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Human trafficking probe of shelter prompted by Sen. Tom Wright ended when he backed off

In World
January 09, 2024

Sen. Tom Wright, who was trespassed on Sept. 2 from the Beacon Center domestic violence shelter after he angrily confronted and placed his hand on an administrator, had previously levied explosive allegations about the facility that fell apart under scrutiny and when he opted to drop the matter.

Wright alleged in a complaint to regulators that human trafficking was occurring at the center, that shelter CEO Angie Pye smoked marijuana with shelter residents and arranged to provide sexual favors to taxi drivers.

The senator, a former Beacon Center board member who clashed with Pye shortly after she assumed her role as CEO in 2016, also alleged she was not qualified, has been “a terrible executive director,” carried a .357 revolver “to show who is in charge,” and that he had spoken with shelter residents who told him they had not eaten in two days.

He also claimed that Pye was close to former college friend Tiffany Carr – a pariah in the field after it was revealed that she had received at least $7.5 million in compensation over three years as president and CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Wright’s complaint was made in 2021 to the Florida Department of Children and Families, which oversees domestic violence shelters. The Daytona Beach News-Journal obtained documents detailing the complaint and DCF’s probe regarding the allegations through a public records request.

Not a ‘good use of resources’

The matter became a “preliminary” inquiry by the DCF’s Office of Inspector General, which found little to corroborate Wright’s assertions and fizzled out five months after the complaint was filed and following interviews with Pye, some members of her staff and those who had stayed at the Beacon Center.

Sen. Tom Wright listens to a discussion at a town hall hosted by the Beacon Center, Volusia County's only state-certified domestic violence shelter, in Daytona Beach in September, some three weeks after he was trespassed by police from the shelter.

Sen. Tom Wright listens to a discussion at a town hall hosted by the Beacon Center, Volusia County’s only state-certified domestic violence shelter, in Daytona Beach in September, some three weeks after he was trespassed by police from the shelter.

“I did not think additional interviews would be a good use of our resources, since Senator Wright did not want to pursue the matter,” wrote Amie Young, chief of investigations for the office. “And I felt that a report would be detrimental all around (use of our resources, how it may look to the public, and that this was not ever converted to a case).”

Wright, who did not agree to respond to questions about the matter, shared a prepared statement, including a timeline and “questions for consideration,” with The News-Journal. It explains his rationale for dropping the matter in 2021 was due to his “opposition to turn over the sources and letters for victims” because he “promised they would be protected.”

Pye, contacted Thursday, said she would let the investigative notes largely speak for themselves but in an email denied she never knew Carr while attending community college in the early 1990s. Pye said she first met Carr when she first went to work at a domestic violence center in Lake City in 1997.

“Didn’t know her outside of being a work acquaintance,” Pye said.

Wright’s document said the “women’s shelter is in desperate need of repair” and an improved reputation.

“Running articles as have been run and as anticipated will be run does nothing to me and only damages the paper and the women’s shelter,” the senator wrote.

“Why not allow us to get this shelter back to full capacity and earn the public’s trust?” he continued. “Perhaps there will be a better story in a few months with the true outcome of the issues that caused the 50-bed shelter to only have room for less than half that number!”

Idea for strip club fundraiser nixed

The Beacon Center is the only state-certified shelter for women and children who have been victims of domestic violence in Volusia County. Its overarching organization, the Domestic Abuse Council of Volusia County Inc., has long operated on a shoestring budget to provide a safe haven for up to 50 women and their families.

Wright is a New Smyrna Beach Republican who first took office in 2018. Pye, a veteran administrator of domestic abuse shelters came to the Beacon Center in 2016.

Pye has said Wright played a role in her decision to resign on Aug. 31.

Angie Pye

Angie Pye

He had met with two board members, including Chair Carmen Ruiz, earlier in the summer and a rift developed between Ruiz and Pye that never was repaired.

According to the DCF notes, two investigators went to Daytona Beach and on March 11, 2021, interviewed Pye and six other staff members, in addition to one resident.

Pye said before she started in October 2016, the Beacon Center had been without a CEO for eight or nine months, during which time Wright − then a board member − “asserted himself,” frequently visiting the shelter, overseeing landscaping on the grounds and bragging about his ability to raise funds.

When she started as CEO, Pye discouraged Wright from visiting the shelter “and he did not like that he was no longer in control.”

Pye told investigators Wright also offered to hold a fundraiser for the shelter at a strip club, an offer she refused, telling him it was “inappropriate given the population Beacon Center serves.” A second staff member, Jessica Moore, corroborated Pye’s assertion about the strip club fundraiser.

Moore also told investigators that Wright was angry about staff members choosing to not attend a Christmas party at his home.

“Wright came to the shelter and screamed in Ms. Moore’s face about the staff’s lack of respect for not attending his party,” the report states.

Pye told DCF officials that she had forbidden them from attending the party, calling it “bad optics.” Pye said she had planned to attend but could not make it.

Once Wright’s term expired on the board, he began disparaging Pye to the social services community. Pye told investigators Wright had described the Beacon Center as “a trap house filled with prostitutes” at a child welfare summit, shocking some of Pye’s friends who told her about the allegations.

Pye also told investigators how Wright, at a Senate committee hearing earlier that year, complained about a conflict of interest involving her and her husband, who worked at Lutheran Services Florida. Wright said Lutheran Services provided funding to the Beacon Center, an allegation Pye said wasn’t true.

DCF investigators review Beacon Center’s operations

When Wright made his initial complaint in 2021, a DCF administrator told the inspector general’s office that one survivor had complained that “children are possibly being trafficked” before returning to the center, while staff consume alcohol with survivors.

Another DCF staff member said she had interviewed an employee and two survivors who talked of “rumors in the community” about the Beacon Center. The administrator, Christy Gillis, was becoming concerned, as she was hearing about how children at the shelter were being “abused and left alone,” that a client had overdosed, that men had been snuck into the shelter and that there was not enough food.

The investigators raised some of these matters with the Beacon Center staff they interviewed.

The employees reported that basics, such as toiletries, bedding, laundry facilities and detergent, were provided to residents, while milk, bread, eggs, butter, cheese and meat were also available in the kitchen.

They told investigators that the shelter maintains a zero-tolerance drug, alcohol and weapons policy, but residents are free to come and go and their belongings are not searched. Residents who appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol are allowed to “sleep it off,” with staff following up the next day to discuss sobriety and strongly encouraging drug and alcohol treatment.

State Sen. Tom Wright places his hand on a worker outside the Beacon Center, Volusia County's only domestic violence shelter, in a video provided to The News-Journal. Wright has been in the middle of a squall that's led to the resignations of CEO Angie Pye, one of her managers and several board members.

State Sen. Tom Wright places his hand on a worker outside the Beacon Center, Volusia County’s only domestic violence shelter, in a video provided to The News-Journal. Wright has been in the middle of a squall that’s led to the resignations of CEO Angie Pye, one of her managers and several board members.

The employees told investigators staff members do not drink or use drugs with residents, but that a staff member had recently been fired because she allowed residents to smoke marijuana on the grounds.

The employees all denied residents and children at the shelter were engaging in prostitution. They all said if child abuse was suspected, they were mandatory reporters and would call the Florida Abuse Hotline.

The shelter resident that DCF inspector general investigators interviewed said much of the same as the employees: that residents and staff members do not drink or use drugs on the grounds, and that basic necessities and transportation are provided.

Flirtation allegation not mentioned

In September, The News-Journal reported that a former Beacon Center survivor, Shelby Dunlap, while in a van used to evacuate residents from an approaching hurricane, recalled Wright acting flirtatiously, talking about prostitutes in Cuba, topless women on a boat, and offering to fly her to Las Vegas.

Wright had assisted with organizing the evacuation, getting the vans and traveling with the survivors.

Pye, who had said she had only learned of Dunlap’s allegations last fall, did not mention them to the DCF investigators in 2021, but she did discuss the hurricane evacuation as did Wright, in his initial conversation with the then-DCF secretary Chad Poppell.

Wright said he drove a bus and during the trip, survivors told him they hadn’t eaten in two days, so he purchased a meal at McDonald’s for them.

Pye said Wright never mentioned the food situation to her, or “expressed any concerns about the well-being of the shelter residents after he had evacuated them.” Pye told the DCF investigators that two staff members had been on the bus with Wright and that he “made inappropriate jokes which made them uncomfortable.”

No word on ‘very serious allegations’

Wright, who told the United Patriots of Volusia County that “much more on this situation exists and details, with evidence, will be revealed over the coming weeks,” according to a Facebook post last September, apparently persisted in his complaints about the Beacon Center under Pye’s direction.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, after being asked about Wright’s trespass from the Beacon Center and his behavior on the evacuation bus, responded with a statement that Wright had made “very serious allegations regarding the living conditions and financial management of the Beacon Center.”

She called the reports “troubling,” and that she is “pleased that they are being reviewed.”

Passidomo, through her press secretary, has not responded to follow-up questions about what review was underway, who was conducting it, and what progress, if any, has been made.

Why was Wright at the shelter on Sept. 2?

In the timeline he provided to The News-Journal, Wright explained why he was at the domestic violence shelter on Sept. 2 − the day he was given the trespass warning after the confrontation − for the DCF inspection.

“August 31, 2023: Angie Pye suddenly walks off the job and advises all employees to seek other sources of income as the Beacon Center is insolvent,” Wright wrote.

He said his phone lit up with calls that the shelter’s staff had walked off.

“I immediately contacted (Daytona Beach) police and they immediately provided two officers to provide protection until DCF could arrive,” he wrote.

Then he contacted DCF who sent “three ladies” to the shelter on “the next day.” He did not specify whether that was Sept. 1 or Sept. 2.

Either way, on Sept. 2, Wright said he went to the Beacon Center and took a tour with the board president and another board member to see the building’s conditions.

“I have not been back since,” Wright wrote.

Miguel Nevarez, press secretary for the DCF, responded to a question posed in September about why Wright had been at the Beacon Center the day he was trespassed.

“Our department has been onsite at the center to work alongside the board in ensuring all contractual obligations are met. The senator was present that day to provide support as the center works to stabilize their financial situation and increase bed capacity to serve more survivors,” Nevarez said. “We will continue to work with center staff, the board, and community stakeholders to ensure continued services are in place and available.”

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: DCF finds little substance to senator’s human trafficking allegations

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