March 19, 2013

Struggling in the polls, Scott releases campaign-style video highlighting jobs record

Is it 2014 yet?

On the same day that a Public Policy Polling poll came out showing that Gov. Rick Scott is still underwater with voters and trails potential candidates like his predecessor Charlie Crist, the governor’s office offered up a new campaign-style video touting his accomplishments.

The video shows news clips of economic doom and gloom during the last years of Crist’s tenure, with news achors highlighting record high unemployment and troubling economic indicators.

Halfway through the 2-minute spot, Scott appears, talking about how the state has turned around under his leadership.

“It’s the first time in five years that our unemployment rate has been below the national average,” Scott says on the video at a campaign-style event that took place Monday in Orlando. “Our unemployment rate is now down to 7.8 percent for January of this year."

The Department of Economic Opportunity highlighted the spot during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

Monica Russell, DEO's communications director, called it "our idea of how to jazz up the Cabinet meeting."

Reporters asked if Scott would be using the video as a campaign ad.

"Oh, no," she said. 

See the video here.

Times reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.



March 08, 2013

After firings of internal investigators sparked controversy, Citizens Insurance hires new forensic unit

Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which came under heavy scrutiny last year for firing four internal investigators who had discovered evidence of executive misconduct, has announced that new forensic accountants have been hired to root out fraud.

Citizens has hired three forensic professionals, forming a team that Joe Martins, the company’s Chief of Internal Audit, says will “provide an unprecedented level of internal oversight.” 

The abrupt disbanding of the Office of Corporate Integrity last year raised eyebrows, especially after the Herald/Times unveiled documents showing that the investigators had drafted an explosive report shortly before being ousted.

The report included evidence of large severance packages for disgraced employees, mishandled internal investigations, altered documents and a number of embarrassing workplace mishaps.

Citizens claimed that the firings were part of a restructuring effort, and the company announced Friday that the hiring of new forensic professionals is part of that effort.

Gov. Rick Scott said the OCI firings “concerned” him and asked his Inspector General to investigate last year. The report on that investigation, which follows another investigation into excessive travel spending at the state-run insurer, is expected to be released soon. In addition to the two inspector general reports, Citizens has come under fire for giving out large raises to executives, failing to negotiate large contracts and inadvertently giving away $2.5 million to another insurance company (the money has since been recouped).

Yesterday, Scott said he was “very disappointed” in what is going on at Citizens and he has asked the executives to return the large raises they received last year. Citizens said the raises were necessary to help the company compete with the private insurance industry, where compensation is higher.

The company's board is expected to address the salary issue at its next board meeting, but it's unclear if the executives will follow Scott's orders and return the money they've already received.

Citizens’ press release is below.

Continue reading "After firings of internal investigators sparked controversy, Citizens Insurance hires new forensic unit" »

March 06, 2013

Dolphins bill gets unanimous vote in Senate, poll shows local referendum would be tough

The Miami Dolphins cleared another hurdle Wednesday as a Senate committee unanimously approved in the team’s plan to get taxpayer financing for a $400 million stadium.

The bill, SB 306, picked up a major amendment Wednesday, with lawmakers agreeing to allow Miami-Dade voters to have the final say on whether or not to approve the taxpayer subsidies for the stadium in Miami Gardens.

The referendum could be a tough sell, and potentially a deal killer, as a new poll suggests that Miami-Dade voters are overwhelmingly opposed to the Dolphins’ proposal. More than 70 percent oppose the proposal and most of those strongly oppose it, according to the poll from Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University.

Those supporting the bill brushed the poll aside, saying the team had its own internal polls that showed more favorable results.

“Ultimately, taking this through the referendum was the important piece to us,” said Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, who traveled to Tallahassee to voice support for SB 306. “We want the voters to have a voice, and at the end of the day, the facts will prevail.”

Marcus Bach-Armas, Manager of Corporate Affairs for the Dolphins,  said he questioned the validity of the poll because it came from “Norman Braman’s pollster.” Braman, a staunch opponent of taxpayer financed stadium deals, has campaigned heavily against the bill.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, who is sponsoring the bill, said he is not concerned about the referendum, and is instead focusing on getting the bill through the Legislature.

“My job is to pass it in the Senate, and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said, adding that there would be ample time to convince the public about the benefits of a new stadium. The bill has cleared its first Senate committee with a unanimous vote.

The amendment allows the referendum to take place before the bill is enacted. That could potentially allow Miami-Dade to set a referendum vote for sometime this Spring, ahead of the National Football League’s decision of where Super Bowl 50 will take place. South Florida is being considered, and the Dolphins say a newly renovated stadium could help give the region a leg up.

“This is going to be a great economic boom to my community and to the state of Florida,” said Braynon.

If the plan gets approval from a majority of Miami-Dade voters, many of whom are still stinging from the widely panned Marlins stadium deal, the Dolphins are likely to get a flashy new stadium.

Continue reading "Dolphins bill gets unanimous vote in Senate, poll shows local referendum would be tough" »

March 05, 2013

Scott puts a spotlight on sex trafficking victims in address

In his State of the State Address, Gov. Rick Scott highlighted human trafficking, saying his Florida Families First budget invests $1.5 million of his $74.2 billion budget to provide safe houses for victims.  

In his speech Tuesday morning, Scott referred to Allison Good, who in a YouTube video describes how she was used for sexual favors and drugged when she was just five years old.

Continue reading "Scott puts a spotlight on sex trafficking victims in address" »

Scott invites, applauds biz owners in State of State speech

Gov. Rick Scott gave shoutouts to several business owners and economic development professionals during his State of the State speech Tuesday, heralding the business community for creating jobs in Florida. 

Scott, a former CEO-turned-governor, has made courting corporations and businesses a staple of his legislative strategy. According to Scott, who gave an upbeat address to kick off the legislative session, “It’s working.” 

The governor personally invited business owners and acknowledged them during his speech. 

Invited were: Wes Bush (CEO of Northrop Grumman), Dave Brown (president of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care in Jacksonville), Michelle Robinson (Regional Vice President of Verizon) and Frank Unanue (president of Goya Foods in Miami). 

Scott has highlighted all of the businesses in the past for creating jobs, often with taxpayer incentives from the state. 

Scott hailed Verizon VP Robinson in his speech for the company's decision to locate a new facility in Central Florida, a move he said would bring “hundreds” of jobs to the state. 

Robinson said Scott’s recruitment efforts helped Verizon choose Florida over other states for its expansion project. 

“What it came down for us was quality of life, availability of a qualified labor pool and the cost of living factor,” she said in an interview. “I think Florida is very competitive with Gov. Scott and the work that [Commerce Secretary] Gray Swoope is doing… working hard to compete for new jobs in Florida.” 

Florida taxpayers also chipped in millions of dollars in economic incentives awards to seal the Verizon deal. Scott is asking for nearly $300 million in funding for incentives deals this year, but lawmakers have expressed skepticism. 

Scott also acknowledged Bill Johnson, director of the Port of Miami and Chairman of the Florida Ports Council, during the speech. 

“When the Miami port dredge project is completed, along with the Panama Canal expansion, thousands of new jobs will be created,” Scott said. 

Unanue, who welcomed Scott to a recent “work day” at Goya Foods in Miami, said the state’s business climate was improving.

“I think the state has turned around,” he said. “We’ve been growing. And I see it around in the community as well… You see people going out and moving, going out to clubs and restaurants. You see the economy moving again.” 

Scott stuck to that theme during his speech, which repeatedly used the phrase “It’s working” and pointed to the brightening spots of Florida’s economy.

While the economy is slowly improving, job creation in Florida still lags the national pace. Florida is adding jobs at a growth rate at 0.7 percent, half the rate of the U.S. Much of the drop in the unemployment rate—which is down 3 percentage points since Scott was elected—is due to a decline in labor force participation.


February 28, 2013

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 27, 2013

Citizens releases laundry list of internal complaints

Citizens Property Insurance, which came under intense scrutiny last year when it fired four corporate investigators, released a report to show that it has not broken the rules when it comes to corporate integrity.

According to a review of 474 cases investigated since 2008, “all complaints were addressed and corrective action taken in accordance with Citizens’ policies in place at the time.” 

Citizens released information about the 474 cases of internal misconduct allegations ranging from sexual harassment to misuse of funds to falsified documents. Citizens Office of Corporate Integrity had investigated many of the allegations, but that office was abruptly shut down last year. The abrupt firings sparked backlash from top lawmakers, after the Herald/Times reported that the investigators had discovered evidence of misconduct by Citizens’ highest executives shortly before they were fired.

Gov. Rick Scott’s chief inspector general is looking into the firings after the governor said he was concerned about the “appearance of impropriety.”

The document released by Citizens is long, but it’s filled with case file information from workplace scandals at Citizens. The document reads like a laundry list of sexual affairs, corporate corruption, workplace pornography, discrimination, theft and other allegations. One case summary references an employee who regularly used his corporate credit card at what appears to be a strip club.

“The preliminary review of outstanding charges disclosed that employee had purchased alcohol on at least six separate occasions and entertainment at an adult entertainment establishment,” the report reads. The employee resigned in 2011.

Citizens is looking to reform itself after a series of scandals last year reported in the Herald/Times, including lavish executive spending, drunken exploits on company retreats, $2.5 million in overpayments to an insurance company and the abrupt disbanding of the Office of Corporate Integrity.

Announced reforms include new restrictions on travel spending, tougher standards for private contracting and new rules for company execs. 

Here’s a copy of the 474 complaints.

Here is the full release from Citizens:

Continue reading "Citizens releases laundry list of internal complaints" »

February 26, 2013

Black eye for Florida's biz incentive program as Miami company fails

A Miami-Dade company that received a large tax incentive deal from the state of Florida folded last week, casting another black eye on the state’s job recruitment incentives program.

Banah International Group, a sugar company, was approved for a “qualified target industry” tax credit worth $437,000.

Adding insult to injury: News that Banah’s chairman had been convicted of cocaine trafficking five years before the company was approved for inventives.

Enterprise Florida, which does much of the vetting in Florida’s multimillion-dollar business incentives program, has been under heightened scrutiny in recent weeks as lawmakers have questioned the practice of doling out tax breaks and cash to companies promising to create jobs. EFI said that Banah did not disclose the criminal past of its chairman.

The organization pointed out, in all capital letters, that Banah did not receive any tax money from the state because it failed to create the jobs it promised.


Gov. Rick Scott is asking the Legislature to approve nearly $300 million in incentives funding this year, a massive increase from about $111 million last year.

Lawmakers are skeptical about the funding request, especially after at least three companies have gone bust in the last year after accepting incentives deals.

Groups like Integrity Florida and the Koch-brothers sponsored Americans for Prosperity have slammed Enterprise Florida’s incentive program, saying it picks “winners and losers” in the marketplace. When a company goes bust after accepting government funds—as was the case with Solyndra and Florida’s own Digital Domain—critics blame the government for picking a loser.

EFI has countered that narrative by stating it is using the taxpayer funds to recruit companies that create high-paying jobs in Florida.

Most of the deals that it approves go on to fulfill—and often surpass—their requirements, EFI has said.

In the case of Banah, EFI was surprised by the bankruptcy.

“There were no concerns regarding the financial viability of Banah,” EFI said.


Biz group releases Citizens Insurance map, hoping to get lawmakers to act

Hoping to convince lawmakers to make significant reforms on the politically thorny issue of property insurance, a business group has released an interactive map showing legislators how many of their constituents are covered by Citizens Property Insurance.

The idea is to get lawmakers to realize that, in most cases, the majority of their constituents get coverage in the private market, not from government-run Citizens. That realization would theoretically make it easier for lawmakers to back legislation raising rates at Citizens.

“This is the first time we’ve looked at the data this way and it’s very telling. More than two-thirds of residents in a majority of Senate and House districts don’t have Citizens as their property insurer,” said Associated Industries of Florida president Tom Feeney in a statement.

AIF is pushing for major reforms, many of which will lead to higher insurance rates for property owners covered by Citizens, and potentially for those covered by private insurers as well. AIF says the threat of those "hurricane taxes" is bad for business. Citizens, the largest insurer in the state with 1.3 million policies, covers about 23 percent of the market.

If the company—which is running a record surplus—ever runs out of money after a massive monster hurricane, it might have to levy “assessments” on Florida consumers to make up the shortfall. Federal and state taxpayers may also pick up some of the tab, as has happened in the past after devastating storms.

Property insurance has been a tough political football because of the pocketbook impact it has on homeowners. In places like South Florida, where Citizens dominates the market, the typical family spends about 5 percent of its income on property insurance, much higher than state and national averages.

Those homeowners are very vocal come election time, so Republicans in South Florida and other high-cost coastal regions have been wary of voting for business-backed insurance bills in the past. Democrats have joined those wary Republicans to kill bills that the insurance industry wants and this year the minority party has made keeping insurance costs down part of its platform.

Continue reading "Biz group releases Citizens Insurance map, hoping to get lawmakers to act" »

Federal court rejects Florida's welfare drug-testing appeal

A federal appeals court upheld the temporary ban on Florida’s drug-testing for welfare recipients Tuesday, saying that a lawsuit against the state had a good chance of succeeding.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta sided with a lower court decision, stating that Florida failed to show that the drug testing plan was so critical that the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches by the government, should be suspended.

The decision—which did not weigh in on the ultimate constitutionality question—is the latest development in Gov. Rick Scott's controversial drug testing push. In 2011,Scott and the Florida Legislature instituted a program for drug-testing all recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Luis Lebron, a single-father and TANF applicant who refused to take the test on constitutional grounds, filed a lawsuit with help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

In authoring the court’s opinion, Circuit Judge Rosemary Barkett said that Florida had not proven that its drug-testing program serves a “special” or “immediate” need, or that it even protected children in families with substance abuse.

“There is nothing so special or immediate about the government’s interest in ensuring that TANF recipients are drug free so as to warrant suspension of the Fourth Amendment,” Barkett wrote. “The only known and shared characteristic of the individuals who would be subjected to Florida’s mandatory drug testing program is that they are financially needy families with children.” 

Scott vowed to appeal the decision and take his fight to the Supreme Court.

“The court’s ruling today is disturbing," he said in a statement. "Welfare is 100 percent about helping children. Welfare is taxpayer money to help people looking for jobs who have children. Drug use by anyone with children looking for a job is totally destructive. This is fundamentally about protecting the wellbeing of Florida families. We will protect children and families in our state, and this decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court.”

The court relied on a similar case in Georgia, which struck down the state’s program for requiring all political candidates to take drug tests. That case found that Georgia did not show that there was a drug problem among elected officials, and the law was mostly “symbolic.”

In the rejecting Florida’s appeal to the lower court's preliminary injunction, Barkett took a similar position. 

“The State has presented no evidence that simply because an applicant for TANF benefits is having financial problems, he is also drug addicted or prone to fraudulent and neglectful behavior,” she wrote.

The ACLU's associate legal director Maria Kayanan said the ruling was a vindication for struggling families who apply for government assistance.

"The state of Florida can’t treat an entire segment of our community like suspected criminals simply because they are poor and are trying to get temporary assistance from the government to support their families,” said Kayanan, who was lead counsel on the case.

Florida also passed a law last year requiring drug testing for all state workers, but that issue is also tangled in constitutional challenges and litigation.