By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
A Florida House investigation into a domestic-violence nonprofit organization continued to leave lawmakers stunned, as more details about the former CEO’s compensation emerged Thursday.
The revelations came as the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee continued its quest to discern how Tiffany Carr, the former chief executive officer of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, received more than $7 million over a three-year period.
During Thursday’s round of questioning, state lawmakers hammered two of the coalition’s executives — Chief Financial Officer Patricia Duarte and Chief Operating Officer Sandy Barnett — about their roles in overseeing Carr’s financial arrangements.
Both women admitted her multi-million dollar cash-out of paid time off was “excessive.”
“I wouldn’t say unethical, but wrong? I would say it could be viewed as excessive,” Duarte told the committee, when pressed about the issue.
Duarte said she did not play a role in approving Carr’s compensation package, which included approximately $4.2 million in paid time off in addition to her salary and benefits, according to financial records obtained by the House.
“It is a lot of money, but if that was given to her it was not my choice and that was what was given to her,” said Duarte, pointing out that the coalition’s board of directors signed off on Carr’s compensation package.
Duarte admitted she herself received “hundreds of thousands of dollars” when she cashed out her paid leave.
Carr set Duarte’s salary and benefits and at one point approved a total of 512 days in paid time off over a three-year period, Duarte said.
“She’s always been the one who determined the PTO (paid time off), and after I told her once that it was too much, she told me that it was her position to determine what my salary would be and the PTO,” she said.
Committee Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, told reporters after Thursday’s four-hour hearing that it was “certainly coincidental” that Carr increased the compensation of the nonprofit’s executives as her own compensation package was boosted.
“It appears to me that the employees, along with Ms. Carr, worked collectively to cheat the system to make it so they could bonus themselves up with Ms. Carr,” Leek said.
Thursday’s testimony came after the House subpoenaed Carr and 13 officials affiliated with the coalition, including Barnett and Duarte. Leek said Carr, who currently lives in North Carolina, had not yet been served with the House subpoena but that he expects her to testify eventually.
The House investigation could drag on beyond the March 13 conclusion of the legislative session, according to Leek. House leaders are still mulling whether to subpoena more witnesses as they dig deeper into the taxpayer-backed organization’s finances.
The coalition managed — until Thursday — about $52 million in state and federal funds for Florida’s 42 domestic violence centers, which provide children and victims with services that include emergency shelter, education and counseling.
State lawmakers worry that Carr’s compensation package may have short-changed domestic violence centers and the victims they serve.
“When you are talking about millions of millions of millions of dollars … it’s hard to get your arms around how many additional victims could have been serviced if that money were properly used,” Leek said.
In the midst of testimony Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill (HB 1087) that strips the coalition from its guaranteed contract with the Department of Children and Families. The law went into effect immediately, and the state agency will now administer all programs related to domestic violence survivors.
“Today’s bill signing is not a celebratory occasion, as it is the result of a deliberate abuse of state dollars, an inexcusable lack of transparency and a calculated breach of public trust,” the governor said in a statement.
DCF Secretary Chad Poppell applauded the move by the governor, saying all organizations should govern themselves with “integrity and transparency that allows us to hold them accountable.”
Following Thursday’s committee meeting, House Democrats said more needs to be done to ensure that what happened at the coalition does not take place at other taxpayer-backed organizations.
“During questioning, it was revealed those involved were not contacted by the governor, the Legislature, nor DCF about the over $7 million in salaries and PTO. This shows a system-wide breakdown in accountability,” Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Pompano Beach, said a press release.
Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, pushed for more action by the state.
“Where else could this be happening in our state due to incompetence and a disturbingly broken system — a system we created without accountability and transparency? It’s not enough to fix the coalition, now it’s up to us to fix the entire system,” Davis said in a prepared statement.
DeSantis last week issued an executive order in which he told all executive agencies to turn over information about other organizations that have sole-source agreements with the state.
The governor also ordered the agencies to scrutinize the organizations’ federal tax filings to determine the compensation of their executive leadership teams. He gave the agencies 45 days to provide the information about the sole-source contracts to his office.
In addition, DeSantis asked state Inspector General Melinda Miguel to determine whether any criminal activity occurred at the taxpayer-backed organization.