February 07, 2014

Crist says he'll meet with UF students over state's rejection of campus center as early voting site

Criticizing the state's decision to block the University of Florida's student union as an early voting site, Charlie Crist posted a Facebook notice Friday stating he'll meet with students and voters at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday at Turlington Plaza to discuss the issue. 

The posting follows a tweet from the Democratic candidate at 6:15 p.m. Thursday:  "This is an outrage," Crist tweeted. "Stay tuned on how we can protest Rick Scott's awful insult to every student & voter in the state."

To address complaints of long waits at polling sites in 2012 that attracted national attention, legislators last year expanded the list of early voting sites to include fairgrounds, civic centers, courthouses, county commission buildings, stadiums, convention centers and government-owned community centers.

In response to a request by the city of Gainesville to use the Reitz Union for early voting in March's municipal elections, Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections, which is run by a Scott appointee, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, wrote in an advisory opinion that "the terms 'convention center' and 'government-owned community center' cannot be construed so broadly as to include the Reitz Union."

Crist joins the growing number of critics blasting the state's decision, including the League of Women Voters, election supervisors and Democratic legislators.

In a statement Friday, House Minority Leader Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) said  “Governor Scott and state elections officials seem once again to be trying to suppress the vote of university students and other Floridians. I urge him to stop laying roadblocks to voting. The governor should do more to encourage, not discourage, voting among young people who are interested and engaged citizens.”

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February 04, 2014

Bondi, legislators call for passage of "Aaron Cohen Act" to crack down on hit-and-run drivers

Attorney General Pam Bondi, legislators and law enforcement leaders are joining the widow of a Miami cyclist killed in a 2012 hit-and-run crash on the Rickenbacker Causeway in her campaign to crack down on hit-and-run drivers.

At a press conference Tuesday, Patty Cohen said she has been pursuing a change in the law, which now gives drunk drivers an incentive to leave the scene of a hit-and-run, since her husband Aaron was struck by a motorist on the Causeway’s William Powell Bridge on Feb. 15, 2012.

The proposal, known as the “Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act,” aims to eliminate that incentive.

Under current Florida law, drunk drivers who kill someone receive a minimum mandatory sentence of four years in prison. But those who leave the scene to avoid being caught drinking face less stringent penalties, said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, sponsor of SB 102.

“It is a growing epidemic,” said Diaz de la Portilla, who was flanked by a nonpartisan group of legislators as well as a cadre of uniformed officers and representatives of police and sheriff’s associations at the press conference.

Florida motorists were involved in 69,994 hit-and-run crashes in 2012, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Of that total, 168 were fatal -- roughly three people a week. And most were pedestrians.

“No family should have to suffer like ours has,” said Cohen, whose daughter Lily was 3 ½ and her son, Aiden 9 months, when her 36-year-old husband was killed. He had been riding with cycling partner Enda Walsh, who was injured, when they were hit by Michele Traverso, who fled the scene. 

“He kept driving,” Cohen said. “He ran, he hid his car, he never even stopped, he never even called 911.”


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February 03, 2014

State gets five-year extension of a funding waiver to help at-risk children

Florida’s child welfare system got a boost Monday with the approval of a five-year renewal of a federal waiver that allows the state to have more options in helping children from troubled homes.

The waiver enables the state to use Title IV-E federal foster care funds to pay for services it deems necessary for children in at-risk families, whether it's mental health counseling or substance abuse treatment. In the past, that money could only be used for children placed in the foster care system.

The waiver "allows us to have more flexibility in the services we provide families," said Stephen Pennypacker, assistant secretary for programs for the state Department of Children and Families. 

Florida was the first state to get a federal waiver and in the past had only short-term extensions. Getting a five-year extension means "we can continue to demonstrate the impact it’s been having and hopefully make it permanent," said Shawn Salamida, the CEO of the community-based care program Partnership for Strong Families in Gainesville.

He said the waiver enables workers to identify families at risk of foster care placement and "use funds to provide services to intervene to keep the kids safe and families intact."

The waiver has been a factor in helping to reduce the number of kids in the state's child welfare system, said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children’s First.

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January 06, 2014

Movers & Shakers

Alia Faraj-Johnson, press secretary for former Gov. Jeb Bush, will be joining Hill+Knowlton Strategies as a senior vice president, leading the firm's Tallahassee office.

Prior to joining H+K Strategies, Faraj-Johnson served as managing director of public relations and public affairs at Sachs Media Group. She was Bush’s press secretary and communications director from 2002 to 2007, and managed communications at 18 state agencies.

Faraj-Johnson was previously a television news reporter and vice president of news operations for Capitol News Service in Tallahassee.

New partner at Ballard

The government affairs firm, Ballard Partners, is expanding, adding veteran lobbyist Christopher Hansen, to its Tallahassee office.

Hansen, who will be a partner, previously served as a governmental consultant for Gray Robinson, P.A. and before that, he worked in a similar role at Huey, Guilday, Tucker, Schwartz & Williams, P.A.

Hansen was a legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives' majority office and the executive director of a large political action committee.

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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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