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113 posts from October 2017

October 23, 2017

Gov. Rick Scott seeks environmentally-friendly budget for 2018

Gov. Rick Scott’s spending priorities for 2018 continue to take shape as he enters his final year in office with a major statewide election on the horizon.

The Republican governor wants the Legislature to increase spending on environmental programs by more than $220 million next year. Scott planned a visit to the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples for the announcement.

Scott wants to spend $50 million on Florida Forever, a popular land preservation program that conservationists have said has received too little money in recent years. He wants nearly $40 million more for state parks, a $36 million uptick in beach restoration programs to $100 million, and $55 million for springs restoration.

Scott’s record on the environment has been controversial on issues ranging from climate change to offshore oil drilling. Early in his tenure, he called for major budget cuts to the state’s five regional water management districts, and in non-election years he called for budget reductions in the Department of Environmental Protection.

However, Scott’s appointment in May of Noah Valenstein as DEP secretary won praise from environmentalists, including Audubon’s Eric Draper, who was with Scott for Monday’s announcement in Naples.

“I do think this is the year for environmental spending,” said Draper, who has walked the halls of Florida‘s Capitol for decades. “It’s a great budget for the Everglades. He (Scott) is following through on his commitment to springs and he’s stepping up for land conservation and for parks.”

Draper added: “My job as an advocate is to take advantage of these election-year moments and to try to get everything we can.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has filed a bill for the 2018 session to increase Florida Forever spending by $100 million.

The Legislature zeroed out new money for the program in last spring’s regular session.

Nearly two months ago, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, renewed his call for $50 million more for beaches. Latvala, a candidate for governor, proposed a similar program in the 2017 session, but it faltered in the House.

Scott will leave office in January 2019. He’s widely expected to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018.

The governor’s call for more environmental money is his fifth spending initiative in recent weeks.

He has also called for pay raises for juvenile detention and juvenile probation officers; a separate $4,000 starting pay raise for state troopers at the Florida Highway Patrol, an agency long hampered by rampant turnover due to low salaries; $50 million more, shared between the state and the federal government, to battle the opioid epidemic, and $1 million for enhanced security at Jewish day schools in Florida.

Report: Miami and Pinellas lead state in diverting youth offenders; rest of the state fails

Juvenile crime cjusteThe number of youth arrested for low-level crimes like shoplifting, vandalism or possessing marijuana dropped significantly in the last year as counties across the state turned to diversion programs to keep first-time offenders from cycling back into trouble.

But the innovative use of so-called “civil citations,” which replace jail time with programs often involving community service and counseling, is so uneven in Florida that a new report released Monday by the nonpartisan “Stepping Up 2017” gives most of the state an “F” grade.

“The data shows the state is moving in the right direction, but at a slow pace,” said Dewey Caruthers, president of The Caruthers Institute, a St. Petersburg-based think tank that conducts the annual study. “Many counties also are moving in the right direction, albeit sluggishly.”

To see interactive map and download report, click here.

For the second year in a row, Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties outperformed the rest of the state by issuing civil citations to 94 percent of all kids caught in low-level crimes, including underage drinking, disorderly conduct, vandalism, loitering, school fights and possession of alcohol or marijuana.

And, for the second year in a row, the counties with the worst record were Duval, Hillsborough and Orange, as they together compromised 24 percent of the more than 8,700 youth arrests in 2016.

The report — the third annual study of its kind by a broad ideological coalition that includes the Southern Poverty Law Center, the James Madison Insitute, the ACLU and several other state and national advocacy groups — builds upon research that shows that when first-time offenders are given alternatives to arrest, they can avoid a criminal record that diminishes their opportunities in school, jobs, housing and when obtaining loans and credit. More of the story here. 

October 20, 2017

State Department identifies two more victims of mysterious sonic attacks in Havana

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@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres

The U.S. State Department added two more victims to the list of diplomats who have suffered mysterious attacks in Havana.

The number of Americans affected is now 24.

“Based on continued assessments of U.S. government personnel, we can confirm 24 persons have experienced health effects from the attacks,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “As we have said previously, an investigation into the attacks in Cuba is ongoing, and we revise our assessments as we receive new information.”

According to Nauert, the assessments are based on medical evaluations of personnel who were affected by incidents earlier this year, not by new attacks.

The most recent medically confirmed attack occurred in late August, she said. The spokeswoman said the government cannot rule out that new cases may emerge “as medical professionals continue to evaluate members of the embassy community.” 

The State Department has warned Americans not to travel to Cuba because of the alleged attacks on its personnel in Havana. The victims have reported a variety of symptoms ranging from hearing loss and headaches to brain damage. In particular, the agency warned Americans of staying away from Hotel Capri and Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, where some of the attacks took place.

More here.

Photo credit: Olivier Douliery, TNS File

C'est magnifique: Miami Beach mayor to be awarded French Legion of Honor

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@PatriciaMazzei

President Emmanuel Macron has bestowed France's highest civilian honor to an unlikely subject: Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

Pourquoi, one might ask?

Because of Levine's "outstanding contribution to our French-American friendship and commitment to raise awareness about climate change," said Clément Leclerc, consul general of France in Miami, according to a statement from Levine announcing the occasion.

Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the U.S., will present Levine with the Légion d'Honneur insignia Tuesday in Washington.

As a legion officer, Levine will join the ranks of about 10,000 Americans who have been lauded by France, including some très important company: Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Dwight Eisenhower and Colin Powell.

Levine, a likely 2018 Democratic candidate for Florida governor, has been an outspoken advocate for fighting climate change, investing millions of city dollars into projects to deal with the damaging consequences of rising seas.

Video of Frederica Wilson’s 2015 speech shows John Kelly was wrong

Frederica Wilson 2

@alextdaugherty @anitakumar01 @doug_hanks

Rep. Frederica Wilson never said she secured $20 million from President Barack Obama to build an FBI building in Miramar in 2015 although Trump administration Chief of Staff John Kelly accused her of doing so from the White House podium on Thursday, according to a video of the actual event.

During a video of the nine minute speech posted Friday by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Wilson took credit for passing legislation to get the building named after slain FBI agents Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, killed during a 1986 shootout with bank robbers south of Miami. Multiple members of Congress and then-FBI Director James Comey praised Wilson’s effort in getting the building named for them in 2015.

But Wilson never took credit for securing federal funding during her speech, showing that Kelly’s attack on her was false. Documents suggest that the money for the project was allocated by Congress before Wilson arrived in Congress in 2011.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In her remarks, Wilson did call passing her bill so quickly “a miracle, to say the least,” thanks to her and colleagues being in “attack mode.” But she also spent significant time praising the agents who Kelly said on Thursday had deserved the attention that day.

“Today it is is our patriotic duty to lift up Special Agent Benjamin Grogan and Special Agent Jerry Dove from the streets of South Florida and place their names and pictures high where the world will know that we are proud of their sacrifice, sacrifice for our nation,” she said according to the video.

“It is only fitting that their names should be placed on the same mantle with the letters FBI. Because Special Agent Grogan and Dove embody the sacred motto of which the agency has become known. Please repeat it after me: Fidelity. Bravery. And integrity.

“God bless you,” she said at the close, drawing a standing ovation. “God bless the FBI. And God bless America.”

Kelly launched a highly specific attack on Wilson without mentioning her by name during a 20 minute speech at the White House on Thursday, accusing the Miami Gardens Democrat of politicizing the death of a soldier and taking undue credit for the FBI building during a solemn ceremony.

Read more here.

Rubio to Trump: Have U.S. vote 'no' on UN Cuba embargo resolution

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@PatriciaMazzei

Sen. Marco Rubio wants the Trump administration to once again oppose the annual symbolic vote at the United Nations to condemn the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

The UN will probably hold the vote next month, the Florida Republican wrote in a letter Thursday to President Donald Trump, and the U.S. should say "No." Taking any other posture, Rubio argued, "would send the wrong message to human rights defenders and pro-democracy dissidents in Cuba."

Last year, under the Obama administration, the U.S. abstained from the vote for the first time, a historic shift underscoring the former president's diplomatic rapprochement with Raúl Castro's communist regime. It was the 25th time the UN formally rebuked the embargo -- the "blockade," Cuba calls it -- with a 191-2 vote. The U.S. and Israel abstained.

In June, Trump tightened U.S.-Cuba policy, in large part because Rubio -- Trump's go-to man on Latin America -- and Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart pressed the White House. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is a like-minded Rubio friend.

"It is my hope that America's new policy toward Cuba will help to bring closer the day when the Cuban people have the opportunity to elect their own leaders and live under a government that truly represents them and respects their God-given, inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Rubio wrote.

Download Rubio letter

Photo credit: Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

Four Keys officials fined total of $20,000 for ethics violations

A local political battle in the Florida Keys is proving very costly for four Monroe County commissioners.

The four agreed Friday to pay a total of $20,000 in fines for filing inaccurate financial disclosure forms with the state for four years in violation of state law and the Florida Constitution.

Meeting in Tallahassee, the Commission on Ethics unanimously approved the fines against commissioners Heather Carruthers, Danny Kolhage, Sylvia Jean Murphy and David Payne Rice.

All four elected officials acknowledged errors of omission involving investments, income or both on annual Form 6 disclosure statements for the years 2012 through 2015. All four have submitted amended statements for all four years.

Rice’s fine was $6,000, Murphy’s fine was $4,000 and the other two fines were $5,000 each.

Attorney Mark Herron, appearing on the commissioners’ behalf, urged the ethics commission to approve four agreements known as joint stipulations.

All four complaints were filed by Richard Boettger of Key West, a tax preparer who cited in his complaints that the commissioners ordered an audit of a non-profit animal shelter in Marathon that ended the shelter’s animal control contract in the Middle Keys.

Boettger is a friend of the shelter’s former director, Linda Gottwald, according to a report in the Florida Keys Keynoter and Reporter newspaper.

In an earlier ethics case, the paper reported, the commission’s fifth member, Monroe County Mayor George Neugent, agreed to a $500 fine for not disclosing an honorary golf course membership.

“He (Boettger) is mad at George for Linda Gottwald’s downfall and he’s blaming us for making him mayor,” Commissioner Murphy told the newspaper.

In Carruthers’ case, an analysis by the ethics commission staff noted that she listed the cash value of a brokerage account, “but failed to properly identify the specific assets contained in the account.” The law requires disclosure of each source of income greater than $1,000.

The ethics panel approved stipulations in all four cases, which brought them all to an end without the need for extensive public hearings.

The maximum fine that the Commission on Ethics can impose in a case is $10,000.

In attack on Frederica Wilson over Trump’s call to widow, John Kelly gets facts wrong

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@alextdaugherty @anitakumar01 @doug_hanks

When White House Chief of Staff John Kelly condemned a Miami congresswoman on Thursday for sneering at President Donald Trump’s condolence call to a soldier’s widow, the retired general recalled when the two attended a somber ceremony in Miramar to dedicate a new FBI building named after two slain FBI agents.

Kelly criticized Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson for claiming “she got the money” for the new building during the 2015 ceremony while he and others in the audience were focused on the heroism of agents Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, killed during a 1986 shootout with bank robbers south of Miami.

Thursday night, Wilson said Kelly got the story flat-out wrong. In fact, she said Washington approved the money before she was even in Congress. The legislation she sponsored named the building after Grogan and Dove, a law enacted just days before the ceremony.

“He shouldn't be able to just say that, that is terrible,” Wilson said of Kelly’s remarks in the White House briefing room, the latest volley in the controversy over Trump’s condolence call to a military widow from Miami Gardens, an area Wilson represents. “This has become totally personal.”

In 2015, Wilson won praise from Miami Republicans for sponsoring the bill to name the long anticipated federal building after two agents who became legends in local law enforcement.

At the dedication ceremony, James Comey, then director of the FBI, lauded Wilson’s legislation, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama three days before the April 2015 ceremony.

“Rep. Wilson truly did the impossible, and we are eternally grateful,” Comey said in his remarks.

On Thursday evening, an administration spokesman issued a statement that said: “The White House stands by Gen. Kelly’s account of the event.”

The controversy was still raging at the White House late Thursday night. Shortly before 11 p.m., Trump tweeted: “The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”

The exchange began during a rare appearance in the White House briefing room by Kelly to address the firestorm over Wilson sharing her first-hand account of Trump’s call Tuesday to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed during an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger in West Africa. Wilson said Trump was disrespectful to his widow, Myeshia, by saying her husband had known what he was getting into by joining the Army, and by calling him “your guy” instead of using his name.

Kelly tapped into his personal experience as the former head of the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Doral, a position that often had him representing the Defense Department in local events. That included the dedication of the FBI regional building in Miramar, when he said Wilson’s remarks were jarring and self-serving.

“A congresswoman stood up, and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call, he gave the money, the $20 million, to build the building, and she sat down,” Kelly told reporters.

The Miami Herald could not obtain video of the April 10, 2015, event, or a transcript of the remarks. Wilson denied saying what Kelly described, and said the timing made no sense.

The General Services Administration had already bid out a $144 million construction contract for the project in September 2010, just a few months before Wilson won her congressional seat. The bidding for federal projects takes place after Congress has secured the funding.

“That is crazy that I got [the money] and Mr. Obama just gave it to me,” Wilson said. “That building was funded long before I got to Congress. I didn’t say that. I have staff, people who write the speeches. You can’t say that.”

Read more here.

October 19, 2017

Puerto Rico's lost days after Hurricane Maria

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@PatriciaMazzei @omayasosa

MAUNABO, Puerto Rico -- Before Hurricane Maria tore through the rest of this island, it came to Mayor Jorge Márquez’s home.

The storm ripped through improvised plastic shutters, shook the windows and sent his panicked family, including his grandchildren, scurrying to a bathroom to hide. For four hours, as the fiercest of Maria’s winds roared through his mountain town in southeast Puerto Rico, Márquez kept the wind from forcing itself in by pushing a dining table hard against the front door.

At the end, when the winds finally died down, he stepped outside to glimpse at the damage to the town he’s run for nearly two decades. Tattered roofs littered the ground. Snapped trees mangled power lines. The local hospital was lost. The town’s funeral home was gone.

Márquez wept.

The easy part of the storm was over. The real agony had yet to begin.

“Everything we’ve built over 16 years, destroyed in a single day,” he said Tuesday, pausing to fight back fresh tears.

A month has passed since Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, and the island continues to operate in emergency mode, struggling to do even the basics: save lives, protect property, provide drinking water, turn on the lights. Time ticks away in a hazy state of permanent disaster, a catastrophe born from the worst storm to cross Puerto Rico in 85 years — and of a slow recovery by the federal, state and local governments.

The blame for the unsatisfactory response, the Miami Herald and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism found, lies with bureaucracies that were unprepared for a collapsed communications system and overwhelmed by the logistical challenges of aiding an island left with no corner unharmed. Even the White House appeared indifferent to the needs of 3.4 million American citizens 1,000 miles from its shores.

Above all, strapped finances that plunged the island into an economic tailspin long before any winds arrived left the state government so thinly stretched it could not maintain its power grid or afford extensive preparations for a monster storm –– much less pay for the sort of recovery that would be demanded in the mainland U.S.

Forty-eight people died, though that’s likely a significant undercount.

Much remains to be learned about the recovery flaws Maria exposed. But disaster managers already know the historic storm -- which has required more FEMA food and water distribution than any other disaster -- will force them to rethink how they approach a worst-case scenario that ordinary plans were ill-equipped to deal with in the systemic breakdown that followed landfall.

“If this response had been perfect, you still would have very significant suffering and destruction, no matter what, because of the storm,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who pushed early on for more military involvement. “But I do think some days were lost.”

More here.

Photo credit: Pedro Portal, el Nuevo Herald

As white nationalists converge, lawmakers propose removing confederate monuments and holidays

Gainesville SpencerAs police and protesters prepare today in Gainesville for white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak at the University of Florida, two state legislators, both Democrats, filed bills to remove the vestiges of the confederacy from Florida's statutes and public spaces.  

Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, filed HB 235 Thursday to remove from public property all monuments erected to memorialize members of the Confederate military or any other organization that espouses white supremacist or white separatist ideology.

“Who we once were cannot, and should not, continue to define who we are today as a state,” Jones said in a statement. “It is time that we assess this period in our history with the context it deserves and with the clear-eyed understanding that our ghosts are just that: spirits whose presence cannot continue to haunt us.”

Under his bill, the Department of Management Services would remove and relocate all monuments on public land to the Museum of Florida History by 2020.

Also on Thursday, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, filed HB 277 to remove the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis and Confederate Memorial Day from the list of legal holidays in Florida. 

“When I think of who should be honored with legal holidays, the types of people who come to mind are not those that cost millions of lives in the defense of slavery,” Moskowitz said in a statement. “I’m positive that celebrating racism shouldn’t be on the calendar each year.  It’s not erasing history to put it where it belongs; in a history book or a museum hall.”

Sen. Lauren Book is sponsoring the companion bill, SB 224, in the Senate.

For more information on Gainesville's reaction to Spencer's arrival, follow the Miami Herald's live feed here.  

Photo via Alex Harris, Miami Herald @harrisalexc