April 06, 2016

After 148 years, cohabitation legal again in Florida

@ByKristenMClark

Congratulations, all you unmarried lovers in Florida who are shacking up together. You are no longer breaking the law.

Among the 20 new laws that Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed Wednesday is a bill that immediately repeals Florida’s 148-year-old ban on cohabitation.

The previous law, enacted in 1868, made it a second-degree misdemeanor — punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine — for a man and a woman to “lewdly and lasciviously associate” and live together before marriage.

Florida had been one of only three states to still criminalize cohabitation. Now only Michigan and Mississippi make it illegal.

Lawmakers have for years bemoaned the outdated law and attempted to take it off the books.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Democratic Reps. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, of Tallahassee, and Richard Stark, of Weston, led the charge this year. During the 2016 session, they were finally successful in passing the repeal measure (SB 498) out of both chambers in early March, with supporters calling the law “antiquated” and unnecessary.

Continue reading "After 148 years, cohabitation legal again in Florida" »

Florida state officials agree to settle in Medicaid lawsuit over care of poor children

via @Marbinius

Florida health administrators have agreed to settle a long-simmering lawsuit that claims the state’s Medicaid insurance program for needy children is so poorly funded and managed that impoverished youngsters are consigned to a second-rate healthcare system where long waits for access and substandard care are the norm.

A federal court judge in Miami sided with needy children and their doctors in a 153-page ruling in December 2014, saying state lawmakers had so starved the Florida Medicaid program of funding that it was operating in violation of federal law.

In the ensuing months, health administrators — at the urging of U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan, who presided over the trial — mediated the dispute with lawyers for the children and the state Pediatric Society. The negotiations yielded a settlement with the heads of the state Department of Health, the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children & Families, all of whom were parties to the litigation.

Though state leaders had continued the battle even after Jordan’s stunning ruling, healthcare for needy children had become a public relations nightmare for the state. Administrators at the Department of Health last year purged 13,000 children from one of the premier Medicaid plans for youngsters, Children’s Medical Services, and had shuttered CMS offices, including clinics for children with disfigured faces and other disabilities. Public outrage over the cutbacks, and other agency moves, may have cost the health department’s secretary, John Armstrong, Senate confirmation.

April 05, 2016

Investigators find numerous potential ethics violations by Alan Grayson

via @adamsmithtimes

Congressional investigators have found a litany of potential violations in the business and political dealings of U.S. Rep Alan Grayson, a leading Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

The Office of Congressional Ethics recommended the U.S. House Ethics Committee launch a full scale probe into Grayson’s management of a hedge fund and other business interests that may have improperly overlapped with his congressional duties. The Ethics Committee will further pursue the matter, which does not indicate violations necessarily occurred but ensures that a large ethics cloud hangs over Grayson as he campaigns to succeed Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate.

Among the likely or potential violations cited by the Office of Congressional Ethics:

-- Grayson ran a hedge fund that improperly used the congressman’s name, gave him a fidiciary responsibility to undisclosed investors and at least once appears to have been compensated

-- "OCE found evidence that from January to June 2014, Representative Grayson managed a Virginia-based corporation that used the Grayson name and provided legal services involving a fiduciary relationship."

-- "OCE found evidence that Representative Grayson agreed to receive contingent fees in cases in which the federal government had a direct and substantial interest, that were pending during his time in Congress."

-- Investigators found numerous "significant" omissions from Grayson's financial disclosure forms, including many "related to other alleged violations highlighted in this report concerning the Grayson Hedge Fund and Representative Grayson’s interest in law firms and pending litigation."

-- "The OCE found that Representative Grayson was a limited partner in three energy-sector limited partnerships, all of which had agreements with the federal government through their subsidiaries." 

-- A staffer in Grayson's congressional office, who also worked for his hedge fund, used "official time and resources to work for the hedge fund."

-- Grayson "participated in multiple press interviews focused on his campaign for the U.S. Senate from his congressional office, and in some cases used campaign resources, including a campaign computer and campaign staff, to facilitate these interviews."

Grayson's denies any wrongdoing, and his lawyer released a blistering response to the OCE report that accused investigators of leaking information to Grayson's Democratic U.S. Senate opponent, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.

"The referral itself verges on the demented, in all of its Captain Ahab attempts to spear the white whale by coming up with something - anything - with which to try to argue that some unethical conduct has occurred. Acting upon detailed legal advice at every tum, Rep. Grayson has gone all out, at great expense, to adhere to all of the rules. Not only were the rules never broken; they were never even bent. And this is precisely the kind of witch-hunt that the aCE should not be engaged in," wrote Brett G. Kappel, Grayson's attorney.

Grayson's senate campaign noted that the Ethics Committee did not refer the matter to an investigative subcommittee and suggested that makes it less likely the committee will recommend expulsion, censure, or reprimand. 

"The larger picture here is that the Washington political establishment has decided who their favored candidate is, and it’s not Rep. Grayson," his campaign said in a statement. "This Murphy-instigated fishing expedition is just like the Benghazi Committee witch hunt, another taxpayer-funded political inquisition which Patrick Murphy voted with Republicans to set loose. Patrick Murphy and his DC Establishment allies are using this new political witch hunt to try to distract Florida voters."

AG Pam Bondi helps kick off annual Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics

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@ByKristenMClark

Bondi2_0405Joined by more than 300 law enforcement officers and Special Olympics athletes, Attorney General Pam Bondi helped mark the start of the 2016 Law Enforcement Torch Run today in the courtyard of the Florida Capitol.

About 8,000 law enforcement officers from across the state will take part in the 1,500-mile run that will wind through Florida over the next several weeks.

The torch will reach its home in Lake Buena Vista in time for the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics' Florida State Summer Games, which start May 20 at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports.

It's the 33rd year for the torch run.

"These children with intellectual disabilities are so inspired and they know that they can do anything, and this gives them hope," Bondi said. "It gives them courage, it gives them skills and it gives them confidence -- and that's why it's so important to us and our state."

The event has special meaning for Bondi, whose 11-year-old niece, Emma, has Down Syndrome. Bondi said Emma is too young to participate yet, but she hopes Emma will join her at the Olympics' opening ceremonies.

Bondi said more than 33,000 athletes, participating in 400 competitions annually, compete in Florida's Special Olympics.

Events for the torch run are planned in each of Florida's 67 counties. The full schedule is available here.

April 01, 2016

Florida DOC wants to hire 4,000 new corrections officers by July 2017

@ByKristenMClark

Facing ongoing vacancies and projected turnover, the Florida Department of Corrections announced today that it wants to hire more than 4,000 correctional officers statewide over the next 15 months.

The agency has about 1,300 vacancies at any given time and has struggled to maintain proper staffing levels across its dozens of facilities statewide.

“Properly staffing our institutions is critical to the safe and secure operations of our facilities. To ensure that our prisons are staffed appropriately, the Department is seeking more than 4,000 qualified individuals to proudly and bravely serve our state as correctional officers," DOC Secretary Julie Jones said in a statement today.

The agency aims to hire the officers between now and July 2017.

Jones added: "Our hiring efforts are focused on recruiting courageous, honorable and hardworking men and women to join our team and take on our mission to provide a continuum of services to meet the needs of those entrusted to our care, creating a safe and professional environment with the outcome of reduced victimization, safer communities and an emphasis on the premium of life.”

Check back later for more on this story from the Herald's Julie K. Brown.

Federal judge affirms gay marriage ban is unconstitutional after Florida officials resist compliance

@ByKristenMClark

Although gay marriage has been legal in Florida for more than a year and the law nationwide since last summer, a U.S. District Court judge ruled definitively this week that Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Judge Robert L. Hinkle said that Gov. Rick Scott’s administration and the state Legislature need to recognize that and also start treating same-sex couples the same as heterosexual couples in all aspects of law.

Hinkle wrote that he was compelled to grant summary judgment in a long-standing lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s same-sex marriage ban because state officials have shown little, if any, inclination to accept and follow last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the implications of it.

“After the United States Supreme Court issued [its ruling], one might have expected immediate, unequivocal acceptance,” Hinkle wrote. “Not so for the State of Florida.”

More here.

March 31, 2016

After underage romance led to ‘sex offender’ tag, harsh sentence, Florida man freed early from prison

@ByKristenMClark

Carlos Manuel Delgado was released from Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City on Wednesday afternoon — 13 years, 4 months and 24 days before the end of his sentence.

Or, from the perspective of Republican Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet: Delgado spent 11 years, 2 months and 17 days in prison because of what they call a miscarriage of justice that branded Delgado a “sex offender” for an atypical crime.

In a rare action, Florida’s top elected officials voted Tuesday to commute Delgado’s sentence and allow him to go free. This is only the fourth sentence commuted in the last five years, according to state records.

They described his case as an unjust consequence of a “stupid decision” and “mistake” Delgado made in 2000 that didn’t align with the truly abhorrent crimes that Florida’s sex offender laws are intended to punish.

Absorbing his first taste of freedom in more than a decade, Delgado on Wednesday afternoon was still trying to take in his changed circumstances.

“From the point that the police came to get me, it was surreal,” he told the Herald/Times in a phone interview. “It’s been really crazy. It’s been super unbelievable.”

More here.

March 25, 2016

Joe Biden to visit Miami on Monday, campaign for Patrick Murphy

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@ByKristenMClark

Vice President Joe Biden is expected to attend a lunchtime fundraiser with Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Murphy on Monday in Miami.

President Barack Obama and Biden endorsed the congressman from Jupiter earlier this month in the competitive race to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate next year.

At the time, Murphy’s campaign simultaneously said Biden and Murphy would “campaign together” in Florida on March 28. It’s unclear yet whether any public event will be held during Biden’s visit.

Biden last came to Miami in September for a speech at Miami Dade College about the importance of an affordable college education. (At the time, he had still been mulling a presidential bid but ultimately opted against one.)

It’s fitting that Murphy and Biden are appearing in South Florida, as opposed to elsewhere in the state. Murphy was born in Miami, raised in Key Largo and now represents northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast in Congress.

South Florida is also where almost a third of the state’s 4.5 million registered Democrats reside.

Ahead of the presidential primary this month, Broward County still had the most of any county with about 554,000 registered Democrats. Miami-Dade County was second with more than 525,000, followed by Murphy's home of Palm Beach County with 361,000, according to the Florida Department of State.

The 32-year-old Murphy joined Florida's competitive U.S. Senate race a year ago this past Wednesday.

Since then, he has racked up significant endorsements and campaign contributions from major Democrats in his primary fight against fellow U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando. The primary election is Aug. 30.

Murphy has, so far, raised vastly more dollars than either Grayson or their five Republican opponents. As of Dec. 31, Murphy had raised $1.46 million, leaving him with nearly $4.3 million in the bank to spend heading into 2016.

Any dollars raised during Monday's fundraiser will be reported in the next campaign finance report that U.S. Senate candidates must file with the Federal Election Commission by April 15. That report will cover Jan. 1 through March 31.

The candidates running in the Republican primary are: U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox and Manatee County home-builder Carlos Beruff.

Miami Herald reporter Amy Sherman contributed to this report.

Photo Credit: Al Diaz / Miami Herald

March 24, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott signs 34 bills, including body cameras, slungshots & dental carve-out

@ByKristenMClark and @MichaelAuslen

Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed 34 bills into law today, including one requiring law enforcement agencies to adopt policies and training protocols for using officer-worn body cameras and another that makes it legal again for Floridians to carry concealed slungshots.

Scott also signed legislation carving out dental services from Medicaid managed care plans. It's a change supporters say will lower costs and better mirror the private insurance market, where medical coverage and dental coverage are generally provided by different insurers.

Currently, Medicaid recipients' dental coverage is from the same provider as their medical.

The bill requires a study by the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability to assess the idea before it goes into effect, allowing lawmakers to come back to the table and change course if need be. In his letter approving the legislation, Scott issued a stern warning to lawmakers:

"While I am giving my approval to this bill today," he wrote, "if the results of the study do not demonstrate better quality dental care at reduced costs than the net benefits provided under Statewide Medicaid Managed Care today, I expect the 2017 Legislature to amend the statute immediately to protect Medicaid recipients and the services they receive through Statewide Medicaid Managed Care."

Meanwhile, the body-camera legislation (HB 93) sailed through the Legislature this session, garnering unanimous approval from both chambers. The new law doesn't require agencies to use body cameras but will ensure that those that do have proper procedures in place.

As of October, 18 police agencies in Florida — including Miami and Miami Beach — used body cameras. Another 10, such as Tampa police, were operating pilot programs.

“This bill gives us that opportunity to go further to make sure that we are providing transparency to our citizens but also give accountability to our law enforcement,” Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said after the legislation passed the House earlier this month.

The bill dealing with slungshots (HB 4009) lifts a ban on the manufacturing or sales of the weapon and allows individuals to carry it concealed without a permit. A slungshot -- which is a weight attached to a cord or strap -- was originally a maritime tool that later became a weapon used by gangs in the 19th century.

Other bills Scott signed today deal with various criminal justice issues, agriculture, education and public records exemptions, among other topics.

Here is the full list of new laws:

Continue reading "Gov. Rick Scott signs 34 bills, including body cameras, slungshots & dental carve-out" »

March 23, 2016

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown under investigation by House Ethics Committee

via @learyreports

The House Ethics Committee today said it has opened an investigation into Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.

A letter released Wednesday states that the investigation includes “allegations that she engaged in improper conduct relating to certain outside organizations, including allegations that  she may have conspired with other persons in connection with fraudulent activity, improperly solicited charitable donations, used campaign funds for personal purposes, used official resources for impermissible non-official purposes, failed to comply with tax laws and made false statements, and/or failed to make required disclosures, to the House of Representatives and Federal Election Commission."

Read the notice here.

Federal investigators issued a subpoena to Brown in January and earlier this month the head of an organization tied to Brown pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.