October 24, 2016

South Florida a focus of Obama human-trafficking initiative



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


October 20, 2016

Prominent gay-rights group backs Joe Garcia against Curbelo

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A key LBGT organization in South Florida on Thursday endorsed Joe Garcia in his bid to win back from Rep. Carlos Curbelo the House seat that the Miami Republican wrested from him two years ago.

The Miami-based SAVE group, formed in 1993, said it was supporting the Miami Democrat because of his work advocating equality.

"During his term as congressman, Joe served South Florida's LGBTQ community admirably, garnering SAVE's Champion of Equality Award in 2013 for his sponsorship of the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act and his efforts to protect LBGT immigration rights," SAVE said in a statement.

Long before joining the House in January 2013, the group noted that Garcia had led the Cuban American National Foundation, which he then headed, in opposing the repeal of Miami-Dade's human-rights ordinance.

Once in Congress, Garcia served as vice chairman of the LGBT Equality Caucus. He helped pass bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which extended protects against rape and domestic violence to members of the LBGT community.

"One of my guiding principles is that every person should be treated equally," Garcia said Thursday. "That's why I'm honored that SAVE would recognize my work in support of the LGBTQ community."

SAVE's endorsement of Garcia came six days after Log Cabin Republicans, an influential GOP gay-rights group, endorsed Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo of South Florida in their re-election races, along with five other incumbent lawmakers from across the country.



Hastings leads black lawmakers on Broward blitz for Clinton, Murphy



Rep. Alcee Hastings is bringing a group of fellow African-American members of Congress to South Florida for a two-day push to help Hillary Clinton defeat Donald Trump in the key battleground state.

Hastings, a 12th-term congressman from Miramar, will be joined by Reps. Charlie Rangel and Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and by Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green of Texas in a swing through Broward County.

Almost 30 percent of Broward residents are black, forming one of the state's largest African-American voting blocs and a hub of a critical demographic group for Clinton to win the nation's biggest swing state in the Nov. 8 presidential election.

"With the rhetoric that we've heard from the Republican ticket, there can be little doubt how dangerous a Trump presidency would be for our country," Hastings told the Miami Herald. "We are here, first and foremost, to rally the African-American community in South Florida to elect Hillary Clinton as president and Patrick Murphy as our next United States senator."

Murphy, a Democratic congressman from Jupiter, is running against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami.

The congressional group's first stop was slated to be tonight at 7 p.m. to address a meeting of the Haitian American Democratic Club at Diecke Auditorium in Plantation.

Hastings and his Congressional Black Caucus colleagues had six events planned for Friday:

9 a.m., Breakfast at Betty's Soul Food Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale;

Noon, Visit the combined Clinton/Hastings campaign offices, 1033 NW Sixth Street, Fort Lauderdale;

12:55 p.m., Lunch at Ponderosa Soul Food Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale

1:40 p.m., Visit the headquarters of the Broward Democratic Executive Committee, 8320 W. Sunrise Boulevard, Plantation

3 p.m., Visit the Clinton campaign office, 3519 North Pineland Road, Sunrise;

4 p.m., Canvas homes on foot in Sunrise neighborhood around the Clinton campaign office.

Photo credit: Matias J. Ocner, Miami Herald




October 17, 2016

Country's biggest nursing home pharmacy pays big kickbacks fine



Omnicare, a giant nationwide specialty pharmacy whose South Florida outlet delivers medicines to 150 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in the region, has agreed to pay a $28 million fine for taking kickbacks for recommending an epilepsy drug to its customers

While the drug Depakote's FDA-approved purpose is to treat seizures, it's off-brand sales have soared with Abbott Laboratories, the medicine's Chicago-based manufacturer, promoting it to control aggression in elderly patients with dementia.

The $28 million settlement, announced Monday by the Justice Department, came almost four years after the government sued Omnicare Inc. for accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks from Abbott Laboratories for promoting the use of Depakote.

"Elderly nursing home residents suffering from dementia are among our nation's most vulnerable patient populations," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Joyce R. Branda said in filing the December 2010 suit. "Kickbacks to consulting pharmacists compromise their independence and undermine their role in protecting nursing home residents from the use of unnecessary drugs."

In a separate lawsuit, Abbot Laboratories in 2012 agreed to pay DOJ a much larger fine, $1.2 billion, for having misbranded Depakota.

Omnicare, purchased least year by CVS Health,  has 160 locations throughout the country, including six in Florida. Its Weston branch serves 150 nursing homes and assisted living facilities throughout South Florida.

In an earlier settlement with DOJ, Omnicare agreed in 2012 to pay $50 million to resolve claims that it had improperly dispensed controlled substances.

Photo credit: Scott Eells, Bloomberg







October 14, 2016

Major GOP LBGT group backs South Florida lawmakers



Log Cabin Republicans on Friday endorsed Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo in their re-election races, along with five other incumbent lawmakers from across the country.

The advocacy group, which believes that equality for LBGT people is in the best traditions of the Republican Party, said the seven newly endorsed representatives "have been steadfast allies of LBGT freedom" in the House of Representatives.

"All of these common-sense conservatives have not only spoken out in support of equality, but also cast votes in the 114th Congress that confirm their commitment to the cause," Gregory T. Angelo, head of Log Cabin Republicans, said.

Ros-Lehtinen, running for her 15th term against Miami small business owner Scott Furhman, expressed gratitude for the endorsement.

"I will continue to promote inclusiveness and ensure the fair and equal treatment of all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender," she said.

Curbelo is running for his second House term against Joe Garcia, the former congressman he defeated two years ago.

"In Congress, I have been proud to stand up for equality," Curbelo said. "I am honored to have the support of Republicans who understand that equality can never be a partisan issue."

For more information about Log Cabin Republicans, read here.

Photo credit: Hector Gabino, El Nuevo Herald



October 10, 2016

Congress more stingy on providing disaster relief than it once was


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The final damage tally from Hurricane Matthew across Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas isn't yet known, but it’s certain those states will ask Congress for billions in disaster aid.

President Barack Obama, after speaking with their governors, suggested that he’ll be seeking emergency funds for damage from Matthew and earlier storms when lawmakers convene after the Nov. 8 election, and Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio said Florida was certain to seek assistance.

“While the state has yet to commence an assessment of damage due to unsafe conditions remaining in many areas, we must be prepared for the long road of recovery ahead,” Rubio wrote Friday in a letter backing up a request from Scott that Obama declare Matthew a “major disaster” for his state, a designation that would allow it to seek more emergency aid from Washington.

For more, read here.

Photo credit: Pedro Portal, El Nuevo Herald


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article106789687.html#storylink=cpy


September 30, 2016

Rubio at forefront of GOP attack on new Iran deal details




Republicans led by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio have new ammunition in their months-long assault on the U.S. accord to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Rubio cited a Wall Street Journal article reporting that the biggest enticement for Iran to free four American hostages in January wasn't the widely reported release of $1.7 billion frozen by Washington since the 1979-80 hostage crisis.

Instead, according to the Journal, the U.S. government lifted sanctions that had blocked Iran from procuring ballistic missiles eight years earlier than allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran and Washington sealed.

"President Obama promised (that) the United States would maintain and enforce sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile activities," Rubio said Friday. "Today we learned he secretly agreed -- eight years early -- to lift sanctions on an Iranian bank the U.S. Treasury Department described as the financial linchpin of Iran's missile-procurement network."

Ryan also criticized the recently revealed provision freeing Iran to start buying ballistic missiles.

"It now appears that on the same day American hostages were freed from Iran, the administration not only agreed to the $1.7 billion cash ransom payment, but violated a key term of the nuclear deal by prematurely lifting ballistic missile sanctions."

Pressed by reporters at a briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said the United States had "conducted a very thorough review" before deciding to lift the sanctions on the banks.

Asked directly whether the review had determined that the banks were no longer tied to Iran's missile procurement, Toner responded: "Yes, I mean that's exactly right. That they were no longer carrying out actions that we believed were linked to, or linked them to, the ballistic-missile program."

He added that "we continue to have concerns about Iran's ballistic-missile program."






September 28, 2016

Zika funding inches forward in DC, but obstacles remain




Overcoming its earlier divisions on Zika funding, the Senate on Wednesday approved $1.1 billion in research and prevention aid as it passed a bigger appropriations bill to fund the federal government into December.

Sen. Bill Nelson, aware of a looming potentially divisive House vote later in the day or this week, greeted the Senate's 72-26 vote with guarded optimism.

"We had a small victory today in our ongoing fight against the Zika virus," Nelson said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who's made Zika funding his top priority as he runs for re-election against Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, criticized the "political games" that had held it up for seven months.

"This anti-Zika package rightfully prioritizes Americans in Florida and Puerto Rico," Rubio said. "I'm encouraged that my calls for action have been answered, and that real assistance from the federal government is finally on its way."

The Zika money tucked inside a 10-week stopgap funding measure, the larger $1.1 trillion appropriations package went to the House, with a potentially divisive vote looming in the wake of Friday's end of the current fiscal year.

A large chunk of the $1.1 billion for Zika, less than the $1.9 billion President Barack Obama requested in February, would go to Florida, New York and Puerto Rico, which the virus ravaged during the summer.

The National Institutes for Health would receive more than $160 million of the Zika funds to continue its recently launched first clinical trial for a vaccine and to conduct other research.

The virus is carried primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but it can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse with an infected partner.

Florida had 904 Zika cases as of Tuesday, 109 of them locally transmitted through mosquitos.

Ninety-one of Florida's Zika infections involved pregnant women, an especially vulnerable group because of the birth defects the virus can cause in newborns.

Microcephaly, which causes infants to be born with abnormally small brains and heads, is the worst known defect.

The Senate vote Wednesday represented a turnaround for Zika funds in the higher chamber. In three earlier summertime votes, Senate Democrats joined by some Republicans rejected stand-alone Zika bills because of extraneous provisions.

The most contentious provision sought to deny any of the new Zika money from going to Planned Parenthood partner clinics in Puerto Rico.

The island has almost 19,500 cases of Zika, some 84 percent of all cases in the United States and far more than any other state or territory.

The divisive Planned Parenthood clause is no longer part of the Zika funding measure in the overall spending bill. The Puerto Rico clinics will be allowed to seek reimbursement for Zika treatment except for abortions, for which federal money has been banned from paying for four decades.

While Nelson, an Orlando Democrat, and Rubio voted for the $1.1 trillion bill, about 1 percent of it for Zika, 11 Republican senators and 10 Democratic senators voted against it.

That bipartisan split among opponents foreshadowed potential pitfalls in the House, which was expected to take up the appropriations measure later Wednesday.

About $400 million of the $1.1 billion in Zika funds is offset in spending cuts to a range of other programs supported by Democratic lawmakers.

Some conservative Republicans, by contrast, want all the new $1.1 trillion in spending offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, which is not achieved.

Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan voted against the larger measure because it did not include $500 million they'd requested to clean contaminated water and replace lead pipes in Flint.

Negotiators promised to provide $170 million to Flint in a separate water bill moving through Congress, but that didn't satisfy Stabenow and Peters.

Image credit: Marco Ruiz, Miami Herald















September 26, 2016

Digital currency popular in Miami draws congressional scrutiny



WASHINGTON Lawmakers have formed a special group in a bid to stay on top of the exploding use of bitcoins and similar forms of digital currency in Florida and elsewhere in the country.

Miami has become a bitcoin hotbed, which some federal prosecutors say is tied to South Florida’s reputation as a money-laundering hub tied to drug-trafficking.

The new Congressional Blockchain Caucus is named after the online foundation of bitcoins: The blockchain is a digital ledger that records every bitcoin transaction with an encrypted 32-digit code.

“Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize the financial services industry, the U.S. economy and the delivery of government services,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a North Carolina Republican, said of the caucus he helped form.

Bitcoin proponents say it’s a revolutionary way to move value quickly and anonymously from one point to another, whether around the corner or across the globe, with no middlemen, no fees, no central banks, no collection of personal data and almost impenetrable computer security.

In the first money-laundering cases tied to bitcoins, a Miami-Dade judge last month dismissed charges against website designer Michelle Espinoza. He was charged with illegally transmitting $1,500 worth of bitcoins.

Polner ruled that the Bitcoin is not “tangible wealth,” is not backed by any government or bank, and “cannot be hidden under a mattress like cash and gold bars.”

Polner wrote: “Even to someone with limited knowledge in the area, the Bitcoin has a long way to go before it becomes the equivalent of money.”

The judge also said that Florida law’s description of money-laundering is too vague to apply to use of bitcoins.

Espinoza paid his lawyer in bitcoins, which fluctuate in value based on buying and selling demand through digital exchanges.

As of Monday afternoon, one bitcoin was selling for $608, more than double its worth of $298 in January 2015.

Andrew Hinkes, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, said that Polner’s ruling could prompt Florida legislators to pass legislation more focused on bitcoins and other forms of digital currency.

“Hopefully, Florida’s Legislature will consider the impact of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and craft legislation to balance their potential for abuse with their potential to foster innovation, create jobs and generate wealth,” Hinkes wrote on coindesk.com, which provides news about the controversial currencies.

Polner in her ruling also urged state legislators to update its money-laundering laws.

The IRS calls bitcoins “virtual currencies” and describes them as property, not money.

Bitcoin enthusiasts from across the country gathered in Miami in January for the 2016 Bitcoin Hackathon.

Held at LAB Miami in the trendy Wynwoood neighborhood, the conference encouraged developing Smartphone apps and other software to expedite the use of bitcoins.

Photo credit: Gary Reyes, San Jose Mercury News




September 14, 2016

Competing demands crowd Zika money



WASHINGTON Turns out, Zika isn’t the only urgent problem that needs federal funds fast.

Florida lawmakers pushing to get $1.1 billion for Zika prevention and research into a rapidly evolving broader appropriations bill are competing with members of Congress from across the country who want their needs addressed.

On his second day in Washington to push for Zika funding, Gov. Rick Scott met with members of Congress from the state who briefed him on the rapidly evolving negotiations over federal spending.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said he’s jousting with other panel members seeking vital funding for their districts and states.

Lawmakers from Louisiana want billions for flood relief. Congressmen from Michigan want millions to clean contaminated drinking water. Others are pushing for more money for veterans’ healthcare.

“Florida’s not the only state with urgent needs,” Diaz-Balart told reporters after he and other Florida lawmakers met with Scott.

The governor said that Florida can’t wait any longer to receive federal aid to help with treating the almost 800 people in the state infected with the virus and preventing it from spreading further.

“We need help, and we need help now,” Scott said.

Scott criticized Sen. Bill Nelson for joining other Democrats in having voted down earlier Zika bills because they contained extraneous provisions related to abortion, Planned Parenthood and the federal health insurance law.

Scott’s criticism drew a rebuke from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fellow Republican from Miami.

“We don’t need to be calling people out,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Sen. Nelson has been trying to help get Zika funding.”

Beyond the competition among different funding needs, there was disagreement on Capitol Hill over how much time the omnibus spending bill, called a Continuing Resolution, should cover going forward.

Appropriators sought a short-term measure that would keep the government operating into December. Some conservatives wanted it to be funded until March. President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress were pushing for a bill to cover the entire next fiscal year, starting Oct. 1 and lasting through Sept. 30, 2017.

Video credit: Ken Cedeno, McClatchy