February 01, 2017

Invalid votes for president spike in Florida, outnumbering Trump's margin of victory here

From Gary Fineout at the Associated Press:

Beyoncé, Tim Tebow or the Norse god Thor for prez? Those were some of Florida's more unusual picks for president this past election.

And the number of Florida voters who didn't cast a vote for either Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or any other valid contender spiked in 2016, apparently in protest over the ballot choices.

A report released by state officials Wednesday showed more than 161,000 Florida voters who took part in the elections either at the polls or by mail didn't cast a valid vote for president.

The "non-valid votes" include those who wrote in such names as Mickey Mouse or Bernie Sanders and others who simply left the ballot blank. It also includes those who voted for more than one candidate.

All told, the invalid ballots outnumbered Republican Trump's margin of victory over Democrat Clinton of nearly 113,000 votes to clinch Florida's 29 electoral votes.

And the rate of invalid votes for president in 2016 — 1.69 percent overall — was more than double the rate it was in 2012 and 2008 when President Barack Obama won the state each time.

"There were some people who were very disgruntled," said Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, giving the read of some fellow election officials on the report.

More here.

December 23, 2016

Florida housing agency chief resigns after audit reveals expensive meals, bonuses

Stephen augervia @TB_Times' @susanskate

The executive director of Florida Housing Finance Corp. has resigned in the wake of an audit that rapped the agency for hosting expensive meals, including a $52,000 dinner, and awarding nearly $443,000 in employee bonuses while thousands of Floridian were waiting for help to save their homes.

Stephen Auger, who has headed the state-run agency since 2005, said he was stepping down from his job in a letter to the agency's board chairman the day after the Tampa Bay Times reported on the audit.

"It has been an honor and a blessing to have been part of an organization of such fine people who work so diligently to provide a range of affordable housing opportunities that help make Florida's communities great places to live, work and do business," Auger wrote.

MORE: “Audit hits Florida housing agency for nearly $443k in employee bonuses, $52k filet mignon dinner”

But the agency under Auger's tenure has repeatedly come under fire for its lackluster performance in helping struggling homeowners during the foreclosure crisis. In a blistering report last year prompted by a Times' investigation, a top federal official said Florida had one of the highest rejection rates and lowest acceptance rates of applicants seeing mortgage relief from the federal Hardest Hit Fund.

Full story here, and check back for updates.

Herald/Times reporter Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Florida Housing Finance Corp.

Florida's denial of felons' voting rights 'radically out-of-step,' report says

@ByKristenMClark

A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice takes Florida to task for its law denying voting rights to felons unless they successfully navigate an arduous and lengthy process to get those rights back.

The Brennan Center calls Florida’s law “radically out of step with policies around the rest of the country” and “one of the harshest laws in the nation.” The law needs to be replaced,the report said.

MORE: Read the full report

According to the report, released this month, 1.6 million Floridians are denied voting rights because of the state law. Those residents represent more than 10 percent of the state’s voting-age population. A disproportionate number, nearly one-third, are black.

“Florida’s criminal disenfranchisement law is rooted in some of our country’s most discriminatory voting practices, and it continues to have its intended effects today,” said the report’s author, Erika Wood, a New York Law School professor and director of the Voting Rights and Civic Participation Project of the Impact Center for Public Interest Law.

“It is time for Florida to learn from the past and then leave it behind. The right to vote should not be used as a tool for lifetime punishment,” Wood added.

Full story here.

Florida members of Congress tell feds: Pay our state for Trump's Mar-a-Lago security costs

Mar-a-Lago

via @learyreports

President-elect Donald Trump's travel to Florida is causing steep security costs and lawmakers want the federal government to pay.

Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio along with Reps. Alcee Hastings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel and Patrick Murphy sent this letter:

Dear Attorney General Lynch and Secretary Johnson,

We are writing to make you aware of the attached request from the Mayor of Palm Beach County regarding reimbursement for ancillary costs associated with helping protect President-elect Trump, who has often visited his home in the area.

According to Mayor Burdick, the county spent approximately $250,000 to provide security support for the President-elect during his four-day visit over Thanksgiving alone.

Congress appropriated $7 million to the Department of Justice in the recently-passed government funding bill (P.L. 114-254) to reimburse State and local law enforcement agencies for overtime costs associated with protecting the President-elect before his inauguration.

We urge you to consider using those funds or any other resources that you deem appropriate to help the county offset these costs.

We appreciate your attention to this matter.

Photo credit: AP

December 22, 2016

Former prisons investigator accused of covering up abuse takes job with Leon County sheriff

Beasley

via @jknipebrown

Jeffery Beasley, who was accused of covering up and thwarting investigations into human rights abuses in the Florida prison system, has resigned, the Miami Herald has learned.

Beasley, the former inspector general for the Florida Department of Corrections, has accepted a post as chief of investigations for the Leon County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Walt McNeil confirmed Wednesday.

“As is often the case in state government, in particular positions, sometimes you have to carry a burden for higher levels of state government," McNeil said. “I make no excuses for him, but I believe his background and experience and the level of professionalism he displayed throughout his career speaks volumes."

McNeil said Beasley will start Jan. 3.

Beasley’s departure comes a little more than a year after he stepped down from his top cop post at the embattled state prisons agency. In October 2015, he was given a new title — director of investigations — despite months of widespread criticism and allegations that he and others in his office failed to investigate and, in some instances, even derailed cases involving the abuse and even death of prisoners in Florida prisons.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Jeffery Beasley, then-Inspector General of the Florida prison system, testified before lawmakers in 2014. The Florida Channel.

December 21, 2016

Florida Gov. Rick Scott writes to Raúl Castro: 'Allow a new era of freedom and opportunity'

Govscott01wmm

@ByKristenMClark

Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to Cuban President Raúl Castro on Tuesday, calling for him to change course and “allow a new era of freedom and opportunity for Cuba.”

Scott referenced the celebrations in Miami after the death of Fidel Castro last month, saying the demonstrations “represented the hope for an end to the decades of torture, repression, incarceration and death that you and your brother have caused the people of Cuba.”

But, Scott noted, Raúl Castro appears to be continuing his brother’s legacy — with recent examples that include the arrest of Cuban artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado, who mocked Fidel’s death in an online video.

“After Pope Francis’ trip to Cuba, you suggested that you may return to the church and pray again. My prayer for you and the Cuban people is that you listen to Pope Francis and focus on bringing absolute freedom and democracy to Cuba,” Scott wrote. “I pray that you open Cuba to freedom of the press and religion; release all political prisoners; provide unfettered access to the internet; allow ownership of land; provide reparations to those whose property was confiscated; bring all Cuban military home and allow for free and fair elections with international supervision.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Walter Michot / Miami Herald

As Floridians wait for help saving homes, state agency spends $52K on filet mignon dinner

via @TB_Times' @susanskate

To show appreciation for lenders who work with low-income borrowers, Florida's housing agency hosted a $52,000 dinner that featured filet mignon, broiled lobster tails and a bar stocked with "deluxe brand liquors.''

At a reception for its own board members, the agency spent $300 for a bartender, $425 for a pork carving station and $420 for a "Spanish charcuterie station.''

And a time when thousands of Floridians were waiting for help in saving their homes, the agency awarded a total of nearly $443,000 in bonuses to its employees.

Those are among the findings in a critical state audit of the Florida Housing Finance Corp. Released this month, the report cites several areas in which it said the organization needs to better account for its spending, improve controls over electronic fund transfers and ensure the security of confidential personal information.

More here.

Uncertainty in Florida's death penalty law yields fewer executions, sentences

Gurney5

@ByKristenMClark

The lingering uncertainty over Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedures in the past year has made the state a microcosm of nationwide trends, according to a new report from a national nonprofit research organization focused on capital punishment.

The annual year-end assessment from the Death Penalty Information Center, released Wednesday, finds that death-penalty sentences, executions and public support for capital punishment all continued to decline nationwide in 2016.

Similar results were seen in Florida, where one public opinion poll earlier this year showed Floridians favoring life sentences over executions and where administration of the death penalty has been effectively on hold since January, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s process for imposing death sentences.

“As a practical matter because of the unconstitutionality of the statute and the state Legislature’s failure to take appropriate precautions when it enacted a ‘fix’ in the statute, we ended up with the functional equivalent of no death penalty in Florida this year,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections

December 19, 2016

Protestors to electors: 'Vote for sanity' and 'say no to Trump'

Electors protest 3

@ByKristenMClark

Fourteen-year-old Kathryn Plumb doesn’t want to grow up under a Donald Trump presidency.

“He goes back on his word and everything he says is untrustworthy,” Plumb said. “And the way he treats women is terrifying. As a kid, I don’t want to turn 18 and have him rule my teenage years or just be in charge of my life in general, because as a woman I can’t trust him to make decisions for me.”

That’s why Plumb and her mother, Leigh Touchton, traveled from their home in Valdosta, Georgia, to Florida’s Capitol on Monday and joined a couple hundred others in a demonstration to urge the state’s 29 electors to oppose the president-elect.

The formal Electoral College vote is at 2 p.m. but protesters began gathering at the Florida Capitol around 9:15 a.m., aiming to catch electors as they arrived and to make their case.

MORE: “Despite threats and lawsuits, Florida electors ready to vote for Donald Trump

Facing intense pressure from anti-Trump groups, none of Florida’s electors has publicly said they intend to change their vote and oppose Trump, and none is expected to. Many are loyal Trump supporters.

But the protesters in Tallahassee on Monday wanted to let the electors know they have allies if they do.

“We’re here today so we can show solidarity for those electors that want to vote against Trump and flip the vote,” said Maxwell Frost, of Orlando, who helped lead the demonstration as part of the group Democracy Spring, one of several groups organizing coordinated protests at state capitols nationwide on Monday.

“Not everyone is going to change their mind, that’s true — but we’re here for those who do want to change their mind,” Frost said.

More here.