By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and Attorney General Ashley Moody on Wednesday took legal action against the executive leadership of an embattled domestic violence nonprofit organization, accusing the group’s leaders of misusing public funds to pad executives’ salaries.
The actions come as the House, the state’s inspector general and Moody’s office ramp up investigations into the taxpayer-backed Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence and its former chief executive officer Tiffany Carr, who over a three-year period received $7.5 million in compensation.
“I am disgusted at the mismanagement and greedy misuse of public funds that were meant to assist victims of domestic violence across the state of Florida,” Moody said at a press conference in the Capitol on Wednesday.
The Department of Children and Families, which has contracted with the coalition since 2003, filed a lawsuit Wednesday targeting Carr, the coalition’s board of directors and its executive officers. The agency’s lawsuit was sparked by an investigation by the Miami Herald. Former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration began questioning the nonprofit about its finances in 2018.
The DeSantis administration’s lawsuit accuses the coalition of breach of contract by, among other things, failing to provide documents, failing to cooperate with investigations, and failing to provide accurate and complete information about Carr’s compensation package.
“DCF suffered damages as a result of Ms. Carr’s misrepresentations. Specifically, DCF continued to increase the amount of state and federal monies flowing to FCADV through the contract as a result of Ms. Carr concealing the true distribution of said money,” the governor’s lawyers argued in the 77-page lawsuit filed in Leon County Circuit Court.
The lawsuit states that the coalition received $42 million from the Department of Children and Families in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. The state funds were meant to manage Florida’s 42 domestic violence centers, which provide victims with an array of services, such as counseling and education.
“This funding was provided for the public purpose of coordinating and administering statewide activities related to the prevention of domestic violence, not for the FCADV board to award exorbitant salaries, bonuses, and PTO (paid time off), to Ms. Carr, in exchange for personal gain,” DeSantis’ lawyers wrote.
The state argued the coalition “produced documents that deliberately and intentionally withheld or obfuscated the true use of state and federal funds, with the purpose of continued benefit” to Carr, her executive staff and the coalition’s board of directors.
The coalition’s refusal to provide requested documents and cooperate with the investigation “purposely obstructed any legitimate investigation and oversight” efforts by the DeSantis administration “and concealed the actions of the defendants,” the governor’s lawyers wrote.
The lawsuit also accuses Carr, the coalition’s board of directors and two of the coalition’s staff of a “civil conspiracy” by engaging in “fraudulent concealment and fraudulent misrepresentation of material facts.”
The governor’s lawyers are asking the court for more than $30,000 in damages, for each of the 51 counts of wrongdoing alleged in the complaint against the coalition, Carr and the 11other defendants.
As the state continues to dig into the coalition, Moody’s office on Wednesday filed a separate complaint that asks a judge to freeze the coalition’s assets and to preserve evidence that is key to the ongoing investigations.
Moody also said her office wants to recover all, or at least, part of the $7.5 million paid to Carr. Carr’s $7.5 million compensation package over a three-year period included $4.2 million in paid time off, which she cashed out before she stepped down from her post in October.
Moody also claimed Carr’s compensation package had “extremely adverse consequences” to the coalition, citing nearly $1 million that had to be paid to the Internal Revenue Service in November as a result of Carr’s compensation-and-severance package.
The state hopes to be repaid for the tax liability, Moody said. The attorney general said her office has not ruled out criminal charges against Carr or other members of the coalition.
“All options on further action remain on the table, as a result of the products of these investigations. Ms. Tiffany Carr should be very worried,” Moody said.
At the press conference, Moody was flanked by Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin and Sen. Aaron Bean, who championed legislation this session to repeal from state law a guaranteed state partnership with the coalition. DeSantis signed the bill into law last week.
“No one won, not even Tiffany Carr. The victims of domestic violence lost. The state lost. DCF lost. And it was her greed that put us into this posture. I expect, with this lawsuit, that she will soon lose even more,” Fernandez-Barquin, a Miami-Dade County Republican, said Wednesday.
After DeSantis stripped the coalition of its contract last week, DCF took control of all of the programs related to domestic violence survivors.
“We are working toward a transition where the department will be running the coalition and then putting it back out for procurement within 12 months to 18 months. It is not our intention to bring it back inhouse and keep it for a long period of time,” Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell told reporters on Wednesday.
Poppell said the state agency is working with 65 full-time coalition employees during the transition and that they are “very comfortable” with having no interruption in services to victims. However, he said there are concerns about low morale.
The damage caused by Carr and the coalition’s leaders “will certainly take time to repair,” Moody said.
“But today’s action is aimed at recovering as much of the money that was wasted on executive compensation as we can,” she added.