On Monday, the selection committee of the Florida Department of Children and Families met to rank the two candidates still in the running for the job of providing training, legal and technical services to the state’s 41 domestic violence centers as well as running the 24-hour domestic abuse hotline and distributing grants to the centers.

One applicant is Women in Distress, a Broward-based coalition of domestic violence shelters that is working with The Spring of Tampa Bay Inc. and Community Action Stops Abuse Inc. The other is Lutheran Services of Florida Health System, a Tampa-based behavioral health care agency that is working with The Children’s Home Society of Florida and Sharity Inc., an organization run by Carol Wick, a former shelter operator and outspoken critic of Carr’s.

The results will be released and a contract awarded at a meeting of the evaluation committee on Aug. 6, according to agency documents. Neither applicant wanted to respond to requests for comment Monday.

One or both of the groups could get the contract to replace the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which for more than a decade had a sole-source contract, enshrined in Florida law, to serve as the pass-through for what was then $52 million annually in state and federal domestic violence funds meant for the state’s shelters.

In response to the salary scandal, the Legislature swiftly passed a bill in February 2020, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law to end the coalition’s role as the sole source for allocating the money and put the Department of Children and Families immediately in charge. The day after the bill was signed, the department put out a request for interested parties who wanted to bid for the contract.

Carr, 52, resigned in November 2019 from the agency she had worked at for more than two decades as the Miami Herald and the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau drew attention to her compensation package. She cited poor health but then took a contract with the organization as a paid consultant.

Related: How a Florida nonprofit paid $7.5 million to its CEO: the Tiffany Carr story

Mismanagement at the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Testimony and documents provided to the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee indicated that Carr hand-picked members of the board of directors that was assigned to oversee the financial operations of the coalition, and they enabled Carr and her staff to inflate her paid time off and cash it in for more than $4 million.

In two lawsuits filed in March 2020, Attorney General Ashley Moody and the Department of Children and Families accused Carr and the coalition of “exorbitant” compensation from 2016 through 2019 and asked the court to order Carr to return the money. The federal government, including the IRS, is also investigating Carr, as is the governor’s chief inspector general.

Last year, a judge appointed receiver Mark Healy to represent the coalition and attempt to recover the taxpayer money. He filed a separate lawsuit against Carr and the coalition’s former directors, also seeking an unspecified amount of money and accusing Carr of having “breached her fiduciary duties” to the agency by “paying herself excessive funds.”

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey ordered the parties to enter into mediation to reach an agreed-upon settlement in the cases.

“These are ongoing discussions involving several parties plus the government,’' Healy said Monday. There is no scheduled date for talks to resume.

Carr lives in North Carolina and refused to respond to requests to appear before the House committee when it was investigating the coalition. She has hired a lawyer who has been involved in the mediation.

The value of the assets held by the now-defunct coalition and its foundation also hasn’t been determined, Healy said.

In June 2021, the state moved everything out of the organization’s offices in Tallahassee and that building is now up for sale, with an asking price of $825,000, Healy said. With the court’s permission, he also arranged for the sale of three undeveloped lots in Ocala and Crystal River that had been owned by the organization’s foundation. The property was likely the result of a charitable donation to the organization, he said.

State plans to have more oversight

The state’s domestic violence program receives federal and state funds. Under the invitation to negotiation, the state will pay up $1.9 million annually to up to three vendors for the services. The Department of Children and Families said it plans to outsource more than 95 percent of the program, as it did when the coalition ran the program.

Related: State says troubled domestic violence system 'stabilized,' ready for new vendor

In addition to providing training, legal and technical services, the state is measuring the prospective vendors based on their scores on various measures including “the service approach and solution for each of the service areas which included training and technical assistance, legal services, and the Florida domestic violence hotline,” said Kimberly McMahon, department procurement officer, at a meeting to validate evaluations on Monday.

And, according to the invitation to negotiate, the state has learned from its mistakes of the past. The state has concluded, for example, that it will assume a more aggressive oversight role than it had when Carr was in charge.

After the department “almost eliminated its domestic violence office positions” over the last decade, the agency said, it now “will re-establish an appropriately staffed program office as well as retain positions to provide robust contract management and oversight.”

“The final decision about how to procure DV [domestic violence] services is intended to address the issues noted above by significantly strengthening the department’s ability to administer and oversee the program,’' the invitation to negotiate stated.

As part of that, the state said it would abandon the policies that led to conflicts in the program, such as the opportunity for Carr to put department staff members or their family members on her payroll. To minimize future conflicts of interest, the department also requires the following:

  • “Future provider(s) should not both receive membership dues and act as funders for direct service providers.”
  • The contract should also take into account executive compensation including paid time off, bonuses, and severance, excessive staff vacancies, administrative costs, the transparency of the operations and the outcomes and performance measures.
  • The new coalition must be a non-profit with membership representatives from domestic violence service providers it works with.