By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Authorities have charged the former longtime president of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a former chief financial officer of the agency with fraud, grand theft and official misconduct, accusing the women of bilking the state out of more than $3.7 million from money earmarked for domestic violence shelters.
The felony charges announced Thursday came more than two years after Tiffany Carr — who served as president and CEO of the nonprofit coalition for more than two decades — agreed to pay $2.1 million as part of a settlement of civil lawsuits centered on the state’s attempt to claw back “exorbitant” compensation paid to Carr and other leaders of the agency.
An arrest warrant was issued for Carr, according to a news release issued by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announcing the charges. Patricia Duarte, the former chief financial officer who faces charges, turned herself into Leon County authorities on Tuesday.
The charges against Carr stem from reports that she received compensation of at least $7.5 million over a three-year period. Her compensation included more than $3.7 million in paid time off, according to court documents in lawsuits that led up to the 2021 settlement, which also called for the coalition and its foundation to be dismantled.
Information about the nonprofit leaders’ compensation, first reported by The Miami Herald, sparked investigations by the state inspector general, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office and a state House panel.
Thursday’s news release said a probe showed that Carr and Duarte “conducted a scheme to fraudulently award themselves personal time off” using money provided through grants intended to help fund domestic violence shelters throughout the state.
“These officials were entrusted to run an organization to assist those seeking a safe haven from abuse. Instead of ensuring state funds went to help those in need, they schemed together to steal more than $3.7 million for grossly inflated salaries and vacations. We previously took civil action to rid the organization’s bad management, and now we are filing criminal charges against these former officials,” Moody said in a prepared statement.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators and Department of Children and Families workers examined “years of documentation” over the past two years, according to the release. The investigation showed that Carr and Duarte “submitted false quarterly reports, billed the state for vacant positions and charged for services never provided.”
Carr received more than $3.4 million in “excessive bonus and leave payouts” and Duarte received $291,000, the release said. Both women were charged with one count each of organized scheme to defraud, grand theft and official misconduct.
“Non-profit organizations exist to improve the lives of others, but during our investigation, it became clear the only thing these FCADV (Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence) executives were serving were each other. Their selfishness and greed came at the expense of domestic violence victims who needed their organization the most,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass said.
Christopher Kise, an attorney for Carr who also represents former President Donald Trump in a civil fraud lawsuit filed by New York’s attorney general, had no comment Thursday on the charges facing Carr.
Carr, 54, served as president and CEO of the coalition for more than 20 years before resigning in 2019 amid probes by the governor’s office and the Florida House into the coalition’s finances and reports of her multimillion-dollar compensation. In the past, the coalition was in charge of dispersing more than $46 million a year in state, federal and private funds to 42 domestic violence shelters throughout Florida.
In a statement Kise provided to The News Service of Florida when the 2021 settlement was announced, he said that, under Carr’s tenure, the coalition’s funding grew from an annual budget of “a few million dollars” to more than $70 million, the number of shelter nights throughout the state almost tripled and “Florida adopted some of the strongest domestic violence laws” in the country.
The statement — which called domestic violence “a deeply personal and life-altering issue” for Carr — also said independent audits of compensation for her and the coalition’s directors “never contained any findings or concerns.”
“Despite the public barrage of unsubstantiated allegations regarding her compensation, Ms. Carr was at all times employed by the coalition pursuant to a valid contract, written in plain English, and the terms of that contract, and her compensation, were determined and established not by Ms. Carr, but by an independent committee of the coalition’s unpaid board,” the statement said.
Carr’s achievements, however, have been overshadowed by the controversy that engulfed her compensation.
Under questioning by the Florida House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee in 2020, Duarte and another of the coalition’s executives conceded Carr’s multimillion-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 signed off on Carr’s compensation package.
Duarte acknowledged she 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 told the committee. Duarte, 57, later agreed to pay $35,000 to the Department of Children and Families as part of the 2021 settlement.
The Department of Children and Families for more than a decade had a sole-source contract, enshrined in Florida law, that made the coalition the pass-through for millions of dollars meant for domestic violence shelters, which provide services to domestic violence victims.
State lawmakers in 2020 stripped the coalition’s relationship with DCF from state law. DCF also canceled its contract with the organization and filed a lawsuit accusing Carr and the nonprofit of breach of contract. The 2021 settlement also called for the nonprofit and its foundation to be dissolved.
Under the settlement, the state was set to receive $3.935 million from Carr, former coalition directors and insurers. The settlement left open the possibility of criminal charges.