September 26, 2014

Legislator asks prison secretary Michael Crews to turn over files on cover-up

Darren SotoA state senator is asking the Department of Corrections to turn over documents regarding the cover-up and investigation of suspicious inmate deaths at Florida prisons, warning that the use excessive force may have violated the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, sent the letter to DOC Secretary Michael Crews in response to a Miami Herald report that chief investigators for both Gov. Rick Scott and the agency were told of the suspicious inmate deaths by an anonymous letter writer more than a year before news reports about the deaths prompted the agency to crackdown on abusive guards.  

"If they did receive information and nobody did anything about it, we may have to replace some of the auditors,'' said Soto, a member of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee which oversees prisons. "I'm worried about the potential liability to the state and the potential of a federal takeover if we are violating the constitution." 

Soto asked for all documents relating to the September 2010 death of Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Institution and Darren Rainey at Dade Correctional in 2012.

"Regardless of the crimes committee by these individuals, we have a constitutional obligation under the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution to refrain from cruel and unusual punishment and to treat them humanely,'' he wrote to Crews. "These allegations may implicate a direct violation of these rights." Download 9.26.14 Soto Letter to Secretary Crews

Crews responded that a web site he has developed to post details about inmate deaths already provides much of what he is seeking.

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March 19, 2014

Jacobo vows to make wide-ranging changes in wake of 'Innocents Lost'


Esther JacoboThe head of the state’s child welfare agency told a House committee Tuesday that the child deaths documented by the Miami Herald exposed a gap in the state’s safety net and, for the first time, she acknowledged it will take more services, and money, to fix it.

However, Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Department of Children & Families, maintained that the agency does not need to change its policies related to removing high-risk children from unsafe homes in the wake of the Miami Herald’s “Innocents Lost” series.

“We need to identify what those additional services are and what additional resources we may need,’’ she said, noting that the resource levels may vary from region to region.

The Herald chronicled the deaths of 477 children over six years whose families had a history with DCF. The stories found that the number of children who died of abuse or neglect spiked after child welfare administrators implemented an intensive family-preservation program that reduced the number of children in state care while slashing services and oversight for those who remained with troubled families.

Jacobo held up a copy of the Miami Herald and told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee that she had read the series, noting that it gave a face to child welfare issues that are not unique to Florida.

“I think that the takeaway is that we as Floridians are...really working together to find solutions,’’ she said after the meeting. “The conversations are all leading in the direction that something absolutely will be done.” Read more here. 

 

March 17, 2014

Sobel wants child welfare bill revised to strengthen child protection

Twenty-four hours after the Miami Herald published the first part of a series detailing the deaths of almost 500 children, the Florida Senate’s top child-welfare legislator said she would overhaul a bill designed to reform the Department of Children & Families.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel said the bill her committee drafted  — which passed unanimously through its first committee last week — would have to be rewritten in light of the “Innocents Lost” series, which chronicles the deaths of 477 children whose families had a history with DCF.

“When I started reading it, I had to put it down. It’s death in your face," said the Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. “We will not sleep or rest until every vulnerable child is rescued from dysfunctional families and guardians. The stories are tear-jerkers. It’s unacceptable this has happened to Florida’s children.”

The number the children who died of abuse or neglect during the past six years increased dramatically as Florida child welfare administrators implemented an intensive family-preservation program that reduced the number of children in state care while slashing services and oversight for children who remained with troubled families.

DCF officials have maintained that family preservation does not trump safety, but conceded that communities may not have enough resources — yet — to assist families struggling with issues such as drug addiction, mental illness and domestic violence. In a statement released late Monday, a spokeswoman said initiatives are underway to improve the agency’s work. More here. 

 

September 26, 2013

FMA pushes back on federal judge's ruling on medmal, urges Bondi to appeal

The Florida Medical Association is urging Attorney General Pam Bondi to appeal the ruling Wednesday by Federal Court Judge Robert Hinkle that invalidated a part of the medical malpractice reform law passed by legislators last spring.

The provision related to "ex parte" communications and would have allowed the lawyers for a doctor who is being sued by a patient to talk to other doctors for the patient without the patient's consent. Hinkle ruled that the law violated the federal health care privacy protections. 

"The FMA is disappointed in the recent ruling by Judge Hinkle regarding the ex parte provision of the 2013 Florida Legislature's medical liability reform law,'' said Alan Harmon, M.D., president of the Florida Medical Association in a statement.

"The FMA reviewed the entire law and we still feel that the Florida Legislature took great pains to ensure that this legislation was fully compliant with federal law. The FMA disagrees with this ruling and stands ready to assist with an appeal.  We are confident that this law will be upheld upon appeal."

Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said they are reviewing the case. 

From the FMA news release:

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September 25, 2013

Federal judge throws out FMA's 'ex parte' reform from 2013 session

A federal judge on Wednesday threw out a law aimed at making it easier for doctors to defend themselves in medical malpractice claims saying in a 17-page ruling that the attempt to allow a lawyer for a doctor talk to other doctors of the patient that is suing violates the federal health care privacy law.

"The Florida statute is an attempt not to comply with the federal requirements but to circumvent them—to allow ex parte interviews without consent and without the court or administrative order (or opportunity to obtain a ruling) that federal law requires," wrote U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in his order, referring to the federal Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act of 1996, commonly known as HIPAA.  Download Doe Order

The law, passed by the 2013 legislature with extensive backing by the Florida Medical Association, attempted to change the way "ex parte communications" are handled in medical malpractices cases.

The lawsuit was brought by a patient who wants to sue a doctor for negligence but believed his privacy rights were violated by the new law. The lawsuit was backed by opponents of the measure, the Florida Justice Association, a trial-lawyers group.

The plaintiffs alleged the law could lead to the improper disclosure of personal health information to defense attorneys representing doctors or other health providers. Supporters of the law argued that it was only fair that the law gave defense attorneys access to information that the plaintiffs' attorneys already can review.

But Hinkle disagreed.

"It is virtually certain that if an ex parte interview occurs, private information otherwise protected from disclosure by federal law—that is, information that could be disclosed in this setting only if the authorization is valid—will be disclosed,'' he wrote.

 

 

September 23, 2013

Latvala says state law needs to tighten definition of residency

The 2014 Legislature will take up needed changes in state law to tighten the legal definition of residency, a key senator said Monday. That will possibly include a new provision to bar legislators from claiming the homestead exemption on homes outside their districts.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, said the law is needed in the wake of media reports that "from 12 to 14" lawmakers may have been living outside their districts, in apparent violation of state law. 

Latvala's committee had a brief and muted discussion of the issue Monday. "We've got a long way to  go on this, but I believe they are taking it seriously," he said in reference to Senate leaders. "I will tell you I believe there is going to be a bill on residency."

Latvala said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, wants to file a bill dealing with the homestead-exemption issue, and Latvala said he has agreed to sponsor the Senate version.

Much of the media coverage involving lawmakers' residencies has focused on Democratic House members in South Florida.

Latvala, speaking generally, told reporters: "If you're abiding by the Constitution and taking a homestead exemption somewhere else, or if you're supposed to represent a district and get the homestead exemption somewhere else, that ought to be illegal."

He said the issue would be handled largely by Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who also faced residency questions in 2011 when he won a special election. But none of that was discussed
publicly Monday. Democratic senators were silent after a staffer outlined at least 10 different ways to define legal residency, from a driver's license address to a voting address to where someone gets mail.

-- Steve Bousquet

September 21, 2013

As Citizens insurance denies claims, it racks up attorneys' fees

Citizens Property Insurance Co. will be raising its rates for the third time next year and the proceeds will cover more than claims:

They’ll also pay attorneys’ fees — now averaging an estimated $2 million each month — as policyholders battle over getting their claims paid.

Between January 2011 and June 2013, Citizens has spent more than $16 million on lawyers from 177 different law firms who have successfully challenged the state’s largest insurance company on behalf of policyholders. Citizens collects $2.2 billion in annual premiums and has an administrative operating budget of $205 million.

The data was compiled by the state-run insurer at the request of Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, a licensed general contractor and appraiser who has been one of the Legislature’s most vocal critics of Citizens. He and several plaintiffs lawyers estimate that Citizens has spent a comparable amount on defense attorneys’, with total litigation costs exceeding $30 million a year, but the company does not have that data available.

"How can you ask me to increase my premiums when you are wasting away my premiums in litigation?" asked Artiles, who wants the Legislature to force Citizens’ board of directors to keep the company’s legal costs in check. "How can you function as a board when you cannot control your costs?" Story here.


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/09/21/3637396/citizens-racks-up-millions-in.html#storylink=cpy

September 20, 2013

Lobbying group wants a say in auditing process

With a joint legislative committee planning to discuss auditing lobbying firm compensation on Monday, the organization that represents Florida lobbyists has asked to add its voice to the discussion.  

In a letter to Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the board of directors for the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, requested that the group be allowed to "provide input and offer our assistance."  Download FAPL lobby comp ltr-4 (1)

The letter also states that the association's 350 members "have gone above and beyond what is required by Florida law and created and pledged to abide by a self-imposed code of conduct that is signed by and adhered to by each member of our organization." 

State law requires lobbying firms to file quarterly reports that list dollar ranges for how much they pay each client , but a requirement that reports get audited has never been enforced.

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September 18, 2013

Ethics commission dismisses charges against four local legislators

The Florida Ethics Commission has dismissed a series of ethics complaints against two local senators and two state representatives for failing to include financial information on their annual financial disclosure forms.

Meeting in a closed-door meeting last week, the commission dismissed a complaint against Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, for failing to include a $278,000 home she owns in The Villages on financial disclosure forms she filed between 2006 and 2011. The commission had dismissed a previous complaint that she failed to properly report her ownership of a Tallahassee condo as well.

The commission also dropped claims that Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, filed an incomplete financial disclosure form in 2011, concluding that “the public interest would not be served by further proceedings because the addresses of properties were readily discoverable through public sources.”

The commission found probable cause that while Rep. Jose Raul Oliva, R-Miami, failed to properly identify an asset on his 2011 disclosure form, it will take no action.

And the commission voted to close its file and dismiss a complaint filed against Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, because the complainant “denied filing the complaint, and was unresponsive to a written request for clarification.” The commission said the allegations contained in the complaint are the same as matters already pending final action by the board.

In December, the Ethics Commission found probable cause that Fresen failed to properly disclose his annual net worth, assets, and liabilities from 2008 to 2011 after a lender filed a foreclosure suit against him. Fresen is fighting the ethics charges, calling the allegation a “baseless” political attack by a political opponent.

Here's the link to the commission's release. 

September 16, 2013

Clemens asks Senate to review the 'serious conflict of interest' with staff outside employment

In a letter to the chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, is calling for legislative hearings on the revolving door that allows employees to take leaves of absence from the legislature to work for political campaigns.

In the letter to Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, Clemens called it a "serious conflict of interest when legislative employees are allowed to leave work and earn money from campaigns and/or the companies that have business before the Legislature."

"The public deserves to feel confident that special interests are not buying influence with the Legislature by contributing to the bottom line wealth of employees who supposedly earn that money after-hours,'' he wrote. "It also places the employee in an awkward position, knowing he or she may have to make a decision that adversely impacts a special interest that has contributed to the well being of their family, either directly or through a campaign account."

The letter was sent on Sept. 5, after the Herald/Times reported on a three-year arrangement Senate chief of staff Chris Clark had with Senate President Don Gaetz. Clark was given permission to work part-time for the state during the legislative session and then take a leave of absence to work on the side for campaigns. According to public records, he earned more than $400,000 in consulting fees and payroll in the same years he drew a state salary.

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