September 20, 2016

Will the governor and Cabinet hold FDLE accountable for investigating inmate deaths?

Prison deathsSix years after 27-year-old prison inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo died at Franklin Correctional Institution  after being gassed by corrections officers, an investigation has still not been complete and witnesses to the incident, who allege he was tortured and beaten by corrections officers, have still not been interviewed, according to a 33-page federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday.

On Tuesday, the head of the agency charged with investigating the state's role in the death, Rick Swearingen, faces his six-month performance review before the governor and Cabinet today. The governor and Cabinet jointly are responsible for oversight of FDLE.

On Monday, the Herald/Times asked if the governor and Cabinet believed FDLE was sufficiently following up  on the abuse-related deaths at the Department of Corrections, as the agency had told legislators it would do. For the past three years, the Miami Herald has chronicled or revealed details about many of the deaths.

The question was not about the pending investigation but how the governor and members of the Cabinet is holding FDLE accountable regarding its performance about an inmate death nearly six years ago and other deaths the agency is charged with reviewing. 

Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater responded. No one chose to answer the question, or explain why they didn't want to answer it. We did not receive a response from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Here is what we asked:

"We are writing today about a federal lawsuit being filed in connection with the death of inmate Randall Jordan Aparo in 2010. We understand the investigation was re-opened by FDLE, however, many of the witnesses in the case and others have not been interviewed, according to the lawsuit. 

"As you prepare the performance review of FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen on Tuesday, could the governor provide us with an answer to this question:

"Have you have been assured that Commissioner Swearingen and his staff are sufficiently following up on the abuse-related deaths at the Department of Corrections? If you are confident these investigations are underway, please explain how you reached that conclusion."

Here's how the governor's office answered the question at 9:47 p.m.

"Commissioner Swearingen has done a great job in his leadership role at FDLE. We look forward to his performance review tomorrow,'' said Lauren Schenone, the governor's press secretary. "Florida is now at a 45-year crime low because of the hard work of Florida’s law enforcement officers, and Commissioner Swearingen has dedicated his career to making sure Florida is the safest state in the nation.”

Here is how the office of CFO Atwater responded: "Our office has not had specific conversations about inmate investigations," said Ashley Carr, spokeswoman for Atwater.

Here is how Bondi's office responded: "It would not be appropriate to comment on a pending investigation,'' said Kylie Mason, Bondi press secretary. "Furthermore, any discussion relating to FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen's performance review must be addressed in the open at the public Cabinet meeting."

August 15, 2016

Four people control who is disenfranchised in Florida; three say it's time for reform

Restrictions on felons voting is one of the two ways Florida legally disenfranchises voters.

One way, the write-in law, which allows a write-in candidate to close a primary to all voters, is intended to undercut the constitutional provision that allows all voters to vote in a primary election.

The other is the law that permanently requires felons who have completed their sentences to apply and petition for their voting rights to be restored. But unlike the write-in laws, which the Florida Legislature can revise to make less restrictive, the laws regulating ex-felons voting is controlled by the governor and Cabinet and the state Constitution. Any change in the rules requires the governor to be on the prevailing side.

In interviews with the Herald/Times, everyone but Gov. Rick Scott said they are open to changes in the system they installed five years ago.

“If someone does an analysis, we have been granting civil rights to those who were waiting who would have automatically had their rights restored [under the previous system] and it’s probably time for us to revisit,” said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

“Having had some time and experience on the Clemency Board, I’ve come to believe that there are opportunities for improvement,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said she was open to some reforms before an application may begin.

"I wouldn't mind reevaluating the time frame of how long we wait,'' she said. "I would reconsider reevaluating the time frame to three years." But she does not support automatic restoration for non-violent felons.

“Serving your time meant that you lost your rights,” she said. “If you’re going to have your rights restored, I want you to ask for them.”

Scott, however, said through a spokesperson he does not support any changes. 

Florida leads the nation in the number of felons who have served their time who are disenfranchised with an estimated 1.5 million Floridians barred from voting. According to the Sentencing Project, Florida holds nearly one-fourth of all disenfranchised former felons in the nation. Read more on that here. 

The practice is a vestige of post Civil War white supremacy and now disenfranchises more whites than blacks. There once was a time when more blacks were registered to vote in Florida than whites. Our story on the history of disenfranchising black voters here.

May 27, 2016

Having foregone Senate run, Jeff Atwater wants Marco Rubio to run again

via @adamsmithtimes

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, a Republican who may well have cleared the field of any primary challenger had he run for U.S. Senate, has met with every leading Republican running and says he admires all of them. That said, he really wants Marco Rubio to  "pull aside some quiet time and contemplate" running for another term.

"He is the best person to serve in the United States Senate, and he would be the best candidate to prevail," said Atwater.

Rubio has said he intends to return to the private sector, but he is under heavy pressure to run for reelection from Republicans worried about losing the seat.

The CFO has known Rubio for 16 years, served with him in the Florida House, and said Rubio was "absolutely genuine" when he announced he would not seek another term so he could give all he had to the presidential campaign. In that same genuine spirit, Atwater said, Rubio should consider the many conservative leaders urging him to run. The talk that Rubio did not like serving in the senate doesn't ring true, Atwater said.

"Number one, I believe he is the man who would be the most effective senator.. And two I deeply wish us to maintain this  seat, and I believe there is no better candidate  to ensure that than Marco Rubio," Atwater told Buzz Friday morning. "No one would see it as anything other than Marco being genuine from the start. He would be answering our call."

--ADAM C. SMITH, Tampa Bay Times

April 26, 2016

Here's why Florida's CFO won't accept Jeffrey Bragg as the new state insurance commissioner


After the Florida Cabinet again deadlocked over who to make the new insurance commissioner, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said he is just not certain that the man Gov. Rick Scott is committed to for the job has the right background for the post.

Moments after Scott and Atwater, both Republicans, declared another impasse in picking a commissioner, Atwater told reporters that he doesn't know if Pinellas County resident Jeffrey Bragg has the required private sector experience or regulatory experience to even legally hold the position of Florida Insurance Commissioner.

"I don't know the answer to that," Atwater told reporters.

Bragg, a 67-year-old Republican who lives in Palm Harbor, ran the nation's terrorism risk insurance program from 2003 until his retirement in 2014. In the early 1980s, he worked under the Reagan Administration, serving in the Federal Emergency Management Agency where he was the administrator for the national flood insurance program. 

Between those appointments, Bragg worked in the private sector, including as a senior vice president for Zurich Risk Management from 2001 to 2003 and as executive vice president for IMSG in St. Petersburg from 1997 to 2000.

During a public interview with Bragg on Tuesday during the cabinet meeting, Atwater said he tried to probe him about his regulatory background to get answers as to whether Bragg really is qualified to regulate Florida's insurance market. 

"He wasn't regulating players offering products in the private sector market place or who the complied with his programs," Atwater said.

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March 07, 2016

Life insurance companies would have to do more to find beneficiaries under bill that passes Florida House



Life insurance companies will have to do more to track down beneficiaries of the deceased under a bill that passed the Florida House on Monday and goes back to the Florida Senate for final approval.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has made the issue a top priority this year because he said there is a systemic practice within the life insurance industry in which many companies are sitting on billions of dollars in overdue, unpaid life insurance benefits. He said some companies are doing little to track down families whose loved ones paid their premiums for years.

"For years insurance companies had no trouble sending their agents to their house for the weekly payment," Atwater said during a Senate Banking and Insurance committee meeting on the topic in January. "They knew exactly where they lived for 20 years. But now that it may be time to pay up, it’s a horrified hardship to find that individual."

Atwater said some insurance companies have made it so the only way beneficiaries can collect is if they can locate the policy paperwork, of which they may not be aware, and present a death certificate to the company.

Under Senate Bill 966 insurers would be required to search the Social Security Administration's Death Master File for all of their policyholders retroactively to 1992 and every year going forward. If a beneficiary cannot be found, the insurance company must turn the policy over to the State of Florida’s Unclaimed Property Program, currently overseen by Atwater, where the state will continue to look for rightful beneficiaries.

The House passed the bill on a 109-0 vote. It now goes back to the Florida Senate. If the bill is approved there it would go to Gov. Rick Scott for his approval.

February 04, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Legislative committees continue meeting in Tallahassee, while the state's top officials go to the fair. Here's what we're watching:

* They won't have an official cabinet meeting, but Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi will still be at the Florida State Fair in Tampa to help kick off the festivities. The governor will host a luncheon there at noon.

* At 9 a.m., the House Judiciary Committee will again take up the proposed "Pastor Protection Act," which allows clergy to turn away gay couples seeking to marry. The committee's vote was postponed last week.

* The House State Affairs Committee could vote to send to the House floor a proposal that changes the legal language of Florida's absentee voting to "vote-by-mail." That panel also meets at 9 a.m.

* The Senate Transportation Committee, also gathering at 9 a.m., will give a first hearing to a bill by Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, and Anitere Flores of Miami, which aims to outlaw the use of red-light camera devices in Florida.

* A bill dealing with cremation fees that counties charge is set for its final committee hearing in the House. The Regulatory Affairs Committee meets at 1 p.m.

September 30, 2015

Florida CFO Jeff Atwater reconsidering U.S. Senate race


Almost six months after Jeff Atwater unequivocally declared he would not be a candidate for the U.S. Senate, the state’s elected chief financial officer is once again considering jumping into the contest saying there is still a possibility he will run in 2016.

Atwater said friends and people he has deep respect for have been constantly asking him if he might be a candidate, despite his April declaration he would not run.

“Yea, I would say there is still a possibility of that,” Atwater, a Republican from Palm Beach County, said in an interview with the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau.

The GOP field for the U.S. Senate is crowded, but mostly with candidates who have never run for statewide office before. The field already includes U.S. Reps David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, and Ron Desantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, as well as Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox. U.S. Reps. Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson are the leading candidates running for the Democratic nomination. 

Early polls have shown voters unfamiliar with any of the GOP candidates running. While Atwater is far from a household name, he has run two statewide campaigns in 2010 and last year’s 2014 re-election.

Atwater was thought to be a front runner if he got in the race because of his elective experience. Prior to being chief financial officer he was a member of the Florida Legislature, where he rose to become Senate President in 2008. But Atwater stunned GOP insiders in April when he told the Times/Herald he would not run for the U.S. Senate.

"While I have certainly taken these words of support under consideration, I will not be a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016," Atwater later posted on Facebook.

But it was a different answer this week asked about running for the seat.

“We won’t rule that out,” Atwater said.

The U.S. Senate seat open in 2016 is currently held by Marco Rubio, who is not seeking re-election so he can run for president.

July 22, 2015

Does Greece have three times as many government workers as Florida as Jeff Atwater says?

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater capitalized on news about the floundering Greek economy to point out a new report that said the Florida economy was doing just fine.

In an "open letter to the people of Florida," Atwater said the Sunshine State had been ranked fifth in fiscal solvency by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. He then contrasted Florida’s success with the beleaguered European nation.

"A country in economic peril, Greece’s priorities have historically been very different from Florida’s," Atwater wrote on July 13, 2015. "For example, Greeks depend much more on their government for employment and services. Although we have twice the population of Greece, the State of Florida employs three times fewer government employees."

PunditFact previously confirmed that Greece’s economic output is comparable to Miami, but could that 3-to-1 comparison of public-sector workers be accurate? Yes, if you’re looking at Florida’s direct employees, but experts we talked to said Atwater’s comparison is deeply flawed.

Read more from Joshua Gillin at PolitiFact Florida.

July 17, 2015

State CFO Atwater still politically active even if next political move unclear


Jeff Atwater cannot run for re-election as the state’s Chief Financial Officer because of term limits.

And he declared earlier this year that he will not run for the U.S. Senate in 2016 as once was expected.

But you wouldn’t know either by recent activity in a fundraising committee the Republican runs or his political travel schedule last month.

Last week, the Atwater's committee, Government That Works For You, paid a West Palm Beach political consultant $15,000 – his largest single expense since he created the committee in August 2014. He also used the fund to pay $5,000 each to consultants based in Jacksonville and Tallahassee in May.

He also raised another $20,000 for the account in June. All told, he’s now raised $145,100 for the campaign account and has only spent $32,527 of that as of his July 9 payment to the West Palm Beach political consulting firm, Public Concepts.

And Atwater has been a regular on the Republican speakers circuit, acting as the keynote speaker at two Republican Party Lincoln Day dinners in June (Leon County and Brevard County), and giving a speech at another in Miami-Dade.

The activity in June and July comes even though Atwater has not offered any new hints about whether he’s considering running for another office when his term as chief financial officer ends in 2018. He could not be reached for further comment on Friday.

July 15, 2015

Adam Putnam fundraising numbers add to 2018 governor race speculation


Florida Agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam has ramped up his fundraising activities, amassing nearly $2 million for a political committee he controls just since March.

Putnam, frequently mentioned as a likely candidate for governor in 2018, reported raising more than $460,000 just in June alone. He now has raised $1.8 million total for a political action committee called Florida Grown.

His biggest donors since March have included Jupiter beer distributor J.J. Taylor Companies, Manatee County insurance company FCCI and Little River Plantation Holdings, a company with ties to Mike Fernandez, a major GOP fundraiser in Florida. Each gave Florida Grown $100,000 each since April. Another $100,000 combined came on the last day in May from U.S. Sugar Corporation and South Central Florida Express Inc, a rail line owned by U.S. Sugar.

Putnam’s largest contribution came from another political action committee he previously ran called the Sunshine State Leadership Project. That fund transferred nearly $400,000 to Putnam’s new committee on April 30.

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