January 06, 2014

Miami killer to be executed for prison guard murder


Four decades after kidnapping a Bay Harbor Islands couple and shooting them execution-style them in the woods of South Miami-Dade, Thomas Knight will be put to death by lethal injection on Tuesday night.

Only two inmates have been on Florida’s Death Row longer than Knight, 62, who was first sentenced to die in 1975 for the murder of Sydney and Lillian Gans.

Knight, however, will be executed Tuesday at 6 p.m. for a third murder: the 1980 fatal stabbing of Death Row state corrections officer Richard Burke.

Nonetheless, the surviving relatives of the Gans have the option to attend the execution at the Florida State Prison in Starke. But their daughter, Harriet Shapiro, 73, has chosen not to attend because of her ailing health, son Judd Shapiro said on Monday.

Long court battles and frequent delays over the decades have been stressful for his mother, Shapiro said.

“It’s been so many times now, she’s beginning to lose faith in the system,” Judd Shapiro said of the frequent delays and court battles over the decades.

Knight, who legally changed his name years ago to Askari Abdullah Muhammad, was most recently slated to be executed on Dec. 3 for the Burke murder. The Shapiros had planned to attend.

More here.

December 30, 2013

Movers & Shakers

Some Floridians will be celebrating new positions or continued appointments in 2014. If you know of any movers and shakers in the world of politics or state government, please send them to Rochelle Koff at rkoff@tampabay.com

Three picked for Florida Women's Hall of Fame

Dottie Berger MacKinnon, Sheriff Susan Benton and Louise Jones Gopher have all been selected for the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. Gov. Rick Scott chose the three women from a list of 10 nominees chosen by the Florida Commission on the Status of Women.

MacKinnon, a former Tampa resident who died April 12, 2012, was a founder of Joshua House, a haven for children removed from their families, and she chaired the Friends of Joshua House Foundation board from 2003 to 2006. Most recently, MacKinnon founded A Kid’s Place, a group home in Brandon where siblings can live together after being taken from their homes over abuse or neglect.

Benton, 64, of Sebring, is the sheriff of Highlands County. In 2004, she became the first woman elected sheriff in Florida’s history. In 2012, Benton was named the first female president of the Florida Sheriffs Association in the organization’s 118-year history.

Gopher, 68, of Okeechobee, is a longtime educator. From 2003 to 2007, she served as the director of education for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Gopher was the first female Seminole Indian to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Executive director of Guardian ad Litem Program reappointed

Alan Abramowitz has been reappointed by Scott as the executive director of the statewide Guardian ad Litem Program.

Abramowitz, 51, of Tallahassee, has been the program’s executive director since 2010 -- his new term ends Dec. 29, 2016.

Abramowitz previously served as DCF’s state director for family safety, and as the chief legal counsel for DCF’s Central Florida region. He also served as the assistant general counsel for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

Other appointments

David Di PietroRocky Rodriguez and Darryl L. Wright have been appointed to the North Broward Hospital District’s Board of Commissioners.

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December 16, 2013

Movers & Shakers

Longtime legislative analyst retiring from Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee

Carol Preston will be retiring after a long career with the legislature at the end of the year. Preston, the chief legislative analyst for the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, served for five years in the Senate and 14 years in the House.

Praising Preston at a Dec. 10th meeting of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, Sen. Nancy Detert, said the analyst “personally wrote most of the laws that we’re dealing with and fixed the ones that needed fixing.

“I know I couldn’t do my work on this committee without Carol Preston,” said Detert, R-Venice. "Just want her to know how grateful I am for her and always will be for her wonderful work. I think what people want to know at the end of their work career is ‘Did your life matter?’ And Carol Preston’s life certainly mattered to all of us.”

The committee also announced the addition of two new staffers. Peggy Sanford, who was an attorney with the Department of Children & Families, will be replacing Preston as the new chief legislative analyst. Barbara Crosier, an attorney who was the director of the Division of State Group Health Insurance at the Department of Management Services, is replacing Ashley Daniell as chief attorney. Daniell left the Senate for the private sector.

New communications director for Sen. Bean

Meghan Tarsitano is the new communications director for Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. Tarsitano previously worked for U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw's re-election campaign.

Governor appointees

Elena Spottswood, a Key West community activist, has been appointed by Attorney General Pam Bondi to the Florida Commission on the Status of Women.

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December 12, 2013

Senate president says bipartisan "initiative" aimed at sexual violent predators on the way

A bipartisan Senate initiative aimed at a “broad range” of issues related to violent sexual predators and the Department of Children & Families is expected to be announced by Christmas, Senate President Don Gaetz said Thursday.

“I think you will see in the next few days a bipartisan initiative in the Senate to address the issue of sexually violent predators and the broader issues associated with foster children and related issues in DCF,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said at a breakfast with reporters.

While he didn’t outline specifics, Gaetz said that Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and other senators have been working on these issues over the summer.

The violent sexual predator initiative would involve “a criminal justice element” that affects the jurisdiction of Senators Greg Evers, R-Baker, and Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island; a human services element that impacts Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; and Sobel who “is right at Ground Zero,” Gaetz said.

He also discussed concerns about DCF. Gaetz, who attended part of a Senate Committee meeting on Children, Families and Elder Affairs Tuesday, said that policy changes should become part of the law. “I don’t think we can rely upon who’s in charge," Gaetz said. "I think we have to make some changes in statute."

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December 11, 2013

Interim DCF Secretary to stay in post through 2014 legislative session

Interim Department of Children & Families Secretary Esther Jacobo has agreed to stay in the job through the end of the 2014 legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott announced Wednesday.  She’ll be continuing in the post at a time when the department is trying to correct flaws that helped lead to the deaths of 40 children under state care.

Jacobo, Miami’s top DCF administrator, took over the post in July, after former DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned amid the scandal over the deaths of four children from families with a history of involvement with child abuse investigators during a six-week period, catalogued in stories by The Miami Herald. 

Scott also said that his office will be meeting with children services and law enforcement officials and community leaders to identify a permanent secretary.

Here are comments from Scott and Jacobo from Wednesday’s press release from the governor’s office:

“Esther has been an incredible leader, and she will be an invaluable resource for legislators on children and family issues during the upcoming legislative session. Our state has already benefited from the on-the-ground experience Esther brings to DCF, and we will continue to work with child services stakeholders to ensure we have the best leadership at the agency to protect Florida children.”

 Interim Secretary Jacobo said, “When Governor Scott asked if I would stay through the legislative session, I jumped at the opportunity. I am eager to lead our team through session because I believe in the work we are doing. I cannot thank Governor Scott enough for the honor of serving as Secretary of DCF, and I look forward to continuing to work on significant changes that will have a positive impact on our state’s most vulnerable children and families.”


December 10, 2013

DCF official explains agency's efforts to prevent child abuse deaths at Senate hearing

A top official for the Florida Department of Children & Families told senators at a hearing Tuesday that the state was no longer relying on a “promise” from parents that they would do right by their children, a practice that left some members of the Children, Families & Elder Affairs Committee shaking their heads.

In a domestic violence case, for instance, “we would get the mom to promise that if she and her boyfriend, whoever, engaged in domestic violence that she would leave,” said Stephen Pennypacker, DCF’s new assistant secretary for programs. “That’s not a safety plan. That’s a prescription for disaster … So we don’t do that anymore.”

He said the agency is addressing several other measures to improve its efforts, many of them recommendations from a recent report by the nonprofit, Seattle-based Casey Family Programs.

Committee chairman Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said “lots needs to be done” in the aftermath of at least 40 children dying while under state care between January and July.

“We’re looking for solutions,” she said, noting that legislators also need to determine “what can be done administratively and what do we need to pass by law.

"I think we're digging deep to find out why so many kid died and making improvements," she said, noting that more of a team approach, staffing and re-evaluating assessment tools would "make the system work better."

Sobel said she agreed with the findings of the Casey Family report, which pointed out many issues in Florida’s child welfare system, and said those suggestions should be implemented.

Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo requested Casey Families conduct a comprehensive review in order to identify potential improvements and shortcomings in the agency's protective investigative process after the Herald catalogued the stories of children from families with DCF histories who had died over the spring and summer.

The Casey Family report provided "tangible recommendations regarding policies and practices that can potentially reduce future child maltreatment deaths," Pennypacker said.

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December 09, 2013

Proponents of Sunrise casino destination make their case in Senate gaming committee

The Florida Panthers hockey team could be the first major sports team linked to a destination casino if legislators permit an expansion of gambling, proponents said Monday after a meeting of the Senate Committee on Gaming.

Sunrise Sports & Entertainment is partnering with Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming Corporation on its proposal for a hotel, spa and casino with 50,000 square feet for meeting space on the land adjacent to the BB & T Center in the city of Sunrise. Broward County owns the land.

The BB & T Center, which hosts concerts and special events as well as hockey games, is across the road from Sawgrass Mills, considered Florida's second-largest tourist destination with more than 350 outlet stores, and near the Sawgrass Expressway and other roads, factors that make it a prime location for the casino/hotel resort, said Michael Yormark, president and CEO of Sunrise Sports & Entertainment and the Florida Panthers NHL hockey team.

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December 05, 2013

Florida Supreme Court grills attorney defending medical marijuana amendment

Florida Supreme Court justices on Thursday peppered the attorney for the group backing a proposed medical marijuana amendment with lots of questions on several issues concerning the language and intent of the amendment during an hour-long hearing.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, legislative leaders and other opponents have raised numerous objections to the proposed state constitutional amendment, which People United for Medical Marijuana wants to put on the 2014 ballot if the group can get the 683,149 signatures it needs by early next year.

Most questions directed at People United attorney Jon Mills addressed possible vague or misleading language in the amendment's title -- "Use of Marijuana for Certain Medical Conditions." They focused on the words "debilitating" and "disease" versus medical condition, honing in on the state's initial complaint that the amendment is too broad, in effect, leading to de facto marijuana legalization under the guise of compassionate medicine.

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December 03, 2013

Civil War passions still run deep as Union supporters propose monument on Confederate site


The state parks system is on the hot seat and a House leader is calling for action over a proposed monument to Union soldiers at the site of the biggest Civil War battle fought in Florida.

The bid to add a Union monument to the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park near Lake City has drawn a furious response, with about 100 people attending a Monday night public hearing at the Columbia County School District Auditorium. Representatives of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the state parks, moderated the hearing.

Passions ran high, at one point erupting in a spontaneous chorus of "Dixie" led by a black man, H.K. Edgerton, who called Union soldiers rapists and wielded his large Confederate flag like a conductor's baton as the audience sang.

Speakers blasted the proposal as disturbing hallowed ground in a rural community where most families stay for generations.

"Putting a Union monument at Olustee would be like placing a memorial to Jane Fonda at the entrance to the Vietnam memorial," said Leon Duke, a wounded veteran.

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December 02, 2013

Movers & Shakers

Tampa Bay Times reporter becomes Board of Governors spokeswoman

Tampa Bay Times reporter Brittany Davis has been hired as the new director of communications for the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system. She starts her new job Dec. 11th just as there's a change of leadership in the university system, with Marshall Criser III becoming chancellor Jan. 6.

Davis was a municipal government reporter in the Clearwater bureau the past year, covering Tarpon Springs and Safety Harbor. She was previously a reporter in the Tallahassee Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald capital bureau.

Davis was also a reporter for Health News Florida and WLRN, South Florida's NPR affiliate. She has her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Florida.

She replaces Kim Wilmath, who has taken a job as associate director, higher education policy analysis at the University of South Florida. Wilmath was previously a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

Labor lawyer joins Tallahassee firm of Adams and Reese

Florida labor and employment attorney Scott Callen has joined Adams and Reese as a partner in the firm’s Tallahassee and Tampa offices. 

Callen, with 15 years experience as a labor and employment attorney,  was most recently an equity partner at Foley & Lardner LLP. He also has experience in civil litigation, corporate counseling, administrative and commercial litigation.

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