Governor, house escalate inquiry into domestic violence agency
By Ana Ceballos
News Service of Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida House last Thursday intensified an inquiry into Florida’s domestic violence agency, calling for additional investigations and issuing subpoenas over the former head of the taxpayer-backed organization’s compensation.
The governor asked state Inspector General Melinda Miguel to investigate the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s “exorbitant compensation payouts” and “abuse of state dollars” to determine if any criminal wrongdoing has occurred at the organization.
“Governor DeSantis will not tolerate wasteful or fraudulent spending, particularly from an organization that purports to serve the vulnerable victims of domestic violence,” Helen Aguirre Ferre, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said in a statement.
Five hours later, the House voted to subpoena 14 individuals who have worked at the organization to further dig into how Tiffany Carr, the agency’s former CEO, was able to receive millions of dollars in compensation for her work at the coalition. Carr is among those who were subpoenaed by the House.
“This appears to be more than a breach of the public trust, this may in fact be criminal,” House Public Integrity & Ethics Chair Tom Leek said during a committee meeting last Thursday.
The committee’s staff director Don Rubottom said that, after reviewing documents the organization turned over last Wednesday night, it “appeared” Carr received $4.2 million in paid time off between July 2013 through her resignation in October 2019.
The committee had already launched an investigation into the organization.
Rubottom said Carr received approximately $2.6 million in “other compensation” between June 30, 2016 and October 2019.
“A large, large part of the CEO’s salary was provided through various payments for paid time off,” Rubottom said. “It is difficult to understand.”
Details of Carr’s compensation were outlined in a cache of more than 104,000 files the governor’s office and the House received as part of an investigation, Rubottom said. As of late last Thursday afternoon, the records had not been released to the public.
Rubottom told reporters that many of the documents were redacted, which “discouraged” members of the House.
Leek said the compensation outlined in the documents is significantly higher than the roughly $750,000 annual salary the organization had initially reported to the committee.
“When I was first advised of the amounts that we were talking about, it was hard to put together words about what it means. It’s beyond what any of us thought was out there,” Leek, R-Ormond Beach, told reporters after the committee meeting.
The coalition, which received $46.7 million this fiscal year in state and federal funding, oversees domestic violence programs in the state as part of a contract with the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Rubottom said the federal agency that provides funding to the coalition has inquired about Carr’s compensation, adding that he does not believe federal “engagement” will stop in the near future. Leek said he will encourage the state to remain in contact with the federal agency.
The House investigation was launched last year, after the Miami Herald reported discrepancies with Carr’s compensation. Carr stepped down from her leadership post following the report, and the Florida Department of Children and Families started a review of the coalition’s finances.
But Leek said last Thursday the coalition has stonewalled requests for documents.
“The coalition’s lack of transparency … has only enhanced any concerns regarding the coalition’s administration of public funds and has given rise to a more general concern about the integrity and efficacy of the state’s statutory and contractual arrangement with the coalition,” Leek said in a two-page investigative report to House Speaker José Oliva, released to the media last Thursday afternoon.
The Department of Children and Families told the coalition’s staff and providers that “they should continue to report to work in service of the victims of domestic violence,” according to the statement issued by the governor’s office.
Leek also called on the full board of directors to resign. But Mark Herron, the coalition’s attorney, told the committee that, as of last Wednesday afternoon, none of the directors had any plans to step down.
The recent developments, however, left the coalition without the help of its powerful lobbying firm, Ballard Partners.
Brian Ballard, the head of the lobbying powerhouse, said in a telephone interview the firm dropped the coalition as a client last Thursday morning after learning about the “excessive compensation paid to some executives” at the organization.
“We cannot represent and defend the indefensible,” Ballard told The News Service of Florida. “If in fact these are the true numbers, it’s not defensible and it’s egregious and it’s wrong.”
Ballard’s firm had represented the coalition for the past nine years.
As the investigation moves forward, both chambers are fast-tracking bills that do away with a law that requires the Department of Children and Families to contract with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The Senate Health and Human Services unanimously approved the Senate proposal (SB 1482) on last Thursday. The bill would take effect immediately, upon becoming law.
Senate President Bill Galvano said in a statement he supports the legislation and vowed that his chamber will “work expeditiously toward a solution that ensures there is no interruption of services to victims of domestic violence.”
* News Service of Florida Senior Writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.