September 20, 2014

State fires prison guard with history of unchecked abuse complaints on eve of Herald report


Rollin Suttle Austin was arrested for theft, convicted of drunk driving and accused of dozens of brutal, unprovoked beatings. 

Victims have alleged that the beefy, bald, 43-year-old amused himself by slamming heads into concrete and grabbing people by their throats and often bragged about getting away with killing a man. 

Austin has a mug shot on file, a criminal history with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and was in the Florida prison system for 23 years. 

But Austin wasn’t behind bars and his prison uniform wasn’t inmate blue, it was brown. That’s because, until Friday, Austin was a state corrections officer who carried a badge and a gun.

On Friday, Austin and 31 other corrections officers were abruptly fired by Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews in connection with the deaths of inmates in prisons across the state.

The move, as well as other firings announced a week earlier, came as the department knew that the Miami Herald was about to publish a story about Austin’s long, unchecked history of abuse complaints, and how he and other corrections officers have been able for years to take part in allegedly unprovoked attacks and gassings of inmates.

The firings are part of a crackdown by Crews in the wake of a series of Herald stories about corruption in the Florida prison system. More here. 


NYT exposes the source in the Gary Hart affair

In a bit of trivia that will fascinate historians of presidential politics, journalism and tawdry sex scandals, the New York Times has named a South Florida woman it says was the source of a Miami Herald story 27 years ago that wrecked the candidacy of Democrat Gary Hart.

Hart, a U.S. senator from Colorado, was the frontrunner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when the Herald published a story detailing his dalliance with a sleek Miami model and bit actress named Donna Rice.

The story sent Hart’s campaign into a tailspin that ended with his withdrawal a week later. It also began a new era of political journalism in which politicians’ private lives, which had been mostly exempt from media scrutiny, were now considered measurements of “character” and thus fair game for reporters.

The Herald’s report was triggered by an anonymous source who had seen the married Hart partying with Rice aboard a yacht (named, with unspeakable irony, the Monkey Business) anchored at Turnberry Isle. The Herald has never identified her. More from Glenn Garvin here. 



As inmate death count mounts, Florida prison boss fires 32 guards on Friday

255 Michael Crews071114 Department of CorrectionsThirty-two guards with the Florida Department of Corrections were fired Friday afternoon in what union officials were calling a “Friday night massacre.” All were accused of criminal wrongdoing or misconduct in connection with the deaths of inmates at four state prisons.

One of them is Rollin Suttle Austin, the subject of a Miami Herald investigative report coming Sunday. The Herald has published a string of articles alleging brutality and corruption in the prison system.

Eighteen of those fired by Secretary Michael Crews were involved in the death of Matthew Walker at Charlotte Correctional Institution on April 11. Walker, 55, was killed in what the DOC is calling an “inappropriate use of force.”

Five other fired corrections officers from Union Correctional had been accused of using excessive force in the death of inmate Rudolf Rowe on Aug. 16, 2012. Story here. 

Photo: Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews, shown in this July 10, 2014, file photo, fired more than 30 guards Friday, Sept. 19, 2014, in connection with inmate deaths.AL DIAZ/MIAMI HERALD STAFF

With black voters crucial to Charlie Crist, will they turn out?

Crist black vote

Mary Wilkerson is aware there's a governor's race on the November ballot, but "it's not on my radar,'' says the 60-year-old from Jacksonville.

Wilkerson, a black Democrat and reliable supporter of Barack Obama, is the kind of voter who is pivotal to the candidacy of Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor turned Democrat.

His campaign has put a premium on building a field operation aimed at turning out the vote in key communities and has crafted a careful message of inclusion that aims to avoid the mistakes that imperiled Alex Sink, the Democrat who lost to Gov. Rick Scott four years ago by less than 2 percent of the vote.

Blacks made up 11 percent of the vote in 2010, "but if that vote share had been over 12 percent, Rick Scott would not be governor,'' said Omar Khan, Crist's campaign manager.

While the two remain virtually tied in recent polls, black voters overwhelmingly support Crist over Scott this election cycle. Black voters showed up in larger numbers in 2008 and 2012 than white voters, but will they bring record numbers to the polls if Obama is not at the top of the ticket?

That's a question black leaders across the state have been asking since the August primary, when less than 5 percent of the 1.6 million black voters in Florida cast ballots, and it has influenced their answer.

"We're not doing it for Charlie, we're doing it for us,'' said former North Miami City Councilman Jacques Despinosse. He is using his show on Haitian radio to promote Crist and running mate Annette Taddeo because, he said, he "doesn't trust Scott." READ STORY HERE.

Photo: Charlie Crist speaks with parishioners at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday in St. Petersburg. Photo by Brian Blanco

Six weeks until Election Day, but first wave of Florida ballots already in the mail


 TALLAHASSEE — More than six weeks before Election Day, some voters are already casting ballots and helping elect Florida’s next governor.

County elections supervisors have until Saturday to mail hundreds of thousands of ballots to Floridians living overseas, many of whom are active-duty military personnel.

Those far-flung voters in Europe, Asia and elsewhere can’t see the constant barrage of TV ads in the race between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist. But they represent the first wave of voters in a general election in which more than half of all participating voters likely will have voted by the time polls open Nov. 4.

Absentee or mail ballots can start going out Sept. 30, a full 10 days before the first of three live TV debates between Scott and Crist.

More here

September 19, 2014

Court hears Bainter's challenge to releasing his emails, he warns of repercussions

BainterOne of Florida's top Republican political consultants stopped short of accusing the state Supreme Court of lacking "integrity" Friday if it rules that he must disclose emails in a case brought under the state’s new anti-gerrymanding laws.

Pat Bainter, whose firm Data Targeting Inc. has battled for two years to keep the documents private in a lengthy legal battle over the state’s redistricting maps, argued that the release of his emails violates his First Amendment right to anonymous political speech.

But after the justices – who have had access to the documents -- raised doubts about Bainter’s argument that they were trade secrets, he issued a blistering statement.

"Today’s Supreme Court hearing is the culmination of a legal assault and press sensationalism as to whether or not I, a private citizen, have the right to petition my government without fear of a political inquisition into my private matters," he wrote after the oral arguments. "After today's hearing, it is clear to me that, as interpreted by the Florida Supreme Court, Amendments 5 & 6 are unconstitutional because they criminalize political speech based upon its content."

Photo: Pat Bainter, left, consults with his attorneys before the courtroom was closed for his testimony about his undisclosed emails.

Continue reading "Court hears Bainter's challenge to releasing his emails, he warns of repercussions" »

GOP's Bainter says the Supreme Court's 'integrity' is at stake in his case before them

With his First Amendment challenge pending before the Florida Supreme Court, GOP political consultant Pat Bainter issued a rare statement calling out the court after oral arguments today in which he urged the court to keep secret his emails related to redistricting.

Bainter is now suggesting that the "institutional integrity of the court is at stake" in how they rule.

Here's the statement: 

Continue reading "GOP's Bainter says the Supreme Court's 'integrity' is at stake in his case before them" »

Charlie Crist releases "4,000 lies" ad against Rick Scott over Ponzi-scheme spot


In response to Gov. Rick Scott's second ad about Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein, Democrat Charlie Crist is releasing his second response commercial, called "4,000 lies" -- a references to the estimated number of times the ad called "swindle" ran.

At the heart of Crist response: the misleading nature of "swindle," which The Miami Herald exposed this week. Scott, too, has walked back part of the ad's core allegation that suggests Crist was complicit in Rothstein's crime.

Crist's ad is an improvement on his prior response spot in which he said Scott has "teamed up" with Rothstein. PolitiFact rated that Crist claim False (and it found that Scott's first ad's claim that Rothstein claimed Crist sold judges was half true). It's likely to rate this Crist commercial either true or mostly true because the ad pivots to video of Scott ducking questions in a civil deposition concerning his former hospital company, Columbia/HCA, which was socked with a record $1.7 billion Medicare fraud fine.

While it's true that Scott once invoked his right against self-incrimination 75 times in a deposition, it wasn't in this deposition featured in the spot. 

But like Scott, the Crist campaign has it's script. And it's sticking to it.

"Fraud then. Fraud now," the Crist ad says in closing. "He's just too shady for the Sunshine State." 

In a written statement, the Scott campaign said "Rothstein and Crist both swindled the people of Florida. One has apologized, the other has not." 

Broward PBA's complaint vs. Gov. Scott dismissed

The Florida Elections Commission has thrown out a highly-publicized complaint that was filed against Gov. Rick Scott in July, calling it "hearsay."

The complaint accused Scott of illegally coercing uniformed law enforcement officers from the Hillsborough County sheriff's office and other agencies to attend a campaign event in Tampa. Widely reported by Florida TV stations, the incident was a distraction for Scott's campaign for at least a week and it attracted national news coverage.

A colonel in the Hillsborough sheriff's office, Jim Previtera, said at the time that he and other officers believed they were going to an official state function, not a political event promoting Scott's re-election. The elections panel dismissed the complaint without conducting an investigation.

Amy McKeever Toman, executive director of the elections commission, dismissed the complaint in an Aug. 21 letter to Jeff Marano, president of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, who had filed it. The Broward PBA chapter and its statewide association both support Scott's Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist.

"You do not, however, provide any personal information or information other than hearsay to support youre allegation that respondent (Scott) either coerced state employees to participate in political events or used the services of state employees during work hours," Toman told Marano. "As such, I find your complaint to be legally insufficient."

"I'm very disappointed that they're not going to investigate it," Marano said. "They should send investigators down there to determine whether it happened or not. I made the allegation. They need to conduct the investigation."

Marano's complaint is one of more than a dozen election law or ethics complaints filed against the Scott and Crist campaigns by their opponents.

"It was a baseless complaint from a substanceless candidate," said Greg Blair, a spokesman for Scott's campaign.

In 'dirty deal' linked to David Rivera, judge reduces convict's prison sentence


Justin Lamar Sternad wanted to go to Washington.

Instead, the former congressional candidate took the bus to Miami’s downtown federal courthouse on Friday to get his prison sentence reduced in a campaign-finance scheme tied to former U.S. Rep. David Rivera.

Still dressed in his working clothes after pulling an all-nighter graveyard shift at a local hotel, Sternad said he was thankful that a judge cut his prison sentence from seven months to 30 days with three month’s house arrest. He earned the reduction because of his remorse and substantial cooperation that helped prosecutors nab Rivera’s confidante, Ana Alliegro.

Rivera is the feds next target for indictment.

"I hope it's sooner than later," Sternad, a 37-year-old father of five, told a Miami Herald reporter when he was asked if he’d like to see the former congressman charged.

"I'm going to cooperate fully with the Department of Justice," Sternad said. Alliegro is also cooperating.

Rivera has denied wrongdoing ever since The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald began exposing the crime in the 2012 Democratic primary campaign for Congressional District 26.

Sternad, a no-name with no money, had filed to run for the office but quickly realized he needed cash. That’s when Alliegro, allegedly directed by Rivera, decided to approach him and offer him money – at least $81,000.

Sternad used the money to pay for various expenses, mailers and robo-calls to campaign against Rivera’s rival, Joe Garcia. Garcia went on to beat Sternad and others in the primary and then bested the Republican Rivera in the general election.

Rivera ran for reelection this year, but was soundly defeated in a GOP primary as the investigation grew closer to him.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill credited Sternad for his help and moved the court to reduce his sentence. But, Mulvihill said, he still needed some jail time.

“It’s not as if he’s an innocent dupe,” said Mulvihill, who was compelled last week and in August by a judge to name Rivera as the mastermind of the conspiracy. 

Sternad’s lawyer, Enrique “Rick” Yabor, argued that his client should just receive house arrest. But he acknowledged Sternad did wrong, but at a certain point, he was in over his head.

“He admits his reaction was to stick his head in the sand,” Yabor said about Sternad’s mindset when it was clear he was breaking campaign-finance laws.

U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga was clearly sympathetic to Sternad. But she agreed with the prosecutor – that Sternad needed to do some jail time for the “dirty deal.”

Altonaga said he should receive a lighter sentence than Alliegro, who made the crime possible and had twice fled the United States to Nicaragua rather than cooperate with the feds. Alliegro last week was sentenced to six month's time served in jail and six more months of house arrest.

At Yabor’s request, she decided to delay the imposition of the sentence until Nov. 3.

That’s the day before Election Day, when Sternad had hoped two years ago that he’d be running for reelection and not slouching toward the federal Bureau of Prisons to be incarcerated.

Tracker video shows Carlos Curbelo calling Medicare, Social Security a 'Ponzi scheme'


Taking a page from Rick Perry, Miami congressional candidate Carlos Curbelo called Medicare and Social Security "a Ponzi scheme" that needs extensive reforms in order to remain sustainable.

Curbelo, who was in D.C. fundraising, made the comment in a talk to George Washington University College Republicans on Thursday. A Democratic "tracker" filmed Curbelo's university remarks -- unbeknown to him, Curbelo said Friday.

"I speak about both of these programs as one because they both suffer from the same long-term insolvency, meaning that they won't be around for us, meaning that we're paying into a system that, you know, is a Ponzi scheme," he told the college students. "Rick Perry said that. That's one of the few things I think Rick Perry contributed when he ran for president last time -- and I worked for him, so I can say that."

Perry, the Texas governor, characterized Social Security as a Ponzi scheme in his 2010 book leading up to his 2012 presidential run, and then repeated it in interviews and debates. He wasn't the first one to use the term. Several times, PolitiFact has rated the claim False.

On Friday, Curbelo maintained his point that Medicare and Social Security need changing. His website lists entitlement reform as a priority, though without going into much detail.

"Young people are paying into a system that won't be there for them," Curbelo said. "Any reasonable person understands that people are living longer."

The Miami-Dade school board member is challenging Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia in Florida's 26th congressional district.

Curbelo told the GWU College Republicans that he favors indexing Medicare and Social Security to life expectancy, so people receive it later in life; means-testing or a sliding scale so seniors with less wealth would receive more benefits; and linking annual benefit adjustments to "chained CPI," an inflation measure that would trim some entitlement costs. Democratic President Barack Obama supported that idea before backing away from it earlier this year.

Garcia has already attacked Curbelo on Medicare, claiming the Republican favors "ending the Medicare guarantee" -- which PolitiFact has also rated False.

While Democrats will likely make much hay of Curbelo's Medicare and Social Security comments to older voters, they likely won't point to other parts of the tracker video -- such as when the Republican endorses a path the legalization for immigrants who are in the country illegally, much as Garcia does.

Here are the relevant clips -- though not the full video of Curbelo's remarks -- as recorded by the Democratic tracker. The full video is available after the job.



Continue reading "Tracker video shows Carlos Curbelo calling Medicare, Social Security a 'Ponzi scheme'" »

John Thrasher's FSU foes point to political links with Koch brothers


One of the latest lines of attack against state Sen. John Thrasher becoming Florida State University's next president: Tying him to the billionaire libertarian Koch brothers.

But Thrasher's ties to the political activists — whose name at FSU is especially radioactive since a controversial gift several years ago — are not as clear as some are suggesting.

Thrasher has accepted campaign donations from the Kochs and attended events with other conservatives that were sponsored in part by Koch dollars. But Thrasher's conservative politics have conflicted with Charles and David Koch's libertarianism.

"I have been saying I've never met them, I've never talked to them and I wouldn't recognize them if they walked into the room," Thrasher told the Times/Herald Thursday.

Thrasher's campaign received a $1,000 check in February from Koch Industries, the Kansas-based company that made the brothers billionaires. He received another $1,000 from the company in 2012.

Thrasher raised nearly $847,000 in total during those two campaign cycles.

Read more here.

Scott raises money in Texas, dines with Rick Perry

Gov. Rick Scott was in Texas Thursday, meeting with Gov. Rick Perry and raising campaign money in Dallas. Scott attended law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and later worked there as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer. Perry appeared on Fox Business Network's Opening Bell Friday where he talked up Scott's record. The Dallas Morning News has a story on Scott's visit.

Putnam goes shopping to pitch weekend tax holiday

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam went shopping Friday to promote the state's latest tax holiday for consumers: a first-of-its-kind three-day break from sales tax for purchases of energy-efficient and water-efficient appliances.

Through Sunday, retailers will waive state and local sales taxes on products that carry an Energy Star or WaterSense logo up to the first $1,500 of the purchase price. Putnam picked up a new shower head and some light bulbs at a Lowe's store in Tallahassee.

"It will continue to save you money," Putnam said. "By definition, Energy Star rated products save 10 percent on electricity and WaterSense products save 20 percent. It's an excuse to check some things off that honey-do list that somebody's been after you to do."

The Legislature set Sept. 17-19 for the dates of the holiday and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law. Putnam's state web site lists the items that are tax free and more information about the energy tax holiday can be found on the Florida Retail Federation's web site.

First convict in David Rivera campaign-finance case asks for lighter sentence


Federal prosecutors and the lawyer for the first conspirator convicted in a campaign-finance scheme linked to ex-congressman David Rivera will ask a judge Friday to reduce the man's sentence.

Justin Lamar Sternad was sentenced last year to seven months in prison for taking more than $81,000 in illegal campaign contributions, which Rivera allegedly steered to him in a failed 2012 congressional bid.

Sternad hasn’t yet served his sentence. And his lawyer, Enrique “Rick” Yabor, says the former hotel-desk worker and father of five should get more credit for helping investigators, who used his information to nab a friend of Rivera’s in the conspiracy.

Continue reading "First convict in David Rivera campaign-finance case asks for lighter sentence" »

September 18, 2014

NextGen builds an ark and says Gov. Rick Scott is picking the passengers

 And now for the latest gimmick: NextGen Climate has built an ark, and the Democrat-leaning enviro group is trucking it around Florida using a pretty low-efficiency vehicle to bring home the point that Gov. Rick Scott won't talk about, yes, climate change. 

The ark made its first stop in Tallahassee on Thursday and is headed to Tampa on Friday. The high-profile visual comes a day after 42 scientists from universities around the state asked the governor and other state leaders to call a Climate & Solutions Summit to bring the issue front and center. Scott met with five scientists last month but wouldn't say whether he has changed his mind from denying that human-induced pollution has caused climate change. He did say he likes solutions. 

In Tallahassee on Thursday, Dr. Ron Saff, an alergy and asthma specialist and a member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, warned that the time for talk has already passed as Florida is feeling the effects of human-induced global warming with increased cases of mosquito-borne illnesses such as enchephalitis and dengue fever. 

"The medical implications of global climate change are catastropic,'' he said. "Parts of Miami are regularly flooding and climate change isn't a thing we have to worry about in the future. It's already here."

Jillian Mushman, a junior at Florida State University, told the small crowd at the Tallahassee park that "two by two, Rick Scott’s special interest campaign contributors'' -- such as sugar lobbyists, oil drillers, and the Koch brothers who recently spent $25,000 -- will get a "ticket on Scott’s Ark."

"Florida families may not have the campaign cash to get a ticket on the ark but what we do have is the choice in November,'' she said. 

South Florida advocate pushes Congress for action in assisting poor, ailing Holocaust survivors


Citing “tragic and unacceptable” poverty numbers among Holocaust survivors in the U.S., a leading advocate from South Florida told a congressional panel Thursday that Congress should do more to help such survivors get the care and resources they need.

Jack Rubin

While emphasizing that survivors are not seeking additional funds from American taxpayers, Jack Rubin said Holocaust survivors were looking for Congress to help secure the funds from the German government and businesses that profited from the Holocaust.

“Unfortunately, the existing system has fallen tragically short of what survivors need and deserve,” Jack Rubin said in his prepared testimony. “The current funding and care delivery system is difficult for survivors to access, and also severely underfunded.”

Rubin is from Boynton Beach, Fla. He was born in the former Czechoslovakia and survived several Nazi concentration camps and death camps.

He spoke before a joint subcommittee hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, which was exploring the difficulties in recovering assets for Holocaust survivors.

Driving Rubin’s effort is the fact that about 55,000 Holocaust survivors in the U.S. today live near or below the official federal poverty level, and that they need help with basic medical and dental care, as well as food, rent, utilities and transportation, he said.

He testified about the effort in January as well, before a Senate committee.

On example he cited in his Thursday testimony concerned dental care – or the lack of it.

“Most survivors have extensive dental needs because during the Holocaust, we had no opportunity to care for our teeth, suffered extreme malnutrition, as well as beatings and other horrible deprivations,” he testified. “Unfortunately, dental services are paid for from the same emergency funds that are limited to $2,500 per year. And the dental work that many survivors need costs thousands and thousands of dollars… This is a very, very big problem. The lack of proper dental care harms survivors’ dignity, and also puts them at risk for bad nutrition and cardiac problems.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Miami Republican who chairs one of the subcommittees, said “more can and must be done.”

“With the average age of Holocaust survivors estimated at 82, time is truly running out for us to bring them some form of justice, some kind of closure so that they can live out the rest of their days in dignity and comfort,” she said in her prepared statement.

Rubin’s testimony, as well as that of other witnesses, is available at the committee Web site.

In battle over Politico article, DNC offers defense of Wasserman Schultz


U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Weston who doubles as the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, was blasted in a lengthy article in Politico that documented her rocky relationship with the Obama White House and indicated her tenure might be limited.

As Miami Herald colleague Marc Caputo has already recounted, such assessments -- driven in large part by unnamed sources – have become something of a seasonal staple.

The take by Politico, a Washington-based news organization: The congresswoman is “in a behind-the-scenes struggle with the White House, congressional Democrats and Washington insiders who have lost confidence in her as both a unifying leader and reliable party spokesperson at a time when they need her most.”

Her spokesman said she was traveling and unavailable for comment (although the Politico article quoted her at length).

As for the Democratic National Committee, press secretary Michael Czin offered the committee’s defense, in a statement:

“The chair has worked tirelessly for President Obama and Democrats up and down the ballot in her three and a half years at the helm of the DNC. That’s why President Obama reappointed her following his own reelection.

“The chair’s record and accomplishments at the DNC speaks for themselves. Just this cycle she has traveled to 99 cities and 37 states to participate in hundreds of events in support of Democrats up and down the ticket. This cycle the DNC has raised more than $120 million, retired more than $20 million in debt that helped us win in 2012, built a groundbreaking program to expand access to the ballot box while providing campaigns of all size the same data and technology platforms that the Obama campaign pioneered. That’s a record anyone would be proud of.”

Naked Politics changes commenting requirements

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The Miami Herald wants to encourage lively discussion on the blog, but we also believe that respect and civility must be part of a good debate.  

This change brings commenting on blogs in line with our policy on the rest of our website. We made that change in February 2013.

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Crist supporters want Scott to take down controversial ad


Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano and former Department of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil on Thursday called on Republican Gov. Rick Scott to take down a controversial attack ad.

The ad, which has run about 4,000 times in Florida, features an unidentified man saying he was “swindled" by both Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein and Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist.

The Miami Herald later idenfitied the man as Fort Lauderdale investor Dean Kretschmar — and found that he "never made that allegation [about Crist] in his successful lawsuit to recover millions of dollars in Rothstein-related losses."

Fasano, a longtime Republican and former state senator, called the ad "nothing but a lie."

Continue reading "Crist supporters want Scott to take down controversial ad" »