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12 posts from February 7, 2013

February 07, 2013

Tampa Bay Times: Beleaguered Finance chair for Fla GOP resigns

From Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Adam C. Smith ...

Dr. Akshay "A.K." Desai has resigned as finance chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, amid turmoil at his insurance company and allegations by the state of " a pattern of mismanagement" and illegal financial conduct at Desai's St. Petersburg-based Universal Health Care.

"I was honored to be asked to be asked to be Finance Chair, and I'm proud of the work we've done together. I feel that I no longer have the proper amount of time to devote to such an important cause and so it's with regret that I must tender my resignation effective immediately as Finance Chair," Desai said in a Feb. 5 letter state GOP chairman Lenny Curry.

Read the rest of the story here

Desai

Federal investigation of Sen. Bob Menendez pal revolves around drug injected in patients' eyes

A South Florida eye surgeon who’s a friend of a U.S. senator is under federal criminal investigation for billing Medicare millions of dollars to treat elderly patients for services they may not have needed, The Herald has learned.

Federal agents began investigating Dr. Salomon Melgen last year, sources say, after investigators suspected he overbilled the taxpayer-funded health program by using a high-priced drug called Lucentis, which is injected into patients’ eyes.

The agents raided Melgen’s West Palm Beach offices last week. He’s also under FBI examination for his ties to Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, who tried to help Melgen with another Medicare dispute.

Several sources familiar with the doctor’s practice said he used the drug, which costs $2,000 a vial, to treat patients with macular degeneration more than any other ophthalmologist in Florida and possibly the country. His high patient volume also raised red flags for investigators, the sources said.

Continue reading "Federal investigation of Sen. Bob Menendez pal revolves around drug injected in patients' eyes" »

Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen's letter, an FBI-raided donor's port deal, and the Bob Menendez scandal

 At first glance, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s letter to the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the United States looks like standard fare for a chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

“Recent reports that the illicit drug trade and the presence of drug cartels may shift towards the Dominican Republic are of increasing concern to the Committee,” the Miami Republican, then committee chair, wrote Ambassador Aníbal de Castro April 10, 2012.

“I am interested to hear what specific steps your administration is tak[ing] to improve cargo security,” she closed, “and reducing the flow of drugs to the United States and how we can work together towards achieving this goal.”

Someone else was keenly interested, too: Dr. Salomon Melgen, investor in a Dominican Republic port security company, ICSSI, which wants to X-ray cargo at the very ports Ros-Lehtinen was concerned about.

Ros-Lehtinen's letter came a month after Melgen contributed $5,000 to her campaign in a race where she faced token opposition (in 2011, he contributed $4,800). And, a few months before that, Ros-Lehtinen held a benefit for medical research in which Melgen cut another $15,000 check.

Melgen’s West Palm Beach offices were raided last week by federal agents in a Medicare-fraud investigation. FBI agents are also examining his ties with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ.

Melgen has a reputation, among some political insiders, of being “transactional,” meaning he gives donations but also expects to get something in return. Sources tell The Miami Herald the doctor has asked various members of Congress over the years for help with one of his lawsuits, his port deal, Medicare and a tax issue.

Continue reading "Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen's letter, an FBI-raided donor's port deal, and the Bob Menendez scandal" »

Full story: Miami-Dade delegation stays silent on Dolphins bill

Earlier this week, the Miami Dolphins succeeded in getting a committee of lawmakers from across the state to vote for a taxpayer deal written exclusively for the team’s $400 million stadium renovation.

“I’ve never done a bill that benefits one person, statutorily, so I have real concerns with that,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, before laying aside her concerns and joining 10 other senators to cast a unanimous vote for the measure.

The legislative triumph appears to be short-lived for the Dolphins’ top brass.

The reason: The Miami-Dade delegation of lawmakers decided not to give the proposal its full endorsement.

The 24-member delegation finalized its list of legislative priorities Thursday, naming goals like fighting insurance price hikes, funding Jackson Memorial Hospital and building a memorial for Bay of Pigs veterans.

Conspicuously absent from the list: any mention of a proposal to provide the Dolphins as much as $200 million for a stadium makeover.

      Read more here:

 

Crist under oath: wine fuzzed memory, denies knowing about Greer's compensation

Perhaps it was the wine that made some Republicans forget details of events involving former party chairman Jim Greer. Or maybe it was Greer who drank the wine and was mis-remembering.

Those suggestions were tossed around among lawyers as they put former Gov. Charlie Crist under oath last year to ask him about a series of conversations he had with Greer and others as Greer took over party fundraising in 2009.

Crist, a lawyer, former legislator, education commissioner, attorney general and governor, said it was his first time to be questioned under oath in a court proceeding, a remarkable thing for a man who has spent most of his adult life in politics.

Many of the other witnesses that have been questioned under oath also suffered from a failure to recall details of Greer's fundraising activity. More from Lucy Morgan here.

Continue reading "Crist under oath: wine fuzzed memory, denies knowing about Greer's compensation" »

Public counsel asks high court to reject FPL's rate hike settlement as unlawful

The lawyers representing the public in utility rate cases are asking the Florida Supreme Court to reject the decision by state utility regulators to allow Florida Power & Light to raise its rates through a settlement agreement opposed by the Office of Public Counsel.

The one-page appeal was filed Thursday by Public Counsel JR Kelly, an action he anticipated when the Public Service Commission unanimously approved an agreement in December to give the company $350 million more a year, and allows for two additional increases in the next four years.

The PSC approved the settlement over the objections of Kelly, who by law represents ratepayers in cases before the utility board. He vigorously objected to the settlement as a one-sided bad deal for customers and said it violated the that violates regulator’s rules for reaching settlements. 

FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski would not comment on the legal challenge except to say in a statement that the settlement "benefits all customers of FPL by enabling the utility to continue to deliver excellent reliability, industry-leading clean power, award-winning customer service and the lowest typical residential customer bills in Florida.” He also issued this document:  Download 2013 Fact Sheet on Approved Settlement

FPL side-stepped the public counsel when it entered into its agreement with Florida Industrial Power Users Group, the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association and the Federal Executive Agencies just as the company’s rate case was scheduled to begin in August. 

Under the rate agreement, customers will not see their bills increase until June, as a drop in fuel costs absorbs most of the rate increase. In January, the typical residential customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a month will see his bill drop about 37 cents a month to about $94.25 as a $4.13 decrease in fuel charges offsets the $3.76 base rate increase.  

Continue reading "Public counsel asks high court to reject FPL's rate hike settlement as unlawful" »

Charlie Crist's deposition in Greer case: Too much wine to remember?

Perhaps it was the wine that made some Republicans forget details of events involving former party chairman Jim Greer. Or maybe it was Greer who drank the wine and was mis-remembering.

Those suggestions were tossed around among lawyers as they put former Gov. Charlie Crist under oath last year to ask him about a series of conversations he had with Greer and others as Greer took over party fundraising in 2009.

Crist, a lawyer, former legislator, education commissioner, attorney general and governor, said it was his first time to be questioned under oath in a deposition, a remarkable thing for a man who has spent most of his adult life in politics.

Many of the other witnesses that have been questioned under oath also suffered from a failure to recall details of Greer's fundraising activity.

The issue is a critical one as Greer faces trial in Orlando on Monday for secretly creating Victory Strategies, a company that collected about $200,000 from the GOP in 2009. He is accused of multiple counts of theft and fraud and faces a maximum of 75 years in prison if convicted.

Story from Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan here.

Wildlife Federation sues Rick Scott and Cabinet over Everglades leases

The Florida Wildlife Federation has sued Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet to stop its decision Jan. 23 to allow sugar and vegetable farmers to continue leasing state-owned land in the Everglades for another 30 years.  Download FWF Final Petition Stamped

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Wildlife Federation by Earthjustice, which represents a coalition of environmental groups in a federal legal challenge to clean-up agricultural pollution. It alleges that the farming has the potential to exacerbate the pollution the state is attempting to clean-up in the region and the 30-year deal violates a state law requiring private leases on state lands to serve the public interest. 

“This is obviously not in the public interest,” said David Guest, lawyer for Earthjustice. “These leases would allow corporate agricultural pollution to continue unabated, and there is no requirement for any additional cleanup. These state leases don’t even include any pollution discharge limits to protect the Everglades.”

Gaston Cantens, vice president of Florida Crystals, one of the sugar companies that benefits from the lease deal, said the lawsuit will only serve to delay progress in the Everglades. 

"The only thing Earthjustice has done since 1988 is file lawsuits and obstruct progress,'' he said. "Our goal is Everglades restoration. Apparently, David Guest's goal is Everglades litigation."

Under the arrangement agreed to by the governor, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, the state will renew leases on 14,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area for A. Duda & Sons and Florida Crystals in exchange for land needed for clean-up projects.

They rejected suggestions by environmentalists to re-negotiate a shorter-term lease that gives the state more flexibility in the event the leased land may be needed for clean-up projects in the future. But South Florida Water Management District officials assured them the land would not be needed and the governor and Cabinet rejected the environmentalists' requests. 

Continue reading "Wildlife Federation sues Rick Scott and Cabinet over Everglades leases" »

More job turnover at Florida jobs agency as top official leaves

Another top official at Florida’s economic development agency has left, continuing an exodus of executives from the Department of Economic Opportunity, created by Gov. Rick Scott 18 months ago.

Tom Beck, who was the Director of Community Development at the Department, has left DEO for the Department of Environmental Protection, DEO confirmed Thursday. He will be replaced by William Killingsworth, a former planning official with the City of Jacksonville.

Killingsworth will face a full plate when he lands at the agency later this month.

The Division of Community Development helps run the Black Business Loan Program, which is tied up in litigation after DEO refused to renew the certification for a Central Florida organization. Several officials at DEO are being called in to testify under oath.

DEO has had five different directors—two interim, three permanent—since it launched in late 2011.

Continue reading "More job turnover at Florida jobs agency as top official leaves" »

Gov. Rick Scott lights up the Florida State Fair

Gov. Rick Scott's black cowboy boots came in especially handy Thursday as he visited the Florida State Fair in Tampa for the second year in a row. He posed for pictures next to prized heifers and held his 15-month-old grandson Auguste as he worked his way through the livestock pavilion.

Scott and the three Cabinet members ceremonially threw a switch to light the fair's garish midway, and then held a Cabinet meeting where the agenda was lighter than a funnel cake.

Workforce Florida and an economist for the Florida Association of Realtors cited figures showing the state is bouncing back economically -- themes that dovetail nicely with Scott's re-election message.

The governor repeated a favorite talking point of job gains compared to "the four years before I took office" -- obvious code for the years when Florida was led by Charlie Crist, the former governor who may challenge Scott in 2014 as a Democrat.

But the day also belonged to Adam Putnam, the state agriculture commissioner who emceed the Governor's Day Luncheon before a crowd of hundreds of Tampa Bay movers and shakers. For history's sake, Putnam said, "you must buy a deep-fried Twinkie."

-- Steve Bousquet, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau