September 30, 2016

Rubio at forefront of GOP attack on new Iran deal details

 

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@jamesmartinrose

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

 

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@jamesmartinrose

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

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@jamesmartinrose

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

  

@jamesmartinrose

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

 

 

August 31, 2016

Miami Beach man gets 10 years for running prostitution ring

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@jamesmartinrose

A Miami Beach man was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in federal prison for running an escort service called "International Playmates" from a Fort Lauderdale hotel.

Miguel A. Hernandez, 50. had pleaded guilty in May before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami federal court to charges linked to prostitution, including bringing Spanish, Columbian, Venezuelan and other Latin American women into the country for his illegal enterprise.

"To facilitate the operation, Hernandez and his associates reserved and paid for plane tickets for foreign nationals to enter the United States, completed immigration paperwork, coached foreign nationals on what to say to customs officials when entering the United States and picked foreign national up at the airport," the U.S Justice Department said in announcing the sentence.

Hernandez had previously been convicted and sentenced to six years in prison in his native country of Spain for immigration fraud, but he'd fled to the United States before serving his sentence.

"This case is a testament to our shared goal of bringing traffickers to justice and vindicating the rights of vulnerable women and girls exploited for financial gain," Vanita Gupta, head of DOJ's civil rights division, said.

For more details:

Photo credit: David J. Neal, Miami Herald

 

 

August 30, 2016

Florida lawmakers urge tough steps against Venezuela

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@jamesmartinrose

Florida's congressional delegation has the biggest presence in a bipartisan letter urging Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to extend sanctions and take other tough steps against the Venezuelan government.

Nine of the 30 lawmakers who signed the letter to Kerry and Lew are from the Sunshine State, among them South Florida Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, plus Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Lois Frankel and Frederica Wilson.

Also on the letter are Republican Reps. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach and John Mica of Winter Park, plus Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of West Boca Raton.

"People are literally starving, suicide rates are rising and the government continues to repress its people," the lawmakers wrote.

Congress in July passed legislation sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami, which President Barack Obama signed into law, extending sanctions on human rights abusers in Venezuela.

"However, the are scores of other Venezuelan officials, including within the Supreme Court, federal judiciary, judges in various states, national and state prosecutors, and police and security officers who have reportedly directly engaged in human rights abuses, efforts to undermine democracy and public corruption," the lawmakers wrote to Kerry and Lew.

The 30 House members called on Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro to hold a recall referendum this year, release all political prisoners, follow democratic principles, permit the delivery of emergency food and medicine, and stop government support for drug trafficking.

To read the letter:

August 25, 2016

Rubio raps FEMA over algae blooms

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@jamesmartinrose

Sen. Marco Rubio criticized the Obama administration for again declining to issue a federal disaster declaration in response to toxic algae in Florida's waterways.

"Even though the end to this disaster is not in sight, the President is telling our state we are on our own," the Miami Republican said Thursday in a statement.

Barack Obama did not appear to be involved in the decision. In a brief letter earlier Thursday, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate rejected Gov. Rick Scott's appeal of his agency's earlier denial of extra money to help fight the algae blooms from Lake Okeechobee discharges intended to protect its aging dike.

"After a thorough review of all information contained in your initial request and appeal, we reaffirm our original findings that supplemental federal assistance under the Stafford Act is not appropriate for this event," Fugate wrote to Scott. "Therefore, I must inform you that your appeal for an emergency declaration is denied."

The thick algae blooms look like guacamole and smell bad. The algae has fouled Treasure Coast waterways fed by Lake Okeechobee.

"The Administration has chosen yet again to turn a blind eye to the livelihoods of Floridians who are affected by this toxic algae," Rubio said.

For more on Rubio's response:

Photo credit: Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press

 


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/environment/article86989367.html#storylink=cpy

 

August 06, 2016

DNC emails reveal controversial reputation of South Florida billionaire

@jamesmartinrose

While prominent Democrats from Hillary Clinton on down regularly mock Donald Trump in public, he's not the only wealthy commercial real estate developer to be ridiculed by party operatives.

Stephen Bittel, a Miami Beach businessman who owns and operates more than $1 billion in real estate in South Florida and beyond, isn't the most popular fellow at the Democratic National Committee despite his large donations to the party.

A few of the DNC emails released last month by Wikileaks, which prompted the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz as chairwoman, contain trash-talking about Bittel among folks at top levels of its massive fundraising operation.

Bittel, who is co-chairman of the party's national finance committee, is cited in several emails looking ahead to a May 18 meeting of President Barack Obama with the Coconut Grove resident and a small group of other big donors at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington.

Two days before the event, DNC national finance director Jordan Kaplan and his Mid-Atlantic deputy Alexandra Shapiro were fretting about where to seat Bittel.

"Bittel said this morning he was coming so just plan on it, but he doesn't sit next to POTUS!" Kaplan told Shapiro.

POTUS is the Secret Service code name for President of the United States.

Shapiro quickly responded: "Yes -- Bittel will be sitting in the s-------t corner I can find."

The next day, in another email about seating for the elite fundraiser, Shapiro provided an update to Zach Allen, another DNC regional finance director.

Shapiro zeroed in on Bittel and Henry R. Munoz, a prominent San Antonio architect who is also co-chairman of the DNC national finance committee.

"So Henry and Bittel are both coming to the roundtable (with Obama) as punishment for something I did in a past life," she emailed Allen.

The two operatives mused about seating Bittel next to DNC finance vice chairman Chris Lowe and his wife, comedy writer Bonnie Datt.

"LOL, Chris and Bonnie think Bittel is a character," Allen told Shapiro. "So if you want to go that route, let me know so I can at least forewarn them but they'll be fine and if it makes your life easier, all the better."

In apparent reference to both Bittel and Munoz, Allen added: "I'm sorry you're having to deal with them."

Bittel, chairman of Terranova Corp., is a friend of Wasserman Schultz. He hosted a dinner for her at a Philadelphia restaurant during the Democratic National Convention shortly after she resigned as DNC head.

The Weston lawmaker quit the top Democratic post after some of the emails revealed disparaging comments by DNC aides about Sen. Bernie Sanders, who former Secretary of State Clinton bested to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

In a separate email exchange, Chadwick Rivard, a top DNC researcher, warned White House aide Bobby Schmuck about another donor with South Florida ties.

Coping the email to a half dozen other DNC operatives, Rivard sent Schmuck a long background description of Palm Beach billionaire George Lindemann Jr., board president of the Bass Museum in Miami Beach who was once an Olympic equestrian hopeful as a highly skilled horse rider.

The biography, part of which came from the Lexis-Nexis database, included Lindemann's 1995 conviction on three counts of wire fraud. That case resulted from a federal probe that found 50 horses had been killed over two decades in acts of insurance fraud.

Lindemann, who has donated to Republican and Democratic politicians, received a 33-month term in federal prison for his role in the scheme.

DNC compliance director Alan Reed, who'd been copied on Rivard's email, rendered his verdict on Lindemann two hours later.

"I vote fail....again," Reed wrote.

To browse the entire Wikileaks trove of 19,252 DNC emails, click here: https://wikileaks.org/dnc-emails/

    

July 06, 2016

Miami gunfire victim, others push Congress to pass controls

@jamesmartinrose

Gun violence victims from Miami and other cities rallied outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday and demanded that Congress act on pending legislation to limit firearms sales in the wake of the Orlando massacre last month.

Wearing orange T-shirts to commemorate the 49 people murdered in Orlando and others shot to death, the activists heard rousing remarks from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. John Lewis trying to continue the momentum for gun controls sparked by an unusual overnight sit-in the civil rights icon led on the House floor two weeks ago.

“The American public deserves so much more from our nation’s leaders than constant arguing,” Antwan Reeves, a Miami-Dade Schools employee who survived an automatic-rifle attack on him and his cousin in Miami Gardens last November, told reporters and spectators at the rally.

Saying “it’s a miracle that I’m here today,” Reeves told a riveting story of how he and his cousin, St. Louis Rams receiver Stedman Bailey, were sprayed with gunfire Nov. 24 while they sat in a car at Northwest 199th Street and 38th Place. Another vehicle pulled up alongside them, and an occupant opened fire as Reeves shielded two of his children in the backseat of their car.

Reeves took 11 bullets while Bailey was shot twice in the head, but both men survived after Reeves somehow drove to Aventura Hospital and Medical Center and each underwent emergency surgery.

“The weapons used during that night of madness left behind 40 shell casings,” Reeves said at Wednesday’s demonstration. “These types of weapons should not be in possession of ordinary citizens.”

Rep. Frederica Wilson, Reeves’ representative in the House, also attended the protest.

“We’re going to need the American public and pressure from the people of this nation to help us in this battle,” Wilson told reporters after the rally.

She added: “I am tired of burying little black boys (in my community), and I even have a foundation set aside to pay for their funerals. So we’re going to fight. I’ve been in this battle for a long time, and I do not intend to give up now.”

Since the June 12 tragedy in Orlando, Republicans who control the Senate and the House have blocked mainly Democratic efforts to pass “No Fly, No Buy” legislation that would make it more difficult for people on FBI terror watch lists to purchase guns.

Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Miami-Dade and David Jolly of Indian Shores, Fla., are among a small number of Republicans who have broken with their party and pushed for those limited controls.

June 29, 2016

Nelson wants feds to act on 'bright neon-green' beach waters

 

@jamesmartinrose

 

Sen. Bill Nelson fired off a letter Wednesday asking federal officials to release more water from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades and take other steps to stem the green algae washing up on Treasure Coast beaches.

Nelson acted a day after Martin County commissioners asked the state and federal governments to declare an environmental disaster while urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close the locks between Florida's largest freshwater lake and the St. Lucie River.

"To strongly prevent this environmental and economic crisis from spreading, I strongly urge the Army Corps of Engineers to take immediate action," Nelson wrote to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.

Nelson added: "The water washing up on the beaches in Martin County, Florida, is bright neon-green. Officials there are concerned about potential health risks associated with the blue-green algae plume forming off their coast and have closed several South Florida beaches as a result, just days before the popular Fourth of July holiday."

The corps regularly releases water from the lake's western and eastern outlets into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers in order to keep its levels no higher than 15.5 feet above sea level, but heavy rainfall has kept the level at 15 feet.

Saying that business owners along the coast "could incur significant financial losses" if visitors avoid the algae-laden beaches and waterways, Nelson asked Darcy to raise the water level in the L-29 canal north of the Tamiani Trail between Miami and Tampa.

The rest of Nelson's letter is here.