November 28, 2011

House Ethics Committee extends Alcee Hastings probe

The House Ethics Committee said it will take another 45 days to look into allegations that U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, subjected a former employee to sexual harassment and retaliation when he was co-chairman of an independent U.S. agency.

Hastings has asked a court to throw out claims that he subjected a former employee to sexual harassment and retaliation when he was co-chairman of an independent U.S. agency. The Office of Congressional Ethics this summer contacted the staffer, Winsome Packer.

Judicial Watch in March filed a lawsuit against Hastings on Packer's behalf. The lawsuit alleges that Packer, a staffer on a House commission that Hastings led, was subjected to a "never-ending barrage of unwanted sexual advances" and was threatened and intimidated when she tried to report Hastings' behavior. Hastings in March called the assertions "ludicrous" and said he'd "never sexually harassed anyone." His attorney, Tonya Robinson, said the lawmaker was "deeply disturbed" by the allegations in the lawsuit "and, in the strongest terms, denies the charges. Mr. Hastings has stated unequivocally that the plaintiff's claims are untruthful and without merit."

Packer says Hastings asked several times to stay at her apartment or to get her to visit his hotel room in Vienna, Austria, when she worked as staff representative and he was co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission. She also said Hastings asked her what kind of underwear she was wearing and alleged that much of the harassment occurred when he was in Europe on business for the commission, which advises on U.S. policy about security, human rights and other issues in Europe.

The committee said in a statement that the "mere fact of a referral or an extension, and the mandatory disclosure of such an extension and the name of the subject of the matter, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee." The committee said it will announce its course of action on or before Jan. 11.

November 18, 2011

U.S. House fails to pass a balanced budget amendment

The U.S. House of Representatives turned down a balanced budget amendment Friday afternoon, with Florida's congressional delegation largely voting along party lines. Although the proposal had 261 votes, 165 members voted against it and it was 29 short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage. Just four Republicans voted against the bill; 25 Democrats voted for it. 

Miami GOP Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and David Rivera voted for the amendment, as did Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, voted against it. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, did not vote. 

August 22, 2011

Beware the tea party, Jesse Jackson, Frederica Wilson and black Democrats say at jobs meeting

Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus are in Miami Tuesday to host a jobs fair, part of their five-city tour to draw attention to high unemployment, particularly in the black community.

But at a town-hall style meeting the members held Monday night, some of the most heated talk centered not on jobs but on the tea party.

"The real enemy is the tea party –- let's remember that," said Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens, host of the meeting and jobs fair. "The tea party holds Congress hostage…They have one goal in mind, and that's to make President Obama a one-term president."

She got energetic applause from the crowd of hundreds at Mt. Hermon AME Church in Miami Gardens. So did Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who recently said the tea party should "Go straight to hell."

"I'm in church. I'm not going to repeat that," Waters said Monday.

She also said: "We have to stand up and fight. It's fight time...We're not afraid of the tea party…In this struggle, we have to define who we are, what the president is doing and not let our voices be overshadowed by the tea party."

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June 24, 2011

Republicans, Democrats rebuke President Obama on Libya, but stop short of cutting off funding

The House of Representatives Friday sent President Barack Obama a strong, bipartisan message that it's growing frustrated and impatient with the U.S. military mission in Libya.

The House shot down an effort to give congressional consent for the three-month-old effort, a clear rebuke to Obama. Just 8 Republicans -- including Miami's David Rivera -- and 115 Democrats -- voted to give Obama approval.

Rivera said he voted "to send a clear message that I support our troops as they carry out this mission.  Irrespective of where we stand in the debate on the overall Libya effort or the War Powers Act, I am not willing to support any action that may demoralize or undermine our troops while they are in harms way.  Nor am I willing to provide encouragement to a ruthless and murderous dictator."

The House didn't take the extra step of denying funding for the mission. A bid led by Palm Beach Republican Rep. Tom Rooney to cut off money for all but search and rescue, intelligence, aerial refueling and non-combat operations got bipartisan support, but lost on a 238 to 180 vote.

The three-month campaign in Libya has created a strange bedfellows coalition of liberal anti-war Democrats and some Republicans upset about the administration's lack of notice to Congress and the war's cost. On the other side are Democrats reluctant to vote against Obama and some Republicans who fear that such votes could undermine the U.S. mission. (They include Sen. Marco Rubio who editorialized in the Wall Street Journal against restricting the military campaign against Libya.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., the chief sponsor of a measure to authorize the mission for a year, argued that his plan gave Congress an important voice in the debate.

"If I had my way, we wouldn’t be in Libya at all. But I don’t have my way, and here we are, and the solution now is not to cut off all funding and suddenly walk out," he said. "We have a responsibility to our allies."

June 22, 2011

Alcee Hastings faces Congressional ethics review

A congressional ethics panel is investigating allegations that the Broward Democrat sexually harassed a member of his staff, according to an attorney with a legal group that filed a lawsuit against Hastings.

Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group, Judicial Watch, confirmed a report in the Wall Street Journal that the Office of Congressional Ethics -- the House's independent ethics investigative arm -- is looking at the case.

"My understanding is that they are reviewing the numerous allegations in the lawsuit," Fitton said.

Fitton's group in March filed a lawsuit on behalf of Winsome Packer, a staffer on the Helsinki commission that Hastings led. At the time Fitton said Packer was faced with a "never ending barrage of unwanted sexual advances" and was threatened and intimidated when she tried to report it.

Hastings had sharply rejected the allegations. The Journal says he "didn't directly address the allegations in a recent interview.

"Quite frankly your source has as much or more information than I do and I would suggest you rely upon them," he said. "It would be impossible for me in a paragraph or a page or two or a tome or volumes one and two to help you understand the dynamics of these events. I'll leave it at that."

April 14, 2011

House and Senate vote to keep federal government running until September

Shutdown averted! At least for the time being. Avoiding most of the drama that consumed last week, the Senate voted 81 to 19 to send legislation to the president that cuts this year's budget by $38 billion -- (though same have said accounting tricks means it cuts less than that).

Florida's two senators split their votes: Bill Nelson in favor; Marco Rubio opposed.

The House cleared the bill earlier with a 260 to 167 vote. House Speaker John Boehner needed Democrats to vote for the compromise he hammered out with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as 59 of his Republicans voted "No." That included a bunch of the Florida freshmen who were elected with tea party support: Florida Republican Reps. Sandy Adams, Allen West, Steve Southerland, Dennis Ross and Connie Mack all voted against the measure, saying it didn't go far enough.

Also voting against it: Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings -- though he says the cuts go too deep.

March 30, 2011

Plan to privatize South Florida prisons advances

As the House Appropriations Committee debates a $66.5-billion budget proposal, the most spirited debate involved a proposal to privatize prison and probation operations in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Private prisons are nothing new -- the state has seven -- but privatizing the supervision of probationers is uncharted territory. (The panel approved the budget on a 15-8 party line vote).

"This subject probably hasn't been addressed anywhere in the nation," said Jim Baiardi, president of the Florida PBA's correctional officers chapter, who testified in opposition. "Where we're thinking of going is truly terrible for public safety." 

Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie, tried to abolish the privatization language but failed on a 14-9 vote. Rep. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, joined all eight committee Democrats in voting against privatization. The only South Florida Republican on the committee, Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, the House majority leader, voted for privatization.

Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, who chairs the budget subcommittee for prisons, emphasized that the privatization idea is a "proposal" and must be approved by a 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Commission. "When you have less money, you can't continue to do business as usual," he said. 

The Department of Corrections did not propose the privatization and is "neutral" on the concept, Deputy Secretary Dan Ronay says.

-- Steve Bousquet

Alcee Hastings criticizes Obama on Libya

Alcee Hastings is questioning US involvement in Libya, saying there's "no question that there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Libya, driven by Muammar Gaddafi’s disregard of basic human rights and continued use of force against his own people.

But, he adds, "As a nation still paying a hefty price for our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had hoped the President would have been more cautious and conferred with Congress before getting the U.S. military involved in a third conflict. One of my biggest concerns about the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was the lack of a coherent military strategy from the outset. Unfortunately, I see this same issue arising in Libya where we seem to be focusing on the process of intervention rather than the overall strategy.

"A clear strategy, with stated goals, objectives, and an exit plan, is necessary before sending our young men and women into harm’s way. As of now, I do not see a clear strategy in place and this is very troubling."

The administration is holding closed door meetings today with lawmakers on Libya strategy.

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March 07, 2011

Alcee Hastings: I've never sexually harassed anyone

Here's the Broward congressman's response to a conservative group's lawsuit accusing him of sexually harassing a former employee:

"My comments will be limited since I have not seen the complaint filed in U.S. District Court by Judicial Watch. I have seen a draft complaint prepared by my accuser that contains numerous inaccuracies and untruths. 

 "I have never sexually harassed anyone.  In fact, I am insulted that these ludicrous allegations are being made against me. When all the facts are known in this case, the prevailing sentiment will be, ‘How bizarre!’

"I will win this lawsuit.  That is a certainty.  In a race with a lie, the truth always wins. And when the truth comes to light and the personal agendas of my accusers are exposed, I will be vindicated."

Alcee Hastings sued for harassment

A former female employee who worked for Rep. Alcee Hastings filed a sexual harrassment lawsuit on Monday against the Florida congressman.

In the suit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., the victim, Winsome Packer, said the alleged harrassment took place from 2008-10, while Hastings served as chair and later co-chair of the U.S. Commission on Cooperation and Security in Europe -- also known as the Helsinki Commission.

The commission was also named as a defendant in the suit, which was brought by Packer and Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group. Hastings could not be immediately reached for comment.