By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A six-hour grilling by a key House committee Monday revealed that several board members of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence were unaware that the former CEO of the non-profit agency received $7 million in compensation over three years.
Tiffany Carr, the coalition’s long-serving executive officer, cashed out millions of dollars in paid time off before she stepped down from her post in October, according to records obtained by the Florida House as part of an ongoing probe into her compensation at the non-profit organization.
Carr was given hundreds of days of paid leave because she had a brain tumor, three members of the coalition’s board of directors told the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee Monday.
“I could have never imagined that she would convert the time we gave her for her illness into cash,” Melody Keeth, the chairwoman of the board of directors, told the panel. “The Tiffany Carr I knew would not take all this (paid time off).”
That was just one detail that emerged as the committee hammered Keeth — who said she has known Carr for more than two decades — and other board members as part of an investigation into the taxpayer-backed agency.
Monday’s testimony came after the House subpoenaed Carr and the 13 members of the coalition’s board of directors, including Keeth; Laurel Lynch, who runs a domestic-violence shelter in the Bradenton area; and Angela Diaz-Vidaillet, the president and CEO of Victim Response Inc., a domestic-violence shelter in Miami-Dade County.
Flanked by their attorneys, Keeth, Lynch and Diaz-Vidaillat fielded intense questioning from House lawmakers for hours, often pleading ignorance about the inner workings of the coalition’s finances.
Frustrated by a lack of answers, state Rep. Randy Fine questioned how board members who approved Carr’s salary and compensation packages could be unaware of key financial arrangements included in her contracts, including provisions that allowed her to accrue her paid time off from one year to the next and to cash it out upon leaving the agency.
“So, until the media reported that she cashed out millions of dollars of PTO (paid time off), you as a member of the executive board and the chairwoman for multiple years, had no idea she was cashing out PTO in the amounts of millions of dollars? That is your testimony,” Fine, R-Palm Bay, asked.
“Correct,” Keeth said, who said she was forced to step down as director of the Serene Harbor shelter a day after the subpoenas were issued on Feb. 13, due to the “nasty” media coverage following revelations about Carr’s compensation.
Carr has not yet been served with a subpoena, committee Chairman state Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said Monday.
Keeth testified the board agreed to expand Carr’s paid time off over a three-year period because of her health issues. Carr’s compensation package also allowed her to work from North Carolina, where she owns several homes, according to testimony on Monday.
“The intention was to allow her to have enough days to recover from medical issues. The intention was not to give her extra days to use as cash,” Keeth maintained.
The board members said they were unaware Carr had cashed in on her paid time off until a House probe, launched in October, revealed she had received approximately $4.2 million in addition to her salary and other benefits.
“Our understanding was we gave her this on a year-to-year basis for her health issues, because she was very concerned that she would not have enough time, money,” Lynch said. “We never said it was OK for her to cash that out, save it all up and take it at the end.”
The committee will meet again Thursday to continue questioning board members.
“You either have to believe that it was an absolute fraud or a stunning lack of diligence,” Leek told reporters after Monday’s meeting.
Lynch, who is the executive director of HOPE Family Services, said she thought the board was “making a reasonable accommodation for somebody that was dying.”
But when House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee Staff Director Don Rubottom asked Lynch if she knew that at one point Carr had accumulated 10,000 hours, or five years, of leave, her testimony took a turn.
“Do you think they deceived you in any way when they were working on these contracts?” Rubottom asked Lynch, a former chairwoman of the board of directors.
“Yes, sir. I believe I was deceived,” she said.
Keeth also testified she was surprised to see Carr’s compensation agreement include hndreds of days of paid time off. She told the committee it was her impression it was hours.
Spurred by a Miami Herald investigation into Carr’s compensation, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida House have intensified probes into the practice of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence in recent weeks.
The nonprofit organization manages about $52 million in state and federal funds for Florida’s domestic violence centers, which state lawmakers worry may have been short-changed as a result of Carr’s compensation package.
At DeSantis’ request, state Inspector General Melinda Miguel has subpoenaed documents from the coalition to see if the case should be referred to law enforcement for a criminal investigation, according to Helen Aguirre Ferre, a spokeswoman for the governor.
Miguel is looking at “any misappropriation of funds or any fraud, waste, and/or abuse” tied to the coalition, Ferre said.
The Florida Legislature, which is in its final weeks of the legislative session, has also magnified its scrutiny of the domestic-violence agency, which has a sole-source contract with the Department of Children and Families.
The Florida House voted last week to repeal a state law that requires DCF to contract with the non-profit agency. Leek said he expects the House proposal (HB 7087) will be sent to the governor this week, if the Senate approves the measure as expected.
“If they are just left to their own devices, and there is no accountability, things tend to get off the rails. If there is accountability, then something like this can be policed,” the governor told reporters Monday morning.