February 28, 2013

A look at Harry Sargeant: 'The most powerful person no one knows'

Crist and Harry Sargeant

Former Gov. Charlie Crist calls him a "great patriot." Congressional investigators call him "a war profiteer" who walked away with an extra $200 million while providing fuel to American troops in Iraq.

At Florida State University, he is something of a hero — contributing more than a million dollars to athletic programs, the business school and his old fraternity.

Who is Harry Sargeant III?

Photo: Harry Sargeant, center, introduces Gov. Charlie Crist and Jordan's King Abdullah II at the presidential palace in Amman, Jordan, in 2007.

 A plaque at the Pi Kappa Alpha House on campus calls him "the most powerful man no one knows.'' The moniker comes from a 2008 Miami Herald story that noted his friendship with Crist and his wide-ranging business interests.

Sargeant, 55, is a billionaire former Marine fighter pilot, the owner of an oil and asphalt shipping company with global businesses including aviation companies and an oil refinery.

And in the tangled world of Florida politics, Sargeant is a Republican financial powerhouse.

He has long supported Crist while also helping former party chairman Jim Greer, despite the animosity between Greer and Crist since Greer was charged with stealing money from the GOP in 2010. Crist, now a Democrat considering an attempt to return to the Governor's Mansion, says Sargeant remains a close friend.

Campaign finance records show Sargeant has donated more than $1.5 million to Florida politicians and the state Republican Party since 2000, the year Crist ran for education commissioner.

In recent years, Sargeant has made headlines over fuel he supplied to U.S. forces in Iraq. The brother-in-law of the king of Jordan sued Sargeant in Palm Beach and won a $28.8 million verdict for being cut out of a $1.4 billion defense contract that allowed Sargeant to transport fuel through Jordan. (Sargeant is appealing.) A congressional oversight committee called for an investigation of payments to Sargeant's company, and last year auditors for the Department of Defense accused the company of overcharging the Pentagon by hundreds of millions. A federal investigation is ongoing.

Chris Kise, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents Sargeant, says the overcharging accusations came from Democrats who were angry at Sargeant's fundraising for Republicans. More from Lucy Morgan here. 


Florida House release new app, Weatherford brushes off 2014 rumors

The Florida House of Representatives released a new mobile app that House Speaker Will Weatherford said will “set a national standard.”

The app, reported by the Herald/Times yesterday, will allow users to track the legislative process on their mobile devices, with features like live streaming from the Capitol in Tallahassee and tracking of bills.

“This is the way that people are communicating with their government,” said Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican.

The app is expected to be released next week, as the 60-day legislative session begins.

Read more about it here and see the House press release here.

After the press conference, Weatherford took questions from reporters on a range of issues, including Medicaid, Citizens Insurance, the budget sequester and Internet cafes.

He brushed off questions about a potential run for governor against Rick Scott, while continuing to differ from Scott on the key issues of Medicaid expansion and across-the-board $2,500 pay raises for teachers. 

“I think people who are saying those things must not know me well,” he said about those who are whispering about a 2014 primary challenge. “I’m busy enough trying to be the Speaker of the House… I’m not thinking of any of that stuff right now.”

Weatherford did not specifically rule out the possibility, but said that he doesn’t “have any plans to do anything like that.”

Continue reading "Florida House release new app, Weatherford brushes off 2014 rumors" »

February 18, 2013

Fasano uses obscure committee post to blast Citizens Insurance

The gloves came off Monday and it was Rep. Mike Fasano vs. Citizens Property Insurance, Round 1 for the 2013 legislative session.

Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who was conspicuously snubbed from a post on the Banking and Insurance Committee, used his chairmanship of an obscure joint committee to berate what he believes is an anti-consumer culture at Citizens.

As chair of the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, Fasano held court over a number of state agencies who had failed to comply with state laws passed by the Legislature.

Last on the list was Citizens, which was supposed to begin offering a less comprehensive—and less expensive—policy option on Jan. 1, but has not yet done so.

“You said Citizens is concerned about the consumer. I laughed at that,” said Fasano, during a spirited back-and-forth with Citizens’ legislative director. “They’re more concerned about depopulating and raising premiums.”

Citizens countered that the company was working as hard as it could to implement the new policy, called an HO-8. The new policy is scheduled to begin rollout next week.

But Fasano is not happy with the way Citizens is implementing a law passed by the Legislature in 2012. The law calls for Citizens to offer the HO-8 policy, but the company is only planning to offer it to homeowners with homes that are at least 51 years old, and worth less than $200,000.

“We believe we are following the law,” said Citizens spokesperson, Christine Ashburn. She said the HO-8 policy offered by Citizens has certain "underwriting guidelines," just like all other policies. Those guidelines--the age and value requirements--were approved by the Office of Insurance Regulation, whom Fasano also blasted.

Continue reading "Fasano uses obscure committee post to blast Citizens Insurance" »

As insurance premiums rise, Citizens execs get big pay hikes

When the president of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. learned that his chief financial officer had used corporate funds to finance a luxurious weekend at a $633-a-night resort in Bermuda, he initially described the expenses as “absolutely appropriate.”

But President Barry Gilway changed his tune after a Herald/Times story and a subsequent inspector general report documented evidence that executives regularly ran up huge expenses on the company credit card, traveling and dining at four-star locations across the globe.

“As guardians of public funds, we must hold ourselves to a more rigorous standard,” he said.

It was a full-throated mea culpa, following sharp rebukes from Gov. Rick Scott, state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and top lawmakers. But behind the scenes, Gilway was quietly handing out huge salary raises for the well-traveled CFO, Sharon Binnun, and several other executives who run the state-backed company.

Read more here


February 12, 2013

For the first time, Gov. Rick Scott needs votes from Democrats

For the first time in his brief and turbulent political career, Gov. Rick Scott needs a little help from Florida’s Democrats to turn one of his wishes into law.

Scott’s top legislative priority this year — a $141 million tax cut for manufacturers — comes with an asterisk: It has to garner ‘Yes’ votes from two-thirds of the Legislature to pass.

That means Democrats — whose gains in November breached the Republican supermajorities in Tallahassee — suddenly find themselves in an unfamiliar power position as they try to defeat Scott in 2014.

“I doubt that’ll be able to get a supermajority,” said Rep. Perry Thurston, a Plantation Democrat and minority leader in the Florida House. “It’s just another [business] incentive. We don’t know if it works.”

The bill seeks to eliminate sales taxes on all manufacturing equipment and machinery.

Scott has already put considerable political capital behind the tax cut, stating on numerous occasions that this was his top priority for 2013, along with a $1.2 billion boost in education funding.

“We need to build up manufacturing jobs in the great state of Florida,” he said in unveiling a $74.2 billion budget plan last month. Scott said the tax cut would create jobs and increase exports.

A failure on the measure would be politically embarrassing for Scott, who has staked his governorship on job creation and CEO-like efficacy.

Read more here


February 05, 2013

Alex Sink: Florida's new male-centric business brand is 'terrible'

FloridaClimateforBiz_LogoFormer CFO Alex Sink is weighing in on the state’s new proposal to rebrand itself for business, calling it “terrible” and joining a growing list of critics who are slamming the orange-tie imagery as sexist.

Here’s what Sink posted on Facebook this afternoon:

Did you see this? http://bit.ly/YB9rnx What a terrible way to brand our state. We are diverse. We are modern. And we won't stand for our state to be portrayed as having a stuffy, outdated climate for business. Share this photo if you agree and let your friends and family know that we are the state of innovators and entrepreneurs. Ditch the tie and join us. DitchTheTie_AlexSink

Sink, who fell 60,000 votes short of becoming the state’s first female governor in 2010, was defeated by Gov. Rick Scott.

Last week Scott hailed the orange tie image as “a brand that will solidify our reputation to the nation and the world.”

Enterprise Florida is standing by the brand, even as it deals with a barrage of controversy in recent days, starting with its decision to outsource a $200,000 Florida branding contract to a Tennessee-based company. When the new business brand was unveiled, several businesswomen slammed it as sexist, because it was anchored on the image of a necktie. On Tuesday, a watchdog group blasted EFI for engaging in “pay-to-play” cronyism and “corporate welfare” through its multimillion-dollar incentives program. Lawmakers are also looking to crack down on incentives, and EFI has been defending them as proven investments in economic development.

Sink is one of a handful of potential 2014 challengers to Scott, who is facing dangerously low poll numbers.


February 01, 2013

Fla. House Republicans release football-themed "Jobs Playbook"

Florida House Republicans are taking some inspiration from the Super Bowl to produce their plan for creating jobs in the state. The plan, called the “Jobs Playbook,” features many of the trademark GOP proposals—lower taxes, less debt and some old-fashioned bashing of the federal government to boot.

A football-themed infographic pits House Republicans’ strategy for winning up against the policies of the federal government—“higher debt, more deficits, economic uncertainty.” The release states, “Republicans have the playbook for economic success.”

This year, jobs and economic development have not played a starting role in legislative rhetoric, as in years past. Instead, legislative leaders are huddling up for some internal soul searching, hoping to clean up many of the problems created by the Legislature and the political class—ethics loopholes, campaign finance issues, elections problems, etc. Education and federal health reform are also top issues the Legislature must tackle.

Looking to show that job-creation has not been sidelined, lawmakers are pitching a playbook for economic development.

“Republicans have the playbook for economic success and we are dedicated to getting Florida over the goal line,” said House Majority Leader Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, in a statement.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, a former college football player, is quarterbacking the Florida House’s Republican majority as it prepares to take on a growing and more confident Democratic caucus with a very different playbook.

Despite boasts of an improving economy, the jury is still out on whether policies listed in the report and pushed by Florida lawmakers are the best way to boost the state’s economy.

Continue reading "Fla. House Republicans release football-themed "Jobs Playbook" " »

January 30, 2013

House Democratic leader blasts decade of GOP governance, pushes for Medicaid expansion

Rep. Perry Thurston, the House Democratic leader, said voters in Florida are not impressed with Republican-led governance, and said even GOP leaders are beginning to feel the same way.

In a 30-minute talk that covered issues ranging from Florida’s elections debacle to implementing federal healthcare to investing in education, Thurston blamed his Republican counterparts for problems facing the state. He said reform efforts currently being pushed by Republican officials—election reform, ethics reform, education financing, healthcare implementation—all seek to deal with problems caused by the GOP-led Legislature.

Thurston said the ruling party had been “foot dragging” when it comes to implementing the federal healthcare reform. He pointed to a letter from former House Speaker Dean Cannon in 2010 that effectively kept state agencies from planning for reform. The state is now trying to figure out how to conform to the law and facing several deadlines. The decision about whether or not to expand Medicaid is a critical one for the state, and Thurston supports the expansion.

 “We’re going to save lives.  We’re not talking about turning down money fro a rail system; we’re talking about saving lives,” said Thurston. “Not to do this would be morally reprehensible.”

Continue reading "House Democratic leader blasts decade of GOP governance, pushes for Medicaid expansion" »

January 27, 2013

Despite dismal poll numbers, Rick Scott still a challenge for Democrats

by MarcACaputo

Rick Scott’s poll numbers look dismal. His finances don’t.

"One number should worry you: $70 million. That’s how much Rick Scott spent in 2010," Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, Miami-Dade’s new Democratic chairwoman, told Democrats this weekend.

To be clear, she was referring to Scott’s personal money. And it was actually closer to $75.1 million.

Include the Republican Party, and Scott probably spent just under $100 million. He was worth at least $218 million at the time, but reports he lost net worth after becoming governor. His wife has millions more.

Scott is prepared to spend as much or more in 2014.

The money race is on. And Democrats are losing it. But they know it.

Continue reading "Despite dismal poll numbers, Rick Scott still a challenge for Democrats" »

January 23, 2013

Year of the Pay Raise? Gaetz backs raises for teachers, state workers

A brightening budget picture could mean salary hikes for tens of thousands of teachers and state employees if Senate President Don Gaetz gets his way.

“I think that teachers are some govenment workers who deserve to have better compensation,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said. “But I know corrections officers, I know highway patrolmen…. who deserve a raise. And six years is a long time to wait.”

Gov. Rick Scott has announced support for across-the-board pay hikes for Florida teachers, but the hard part will be making the numbers work in an uncertain budgeting environment.

Gaetz said he was not familiar with the details of Scott’s teacher pay raise, but pointed out a still-tight budget may force Scott to “reduce funding for some of his other priorities in order to fund this most recent priority.”

That could mean Scott’s push for lower business taxes and more cash for economic incentives could be tempered by the plan to provide teachers raises.

Early estimates of the pay raise come in at about $480 million, Scott said.

Gaetz said he’s in favor performance-based approaches to the pay raises, which would be determined by local school boards.

“My preference always has been to provide local school boards with more funding than they can use based on plans they develop locally to recognize and reward effective teaching,” he said.

Continue reading "Year of the Pay Raise? Gaetz backs raises for teachers, state workers" »