October 31, 2017

Miami Beach commissioner files police complaint against candidate she says exposed himself to her

@joeflech @PatriciaMazzei

Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez has filed a police report against a commission candidate, complaining that he exposed himself to her.

Rosen Gonzalez told the Miami Herald late Tuesday she had gone to police to tell them Rafael Velasquez, a candidate for the Group 2 commission seat in the Beach, flashed his penis while the two were in a car after having dinner Oct. 18

“I want to get a restraining order,” she said, referencing a Facebook post where Velasquez tagged her in a denial and tried to discredit her story. 

Velasquez denied the accusation and said he was considering suing Rosen Gonzalez.

After Rosen Gonzalez made the accusation against Velasquez on Monday, two other women told the Miami Herald that Velasquez had sexually harassed them. A local publicist said he groped her while posing for a picture at a public event and later sent flirtatious text messages. A third woman said he made inappropriate comments to her when the two ran together on a slate of potential Democratic delegates backing Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.

More here.

Photo credit: Matias J. Ocner, Miami Herald staff

Miami Beach candidate accused of sexual harassment loses campaign staff

@PatriciaMazzei @joeflech

After two women accused him of sexual harassment, Miami Beach candidate Rafael Velasquez lost his entire shoestring campaign staff late Monday.

They quit and said they could no longer stand by him, a week before Election Day.

Campaign Chairman Ansh Grover, Field Director Michael Thoeness and Treasurer Gustavo Perez resigned as of 5 p.m. Monday in a joint memo to Velasquez.

“My heart truly hurts,” Grover wrote. “We live in times where our sisters, mothers and families and friends are experiencing abuse at higher levels than ever before — yet fear holds back so many from being able to get justice. We will not stand by as stories continue to come in and victims continue to increase.”

Tuesday morning, Velasquez, a 44-year-old married father of two, offered a muddled apology to his accusers, telling the Miami Herald he was sorry for sending text messages he considered flirtatious. But he maintained he did not flash his penis to a sitting commissioner or grope a local publicist. 

“I want to apologize to anybody I might’ve offended in my communications,” he said. “I never meant to offend anyone. I certainly learned a lesson.”

More here.

Photo credit: Matias J. Ocner, Miami Herald staff

October 30, 2017

UPDATED Miami-Dade Democrats suspend campaign for Beach candidate accused of exposing himself to commissioner

@PatriciaMazzei @joeflech

A second woman accused Miami Beach City Commission candidate Rafael Velasquez on Monday of sexually inappropriate behavior, saying he groped her at an event four months ago and then sent her a text message telling her she “felt good.”

The disclosure, by local publicist Frances Alban, comes after Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, a Beach commissioner and Democratic congressional candidate, accused Velasquez — whose campaign she endorsed — of exposing himself to her in her car two weeks ago.

After Rosen Gonzalez’s accusation, the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, which backed Velasquez in next week’s nonpartisan race, told the Miami Herald it would suspend its digital ads and mailed fliers campaigning for Velasquez. After Alban came forward, Party Chairman Juan Cuba said Velasquez should end his candidacy.

“If these allegations are true, it would be appropriate for him to withdraw,” Cuba told the Herald.

Alban said she and Velasquez, whom she’s known for about seven years, both attended a June 8 meeting at the North Beach Youth Center. As they posed for a photograph, Alban said, Velasquez grabbed her butt. 

“My immediate reaction was it must have been an accident,” said Alban, who is smiling in the photo.

Alban left early and texted Velasquez later to ask if she’d missed anything, according to text messages she shared with the Herald. He said no — and asked if they could meet “one-on-one.”

“You looked sexy tonight,” Velasquez wrote, inserting a purple devil emoji.

“Why, thank you!” Alban responded.

“Very feminine... and waiting for your photographer to shoot ...you felt good too.”

More here.

This story has been updated.

Photo credit: Matias J. Ocner, Miami Herald staff

October 25, 2017

Miami Beach commissioner pleads to criminal charge. But he swears he didn’t do it.

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@joeflech and @NickNehamas

Michael Grieco ended his tumultuous term as a Miami Beach commissioner Tuesday, submitting his resignation by email shortly before pleading no contest to a criminal violation of Florida’s campaign-finance laws.

But Grieco, a popular commissioner who ran a competitive campaign for mayor before coming under state investigation, is still refusing to take responsibility for the scandal that ended his political career — and hinted he might eventually seek a return to public office.

Read more.

October 24, 2017

Replacing Miami’s beach sands costs millions. Here’s how Congress could make it cheaper

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@alextdaugherty @joeflech

Miami is out of sand.

Last year, Miami-Dade County depleted its offshore sand reserves, meaning miles of beaches that shrink from erosion must be replenished with sand from outside South Florida.

Rebuilding Miami’s beaches after Hurricane Irma will cost millions of dollars, and sand will have to be brought in by hundreds of trucks from a sand mine near Lake Okeechobee due to a longstanding federal law that prohibits local governments from importing foreign sand.

County officials say that sand from the Bahamas can be easily transported to Miami by barge, and importing foreign sand could save taxpayers millions. A bill dubbed the Sand Act that would overturn the restrictions on sand is being sponsored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach and is cosponsored by every member of Congress from South Florida.

“It’s such an archaic provision in the law, it’s many, many years old,” Frankel said.

But Frankel’s bill, which allows foreign sand and dredging companies to compete with American firms for sand replenishment contracts, faces opposition from the domestic dredging and sand-mining industries.

“There’s resistance from the trucking and drudging industries because they make money; obviously they are saying they will lose money if there’s legislation,” Frankel said.

Frankel said that no other member of Congress has personally voiced opposition to the proposal, but “a lot of things go on behind the scenes.” One of the largest domestic dredging companies that frequently wins contracts in Florida, Illinois-based Great Lakes Dredge and Lock, is opposed to the proposal and has spent $165,000 in 2017 lobbying Congress on dredging-related issues, according to Senate lobbying records.

A representative for Great Lakes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Sand Act was introduced at the beginning of this year’s hurricane season, before Irma washed away about 170,000 cubic yards of sand from Miami-Dade’s beaches. The amount of sand washed away, about the equivalent of 12,000 truckloads, was less than expected but will still cost millions to replace.

“We’re very lucky with regards to response for Hurricane Irma, it wasn’t catastrophic for us,” said Paul Voight, co-beach program manager for Miami-Dade County.

Currently, contracts for beach renewal projects in South Florida are awarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Dredging and sand companies bid, and the Corps awards the contract. The most recent contract awarded in Miami-Dade County was $8.6 million to truck in 140,000 cubic yards of sand to replenish a stretch of Sunny Isles Beach. The federal government is covering 63 percent of the cost, with the remainder split between Miami Dade-County and the state of Florida.

But Miami-Dade officials argue that the only option left under current law is trucking in sand, because the county’s offshore sand reserve is gone. Other coastal counties in Florida have ample offshore sand reserves that could be dredged, but their governments don’t want to share with Miami.

“We’ve depleted all of our offshore sources of cheap sand,” Voight said. “The problem is the domestic dredging industry is lobbying strongly against it.”

Read more here. 

October 13, 2017

Prosecutors questioned Miami lawmaker in criminal investigation over her residency

@DavidOvalle305 @PatriciaMazzei

Miami-Dade County prosecutors recently questioned state Rep. Daisy Baez, D-Coral Gables, as part of a criminal investigation into her legal residency, a source close to the case confirmed Friday to the Miami Herald.

The investigation has taken a back seat to proceedings under way at the Republican-controlled Florida House, where a special bipartisan committee found probable cause earlier this week to move forward with an inquiry that could result in Baez's possible expulsion from the chamber.

Baez's meeting with prosecutors was first reported by Politico. The investigations into her residency began after the Herald questioned in May whether Baez lived in her House district, as required by the Florida Constitution. Baez and her attorneys -- Mark Herron in Tallahassee and Ben Kuehne in Miami -- have said she has complied with the requirement that she, as a legislator, be "an elector and resident of the district from which elected." 

But the House panel found Tuesday that Baez likely violated the residency law by living in her Coral Gables home in District 112 -- even after having gotten elected last November to represent neighboring District 114.

In  May, Baez told the Herald she kept her home -- the one listed on her driver's license and where she had a homestead exemption -- but also rented an apartment in District 114. But the apartment's owners also lived there, and maintained a homestead exemption. After the Herald report, Baez obtained a lease for a second apartment in District 114, House investigators found.

Kuehne told Politico the House -- and not Democratic State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle -- has jurisdiction over Baez's residency.

"The fact that the state House has initiated action is certainly a good indication that the state House is the one that should be handling this matter," he said. "This should not be anything that any governmental agency other than the legislative body looks into."

In June, a spokesman for the state attorney's office declined to comment to the Herald on whether they'd opened an investigation into Baez, based on whether she had unlawfully maintained her homestead exemption. At the time, it appeared Baez's 2016 exemption was proper, and she still had time to file or make changes to her 2017 exemption.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

October 10, 2017

Taddeo joins Florida Senate as first Hispanic Democratic woman elected to chamber

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Beginning her service in Tallahassee this week as Florida’s newest state senator, Miami Democrat Annette Taddeo said she aims to be “a voice of inclusion, a voice of opportunity for all.”

“Just bringing the voice of the people,” Taddeo said at the state Capitol Tuesday morning after she was officially sworn in as District 40’s next senator. “It was not just a hashtag when we said it was ‘a people-powered campaign’ — it was truly born from the community and I’m very proud of that.”

Taddeo won a special election on Sept. 26 to replace disgraced former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican who resigned in April. Her upset win over former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, helped the Democrats secure an additional seat in the Senate, narrowing the Republican majority to 24-16.

In joining the Senate, the Colombian-born Taddeo also became the first Hispanic Democratic woman elected to the chamber.

“It’s a humbling experience; I’m very excited and honored to be given this responsibility,” she said. “I’m ready.”

Full story here.


Photo credit: State Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, center, is sworn in to office by Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince on Oct. 10, 2017. She was joined at her swearing-in ceremony by her 11-year-old daughter Sofia Taddeo-Goldstein, her husband Eric Goldstein and her mother Elizabeth Taddeo. [Florida Senate]

October 05, 2017

Emily's List formally backs Curbelo challenger


Emily's List, which promotes the candidacies of progressive women in politics, is formally getting behind Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell's bid against Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

The group announced its endorsement Thursday for the 2018 race in Florida's swing 26th district, which extends from Westchester to Key West.

It did not come as a surprise: Mucarsel-Powell met with Emily's List leaders in Washington before launching her candidacy in August. The group's early backing signals that Democrats probably don't expect another significant female candidate to get in the race.

"Too much is on the line to stay home next November, like protecting women's health care and passing permanent DACA legislation," Emily's List President Stephanie Schriock said in a statement, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program phased out by President Donald Trump. "Debbie is just the type of fighter Florida's working families deserve representing their interests in Washington."

Schriock called Curbelo an "extreme Republican who supports Donald Trump's dangerous agenda." Curbelo, it should be noted, has broken with Trump on a number of issues -- and filed legislation to protected DACA beneficiaries.

October 03, 2017

Miami Beach mayor and potential gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine is a father


Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine's fiancee Caro Murciano has given birth to their son Henry Joel Levine. 

Levine, a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2018, shared the news on his social media profiles Tuesday morning. The mayor has told the Miami Herald he expects to make a decision on a run for governor in November.


September 29, 2017

Fresen sentenced to 60 days in jail, probation in tax case

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Former Miami state Rep. Erik Fresen will serve 60 days in jail and a year of probation for failing to file a 2011 tax return on more than $270,000 in income, a federal judge sentenced Friday.

He will begin his jail term on Nov. 17 and serve 15 days in jail per month for four months — an intermittent sentence intended to keep him earning some income to pay back his tax penalties.

“I want him to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas in jail so that every holiday for the rest of his life he’ll think back to that,” U.S. District Judge Robert Scola said.

Fresen’s mother, wife and three sisters, seated two rows behind him in court, cried.

Fresen faced up to a year in prison. Prosecutors asked for a sentence of six months in jail and six months of house arrest, while Fresen’s defense attorneys requested only probation.

Scola said he couldn’t be as lenient as the defense requested because Fresen didn’t properly report his income to the Internal Revenue Service from 2007-16 — a nine-year period that included his eight years as a Republican lawmaker the Florida House.

More here.

Photo credit: C.M. Guerrero, el Nuevo Herald