April 23, 2013

Jay Odom gets 6-month sentence for illegal campaign contributions

PENSACOLA (AP) -- Panhandle developer Jay Odom was sentenced to six months in federal prison after pleading guilty to a charge of making illegal contributions in the 2008 presidential primary.

A federal judge sentenced Odom, who owns Destin Jet, on Tuesday morning. He faced up to five years in prison. Federal investigators alleged that he illegally funneled $23,000 to the campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Odom circumvented federal finance laws by repaying 10 associates who each gave a maximum $2,300 donation to Huckabee.

April 19, 2013

Judge upholds ban on 2012 PIP law, rejecting Scott's appeal

A Leon County judge has again blocked part of the landmark auto insurance overhaul enacted last year by the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.

Judge Terry Lewis upheld a temporary ban on the law, after a lawsuit by chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists. Lewis approved the ban last month, indicating that the overhaul of Florida’s Personal Injury Protection laws was unconstitutional.

Gov. Rick Scott appealed the decision, in effect putting the ban on hold and leaving the law intact. But the plaintiffs asked a judge to uphold the ban, saying that allowing the law to remain in place would put many out of business.

Lewis said he agreed to “vacate the stay,” not because of the harm that would be done to the plaintiffs, but because of potential harm to those injured in car accidents.

“The reason for issuing the injunction was to protect this constitutional right and prevent the potential harm to citizens injured in automobile accidents who, under the PIP statute, may not receive necessary care,” he wrote.

Scott's office said it would again challenge the decision, and attempt to keep the law in place.

The 2012 PIP overhaul targeted chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists, restricting their ability to provide covered treatment for people injured in auto accidents. The bill also limited covered medical care to $2,500 if the injured person does not have “an emergency medical condition.” The typical policy limits under Florida’s no-fault law are $10,000. The law was aimed at cracking down on fraud within the PIP system.

Lewis found those changes likely violate the part of the Constitution that provides for access to courts. The case remains pending.

The PIP overhaul was a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott in 2012, and is another example of a law the governor pushed, only to see a judge rule it unconstitutional months later. The Legislature floated the idea of doing away with PIP this year after Lewis’ ruling, but ultimately decided to allow the court battle to play out.

The chiropractors had a better outcome in state court than they did in federal court, where a judge denied the plea for an injunction in December.

Scott's office said the state has filed a lawsuit to challenge Lewis' decision. 

"The solicitor general filed a challenge to the circuit court's decision to lift the stay," said a spokesperson for the governor.

Scott indicated in a statement last month that he would fight to keep the PIP changes in place.

“Our reforms are working to lower insurance costs for Florida families and we will continue to fight special interest groups to keep them in place,” he said.

April 17, 2013

After gun bill falters in Congress, Fla. Legislature sends 'Hands off our guns' memorial to Obama

Though gun control efforts in the U.S. Senate appear to stall Wednesday, the Florida Legislature is sending a message to Washington just in case: Hands off our guns.

In a 81-36 vote, the Legislature passed House Memorial 545, which warns federal officials not to infringe on the rights of gun owners.

"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms...disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes,”  said bill sponsor Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, quoting a 19th century essay by Cesare Beccaria. “Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants.”

When a Democratic lawmaker pointed out that the Manchin-Toomey compromise on expanded background checks failed in the U.S. Senate, some lawmakers burst into applause in the chamber. Combee’s bill was co-sponsored by 57 other House members.

Combee said he still wanted the letter to be sent to Washington just in case the federal government considers gun control in the future.

One Representative shouted out “Let liberty ring!” before making the sound of loading a gun and asking his colleagues to support the bill. It passed in a lopsided vote that broke down mostly along party lines.

Democrats did not speak much on the bill (the agenda for the day was quite long and the House had been debating for six hours by the time the memorial was heard).

One Democrat did get a gun bill passed shortly after the memorial vote.

A bill to require expanded gun restrictions for some mentally ill people passed the House 117-1. It was sponsored by Rep. Barbara Watson (D-Miami Gardens) and supported by the National Rifle Association. It was a small victory for gun control advocates, who have filed several gun bills this year with little success in the Legislature.    

Dolphins bill appears stalled in Fla. House; Still moving in Senate

The Miami Dolphins’ push for new legislation to approve a tax-supported stadium upgrade appears to be is stalling in the Florida House, where the powerful budget chairman has no plans to hear the bill this week. 

Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, made it clear that the bill would not be heard this week, and there are currently no committee meetings scheduled for next week. 

“On Friday, I’m hearing the [healthcare] bill,” he said. “Don’t plan to hear the Dolphins bill.”

His comments came on Wednesday after the Appropriations Committee met. The Dolphins bill, which was last heard two weeks ago, was not on Wednesday’s agenda. 

Though session in winding down, the bill is certainly not dead.

The Senate plans to hear a different version of the bill on Thursday, and could be the team’s saving grace. If the Senate approves the bill and sends it to the House, it could pass without clearing all of its assigned committees in the House.

McKeel did not say specifically who was lobbying him on the bill or why he wasn’t putting the bill up for a vote.

“I get lobbied about a lot of things,” he said.

Continue reading "Dolphins bill appears stalled in Fla. House; Still moving in Senate" »

April 15, 2013

The rise and fall of GOP money man and HMO founder, Akshay Desai

From the Tampa Bay Times:

In August, Universal Health Care Group was crumbling. Regulators circled. Bankruptcy loomed.

Still, founder and CEO Akshay Desai didn't publicly hint at any problems.

"As a businessman, I know all too well what it takes to make it in the private sector," he bragged at the time.

It was vintage Desai — supremely confident, selective with the facts. The 55-year-old son of Indian educators built Universal on smarts and ambition. He was charming when he needed to be, domineering when he wanted. One day he was persuading investors to part with tens of millions of dollars, the next he was berating employees to tears.

He rose high into the Republican fundraising ranks, dining with President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch. Eventually he realized his dream: a $1.5 billion health care company, with more than 140,000 members in 23 states.

But his success was largely an illusion. Story here.

April 11, 2013

Senate passes bill to tighten oversight of assisted living facilities

The Senate passed a bill on Thursday that aims to tighten oversight of Florida's nearly 3,000 assisted living facilities passed  by a 38-0 vote. "It's a work that we've all put a lot of effort on,'' said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, sponsor of  HB 646.
  The bill was  prompted by a 2011 Miami Herald investigation that revealed years of abuse, neglect and even death of ALF residents, said Sobel, D-Hollywood.
 "Legislation failed in the 2012 session," Sobel said during the bill's second reading Wednesday. "We have a more targeted approach this year. We are attempting to better enforce existing regulations. I know this bill significantly improves the lives of over 80,000 residents in ALFs in Florida."

Continue reading "Senate passes bill to tighten oversight of assisted living facilities" »

April 10, 2013

Shhh... Soaring insurance rates the unspoken theme in fast-moving Senate bill

Rate increases have been the unspoken undercurrent of a property insurance bill cruising through the Florida Senate.

As lawmakers have cast their votes on the quickly-moving and complex bill, few have discussed exactly how much rates would increase under the proposal. With little discussion of the bill’s rate impact, it has sailed through committee and could be debated on the floor on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Citizens President Barry Gilway gave the first glimpse of the actual rate impact and pointed out that it could be substantial. 

“There are 11 territories that would see a rate increase of over 60 percent,” he said

Here are some of the rate increases that will hit new Citizens customers next year if the bill passes in its current form. 

Part of Volusia County: 86.8 percent
Part of Lee County: 62 percent
Part of Broward County: 65.6 percent
Part of Hernando County: 73.3 percent
Part of Monroe County: 137.8 percent
Part of Palm Beach County: 60.1 percent

Other territories in Miami-Dade County and parts of Tampa Bay could also see annual insurance premiums increase by thousands of dollars. Sinkhole rates in places like Hernando County could nearly triple. 

Those numbers have been non-existent in the debate over SB 1770, which is reaching a floor vote after bipartisan support in three Senate committees. Some of the lawmakers voting for the bill represent districts where rate increases would hit hardest. Rates would go up mostly for new customers, but that includes people who get dropped by their insurance companies and forced into Citizens, and people who get dropped by Citizens and need to rejoin.

Continue reading "Shhh... Soaring insurance rates the unspoken theme in fast-moving Senate bill " »

April 03, 2013

Pain-clinic owner made illegal contributions to top FL senators, Miami reps.

via @DavidOvalle305

Politically active Hialeah pain clinic owner Mark Cereceda pleaded guilty Wednesday after investigators found he made his employees contribute illegal donations to political campaigns across the state.

Cereceda and brother Kemel Cereceda will have to pay over $100,000 in fines, plus another $40,00 each to two charities, according to the plea deal. The men will have to serve three years of probation, including 60 days house arrest — after serving three days in jail.

Also, the men cannot make any political contributions during their probation.

Prosecutors believe the chiropractor Cereceda — who has actively lobbied lawmakers to keep Florida’s personal injury protection law intact —got his employees to illegally contribute more than $25,000 between 2010 and 2012.

Charges also were brought against Mark Cereceda’s clinic, Florida Wellness & Rehabilitation Center, which specializes in treating traffic accident victims and benefits from business generated by the PIP law.

Cereceda pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of making a campaign contribution in the name of another. His brother pleaded guilty to a felony count of making an excessive contribution in the name of another.

Both received a “withhold of adjudication,” which means no conviction will appear on their criminal histories.

The donations included ones Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, state Sen. Joe Negron and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa. Others included Carlos Trujillo, Katie Edwards and Eddy Gonzalez — all candidates for state representative.

Investigators do not believe any of the candidates knew of the illegal contributions.

More here

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/04/03/3320943/hialeah-pain-clinic-owner-pleads.html#.UVxDY1mErcg.twitter#storylink=cpy

April 01, 2013

Brevard Clerk files lawsuit against company brought to Fla. with economic incentives

A company that was hailed by Enterprise Florida and Gov. Rick Scott when it decided to move to Florida last year has wasted no time getting into legal trouble. 

The company, BlueWare Inc., is being sued by the Brevard County Clerk of Court after a $8.6 million contract has gone sour. 

The company is supposed to digitize millions of pages of records for the clerk’s office under a five-year, $8.6 million contract. But recently elected Clerk of Court Scott Ellis slammed the contract as corrupt and filed a lawsuit last week to recoup millions of dollars. 

“The entire bidding, selection and negotiation process regarding the (Invitation to Negotiate) was fundamentally flawed and against public policy because BlueGEM was intricately involved in the preparation of the ITN itself and essentially drafted the same,” the lawsuit reads. 

Ellis put it more plainly in a recent interview: “It was a sham bid.” 

Ellis blames his predecessor, who lost a 2012 primary race for reelection, for entering into the poorly written contract and paying BlueWare millions of dollars upfront before the work could be done. 

Ellis said BlueWare’s vice president was a former business partner with the clerk. 

Indeed, a flag-raising 2012 internal memo from the clerk’s legal counsel stated: “There may be a civilian insider who will gain a benefit from the awarding of this contract.” 

According to the lawsuit, two other companies submitted bids for the digitization contract and would have charged less. BlueWare executives were allowed to participate in the selection process and the company was ultimately selected, the lawsuit states. 

Executives at BlueWare could not be immediately reached for comment. 

The company received incentives awards from the state worth $1.3 million, including a $560,000 cash grant for start-up costs.

Continue reading "Brevard Clerk files lawsuit against company brought to Fla. with economic incentives" »

March 27, 2013

Digital Domain CEO hits back at damning IG report, blames Scott-Crist politics

Digital Domain debacle, take two.

The former CEO of Digital Domain is hitting back with an alternative script after an Inspector General report slammed the process that helped the now-defunct Port St. Lucie film studio get $20 million in taxpayer grants. 

John Textor said the claim by Gov. Rick Scott and Enterprise Florida that the Digital Domain deal was some kind of widely discredited proposal that had been blacklisted by Enterprise Florida, only to be slipped into the budget later by aggressive lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist—is complete fiction.

In fact, Textor said, Enterprise Florida actually recommended that Florida taxpayers chip in about $11.4 million to help Digital Domain bring jobs to the state.

An email Textor provided to the Herald/Times shows that an Enterprise Florida representative wrote Textor on March 18, 2009, saying that the organization would “present to [the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development] relative to a one-time award of $6.1 million” and other awards for a “total potential FL economic incentive package” of $11.4 million. The email, not included in the IG report, said Digital Domain would be required to create 300 jobs. 

EFI never went through with a recommendation to OTTED (which is required for  economic incentives grants to be awarded), but Textor has a very different explanation for why that did not happen.

According to Enterprise Florida’s account, the organization refused to support funding because Digital Domain’s finances were “extremely weak” and its business model was suspect.  Textor has a different story, and questions Enterprise Florida’s credibility by pointing out that the organization believed Digital Domain’s business plan was strong enough to receive an $11.4 million incentives package. 

Textor believes that he and others are being thrown under the bus as a way for Gov. Rick Scott to attack the Crist administration, which was in charge when Digital Domain received funding by getting special language tacked onto the state's budget.

Continue reading "Digital Domain CEO hits back at damning IG report, blames Scott-Crist politics" »