March 08, 2017

Bondi, Putnam, Atwater say they didn't seek out gun exemption. Senator says one of them did.

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@ByKristenMClark

Three of Florida’s four highest-ranking elected officials — and potentially the lieutenant governor and the state’s 160 lawmakers, too — could be able to carry guns almost anywhere in the state under a special carve-out in Florida law being considered by the Legislature.

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube, who filed SB 646, said one of the three members of the Florida Cabinet “approached” him about proposing the exemption, which would let the Cabinet members carry concealed anywhere in Florida where federal law doesn’t prohibit guns, so long as they have a concealed-weapons permit.

That means — unlike most of the rest of the state’s 1.7 million concealed-weapons permit-holders — those statewide elected officials could be armed in the state’s 15 “gun-free zones,” such as in public schools, airport passenger terminals, police stations, government meetings, athletic events and bars.

RELATED: "These are gun law changes Florida lawmakers could take up in 2017"

Steube would not say which Cabinet member — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater or Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — wanted the law changed for their benefit. Each of those offices is elected by voters statewide; Gov. Rick Scott oversees Cabinet meetings but is not himself a member of the Cabinet.

“I had a member that approached me, and they don’t have FDLE or trooper security full-time,” Steube told reporters Tuesday, referring to the security provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Highway Patrol.

However, spokespeople for Bondi and Atwater, and Putnam himself explicitly told the Herald/Times that they had not asked for the provision or were involved with Steube’s bill.

Read more here.

Photo credit: From left: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi sit with Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera and Gov. Rick Scott during the opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Tuesday, March 7. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

March 07, 2017

Cabinet members unaware of proposed provision exempting them from 'gun-free zones'

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UPDATE: The bill was postponed. But Steube said after the meeting that one of the three Cabinet members — either Bondi, Atwater or Putnam — asked for the carve-out in state law. He won’t say which, but each told the Herald/Times they had no involvement in the proposal. More here.

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@ByKristenMClark

Among many gun bills Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube has filed for the 2017 session, one proposal being considered for the first time Tuesday calls for letting the three members of the Florida Cabinet carry guns virtually anywhere -- so long as they have a concealed weapons permit and federal law doesn't prohibit guns in that location.

Each of the Cabinet members -- Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam -- said they were unaware until contacted by the Herald/Times this week that Steube had proposed exempting them from the state's "gun-free zones."

But only one Cabinet member -- Atwater -- would say whether they themselves might be affected by the potential law change.

Continue reading "Cabinet members unaware of proposed provision exempting them from 'gun-free zones'" »

February 10, 2017

Florida CFO Jeff Atwater resigning for 'expanded' CFO role at FAU

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@ByKristenMClark @MichaelAuslen @MaryEllenKlas

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater announced Friday he’s resigning from his Cabinet position to return to Palm Beach County and take a job as the CFO of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Atwater, who is from North Palm Beach, will be the university’s vice president of strategic initiatives and CFO — where he’ll “lead strategic initiatives and economic development opportunities for FAU as well as manage the university’s finances and budget.”

FAU’s previous CFO, Dorothy Russell, retired on Jan. 31.

Atwater was elected Florida’s CFO in 2010 and won re-election in 2014. He cannot seek a third term but still had about 23 months left in office.

Atwater’s office said there is no designated date yet for when he will officially resign, but he plans to leave after the 2017 legislative session ends — sometime after May 5.

“I am honored to join FAU in such a significant capacity,” Atwater said in a statement from his state office. “While I would have preferred to embrace this opportunity at a later date, the timing of crucial university initiatives warranted an accelerated transition.”

Atwater added in a statement from FAU: “I cannot think of a better place to begin the next phase of my career.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: AP

November 15, 2016

Atwater rules out another campaign

via @adamsmithtimes

Members of the Florida Council of 100 business group were surprised to hear the other day Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater say he won't run for office again. It's not a shock, given that the two-term CFO and former state senator sought the presidency of Florida Atlantic University in 2014 and at the last minute backed out of a widely expected run for U.S. Senate (we can only ponder whether he would have stepped aside for Marco Rubio). Still, the popular and respected Republican, 58, has always been in the mix of formidable candidates for statewide offices including governor or U.S. Senate.

"Serving my fellow Floridians in elected office has been a true honor," Atwater told The Tampa Bay Times. "Yet there are many ways to serve our state and I look forward to continuing to do my part outside of the role of elective office for many years to come."

--ADAM C. SMITH, Tampa Bay Times

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

@JeremySWallace

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.

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

March 07, 2016

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

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@JeremySWallace

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.