January 28, 2015

Scott recommends prison budget without money for investigations into inmate deaths

Rick Scott@jknipebrown and @MaryEllenKlas

After years of slashing funding for Florida’s state prison system, Gov. Rick Scott released a proposed budget Wednesday that would inject $51.2 million in new spending into the troubled agency but fails to provide any new resources to investigate inmate deaths – which last year reached a record high.

The governor, who has said little about allegations of corruption, inmate abuse and the high number of inmate deaths, would allocate $17.5 million to fill staff vacancies, which falls far short of the 654 that his new corrections secretary, Julie Jones, requested in her budget proposal. Scott also provided no new money to boost the salaries of corrections officers, who have not received raises in six years.

Jones and advocates for prison reform say raising salaries is key to retaining and recruiting quality corrections officers. The use of force has almost doubled among corrections officers in the past five years and critics say the staffing shortages have created dangerous conditions for both prison staff and inmates.

“We need 654 more boots on the ground,’’ said Sen. Greg Evers, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which on Monday holds its third hearing on prison reform. Evers, R-Crestview, surprised officials at Jefferson Correctional Institution and Suwannee Correctional last week when he and his staff conducted unannounced inspections and found dangerously low staffing levels, as well has facilities is dangerous disrepair.

Jones told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week that she needed additional staff at the agency because “staffing is key to lowering the temperature”  in these facilities.

“The staffing deficiencies have hampered our ability to operate at peak efficiency,’’ she said.

Continue reading "Scott recommends prison budget without money for investigations into inmate deaths" »

Bondi: Blame in Gerry Bailey's ouster is on staff, not Gov. Scott

BondiAttorney General Pam Bondi asserted Wednesday that she thinks Gov. Rick Scott's hands are clean in the forced resignation of Gerry Bailey, the former commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. 

"We all knew there were going to be changes made in the upcoming months, but did I know that Gerry Bailey was going to be told he was fired and have his things packed up, his entire life as a career law enforcement officer in a cardboard box, and be told to be out of the office before the end of the day? Absolutely not," she said. "Nor do I believe the governor knew it." 

Bondi's claims, which she said are not based on conversations with Scott, suggests that Chief of Staff Mellissa Sellers and former General Counsel Pete Antonacci were behind the decision to remove Bailey from the post.

"I think the staff knew it, someone knew it," she said. "But we can't talk about it with each other because of Sunshine Laws." 

Continue reading "Bondi: Blame in Gerry Bailey's ouster is on staff, not Gov. Scott" »

Rubio, in charge of Senate subcommittee, to hold hearing on Cuba policy


U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been sharply critical of President Barack Obama's plans to ease tensions with Cuba and open trade with the island nation, officially took over a key Senate subcommittee and said the first order of business would be a hearing on the Cuba policy.

As expected, on Wednesday Rubio was officially named chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues.

The Republican from West Miami also said the first hearing of the subcommittee would be next week, Tuesday Feb. 3, to examine Obama’s changes to Cuba policy and its impact on human rights in the island.

In a statement, Rubio said: "The subcommittee will be a platform for bringing light and solutions to rising problems in the hemisphere, such as growing inhospitality for individual freedoms, deteriorating security environments, lagging competitiveness, ineffective regional organizations, the need for political stability and economic prosperity in Haiti, and the promotion and support of democracy in places where individual freedoms are all but a dream, such as Cuba and Venezuela."

The full statement spelling out his ambitions for the subcommittee is here.

Florida legislative leaders outline joint priorities for 2015

Following a tradition established by their predecessors, Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli on Wednesday outlined their list of joint priorities for the upcoming legislative session.

Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, was quick to note that he and Gardiner, R-Orlando, are "good friends" who represent the same region.

"We're going to be working very closely on the issues that are not only important to those around the state, but to those [who] elected us," he said.

There were no real surprises on their joint agenda.

The first point: tax cuts.

"It is our belief that the dollar is better with the taxpayer than with government," said Gardiner, noting the two chambers would be fine-tuning the details in the coming weeks.

The leaders also spoke about the need to provide a "road map" for individuals with disabilities. They hope to expand the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, and oversee the creation of new collegiate programs for students with special needs.

Water is also high on their list of priorities.

"We must take a long-term and comprehensive approach to addressing the water issues that are before us," Criasfulli said. "The question is: Where do we start? That will be something we talk about moving forward."

Crisafulli said he and Gardiner would also work to address growing concerns about testing in Florida’s schools.

"I've come out very strongly asking for accountability," Crisafulli said. "We have to recognize that we produce remarkable results from that accountability, so I don't think we can completely back down. But I have a message to the parents, teachers and those in the classrooms: We hear you."

One topic that didn't make the cut: Medicaid expansion.

After the formal presentation, Gardiner said the Senate was interested in discussing the issue, particularly because Florida stands to lose an estimated $1.3 billion in funding to help hospitals treat poor and uninsured patients.

He pointed to Indiana, which recently won approval from the federal government to use a state-specific Medicaid expansion plan.

"But we are also realists and we realize that we need a partner in this," Gardiner said.

Crisafulli said the House was not planning to do anything on Medicaid expansion.

But the house speaker left the door open. "I am a never-say-never kind of guy," he said.

Marco Rubio schedules Senate hearing on U.S.-Cuba policy


Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio took the helm Wednesday of a subcommittee -- and promptly scheduled a hearing on on President Obama's new Cuba policy.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere subcommittee, Rubio called for a hearing at 10 a.m. next Tuesday to "examine President Obama's changes to Cuba policy, and its implications for human rights in the island," according to a news release.

"Being from Florida, I've seen how events in the Western Hemisphere not only impact our state but our entire nation. For too long, Congress and the Administration have failed to prioritize our relations in this hemisphere." Rubio said in the statement.

"As chairman of the subcommittee, I will promote bold measures that improve U.S. economic and security interests by addressing the region's growing calls for transparent institutions, access to quality education, private sector competitiveness, and respect for political and economic freedom for all."

Rubio, who has been taking steps toward a potential presidential campaign, is also a member of three other Foreign Relations subcommittees.

Read his full statement after the jump.

Continue reading "Marco Rubio schedules Senate hearing on U.S.-Cuba policy" »

Sunshine Law violations alleged in FDLE firing

Matthew Weidner, a St. Petersburg lawyer whose practice focuses on consumer justice, has filed a complaint with a state prosecutor, accusing Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members and their staffs of violating Florida's Sunshine Law and asking for a criminal investigation over the filing of FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

Weidner filed his complaint with Tallahassee-area state attorney Willie Meggs, who has publicly dismissed Bailey's complaints as insignificant. Meggs said that if Bailey believed any laws were broken, he should have filed a complaint. Meggs also suggested the Cabinet members conduct their own investigation.

From Weidner's letter to Meggs:

"Statements attributed to you in the press indicated that you won't even consider opening an investigation until you receive a criminal complaint from Mr. Bailey himself. But Mr. Bailey is not the real party in interest here. As you know, the requirements articulated within Florida's sunshine laws provide critical protections which inure to every citizen and resident of this state. When these laws are violated, these citizens and residents are the victims of those violations. Accordingly, the real parties in interest in these instances of potential Sunshine law violations are the citizens of the State of Florida, whom you represent as State Attorney.

"At issue is the constitutional and statutory right of every citizen of the State of Florida to have open and noticed public meetings when official acts are to be taken or at which public business of such body is to be transacted or discussed. Under the facts before us, I respectfully assert you have a duty to initiate an investigation on behalf of the people you took an oath to serve."

Weidner said that if Meggs believes he can't impartially investigate the matter because of his public statements, then he should recuse himself, which would force Scott to reassign the case to another state attorney.

Harsh new criticism leveled at Gov. Rick Scott over FDLE firing

Top state officials in both political parties leveled harsh new criticism at Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday for his decision to oust the longtime Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner absent public discussion with the three Cabinet members who also oversee the agency.

In his strongest criticism yet, Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said "we were misled" about Scott's true intentions to orchestrate Gerald Bailey's removal after a glowing three-decade FDLE career.

When asked whether he believed Scott's version of the truth or Bailey's, Putnam paused and did not give a direct answer.

"Jerry Bailey's a fine man. He served our state very well. The way he was treated at the end of his distinguished career was shabby," Putnam said.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, accused Scott of violating the Florida Constitution, which he is sworn to uphold, by not giving the Cabinet members any voice in the replacement of the FDLE commissioner.

"Hubris appears to be the organizing principle of our executive branch," Joyner said.

Developing story here.

Marco Rubio's wife sideswipes donor's Porsche at Delano fundraiser. Media-coverage car-wreck ensues


Sen. Marco Rubio’s wife sideswiped a donor’s Porcsche Panamera at the Delano hotel’s porte cochère during a big weekend fundraiser for her husband, whose truck she was driving.

The owner of the Porsche, whose identity hasn’t been made public, didn’t want to file a report against Jeanette Dousdebes-Rubio because the damage to the vehicle’s bumper was minimal, Miami Beach Police said.

“It was a minor fender-bender,” said Vivian Thayer, public information officer for the department. “It looked like she may have bumped the vehicle’s bumper. And, yes, a fender-bender isn’t a good term because the fender wasn’t bent.”

Mrs. Rubio was driving her husband’s mammoth Ford F-150 on Saturday morning when she swiped the Porsche as she tried to squeeze by it at the hotel’s narrow pickup and drop-off semicircle driveway on Collins Avenue.

Story here

Rick Scott's budget slashes $673 million in taxes, cuts 1,353 positions

Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a proposed $77 billion budget Wednesday that spends nearly most of a $1 billion surplus on tax cuts and an increase in education spending, but leaves many unmet needs by cutting 1.2 percent of the state workforce.

“It’s a strong budget because our economy is strong,” Scott told a gathering in the Capitol of state reporters and editorial writers. “The way to make it stronger is return more money to the people.”

While Republican governors in states like Michigan and Nevada are proposing tax increases, Scott proposes cutting taxes and fees by $673 million, the majority from a cut in cell phone and cable television taxes by $470 million, a 3.6 percent cut that would save “an average family” spending $100 a month on those utilities about $43 a year, or $3.58 a month.

His other cuts include exempting college textbooks from the sales tax, costing $41.4 million; an exemption of 2,189 businesses from the corporate income tax at a cost of $18.4 million; and the elimination of a tax on manufacturing machinery and equipment at a cost of $142.5 million by 2017.

That cut in the so called “communications services tax” has been enthusiastically received by lawmakers, but it takes up a giant portion of the $1 billion surplus, which could pit it against other tax decreases favored by state lawmakers, like a cut in the commercial lease tax.

“We’d love to address the commercial lease tax,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Tom Lee, R-Brandon, last week. “Whether or not we can do the communications services tax and still address the needs of the Senate and House remains to be seen.”

Scott proposes cost savings by cutting 1,353 positions from a total of 114,444 jobs, a decision sure to disappoint many of his agency heads. For instance, the Department of Corrections, which has been battling an image problem after a spate of prison deaths, requested 654 new positions. But Scott is proposing only more than 300.

Continue reading "Rick Scott's budget slashes $673 million in taxes, cuts 1,353 positions" »

Eyeing a run for county mayor, Xavier Suarez wants to cap officials' pay


Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a potential mayoral candidate in 2016, is prepping a petition drive to establish a cap on county salaries for Miami-Dade employees.

Papers filed this month would let Suarez lead the charge on the voter-approved rule, which would prevent county employees from getting paid more than what Florida's Supreme Court justices make. At the moment, that's $162,200 -- far less than the $200,000 earned by Miami-Dade's best-paid employees in 2013, according to a Dade Data report. Many of those top earners were in the county attorney's office, and Suarez seized on the report as revealing something that needed to be fixed.

"Somebody has to tell Mr. Gimenez that the folks out there aren't happy with the 1 percenters in government," Suarez said in an interview Wednesday.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," he continued. "The need to reform the county bureaucracy can be manifested in many ways. High salaries are one of them...It's symbolically important" 

The petition drive, which would give Suarez a platform for media coverage, comes as Suarez is prepping to raise the money he would need to challenge Mayor Carlos Gimenez in 2016. This month, Suarez has been writing supporters with an invitation to an Oct. 10 fundraiser. That's adate date tied to Cuba's fight for independence, so Suarez could see the day as an appropriate time for Miami's first Cuban-born mayor to formally announce his run against Gimenez (who was also born in Cuba).

In a Suarez email viewed by The Miami Herald, there's no explanation for the nine-month advanced notice on the date. The email mentions the salary plan obliquely, and also indirect criticism of Gimenez's tenure.

"[T]here is no visionary plan to improve mass transit or make our county a livable, sustainable, prospering community," Suarez wrote. "Instead, we have a proliferation of tolls that tax us for using highways built and financed decades ago."

Suarez could be prepping a run for county mayor. Or he could be positioning himself as a contender willing to forego a run if Gimenez champions some of his pet causes, which include putting I-395 underground where it traverses the Miami waterfront and reviving the Coconut Grove Playhouse. 

He is planning a press conference Wednesday afternoon to announce the petition drive. In a letter Tuesday, County Clerk Harvey Ruvin wrote Suarez, a lawyer, that he had not followed the law governing petition drives since he did not attach a separate document with the proposed ordinance and title in English, Spanish and Creole. 

Suarez's moves come as Gimenez has begun calling large donors to support his 2016 campaign, and on the heels of a favorable profile in the Miami New Times of another potential Gimenez challenger, school board member Raquel Regalado. 

Once Suarez has his petition paperwork in order, he'll have 120 days to secure signatures from at least 4 percent of Miami-Dade's 1.3 million voters -- meaning he'll need about 52,000 verified signatures. That's about 3,250 a week. If he meets the signature threshold, Suarez's proposed ordinance would go on the ballot for the county's next scheduled county-wide election.  

 [This post was updated at 12:06 p.m. to say Suarez is proposing a voter-approved ordinance, and not a charter amendment, and at 2:16 to elaborate on Ruvin's letter to Suarez.]


Gov. Rick Scott proposes $150 million for Everglades



Standing outside a Miami airboat attraction with some of the state’s top environmentalists and a caged panther named Harley, Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday proposed spending $150 million in his next budget on Everglades restoration and habitat preservation.

Scott also wants lawmakers to designate a quarter of Amendment 1 money — the measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in November for land and water conservation — for restoration work. If the Legislature agrees, the move could raise $5 billion for Everglades projects over the life of the 20-year amendment, an amount that could cover the state’s projected costs.

“We have the opportunity to continue to invest,” Scott said, pointing to a stronger economy. “And this is the right way to invest.”

Environmentalists say the measures, if endorsed by lawmakers, could guarantee the chronically stalled work gets done.

More here.

Commission on Ethics: O'Toole failed to disclose voting conflict

Marleneo'tooleThe Florida Commission on Ethics found that Rep. Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, failed to disclose a voting conflict when she voted on the 2013 budget.

As the Times/Herald reported in 2013, O’Toole didn’t disclose her dual roles as chief operating officer of a nonprofit called “Take Stock in Children” and vice chair of the House education appropriations committee that approved $6 million for the Miami nonprofit.

Take Stock in Children was awarded an additional $9.1 million from the state’s $200 million mortgage settlement. O’Toole voted on both matters. In neither case did she disclose that she was paid $50,000 a year by the nonprofit.

Here’s the announcement from the Commission on Ethics.

The Commission found probable cause to believe that H. MARLENE O’TOOLE, Florida Representative for District 33, failed to disclose a voting conflict when she voted on the 2013 General Appropriations Act that included a specific appropriation for her employer. Probable cause also was found to believe that she failed to follow disclosure requirements when she voted regarding the disbursement of a settlement fund that inured to the special private gain of her employer.


Gov. Scott wants 'removal' option for Cabinet agency heads

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a series of changes in handling of appointments and job reviews of Cabinet-level agency heads in the wake of the fiasco last month in which his office forced the ouster of a top state police executive without the advance knowledge of the three Cabinet members.

Scott's office maintains that his staff told Cabinet members' staff that he wanted "new leadership" at FDLE and that staff members "raised no objection."

Scott's proposal is a reworked version of a proposal advanced last week by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. It will be discussed at the next Cabinet meeting set for Feb. 5 at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa (the governor's office confirmed Wednesday that the meeting will be held in Tampa as scheduled).

Scott's one-page proposal would reduce the job security of those officials by creating a new "annual Cabinet leadership review" that would allow for an agency head's "removal for any reason by an appropriate vote." Under the Scott proposal, he or any Cabinet member could annually make a motion for "affirmation or removal" of Cabinet agency heads, which include the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, state insurance commissioner, banking regulator, tax collector and executive director of highway safety, among others.

The proposal states in part: "Prior to the end of each fiscal year, the performance and tenure of each executive director, director or commissioner appointed and serving under the direction and supervision of the governor and Cabinet shall be reviewed."

The proposal also would give Scott the authority to appoint an interim replacement at the head of an agency "in the event of a vacancy," which Scott did last month when he alone selected FDLE's Capitol police director, Rick Swearingen, as an interim replacement for the ousted FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

Scott also is proposing a nationwide search for qualified candidates for those offices. Earlier this month, Scott's office solicited a resume from a Louisiana state official, Ron Henderson, as a potential replacement for Kevin McCarty, who has headed the Office of Insurance Regulation since 2003.


Joyner raises concerns about possible insurance regulator

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner raised questions Wednesday about the man being considered by the governor's office to be Florida's next insurance regulator. 

"Who is this person that our governor wants to bring in from Louisiana?" said Joyner. "If somebody's supposed to be a consumer advocate, and the person who's the founder of a national insurance organization and now insurance director for the Consumer Federation of America doesn't know him, I think we got a problem." 

Gov. Rick Scott is reportedly considering Ron Henderson, Louisiana's deputy insurance commissioner for consumer affairs, to head the Florida Office of Insurance, a position held for more than 10 years by Kevin McCarty

Joyner called the replacement unnecessary. 

Continue reading "Joyner raises concerns about possible insurance regulator" »

January 27, 2015

Senate bill attempts to impose new penalties for inmate abuse and neglect

Julie JonesAs Florida’s prisons face increased scrutiny about suspicious inmate deaths, cover-ups, and questionable medical care, a state Senate committee is proposing new safeguards for prisoners.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee will take up a broad piece of legislation when it meets next Monday that the chairman says is “a first step” aimed at resetting a prison culture in rife with allegations about excessive force and negligent medical care. 

“I thought we should memorialize certain ideas that would help the Department of Corrections do a better job of being safety and protecting inmates as well as corrections officers, staff, and residents of the state,’’ said Sen. Greg Evers, a Crestview Republican and chairman of the committee.

The committee will also hear from Julie Jones, the governor's newly-appointed secretary of the department, who has vowed to "fix what needs fixing" at the troubled agency.

The Senate proposal, SB 7020, doesn't wait for Gov. Rick Scott and his administration to make changes, however. It imposes penalties on employees caught using inappropriate force against inmates,  punishes doctors and nurses working for the private companies that provide inmate medical care when their negligent medical care results in the harm of an inmate, and attempts to prevent retaliation for those who speak up.

Evers added, however, that the bill is only a “starting point” and it is likely to change “as other issues come up.”

The Senate has taken an aggressive look at Florida’s prison system after a series of reports in the Miami Herald revealed details about a series of  suspicious inmate deaths, agency cover-ups and an increase in the use of force by prison guards that led to thet agency’s deadliest year in 2014.

As part of his committee’s probe into prison allegations, Evers surprised officials at Jefferson Correctional Institution and Suwannee Correctional last Thursday when he and his staff conducted surprise inspections at the two troubled two North Florida prisons.

He has also asked Jones to appear before the committee to report on changes she has implemented and Evers has demanded that Chief Inspector General Jeff Beasley appear to also answer questions. A DOC spokesman said he will be there. 

Beasley is a named defendant in a whistleblower lawsuit alleging the cover-up of the death of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo, who was repeatedly blasted with chemicals after complaining about an ailment at Franklin County Correctional. As a result of the reports of inmate abuse, the U.S. Department of Justice has begun an investigation into whether the Florida DOC violated the constitutional rights of inmates.

The proposals focus on improving both inmate safety and better communication of negligent medical care and excessive use of force. Those suggestions are supported by one of the most outspoken critics of the state prison system, George Mallinckrodt, a former psychotherapist in the transitional care unit at Dade Correctional Institution for three years and offered the committee several suggestions for reform.

Continue reading "Senate bill attempts to impose new penalties for inmate abuse and neglect" »

Freshman Miami congressman assigned to aviation, maritime transportation subcommittees


Members of the new 114th Congress already know which committees they'll be serving on. But still up in the air, at least for some panels, was who would sit on which subcommittee they'll sit to consider legislation.

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, Miami's only freshman congressman, said Tuesday that he's been assigned to three Transportation & Infrastructure subcommittees of particular importance to South Florida: Aviation; Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management; and Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, where he was appointed vice-chairman.

"Our airports and seaports drive South Florida's economy and are of major significance to the country," Curbelo said in a statement. "These important subcommittee assignments will afford me the opportunity to work in a bipartisan manner to increase our area's economic potential by expanding our transportation and infrastructure capacity. This will mean more opportunities and a higher quality of life for Florida families."

In the Education and the Workforce committee, Curbelo has been assigned to two subcommittees: Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education; and Higher Education and Workforce Training.

Longtime advocate: Insurance chief from Louisiana could be bad news for consumers

Robert Hunter has spent decades in the insurance industry as a consumer advocate. When he heard the name of the man being considered for the state's insurance regulator job, he was "shocked." 

Gov. Rick Scott's office confirmed Monday that Ron Henderson, Louisiana's deputy insurance commissioner for consumer advocacy, is being considered as the replacement for Kevin McCarty, who has been commissioner of Florida's Office of Insurance Regulation since 2003 (and is favored by Hunter, incidentally).

"It's really shocking to me that a guy who's supposed to be in consumer advocacy I haven't heard of," said Hunter, who was Texas insurance commissioner and founder of the National Insurance Consumer Organization before his current job as insurance director for the Consumer Federation of America. "I know everyone who's done anything in consumer work." 

Continue reading "Longtime advocate: Insurance chief from Louisiana could be bad news for consumers " »

UPDATE: What are the odds: Husband of top House aide lands six-figure gig at DOE

The husband of Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli's chief aide was handed the top legal job at the state education department last week.

He filled a vacancy created five months ago by the same aide -- House Chief of Staff Kathy Mears -- when she hired away the education department’s lawyer.

DOE officials won’t say if the $120,000 general counsel job that went to Matthew Mears on Jan. 20 was advertised or if there were other candidates. Mears and House officials said they didn't advertise the general counsel position that was awarded to Matt Carson from the DOE, leaving the vacancy filled by Mears’ husband. But they did say it was a formal process in which one other attorney, Stuart Williams, was interviewed. Two other attorneys were asked if they were interested in interviewing, according to the House, but they declined.

Mears, who said she only learned about her husband applying for the DOE job in December, said she didn't know at the time she hired Carson that her husband would eventually apply for his old job.

"I had no idea Matthew would be interested in a job at the Department of Education or that he would apply for the job four months later," Mears said in an email Tuesday. In an emailed statements to the Times/Herald, Crisafulli said that he did not know that Mears' husband would later apply for Carson's old job until December.

"Kathy told me that her husband was offered the job at the DOE in December, prior to him accepting the position," Crisafulli said. 

But to outsiders and ethical experts, the role Kathy Mears played in ultimately creating an opportunity for her husband raises questions about how lucrative state jobs are awarded.

“This doesn’t seem open and transparent,” said Carla Miller, president of City Ethics, a Jacksonville non-profit that provides governments with advice. “You don’t want it to look like you have a tight little circle and that you’re choosing from an in-group. You can do that with a corporation. But people expect their government to be fair.”

The chronology puts Kathy Mears at the center of the hiring process for two key legal positions at powerful state governmental entities, underscoring the power she holds in state government. At 44, Mears has a legislative resume that dwarfs the experience of Crisafulli and his predecessor, Will Weatherford. Since the 1990s, she’s served as a trusted advisor to a number of high ranking Republicans: former House Speaker Daniel Webster; former Senate presidents Tom Lee and Kenneth Pruitt; and Gov. Charlie Crist.

She makes $152,000 as Crisafulli's chief of staff. She hired Carson for a position that oversees a chamber that helps draft policy and the $19 billion state K-12 education budget. Meanwhile Matthew Mears, who quit his job at Holland & Knight to work for DOE, is now chief counsel at a state agency that lobbies the House.

It’s a unique situation that isn’t apparently covered by state law. Agencies are prohibited from allowing relatives to hire each other, but Kathy Mears doesn’t work for the DOE. Nor did she hire her husband.

She did start the chain of events on Aug. 6 by hiring Carson as the House’s new general counsel, paying him $121,000, an $11,000 increase in what he was earning as the DOE’s general counsel.

Having served as the DOE’s general counsel since Feb. 11, 2013, Carson gave no reason for his departure in a resignation letter to Education Commissioner Pam Stewart dated Aug. 5.

"As you know, today will be my last day as General Counsel for the Department of Education," Carson wrote. "I have enjoyed working with you, [Chief of Staff] Kathy [Hebda], and the rest of your staff, and am grateful to you for this opportunity."

The Department of Education declined to say if Carson's departure was related to Mears' hiring on Jan. 20. The department also declined to say if the job vacancy had been posted, if a search was conducted, and how many other candidates had been interviewed for the position.

"Matt Carson was not forced to resign," Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Collins said. "In fact, the commissioner [of Education Pam Stewart] wanted him to stay. He accepted a job with the House, and his reason... was that he thought it was the best thing for his family and his career. She commended him. She was confident that he would do a good job at the House. He did a good job at DOE, and we're confident in our new general counsel."

Collins declined to provide any details on Mears' hiring.

Mears said she hired Carson because he came highly recommended by the previous general counsel, Daniel Nordby. 

Nordby, who left to join the private law firm Shutts & Bowen, said he did recommend Carson to Mears.

“We were in law school together at the University of Florida,” Nordby said. “I’ve known him in legal practice here and we both worked at the Department of Education. I talked to a few people who I thought would be interested and Matthew Carson was one of the names I recommended.”

An email from Crisafulli spokesman Michael Williams stated that when Nordby announced he was leaving his job on Tuesday, an announcement was made to the House staff directors and senior administrative staff with a request for assistance with potential candidates for his replacement. Mears said she called attorneys Rick Figlio and Andy Bardos and asked them if they would like to be interviewed. They declined. 

After Mears interviewed Carson and Stuart Williams, Crisafulli let Mears decide who to hire, according to Williams' email.

Crisafulli and Mears said Carson was not hired to make room for Matthew Mears.



Miami Beach mayor clears up his relationship status in Tallahassee


On a recent trip to Tallahassee, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine was joined by Scott Robins, his longtime collaborator on  real estate projects. There was some confusion, though, when Levine said to a prominent politico in the state capital: "Let me introduce you to my partner."

Recalling the story in front of the Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Levine said he received a surprised look from the politician, whom Levine declined to name but said was "very well-known" and spoke with a deep Southern accent. Robins told Levine afterwards that he had made it sound like the two straight men were a couple. 
"I'm not the openly gay mayor of Miami Beach," Levine said to laughter from the chamber crowd. "I'm the the openly single mayor of Miami Beach." 

Stat about GOP presidential races bodes well for Jeb Bush

As he moves toward formally entering the 2016 presidential race, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is hammering home the notion that Washington needs a "fresh face."

It’s a two-edged critique aimed at potential Republican rivals such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and at Hillary Clinton, the former Democratic senator and first lady who is gearing up for 2016.

The Clinton-Bush era in the nation’s capital is well known -- from 1980 to 2004, Jeb’s father (George H.W. Bush) or brother (George W. Bush) or Bill Clinton won their party’s nomination for president or vice president. Hillary Clinton, of course, nearly made the top of the Democratic ticket in 2008.

But there’s a more sweeping claim making the rounds on social media -- and various websites -- as the 2016 race takes early shape.

This is how Washington Post Wonkblog reporter Matt O’Brien put it:

Republicans haven’t won a presidential election without a Bush or Nixon on the ticket since 1928.

Turn to PolitiFact Wisconsin for the answer.