September 02, 2013

Gaetz's top aide puts new twist on the revolving door with $400k consulting job

Senate President Don Gaetz’s right-hand man has been running his own political consulting firm, allowing him indirectly to rake in more than $400,000 from the some of the same special interests that have a stake in influencing legislation. Full story here.

For three years ending in 2012, Chris Clark, 41, took a leave of absence from his state job after the legislative session ended in May and went to work as Gaetz’s campaign manager. Clark formed the company in 2009.

The lucrative arrangement Clark has carved out for himself underscores the web of financial ties special interests have with the Florida Legislature as staff often cycle in and out of government and the private sector, developing relationships with the very lobbyists who have a financial stake in influencing them.

“It’s a practice that Democrats and Republicans have used without any serious problem that I’m aware of,’’ said Gaetz, R-Niceville, in defending Clark, who saw no conflict with the arrangement.

Clark’s dual role as campaign consultant and legislative staff member is allowed by law as long as he doesn’t work on the campaign while on the state job.

Still, Clark’s consulting deals stand out for two reasons: the sheer size of the raw dollar amounts and the fact that Gaetz made a show of standing against special interest money by leading a charge to abolish some of the very political committees that helped fund his chief of staff.

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August 22, 2013

Former speaker Bense to oversee oil spill trust fund

Senate President Don Gaetz insisted on setting up a trust fund to ensure that any proceeds Florida receives from lawsuits or settlements related to the BP oil spill goes to affected counties. Today, he announced that former House Speaker Allan Bense will chair the board of this endowment fund, known as Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc.

From the press  release:

Former House Speaker Allan Bense was appointed today to the Board of Trustees of Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc., an endowment established by the Florida Legislature to manage fine and settlement dollars coming to the state as a result of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Bense (R-Panama City) was selected by Senate President Don Gaetz who, along with the Governor and House Speaker, chose the five person board. Bense represented portions of Franklin, Gulf and Bay counties in the House of Representatives from 1998 to 2006. During his final two years, he was Speaker of the House. 

“Allan Bense is a lifelong champion and passionate steward of the natural and human resources of the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast,” Gaetz said, in making the appointment. “He built successful companies from the ground up, meets payrolls every week, and intimately understands the economy and people of our area. As a business and political leader he has always cared more about the next generation than the next election.”

Triumph Gulf Coast was created to ensure that funds coming to the state as a result of lawsuits or settlements with British Petroleum, Halliburton or others found culpable in the 2010 oil spill would not be wasted or spent quickly. The five member board, assisted by professional financial managers, will be accountable to invest and use the proceeds and principal over the course of thirty years to promote job creation through lasting economic development in the eight coastal counties of Northwest Florida, stretching from Escambia through Wakulla counties.

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August 20, 2013

Rep. Castor asks GOP leaders to reinstate approval of insurance rates

Republican lawmakers are standing by their decision to suspend for two years the state's ability to regulate health insurance rates. But that hasn't stopped U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor from witing a letter to Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford asking them to reverse course.

Castor, D-Tampa, said that some lawmakers and even Gov. Rick Scott may have been misinformed when they supported Senate Bill 1842, assuming the federal government had the power to negotiate insurance rates. She says the lack of state oversight could cause premiums to be higher in Florida than they would otherwise under the health care law.

"This appears to be a cynical attempt to saddle Florida consumers with higher insurance rates simply to sabotage the Affordable Care Act and the new health insurance marketplace where Floridians and small businesses can shop and compare new health plans," Castor wrote.

The Legislature would have to call a special session in order to approve any new laws prior to the launch of the health exchange on Oct. 1. But again, with Republican leaders saying there is nothing wrong with the changes in Senate Bill 1842, that is unlikely to occur.

Click here to download Castor letter on insurance regulations.

August 12, 2013

Movers & Shakers

New chairman for Citizens Board of Governors

Chris Gardner, a veteran of the retail insurance brokerage business, has been named chairman of the Board of Governors for Citizens Property Insurance Florida CFO Jeff Atwater.

Gardner, a resident of Winter Park, has 20 years of experience in the retail insurance brokerage business with a specific focus in commercial property and casualty insurance. He has served as a member of the Citizens board since his appointment in July 2011.

“In his 20 years in the insurance industry, Chris has proved himself to be a person of high character and sound judgment who shares my high expectations for how a corporation such as Citizens should be managed,” Atwater said in a news release.

Gardner is the managing shareholder of Kuykendall Gardner, LLC, a Florida-based insurance broker doing business since 1953. Neither the firm collectively nor Gardner personally has any current business interests in Citizens, according to the release. He has been a past chairman of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce and is a past vice chairman of the City of Orlando Municipal Planning Board.

Gardner succeeds Carlos Lacasa as chairman of the Citizen’s board.

Another change: Sen. President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has appointed Freddie Schinz to the Citizens Board of Governors.

Schinz has more than 40 years of experience as a statewide commercial builder. He replaces Carol Everhart.

Gaetz picks

Gaetz has appointed Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) to the Southern States Energy Board, Sen. John Legg (R-Lutz) to the Education Commission of the States, Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) to the Workforce Florida, Inc., Board of Directors, and Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) to the Florida High School Athletic Association Public Liaison Advisory Committee.

Flores, 36, is an attorney and CEO of Doral College. Legg, 38, is a long-time Pasco County educator and the Senate Education Committee Chair. Montford, 65, is the CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Stargel, 47, is an investment property manager in Lakeland.

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July 24, 2013

Residency of all legislators under review

From the News Service of Florida

Legislative leadership wants to know where House and Senate members are when they say they're at home.

With Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, raising questions about a number of Democratic lawmakers living outside the districts they represent, the top attorneys for the House and Senate have been directed to recommend standards for residency.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Ken Detzner will be asked to get a list of where all 160 legislators are registered to vote.

"Neither the House nor the Senate has historically developed a clear set of principles to determine the residency of our members," House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in letter Wednesday to Latvala. "The recommended guidelines should draw on any past rulings of the House and Senate on this question, as well as decisions from other bodies in related legal contexts."

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June 24, 2013

Gov. Scott signs 'landmark' foster care legislation

Gov. Rick Scott signed the Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act Monday -- for the second time.

Scott initially signed HB 1036, which gives kids the option of staying in foster care until age 21, on June 14th, but Monday's ceremonial signing gave supporters a chance to celebrate a bill advocates call "landmark legislation." 

"This is the most important bill the governor will have signed all year. It immediately impacts the lives of thousands of children and I don't see a bill that's more important than that," said Senate sponsor Detert, who attended the signing at Valencia College in Orlando with House sponsor, Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins, Florida's Advocate for Foster and Adoption Tanya Wilkins, children's advocates and current and foster care youths from all over Florida.

Along with giving young adults the option of staying in foster care, the new law requires a transition plan be made for those who are leaving the child welfare system. 

“This new law will ensure kids entrusted in our care have the best start possible into adulthood and provide them the opportunity to obtain the life skills necessary so they may live the American Dream,” Scott said.

About 70 percent of teens in foster care have not graduated high school or received their GED by the time they "age out" of the system.

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June 07, 2013

Gov and GOP leaders use hurricane season start to blast DC over sequester cuts

As the first tropical storm of the season bore down on Florida Thursday, Republican state officials seized the moment to blast Washington and warn that the required budget cuts to federal programs could impede the state’s ability to respond to hurricanes or floods.

Gov. Rick Scott had just mentioned Tropical Storm Andrea at his briefing with reporters Thursday morning when he launched into a critique of the federal budget storm that is causing the Florida National Guard to order 993 of its full-time staff to go to a four-day work week beginning July 1.

Known as sequestration, the across-the-board cuts were agreed to between President Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress in 2011 to resolve the debt ceiling standoff. Now, Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have written to Congress and the Department of Defense asking them to exempt National Guard staff from the mandatory cuts because of Florida’s hurricane season.

“It doesn’t make any sense why they’re doing it this way,’’ Scott said, adding that the defense department could have excluded the National Guard from the budget cuts. “I’m very concerned about our preparedness. … It will take more days to be up to speed.” More here. 


June 06, 2013

Sen. President Gaetz joins long list of Republicans questioning $52M deal for Scott contributor

Senate President Don Gaetz is calling for special hearings on the $52 million special deal between Citizens Property Insurance and a politically connected upstart insurance company, the latest sign of legislative angst with the state-run insurer.

Last month, Citizens agreed to transfer $52 million to Heritage Property and Casualty, a nine-month old insurance company that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying and political donations to top Republicans, including Gov. Rick Scott.

“The Florida Senate believes the facts and circumstances surrounding the Heritage transaction need thorough investigation so the people of Florida are assured that it and transactions like it are in the best interest of Floridians,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a statement. “As such, as soon as Committee meetings begin this fall, the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee will conduct hearings to investigate and propose ]solutions to the concerns raised by this transaction and any others that might result from Citizens’ attempts to reduce its liabilities.”

Gaetz joins a long list of top Republican lawmakers questioning the $52 million cash transfer from Citizens to a private insurer. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he was “highly concerned” about the deal and would call on a House committee to provide more oversight for Citizens. Gov. Rick Scott’s chief of staff called the board at Citizens “tone-deaf” when it comes to earning public confidence (Heritage donated $100,000 to Scott’s reelection in March, as the $52 million deal was being crafted, but Scott’s office denies pay-to-play). Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater also criticized the hastily approved 3-2 vote by the Citizens board to support the unique deal. Scott refused to answer questions this week about whether he supported the deal for his political contributor or not. 

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has called the deal “corporate welfare” and Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, called it a “get rich” funding scheme. Critics say the deal allows Heritage to retroactively cherry pick policies that have made no claims, thus privatizing profits and socializing losses. They also pointed to a long list of insurance violations at companies run by Heritage's president, Richard Widdicombe

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May 09, 2013

Feds sue Gaetz's former company for Medicare fraud, including period he was vice-chairman

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against the hospice company founded by Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, accusing the company of engaging in Medicare fraud for more than 11 years, including during the time Gaetz was vice chairman of the company.

The lawsuit, filed May 2 in the District Court for the western district of Missouri, alleges that since at least 2002 Vitas Hospice Services and Vitas Healthcare Corp., the largest provider of for-profit hospice services in the country, “misspent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars from the Medicare program.”

Gaetz sold the company in 2004 to its current owner, Cincinnati-based Chemed, and reportedly no longer owns any shares or has any affiliation with the company. Chemed operates hospice services in 18 states including Florida.

The suit, filed on the eve of the final day of the legislative session, alleges that the Chemed and its hospice subsidiaries defrauded Medicare by billing Medicare for patients who were not eligible for hospice care, and for charging Medicare for crisis care given to patients who either didn’t need it or never received it.

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April 30, 2013

Senate kills Weatherford top priority of pension overhaul

After months of calling pension reform a top priority in his inaugural year as Florida House speaker, Will Weatherford could do nothing Tuesday as his plan went down to defeat in the Senate.
A third of Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting 22-18 against an amendment that would have banned new state workers, teachers and county workers from joining the state’s $132 billion pension system, and steer them instead toward private, 401(k)-style investment plans, shifting the risk from taxpayers to workers.
“One of the reasons they work for government is not for the salary,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. “They haven’t had raises in six or seven years. It’s for the pension and if we want to continue to have the quality of employees that we have, we need to continue to offer that pension.”
The setback came at the exact moment Weatherford, 33, faced a filibuster on the House floor among Democrats who wanted to draw attention to the House’s refusal to tap federal dollars to give health care coverage to 1 million uninsured Floridians.
“You always know you’re never going to get everything you asked for,” Weatherford said late Tuesday. “It came up a little bit short, but it was a great debate and I’m grateful to the Senate for giving it an opportunity to be heard.”
Weatherford has made much of his concern that the Florida pension system, which is about 86.9 percent funded, poses a dangerous risk to state finances. It’s a concern he shares with the Florida Chamber of Commerce the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee libertarian think tank. Weatherford’s father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense, sits on the boards for both.
But Weatherford couldn’t convince members of his own party in the Senate that the pension system should be closed down to new employees. Instead, he got a forceful and emotional pushback from Latvala, a frequent sparring partner, who argued the pension serves as a reliable pillar for lowly paid workers.
During a memorable floor debate, Latvala welled up as he told the story of two firefighters near Lake City, Brett Felton and Josh Burch, who perished in 2011 fighting a blaze. They made about $26,000, he said.
“That’s barely the federal poverty level,” Latvala said. “They worked for their pension. One firefighter’s family was able to collect the survivor’s benefit, and he was in his 20s, and his family collects $1,200 a month. That’s what’s left of their dad. That’s what’s left of their husband.
“I do not understand why we want to experiment around and why we want to take these people who are protecting us every single day and put them in a system just because it works in private business,” Latvala said, pointing out that those in the private sector aren’t risking their lives for the public good.
Republicans joining Latvala’s insurrection were Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, a former sheriff; Nancy Detert, R-Venice; Miguel Diaz de La Portilla, R-Miami; Greg Evers, R-Baker; Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; and John Legg, R-Trinity.
Latvala openly acknowledged what other Republican leaders in the Senate would not: Weatherford had demanded the vote.
“We all know this is the speaker’s priority for the year,” Latvala said during debate, addressing his comments to Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “We all know the speaker asked for an up-and-down vote on this, and that’s what we’re doing. I appreciate very much your commitment, Mr. President, that once we do this up-and-down vote, once it’s down, it goes away and we get on with other business that we have.”
Minutes after the vote, Latvala explained that Gaetz promised him that once Weatherford got a Senate vote, the issue wouldn’t come up again this year.
“Sometimes you’re the dog, sometimes you’re the hydrant,” he said. “I’ve been telling Will for two or three months that he didn’t have the votes over here, Now he sees it, black and white.”
Gaetz would not confirm that he had made such a promise.
“Well, I guess if Sen. Latvala said it, it must be true,” Gaetz told reporters.
After the failed amendment vote, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, decided the overall bill, SB 1392. Unlike Weatherford’s preference to require new employees to enroll in private investment plans, Simpson’s bill only encouraged them to do so while still allowing them to enroll in the pension system. But after the vote against Weatherford’s measure, Simpson gave up.
“There’s no support for it in the House,” Simpson said.
“It’s dead.”