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January 16, 2018

Everglades reservoir drawing criticism from Florida environmentalists, and silence from feds

St. lucie algae


Two days before lawmakers are set to discuss a massive Everglades reservoir, things are getting complicated.

On Tuesday, Florida environmentalists urged Gov. Rick Scott to step in and fix a design they say does too little to store and clean polluted water needed to repair the suffering Everglades. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state's partner in fixing the old flood control system that broke the River of Grass, has so far not followed through on a deal to help plan the project.

In a letter signed by the Everglades Coalition's 62 member organizations, who met over the weekend, co-chairs Mark Perry and Michael Baldwin said the South Florida Water Management District failed to design a project big enough to both store and treat water. Last year lawmakers approved the reservoir after repeated releases of dirty water from Lake Okeechobee left the Treasure Coast coated with slimy algae. The law allowed the district to use land set aside for a previous reservoir, or swap state-owned land with surrounding property owners to increase the size of the reservoir, but not take land through imminent domain.

Environmentalists say five alternatives drafted by the district fail to do the trick because they fail to explore land swaps or consider the potential environmental benefits in a best case scenario, a requirement under federal rules.

In addition, two deep water alternatives may not provide enough clean water, they say. And three larger alternatives convert an existing shallow treatment basin - that has dramatically cleaned up polluted water coming from the lake and sugar fields - to part of the deeper reservoir. Converting that feature could jeopardize the state's legal settlement over federal Clean Water Violations.

"We are deeply concerned that the limited array of alternatives...will result in a reservoir plan that is neither cost-effective nor likely to be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Congress," Perry and Baldwin wrote.

The Corps' silence on the project has also infuriated the district's governing board. 

Back in November, the Corps agreed to work on the project if the district paid for the services since the Corps hadn't budgeted for the work. But, according to the district, the deal fell apart over the scope of the work and, according to a December letter from district Executive Director Ernie Marks, led to "numerous roadblocks and course changes." At a district meeting last week, governing board members slammed the agency for not holding up its end of the bargain.

"It's unacceptable," board member Federico Fernandez said. "It's troubled me to no end to see you folks pull off a herculean effort and then have to put in time and a half to prognosticate what shouldn’t be unclear."

The district is scheduled to provide an update to the Senate's Appropriations Committee on Thursday.


DACA deal still possible says Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart

Mario Diaz-Balart (1)

via @ngameztorres

Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart said on Tuesday that an agreement on DACA was still possible this week. But for that to happen it would be unwise to comment or satisfy the media’s curiosity about what President Donald Trump said at a controversial immigration meeting at the White House last week.

Diaz-Balart is the only Florida member of Congress who was at the meeting in which Trump allegedly used the term “shithole countries” in reference to some African nations and Haiti. The representative for district 25 insisted that it was not his policy to comment on private meetings.

“Obviously you cannot say what is said in private meetings,” Diaz-Balart said. “I have not done it in 30 years and I’m not going to do it now.”

The offensive remark, which has been denied by Trump but confirmed by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who was also present at the meeting, has generated a wave of outrage across the country and in South Florida, home of a large Haitian community.

Other Florida lawmakers were among the first to denounce Trump’s alleged comments as racist, including Miami Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

“The words of President Trump are unacceptable, racist,” she said Tuesday before gathering with other lawmakers for a congressional hearing in Miami. “He is clearly saying ... that he would like to have more immigrants from Norway, a country that has 83 percent white population. This is the same president who said a few months ago that all Haitians in Miami have AIDS.

“He has a record of saying racist things,” Ros-Lehtinen added.

“If anyone says that, I not only do not agree but I think that offends unnecessarily,” said Senator Marco Rubio, who clarified that he was not at the meeting and has not discussed the issue with colleagues. “Those are comments that I do not support, they are counterproductive, no matter who would say them.”

After being at the receiving end of criticism for withholding comment, Diaz-Balart suggested that political pragmatism and his interest in avoiding the deportation of thousands of immigrants were behind his decision not to confirm or deny Trump’s offensive remark.

“I fight for my community every day ... Unfortunately there is only one person from our community who is in these serious, very difficult and delicate negotiations to try to avoid the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “I’m not going to endanger those 800,000 people to go into accusations.”

Read more here.

Pam Bondi, Casey Desantis attend White House women's symposium



Hundreds of women gathered Tuesday afternoon in Washington D.C. for a White House event highlighting the accomplishments of women under the administration of President Donald Trump, including Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Casey DeSantis, the wife of Republican Congressman and Florida gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis.

The event, a three-part panel series called "Conversation with Women of America," featured "prominent women within the Trump Administration and highlight[ed] our accomplishments to-date," according to an invitation. Featured speakers included Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, among others, according to the invitation.

Bondi, who has acted as a Florida surrogate at times for Trump, participated on a healthcare panel and discussed the state's opioid crisis. Trump, who made a surprise appearance at the event, has endorsed DeSantis in his run for governor.

You can watch video the symposium at Real Clear Politics.

Photo from left to right of Casey DeSantis, SBA Administrator Linda McMahon and Lourdes Castillo de la Pena. Courtesy of Lourdes Castillo de la Pena.


Oops. Senate Republicans return in-kind contribution from Palm Beach gentleman's club

Monroe's of Palm BeachThe Florida Republican Senatorial Committee blew the optics test this month when it reported it had taken $2,100 in in-kind contributions for a Dec. 18 fundraiser from Monroe's of Palm Beach, a gentlemen's club that touts itself as "the #1 Adult Entertainment Club and Steakhouse in America.''

The contribution was for beverages at the event held at the Cars of Dreams Museum in Palm Beach, said Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican designated the next Senate president if Republicans hold their majority. 

Were any other staff of the gentlemen's club used for the event? "Absolutely not,'' Galvano said. He said the event was organized by Palm Beach political consultant Tom DaVita and "he chose the vendor."

The Senate has been under fire for the last three months because of sexual misconduct scandals. After the Herald/Times alerted Galvano to the in-kind donation, he said he was returning the contribution.

"I've instructed the staff to send them a check,'' he said.

The FRSC fundraiser occurred the day the special master's report the second Senate report came out detailing sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

The political committee also reported $1,750 in in-kind contributions from Vic & Angelo's in Palm Beach for food and beverages and $5,000 from Cars from Dreams, a Car Museum, in-kind donations for parking. DeVita's company, Resource Group, contributed $1,113 in in-kind consulting support as well. 

Marco Rubio asks Trump to act in response to the Herald's 'Dirty Gold, Clean Cash' series



U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who chairs the Senate subcommittee responsible for Western Hemisphere affairs, urged President Donald Trump to investigate the mining and transportation of illicit gold in Latin America after the Miami Herald investigative series 'Dirty Gold, Clean Cash' was published on Tuesday.  

"Trade in gold from Latin America, which is largely destined for U.S. consumers, is becoming the preferred way for drug cartels, terrorists and bad regimes to launder their dirty money," Rubio said in a statement. "The U.S. Department of Justice’s prosecution of illicit gold traders Juan Granda, Samer Barrage and Renato Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty to money laundering involving dirty Latin American gold, is the tip of the iceberg, and should put all bad actors on notice. I will continue to follow this issue closely, and urge the Executive Branch to investigate the practices and circumstances leading to the mining and transportation of these precious metals for the purposes of money laundering."

The series details how gold became "the secret ingredient in the criminal alchemy" for Latin American narco-traffickers who make billions through turning cocaine into clean cash by exporting gold to Miami. 

Read the exhaustive work of Jay WeaverNick Nehamas, Kyra Gurney and Jim Wyss here: 

Matt Haggman leads in fundraising, David Richardson in cash on hand in Dem race for Ros-Lehtinen's seat



At least five Democrats in the hotly contested race to replace retiring Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have raised six-figures in the latest fundraising updates provided by their campaigns. 

Former Knight Foundation Director and Miami Herald reporter Matt Haggman leads the pack in money raised for a second straight quarter after entering the race in August. Haggman's campaign said he raised $402,000 with $747,000 on hand to spend as of the end of 2017. 

"We desperately need to turn a new page in our politics. I'm proud to have the support of so many friends and neighbors who are ready to do just that, and I'm proud to be running a campaign powered entirely by people—not PACs," Haggman said in a statement, referencing a pledge not to accept campaign contributions from political action committees that drew shade from some of his competitors.

PACs are typically created to further business and ideological interests or organized labor by funding candidates and campaigns. 

State Rep. David Richardson leads the race with $850,000 cash on hand according to a release from his campaign but he trails Haggman in fundraising after he loaned himself $250,000 for his campaign last quarter. That means Richardson raised just over $250,000 after his campaign said he raised $505,000 total from October to December. 

"We progressives must strive to implement a single-payer healthcare system, tackle climate change once and for all, reform our prison and criminal justice systems, and protect as well as expand upon the great strides we have made in this country on the rights of women, Hispanics, African Americans, the LGBT community, and other minority groups," Richardson said in a statement. 

Former federal judge nominee Mary Barzee Flores' campaign said she raised $220,000 in the latest quarter with $330,000 on hand. 

"Having spent her entire career in service to this community, the community she’s lived her whole life, makes Mary the exact type of candidate people want to rally around, a fact we’re seeing more and more each day," Barzee Flores' campaign manager Sam Miller said in a statement. "The tremendous amount of support from those who believe in Mary and share her values has allowed our campaign to build the sort of momentum that gets people paying attention, and they certainly have been." 

State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez raised $230,000 in the latest quarter with $325,000 cash on hand, according to his campaign. 

"We're in a pretty strong position," Rodríguez's campaign consultant Christian Ulvert said.

Miami commissioner Ken Russell, who officially joined the race in October after initially setting up an exploratory committee, raised about $222,247 with $325,392.35 cash on hand according to his campaign. Some of the cash on hand amount includes donations after December 31, 2017.

Russell's "record of progressive results, from increasing the minimum wage to expanding affordable housing to battling sea level rise as reasons for his campaign’s early appeal," campaign spokeswoman Sarah Awan said in a statement. 

Miami Beach commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said she raised $55,000 raised in the latest quarter with $175,000 on hand. 

"Our campaign doesn’t have a finance director or fundraising committee," Rosen Gonzalez said in an email. "These contributions came in from people who believe in our campaign." 

The fundraising totals are estimates and the final numbers could change when they are reported to the Federal Election Commission at the end of the month. 

University of Miami academic advisor Michael Hepburn said his campaign hasn't finished tallying the latest fundraising totals.

Democrats are buoyant about their chances of winning a Miami-based seat long held by Republicans in 2018, as Ros-Lehtinen's district voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by more than 19 percentage points in the 2016 election. 

Miami-Dade commissioner Bruno Barreiro is the lone Republican with enough money so far to mount a viable campaign, though two women recently filed paperwork with the FEC to run in the Republican primary. 

This post was updated with figures from José Javier Rodríguez and includes updated figures from Ken Russell after his campaign sent new information. 

Artiles says Tallahassee sex scandals make him 'look like a Boy Scout'



Ever since Frank Artiles was forced to resign his Florida Senate seat last year, leaders of the state’s upper chamber have been looking over their shoulders, worried that their former colleague was out for revenge.

Jeff Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, admitted in October to an affair with a lobbyist and then resigned. Jack Latvala, a powerful Republican with gubernatorial aspirations, stepped down in January following multiple accusations of sexual harassment.

Then last week, as lawmakers opened this year’s legislative session, Oscar Braynon and Anitere Flores, both senior members of the Senate, admitted to having a bipartisan affairafter someone posted a hidden camera in the hallway of the condo building where they each have apartments and created an anonymous website dedicated to their infidelity.

Now, in the aftermath, Artiles is looking around at a different political landscape and wondering whether his political career isn’t dead after all.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, the Miami Republican, who resigned last year after an alcohol-fueled tirade in a Tallahassee bar, dismissed speculation that he had hired private investigators after his ouster in order to tail his enemies in the Florida Senate and expose their dirt. He also said he believes the district that elected him never stopped supporting him, and that he’s been emboldened to try and return to office after watching scandal after scandal trump his own political implosion.

“I want to finish what I started and clear my name,” he said.

Click here to read the rest.

Lawmakers optimistic about criminal justice reform as new report highlights areas for change

Sen. Jeff Brandes (center) flanked by Sen. Darryl Rouson (left) and Central Florida Urban League CEO Glen Gilzean (right) DIRK SHADD | Times

A small press conference held by academics and think tanks outside the Florida Senate on Tuesday may not have garnered much fanfare or controversy, but it was another reminder of the momentum criminal justice reform could have in the 2018 legislative session.


The speakers highlighted a new report, Reforming Criminal Justice, that was put together by more than 120 scholars and university professors nationwide, including one from Florida State University. The multi-volume work calls for re-examination of scores of hot button criminal justice issues, some of which have already come up in committee meetings in the legislature, like minimum sentencing and supervised release as an alternative to cash bail bonds.

The event was kicked off with comments from Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute. The institute helped finance the report, as criminal justice reform has been a key issue for libertarian-minded conservatives who see the criminal justice system as overly expensive and ineffective at rehabilitating offenders.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was one of the lawmakers at the event and said this year he sees a potential for bipartisan change that he hasn’t seen before.

“I think you’re going to see us reach consensus on a variety of topics in areas that just a few years ago we would’ve felt not within reach of this Legislature,” he said. “I think what you’re seeing is a discussion taking place between the chambers right now that is of a different tone and tenor that is really looking forward to finding positive outcomes … and moving legislation forward.”

Drug report critical in fighting opioid epidemic. But has Rick Scott read it?


Florida’s Drug Policy Advisory Council is a hodgepodge of state government appointees, but they’re the closest Florida has to a coordinated response to the growing opioid epidemic.

So the panel was mystified Thursday why their annual reportoutlining clear steps to fight the opioid crisis – including reviving the Office of Drug Control – hasn’t received more attention from Gov. Rick Scott and legislators.

“My question would be to all of us, ‘Who is going to deliver that message to the governor?'” said Peggy Sapp, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Informed Families and a Scott appointee. “The Surgeon General talking directly to the governor about the report is a very important step.”

But who – if anyone – briefed the governor about the report has been a question without an answer.

Nobody at Thursday’s meeting could answer the question. And representatives of the Department of Health and the governor’s office either could not, or would not, answer it, either.

“Gov. Scott has been personally involved in developing ways to fight this issue,” spokeswoman Lauren Schenone wrote when asked who briefed the governor on the report. “He is also regularly briefed by his agency heads and staff on the opioid epidemic.”

In its Dec. 1 report, the drug council recommend more than a dozen steps for fighting the opioid crisis, including adopting needle exchange programs throughout the state and expanding access to a prescription drug database.

Some of the recommendations are in Scott’s $53 million opioid package, including the changes to the drug database.

But it was the council's first recommendation – to bring back the Office of Drug Control – that Sapp and others feel is the most important.

“I think we need that authority, that power, to get things done,” Sapp said after the meeting.

The office was created by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999 to coordinate the state's drug fight, including finding funding for the prescription drug database.

But Scott eliminated it in 2011, at the height of the pill mill crisis and at the beginning of the heroin epidemic. The $500,000 four-person team was just 0.0007 percent of the state's $69 billion budget.

Schenone said that while the office no longer exists, "its functions are integrated in our state agencies. Therefore, its mission is still being accomplished in state government."

The office's duties were given to the Department of Health, but Sapp feels that having a unit in the governor's office dedicated solely to the crisis is crucial.

“Communication is never easy, especially when you’re dealing with big complex problems, and the closer you can get to a direct line to the governor’s ear, the better,” Sapp said.

Other states – and even some mayors – have created such offices, including West Virginia last year.

Scott has not taken a stance on the subject. A spokeswoman has said he "will review any legislation that makes it to his desk." There are several bills that would create the office.

Sapp said she wants to see Scott take a leadership role like he did during Hurricane Irma last year.

“He did a great job with that last hurricane,” Sapp said. “When he took command of all of that, wow. He coordinated national and local and state resources, and this is what is required for the drug problem.”

Latvala's campaign account pays legal costs in harassment case

Jack Latvala’s failed bid to be the next governor of Florida is finding new life as his legal defense fund.

The former Republican senator from Clearwater, who still remains an active candidate for governor, wrote several checks from the fund last month to pay his mounting legal bills stemming from sexual harassment allegations that led to his resignation from the state Legislature on Dec. 20.

Latvala paid $100,000 from the campaign fund on Dec. 21 to Tallahassee lawyer Steve Andrews and paid $12,705 to Adams and Reese, a Tampa law firm. He also paid about $2,500 to two court reporting services for transcripts in December.

Before writing those checks, Latvala sought out legal advice from John French, a Florida election law expert and former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.

French said the legal definition of a “campaign expenditure” is defined broadly enough that legal fees qualify as a legitimate expense.

“It is entirely appropriate to use these funds for such purposes,” French wrote in an email on Nov. 5, two days after the first series of harassment allegations against Latvala surfaced in a Politico report.

French noted that the law defines an expenditure as “influencing the outcome of an election.” Members of the state Legislature write the election laws and amend them almost every year.

In his legal opinion, French wrote: “The use of such funds to defend the senator against such serious charges as sexual harassment will indisputably produce results that will, in fact, influence the election for governor in 2018. As a result, the use of such funds is clearly within the purview of the statute.”

State law expressly prohibits the spending of campaign funds to “defray normal living expenses.”

French said that provision does not apply to Latvala’s case.

“The defense of damning charges of sexual harassment against a gubernatorial candidate is anything but normal,” he wrote.

French was a House staffer in the 1970s when he oversaw a rewrite of the elections code in Florida. In recent years, French did legal work for Gov.Rick Scott’s political committee, Let’s Get to Work.


In a brief interview, Latvala said he relied on French’s advice and said his conduct “wasn’t an issue” until he announced last summer that he would seek the Republican nomination for governor. “That’s about all I’m going to say about it,” Latvala said.

The Florida Elections Commission, made up of seven political appointees from both parties, makes interpretations of state election law and can impose fines for violations.


Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, an election law expert, said he personally “would have a hard time” writing such an “unequivocal” opinion about paying legal fees with campaign money.

Meyer said of Latvala’s action: “The fact that he’s got a legal opinion insulates Jack from a complaint, because only willful violations are within the jurisdiction of the Florida Elections Commission. ... It sort of buffers him.”

Another election law expert, Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron, said: “I think it’s a pretty tenuous argument.”

Herron said that in his view, the sexual harassment allegations that ended Latvala’s three-decade political career related more to his conduct as a senator than as a candidate for governor.

Latvala’s campaign account for governor showed a balance of about $760,000 as of Dec. 31. Contributions to statewide candidates are limited to $3,000 per election cycle.

That account is separate from Latvala’s political committee, the Florida Leadership Committee, which can accept contributions of any amount. That fund shows a cash balance of about $3.9 million on Dec. 31.

New Rubio bill would punish Russian meddling in future U.S. elections

Marco Rubio 3


U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen have a message for Moscow: Any interference in future U.S. elections will be met with swift punishment if Congress acts.

The Florida Republican who ran for president in 2016 and the Maryland Democrat will introduce a bill on Tuesday that sets explicit punishments for the Russian government — and other countries — if they meddle in future federal elections and directs the Director of National Intelligence to issue a report on potential election interference within one month of any federal election.

Rubio and Van Hollen’s bill comes as President Donald Trump has characterized two congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election as Democrat-led “witch hunts” and cast doubt on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that has already indicted four former Trump campaign officials, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

“For 11 months, they’ve had this phony cloud over this administration, over our government, and it has hurt our government,” Trump said. “It’s a Democrat hoax that was brought up as an excuse for losing an election.”

But as some Republicans have joined Trump in questioning Mueller’s motives, Rubio has expressed confidence in the special counsel’s investigation and continues to argue that Russian interference is an ongoing threat for future U.S. elections. A 2017 report by the Director of National Intelligence determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary (Hillary) Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”

Rubio and Van Hollen’s bill, called the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act, is the first bill since the 2016 presidential election that sets specific punishments for the Russian government and other countries that interfere in U.S. political campaigns.

“We cannot be a country where foreign intelligence agencies attempt to influence our political process without consequences,” Rubio said in a statement. “This bill will help to ensure the integrity of our electoral process by using key national security tools to dissuade foreign powers from meddling in our elections.”

The bill, if passed, codifies specific penalties for the Russians that must implemented within 10 days if the Director of National Intelligence determines that interference took place.

Read more here.

January 15, 2018

Xavier Suarez won't run for Congress. Eyeing Miami-Dade mayor for 2020


Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez flirted with running for Congress this year in a long-shot bid to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as an independent. He recently declared that flirtation over, allowing him to now flirt with running for Miami-Dade mayor in 2020. 

"I would be running as an independent," said Suarez, a former Miami mayor whose son, Francis Suarez, now holds the job. "A lot of people didn't think that was viable."

Suarez has told supporters privately he will not seek the seat of Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican representing a left-leaning district that's seen as a likely Democratic pick-up in the fall. Bruno Barreiro, a Miami-Dade commissioner, is running for the Republican nomination in the District 27 race, and Suarez's interest raised the possibility of a second commissioner entering the contest. 

County commissioners hold non-partisan posts, as does the mayor. The current mayor, Republican Carlos Gimenez, must leave in 2020 under the county's term-limit rules. The mayoral race is expected to be a wide-open contest to succeed Gimenez.

Suarez, who holds the commission seat Gimenez surrendered to become mayor, almost ran against Gimenez in 2016. Suarez's political committee aired attack ads against Gimenez, but Suarez ultimately decided to run for reelection instead in 2016. He also faces term limits requiring him to leave the commission in 2020, and has privately told supporters he's interested in running for mayor in 2020. 

Suarez declined to address his mayoral ambitions during a recent interview that saw him mostly close the door on Congress.

"I am not considering a congressional race," he said. "But that could change."

Asked why he's no longer considering a run for Congress, Suarez pointed to Washington winters as particularly unappealing for Miami's first Cuban-born mayor.

"I hate to say it, but the cold is a factor," he said, citing a recent trip to Boston. "My blood has thinned." 

Bill Nelson raised $2.4 million in last quarter, campaign says


via @learyreports

Sen. Bill Nelson raised about $2.4 million in fourth quarter of 2017, his campaign said Monday, and has $8 million cash on hand.

The Democrat "received more than 30,600 contributions from more than 21,500 individual donors during the last three months of 2017 alone," his campaign said in a release.

Nelson is seeking a fourth term and is expected to face Gov. Rick Scott, though Scott hasn't declared he's running.

Miami Republican still silent as others in White House meeting defend Trump

Mario Diaz-Balart


A high-stakes White House immigration meeting has devolved into a debate on whether President Donald Trump used the terms “shithole” or “shithouse” to refer to immigrants, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart still isn’t saying anything.

Two senators in the meeting, one Democrat and one Republican, said Trump used the profane language. Two other Republican senators in the meeting now say he didn’t utter “shit” in any form after initially saying they didn’t recall. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was also in the meeting, isn’t sure.

But Diaz-Balart hasn’t said whether he sides with Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who say Trump used disparaging language, or Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., who said they didn’t hear it.

The Miami Republican has not confirmed or denied either of the accounts, even after Cotton and Perdue shifted their story on Sunday. Two Diaz-Balart staffers did not respond to questions on Monday and the congressman’s Washington and Doral offices were closed for Martin Luther King Day. It isn’t clear if Diaz-Balart challenged Trump in the meeting on his language towards immigrants.

Diaz-Balart confirmed he was at the White House in a statement on Friday and a spokesperson told Miami Herald news partner CBS 4 on Sunday that he doesn’t comment on private meetings.

“First of all, in his three decades of public service, Congressman Diaz-Balart has NEVER repeated, stated, or leaked what is said in private meetings,” a spokesperson said to CBS 4. “Secondly, he remains focused on the fact that in March, some 800,000 young people face deportation, and he continues to work on a bipartisan deal so that won’t happen. And finally Congressman Diaz-Balart fights and stands up for his community every single day, and his record in doing so is clear.”

Read more here.

Frederica Wilson says she’ll boycott Trump’s State of the Union speech

Frederica Wilson 2

via @learyreports

Rep. Frederica Wilson says she will not attend President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, citing his “recent racist and incendiary remarks about Haiti and African nations.”

The Miami Democrat, who earlier fought with Trump over his call to the widow of a fallen soldier, announced her decision Sunday evening. Several other Democrats, including Reps. Maxine Waters, John Lewis and Earl Blumenauer, have also said they will not attend.

“For the first time since I began serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, I will not be attending the president’s State of the Union address,” Wilson said in a statement. “I have no doubt that instead of delivering a message of inclusivity and an agenda that benefits all Americans, President Trump’s address will be full of innuendo, empty promises, and lies.

“During his disappointing and destructive first year in office, Mr. Trump has demeaned the presidency at every opportunity and cast doubt on our nation’s standing as a global leader. The United States’ reputation is smoldering in the ashes of his recent racist and incendiary remarks about Haiti and African nations. Many of his proposed domestic policies are harmful to people of color, low-income communities, and the middle class. It would be an embarrassment to be seen with him at a forum that under any other president would be an honor to attend.”

Read more here.

January 12, 2018

Trump’s ‘shithole countries’ comment may have a silver lining for Haitians



President Donald Trump’s descent into vulgarity during a high-stakes immigration meeting has brought attention to an often overlooked group in the national conversation: the over 300,000 immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and potentially Honduras who could be forced to leave the U.S. in 2019.

The president’s remarks — he reportedly said “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out” and “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” — were in reference to immigrants living and working legally in the United States under Temporary Protected Status and to making changes to the visa lottery system.

The more than over 300,000 immigrants whose TPS will expire in 2019 have been largely under the radar compared to the 800,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. An Obama-era executive action known as DACA that allowed Dreamers to be protected from deportation expires in March, and is at the forefront of immigration discussions in Washington.

Several Miami lawmakers, including Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, along with Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, have offered legislative solutions that would provide a path to permanent residency for some or all TPS recipients. South Florida is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Haitians along with a sizable number of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans.

“This is obviously tragic and very disheartening and disappointing in every way but I’m generally an optimist and when anything like this happens there’s also opportunity,” Curbelo said. “Now, many more Americans are aware of these immigrants who are in our country legally, who work here, pay taxes here and have been here in some cases more than two decades. All of a sudden they are extremely relevant in discussions regarding an immigration compromise, where before the conversation was almost exclusively about Dreamers and border security.”

Until now, most of the lawmakers pushing for letting TPS beneficiaries stay represent large urban areas like Miami and New York City, and many of them are Democrats outside Miami. Curbelo’s office also said his bill that addresses Dreamers, called the Raising America’s Children Act, has gotten significantly more attention than his bill to help TPS beneficiaries from Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, called the ESPERER Act.

Curbelo said Trump’s vulgar comments will raise awareness outside Miami, and his spokesperson said “several Republicans have approached Carlos about it. They want to learn more.”

“We’ve added TPS beneficiaries as candidates for inclusion in a deal and that’s good news,” Curbelo said.

Read more here.

Rubio and Nelson say Senate stalling on disaster relief


via @learyreports

Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson today urged their respective leaders to speed up a vote on a massive disaster relief package that will help Florida.

Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

We write to highlight the importance of the disaster supplemental and urge you to consider this much needed appropriations measure on the floor as soon as possible. As you are well aware, last fall produced a number of devastating natural disasters, and our communities are still in need of federal assistance in order to continue their recovery efforts.  In particular, hurricanes and wildfires caused catastrophic destruction throughout the country, and we are deeply concerned that affected states, territories and local governments will not have the resources needed to address critical issues including agricultural aid, healthcare, and housing if Congress does not act immediately.

These disasters caused unprecedented destruction, and yet the federal government has still not provided an acceptable response.  Congress has a duty to fulfill, and a disaster supplemental appropriations bill would provide the federal aid our states and territories were promised months ago.  The House of Representatives passed a disaster supplemental, and while it did not fully encompass what is needed, it is past time for the Senate to act.  Unfortunately, Congress has delayed providing this aid for too long while our communities face the consequences of our inaction.

It is imperative that Americans nationwide know that the federal government is both ready and willing to direct resources needed to help them in the recovery process. As such, we strongly urge you to bring the disaster relief measure to the floor for consideration at the earliest opportunity to ensure that our communities are able to address and assist their respective needs.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Also, Gov. Rick Scott has called on Senate leaders to act.

"It is imperative that we as a state see relief from Congress in the aftermath of these storms. Now that the House passed a significant relief package prior to Christmas, the Senate must act immediately to lock in this critical funding for Florida and ensure the full recovery of families in our state and across the country," Scott wrote in a Jan. 3 letter.

Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen to vote against a spending bill (again) unless there's a DACA fix

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The federal government will shut down on January 19 if Congress can't pass a temporary spending bill, and Miami Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen both said they will vote against the legislation, like they did in December, if an immigration deal is not imminent. 

Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen are frustrated with the pace of negotiations on a solution for 800,000 immigrants, known as Dreamers, who came to the U.S. as young children. Congress must find a legislative solution for Dreamers by March after President Donald Trump announced he will rescind an Obama-era executive order that protected them from deportation. 

"The way things stand today, I plan to keep my commitment to Dreamers and if there’s some breakthrough next week I will consider (voting yes)," Curbelo said on Friday. "If the status quo persists I am going to continue pressuring the leadership in both parties to forge a compromise because 800,000 lives are at risk." 

The two Miami Republicans were the only House Republicans who voted against the bill that keeps the government running due to immigration concerns. If enough Republicans join them, they could gain leverage to forge an immigration deal.

The vast majority of House Democrats voted with Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen against the plan in December, though moderate Florida Democrats like Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Charlie Crist voted in favor of the spending bill, even though Democratic-leaning immigrant advocacy groups urged Democrats to vote against it. 

A Miami Republican was there, but won’t say if Trump called Haiti a ‘shithole’ country

Mario Diaz-Balart

@alextdaugherty @newsbysmiley

There were only seven lawmakers in the room when President Donald Trump reportedly referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries.” Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart was one of them.

Did the Miami Republican hear the words himself? Did he challenge the president’s comment? He refuses to say, even after the lone Democrat in the room said Friday that Trump had “said hateful things, and he said them repeatedly.”

In a statement, Diaz-Balart merely confirmed that he was at the White House meeting on Thursday, but he did not back up Trump’s Twitter denial of the “shithole” comment, or the claim made by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who said Friday that Trump had said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

“For months, I have been involved in numerous high level bipartisan meetings negotiating DACA, including Thursday’s meeting at the White House,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement. “There are almost 800,000 young DACA beneficiaries who will face imminent deportation in March if we do not reach a deal. I will not be diverted from all possible efforts to continue negotiating to stop the deportations. Nothing will divert my focus to stop the deportation of these innocent people whose futures are at stake.”

Diaz-Balart left Washington, D.C., on Thursday after his meeting with Trump. A Miami Herald reporter unsuccessfully attempted on Friday to find Diaz-Balart at his office in Doral, located across the street from the Trump Doral resort.

Trump’s reported comments caused an uproar in Miami, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Haitian Americans.

“The president calling Haiti a ‘shithole country’ ignores the contributions thousands of Haitians have made to our SoFla community and nation,” Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said. “Language like that shouldn't be heard in locker rooms and it shouldn't be heard in the White House.”

After the White House initially did not deny the “shithole” comment, which was first reported by the Washington Post, Trump took to Twitter on Friday morning to offer his version of events.

“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump tweeted. “What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made — a big setback for DACA!”

Read more here.

January 11, 2018

Senate has its solution to sexual harassment problem: one hour of sexual harassment training for each senator

Lizbeth BenacquistoAfter months of dealing with allegations of sexual harassment against one of states' most powerful legislators -- and fear of retaliation by his accusers -- the Florida Senate has concluded it needs to make just one modest change to the rules that govern the conduct of senators: require each senator to take a one-hour of training course on sexual harassment, online or in person, before every annual legislative session. 

"We are in the process of making changes to our administrative policies and in doing so want to make sure that everything we do that governs all of our legislative employees applies to senators,'' said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, chair of the Senate Rules Committee. "Everyone will be encouraged to complete the process as soon as possible."

The rule will be voted on by the full Senate, but Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, one of the most outspoken members of the Senate process, raised questions.

Rodriguez said the proposal was "very welcome and very necessary" but wondered what happened to the many other proposals that had been under consideration to end the fear of retaliation that accusers had if they came forward with an allegation against a legislator. 

"Is that sufficient protection against the conduct and retaliation? '' Rodriguez asked. Absent any change in rules, he asked, "how can we reassure the public that we have the processes in place without rules changes?"

"I actually believed that the rules we had in place worked,'' Benacquisto replied. "We had a complaint filed. We moved through the process. And findings were made."

After a Senate investigation found that Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, likely sexually harassed at least two women and may have been guilty of criminal misconduct after seeking sex with a female lobbyists in exchange for promising to help with legislation, the veteran legislator resigned. A month earlier, Sen. Jeff Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair with a young lobbyist. And on Tuesday, Sens. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, were forced to publicly explain they had apologized to their families for their extramarital affair, after a video of a secret surveillance camera was posted online. 

Each of these issues brought attention to the issue of abuse of positional power -- such as that by Latvala and Clemens over female lobbyists -- and Rodriguez and others suggested the Senate reform its rules to explicitly prohibit and define sexual harassment (as the Florida House does.)

Rodriguez and others also suggested the Senate establish a method for complaints to be made against senators and staff that allowed people to go to someone outside the Senate, and he sought an increase in the penalties for attempts at retaliation.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, a former Senate president, commended Benacquisto for rejecting the push for major change. 

"If your mother raised you with manners and a little common sense, 99 percent of this isn't rocket science and there's a tendency to over-react to these things when it's such high profile -- and over-compensate to try to send a message that not only do we get it, we get it on steroids,'' he said.

During the Senate investigations,  several women came forward to talk about their experiences of verbal and physical harassment by Latvala but only two women were willing to make statements under oath before retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson, hired by the Senate to be the special master of its investigation into Latvala's alleged violations of the rules. 

The Senate's the investigation of Latvala also cost taxpayers a yet-to-be determined amount of money. At least five outside lawyers were hired to advise the Senate, including a Tampa-based employment law firm, Judge Swanson and a lawyer assisting him, and the Senate's outside counsel, George Meros.

If the Senate rules has been more explicit, better defined and provided a safe outlet for accusers to come forward, would that reduce the cost of future investigations or serve as a more effective deterrent? 

"That's a fair point,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is scheduled to become the next Senate president. "If you're streamlining and are prepared for things to come up, it is usually more efficient and it is incumbent upon us to learn from these situations and make sure we're better prepared.'' 

He said he is preparing additional recommendations for his two-year tenure in 2018-20. 

"As we go through these administrative changes, you will see a lot of what has changed adopted into the Senate rules, including the Senate training,'' he said. 

Benacquisto said next week she will propose additional changes to the Senate administrative policies, which will not require a vote of the full Senate, and they will be more comprehensive. She has also signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, to create new penalties for sexual harassment and to establish a permanent task force to review the sexual harassment issues on a regular basis.

Photo: Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.