Sen. Carey Baker of Eustis said he's making it official: He's running for Agriculture Commissioner in two years. Rep. Marty Bowen of Haines City might do the same thing, and U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam might as well. So get ready for a Republican rural battle royale
A divided Florida Cabinet postponed any decision over the fate of the state’s top mortgage regulator Tuesday and decided to investigate The Miami Herald’s findings further before they move ahead with any sanctions.
The Cabinet ordered Don Saxon, commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, to report back in two weeks with proposed rules to tighten the regulation of mortgage brokers and loan originators and ordered the inspector general's office to coordinate with a plan to further investigate the problems exposed by The Miami Herald series.
Saxon told Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet that he believes The Miami Herald series exaggerated the flaws of his office when it reported that the state granted mortgage brokers licenses to thousands of convicted felons, including bank robbers, racketeers and crack dealers.
"I believe there's been a rush to judgment by the media," Saxon said. "Unlike what's been reported in the media, we do not have a systemic problem of licensing felons."
But Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who has called for Saxon to step down, countered his remarks, saying there are provisions in the law that could have both allowed him to issue sanctions against loan originators and others who committed mortgage fraud and that the office "could have been denying more '' brokerage licenses to questionable officials.
"My distress about the situation is that the commission is coming before us today telling us about some of the things his department is going to be doing and he's known about these issues certainly for many months . . . and we could have been doing a lot more before we got to this point today," she said. "To me, it's too little too late."
Sink complained that "this is a much bigger issue'' and said the mortgage broker profession "has been begging for years for tighter requirements."
Crist echoed Sink's concerns and said The Herald's investigative report was "disturbing and distressing," but he ultimately agreed to take more time to check out the allegations before deciding how to proceed.
"I appreciate the press. I understand the media has a function and a job and a duty, but I’m a trust-but-verify guy also," he said "We’ve all had an opportunity since the story broke to review."
The governor said his "confidence was shaken'' and while he appreciated Saxon's service, "we've got to elect to make a difference, not to mark time. . . . All of us have a duty to hear the alarm bells and understand and . . . avoid some of these unfortunate circumstances for the public."
Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and Attorney General Bill McCollum both defended Saxon and urged the Cabinet to further study the matter before making any decisions on whether Saxon should be held accountable for brokerage licenses falling into the hands of financial criminals.
Bronson said his reading of the law governing Saxon's office was that it was obligated to issue licenses to brokers in most situations. "It doesn't look like it gave you much option," he said.
McCollum said he is aware there were bad characters who have been issued licenses in the mortgage business but wants to clarify "the current state of the law with regard to the powers the OFR has or doesn’t have," McCollum said.
Chief Ftinancial Office Alex Sink today called for the resignation of Don Saxon, Commissioner of the office of Financial Regulation, and issued the following statement in response to the Miami Herald investigation into the state regulation of mortgage brokers:
“The Office of Financial Regulation has a duty to protect Floridians from those who would prey upon them. I am outraged by the facts presented in today’s Miami Herald article on mortgage broker licensing.
"As one of four members of the Financial Services Commission, I am calling for the Commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation to step down and for the immediate launch of a thorough investigation to identify why the people of Florida were not better protected. The Governor and Cabinet must also issue an Emergency Order directing the Office of Financial Regulation to stop issuing or renewing mortgage broker licenses to felons, pending further instruction.
Floridians depend on the state to protect them from criminals, and it is inexcusable that state regulators were asleep at the switch.”
Herald investigation: State mortgage regulators allowed ex-cons and scam artists into mortgage industry
As Florida's real estate market soared, state regulators allowed bank robbers, racketeers and other convicted felons to obtain licenses as mortgage brokers and work as unlicensed loan originators, giving them access to the most sensitive and personal financial information borrowers offer, a Miami Herald investigation has found.
The investigation, Borrowers Betrayed, documents a breakdown in the state's enforcement system created to protect borrowers. Since 2000, regulators failed to weed out people with criminal histories, monitor scam operations and discipline crooked brokers despite a law that requires them to be screened for criminal histories. But as questionable licenses soared, the state reaped record returns in licensing fees while the crooked brokers committed at least $85 million in mortgage fraud.
Despite repeated warnings, Florida's Office of Financial Regulation -- which polices the mortgage industry -- failed to act, allowing many of the scams to thrive until police finally cracked down. Read part one of the series here.
Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson on Friday morning called on President Bush and Congress to "launch a full and thorough" investigation into skyrocketing fuel prices which Bronson said are threatening the economy of both the state of Florida and the United States.
Bronson, who called himself a student of history, said the conditions that exist now remind him of 1929 right before the economic collapse and that he was worried that speculators are driving up the cost of oil. He wondered why the cost of diesel fuel was so much higher than gasoline since it cost lest to manufacture. And Bronson said maybe it was time for state leaders to reconsider their opposition to the drilling off Florida's coast.
Bronson also took shots at those who believe continued production of ethanol is to blame for higher food prices, saying that the use of small portion of corn being grown is being used for ethanol.
Regarding issues the state can control, Bronson said that "maybe" it was time to repeal the state law that prohibits companies from selling gasoline at below the cost of procuring it. But Bronson was less enthusiastic about changing law so that he can investigate price gouging complaints year round. Currently, Bronson only has that power when there is a declared emergency in the state.
The Florida Senate has tucked inside what was supposed to be a routine elections clean up bill a repeal of the state law that limits who can give money to candidates for Agriculture Commissioner. Currently state law says that no one associated with a grocery store or convenience store can give more than $100 to a candidate for commissioner as opposed to the normal $500 limit.
Records show that Sen. Burt Saunders stuck in the provision on SB 866 in the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Although it must be noted that Sen. Carey Baker, a potential candidate for agriculture commissioner, is on that committee as well.) The bill is one step away from passing the full Senate. Rep. Stan Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican interested in running for agriculture commissioner in 2010, said it is wrong to place extra limits on agriculture commissioner candidates.
"It's seems a little archaic,'' said Mayfield. "It's a freedom of speech issue."
Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson suggested to a House comittee yesterday that water managers erred last summer when they bowed to environmentalists and opposed the back-pumping of water from farm retention ponds to boost lake levels. Environmentalists warned that the farm water may have contained phosphorus-laden pollutants.
''But that water had much less phosphorus in it than the lake has,'' he said. ``We missed an opportunity.''
The former general counsel and long-time legislative director of the Department of Revenue, Lisa Echeverri, 42, was named the agency's new director by Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Cabinet today.
Echeverri replaces Jim Zingale, a 34-year veteran of state government, who is becoming the interim head of the Agency for Enterprise Information Technology. The newly-created agency will focus on IT development between agencies in state government and provide coordination for large-scale, multi-agency projects. Zingale will retire in February.
Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson has told Gov. Charlie Crist and the GOP-controlled Legislature that he cannot recommend up to 10 percent in budget cuts as ordered by Crist and lawmakers earlier this summer. Each agency was required to turn in plans today that spelled out what budget cuts could be enacted by the Legislature, which will meet during a September special session to cut at least $1 billion from the state budget.
In a letter sent today to the governor, Bronson said that his agency has been repeatedly cut in recent years: "We have undergone budget cuts and re-structuring for the last 15 years...A 10% budget cut for us would mean a $26.1 million reduction. To get to that figure would mean making drastic cuts to food safety, fire-fighting capabilities, consumer protection and seriously hamper our ability to help sell our Florida products which ultimately affects jobs, the State's sales tax collections and our overall economy. Because of the numerous cuts that have been previously made, further reductions to these core areas would be detrimental to the services we provide to the citizens of the State."
Bronson only recommended a 3.5 percent cut that amounts to $7.9 million of his current year budget.
Read his letter here: Download bronson_letter.doc
Building on the momentum of Florida's new green wave, Florida Power & Light announced today that it will start building an ethanol production plant in Hendry County this year using citrus waste.
Orange peels, seeds and membrane will be converted into 4 million of ethanol every year and blended with gasoline to produce 60 million gallons of fuel and supply what is expected to be a growing demand for the alternative biofuel. The company made the announcement at the Farm to Fuel Summit hosted by Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson in St. Petersburg.
The ethanol plant will be operated by FPL Energy. using technology developed by Citrus Energy, a Boca-Raton based company. Citrus waste now is converted into animal feed at a cost to citrus producers, said David Stewart, CEO of the company. But, because the ethanol technology uses yeast to help the citrus waste ferment, it converts the waste to energy and does it more efficiently and with less cost than corn-based ethanol, he said.
"We're turning a liability for the citrus industry into an asset,'' he said.
Gov. Charlie Crist, who attended the conference, said FPL's announcement is more proof that Florida "has reached the tipping point'' and will soon become "a national leader as it relates to ethanol.''