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10 posts from October 17, 2013

October 17, 2013

Panel: South Florida's public corruption won't stop. But we'll keep trying to fight it


After the recent arrests of three city mayors in Miami-Dade County, it seemed particularly apt to hold a panel Thursday titled: "Public Corruption -– When Will It Stop?"

The answer, of course, was never.

But that doesn’t mean law-enforcement agencies should stop trying, said U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, Assistant State Attorney Howard Rosen and Ethics Commission Director Joe Centorino. Or that people should stop tipping off investigators.

"That's where we get most of our cases," Ferrer said.

The three spoke at a discussion hosted by the Good Government Initiative, the organization created by former County Commissioner Katy Sorenson at the University of Miami to groom better elected officials.

Ferrer’s office has the largest public-corruption investigations squad in the country, he said, with 11 FBI special agents and 12 local police officers. Over the past 10 years, Florida has had the highest number of federal corruption convictions in the U.S.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more wrongdoing here, he emphasized.

“It shows you we’re on it –- and there’s so much,” Ferrer said.

Rosen noted that with more government services and new technology, “there are ways to commit public corruption now that didn’t exist” before. But there are also more ways to detect it -– not only by investigators, but also by reporters and citizens armed with public records.

Most politicians and public employees are decent people, Centorino added. But he said he fears a “rotten barrel” –- instead of only a few “rotten apples” -– of miscreants if their deeds go unpunished.

The Commission on Ethics & Public Trust is working on an honor code, he said, to make it a public-sector obligation to come forward when someone sees a bribe, for example.

“You’d be amazed,” he said. “Some people didn’t think they needed to do anything about it.”

Crowd calms down at third Common Core hearing

Thursday night's third and final public hearing on the Common Core State Standards was far less testy than the one that preceded it.

About 60 people came to the Ghazvini Center for Healthcare Education Auditorium at Tallahassee Community College to share their thoughts on the new national benchmarks, which are already being taught in schools statewide.

The speakers included parents, grandparents, teachers and taxpayers.

Some made the case for the Common Core.

Wayne Blanton, of the Florida School Boards Association, said the new standards would "help our students be more competitive on a national basis."

He dismissed the idea that the Common Core would remove power from local school boards.

"Common Core standards do not establish a national curriculum, nor do they require that educators teach a specific curriculum," he said. "Local districts, local schools continue to be responsible for the curriculum and the delivery of that curriculum."

Dorina Sackman, an Orange County educator who was named Florida's Teacher of the Year, urged parents to visit their schools and watch the standards being taught.

"See Common Core happening in the classrooms," she said. "It's absolutely wonderful."

Opponents, however, voiced concerns that the standards were poorly written and inappropriate for children in some grade levels.

There were also plenty of swipes at government.

“These standards are just another way for government to control the minds of people,” said Carlos Ramirez, who teaches his children in his Tallahassee home. “Common Core seems to me like Common Communism."

Said Victor Hajos, a 75-year-old Tallahassee resident: "The more you get government involved in something, the worse it gets."

Gov. Rick Scott requested the three hearings to get public feedback on the Common Core.

State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart took notes throughout the meetings. She plans to deliver a report to the state Board of Education in November.

Bondi's re-election gets boost from curiously timed Trump contribution

TALLAHASSEE — For the second time in more than a month, campaign contributions fueling the re-election efforts of Attorney General Pam Bondi are raising questions about the overlap between politics and how Florida's top law enforcement officer performs her duties.

Bondi apologized last month after she persuaded Gov. Rick Scott to delay an execution so she could host a fundraiser at her South Tampa home that ended up raising $140,000.

Now comes criticism of a $25,000 contribution made by one of Donald Trump's foundations to a political committee associated with Bondi. The donation came three days after an Attorney General's office spokeswoman said Bondi was reviewing allegations in a lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general against get-rich-quick seminars associated with Trump.

See story here.

After rejecting Medicaid expansion, Florida may request more federal dollars


Months after Florida lawmakers rejected $51 billion from the federal government to expand Medicaid, state officials are prepared to request billions in new federal aid for a different program to improve care for the poor, uninsured and under-insured.

But this cash grab, for whatever reason, has yet to ignite a political furor.

State officials want to grow its Low Income Pool (LIP) program from $1 billion a year to possibly $3 billion a year, said Justin Senior, deputy secretary for Medicaid at the Agency for Health Care Administration. The additional money could be used to help hospitals cover charity care, provide premium support for low-income Floridians or expand current health care programs.

"Our feeling at the agency is that there are opportunities here to make the LIP program larger," Senior recently told lawmakers, who didn't object. "We have talked with the federal government about that, and the federal government, by and large, they seem generally receptive to the possibility of it."

Even contemplating accepting additional federal LIP dollars seems at odds with the Legislature's stone-cold rejection of additional Medicaid funding tied to health care reform. But it highlights how intertwined Tallahassee and Washington are — whether Republican lawmakers in the state Capitol like it or not.

Rep. Matt Hudson, the Naples Republican who chair's the House's health care budget committee, said it's best to keep the two discussions separate.

Read more here.


Former charter schools lobbyist makes leap to Duval County Public Schools

The Duval County school system has a new contract lobbyist -- and it's not who you might expect.

John Sullivan will serve as the district's top advocate in Tallahassee.

Sullivan, 29, comes to Duval County Public Schools having previously lobbied for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools and the Florida Charter School Alliance.

For education insiders, that's a big leap. Florida school districts and charter schools have had an icy relationship since the economic downturn, partly because they've had to compete for public dollars.

Duval County schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he wasn't concerned about Sullivan's charter-school background.

"I wanted someone who was fast, responsive and brought a new perspective," Vitti said. "That’s why I went with John. He has experience in Tallahassee, and has been earning the respect of lawmakers and his colleagues."

Before becoming a lobbyist, Sullivan interned for state Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who now chairs the Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Sullivan also worked for a consulting firm run by former state Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Miami.

“I have a passion for education and have advocated for all students during the past two [legislative] sessions," Sullivan said. "I look forward to using that experience for the students in Duval, and fighting for them in Tallahassee.”

Vitti said Sullivan's hire is part of a larger plan to make the Duval school system more of a player in Tallahassee.

"It’s part of rebranding who are we are as Duval County Public Schools and thinking more like a large district," he said. "We want to be more involved in policy."

Vitti added that the school district's strategy for competing with charter schools is transparent: "You don’t have to be an insider to know our approach. We’re creating schools that offer better instruction and are more focused on customer service."

Concern grows in Legislature over botched release of two killers

Concern is mounting in the Legislature over news that the Florida Department of Corrections let two convicted murderers go free based on what the agency says were fraudulent documents that passed through the county clerk's office in Orlando to prison officials.

Inmates Charles Walker and Joseph Jenkins, serving lengthy sentences for separate murders in Orlando more than a decade ago, were recently released from Franklin C.I. in Carrabelle. Both men, both age 34, are still at large and considered dangerous by Orange County law enforcement officials. Documents reportedly forged the signature of a prominent Orlando-area judge, Belvin Perry.

Gov. Rick Scott has not made a public statement about the case. Scott, who is up for re-election in 2014, frequently points with pride to the decline in Florida's crime rate.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, chairman of the Senate budget committee overseeing prisons, said he would demand that the Senate receive a "full understanding of how something like this could happen." But he said that must wait until after the two inmates are captured. "Now is not the time for that," Bradley said.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, was not quite as reticent and issued a statement that called for the House to hold hearings on the incident in the coming weeks.

“This is unconscionable, almost unthinkable ,” Rouson said. “People have faith in government that it will keep the peace and justice. If these two convicted murderers were let go by the Florida Department of Corrections, something must change.” Rouson is the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations panel that controls the prison system's budget.

Corrections Secretary Mike Crews issued a statement Thursday saying that his agency followed its policies properly, but that the documents had been falsified. If the inmates aren't captured quickly, Crews will have a lot of explaining to do in the Capitol. He enjoys cordial relations with lawmakers and makes himself accessible to them (Bradley said Crews telephoned him Thursday to explain how the two inmates went free). The prisons chief has been grappling with a persistent budget deficit in his agency and lawmakers are increasingly impatient that the agency has not yet switched to a more modern electronic time and attendance system for its 20,000-or-so employees.

-- Steve Bousquet

Two killers at large; state freed them based on forged documents

A manhunt is underway in Florida after the Department of Corrections released two convicted murderers based on what the state says were fraudulent documents. The inmates are Charles Walker and Joseph Jenkins, both convicted of murders in the Orlando area, and both men were serving lengthy sentences at Franklin Correctional Institution in Carrabelle, south of Tallahassee.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that release documents for both inmates carried forged signatures of Orange County Circuit Judge Belvin Perry, the chief judge of the circuit. Those documents were processed through the Orange County clerk of court and submitted to prison officials in Tallahassee. Jenkins was released Sept. 27 and Walker was released Oct. 8, the newspaper reports, but it wasn't until Tuesday that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was notified.

The Department of Corrections has posted "alerts" on its web site and the large banner "escape notice" next to both inmates' biographies.

Corrections Secretary Mike Crews issued a statement Thursday that said in part: "Walker and Jenkins were both released in accordance with Department of Corrections policy and procedure; however, their releases were based on fraudulent modifications that had been made to the court orders that determines their length of sentence."

Crews said the prison system is also "conducting a vigorous and thorough review of releases that were based on modified court orders received from Orange County to ensure that there are no other inmates who have been released based on falsified documents. The top priority of the Department is the safety of Florida families and we’ll continue working with law enforcement to ensure these men are returned to custody.”

-- Steve Bousquet

Suspended Sweetwater mayor, lobbyist charged with fraud are likely cooperating with feds

@jayhweaver @BrendaMedinar

Former Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte appear to be laying the groundwork to plead guilty to a fraud conspiracy, stemming from their pocketing thousands of dollars in kickbacks while seeking federal grants in an FBI sting operation.

On Friday, they will be arraigned in Miami federal court on a single charge of conspiring to commit honest services fraud. The charge, filed Thursday in a so-called information instead of an indictment, is a tell-tale sign that the two defendants are cooperating with the U.S. attorney’s office.

While they plan to plead not guilty to the conspiracy charge Friday, they are expected to change their initial plea to guilty at a later date. The charge, which accuses them of illegally receiving cash for official favors and concealing those payments from the public, carries up to five years in prison.

“From the beginning, we have said that we have placed our trust in the criminal justice system to resolve this matter,” Forte’s criminal defense attorney, David Weinstein, said Thursday. “Jorge Forte deeply regrets his involvement in this case. He will do everything he can to make up for it.”

Maroño’s defense attorney, Armando Rosquete, declined to comment.

More here.

Bill Nelson tapped for (doomed to fail?) bipartisan budget-compromise committee


Pardon the parenthetical in the headline above. It's tough to see how anything in Washington can succeed if it has these three words: "budget," "compromise" and "congress."

Good luck to them all. And good luck to us.

Here's the press release:

Continue reading "Bill Nelson tapped for (doomed to fail?) bipartisan budget-compromise committee" »

Roll Call: National Democrats target Carlos Curbelo with robo-calls

Capitol Hll-based Roll Call reports that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting GOP challengers in 16 competitive 2014 House races, with robo calls that connect recipients directly to the campaign offices of the candidates.

On their list: Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo, who is running against Democrat incumbent Rep. Joe Garcia. It is the only Florida congressional race on the DCCC's list.

Click here for Roll Call story