April 14, 2016

FL Supreme Court rules agencies must pay attorneys fees when violating public records law

From Jim Saunders at The News Service of Florida:

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday issued a broadly worded ruling that made clear public agencies are liable for paying attorney's fees if they violate the state's open-records law.

The 5-2 ruling dealt with cases in which people successfully sue agencies for failing to comply with the records law. Justices rejected arguments that agencies should be shielded from paying plaintiffs' legal fees if public-records requests are handled in "good faith."

"In accordance with case law liberally construing the Public Records Act in favor of open access to public records, the reasonable statutory construction of the attorney's fee provision, and the letter and spirit of the constitutional right to inspect or copy public records, we hold that a prevailing party is entitled to statutory attorney's fees under the Public Records Act when the trial court finds that the public agency violated a provision of the Public Records Act in failing to permit a public record to be inspected or copied,'' said the majority opinion, written by Justice Barbara Pariente and joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry. "There is no additional requirement, before awarding attorney's fees under the Public Records Act, that the trial court find that the public agency did not act in good faith, acted in bad faith, or acted unreasonably."

Continue reading "FL Supreme Court rules agencies must pay attorneys fees when violating public records law" »

April 09, 2016

Florida's conservative school board members got a boost from a like-minded Legislature

@ByKristenMClark

Through both policy and taxpayer funding during the 2016 session, the Republican-led Legislature subtly gave a leg up to politically conservative school board members in Florida who want greater influence on statewide education policy.

The Legislature’s actions show how partisan politics continue to influence education in the Sunshine State, but party ideology is not supposed to infiltrate local school boards.

The Constitution requires school boards to be nonpartisan, so critics are especially concerned by Republican leaders’ eagerness to intervene — and to diminish the influence of those with viewpoints contrary to their own.

This session, Republican lawmakers first sought to retaliate — through a proposed law — against the Florida School Boards Association because it previously challenged a Legislature-approved, voucher-like program in court.

Republicans backed off that in the face of criticism in the final days of session, but they still passed — as part of the massive “school choice” bill — a provision that will let the 356 individual school board members in the state direct their dues to a new advocacy organization that seeks to rival the FSBA.

While offering more freedom and flexibility to school board members, the measure could potentially de-fund the well-established FSBA in favor of boosting revenue for the 15-month-old Florida Coalition of School Board Members, which champions conservative values in line with legislative leaders’ priorities

April 08, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott uses political ad to attack "latte liberal" who confronted him at Starbucks

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@ByKristenMClark

Republican Gov. Rick Scott's political committee launched an online ad today in an attempt to turn the tables on a woman who scolded him and called him an "a--hole" at a Gainesville Starbucks this week.

In a now infamous confrontation, Cara Jennings wanted to know why Scott approved legislation regulating abortion providers and she criticized him for opposing Medicaid expansion in Florida. Before leaving the coffee shop empty-handed, Scott at the time offered an unrelated talking point that "we've got a million jobs" in Florida. (Part of the confrontation was captured on video, prompting it to go viral Wednesday. Watch it here.)

"A million jobs? Great. Who here has a great job?!" Jennings yelled at Scott.

"Well, almost everybody," claims the new 60-second ad from "Let's Get to Work."

The ad mocks Jennings by simultaneously attempting to reinforce Scott's jobs claim and demonizing her for the outburst.

Scott's ad refers to Jennings, a former Lake Worth city councilwoman, as a "latte liberal" and "terribly rude woman" and sarcastically points out that she's a self-proclaimed "anarchist," who has in the past refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

"That woman clearly has a problem," the narrator says, before noting that 9,300 jobs have been created in the Gainesville area since Scott took office in 2011 and the unemployment rate there was cut in half.

In answer to Jennings' question, the narrator concludes that "almost everybody" has a great job in Florida -- "except those who are sitting around coffee shops, demanding public assistance, surfing the Internet and cursing at customers who come in."

Watch the ad here:

Photo credit: Screen-grab from Let's Get to Work / YouTube

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

Bondi_0405

@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.