October 24, 2016

South Florida a focus of Obama human-trafficking initiative

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@jamesmartinrose

Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a White House meeting Monday of a high-level task force set up by President Barack Obama in 2012 to combat forced labor and prostitution.

Federal law enforcement agencies have initiated more than 6,000 human-trafficking cases and secured at least 4,000 convictions since Obama took office in January 2009.

"While more work is required to tackle the root causes and consequences of human trafficking, the United States continues to be a leader in the global movement to end modern slavery," the White House said in a statement.

Part of the Obama initiative is focused on Miami and New York, two national trafficking hubs.

The U.S. Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Justice are collaborating to provide job and training services in those cities for victims of human trafficking.

More than 1,200 instances of human trafficking were reported in the Sunshine State through the Florida Abuse Line in fiscal year 2014-15.

South Florida is the third-most-active region for sex trafficking in the country, with minors often the victims, according to the Justice Department.

Before it was cancelled because of Hurricane Matthew, Attorney General Pam Bondi had scheduled the Florida Human Trafficking Summit for Oct. 10 in Orlando. Five-hundred law-enforcement officers, service providers, healthcare professionals, educators, legislators and community leaders had signed up to attend, along with trafficking victims.

Obama's task force gave a presidential anti-trafficking award to Students Opposing Slavery, a network of high school and college students who raise awareness about trafficking among youth. The University of Central Florida in Orlando has one of the most active chapters of the group.

"Leaders in our state are committed to making Florida a zero-tolerance state for human-trafficking," Bondi said.

In a recent case, the drug-overdose death of a 14-year-old girl in Orlando led police to break open a human-trafficking ring based there.

Jose Ignacio Santiago-Sotomayor, 22, and Avorice Jeno Holman, 19, were arrested and charged with first-degree murder, human trafficking of a child and procuring a minor for prostitution. Police said they and other members of the ring drugged girls in order to have sex with them.

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott declared January the Human Trafficking Awareness Month and signed four bills into law that stiffened penalties for human traffickers, established protections for past victims, and promoted efforts to help people recognize warning signs.

"It is unfathomable that this evil occurs in our state, but by expanding services and passing important legislation this year, we are helping to save and heal the lives of our state's most vulnerable," Scott said.

In July, police busted a human-trafficking ring in Seminole County with more than 20 victims, arresting Christian Pena Fernandez and Rachel Gonzalez.

Detectives said that Pena Fernandez ran a sophisticated organization in which he recruited and harbored women to provide sex. He ran ads seeking women on backpage.com, they said.

The couple used motels and hotels across Central Florida in their operation, detectives said.

Photo credit: Getty Images

 

August 15, 2016

Four people control who is disenfranchised in Florida; three say it's time for reform

Restrictions on felons voting is one of the two ways Florida legally disenfranchises voters.

One way, the write-in law, which allows a write-in candidate to close a primary to all voters, is intended to undercut the constitutional provision that allows all voters to vote in a primary election.

The other is the law that permanently requires felons who have completed their sentences to apply and petition for their voting rights to be restored. But unlike the write-in laws, which the Florida Legislature can revise to make less restrictive, the laws regulating ex-felons voting is controlled by the governor and Cabinet and the state Constitution. Any change in the rules requires the governor to be on the prevailing side.

In interviews with the Herald/Times, everyone but Gov. Rick Scott said they are open to changes in the system they installed five years ago.

“If someone does an analysis, we have been granting civil rights to those who were waiting who would have automatically had their rights restored [under the previous system] and it’s probably time for us to revisit,” said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

“Having had some time and experience on the Clemency Board, I’ve come to believe that there are opportunities for improvement,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said she was open to some reforms before an application may begin.

"I wouldn't mind reevaluating the time frame of how long we wait,'' she said. "I would reconsider reevaluating the time frame to three years." But she does not support automatic restoration for non-violent felons.

“Serving your time meant that you lost your rights,” she said. “If you’re going to have your rights restored, I want you to ask for them.”

Scott, however, said through a spokesperson he does not support any changes. 

Florida leads the nation in the number of felons who have served their time who are disenfranchised with an estimated 1.5 million Floridians barred from voting. According to the Sentencing Project, Florida holds nearly one-fourth of all disenfranchised former felons in the nation. Read more on that here. 

The practice is a vestige of post Civil War white supremacy and now disenfranchises more whites than blacks. There once was a time when more blacks were registered to vote in Florida than whites. Our story on the history of disenfranchising black voters here.



March 18, 2016

South Florida Republicans break with GOP in deportation vote

@jamesmartinrose

Only five Republican lawmakers stood up to their party leader in voting against allowing House Speaker Paul Ryan to file an amicus brief opposing President Barack Obama's decision to withhold deportation for more than 5 million undocumented immigrants.

All three Cuban-American representatives from South Florida -- Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Marco Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo -- were among the five Republicans who voted against a resolution that the House passed Thursday almost entirely along party lines.

The Supreme Court next month will hear a case brought by Texas, joined by Florida and 24 other states, arguing that Obama's bid to shield about 5.2 million illegal aliens from deportation imposes unaffordable health-care, education, law-enforcement and other costs on them.

Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who replaced Ohioan John Boehner as speaker in October, acknowledged that House intervention in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court was unprecedented, but he insisted it was necessary to prevent executive overreach by Obama.

With no Democrats voting for the bill, Ryan and other Republicans said Obama's executive orders dating to 2012 amount to the president legislating immigration reform without going through Congress.

"I recognize that this is a very extraordinary step," Ryan said on the House floor. "I feel it is very necessary, though. In fact, I believe this is vital."

In a joint statement Friday, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart said that although individual members of Congress have the right to file briefs supporting court cases, the House as a whole should not do so.

"All amicus briefs should carry the same weight, and beginning this pattern may signal to the Supreme Court that Congress is prioritizing certain cases over others," the two Miami Republicans said.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a first-term Republican from Kendall, went further. He accused Republicans of playing politics with the important issue of immigration.

"For two long, both parties have preferred to score petty political points using the immigration issue rather than passing meaningful reform to secure the border, reform our visa system and find a fair solution for the undocumented," Curbelo said.

"The surest and most constitutionally solvent way to end the president's executive overreach is to pass meaningful immigration reform, not by employing empty tactics that ignore the root cause of the problem," he said.

The two other Republicans who voted against the House resolution were Reps. Richard Hanna of New York and Robert Dold of Illinois. Rep. Alex Mooney, a West Virginia Republican and one of five other Cuban-Americans in Congress, voted for the measure, which passed by a 234-186 margin.

Among Florida's 24 other U.S. House members, 22 voted along party lines, with Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel and Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan failing to vote.

Nine other Florida Democrats voted against the measure, among them Reps. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Two lower courts have ruled in favor of the states, most recently the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans.

With only eight justices on the Supreme Court since Justice Antonin Scalia's death last month, a 4-4 decision after the scheduled April 18 arguments would uphold the lower courts' rulings and overturn Obama's executive orders protecting millions of undocumented parents and their children from deportation.

Obama on Wednesday chose Merrick Garland, a former federal prosecutor and current judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to replace Scalia on the high court, but Senate Republican leaders are refusing to take a vote or even hold hearings on the nomination, saying Obama has only 10 months left in office.

Immigration has become perhaps the most divisive issue in the presidential campaign, with Republican front-runner Donald Trump vowing to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat of Puerto Rican descent, ridiculed Republican lawmakers, many of whom he said have disingenuously tried to distance themselves from Trump's hardline stance on immigration.

"They keep saying, 'Well, Trump doesn't represent us, he doesn't (represent) our views, he doesn't represent our values,' and now they want to know where Trump gets all of his anti-immigrant, xenophobic views from," Gutierrez told reporters. "Try the House of Republicans."

In a speech Friday on the House floor, Gutierrez accused his Republican colleagues of "stoking anti-immigrant fears and mass-deportation fantasies."

"The vote is a political stunt disguised as a legal brief because the Republican majority sees a crass political opportunity to stand with the anti-immigration wing of their party," he said.  

The United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and 60 individual business leaders, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, filed an amicus brief supporting Obama last week.

Before the vote Thursday, Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez, head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said "the Latino community is being used for political purposes."

Sanchez added: "We are being demonized, we are being marginalized, and we see a frightening level of hateful rhetoric and vile hate speech aimed at our community, and nobody is standing up within the Republican Party to say that this is unacceptable."

America's Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group, said the vote Thursday was the eighth "anti-immigration" vote taken by Republicans in the current session of Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and 223 other Democrats filed an amicus brief backing Obama earlier this month, but there was no vote on the brief and it represents them as individuals.

In still another amicus brief, almost 120 cities and counties across the United States on March 8 expressed support for Obama, among them Pembroke Pines, Tampa and Sunrise.

 

February 04, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Legislative committees continue meeting in Tallahassee, while the state's top officials go to the fair. Here's what we're watching:

* They won't have an official cabinet meeting, but Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi will still be at the Florida State Fair in Tampa to help kick off the festivities. The governor will host a luncheon there at noon.

* At 9 a.m., the House Judiciary Committee will again take up the proposed "Pastor Protection Act," which allows clergy to turn away gay couples seeking to marry. The committee's vote was postponed last week.

* The House State Affairs Committee could vote to send to the House floor a proposal that changes the legal language of Florida's absentee voting to "vote-by-mail." That panel also meets at 9 a.m.

* The Senate Transportation Committee, also gathering at 9 a.m., will give a first hearing to a bill by Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, and Anitere Flores of Miami, which aims to outlaw the use of red-light camera devices in Florida.

* A bill dealing with cremation fees that counties charge is set for its final committee hearing in the House. The Regulatory Affairs Committee meets at 1 p.m.

December 08, 2015

AG Pam Bondi reacts to Seminole gaming compact proposal

@MaryEllenKlas @ByKristenMClark

Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office has authority over the enforcement of the state's gaming laws, said she hadn't yet read the proposed compact between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe and couldn't say whether the tribe is currently violating the law.

"I want to read the compact and see what the expansion is," Bondi told reporters Tuesday. "My goal is for Florida not to become Atlantic City; I've always said that. I don't want a casino on Longboat Key, where I grew up, and all of our beaches in the Panhandle. That's been my greatest concern, obviously. But I'd like to look at the compact and see how extensive it is."

As the tribe continues to operate black jack and other banked card games at its Hard Rock casinos and three other of its properties despite the fact that the provision authorizing those games expired in July, Bondi couldn't say if the operation of those games is illegal.

"I need to look at the compact and see what it says,'' she said. "We tried to download it this morning so I could look at it and couldn't, because obviously this happened late last night. I'm not dodging your question; I just haven't looked at it."

November 16, 2015

Lawmakers want to ban Florida from implementing EPA clean air rule

@ByKristenMClark

Two Republican state lawmakers are joining Florida's Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi to fight what they view as an over-reaching plan by President Barack Obama's administration to combat the effects of climate change and reduce the nation's carbon footprint.

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, have introduced legislation that would prohibit state agencies from implementing a proposed rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dubbed the "Clean Power Plan."

The rule requires Florida to cut its carbon dioxide emissions 26 percent by 2030 -- a mandate that Diaz says could harm the state's economy and threaten Floridians' jobs.

Diaz said in a statement today that he views it as his job as a lawmaker "to ensure that over burdensome regulations do not hurt Florida’s most financially vulnerable citizens" and "to push back against a regulation that was adopted by unelected bureaucrats who do not understand what the cost to Floridians will actually be."

House Bill 639 and Senate Bill 838, both filed last week, state that "the Legislature must establish and direct the state's energy policy to best protect the standard of living of its citizens." The bills would prohibit state agencies from limiting -- or even planning to limit -- carbon dioxide emissions unless Congress enacts legislation directing it or a federal court upholds the EPA rule.

Last month, Bondi joined 23 other states in a lawsuit challenging the EPA over the "Clean Power Plan," calling it both an economic and states' rights issue. Her participation in the lawsuit made her the target of a recent attack ad launched by the political committee run by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

October 23, 2015

Florida among 24 states suing over EPA carbon emissions rule

Obama-Power Plants

@ByKristenMClark

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has joined 23 other states to fight an initiative from President Barack Obama that's intended to combat greenhouse gases and the effects of climate change.

A federal lawsuit challenging a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule, called the Clean Power Plan, was filed in D.C. this week. The initiative, announced by Obama in August, aims to reduce carbon emissions nationwide by imposing limits on power plants.

In her announcement about the lawsuit today, Bondi said the EPA rule lays out an "unrealistic" timeframe to cut carbon emissions by 2030 and would "require the use of costly and unproven technologies." (Here are the goals for Florida, according to the EPA.)

She said the initiative "would result in dramatically higher electricity bills and significantly less reliable service for families, businesses, hospitals and schools across the country."

“We will not stand by and allow these unlawful and heavy-handed utility regulations to trample our states’ rights and drastically increase electricity prices in Florida,” Bondi said in the statement. “We have seen how President Obama’s overreach has created unease in markets, eliminated competition and increased costs for millions of Americans. This new federal rule promulgated by the EPA will have a similar effect on energy production, access and price in Florida and across the country.”

This isn't the first time Bondi has fought the Obama administration in court. She also unsuccessfully sued over the Affordable Care Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld.

Those joining Florida in challenging the EPA rule are: West Virginia, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming, the Arizona Corporation Commission, and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

Photo Credit: AP

March 04, 2015

Cabinet performance reviews: It's really not a new idea

As the aides to Gov. Rick Scott and his colleagues on the Cabinet revived the debate today over crafting a new policy about how to evaluate the performance of agency heads who report to them in the wake of the governor’s botched firing of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, some history:

If they had asked their predecessors, they would have learned that the practice had been in place for years and, on occasion used by this governor and Cabinet. 

Records and transcripts of Cabinet meetings reviewed by the Herald/Times show that the governor and Cabinet had a record of requiring a “performance review” of officials who reported to them.

The practice continued for the first year Scott and the three Cabinet officials came to office but then waned. DOR Secretary Lisa Echeverri did not have one in 2012 and her replacement, Marshall Stranburg, has never had one.

Continue reading "Cabinet performance reviews: It's really not a new idea" »

December 04, 2014

Court ruling means gay couples could wed as early as Jan. 5 in Florida

@SteveRothaus

Same-sex couples in Florida could begin marrying shortly after the new year, after a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a stay in the state’s gay-marriage ban case will be lifted at the end of the day Jan.5.

In a two-page ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta turned down a request by Florida’s secretaries of health and management services and the clerk of the court in the Panhandle’s Washington County to extend the stay. A federal judge based in Tallahassee ruled in August that the state’s gay-marriage ban is unconstitutional, but stayed his decision until Jan.5 to give the state time to appeal.

“This is a clear victory for us because it finds the harm is being done to the people, not the state,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, which is representing same-sex couples from throughout Florida and gay-rights group SAVE, who sued to have out-of-state same-sex marriages recognized in the Sunshine State.

“It means that relief is finally in sight for the same-sex married couples suffering under Florida’s refusal to recognize their legal unions,” SAVE Executive Director Tony Lima said in a statement. More here. 

 

December 01, 2014

AG revolving door: Bill McCollum lobbies, Pam Bondi's office helps his client

@MVanSickler

When the cruise line Royal Caribbean sought to amend a 1997 consumer protection agreement with the Florida Attorney General’s office, it hired a lawyer familiar with the agency’s inner workings.

Former Attorney General Bill McCollum called on the staff of his successor, Pam Bondi. Six months after the June 2013 meeting, Bondi’s office granted McCollum’s request.

Royal Caribbean’s advertised rates would no longer have to include fees for services, like baggage handling and loading cargo. The fees, which can inflate a trip’s cost by more than $100, could be listed separately from the company’s advertised rates.

On at least two other occasions, McCollum met with Bondi’s staff to discuss two more clients — NJOY, an e-cigarette company, and HealthFair, which sells health screenings from mobile clinics.

McCollum isn’t just Bondi’s predecessor; he also leads the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has championed Bondi’s advancement.

McCollum served as vice or acting chairman of the Washington-based group from June 2012 to January 2014, records show. During that period, it contributed $650,000 to Bondi’s re-election campaign, more than 10 percent of what she raised, and chipped in another $16,000 in gifts so she could attend conferences with other Republican attorneys general.

When asked what role he had in those expenditures, McCollum said the staff, not the board, decides how campaign contributions are made. He didn’t address the gifts. Story by Michael Van Sickler here.