By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has threatened a criminal investigation into a state organization that helps Floridians with disabilities, after learning about potential misuse of millions of dollars and alleged “incompetence” on the part of its leadership.
His threats, outlined in an Aug. 15 letter obtained by The News Service of Florida, have already prompted a leadership shake-up at The Able Trust, a non-profit organization for the state education department’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Corcoran said he would move to shut down the organization unless The Able Trust met 10 demands, which included the resignations of its officers and board of directors, as well as the exit of president and chief executive officer, Susanne Homant, who held the post since 2007.
“Should the terms herein not be fully complied with by The Able Trust, the department intends to immediately sever any contractual or other similar relationships with The Able Trust,” Corcoran wrote.
The education commissioner added that he would “subsequently direct this matter to the appropriate law enforcement agency or state attorney and if necessary the Internal Revenue Service,” if his demands were not met.
Numerous attempts by the News Service to reach The Able Trust for comment were unsuccessful.
Corcoran pointed to “several egregious concerns” at The Able Trust, which helps more than 45,000 individuals with disabilities get and maintain jobs every year.
In his letter, he said the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation “has not received the full benefits of a functioning [direct-support organization] for several years.”
Corcoran said the organization should undergo a full audit by the state auditor general, “to include findings regarding potential malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, or incompetence on the part of board members.”
Some of the organization’s issues were outlined in a June audit conducted by Corcoran’s inspector general. In that report, auditors flagged issues with “inaccurate reporting of administrative costs,” singling out discrepancies in how Homant’s annual $224,975 salary was reported.
State auditors said The Able Trust inaccurately reported that its administrative costs made up 12 percent of the organization’s expenditures. But the audit found expenditures accounted for 18 percent of the non-profit’s expenses.
Homant insisted that not all of her salary should be considered an administrative cost. However, auditors said, failing to accurately report administrative costs “could lead to non-compliance with the statutes.”
The Able Trust management “generally disagreed” with auditors’ interpretation of a state mandate that says “administrative costs shall be kept to the minimum amount necessary … and are limited to 15 percent of the total expenditures in any calendar year.”
In a June 17 response to the audit, The Able Trust defended its reporting by saying the organization is managed by a “very small staff,” which required its leaders to take on more than one job.
“It was estimated by Able Trust that her (Homant’s) time was 75 percent to programs and 25 percent to administrative.”
The organization added that auditors did not adjust for the time Homant “spent directly on programs, fundraising, business interaction to encourage placement for people with disabilities, etc,.” according to the response letter.
Even with Homant’s total salary included, The Able Trust’s administrative costs “only rises slightly above 15 percent,” the organization’s response, which was unsigned, said.
Two months after The Able Trust responded to the audit, Corcoran demanded the organization immediately remove Homant from her position and deny her “physical and electronic access to Able Trust files and office.” He also banned the organization from entering into any contractual relationships with Homant in the future.
Six days after Corcoran’s letter was sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative leaders, Karen Moore, chairwoman of The Able Trust’s board of directors, announced to supporters of the organization that Homant had “retired” and would be replaced by Tony Carvajal, who recently served as the executive vice president of the Florida Chamber Foundation.
“As I am sure you are already aware, our board and staff have been working closely with Commissioner of Education, Richard Corcoran, and his team to lay the foundation for a bright and successful future,” Moore wrote in the Aug. 21 missive.
Aside from concerns with the top executive’s salary, Corcoran in his letter highlighted issues with a non-profit entity The Able Trust created that had not been authorized in state law.
That entity, the Able Charitable Foundation, has received “millions of dollars” in transfers from The Able Trust, Corcoran added.
Corcoran demanded that The Able Trust agree to undergo a full investigation of the Able Charitable Foundation, writing that the The Able Trust did not have authority “to allow funds to be deposited with a separate entity.” If money had been transferred to the foundation, Corcoran wrote, “the department will recommend immediate termination of its association with the Able Trust and prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”
Any funds that were transferred to the foundation must be returned to the Able Trust, Corcoran wrote.
When asked about his vision for The Able Trust on Friday, DeSantis praised Corcoran’s “reform mentality.”
DeSantis, who has the authority to appoint new members to the organization’s board of directors, said he wants to help make the organization “better.”
“All of my appointees, I want them to be reformers, who are not going to tolerate incompetence or failure in government — that is what we will see,” the governor said Friday.
Some advocates connected to the disability community welcomed Corcoran’s intervention.
Jim DeBeaugrine, a former executive director of the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities, said the shake-up may be able to bring out the “tremendous potential” The Able Trust has to offer Floridians with disabilities.
“The mission of the organization is absolutely worthwhile,” DeBeaugrine told the News Service in a telephone interview. “I do feel that new leadership was needed and I am optimistic that the new CEO is a good first step.”
The Florida Legislature would be required to act to shut down The Able Trust. This spring, a bill that would have permanently saved The Able Trust from repeal went nowhere, but state lawmakers agreed to allow the organization to exist for four more years.