The state of Florida has recovered $5 million of the $7.5 million paid to the former CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence and her staff, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a Thursday morning news conference.
Tiffany Carr, who resigned in November 2019 from the agency she had worked at for more than two decades, will pay $2.1 million cash, according to a settlement agreed to with the state. The insurance companies representing the former Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence officers will pay more than $1.7 million to the Department of Children and Families and a court-appointed receiver. Carr was accused of defrauding the state and federal governments by manipulating her board of directors to pad her salary in a scheme that gave her more than $7.5 million over three years.
The organization will also be dissolved, its assets liquidated, and former Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence officers Patricia Duarte and Sandra Barnett will pay a total of $60,000. The coalition’s foundation, a separate entity created with the sole purpose of supporting the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, will also be dissolved and $1.1 million will distributed directly to the 42 domestic violence centers the coalition was intended to support.
“The power that this group was given for almost 20 years — and their misrepresentation of appropriation of state and federal funds — is inexcusable, should not have happened and it cannot be allowed to happen in other organizations that may be getting funding from the state of Florida,’’ DeSantis said at a news conference in Orlando. “You got to have accountability and transparency. That was obviously lacking with this organization for many, many years.”
In a statement, Carr’s attorney, Chris Kise, defended her behavior, noting that the settlement does not admit any liability and she agreed to repay the money “to eliminate the uncertainty, burden, and expense of further protracted litigation.” He said she wanted to ensure “the proceeds would be distributed for the benefit of the victims of domestic violence.”
The settlement will resolve two civil lawsuits filed by the state against Carr, a lawsuit by the state-appointed receiver, and two lawsuits filed by the Hanover Insurance and Travelers Insurance, which each represented the coalition and its board of directors.
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 her deputies and allow them to cash in paid time off with funds intended to be used to help victims of domestic abuse.
During that time, documents provided to the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee showed a small group of members of the board, appointed by Carr, operated as the compensation committee and padded her compensation while she claimed she had a brain tumor but produced no evidence of a medical condition.
“This is how the scheme worked,’’ Moody said at the press conference.“ Carr stacked the Florida Coalition of Domestic Violence board with beneficiaries of the organization’s funding. And then at the end of the year, when the organization was supposed to return its money that was not given directly to the domestic violence centers to the state, it was then that she would arrange for the modification of her compensation in the form of bonuses, raises and, particularly, take paid time off.
“This allowed them to conceal the excessive compensation to Tiffany Carr. Paid time off was shown as a liability. It would not be reported immediately as compensation.”
Documents show that Carr was allowed to cash in more than $5 million of paid time off at an agency that is primarily funded with state and federal taxpayer dollars, while domestic violence victims across the state were denied services.
Carr’s attorney responds
Kise noted, however, that the Department of Children and Families, which had oversight over the coalition, had access to all the coalition’s certified financial audits, including paid time off provisions. He said the agency never raised a question about the accrual of paid time off, which her contract allowed her to convert into cash.
“While the politicians have crowed about ‘excessive’ compensation and filed numerous lawsuits, no actual explanation or evidence was ever offered as to which portions of Ms. Carr’s fully transparent compensation were improper, or even why her compensation was improper, i.e., what guidelines, policies, standards, rules, laws, or regulations were allegedly violated,’’ he wrote.
“To the contrary, the attorney general admitted in court Ms. Carr never made ‘any “false statement” to the board or the board’s chair in order to induce the salary, bonuses and PTO benefits she received’ and ‘the board had the authority to award Ms. Carr whatever compensation it deemed appropriate.’”
Moody noted the compensation was so excessive “it triggered an excessive executive compensation tax liability under IRS rules costing a nonprofit $1 million in tax penalties.”
Kise said the tax payment was expected by Carr. She “made arrangements for a private donor to contribute funds sufficient to cover the tax liability associated with her payout. They knew this was coming.”
Moody, however, called the behavior “despicable” and said it “should not be tolerated in the State of Florida.” She vowed that anyone entrusted by voters or the state to do the work of the state “will be held to an extremely high standard, not only in the function of their work, but in terms of their integrity and the integrity of the office in which they are trusted.”
The attorney general’s complaint, filed in the Second Judicial District in Leon County, was merged with a second lawsuit filed by the Florida Department of Children and Families. The complaints accused Carr and her deputies of engaging in an “accounting shell game” from 2016 through 2019 and asked the court to order Carr to return the money.
The U.S. Department of Justice also opened a criminal investigation last year but there has been no sign that has progressed.
The state alleged that the compensation plan 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, “(Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence) sought to justify CEO Carr’s lavish compensation” and “a document may have been forged, backdated, and slipped into Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s files to support that position.”
Carr, 52, resigned as the Miami Herald drew attention to her compensation package. She cited poor health but then took a contract with Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence as a paid consultant. At the time, Carr owned four homes, most notably a $2 million estate in North Carolina.
The private nonprofit agency had the exclusive contract to handle domestic violence services at the state’s 42 domestic violence shelters. After the House investigation in 2020, DeSantis signed House Bill 1087 into law, which severed the state contract with Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The coalition was then ordered dissolved by Leon County Circuit Court Judge Ronald Flury in March 2020, and its operations were transferred to the Department of Children and Families. Flury also appointed a receiver to access the funds from the center’s foundation.
Carr lives in North Carolina and refused to respond to requests to appear before the House committee when it was investigating the coalition.
Moody’s complaint sought to recover all or part of the estimated $7.5 million paid to Carr.
In June 2021, Department of Children and Families moved everything out of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence offices in Tallahassee. The building is now up for sale, with an asking price of $825,000.
More aggressive oversight
The Department of Children and Families is scheduled to choose a private vendor to replace the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence next month. The state will select from two vendors to provide training, legal and technical services to the state’s 42 domestic violence centers, run the 24-hour domestic abuse hotline and distribute grants to the centers.
According to the invitation to negotiate, the state has learned from its mistakes of the past. The Department of Children and Families has concluded, for example, that it will assume a more aggressive oversight role than it had when Carr was in charge.
After Department of Children and Families “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, Department of Children and Families said it would abandon the policies that led to conflicts in the program, such as the opportunity for Carr to put agency staff members or their family members on her payroll.
The negotiations to reach the settlement began in January and extended through August with several different parties. According to the settlement, $3.1 million of the cash recovery will go directly to the Department of Children and Families when it is approved by the court.
The settlement also allows for additional recoveries from the sale of Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s assets, including its former Tallahassee headquarters.
The motion to approve the settlement agreement was filed Thursday morning and if the court approves the agreement, the dissolution and liquidation proceedings will proceed.