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11 posts from September 6, 2013

September 06, 2013

Activists target Miami-Dade commissioner for recall

@PatriciaMazzei

The coalition of activists ballyhooed their lottery-style drawing Friday as the launch of the takedown of a county commissioner.

They had so many prospects, they said — eight commissioners who dared to vote against raising the property-tax rate — they would pick one name at random out of a hat, an Uncle Sam topper festooned in red, white and blue.

They exulted when the hat yielded the name to be targeted for a recall drive: Miami-Dade Commissioner Lynda Bell.

But for a while, things looked like they were not exactly what they seemed: The drawing appeared to have been rigged.

The evidence: A printout handed out to reporters — before the name was plucked out of the hat — already listed Bell as the targeted commissioner.

Absolutely not, insisted one of the event’s organizers, who blamed the mishap on a photocopying flub and an unlucky coincidence.

“No, no,” said Michael Rosenberg, co-founder of the Pets’ Trust, one of two groups heading the recall effort. “If I could have picked, she wouldn’t have been the one. ... I would have made sure she wasn’t in it, if I could arrange it.”

The Pets’ Trust drafted talking points specific to each of the eight commissioners — but by mistake only gave out the first one that was printed, co-founder Rita Schwartz said late Friday. That one, as it happened, listed Bell.

“It was honestly just a stupid mistake that I made,” Schwartz said.

More here.

Subpoenas issued to key witnesses in ex-Hialeah mayor's tax-evasion trial

@jayhweaver & @joeflech

When several Hialeah politicians and others entangled in the tax-evasion case of former Mayor Julio Robaina were served with federal subpoenas this week, it stirred speculation that the criminal investigation was widening at City Hall.

In reality, those served are viewed as key witnesses by the U.S. attorney’s office, as prosecutors prepare for Robaina’s trial, scheduled for early November.

Among those subpoenaed to testify: Hialeah Councilwoman Vivian Casals-Muñoz, who notarized financial documents for Robaina; former Councilman Guillermo “Willie” Zuñiga, who borrowed money from Robaina; and political insider Roberto Blanco, who allegedly delivered cash-filled envelopes to Robaina as payments from a convicted Ponzi schemer who borrowed large sums from the former mayor.

Current Mayor Carlos Hernandez, who also loaned money to the same investment scammer, has not been subpoenaed, according to his chief of staff, Arnie Alonso.

In May, a federal grand jury indicted Robaina, 48, and his wife, Raiza, 39, on charges of failing to report cash payments on loans totaling more than $1 million and other business income. Both also are charged with lying to federal agents about Robaina’s involvement in his wife’s two lending businesses; Robaina was charged with lying about receiving the undisclosed cash.

More here.

School board members make "friendly" bet on UM-UF game

Miami-Dade School Board Member Larry Feldman is a Florida Gator.

His fellow board member Carlos Curbelo is a Miami Hurricane.

The two have a "friendly" bet riding on this Saturday's big UM-UF football game.

The agreement: the losing board member must serve lunch at a school in the winning board member's district. (The winner will help, too.) The losing school board member must also wear the winning team’s jersey. 

“I am looking forward to serving lunch with Board Member Curbelo in any school," Feldman said in a statement Friday. "I think this is a wonderful opportunity to get involved in the community and connect with our students and staff.  In this case, I think Carlos and I agree: It’s not all about the U, it’s about the kids.”

That's not quite the trashtalking Marc Caputo and Connie Ogle did in today's Herald, but we'll take it anyway. 

Report: Bennett's changes to Indiana school grades were "plausible"

An independent review commissioned by the Indiana Legislature found "it was necessary" for former Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to tweak Indiana's school grading formula while serving as that state's top education official.

Bennett drew heavy criticism for the changes, which became the subject of media reports after he lost reelection in Indiana and was named education commissioner in Florida. The controversy led to Bennett's resignation from his Sunshine State post last month.

Emails showed that Bennett had scrambled to change the grade for Christel House Academy, an Indianapolis charter school run by an influential Republican Party donor.

But Bennett said he was addressing a flaw in Indiana's new school grading model, and that the change helped at least a dozen other schools.

Policy Analytics, the firm hired to do the review, found that the Indiana Department of Education had "underestimated the administrative and technical challenges" associated with developing a new school accountability system.

"In the end, the authors found that the two adjustments administered to determine Christel House Academy’s final grade were plausible and the treatment afforded to the school was consistently applied to other schools with similar circumstances," they wrote.

The authors also suggested state leaders move forward with this year's grades -- and that they be transparent and collaborative as they work to modify the school accountability rules in the future.

After reading the report, Bennett said he felt vindicated.

"More than anything, I felt vindicated for the folks who worked so hard in Indiana," he said.

Bennett said he had no regrets about stepping down from his job in Florida.

"I don’t say that because I don’t miss my job, because I do," he said. "But Gov. [Rick] Scott deserved more in an education commissioner than I could have given the last 30 days."

Some of Bennett's supporters in Florida took to Twitter on Friday afternoon.

"Good report for Indiana's A-F system and @Tony_Bennett," wrote Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future.

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Disability Rights Florida asks to intervene in federal suit against Florida over care for disabled kids

The not-for-profit group, Disability Rights Florida, has filed a motion to intervene into the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit against the state of Florida, accusing the state of warehousing sickly and disabled children in geriatric nursing homes.

The motion and complaint alleges that "nearly 200 childen with medically complex needs who reside in nursing facilities throughout the state, are illegally segregated in institutional settings" in violation of the American with Disabilities Act, which forbids discrimination against people with special needs.

Miami civil rights lawyer Matthew Dietz has also sued the state over the institutionalization of children.

Continue reading "Disability Rights Florida asks to intervene in federal suit against Florida over care for disabled kids" »

Crist makes rounds of Democrats in Broward, Palm Beach

Edging closer to a Democratic candidacy for governor, Charlie Crist spent the past couple of days renewing ties with party activists in Broward and Palm Beach counties -- places where Democrats need high turnouts and lots of enthusiasm if they are to have a prayer of winning in 2014. As an unsuccessful independent U.S. Senate candidate in 2012, Crist carried both counties, though his margin in Palm Beach was a mere 3,000 votes over Marco Rubio.

On the Gold Coast, Crist observed Rosh Hashana Wednesday with an old pal, former state Sen. Steve Geller. On Thursday, he held a luncheon with a group of African-American community leaders in Fort Lauderdale and went to a Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce gathering at the Broward convention center. Friday, Crist paid a call on former Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson. The Palm Beach Post's ever-observant George Bennett posted a hilarious tweet about a previous Crist/Aaronson sighting in June. Can't you just picture it?

Aaronson endorsed Crist for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Geller and Crist go way, way back, to their days together at Florida State University, and Geller, a lawyer, lost his last race for public office, for a Broward County Commission seat in 2012.

"I think that in order to mount an effective race, you've got to have time, and by the fall, I'll reach a conclusion," Crist said.

He said if he does run, he's considering copying the strategy of his possible opponent, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who raises campaign money through an electioneering campaign organizatuion (ECO) that cannot directly advocate a candidate's election but is exempt from contribution limits. Scott is collecting cash in increments of $10,000, $25,000 and $50,000 and more. Said Crist: "You have to look at all options if you want to run an effective campaign."

-- Steve Bousquet

In extraordinary move, state decides to draw new rules regulating gaming

After years of holding together a patchwork of gambling industry regulations, the Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering announced on Friday that it is prepared to rewrite the rules regulating Florida's multi-billion dollar parimutuel industry.

"In their current form, the laws regulating the industry are unclear and do not define many standards necessary to ensure the continued integrity of pari-mutuel wagering,'' the division said in a press release announcing the first in a series of hearings for the rule-making process. "The draft rules are designed to clarify terms and maintain traditional pari-mutuel standards."

 The initiative is a rare acknowledgement by a state agency that the laws governing horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons are out of date and unclear. In the last decade, the state has spent thousands of dollars defending the statutes despite changes in gaming technology, and only occassionally publicly asked the Legislature for more authority to update the regulations.

 However, the agency’s effort faces uncertain legal precedence and, ultimately, may serve to force the Legislature’s hand. Because of the bitter feuds within the state’s parimutuel industry, nearly every signficant rule change approved by state regulators has been met with a legal challenge. In many cases, the court has overturned attempts by the division to clarify the law or offer new interpretation to existing law. Despite the setbacks, the Legislature has refrained from updating the law.

 As the Herald/Times first reported, a series of rulings from the Division of Parimutuel Wagering in the last year have spawned dozens of lawsuits. Regulators have allowed "flag-drop" and barrel races to be considered a parimutuel sport, permitted slot operators to run electronic roulette and craps games in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, allowed a dormant jai alai permit to be used to expand the number of slot machines at Magic City Casino, and allowed Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream racetrack in Hallandale Beach to run a one-time race in June so they could offer thoroughbred races via simulcast year-round.

 Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association which won a lawsuit against the agency when it designated barrel racing as a parimutuel sport, said Friday he was surprised at the division’s acknowledgement that the laws governing the industry are unclear “but it’s also very accurate,’’ he said.

If the agency fails in its efforts to clarify what it considers unclear law, it could tee up the task for legislators, who have also signaled they are poised to review the state’s gaming laws.

The Senate Gaming Committee announced plans on Friday to conduct a series of four town-hall style hearings around the state to discuss the future of gambling in Florida and find ways to clarify the law and eliminate loopholes. The first hearing is scheduled for Oct. 23 in Coconut Creek.

The first rule workshop will be held Oct. 16 in Fort Lauderdale. A draft of the rule indicates that the division is prepared to outlaw "flag drops" but allow for an alternative to the traditional quarter horse racing and impose new rules on jockeys. It indicates it will prohibit jai alai games played with only two players and will impose rules for standards of play.

The Legislature is also expected in October to receive a $400,000 report it commissioned from the Spectrum Gaming Group on the economic role of the gaming industry in Florida. Here's the release:

Continue reading "In extraordinary move, state decides to draw new rules regulating gaming" »

State Senate committee to head to Broward for gaming workshop

The Florida Senate Gaming Committee will meet in Coconut Creek on Oct. 23 as part of its four-town traveling road show to seek input on the future of gambling in Florida. Other hearings will be held in Lakeland, Jacksonville and Pensacola. 

The committee will attempt to find ways to improve the state's tattered regulatory structure that has been riddled with holes over the past decade in the wake of court rulings, legal settlements and regulatory decisions, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, told the Herald/Times last month. It is expected to receive the results of a $400,000 review of the state's gaming industry by Spectrum Gaming Group before the meetings begin on Oct. 1. 

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a statement released Friday that the gaming committee is charged with "conducting a thorough review and recommending a comprehensive policy on how gaming fits into the broader Florida economy.”

“While the Florida Lottery, Seminole casinos, and gaming activities at licensed pari-mutuel facilities generate substantial economic activity, gaming regulations have been amended piecemeal over decades,” he said. 

Here's the schedule: 

Continue reading "State Senate committee to head to Broward for gaming workshop" »

Jim Greer, now inmate, emerges as prison civics teacher

Jim Greer in prison@SteveBousquet

He once controlled the Republican Party of Florida, flying on chartered jets, drinking top-shelf bourbon and mingling with the rich and powerful.

Now Jim Greer lives at Gulf Forestry Camp, a low-security prison in a remote patch of the Florida Panhandle and a world away from the life he lived as a confidant of former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Near the halfway point of his 18-month sentence for grand theft and money laundering, Greer agreed to speak exclusively with the Times/Herald about his old life and his new one.

The man who use to answer to "Chairman" has a new title: Inmate No. C07705.

On the surface, prison has been good to the 51-year-old Greer.

Seated at a conference table at nearby Gulf Correctional Institution, where prison officials arranged an interview, Greer looks noticeably thinner. He says he has lost 40 pounds.

He's also tanner than when Floridians last saw him in an Orlando courthouse in February. The tan is the result of six-hour days on a work crew, pulling weeds and picking up trash in nearby Port St. Joe.

He says he wakes up each morning at 4 a.m., attends church services on Tuesdays and Sundays, and teaches inmates studying for their GEDs about the three branches of government.

"I teach social studies and civics," he said, "believe it or not."

He is eligible for a work release transfer, has a spotless disciplinary record and has few complaints about prison life.

"When you're down in a ditch, it's 100 degrees and you have a Weed Eater, it's not the most pleasant thing," Greer said. "But it's not North Korea. We're not being beaten every day."

During a 75-minute visit, Greer talked about life in prison, the friends he thought he had and the people (he seldom gets specific) that he blames for his downfall. He tantalizes about a possible tell-all book.

"I have a lot of knowledge of a lot of things," he said. "Maybe someday I'll tell them and maybe someday I won't." Story here. 

Photo: Edmund D. Fountain, Tampa Bay Times 

Rouson feud with Democrats draws blood

A feud between Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant and incoming House Minority Leader Darryl Rouson spilled out into the open Friday with the confirmation that Tant has fired two high ranking members of the party’s political staff.

Jeff Ryan, who served as the finance director for the Florida House Democrats, and Chris Mitchell, who served as the political director for the Florida House Democrats, were fired Thursday, said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Joshua Karp.

The shakeup came after Tant discovered this week that Rouson, who is set to become minority leader in 2014, had created a special fundraising committee last month that only he could control. In their positions overseeing the financing and strategy of House races, Ryan and Mitchell worked with Rouson in creating the committee without informing Tant.

“This is an overreaction by the party and retaliatory in nature,” said Mitchell, who at 29 had served for the past seven months with the party after a two-year stint as the chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party. “At the end of the day, I hope Leader Rouson and Leader (Perry) Thurston can get together and come to an agreement.”

If anything, the rift between Rouson, of St. Petersburg, and other party leaders like Tant and Thurston, has only become more apparent the past two days. But there was plenty of evidence before that it was a bitter one. Tant defeated Hillsborough County Democratic state committeeman Alan Clendenin, 587-507, in late January after a nasty two-month campaign. Rouson and Mitchell openly supported Clendenin.

The following month, Rouson narrowly won his bid to become House minority leader, besting Mia Jones, of Jacksonville, 23-21, after they had been deadlocked 22-22. Rouson, who was once a Republican, has fended off criticism, much of it from House Democratic leadership, ever since.

Continue reading "Rouson feud with Democrats draws blood" »