October 22, 2012

Watchdog groups, Fasano call for probe into Citizens’ ‘integrity’ firings

Two groups and one Senator are asking Gov. Rick Scott to look deeper into why Citizens Property Insurance Corp. fired its entire Office of Corporate Integrity unit this month.

On Monday, the leaders of Integrity Florida and Policyholders of Florida fired off a letter to Scott, stating that Citizens’ recent decision to disband its corporate integrity unit was “incomprehensible.”

 “Abusing travel expenditures is unacceptable, but gutting the watchdog inside of the so-called people’s insurer of last resort is incomprehensible,” wrote Integrity Florida director Dan Krassner and Policyholders of Florida founder Sean Shaw. “We find it especially troubling that the terminated employees were asked to sign confidentiality agreements. It certainly gives a perception of corruption.”

 Scott has also said he was concerned by Citizens’ decision to fire four corporate watchdogs, even as internal complaints of waste, fraud and abuse are on the rise.

 Citizens president Barry Gilway said the state-run insurer is realigning its integrity efforts in order to beef up forensic fraud detection, and it has put out job postings for new ethics officers. But the corporate integrity team was disbanded before any forensic accountants were hired.

 Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, also asked the governor to probe the firings, which he called shocking.

 “The Office of Corporate Integrity should be the watchdogs, not the scapegoat,”  Fasano wrote in a letter to Scott

Read the letters from Integrity Florida, Policyholders of Florida and Sen. Fasano, below:

Continue reading "Watchdog groups, Fasano call for probe into Citizens’ ‘integrity’ firings" »

October 09, 2012

Voter fraud? Amendments? Supreme Court? Scott opts not to weigh in on thorny issues

From voter fraud to the Supreme Court, Gov. Rick Scott opted not to weigh in on some of the thorniest political issues of the day during a media briefing Tuesday, regularly deferring to the Republican Party of Florida, attorney general Pam Bondi, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the board of Citizens Property Insurance and others.

Scott, who has made fighting voter fraud one of his main priorities as governor, has been mum about the registration fraud case that state Republicans find themselves involved in. Last week, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that it was conducting a criminal investigation of registration forms filed by Strategic Allied Consulting, a private firm hired by the Republican Party of Florida. About a dozen counties have reported questionable ballots, including one that registered a dead woman to vote and others with addresses to a Land Rover dealership and a gas station.

Scott has uttered no public statements on the topic. On Tuesday, when asked by reporters about the case, he mostly demurred.

Has he had discussions with the RPOF, which has since fired the firm, about the case?

"The (Republican National Committee) and the RPOF, they’ve done the right thing," said Scott, not answering the question. "As soon as they had an inkling, they fired the group that was doing that. Again, it’s the right thing to do. If somebody is doing the wrong thing, they shouldn’t be registering voters in our state. So they’re doing the right thing."

Asked if the case hurt the credibility of Republicans to be associated with a firm that now under investigation for fraud, Scott again dodged the question, this time by answering with a long discourse about the importance of getting involved. 

"My focus is on making sure that I tell people all the time, that in our state, I want people to go register to vote," Scott said. "They need to go talk to the candidates. When you’re running for office, when you’re in your community or in your state, vet the candidates, get involved, pick your candidates, support them, and then go out the vote. That’s where my focus is." 

That response is seemingly at odds with Scott's get-tough, hands-on-approach with other efforts to fight fraud, such as purging non-citizens from voting rolls. Before Tuesday's news conference, Democrats had blasted Scott for his relative silence on the issue. They criticized a fundraising letter he signed last week for the RPOF that sought donations from contributors who supported Scott's voter purge.

"It's shocking and appalling that the governor and the RPOF would solicit money while they remain embroiled in an election frauds scandal," said Democratic Party Spokeswoman Brannon Jordan in a statement. 

Asked why he signed the letter, Scott referred all questions to the RPOF.

"You have to talk to the Republican Party of Florida about fundraising," Scott said.

So far, Scott's responses haven't satisfied Democrats. U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch said Scott should appoint a bipartisan task force to investigate Strategic Allied Consulting.

"Given the explicitly partisan nature of this scandal, assurances must be provided to all Floridians that the investigation into these allegations is thorough and fair," Deutch said in a statement to Scott. "So far, your inaction in the face of this scandal suggests that you are putting partisanship ahead of the integrity of Florida's elections."

Scott said Tuesday he has no plans to assuage those concerns. Asked if the issue was too partisan to leave to one party to investigate, Scott replied: "It’s not a party. It’s the Department of Law Enforcement. They’re the ones who are doing the investigation."

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Less than a week after Citizens Property Insurance Corp. raised rates by 10.8 percent and auto insurers failed to achieve the 10 percent premium reductions required by the PIP reform law Scott championed, the governor cut the “cost-of-living” component from his “three things” talking point.

Scott, who regularly mentions “three things people care about,” today pared the talking point down to “two things”: Education and jobs. Cost-of-living, a regular point of mention for Scott this year, was not mentioned.

On Citizens, Scott took a different position from the incoming Speaker of the Florida House, Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Weatherford wrote a letter to Citizens’ board last week, telling the state-run insurer to halt its new $350 million loan program, and submit it to the Legislature for review.

Asked if he agreed with Weatherford’s statement that Citizens ought to come before the board before enacting the program, Scott said the board had the authority to decide on its own.

“I think the structure is is that there is a board, and this is the purview of the board,” said Scott, who championed the increased independence of Citizens’ board from the Legislature. “The board has the right to make the decision.”

Members of Citizens’ board, meeting Tuesday, appeared to be moving ahead with the plan to enact the program prior to next year’s legislative session, despite Weatherford’s warning. They did agree to delay the process and hire an outside consultant to conduct a thorough review of the $350 million loan before moving forward.

On a number of other issues, Scott opted against taking a position.

On amendment 5, which would require Senate approval of a governor’s Supreme Court justice nominee, Scott said “I’ll leave it to the voters to decide that.”

On the 10 other amendments, Scott said he would not make his position known at this time. He said he might speak out on the amendments at a later date.

On the Republican Party’s decision to weigh in on the merit retention of Supreme Court judges, Scott said it’s up to the voters to decide and his office did not coordinate with RPOF prior to its decision to get involved.

“Lenny Curry runs the Republican Party of Florida,” he said, deferring questions about the party to the chairman of the RPOF.

Scott did say he would “absolutely” be open to changing the law to provide state funding for a prescription drug monitoring program that could run out of money soon. He also expressed support for a new license plate in Florida, but said he had not yet heard about the $31 million estimated cost.

--Mike Van Sickler and Toluse Olorunnipa

October 05, 2012

Incoming House Speaker tells Citizens to halt $350M loan to private insurers

The plan to loan out $350 million from the surplus account of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. hit a major roadblock Friday, when the incoming speaker of the Florida House asked the state-run insurer to halt the program and submit it for legislative review.

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, wrote a letter to Citizens Board Chairman, Carlos Lacasa, asking him delay moving forward on the so-called “surplus note” loan, which was lobbied for by insurance companies and hastily approved last month with little public input.

“I am concerned that Board’s aggressive timeline will result in the program’s implementation before the two chambers of the Legislature complete hearings on this important matter of state policy,” Weatherford wrote in the letter.

Citizens’ board unveiled the plan last month and quickly voted to support it, despite backlash from some Republican lawmakers and concerns from the state’s insurance consumer advocate and the Office of Insurance Regulation.

Even members of the board voiced concerns about the legality of the $350 million loan and asked that independent lawyers take a closer look at the legal ramifications of approving the plan without permission from the state Legislature.

The plan would take $350 million from Citizens’ record $6.2 billion reserves and lend it — under favorable and forgivable terms — to private insurers who agree to take over policies and keep them for 10 years. It is slated to begin in a matter of weeks.

Continue reading "Incoming House Speaker tells Citizens to halt $350M loan to private insurers" »

October 04, 2012

Citizens' controversial $350M loan program picks up endorsements

Two state lawmakers and three insurance industry representatives voiced their support Thursday for Citizens Property Insurance’s controversial plan to loan out $350 million to the private sector.

The group—which included Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, and former House speaker Tom Feeney—said Citizens should act “with all due haste” to approve the so-called surplus loan program.

“Citizens, as John pointed out, is a ticking time bomb,” said Feeney, who now leads the business group Associated Industries of Florida and was House speaker when Citizens was created in 2002. Feeney, a major player during the creation of the state-run insurer, now calls it “the worst run casualty and risk market that I am aware of anywhere in the free world.”

Under the new “surplus loan” program, Citizens would take capital from its record $6.2 billion reserves and lend it — under favorable terms — to private insurers who agree to take over policies and keep them for 10 years.

The program could help reduce the size of Citizens by 300,000 policies, which could reduce the amount of assessment Floridians have to pay after a once-in-a-century type hurricane. Gov. Rick Scott has championed the effort to shrink Citizens and reduce its risk, sparking controversial and unpopular coverage changes for policyholders. Business-friendly groups support the $350 million program

Other lawmakers and consumer advocates have blasted Citizens for rushing the program through in order to avoid a thorough vetting in the Legislature and the public. Last month, the board unveiled and approved the plan over the course of two days, with little public input. The plan is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks.

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October 02, 2012

NAACP launches national ‘felony disenfranchisement’ protest at Fla. Capitol

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People came to the Florida Capitol on Tuesday to launch a national campaign against policies that withhold voting rights from millions of people who have a felony conviction on their record.

With national NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous and Golden Globe-winning actor Charles Dutton headlining, the group tried to shine a spotlight on the the issue of "felony disenfranchisement."

“Voting is a right,” said Jealous, speaking from the steps of the Old Capitol in Tallahassee. “In this state, the governor has decided to turn back the clock.” IMG_0134

In Florida, people who have been convicted of felonies must wait five to seven years after completing their sentences to apply for restoration of civil rights, including the right to vote. The process can take several additional years to work through the system, and the number of applications processed per year has fallen precipitously in recent years.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet ended the policy of automatically restoring rights to released felons, a policy started under former Gov. Charlie Crist. Most states automatically restore the right to vote to felons who have served their prison time.

Under Crist, more than 150,000 ex-felons had their rights restored. Under Scott, less than 300 people have had their rights restored. More than 1.5 million ex-felons in Florida are disenfranchised, giving the state one of the highest rates in the nation.

Continue reading "NAACP launches national ‘felony disenfranchisement’ protest at Fla. Capitol" »

Insurers say PIP changes likely to mitigate premium increases, for now

Auto insurance companies say the state's new no-fault auto insurance law will save drivers money by staving off insurance premium increases.

But drivers shouldn't expect their insurance bills to dip immediately either.

As part of insurance reforms passed last spring, car insurers had a Monday deadline to either reduce personal injury protection premiums 10 percent or explain why they could not.

Many companies took the second option, filing paperwork with the state asking to again increase PIP rates, the state said.

The state-mandated changes, insurers say, will reduce personal injury protection costs, just not enough to completely offset other factors that justify higher premiums. That means the law created by HB 119 is working, Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty said in a statement Monday.

"Although it initially appears the savings will result in a mitigation of rate increases rather than actual rate reductions for most companies — it does represent a major shift in the trajectory of PIP insurance rates in Florida," he said.

Read more about how insurers are responding to the new PIP law here.

And here is a link to the OIR press release, which lists the eight companies whose PIP rate filings have already received state approval.

October 01, 2012

Citizens gets (another) tongue-lashing over $350 million loan to insurance industry

Citizens Property Insurance continued to receive sharp-tongued backlash this week over its plan to loan out $350 million from its surplus to private insurance companies.

Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, wrote another scathing letter calling the plan a wasteful inside deal for insurance lobbyists, and Florida’s Insurance Consumer Advocate penned a lengthy list of unanswered questions about the high-risk program.

“Quite simply, it is reckless to rush the [surplus note] program through without taking the time to vet the program and make sure that it works,” wrote Artiles, who believes the plan is against the law and has spoken out forcefully against it.

The surplus note program is the latest in a series of ambitious moves by Citizens board in response to Gov. Rick Scott’s mandate to shrink the size of the government run insurance company.

The plan provides low-interest, forgivable loans to private companies who agree to take policies out of Citizens for 10 years. Last month, the board unveiled and approved the plan over the course of two days, with little public input and without legislative approval.

The lack of details and the speed of the approval set off red flags for Artiles, Insurance Consumer Advocate Robin Westcott and other critics who believe the unprecedented new program is being rushed through without adequate transparency.

In his letter, Artiles notes that several of the private insurers that are looking to participate in the program have troubled financial records and could go belly up after a major storm. That would leave Citizens on the hook for multimillion-dollar losses when the loans go into default. He also points out that several insurers have agreed to take over Citizens’ policies without any cash incentive, drawing into question the need for a new loan program.

“It appears that Citizens has been heavily influenced by lobbyists, as there is no rational explanation for such glaring violations of your fiduciary responsibilities to Floridians,” he said in a letter that followed a lengthy public records request seeking more details on the program. “Perhaps this is why Citizens is blindly rushing the SPN Program through with no public input or substantive changes.

Citizens has argued that the program is a revolutionary way to reduce its risk at a low price, and avoid the “hurricane taxes” that would be caused if the state-run insurer ran out of money.

“We have to reduce the overall size of Citizens,” said Barry Gilway, president of the state-run insurer, during a September meeting of its Depopulation Committee. “If we are to be successful in moving a large number of Citizens’ customers to financially secure markets, this program is compelling.”

Westcott has a number of questions about the program, and is asking Citizens to do a better job of proving that these loans make sense financially and won’t end up costing the company millions.

Continue reading "Citizens gets (another) tongue-lashing over $350 million loan to insurance industry" »

Opposition to Amendment 3's spending caps rallies at state Capitol

Florida religious leaders, labor unions and senior citizens marched to the state Capitol on Monday to protest a proposed constitutional amendment they say will lead to massive cuts to education and crucial social services.

Calling the revenue-capping Amendment 3 a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the group of about 50 said the proposal would slash education funding and pit seniors against the poor in a scramble for limited state dollars.

“This will not be good for the great citizens of the state of Florida,” said Rev. Richard Dunn, a Miami pastor and former city commissioner. “It will not be good for our children, it will not be good for our seniors and it will not be good for the middle class people.”

Amendment 3 proposes to change the way state revenue caps are set—using a formula based on population size and inflation, rather than personal income growth. Once state revenue from taxes and other sources exceeds the new caps, excess money would be used to shore up a budget stabilization “rainy day” fund.

Proponents of Amendment 3—which include business groups—say it will force state lawmakers to spend more wisely and avoid overspending during times of economic growth.

"The less government takes, the more Floridians will keep," said Edie Ousley, a spokesperson for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "Voting yes on Amendment 3 will send a message to our state leaders that the size of Florida’s government shouldn’t grow faster than the taxpayers capacity to pay for it.”

Outgoing Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, was a major backer of the “smart cap” amendment, saying it would lead to “less, government, less taxes and more freedom.”

After the proposal was approved by the Senate last year, Haridopolos released a video calling it “a common sense idea that finally makes sure that government spending never grows faster than family income, meaning when the economy recovers we will not overspend.”

But opponents—who have begun to mobilize in religious groups, labor unions and senior communities—predict a much grimmer scenario.

Continue reading "Opposition to Amendment 3's spending caps rallies at state Capitol" »

September 29, 2012

Replacement Rep? GOP names new candidate after prostitution scandal

The Republican Party of Florida on Saturday chose Michael LaRosa, R-Celebration, as a replacement candidate for House District 42, which became enmeshed in scandal this week.

On Monday, Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, abruptly dropped out of the race when his name came up on client list during an investigation into an alleged prostitution ring.

Horner’s name will remain on the ballot, but all votes cast for him will go to LaRosa, a young candidate who graduated for the University of Central Florida in 2004.

"I commend Michael LaRosa for his strong desire to serve his fellow Floridians in the State House and his willingness to run under difficult circumstances. The citizens of House District 42 will be well represented in Tallahassee under his leadership" RPOF Chairman Lenny Curry said in a statement.

Continue reading "Replacement Rep? GOP names new candidate after prostitution scandal" »

September 21, 2012

Of dead voters, Haitian ballot brokers and fraud-ridden nursing homes: The Julien-Watson files

A Haitian ballot broker, known around North Miami’s Creole radio circles as “Teacher Carline,” allegedly gathered up fraudulent absentee ballots from a nursing home during the Aug. 14 primary elections, according to new court filings from Rep. John Patrick Julien, D-North Miami.

Julien filed a lawsuit earlirer this month to challenge his razor-thin loss to Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, in the Democratic primary for District 107, and has alleged absentee ballot fraud almost from the day he lost the race by 13 votes.

An explosive new complaint, filed Friday, provides more details into what Julien has called a tainted election. It alleges that several dead people cast absentee ballots from one North Miami nursing home, and Carline Paul went to another to gather up absentee ballots from people who now say they never voted in the Aug. 14 primary.

Watson’s campaign paid $1,000 to an entity owned by Paul, who ran radio ads telling Haitian Creole-speaking North Miamians to “consult” with her before casting their absentee ballots, in order to “vote correctly.”

 Watson’s campaign also paid a woman named Noucelie Josna, whose business card describes her as “The Queen of Absentee Ballots.”

 Watson in the past has denied any fraud in her campaign. Julien has said that Josna played a role in collecting fraudulent absentee ballots.

 One nursing home described in the complaint as a fraud hotspot was called “Watercrest.” At least 10 individuals requested absentee ballots all on the same day and voted on Aug. 14 in the primary. Four of those voters were either dead or no longer stationed at the nursing home and several others said that someone else filled out their ballots they did not remember who they voted for, according to the complaint.

 The Miami-Dade Elections Department did not supervise the voting, the complaint states.

 At the Claridge House nursing home, six people voted by absentee ballot. Julien’s complaint states that Paul’s mother was once stationed at Claridge House, and that Paul is still a “constant presence” there.

 Julien’s complaint claims that several people who cast absentee ballots on from the Claridge House say they never voted in the Aug. 14 primary.

Continue reading "Of dead voters, Haitian ballot brokers and fraud-ridden nursing homes: The Julien-Watson files" »