June 14, 2018

What is Scott and Cabinet's approach to questions at Department of Revenue? Not my problem

Florida Cabinet KeelerThe state agency charged with collecting taxes purged the top employees at the Division of Property Tax Oversight, left positions vacant for months, filled the positions with people close to the governor and refused to provide a reason.

Should the public have confidence in the tax agency?

The agency staff wants employees to avoid building a records trail and encouraged behavior that requires them to conduct business primarily face to face or by phone.

How is that transparent and accountable?

DOR requires each employee to sign a gag order prohibiting them from providing any information to the media.

Is that a violation of the employees' First Amendment rights?

DOR removes the visitor parking spaces at agency headquarters and replaces them with tow-away zones, reserved parking for executive staff.

How is that in the public interest?

Gov. Rick Scott and the three members of the Florida Cabinet, who oversee the Department of Revenue, had an answer to those questions Wednesday: not my problem.

"DOR is overseen by the governor and other members of the Florida Cabinet. The governor, like them, expects the department to follow all laws and act in an ethical and transparent manner,'' said McKinley Lewis, Scott spokesman, in an email response to a series of questions Wednesday.

The governor and Cabinet, all Republicans, asked no questions of DOR Executive Director Leon Biegalski Wednesday as he appeared before them and asked for approval of his agency performance review and three routine rules changes. It is the same treatment they have given Biegalski since he was appointed in April 2016, the hand-picked choice of the governor.

This key agency answers to the governor and Cabinet, but they don't ask many questions

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, hand-picked by Scott to replace former CFO Jeff Atwater, has never publicly contradicted Scott. Attorney General Pam Bondi has also not demonstrated an inclination to be independent of the governor. And Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has often sparred with the governor for the last seven years, mostly behind the scenes, has also now avoided any public conflict. He hopes to be on the November ballot with the governor who is running for U.S. Senate.

Since Beigalski last appeared before the Cabinet in March, he has ousted top employees and kept positions vacant for months to make room for Scott's staff. After the Herald/Times reported the shake up, one of the appointments from the governor's office, Thomas Adams, took a $5,000 pay cut and left to work for Patronis.

After the Wednesday Cabinet meeting, the Herald/Times asked Scott to explain why he had confidence in the agency.

"We do reviews of Leon. I can get you a copy of that record,'' he replied, before cutting off questions.

The Herald/Times then posed the following questions to the communications offices for Scott, Putnam, Bondi and  Patronis to get them to elaborate on their reasoning.

Bondi and Patronis did not respond. Lewis provided the above response and Putnam spokesperson Jennifer Meale said: " The executive director is charged with managing the department, and the governor and Cabinet will hold him accountable for its performance."

Here are the questions for which we did not get answers:

* How has the governor been assured that actions are being taken to ensure that there is proper training given to the remaining staff in the PTO section that reviews property appraiser and property tax budgets -- since they do not have anyone with slightly more than a year of experience?

* Please explain how it is not a violation of a state employee's First Amendment rights for DOR to prohibit them from being allowed to have a conversation on background to inform a journalist? 

* Please explain how it is acceptable that DOR is allowed to avoid the creation of public records trails? 

* What will you do if the agency has a misguided employee who is engaged in illegal or unethical conduct at work and, because the agency discourages creating a paper trail of controversial issues, the practice makes it difficult to apprehend and find evidence against them? 

* What deterrence is there to inappropriate behavior if an agency requires employees NOT to rely on emails, has prohibited them from keeping substantive meetings off the calendar, and encouraged behavior that requires them to conduct business primarily face to face or by phone?

* Please explain why it is acceptable that DOR removes the visitor parking spaces at agency headquarters and replaces them with tow-away zones reserved parking for executive staff?

June 12, 2018

Remember when Cabinet meetings used to focus on agency oversight?

Florida Cabinet KeelerThe state agency in charge of regulating taxation in Florida has four equal bosses — Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected members of the Cabinet — but in the past two years, in public meetings and correspondence, they have asked few questions and have given the agency scant public scrutiny.

The agency's director, Leon Biegalski, was the governor's choice to lead the Department of Revenue when he was elevated from deputy secretary at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation in April 2016. Since then, the governor has canceled DOR's regular appearance in 9 of 19 before the Cabinet meetings.

When Biegalski appears before the Cabinet on Wednesday, it will be the first time this year. Will they ask any questions?

Judging from the transcripts of the previous meetings, that's not likely. Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam asked only two questions in Biegalski's 10 appearance before them — and both came from Putnam. Story here. 

Until Scott's tenure, the Florida Cabinet had a tradition of meeting every other week. 

Florida, unlike most other states, has a unique power-sharing relationship between its governor and the Cabinet members. They share oversight and hiring authority of the directors of the departments of revenue, law enforcement, highway safety, the division of bond finance and the state board of administration.But the shared role also underscores the structural weakness of Florida's governor in controlling the shared agencies and Scott has ratcheted down the amount of substantial dialogue that takes place during Cabinet meetings.

In the last seven years, Cabinet sessions have been more ceremonial and less substantive. More time is devoted to award ceremonies than under previous governors, and a regular feature is Bondi’s promotion of offering dogs for adoption.

Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate, sets the calendar and has convened only three Cabinet meetings this year. He scheduled eight meetings for the entire year, the fewest in recent memory, and canceled the meeting in May.

When the Cabinet had both Democrats and Republicans on it, there were more questions of agency heads in the public forum than there have been under Scott.

At a Nov. 20, 2008, Cabinet meeting, as former Revenue Director Lisa Echeverri Vickers presented her legislative budget request and annual performance report, former CFO Alex Sink grilled her about enforcement of tax revenue collection. Vickers acknowledged that she is asking for more auditors to help them collect the unpaid taxes.

Sink, a former banker and a Democrat, then asked about tax collections on short sales, a policy based on the rule because the Legislature failed to pass a statute, and the agency's application of "a glitch in the depreciation laws" that had left many businesses vulnerable.

The discussion provided an opportunity for the public to hear the agency's response to handling two important issues in an open forum.

Under Gov. Jeb Bush, former Revenue Director admitted during his annual performance review on Sept. 21, 2004, that the measures related to review of property appraisers "were fairly easy to achieve."

"You're an honest man, Zingale,'' Bush replied.

"Well, we want to do better than that,'' Zingale responded.

May 10, 2018

CFO Patronis refused to meet with banking regulator, despite concerns about his "leadership"

Cabinet Meeting(3)
Jimmy Patronis, left, then a Republican state representative from Panama City, and Gov. Rick Scott, tour downtown Panama City in 2011. Robert Cooper AP file

Just hours after criticizing the state's banking regulator for his "lack of cooperation, responsiveness and communication," Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis refused to meet with him, citing concerns about violating the state's sunshine law.

Last week, Patronis sent a surprise email to Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Drew Breakspear, telling him he no longer had confidence in Breakspear's leadership and that he planned to bring it up at next week's Cabinet meeting.

His email was then sent out to the press.

A few minutes after that, Breakspear emailed Patronis: "Do you have time to meet today or tomorrow as I would like to have the opportunity to discuss this with you?"

No, Patronis awkwardly replied nearly four hours later, according to the email exchange:

"Thank you for your reply," Patronis wrote. "I do not want you to serve, deliberately or inadvertently, as a conduit with another member of the commission prior to the Cabinet meeting. In order to ensure a transparent process conducted in the sunshine, I will discuss my concerns during your assessment review."

Patronis spokesman Jon Moore said Wednesday that the CFO "has developed growing concerns regarding the Commissioner’s ability to serve Floridians," and that he wanted to address them in public only.

Simply speaking with Breakspear would not violate the state's sunshine law, according to Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation. 

She said it sounded as if Patronis was concerned about Breakspear sharing details of their conversation with other Cabinet members. That could be a violation of the law, but Peterson said there is "always the potential for sunshine violations whenever he talks to anybody" about Cabinet business.

"I don’t see a particular threat here. But we always applaud government officials for being careful," Peterson said. "I’m just not sure this is out of an abundance of caution or because he doesn’t want to talk to the guy."

She said Patronis has "a good reputation on open-government issues" and is highly knowledgable about the state's sunshine law from his time as a representative in the state Legislature.

Breakspear's assessment review was scheduled for next week's Cabinet meeting, but the meeting was rescheduled for next month. Breakspear works for the four-member Cabinet, made up of Patronis, Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

His review gives no hints as to why Breakspear was underperforming. According to performance metrics, Breakspear scored 3.35 out of 5 - a rating that "meets expectations."

In his self-evaluation, Breakspear noted that he reduced employee turnover in the last year from 17 percent to 12 percent, and he touted a new check-cashing database created to detect fraud. The database is scheduled to be completed this year.

But Breakspear has long been a target of Gov. Rick Scott. He was in the hot seat in 2015, when Scott told the Cabinet that he wanted to fire him for reasons the governor never disclosed. Apparently without enough votes on the Cabinet to oust him, Breakspear stayed in the job and the controversy subsided.

Still, Patronis' email blasting Breakspear came out of nowhere, surprising and confusing members in the financial sector. (Breakspear has been in charge of licensing and regulating banks, check-cashing stores and payday loan companies since 2012.)

Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate, only has a few months left in his term, and some observers assumed that such Cabinet appointees would be re-evaluated after this year's election, when at least two members of the Cabinet will be replaced.

Patronis, appointed by Scott last year, is running for election this year.

May 08, 2018

New poll shows Scott and Nelson virtually tied, governor's race a wash

US-NEWS-FLA-SCOTT-SENATE-2-MI

@alextdaugherty

A new poll from Florida Atlantic University shows that Gov. Rick Scott's television advertising blitz could be paying early dividends. The outgoing Republican governor challenging Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in November has a four 44 to 40 percent lead with 16 percent of voters undecided, a six-point swing from a FAU poll taken in late February which showed Nelson leading 40 percent to 38 percent.

But the race remains tied at 45 percent among poll respondents who said they're likely to vote in November.

“The Senate race in Florida continues to be very close and is going to be one of the most expensive and competitive contests in the nation,” said Kevin Wagner, Ph.D., professor of political science at FAU. “President Trump’s approval ratings in Florida are edging up, and if that continues, it could help Rick Scott and other Republicans on the midterm ballot.”

Nelson and Scott's U.S. Senate race is expected to be one of the most expensive in U.S. history.

In the governor's race, Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis (16 percent) and agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam (15 percent) are effectively tied with each other, and no other Republican reached double-digit support. On the Democratic side, former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine (16 percent) and former Rep. Gwen Graham (15 percent) are running in a dead heat with businessman Chris King (10 percent) in third. Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum (6 percent) rounds out the field. The majority of voters from both parties are unsure of how they will vote in the August primary election. 

The poll also shows that President Donald Trump's approval rating in Florida is 43 percent with a 45 percent disapproval rating, Trump's highest approval rating in Florida since taking office. A majority of voters, 52 percent, said Trump's tax plan has made no difference to them financially and voters would prefer to have Barack Obama back in the White House instead of Trump by a 49-43 margin. 

The survey, which polled 1,000 Florida registered voters May 4-7, was conducted using an online sample supplied by Survey Sampling International using online questionnaires and via an automated telephone platform (IVR) using registered voter lists supplied by Aristotle, Inc. The survey has a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Responses for the entire sample were weighted to reflect the statewide distribution of the Florida population. The polling results and full cross-tabulations are available at www.business.fau.edu/bepi.

May 02, 2018

Police union endorses Gwen Graham, Adam Putnam in governor's races

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Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam

Florida's largest police union endorsed Democrat Gwen Graham and Republican Adam Putnam in their primary races for governor today. 

"The men and women of law enforcement and corrections are proud supporters of Commissioner Adam Putnam for Florida Governor," Florida Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera said in a press release. "His trust and confidence in law enforcement throughout his distinguished career is unparalleled.  He is a true champion of public service who understands the sacrifices.  We are grateful for his support and proud to endorse Adam Putnam for Governor."

Rivera called Graham "a true champion for the brave men and women of law enforcement and corrections.”

“She understands our service, along with our sacrifices and we are confident in her ability to unite the citizens of Florida," he said. "We are very proud to endorse our friend Gwen Graham for Governor."

Graham's husband, Steve Hurm, was a police officer in the 1970s and 80s and is now the director of Florida States University's Policing Research & Policy Institute.

Rivera has been known for his often outrageous comments in defense of cops accused of wrongdoing. But as the leader of the state's largest police union, representing more than 28,000 officers around the state, his endorsement is a powerful one.

Rivera today also endorsed Republican Ashley Moody and Democratic state Rep. Sean Shaw in their primary races for attorney general.

March 19, 2018

NRA hits Corcoran by name for supporting post-Parkland gun bill

2018-03-19 13_50_29-NRA-ILA _ Florida Alert_ We Were Born at Night But It Wasn’t Last Night  Mr. Spe
A screen grab from the NRA email blast


As Republican Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran mulls over a run for governor, the National Rifle Association signified in an email blast Monday that it won't be making things easy for him.

"Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran (R) is adding insult to injury by calling the betrayal of law-abiding firearms owners 'one of the greatest Second Amendment victories we've ever had,'" reads the release, written by longtime Florida NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer. "That is complete nonsense and ignores the unconstitutional gun control included in the bill."

Although the post does not mention Corcoran's potential run for governor, it appears to be the first about any of the candidates in this race.

Hammer is referencing a report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in which Corcoran talked about the Legislature's response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting while he attended the Lakewood Ranch Republican Club's monthly meeting.

According to the paper, Corcoran was specifically referring to the measure to end "gun-free zones" on school campuses through an optional program to arm school staff. The new law, already signed by Gov. Rick Scott, is tied to $400 million's worth of funding for more mental health professionals and armed cops on campus.

It also prohibits the sale of bump stocks, raises the minimum age to purchase any firearm from 18 to 21 and creates a three-day waiting period for gun buys — problematic for the NRA.

Corcoran was previously given an "A" rating from the NRA, but has stood firm with moderates in the Florida Legislature that the bill was the right thing to do following the deaths of 17 students and staff in Parkland. The NRA announced it is suing the state merely hours after Scott signed it.

Corcoran, an underdog in terms of fundraising and name recognition, has said he will decide in coming weeks if he will join the Republican race for governor.

If so, he will likely face more attacks from the right from his opponents, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis.

Putnam has said he is against raising the age to purchase a gun, meanwhile on Fox News, DeSantis predicted the Constitution will be on the side of the NRA.

February 28, 2018

Putnam breaks silence on gun bill: Opposes using weapons fees for trauma victims

Adam Putnam APFlorida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam broke his silence Wednesday on the proposed school safety legislation moving through the Florida House and Senate.

In a statement, he opposed the Senate plan, SB 7026, to direct $10 million collected from concealed weapons license fees to reimburse designated trauma centers for treatment of mass shooting victims.

“I oppose taxing law-abiding concealed weapon licenses for atrocities carried out by criminals'' he said in the statement. "If anyone should be taxed for those heinous acts, it should be criminals. The monster who murdered 17 people in Parkland wasn’t even eligible to have a concealed weapon license.”

February 09, 2018

Ron DeSantis: Capitol Hill loner, Fox News fixture, Trump favorite in Florida governor’s race

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via @adamsmithtimes @learyreports

At Dunedin High School, classmates knew him as a super jock and a brilliant student.

At Yale, the baseball coach barely hesitated naming the former team captain when an interviewer in 2002 asked if he ever managed someone of presidential material.

Now running for Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, 39, has won the backing of President Donald Trump, billionaire donors across the country, and by many accounts is the most likely Republican nominee to lead America's third-largest state.

"I'm getting calls from people who are supporting Adam Putnam for governor, but they also want to give to Ron," said Nancy McGowan, a conservative activist raising money for DeSantis in the Jacksonville area. "And people tell me, 'I've committed to Adam, but I think Ron's going to win, and I'd like to talk to him.' "

DeSantis' personal story helps drive the buzz. Dunedin's Little Leaguer went from Yale to Harvard Law, becoming a decorated military lawyer who deployed with the Navy Seals in Iraq and was elected to Congress.

Since entering politics six years ago, DeSantis has bounced from race to race, leaving few tangible accomplishments over his steady political rise as a Fox News favorite and pitbull Trump defender. Even some admirers question his credentials for governor and think he's more attuned to the ideological battlefield of Washington.

The son of a nurse and a Nielsen TV ratings box installer is following the lessons he learned in 1991 leading his team to the Little League World Series: Set big goals, and then leave it all on the field in pursuit of them.

Read more here.

February 08, 2018

Budget deal forces Ron DeSantis into a box

O-RON-DESANTIS-facebook

via @learyreports

If he weren't running for governor, Rep. Ron DeSantis could be counted on to vote against the sprawling, two-year budget deal before Congress.

Conservative groups — including the Freedom Caucus DeSantis helped found and the Club for Growth that was key to him becoming a congressman — have mounted opposition to the deal.

"The House Freedom Caucus opposes the deal to raise spending caps on discretionary spending by nearly $300 billion over two years," read a statement. "We support funding for our military, but growing the size of government by 13 percent adds to the swamp instead of draining it. This is not what the American people sent us here to do."

But DeSantis is running for governor and the deal carries numerous benefits for Florida, not least of which is billions in disaster relief.

Imagine if DeSantis were to vote against help for the citrus industry. It would hand Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam a sharp attack point in the GOP primary.

Then again, voting for the deal would raise questions of DeSantis' fealty to the conservative cause.

His office did not respond to a question Thursday on how he'd vote.

Read more here.

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.