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Health News Florida

Domestic Violence Coalition Kept Under Receiver

members of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence speaking before a house committee
News Service Of Florida
A circuit judge on Tuesday refused to undo an order putting a receiver in charge of the embattled Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

A circuit judge on Tuesday refused to undo an order putting a receiver in charge of the embattled Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, rejecting a request by the nonprofit organization’s former CEO, Tiffany Carr.

Leon County Circuit Judge Ronald Flury sided with Attorney General Ashley Moody after an hour-long telephone hearing, saying Carr’s lawyer, Christopher Kise, failed to persuade him to dissolve his order giving a receiver authority over the coalition.

In a complaint filed early this month, Moody asked the court to put the coalition and a support foundation --- headed by Carr --- in the hands of a receiver, after investigations revealed that the taxpayer-backed coalition paid Carr more than $7.2 million in compensation over a three-year period.

Flury appointed Jacksonville-based lawyer Michael Healy as receiver of the coalition on March 12 but has not ruled on whether the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence Foundation should also be placed in receivership.

Kise, who represents the foundation and Carr, asked the judge last week to dissolve the order, saying there was not an emergency warranting what he called such a “drastic remedy,” in part because the Department of Children and Families had taken over the coalition’s operations. The lawyer reiterated that argument during Tuesday’s hearing.

“So contrary to what we hear …. there is no need for the court to urgently step into the fray,” Kise, a former Florida solicitor general, told Flury. “There’s just simply no emergency.”

But Blaine Winship, special counsel to Moody, told Flury that DCF took over “because the coalition was in meltdown.”

“They don’t even have any board members now. They’ve all stepped down,” he said. “The idea that DCF could be characterized as a proper substitute for a receiver is absolutely preposterous.”

DCF 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 of state and federal funds meant for the state’s 42 domestic-violence shelters, which provide services to domestic-violence victims.

The revelations about Carr’s compensation --- from her $750,000 annual salary to more than $4.5 million in paid time off, which she cashed out after resigning in October --- prompted lawmakers to repeal the law that required the state to contract with the coalition. DCF terminated its contract and this month filed a lawsuit against the coalition and its board of directors, including Carr.

Siding with Moody on the receivership issue Tuesday, Flury said the fact that DCF is handling the work once performed by the coalition did not mean a receiver wasn’t warranted.

“The argument that DCF was handling the day-to-day operations of the organization, thus obviating the need for a new leader or receiver, quite honestly misses the point,” the judge said.

The agency “was performing the duties that it contracted out to the coalition to perform,” he added.

“DCF’s ability and capability to keep the ship afloat does not make it no longer an emergency. In fact, they're there in an adversarial position in a lawsuit right now with the opposing party, and it certainly doesn't preclude the court from exercising its discretion in appointing a receiver,” Flury said.

Carr stepped down as CEO of the coalition in October but remains the sole member of the foundation, which has about $1.5 million in assets, according to Moody’s March 4 complaint.

The lawsuit accused the former CEO and the coalition of using paid time off “to conceal the excessive and extravagant amounts of compensation paid or promised to its officers, in particular to Ms. Carr.” The lawsuit, which also alleges the coalition and Carr tried to cover up her compensation, asks the court to order Carr to repay the allegedly exorbitant executive compensation.

Kise, however, maintains that Carr is the victim of a “rush to judgment.”

He told Flury that the request for a receiver lacked substantive evidence backing up the attorney general’s allegations. Moody’s complaint referred to reports by The Miami Herald that helped spark investigations and to affidavits by leaders of some domestic-violence shelters, who were worried that the centers’ funding would be cut off after the coalition collapsed amid the probes.

“The debate over the coalition and Ms. Carr has been marked by sensational, inflammatory, political theatrics and news coverage, which has fueled a rush-to-judgment mentality and propelled calls for emergency action,” Kise said. “But we have not yet even begun the process of looking at the facts. The court has really been given no time to examine the true record, and the law requires the attorney general to prove her allegations, not just assert them.”

But the judge said his decision to appoint Healy was based on a thorough review of the evidence.

“The court did exercise its discretion to appoint a receiver to the coalition, not just based on a stipulation, but has also reviewed the complaint, the arguments and the sworn exhibits,” Flury said.

Kise had also complained that Synovus Bank --- which handled accounts for the coalition, the foundation and Carr --- froze Carr’s personal bank accounts following Flury’s order appointing the receiver. Kise accused the order of having “weaponized” actions against his client.

But Winship argued that the freezing of her personal accounts was a mistake by the bank that was resolved quickly.

“I really take great umbrage at that, your honor, I must tell you,” he told Flury Tuesday, adding that the bank “fixed everything” within a day.

“The idea that we have been accused of weaponizing your honor’s order is really offensive to me,” Winship said.