January 18, 2018

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran asks DHS to investigate St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Andrew Gillum

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Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran SCOTT KEELER | Times

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asking the federal government to investigate St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum for what he called illegal “sanctuary city” policies in their cities.

Both mayors are Democrats, and Gillum has announced his candidacy for the governor’s race that Corcoran may yet join. But even in the world of Florida politics, Corcoran’s letter represented a bold step.

His letter was not signed by any other official, and Kerri Wyland of the Governor's Press Office confirmed that Gov. Rick Scott had not spoken to Corcoran about the letter.

Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, made immigration a centerpiece issue of the 2018 session when he streamlined passage of HB9 last week, a bill that would ban sanctuary cities and penalize elected officials that vote for related policies. He mentions the bill in his letter, adding the House is “now waiting on the Florida Senate to act.”

Corcoran’s letter came after Nielsen spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, saying her department had asked federal prosecutors to look into filing criminal charges against city officials in sanctuary cities.

That night, Corcoran tweeted a news story about Nielsen’s comments, saying she “can start with investigating @AndrewGillum and @Kriseman, who have been advocates for illegal sanctuary policies and amnesty. If you won’t follow the law, you don’t belong in office!”

He mimicked similar language in the formal letter he sent the same day.

“It is clear to many in our state that this problem is only growing, and the Department of Homeland Security should investigate these two elected officials immediately,” it read.

The letter then referred to a statement Kriseman wrote in February, responding to President Donald Trump’s executive order to cut federal funding from cities and counties that “willfully violate federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States.”

“I have no hesitation in declaring St. Petersburg a sanctuary from harmful federal immigration laws,” Kriseman wrote at the time. “We will not expend resources to help enforce such laws, nor will our police officers stop, question or arrest an individual solely on the basis that they may have unlawfully entered the United States.”

But Ben Kirby, spokesman for Kriseman, said St. Petersburg can’t technically be a sanctuary city because of the fact it doesn’t have its own jail and uses one run by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

“What the mayor has said consistently is that he wants to work hard to ensure St. Pete is a welcoming and inclusive and lawful city … he encourages Speaker Corcoran to focus on the same for our entire state,” Kirby said. “There’s plenty of time for Republican primary politics after session.”

There is technically no legal definition of a “sanctuary city,” but a common element in the debate is the practice of local jails calling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents about detainees they suspect to be undocumented and often holding them for a short period until ICE arrives.

As of Wednesday, Pinellas County was one of 17 Florida counties to make an agreement with ICE to cooperate in its jails via a legal workaround that avoids the sheriffs taking on extra liability.

Geoff Burgan, spokesman for Gillum, also said Tallahassee is not technically a sanctuary city and the letter is only the speaker playing politics.

“No matter how much Richard Corcoran tries, Donald Trump and Sean Hannity have already endorsed Ron DeSantis,” he said. “Tallahassee’s police officers are not ICE agents but if Corcoran wants to suddenly expand the federal government in Florida that’s his prerogative.”

AG Pam Bondi: "We're prepared to go to litigation" against opioid manufacturers

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Florida officials are meeting with a federal judge in Ohio in a few weeks to try to reach a settlement with the drug manufacturers and distributors who helped create America's opioid crisis, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said Thursday.

Bondi said she's sending her chief deputy to a Jan. 31 hearing in Cleveland before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing more than 200 lawsuits filed by states, cities, counties and individuals against the drug companies. 

"Am I optimistic we’re going to resolve it that day? No," Bondi said. "And if we’re not, we’re prepared to go to litigation."

She said her office was also hiring outside counsel to represent Florida, which has not yet filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers.

"I feel it’s in their (the drug companies') best interests to attempt to resolve it as early as possible and at least correct their conduct," she said. "And then we’ll go back and get all the money that they owe these people."

Bondi, who led the crackdown on pill mills that inadvertently led to the heroin crisis, has been a proponent of expanding treatment for addicts. But she has not filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers, distributors and doctors who helped create the crisis, and cities like Delray Beach and some counties have started to pursue legal action on their own.

Instead of filing a lawsuit, like attorneys general in Ohio and other states have done, she joined 40 other states in an investigation into the drug companies last year. She would not answer questions Thursday about whether the companies have complied with the investigators' subpoenas.

However, despite not filing a lawsuit, Florida could end up getting money from a settlement that comes out of Polston's courtroom.

The judge has been pushing for plaintiffs and drug companies to reach a settlement, and earlier this month he invited the members of the multi-state investigation to attend the Jan. 31 hearing.

“It’s clear that any resolution has to be a global one and needs to include the states, and lawsuits that have been filed and lawsuits that are contemplated,” Polster told the Associated Press.

Bondi on Thursday called the drug companies' actions over the last two decades "outrageous" and said, "I'm over them."

"It’s about time they all step up to the plate and admit what they’ve been doing, and we won’t back down on that," she said. 

January 17, 2018

Schools of Hope moves forward to allow charters near struggling district schools

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Commissioner Pam Stewart SCOTT KEELER | Times

The Florida Board of Education unanimously approved a rule on Wednesday opening the door for private nonprofits to apply to receive millions in state funding to operate charter schools near low-performing public schools, called “Schools of Hope.”

 

The rule establishes a process for a nonprofit group to become an operator of the charter schools.

The “Schools of Hope” program was passed last year as part of the controversial school choice mega-bill HB7069, which several school districts are challenging in court.

The board also voted to grant an additional $2,000 per student to 14 struggling district schools through the “Schools of Hope” program, adding to the 11 that were already selected in November.

During the meeting, a teacher from Gadsden County told the board that she was concerned about charter schools poaching teachers away from public schools with the promise of higher salaries.

“If you pay teachers well you won’t need all of these Schools of Hope,” said Judith Mandela, who teaches middle school math and is the vice president of her local teacher’s union. “A teacher left my district yesterday solely because his salary was extremely low.”

Commissioner Pam Stewart said after the meeting that local districts have the power to set their own teacher salaries to be competitive with charter schools and that state board is against a statewide minimum because of the diverse standards of living in Florida.

“It is in statute to provide differentiated pay so those districts with low-performing schools can in fact offer teachers more money for serving in those lower-performing schools it’s a great way to actually lure teachers,” she said.

January 16, 2018

Lawmakers optimistic about criminal justice reform as new report highlights areas for change

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Sen. Jeff Brandes (center) flanked by Sen. Darryl Rouson (left) and Central Florida Urban League CEO Glen Gilzean (right) DIRK SHADD | Times

A small press conference held by academics and think tanks outside the Florida Senate on Tuesday may not have garnered much fanfare or controversy, but it was another reminder of the momentum criminal justice reform could have in the 2018 legislative session.

 

The speakers highlighted a new report, Reforming Criminal Justice, that was put together by more than 120 scholars and university professors nationwide, including one from Florida State University. The multi-volume work calls for re-examination of scores of hot button criminal justice issues, some of which have already come up in committee meetings in the legislature, like minimum sentencing and supervised release as an alternative to cash bail bonds.

The event was kicked off with comments from Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute. The institute helped finance the report, as criminal justice reform has been a key issue for libertarian-minded conservatives who see the criminal justice system as overly expensive and ineffective at rehabilitating offenders.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was one of the lawmakers at the event and said this year he sees a potential for bipartisan change that he hasn’t seen before.

“I think you’re going to see us reach consensus on a variety of topics in areas that just a few years ago we would’ve felt not within reach of this Legislature,” he said. “I think what you’re seeing is a discussion taking place between the chambers right now that is of a different tone and tenor that is really looking forward to finding positive outcomes … and moving legislation forward.”

Drug report critical in fighting opioid epidemic. But has Rick Scott read it?

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Florida’s Drug Policy Advisory Council is a hodgepodge of state government appointees, but they’re the closest Florida has to a coordinated response to the growing opioid epidemic.

So the panel was mystified Thursday why their annual reportoutlining clear steps to fight the opioid crisis – including reviving the Office of Drug Control – hasn’t received more attention from Gov. Rick Scott and legislators.

“My question would be to all of us, ‘Who is going to deliver that message to the governor?'” said Peggy Sapp, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Informed Families and a Scott appointee. “The Surgeon General talking directly to the governor about the report is a very important step.”

But who – if anyone – briefed the governor about the report has been a question without an answer.

Nobody at Thursday’s meeting could answer the question. And representatives of the Department of Health and the governor’s office either could not, or would not, answer it, either.

“Gov. Scott has been personally involved in developing ways to fight this issue,” spokeswoman Lauren Schenone wrote when asked who briefed the governor on the report. “He is also regularly briefed by his agency heads and staff on the opioid epidemic.”

In its Dec. 1 report, the drug council recommend more than a dozen steps for fighting the opioid crisis, including adopting needle exchange programs throughout the state and expanding access to a prescription drug database.

Some of the recommendations are in Scott’s $53 million opioid package, including the changes to the drug database.

But it was the council's first recommendation – to bring back the Office of Drug Control – that Sapp and others feel is the most important.

“I think we need that authority, that power, to get things done,” Sapp said after the meeting.

The office was created by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999 to coordinate the state's drug fight, including finding funding for the prescription drug database.

But Scott eliminated it in 2011, at the height of the pill mill crisis and at the beginning of the heroin epidemic. The $500,000 four-person team was just 0.0007 percent of the state's $69 billion budget.

Schenone said that while the office no longer exists, "its functions are integrated in our state agencies. Therefore, its mission is still being accomplished in state government."

The office's duties were given to the Department of Health, but Sapp feels that having a unit in the governor's office dedicated solely to the crisis is crucial.

“Communication is never easy, especially when you’re dealing with big complex problems, and the closer you can get to a direct line to the governor’s ear, the better,” Sapp said.

Other states – and even some mayors – have created such offices, including West Virginia last year.

Scott has not taken a stance on the subject. A spokeswoman has said he "will review any legislation that makes it to his desk." There are several bills that would create the office.

Sapp said she wants to see Scott take a leadership role like he did during Hurricane Irma last year.

“He did a great job with that last hurricane,” Sapp said. “When he took command of all of that, wow. He coordinated national and local and state resources, and this is what is required for the drug problem.”

January 11, 2018

Senate has its solution to sexual harassment problem: one hour of sexual harassment training for each senator

Lizbeth BenacquistoAfter months of dealing with allegations of sexual harassment against one of states' most powerful legislators -- and fear of retaliation by his accusers -- the Florida Senate has concluded it needs to make just one modest change to the rules that govern the conduct of senators: require each senator to take a one-hour of training course on sexual harassment, online or in person, before every annual legislative session. 

"We are in the process of making changes to our administrative policies and in doing so want to make sure that everything we do that governs all of our legislative employees applies to senators,'' said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, chair of the Senate Rules Committee. "Everyone will be encouraged to complete the process as soon as possible."

The rule will be voted on by the full Senate, but Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, one of the most outspoken members of the Senate process, raised questions.

Rodriguez said the proposal was "very welcome and very necessary" but wondered what happened to the many other proposals that had been under consideration to end the fear of retaliation that accusers had if they came forward with an allegation against a legislator. 

"Is that sufficient protection against the conduct and retaliation? '' Rodriguez asked. Absent any change in rules, he asked, "how can we reassure the public that we have the processes in place without rules changes?"

"I actually believed that the rules we had in place worked,'' Benacquisto replied. "We had a complaint filed. We moved through the process. And findings were made."

After a Senate investigation found that Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, likely sexually harassed at least two women and may have been guilty of criminal misconduct after seeking sex with a female lobbyists in exchange for promising to help with legislation, the veteran legislator resigned. A month earlier, Sen. Jeff Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair with a young lobbyist. And on Tuesday, Sens. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, were forced to publicly explain they had apologized to their families for their extramarital affair, after a video of a secret surveillance camera was posted online. 

Each of these issues brought attention to the issue of abuse of positional power -- such as that by Latvala and Clemens over female lobbyists -- and Rodriguez and others suggested the Senate reform its rules to explicitly prohibit and define sexual harassment (as the Florida House does.)

Rodriguez and others also suggested the Senate establish a method for complaints to be made against senators and staff that allowed people to go to someone outside the Senate, and he sought an increase in the penalties for attempts at retaliation.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, a former Senate president, commended Benacquisto for rejecting the push for major change. 

"If your mother raised you with manners and a little common sense, 99 percent of this isn't rocket science and there's a tendency to over-react to these things when it's such high profile -- and over-compensate to try to send a message that not only do we get it, we get it on steroids,'' he said.

During the Senate investigations,  several women came forward to talk about their experiences of verbal and physical harassment by Latvala but only two women were willing to make statements under oath before retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson, hired by the Senate to be the special master of its investigation into Latvala's alleged violations of the rules. 

The Senate's the investigation of Latvala also cost taxpayers a yet-to-be determined amount of money. At least five outside lawyers were hired to advise the Senate, including a Tampa-based employment law firm, Judge Swanson and a lawyer assisting him, and the Senate's outside counsel, George Meros.

If the Senate rules has been more explicit, better defined and provided a safe outlet for accusers to come forward, would that reduce the cost of future investigations or serve as a more effective deterrent? 

"That's a fair point,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is scheduled to become the next Senate president. "If you're streamlining and are prepared for things to come up, it is usually more efficient and it is incumbent upon us to learn from these situations and make sure we're better prepared.'' 

He said he is preparing additional recommendations for his two-year tenure in 2018-20. 

"As we go through these administrative changes, you will see a lot of what has changed adopted into the Senate rules, including the Senate training,'' he said. 

Benacquisto said next week she will propose additional changes to the Senate administrative policies, which will not require a vote of the full Senate, and they will be more comprehensive. She has also signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, to create new penalties for sexual harassment and to establish a permanent task force to review the sexual harassment issues on a regular basis.

Photo: Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers. 

Immigrant rights advocates protest as House takes up sanctuary cities bill

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About an hour and a half before the Florida House took up a controversial bill that would ban “sanctuary” cities and impose penalties on elected officials and communities that do not comply with the ban, about a hundred immigration rights advocates and several legislators held a protest outside the chamber decrying the bill as"flagrantly racist" and a threat to local governments.

The bill, HB 9, which would prohibit communitites from adopting sanctuary policies protecting undocumented immigrants at the risk of incurring penalties, would also compel Florida cities to comply with detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"They're tired of seeing, year after year, anti-immigrant bills being introduced," said Julio Calderon, a campaign manager for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, as he stood in front of demonstrators hailing largely from South and Central Florida. "We need to stop dehumanizing our communities."

The bill, a legislative priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, is primed to pass the House, though unlikely to pass the Senate.

Several Democratic politicians, including Miami-area Sens. Annette Taddeo and José Javier Rodriguez, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando attended and spoke in support.

Rep. Robert Asencio, D-Miami, who spoke out against the bill, said he had proposed two amendments, including language that would ensure the bill deferred to federal immigration law and make an exception for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

Picking up a 2-year-old boy named Alejandro as he spoke, Asencio asked, "Should we subject him to being deported? Should we subject his family to being deported?"

Alejandro's mother, 26-year-old Eugenia Echeverria of Orlando said she traveled from Central Florida last night worried about the future for her youngest child and her other two children, ages 6 and 7. Both she and her husband, who works in construction, are undocumented.

"I'm fearful that something happens to me or to my kids," she said in Spanish.

Photo: Elizabeth Koh

House ethics committee turns up the heat in probe of Visit Florida TV deal

In a tense moment during the Florida House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee meeting on Thursday, the lawyer for a TV executive hired by the state held up a stack of documents, declaring the committee could have as many of his client's documents as they wished  except the ones they are seeking by subpoena.

"I have all the documents Mr. Roberts can provide ... and I'll be happy to give them to anybody who wants them at any point in time," said Mark Herron, referring to his client C. Patrick (Pat) Roberts, a longtime Tallahassee political fixture and current president of the Florida Broadcasters Association.

The committee did not take him up on the offer.

In a rare move, the committee instead unanimously voted that the House issue a separate subpoena from the committee's, which was issued in October and is being litigated in court.

Unlike that order, a House subpoena comes with a sledgehammer ability for self-enforcement outside of a court, meaning as long as the House is in session it can impose fines of $1,000 each day the requested documents aren't forked over or even imprison the subject.

"Where do we seek protection for our trade secrets?" Herron asked. "This House seems to be taking the position that they can investigate anything, ask for anything and get anything while they're in session."

The documents in question are IRS filings and contracts related to a $2.8 million tourism ad campaign for which Visit Florida, a state agency, hired Roberts and his company in 2012. It also paid Roberts $11.6 million to produce a cooking show featuring the celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.

Herron contended during the meeting that his client has handed over all documents that he is able to legally provide, and that he delivered on his promise to produce 62 episodes of the requested show as well as other marketing materials.

The outstanding documents, which include contracts between Robert's company and other vendors that assisted with the show's production, have legally-binding confidentiality agreements, he said.

But Visit Florida's spending practices have long been under scrutiny by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, whose political brand has been to combat corruption during his tenure.

Then the Naples Daily News reported that Robert's firm had kept all advertising and sponsorship revenue in addition to the contract payments, as well as a boat worth $175,000 gifted by one of the program’s sponsors.

Ranking committee member Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, a former forensic expert witness, said Herron's explanations of Roberts's point of view doesn't replace black and white evidence.

"Honestly as someone who's done forensic work for many, many years, I don't really want to hear someone's story until I have their documents," he said.

During the meeting, committee chair Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said the House's "prosecution prerogative is not only reasonable, it's necessary" for the state to conduct a thorough investigation.

The last time the legislature issued subpoenas was about two decades ago, when then-Senate President Toni Jennings took on the tobacco industry in the 90s.

Corcoran’s agenda to take center stage in the House

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When legislators take their seats on the floor of the Florida House this afternoon, they will be considering an agenda both bearing the stamp of House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s legislative priorities and aligned favorably with fiscal conservatives.
 
The Land O'Lakes Republican, who is in his final session and considering a run for governor, is using his personal bully pulpit to push an array of causes, including banning so-called sanctuary cities (HB 9), ending subsidies for sports teams like the Tampa Bay Rays (HB 13) and banning future redevelopment agencies (HB 17). Also among the sixteen bills being heard this afternoon are a repeal of Florida’s no-fault auto insurance system (HB 19) and legislation that would set new barriers to local tax increases (HB 7).
 
Though advocates are expected to protest the sanctuary cities bill at the Capitol before the session begins, Corcoran’s priorities are primed for passage in the Republican-majority House. The House Democratic caucus has criticized the agenda as Corcoran's play for the more right-wing members of his party.  
 
The House outcome may also be likely, but their future in the Senate will be an uphill fight. Several of the bills being heard on the floor died in the Senate last year.
 
Photo: AP/Steve Cannon

January 10, 2018

Bills in Florida Legislature would eliminate fees to freeze your credit

Two Tampa-area legislators are proposing bills that would eliminate the $10 fee credit reporting agencies charge to freeze your credit.

The bills, sponsored by Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would make it free to place or remove a security freeze on an existing credit report. Only two other states prohibit such "freeze fees."

"It's going to pass bipartisan, I'm sure," Harrison said. "This is one of those types of bills that will pass unanimously."

The bill passed unanimously in one House committee Wednesday.

Such fees are considered an "insult to injury" after you've had your identity  stolen. Typically, the first step after such a breach is to ask Equifax, TransUnion or Experian to freeze your credit, so that thieves can't take out a credit card or other credit in your name.

But those companies can charge Floridians $10 to place a freeze or remove it. Other states' fees generally range from $2 to $10.

When more than 100 million Americans had their personal information stolen after Equifax was breached last year, consumers were outraged to find that they would have to pay Equifax up to $10 for the company to freeze their credit. The company eventually waived the fees temporarily.

"You're victimized once having your identity stolen, and then you have to pay to clean up the mess that a criminal made in your life," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said at a press conference in support of the bills Wednesday.

Florida's Chief Financial Officer, Jimmy Patronis, called it "unacceptable."

He said identity theft could happen to anyone.

"It happened to me recently," he said. "I had a credit card breach. I had to jump through the hurdles of the credit card companies to let them know I was getting spending alerts."

He said Florida had the second highest per-capita rate of complaints over identity theft issues in the country, and Miami, Naples and Tallahassee were among the top 10 metro areas for the complaints.