Settlement reached in domestic violence coalition cases

Tiffany Carr, the embattled former head of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, will pay $2.1 million as part of a settlement of a series of lawsuits centered on the state’s attempt to claw back "exorbitant" compensation paid to Carr and members of the nonprofit’s board of directors.

Under the settlement announced Thursday by Attorney General Ashley Moody, the state will receive a total of $3.935 million from Carr, former coalition directors and insurers.

The settlement will resolve civil lawsuits but leave open the possibility of criminal charges, Moody told reporters.

The agreement came more than a year after Moody and the Department of Children and Families filed a lawsuit against the coalition, its former board and Carr after reports that she received compensation of at least $7.5 million over a three-year period. Carr’s compensation included more than $3.7 million in paid time off, according to court documents.

"If you use funds that were meant for Floridians and for victims, you are entrusted with that important responsibility. If you siphon off money corruptly, for your own personal gain, you’ll be held accountable," Moody said at a news conference in Orlando to announce the settlement.

The agreement, filed Thursday morning in Leon County circuit court, will settle several lawsuits focused on the coalition’s compensation of Carr and the directors, including cases involving insurance companies that balked at covering defense fees and costs for the organization and its former executives.

While Carr will be responsible for the bulk of the funds, Patricia Duarte, the former chief financial officer of the coalition, agreed to pay $35,000 to the Department of Children and Families, and former chief operating officer Sandra Barnett agreed to pay $25,000. Hanover Insurance Co. will pay $1.55 million and Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America will pay $225,000.

Also, more than $1 million in accounts of the coalition’s foundation will go directly to domestic violence centers across the state, a news release from Moody's office said.

Under the settlement, neither Carr nor the directors admitted to wrongdoing. But the parties "have determined that their respective interests would be best served by completely resolving, compromising and settling all disputes, disagreements and controversies" associated with the lawsuits, the agreement said.

The settlement "is in the best interests of Florida’s certified domestic abuse centers, the vulnerable domestic violence victims they serve, and the people of Florida," a court document accompanying the settlement said. Proceeds from the funds paid to the Department of Children and Families "are to be utilized to the maximum extent for the benefit of the centers and victims."

Carr spent two decades as president and CEO of the coalition 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.

A statement provided Thursday to The News Service of Florida by Carr’s lawyer, Chris Kise, said that, under Carr’s tenure, the coalition’s funding and resources 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 noted that 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 engulfing her compensation. The settlement also calls for dismantling the nonprofit and its foundation.

"You have got to have accountability and transparency. That was obviously lacking with this organization, for many, many years," Gov. Ron DeSantis, who joined Moody for Thursday’s announcement, said. "The power that this group was given for almost 20 years and their misrepresentation of appropriation of state and federal funds is inexcusable, should not have happened and it cannot be allowed to happen in other organizations that may be getting funding from the state of Florida."

At Moody’s request, a judge last year appointed a receiver to represent the coalition. Before Thursday’s announcement, the legal wrangling had been on hold for months, as lawyers for Moody, DeSantis’ administration, the insurers, receiver Mark Healy, Carr and the coalition’s other former leaders tried to work out the settlement. Negotiations began in January.

Moody on Thursday accused Carr of employing a "scheme" in which Carr "stacked" the coalition’s board of directors "with beneficiaries of the organization’s funding."

"And then at the end of the year when the organization was supposed to return unused money that was not given directly to the domestic violence centers to the state, it was then that she would arrange for the modification of compensation in the form of bonuses, raises and, particularly, paid time off," Moody said.

Moody also said that "in no way does this (settlement) resolve any prospective criminal actions. Those decisions will come at a later date."

In a prepared statement, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, called the settlement a "key milestone in this tragic and reprehensible chapter of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Tiffany Carr story."

"The dissolution of FCADV and the significant payments of its corrupt leadership through this settlement means victims of domestic violence in Florida can have hope and faith in a safe, bright future," he said.

But Carr’s statement said her compensation was "comparable to that of her male counterparts associated with similar organizations" and that "no evidence" was offered showing what portions of her compensation were improper "or even why her compensation was improper."

"Nonetheless, and unfortunately, the Capitol’s political machinery not only recklessly destroyed Ms. Carr’s reputation, but also the organization she spent a lifetime building into a model support system for the survivors of domestic violence," the statement said.