Citrus Health denies it’s violating compensation law; state says probe continues


https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article248806165.html

Mario Jardon, president and CEO of the Hialeah-based Citrus Health Network, made $574,660, which the state says includes $360,840 in excess compensation. The state says the agency also paid excessive compensation to two other executives at the community-based mental health center, for a total of $403,000 in excessive compensation. The company denies it.

The child welfare agency that serves Miami-Dade and Monroe counties pushed back Wednesday against allegations made by the governor’s chief inspector general, denying claims that it used taxpayer funds to pad excessively high salaries of top executives.

In a statement, Citrus Health Network President and CEO Mario Jardon and Citrus Health Network Board of Directors Chair Patricia Croysdale said that the state did not check with them before issuing the preliminary report and Jardon’s salary, and that of chief operating officer Maria Alonso, “do not come from state funds allocated to Citrus as the lead agency, and are provided at no cost to the state.”

Citrus Health Network, a mental health nonprofit, won a half-billion dollar contract in 2019 from the state Department of Children & Families to oversee child welfare cases in Miami-Dade and Monroe. The arrangement is part of the state program that has privatized state services to a patchwork of “lead agencies.”

According to the preliminary findings by the governor’s Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel, Citrus Health was one of nine agencies that appear to be paying their executives more than the amount allowed by state law.

Florida law prohibits a community-based care lead agency that receives state and federal funding to provide welfare services from paying its executives more than 150% of what the Department of Children and Families secretary makes — a threshold estimated at $213,820.

In response to the Citrus Health comments, Meredith Beatrice, spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis, said that the intent of the report was to highlight agencies that “were either in non-compliance or appeared to have excessive compensation” and will be investigated further.

“Nothing within the document is conclusory or final,’’ she said.

PRELIMINARY FINDINGS

The report says Jardon made $574,660, which the state says includes $360,840 in excess compensation. The state also said Alonso, Jardon’s partner, made $42,379 over the maximum, and the company’s chief information officer, Renan Llanes, made $172 over the limit.

“The Governor’s Office of Inspector General chose to release a preliminary report incorrectly alleging inappropriate use of state funds and excessive executive compensation without first confirming the information in the report directly with Citrus, and without utilizing other publicly available fiscal documents related to our company,’’ the company’s statement said.

The Citrus Health contract began in July 2019, but the state report appears to have used compensation data from tax documents ending in June 2019.

Citrus also pointed to its web site, which has posted a document that shows a 2020-21 budget that includes compensation of $207,711 with “other compensation” of $20,498 for its director. The company said that refers to Esther Jacobo, the director of the Citrus Health Family Care Network, who formerly was the interim secretary at DCF.

A footnote then adds that “CEO and COO are provided at no cost to [Citrus Family Care Network] and DCF.”

“At the beginning of operations as the lead agency, Citrus’ Board of Directors resolved not to burden the budget of the lead agency with the salaries of the CEO and COO of Citrus Health Network,” said Citrus Health Network spokesperson Leslie M. Viega in a statement. “Our CEO and COO’s salaries do not come from any funds allocated to Citrus as the lead agency, regardless of the source, including state-appropriated funds, state-appropriated federal funds, or private funds.”

The company says the salaries are paid through another division, its federally qualified health center which provides behavioral health, primary care, housing for the homeless, and other social services. The Herald/Times asked Citrus Health for a copy of the financial documents that demonstrate this claim but the organization has not provided them.

A NEW CONTRACT

In 2019, Citrus Health won the child welfare contract from a rival non-profit, Our Kids, after a bruising yearlong fight plagued by allegations that the selection process was marred by the appearance of conflicts of interest. The contract gave the company, which had never handled child welfare before, the job of overseeing about 3,000 vulnerable children in the state’s most populous region.

The inspector general’s investigation is the result of an executive order by DeSantis in February 2020 after the Miami Herald reported and a House of Representatives investigation found that the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence paid its chief executive officer, Tiffany Carr, more than $7.5 million over three years.

Carr, who is now a party to two lawsuits, including an attempt by the state to claw back the compensation she was awarded, is currently engaged in negotiations with the attorney general’s office over a mediated settlement.

But it was Carr’s ability to use her network of influential legislators and lobbyists, coupled with the lack of oversight by the Department of Children and Families, that provoked legislators and the governor’s investigators to look into how other non-profits are compensating their executives.

Carr persuaded her board of directors, a close-knit group whom she hand-selected, to approve her compensation package that included thousands of hours of paid leave which she converted to cash.. She justified her salary and bonuses by using comparable salaries of similar organizations but she is alleged to have misrepresented the size of her organization to make the comparisons work to her advantage.

Investigators also suspect Carr avoided declaring millions of dollars in deferred compensation on her tax forms by using a loophole in the tax code.

The inspector general’s report does not name executives but a spreadsheet provided to the Herald/Times from the governor’s office indicates the amounts of compensation by title. The Herald/Times used publicly available tax data to identify the individuals under investigation.

The governor’s office said the next phase of the investigation will be to meet with the nine community-based care organizations early next week “to explain the process” before the final report is completed by June 30.

“It is important to note that the entities impacted from this review will have an opportunity in late May to offer a written response to the draft of the final report,’’ Beatrice said. “Their responses will be included as an attachment to the final report presented to the governor.”

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