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12 posts from April 23, 2012

April 23, 2012

Dems and Repubs bicker over who's to blame in failed redistricting deal

Slapped down by one Supreme Court ruling and facing years of partisan legal wrangling over the Legislature’s redistricting plans, the Senate’s top Republican quietly met with the head of the Florida Democratic Party last month to discuss a deal that could end the lawsuits.

It didn’t work. Now, while both sides agree the meetings took place, each suggests the other is misrepresenting the reason the deal was rejected.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, told the Herald/Times Monday that he was approached repeatedly by former state Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, who served as an intermediary for Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith.

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Counties lose round in online hotel tax dispute but appeal is likely

A Leon County circuit court judge dealt the latest blow to Florida counties hoping to fill their budget gaps with taxes paid by online travel companies.

Judge James Shelfer ruled Thursday that Florida’s 1977 law relating to county tourist development taxes is so ambiguous that he couldn’t conclude that companies like Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity should be required to pay taxes on the marked-up price of a hotel room when they sell it to customers.

Seventeen counties joined in the lawsuit, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Seminole counties. A similar lawsuit is pending in Broward County, where the online companies are challenging a tax levied against them by county authorities.

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Connie Mack speaks to the Broward GOP once headed by LeMieux

Congressman Connie Mack spoke to the Broward Republican Executive Committee Monday night --  a group headed by one of his rivals, George LeMieux, about a decade ago.

Mack didn't mention LeMieux specifically until the question and answer session and instead focused his attacks on Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson and linked him to President Barack Obama. Some in the crowd cheered when Mack criticized Democrats but overall the audience didn't sound or appear too enthusiastic.

Mack tried to pay deference to the Broward Republicans who are outnumbered 2:1 by Democrats but those more than 250,000 GOP voters can help deliver a statewide candidate.

"If you want to win a statewide election you have to win in Broward County," Mack said, emphasizing the need to get out the vote in Broward to win.

Mack didn't unveil many specifics beyond summarizing his Penny Plan to balance the federal budget within eight years and mostly stuck to general principles -- calling for less government regulation and a Congress that repeals laws. He also suggested that the government should take away the right of agencies to pass rules and instead Congress and the Senate should vote on the rules.

Mack has taken heat for saying of Congressman Paul Ryan's budget plan "You know that budget was a joke, doesn’t balance the budget for years” and missing the vote. 

His campaign later explained that Mack meant the "process" was a joke.

Monday night, he said he believed that there are a lot of positive aspects of Ryan's plan including entitlement reform but "the only problem I have is that the budget still doesn't balance for 28 years."

In interviews with reporters after his speech, Mack said if he had been present for the vote he probably would have voted against Ryan's budget plan because of how long it takes to balance the budget.

Moderators read questions submitted by the audience ahead of time. When Mack was asked why he was a better choice than his Republican opponents, he avoided criticizing LeMieux and offered a generic answer about his commitment to limited government, less taxes and more freedom.

"If you are looking for someone willing to stand up against our own leadership when we need to then I'm your guy. I've done it in the Legislature and I've done it in Congress. Whether its bailouts or TARP I have stood up and voted no," he said.

Mack didn't specifically answer a question about whether character should matter including his own past run-ins with the law decades ago.

"Raise your hand who wrote that?" Mack joked. "The mudslinging and name calling and dividing of the party we are beyond that. This is a distraction away from our real goal which is to beat Senator Nelson."

Mack was also asked how much time he spends in Florida and if he would release his travel log. Mack is married to Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack of California.

"This is an attempt by political opponents to try to make an issue that just doesn't exist," he said.


Gov. Scott re-does appointments and 51 disappear

Gov. Rick Scott had a change of heart -- about 51 times.

Scott promised to review hundreds of patronage appointments to boards and commissions after the Senate did not confirm them, and when the new list emerged Monday, a total of 51 names were missing (out of more than 400).  

The most notable appointments that were revoked were Roderick Jones of Redington Shores to the Board of Chiropractic Medicine and Pinellas County Clerk of Courts Ken Burke to the St. Petersburg College Board of Trustees. Jones is the son of Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, who had antagonized Scott and his chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, for refusing to meet with the governor to hear his pitch on privatizing prisons in South Florida during the legislative session that ended March 9. (Jones, who has a high-level job at St. Pete College, also supported Burke's appointment).

Scott's press secretary, Lane Wright, did not immediately respond to a request for an explanation for the decisions.

Scott also revoked the appointment of George Robbins to the board of the South Florida Water Management District and Kathleen Rooney to the Governor's Mansion Commission. 

On one of the state's most prestigious boards, three trustees at the University of Florida were not reappointed: Carlos Alfonso of Tampa, Susan Cameron of Fort Lauderdale and Charles Edwards of Fort Myers. In most of the cases, replacement appointments have not been made.

Scott also withdrew the appointments of six trustees at the University of Central Florida, five members of the Board of Professional Surveyors and Mappers, three University of North Florida trustees, three members of the Investment Advisory Board and two members of the Florida Keys Community College board. 

-- Steve Bousquet

Miami-Dade GOP names new executive director

The Miami-Dade Republican Party has a new man in charge of its day-to-day operations: Yulexis Argota, 22, who was an assistant to the Florida field director for the Mitt Romney campaign during the presidential primary.

The party has been without an executive director since last summer, when then-Chairman Erik Fresen, who is also a state representative from Miami, eliminated the position because the GOP was in such dire financial shape that it could not afford it. That left former executive director J.C. Hernandez out of a job.

Fresen resigned last month. New Chairman Ben Powell took over the party reins earlier this month and quickly reinstated the top job. He and the party's executive board picked Argota, who has also interned for Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina and Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño, to fill it. (Presumably, this means the party can now afford to keep a full-time director on salary again.)

"Yulexis Argota has the integrity, judgment and relentless work ethic the party needs to be effective this political season," Powell said in a press release. "I am excited about working with Yulexis to unite the party and elect our candidates."

The executive board also named Jefferson Knight as its general counsel. Knight is a former Florida chairman for the Republican National Lawyers Association.

Scott names two new members to task force to look at Stand Your Ground, public safety

Gov. Rick Scott has added two members to the task force that will review the state's controversial Stand Your Ground law, and other safety issues.

Scott, along with Attorney General Pam Bondi, selected Sheriff Jerry Demings, of Orange County and Chief David L. Perry, the chief of Florida State University Police Department.

Some are crying foul over the makeup of the 19-member task force, which includes several gun-friendly legislators and two of the lawmakers who helped write the Stand Your Ground law. The chair, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, is reportedly a member of the National Rifle Association, which helped pass the controversial law at the heart of the Trayvon Martin case.

Here's our story on the task force, which many believe will not be able to produce any meaningful change to an NRA-backed law, given its gun-friendly makeup.

The task force has been criticized not only for a lack of diversity of thought, but also racial and age diversity. A group called the Dream Defenders marched to Scott's office on Friday to protest the lack of young people (specifically young minority males) on a task force created in the wake of the death of a young black teenager.

Both Demings and Perry are black.

Demings has at least once taken on the gun lobby, hiring a lobbyist in 2011 that fought against an NRA-backed "open carry" law. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the lobbyist used drivers license photos of alleged gun-toting motorcycle gang members to fight against the law. The lobbyist was investigated for violating a law that makes it illegal to disclose gun owners' information, and lambasted by NRA's top lobbyist, Marion Hammer. He was later cleared.

Perry has gone up against the NRA as well. In 2011, he opposed an NRA-backed bill that would have allowed guns on the campuses of Florida colleges and universities, including FSU.

"You have young people still learning how to be adults, and unfortunately alcohol and drugs are part of that equation on campus," Perry told the Miami Herald in 2011. "This is a place of learning and nurturing and you shouldn't be put in a position where you feel intimidated by someone walking around with a gun."

Here's the press release from Scott's office:

Governor Scott Names Two to Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection

Tallahassee, Fla. – Today, in collaboration with Attorney General Pam Bondi, Governor Rick Scott added two members to the Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection. This action completes the process of naming individuals to the task force.

Sheriff Jerry Demings, of Orlando, is the Sheriff for Orange County.

Chief David L. Perry, of Tallahassee, is the chief of the Florida State University Police Department.


Joe Biden-Bill Nelson Everglades photo-op has a campaign quality to it.

With a politically threatened Sen. Bill Nelson at his side, Vice President Joe Biden mugged before the television cameras Monday to tout the Democrats’ successes in helping to restore the endangered Everglades.

Biden and Nelson’s speeches were short on new initiatives and focused more on the successes of President Obama’s administration in accelerating and spending more for Everglades restoration projects.

Republicans were invited, but none went or shared the stage with Nelson, Biden and Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings.

From the stagecraft to the recurring references to the administration to the made-for-TV images of the three air-boating through the Everglades, the event had a strong campaign quality to it as the general-election season starts in the nation’s largest battleground state.

“If you’re a political official, of which of course the vice president would be a prime example, everything you do is by definition political, said former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who attended the event. “And now that we’re in an election year, it becomes more focused.”

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Movers and Shakers: Romney hires Jeb press flack, UF Board of Trustees chairman resigns

Romney campaign appoints deputy communications director

Kristy Campbell is joining presidential contender Mitt Romney’s campaign as the deputy communications director for media affairs.

Campbell, the national communications director of the American Conservative Union, was previously press secretary to former Gov. Jeb Bush and then for Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.

UF Board of Trustees Chairman resigns

University of Florida Board of Trustees Chairman Carlos Alfonso is resigning.

Alfonso, a founding trustee in 2001, left with the understanding that Gov. Rick Scott would not reappoint him, according to the Gainesville Sun.

Alfonso's position was one of about 200 left in limbo when the Senate failed to confirm appointments.

Enterprise Florida's Sports Development division hires new vice president

Greg Ungru is the new vice president of development for Enterprise Florida’s Sports Development division, a part of the Florida Sports Foundation.

His duties will include pinpointing prospective partners, raising revenue and identifying signature events for Florida Sports to own and manage.

Previously, Ungru was deputy chief of staff for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. He’s also spent about a decade in government and public sector roles.

Turnover continues at DOH

The Florida Department of Health faces more high-profile resignations.

Rose Leah Gardner resigned this week as the agency’s "in-house expert in state and federal financial assistance oversight and Florida Single Audit laws and compliance.”

Annette Phelps also resigned.

In a letter to interim state Surgeon General Steven Harris, Phelps said she was instrumental in the development of several programs, including Healthy Start, Fetal and Infant Mortality Reviews, and Pregnancy Associated Mortality Reviews.

“I regret that I will not be a part of the next phases of movement toward public health accreditation and and implementation of reorganization of the department,” she wrote.

Phelps, who earned high evaluation scores, will take five weeks of paid leave and holidays before transitioning to another health care organization, she wrote.

The changes come as the department undergoes massive reorganization mandated in this year's legislative session.

New executive director at Florida TaxWatch Center for Smart Justice

Florida TaxWatch Center for Smart Justice hired Steven Hammond as its new executive director.

He's held several private and public sector provisions, including at the Florida Department of Revenue. Hammond, who once started a prison ministry in Kansas, frequently visits death row inmates and conducts weekly services at the Wakulla Correctional Institution.

Movers and Shakers is a weekly chronicle of personnel changes in Tallahassee. Send tips to bdavis@tampabay.com or via twitter at britt_alana.

Former state Sen. Mandy Dawson pleads guilty to tax evasion

Former Fort Lauderdale legislator Mandy Dawson, who became entangled in a U.S. Justice Department probe into “pay to play politics” in the state’s capital, pleaded guilty Monday in Miami federal court to one count of tax evasion and a second offense of failing to file a tax return.

Dawson, who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years, faces up to six years in prison at her sentencing set for July 20.

Dawson’s plea brings to a close the Justice Department’s 5-year-old investigation into influence peddling in Tallahassee, which revolved around now-imprisoned Hollywood doctor Alan Mendelsohn, who doubled as a Republican lobbyist and fundraiser.

“I am no different than any other person walking the streets of America,” said Dawson, as she stood outside the courtroom, flanked by her attorney and husband.

In late 2010, when Mendelsohn pleaded guilty to a fraud-conspiracy charge, he said in federal court that he funneled $82,000 to Dawson through a former legislative aide when the Democrat served as a state senator during the past decade. As part of the plot, the aide was hired for a no-show job by one of the physician’s political action committees because Dawson “made this request repeatedly,” he said. Read more here.

Fla. notches $40 million insurance settlement with MetLife

The state of Florida, along with several other states, has reached a $40 million settlement with a group of MetLife insurance companies over allegations of life insurance improprieties. All of that money is being used to pay for the states' investigation, but consumers may receive more than $500 million in other payments. 

Consumers may benefit from new business practices that MetLife has agreed to use moving forward.

MetLife had apparently been using the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File to check to see if a policyholder has died only in cases where such a death would be beneficial to the insurance company. For example, MetLife allegedly used this Master File to stop annuity payments to deceased clients, but did not use it to issue life insurance payments to beneficiaries of the insured. 

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