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Disabilities organization faces continuing questions

The organization did not meet Richard Corcoran’s timeframe.

An organization focused on helping Floridians with disabilities find jobs has not complied with some key demands by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who threatened to shut it down because of concerns about potential misuse of money.

The commissioner last month cited “egregious concerns” with the operation of The Able Trust, a non-profit organization for the Department of Education’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and demanded it cut all ties with a charitable foundation it created without authorization from the Legislature.

In an Aug. 15 letter, Corcoran told the organization it had until Sept. 1 to dissolve “all relationships and agreements” with the Able Charitable Foundation, saying he suspected the possibility of money being transferred to the charity’s accounts to “avoid possible reversion of funds to the State of Florida.”

But the organization did not meet the timeframe.

“They did not meet that deadline, but they have been working diligently with the department, and we are confident that they will continue to be a strong partner in the process,” Taryn Fenske, communications director for the Department of Education, told The News Service of Florida.

The Able Trust did not respond to requests for comment.

Cutting ties with the Able Charitable Foundation was a key part of Corcoran’s 10-point directive in the Aug. 15 letter, and it was the only demand with a set deadline.

The non-profit has complied with other demands, such as purging officers and members of its board of directors, including its president and chief executive officer, Susanne Homant.

The commissioner wrote that if all of his demands were not fully met, he intended to “immediately sever all contractual or other similar relationship with The Able Trust and subsequently direct this matter to the appropriate law enforcement agency or state attorney and if necessary, the Internal Revenue Service.”

Despite the threat, The Able Trust continues to operate, Fenske said. She added the state does not currently have plans to shut it down because the organization has agreed to meet all of the commissioner’s demands.

That means services provided by the organization to help people with disabilities get and maintain jobs will not be disrupted. Roughly 45,000 Floridians are served by the organization every year.

But the shakeup remains ongoing — and other issues are pending.

Corcoran also required the organization to agree to undergo a full financial and operational audit by the Florida Auditor General’s Office.

The commissioner said the audit would include “findings regarding potential malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, or incompetence on the part of board members.”

Florida Auditor General Sherrill Norman’s office told the News Service last week it is aware that Corcoran wants an audit of the organization. However, audit manager Christi Alexander said the audit is not in the office’s current work plan.

Corcoran also demanded The Able Trust agree to undergo a full investigation related to the Able Charitable Foundation’s creation.

If an investigation finds money was misused, Corcoran said his “department will recommend immediate termination of its association with the Able Trust and prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”

Former Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant, whose son has benefited from a similar program, said it is “mind-boggling” and “egregiously abusive” for the organization to create a private charitable foundation that was not transparent about money it was receiving.

“I’m very concerned about the charitable foundation to the extent that state employees were paid to divert money to that foundation to manage any type of fundraising for the foundation,” Tant told the News Service in an interview.

Tant said those dollars should have stayed with The Able Trust’s own accounts to fund the possibility of serving more people with disabilities.

“Programs like this exist for the very purpose of hiring people like my son,” said Tant, who is running for a state House seat in 2020. “We really need this program to work … this really matters.”

On Friday, Bethany Swonson, a deputy chief of staff at the Department of Education, is scheduled to provide an update to the State Board of Education about what the department has been doing to ensure The Able Trust is “functioning in accordance with its legislative intent.”

The briefing, which will cover Corcoran’s “vision” for the non-profit, will come two weeks before Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to appoint a new board of directors for the organization.

A day before the appointments are made, Tony Carvajal, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber Foundation, is expected to start as The Able Trust’s new president and chief executive officer.

The governor’s office and the Department of Education have been tight-lipped about the appointments, but last month the governor offered a glimpse on what he is seeking.

“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,” DeSantis said.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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