Financial investigation leads to Cashiers: Florida officials suspect embattled nonprofit CEO is hiding out in Cashiers
By Lucy Morgan
Special to the Chronicle
Cashiers and Highlands are making the newspapers all over Florida these days as state legislators pursue a woman they have accused of receiving more than $7.7 million in state and federal funds budgeted for the protection of domestic violence victims in various Florida cities.
Tiffany Carr, the longtime president of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is the target of legislative complaints and state and federal investigations. The Florida House Committee on Public Integrity and Ethics voted Thursday to find her in contempt when she failed to appear to testify in response to a subpoena.
In a written report distributed to the public at their meeting last week, lawyers for the committee stated a civil process server recently attempted to serve Carr with a subpoena at her home in the Pinchot Community near Cashiers but were twice denied entry to the subdivision by security guards who refused to accept the subpoena or allow the process server to enter the gated community. Attempts to deliver the subpoena by Federal Express also failed, the report noted.
The attempts were made after a reporter for the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Capitol Bureau managed to get inside the Pinchot gate earlier this month. Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas hiked up the last mile to Carr’s house but encountered a locked gate and said she got no response when she rang the bell to summon occupants. Klas has written dozens of articles about Carr and the investigation of how public money was spent. Klas said she saw two vehicles in the driveway outside Carr’s house.
In a written report to the House committee, lawyers for the House reported that a final attempt to serve Carr included leaving copies of the subpoena at another house she owns in Highlands and at other residences in Tallahassee and Port St. Joe, Florida.
The Pinchot and Port St. Joe house were purchased during the last three years, when she allegedly collected retirement and insurance benefits, car allowances, bonuses, paid time off and other income totaling $7,762,573. The lawsuits against her accuse the Coalition of running “an accounting shell game’’ with public funds.
Carr has owned property in the Highlands-Cashiers area since 1999, when she purchased a house in the Lorelei Hills Subdivision in Macon County. She sold that house in 2011 to Laurel A. Lynch and her husband Norman L. Hale of Palmetto, Florida. Lynch was previously chairman of the board of directors of the domestic violence coalition.
After all attempts to serve Carr in person failed, the House emailed a copy of the subpoena to her lawyer, Christopher Kise of Tallahassee, Florida. He accepted it on Carr’s behalf but she did not appear at Thursday’s hearing.
The civil suits filed against Carr and directors of the Coalition accuse Carr and the directors of refusing to turn over financial records documenting executive compensation and administrative costs paid by taxpayers to the House Committee. Last Friday, Tallahassee Circuit Judge Ronald Flury ordered Carr and the directors to place all assets of the corporation under the control of Mark Healy, a bankruptcy expert from Jacksonville.
Kise did not respond to messages seeking comment on the allegations against Carr and she could not be reached for comment.
Testimony from domestic violence providers Thursday noted that more than 18,000 victims could have received desperately needed services with just $6-million of the $7.7-million Carr received.
Committee Chairman Tom Leek, a Republican from Ormond Beach, Florida, said he was upset by the news.
“It’s hard to put into words, but I am aware that at the same time Miss Carr was enriching herself she was putting pressure on shelters to cut costs,’’ Leek said.
Legislators are questioning whether state employees were part of a conspiracy to deny funds to those who needed them and looking at members of the board of directors, all appointed by Carr. In addition, the domestic violence coalition had to pay an extra $405,000 to the Internal Revenue Service, an excise tax levied by the amount of her compensation.
The lawsuits filed earlier this month by the Florida Attorney General and the State Department of Children and Families allege that Carr illegally served as president and a member the board.
After a 10-year stint directing operations, Carr resigned from the Coalition in November 2019 after newspapers began to question the amount of state and federal money she had collected over the past few years.
Carr is living in a house in the Pinchot Community near Cashiers. A deed recorded in Jackson County indicates she and husband John Patrick Howard Jr. paid $1.9-million for the 6,665-square foot house and 2.5-acres and obtained a $1.5-million mortgage on August 16, 2018, three months after the Coalition’s board awarded her $450,000 in lieu of time off, making her wages for the year about $4.5-million.
Pinchot is a 350-acre community that sits at about 4,000-feet, overlooking the village of Cashiers and Whiteside Mountain. The development was named after famed conservationist Gifford Pinchot and includes a number of multi-million dollar houses.
Carr resigned from the Domestic Violence agency in November 2019, saying she was dealing with significant health issues and “fighting for my life.’’
Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents the Coalition corporation, said he believes criminal complaints have been filed with state and federal authorities but no formal charges have been filed against Carr or anyone else. Herron said Kise, the Tallahassee lawyer who represents Carr, did produce several boxes of Coalition documents he requested.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, in a lawsuit filed March 4, has asked the Circuit Court in Florida to appoint a receiver to recover the Domestic Violence Coalition’s money and assist state and federal authorities in an investigation. The lawsuit also seeks to reorganize the domestic violence coalition or replace it with a new corporation to oversee services for women facing domestic violence.
On the same day, a separate lawsuit was filed by the State Department of Children and Families, the agency that oversees services to domestic violence victims. It accuses the Coalition of refusing to produce some documents and falsifying information about payments to Carr.
State officials have been trying since 2018 to obtain records of what the Coalition spent, but the group has been “stonewalling’’ requests to produce records, the lawsuits allege. The lawsuits also allege that various directors who worked with Carr falsified documents about payments made to Carr.
The Domestic Violence Coalition Foundation was created in 2011 under the administration of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush with Bush’s wife, Columba, serving as a director of the group. She was still listed as a director in 2017 but is no longer associated with the group according to reports filed each year with the Florida Division of Corporations.
Bush said his wife joined the private foundation board and left in 2017.
“We hosted five or six events to raise private money,’’ Bush said when asked about the controversy surrounding the group. “That is the extent of our involvement. We were not involved in the appointment of Tiffany Carr. The Coalition was formed by legislation. We are deeply disappointed that the work to support domestic violence shelters has been hurt by the scandal. I am proud of our efforts as Governor and First Lady to increase funding for domestic violence shelters.’’
Lucy Morgan is a semiretired, Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. She is a part-time resident of the Cashiers area.