Florida leaders silent after senator confronts staffer at women’s shelter

Alex Harsha
Alex HarshaSep 17, 2023, 7:51 PM
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TALLAHASSEE — Senate leaders have been silent about an angry confrontation between Republican Sen. Tom Wright and a female staffer at a Daytona Beach shelter for battered and abused women and their children over the Labor Day weekend.

According to police reports, Wright yelled, lunged at, and placed his hand on the shoulder of a staff member who stopped Wright from getting on a bus full of the shelter’s residents out of concern for protecting their identities.

Video footage provided by the Daytona Beach Police Department shows Wright’s tense encounter with a much shorter female staffer, who ran up to him to get him off the bus. Another employee stepped between them, and Wright, 71, turned to walk away, only to confront the worker a couple of more times before leaving.

“For a political leader to come there and aggress on an employee in front of a busload of women and children who are making the courageous decision to protect themselves from violence is one of the most disgusting behaviors I have ever seen,” said Angie Pye, the former CEO of the Beacon Center, where the incident occurred.

Both Republican and Democratic Senate leaders have not spoken publicly about the incident, which is still under investigation, according to police records. They did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Legislative leaders have the authority to appoint a special master to investigate further or wait until someone files a complaint to initiate an investigation. Wright could be admonished, censured or even removed from office if the investigation concludes he did something illegal.

According to the police report, Wright of New Smyrna Beach said he wanted a tour of the premises and he brought along agents from the Department of Children and Families. After they interviewed him, police issued him a trespass warning and told him to stay away from the center until further notice.

Wright did not return a request seeking comment.

It isn’t the first time that Wright has gotten aggressive with staff, Pye said. It’s just the latest in a series of confrontations over the past few years, including him making baseless accusations, she added.

The Beacon Center is the state-designated, community-based center for victims of domestic abuse in Volusia County, which has one of the highest rates in a state that has a domestic violence crisis. Its location is undisclosed and clients’ identities are protected.

Wright’s behavior is especially concerning given that he was once a member of the center’s board of directors, and he should know the state and federal rules prohibiting interaction with staff and residents, Pye said.

He also is a member of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, which hears and votes on legislation dealing with child welfare and domestic abuse issues.

Wright filed a complaint with the Department of Children and Families two years ago claiming that the center was involved in drugs, prostitution and human trafficking that all proved to be unfounded, Pye said. He also interfered with the organization’s private fundraising efforts, Pye said.

It got to the point that six of the center’s board members resigned over the summer, followed by Pye and her program manager two weeks ago, just before Wright’s latest visit.

“Anybody in their right mind would leave us alone,” said Cynthia Perez, a domestic violence survivor who has used the center’s services. “These women are already stressed out, and the last thing they need is this guy coming over and stressing out the staff, who are holding the center together.

Pye, a 25-year veteran of what she calls “hardcore advocacy” for battered women, came on board the Beacon Center as CEO in 2016, when it was still called the Domestic Abuse Council. Wright was a volunteer at the time, which has the capacity to house up to 80 women and their children, she said.

“He had free rein” of the place, Pye said.

She said she told him that his presence could result in the confidentiality of the women at the shelter being endangered, which would violate the federal Violence Against Women Act.

Pye also said she witnessed him flirting with a survivor. “To many people, it would have not raised a flag, but given what I do for a living, I was not comfortable with it,” she said.

She said she suggested he join the board of directors so he would no longer have contact with the survivors. Wright agreed but only showed up for one board meeting in October 2016, Pye said.

Two months later, he invited her to a Christmas party at his home. She said she couldn’t attend, telling him that staff couldn’t interact with board members.

He showed up at the shelter the next day to announce that he had made arrangements to feed the residents and have Santa Claus visit the children. When he was told he couldn’t do that, he berated a staffer and threatened to withdraw the money he’d donated and give it to some other organization, Pye said.

Pye said she and the board made several attempts to meet with Wright to talk things over, but he refused. At one point, he screamed at another staff person, at Pye and at the board chair.

“I knew it was not appropriate to have him around there, and I was happy he disappeared,” Pye said.

By 2018, Wright was getting into state politics. A retired businessman from Minnesota worth $35 million who had no prior political experience, Wright was chosen by a GOP committee to run for the Senate seat that became vacant after Dorothy Hukill died in office. He won the seat.

At Senate committee hearings in 2021 and 2022, Wright made several remarks hinting at an improper financial arrangement between Pye and her husband, Dusty Pye, who was chief integration officer of Lutheran Services Florida Health Systems.

Also in 2021, Wright filed a complaint with DCF about the Beacon Center. From the nature of the questions posed to the 15 staff people interviewed, it was clear to Pye that he had accused the center of being a center for drugs, prostitution and human trafficking.

The last straw came for Pye in May. She was trying to line up a sponsor for the center’s signature fundraising event and approached the Fun Coast Foundation of New Smyrna Beach.

“They had agreed to take us on as a charity and took a tour of the facility to see all the funding needs. Lots of the buildings needed restoring.”

The day after the tour, the board’s chair, Carmen Ruiz, called Pye and said Fun Coast wouldn’t support them because of something Wright told them. Ruiz didn’t tell Pye what Wright said.

Private funding is critical for the shelter, which gets up to $900,000 a year from the state but needs to come up with 25% in local matching funds, she said.

Pye decided that things had escalated to a point where she “needed to step aside if the center was to survive.”

Her last day was Aug. 31.

Keeping the Beacon Center running is critical, Pye said, especially in Volusia County,

“If any good comes from this, it will draw the community’s attention,” Pye said. “Domestic abuse is a statewide concern, but it’s particularly bad in Volusia County.”


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    Alex Harsha
    Alex Harsha

    Alex Harsha is a full-time writer.Before becoming a full-time writer, Alex was a public school teacher. He teaches writing workshops to children and adults. Lives in Connecticut & Works on next novel.

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