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Politics / Issues

Florida House Cracks Down On Domestic Violence Agency

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Florida House of Representatives
State Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, the bill's sponsor, said the multi-million dollar compensation package given to Tiffany Carr, the former CEO at the taxpayer-backed Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “shocks the conscience.”";s:

The Florida House on Thursday voted to repeal a law that requires the state to contract with a domestic violence non-profit organization, amid a bipartisan outcry from lawmakers and investigations into the former agency head’s compensation.

State Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, a Miami-Dade County Republican sponsoring the legislation (HB 7087), said the multi-million dollar compensation package given to Tiffany Carr, the former CEO at the taxpayer-backed Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “shocks the conscience.”

“The issue has kept me up at night because it is not our money. This is the state’s money, given to us and entrusted to us by the taxpayers,” Fernandez-Barquin said before the House unanimously voted in favor of the bill.

The proposal to repeal the law that requires the Department of Children and Families to contract with the organization to manage state and federal domestic-violence funds has been fast-tracked in both the House and Senate.

The urgency to pass the measure comes after a House investigation found last week that Carr was able to receive $6.9 million in paid time off and “other compensation” between July 2013 through her resignation in October 2019.

House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee Staff Writer Don Rubottom told the panel last week that the compensation amount was calculated by the House after it reviewed more than 100,000 financial records turned over by the organization.

“A large, large part of the CEO’s salary was provided through various payment for paid time off,” Rubottom said. “It is difficult to understand.”

Revelations about Carr’s compensation package prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative leaders to escalate inquiries into the organization.

At DeSantis’ request, state Inspector General Melinda Miguel initiated an investigation into the non-profit organization’s financial practices. The House has also issued more than a dozen subpoenas to current and former employees of the organization, including Carr, as part of its ongoing probe.

Helen Aguirre Ferre, a spokeswoman for the governor, said on Thursday that interviews are currently being scheduled with the individuals who were subpoenaed.

In addition to the state investigations, DeSantis told reporters on Thursday the federal government may also start digging into the organization’s finances.

“When you have federal funds at issue, that opens up another layer to that,” DeSantis said.

At the state level, lawmakers are already discussing a closer look at the salaries of executives who work at other non-profit organizations that have contracts with the state.

DeSantis late Thursday 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’s executive order told the agencies to provide a list of “all entities named in statute with which the agency must form a sole-source, public-private agreement” and “all entities that, through contract or other agreement with the state, annually receive 50% or more of their budget from the state or from a combination of state and federal funds.”

DeSantis 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.

State Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Lauderdale Lakes, suggested the state should cap the salaries and benefits of the executives of state-contracted organizations at $150,000. Williams wanted to add the compensation cap to Fernandez-Barquin’s bill, but withdrew an amendment that would have done so.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who co-sponsored Fernandez-Barquin’s bill, said it is important to scrutinize all state contracts.

“I think we have to carefully consider all these types of agencies and organizations that the state created because unfortunately, many times when they are created, it is with a political preference in mind. That applies to all parties, not just one,” Eskamani said.

In 2012, the Legislature approved a law that allowed the domestic-violence organization to be protected as a sole-source contractor to manage the state’s domestic violence centers, meaning the coalition has not had to compete with other organizations for years.

Senate budget chief Rob Bradley said in an interview Wednesday that, while the coalition’s practices were “outrageous,” he does not believe the issue is widespread in the state.

However, he said the Legislature should learn from the problems with the domestic-violence organization.

“This needs to be a wake-up call for everybody that when you have entities embedded in statute that are single-sourced entities, there needs to be an extra layer of oversight that obviously wasn’t present in this case,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.