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5 posts from December 1, 2013

December 01, 2013

Sweetwater mayor’s corruption conviction pops lid on a sewer of scandal

@jayhweaver @BrendaMedinar @msanchezMIA

Until federal agents began swarming over the city the past several months, Sweetwater seemed as nondescript as its City Hall — a three-story concrete box surrounded by working-class homes and an auto repair shop, tamale stand and passport office down the street.

Now, the tiny West Miami-Dade city is quickly becoming famous for something other than its perennial flooding problems and the quirky fact that it was founded by Russian circus midgets.

The city’s disgraced mayor and a lobbyist crony — both convicted last month in federal court — admitted pocketing $60,000 in kickbacks after getting nailed in an FBI sting operation. But the bust only scratched the surface of a culture of corruption that has infested City Hall, which is shared by Sweetwater officials and the police department.

Federal agents are trying to unravel the tangled tentacles of ex-Mayor Manny Maroño’s association with a towing company, in which he has been a suspected silent partner. The city’s no-bid, verbal agreement with Southland The Towing Company, which state records show the mayor once owned, filled police coffers with wads of cash from fines — funds controlled by the recently resigned police chief, a Maroño ally. Some of that cash, deposited into a postal-type box inside the police department, was found to be missing.

More here.

Miami lawmaker's sister-in-law gets tuition freebie at Dade Medical College


Dade Medical College built its fast-growing empire with a healthy dose of political influence — the college founder has poured at least $170,000 into campaign contributions, and close to a dozen local politicians either took jobs at the college or benefited financially in some way.

The for-profit college’s political links, it turns out, also extend to elected officials’ families. At least two family members of powerful politicians have attended Dade Medical.

One of them, the sister-in-law of state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, is receiving free tuition, a source close to the family told the Miami Herald. That means she’s saving tens of thousands of dollars that students typically have to pay.

That sister-in-law declined to speak with a reporter who visited her home.

“No thanks,” she said, wagging her finger.

When Trujillo himself was questioned about the issue, he initially said he was “not aware” of whether the in-law was getting free tuition.

The next day, Trujillo took it upon himself to seek a legal opinion from the Florida House of Representatives’ general counsel, Daniel Nordby. In an e-mail to the Miami Herald, Trujillo wrote:

“I take my ethical obligations very seriously and want to ensure that I am always compliant with our conflict and reporting laws. Mr. Nordby confirmed to me that which I knew, namely that neither my sister-in-law’s attendance at Dade Medical College, nor her financial aid package, create any voting conflicts for me as she is neither an immediate family member as defined by the relevant Florida Statutes, and I have no knowledge about her financial-aid status. Therefore, there is no voting conflict nor improper gift in this instance.”

Two days later, in a follow-up interview, Trujillo was asked if he had spoken with his sister-in-law. Had he settled the question, once and for all, of whether she was getting free tuition?

Trujillo said he had not. Trujillo explained that he wouldn’t be asking his relative about it because doing so would be an invasion of her privacy.

“I have never asked anybody for a discount in anything,” Trujillo said. “I’m not going to dig into my sister-in-law’s personal finances. I would never ask her that question.”

More here.

Evaluations aren't making grade for thousands of Florida teachers


When Miami-Dade’s 2012 elementary science teacher of the year finally got her annual evaluation last May, she was confused.

Despite the top honor from her peers for her work with Howard Drive Elementary fifth graders, the official record ranked Julie Rich as barely effective due to her students’ poor test results — in reading.

“It makes no sense,” said Rich. “I’m just trying to get a fair evaluation. I felt really offended by this because I’m not even being judged by the subject I teach.”

Nor are thousands of other Florida teachers.

As the Department of Education prepares to release another batch of evaluation results Monday under the state’s new job review process, local school boards and state officials are still struggling to improve a system that judges as many as two-thirds of the state’s teachers on the test scores of students they’ve never met or on subjects they don’t teach.

A solution to the problem lies in the development of hundreds of new exams, which state officials say should be ready by next school year. But skeptics say creating and issuing the assessments could cost billions. And doubts remain about whether Florida’s 67 school districts have the time or money to make the system work by 2014, when pay and job security are tied to evaluations.

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Health care sets tone for 2014 midterm elections in South Florida


WASHINGTON -- Remember way back when, in October 2013, when the government shutdown was going to be disastrous for Republicans in the next elections? Now health care is dominant, flipping the table on Democrats who have the added burden of President Barack Obama’s declining popularity.

The botched rollout of healthcare.gov, delays of key provisions, public confusion, unrelenting Republican opposition and a false promise by Obama have set the tone for the 2014 midterm elections, lifting GOP chances of taking the Senate and retaining control of the House.

The pace is being set in South Florida, where a deeply-financed conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, is already running TV ads against Democratic Reps. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter and Joe Garcia of Miami, linking them to the health care law and the president’s stumbles.

Murphy and Garcia, elected in 2012 and considered among the most vulnerable in the country, were among 39 Democrats who broke with their party this month to back a GOP proposal that would allow insurers to sell plans that do not meet Obamacare standards, a move other Democrats said was another attempt to undermine the law.

More here.

Meet John Morgan, the bombastic lawyer fueling Florida's 2014 election


ORLANDO -- You’d think after making thousands of “For the People” TV ads for his law firm, John Morgan would be more than comfortable before the camera.

But as he looked at his cherubic baby face on the TV monitor recently, Morgan groaned. “Laawd,” he said in his deep Kentucky drawl, “high def is a mother f-----.”

Insecurity runs deep, even for a bombastic multimillionaire who leads the country’s largest personal injury law firm, has hosted President Barack Obama at his 18,000-square-foot mansion and is poised to be the most important man in Florida politics this election cycle other than Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

Morgan, 57, is leading a high-profile ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Florida for medical use and he’s a key adviser to former Republican Gov. Crist’s unprecedented campaign to win back the Governor’s Mansion as a Democrat.

Some wealthy middle-aged businessmen bag trophy wives; Morgan goes for trophy lawyers, and Crist is the biggest trophy and best rainmaker at Morgan & Morgan.

“I’ll definitely lose a lot of money if he becomes governor,” said Morgan, describing Crist as a magnet for lucrative cases — from BP oil, to sinkholes, to a pollution case where damages could approach $100 million. “People call all day long to talk to Charlie. The guy walks down any aisle of Publix and passes out five business cards. Those people call.”

More here.