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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.

Trump wants release of JFK docs that could say plenty about Miami

via @glenngarvin

If the federal government makes good on a 25-year-old pledge Thursday and releases 30,000 secret documents about the Kennedy assassination, the results might look a little bit like a 1963 Miami phone book.

The trove of files, mostly from the CIA and FBI, contains thousands of documents on South Florida people and organizations involved in efforts to topple Fidel Castro’s communist Cuban government in the early 1960s, when that was practically Miami’s leading industry.

Under a law enacted in 1992, the documents — supposedly the last batch of classified government files on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy — must be opened to the public no later than Thursday unless President Donald Trump intervenes to block the process.

Trump tweeted last weekend that he would go through with the declassification. But he left himself a bit of wiggle room by adding that his promise was “subject to the receipt of further information.”

That was a reference to fierce lobbying by the CIA and FBI to keep at least some of the documents secret — an effort that is still going on. “[CIA chief] Mike Pompeo is definitely fighting hard to hold them back,” said Roger Stone, a longtime on-and-off Trump political associate.

Stone is also a Kennedy assassination researcher — his 2013 book “The Man Who Killed Kennedy” argued that Vice President Lyndon Johnson was behind the killing — and he said he spoke to the president a week ago, urging that the release take place.

Stone is convinced that it will. But he noted that the last batch of assassination documents to be released was so heavily censored (“redacted,” in CIA-speak) that much of it was useless. “I’m not confident we won’t have that again, that there won’t be a back-door bureaucratic effort to nullify the president’s decision,” he said.

More here.

Photo credit: Center of Latin American Politics

Poll: Floridians might not heed future hurricane evacuation orders

068 Hurricane Irma Gov Scott 091117

Gov. Rick Scott did well handling Hurricane Irma, according to a new statewide poll, but Floridians are not necessarily more likely to heed evacuation orders in future storms.

In the survey, conducted by Jacksonville-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, 35 percent gave Scott a rating of “excellent” rating, 31 percent “good,” 25 percent “fair,” and 4 percent “poor.” Five percent weren’t sure.

Republicans thought most highly of Scott’s hurricane job performance: 89 percent of Republicans rated it “excellent” or “good,” compared to 62 percent of independents and 49 percent of Democrats.

Irma, a massive Category 4 storm when it made landfall in the Florida Keys on Sept. 10, threatened to roll up the spine of the state, forcing widespread local evacuation orders. Nearly 32 percent of Floridians left their homes, Mason-Dixon found, but 43 percent of people under evacuation orders stayed put. Thirteen percent of people evacuated without having to do so.

“Next time round could be a different story, as many Floridians indicate that they will rethink their actions,” the polling firm wrote in a memo summarizing the poll results.

More here.

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff

Scott disaster chief sees 'room for improvement' in storm payouts

Gov. Rick Scott’s interim disaster chief told lawmakers Wednesday he sees “significant room for improvement” in how long it takes to repay cities and counties for recovery costs for past hurricanes.

As Scott visited Chicago on his latest job-poaching mission, his administration’s handling of the post-Irma recovery came under scrutiny in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Wes Maul, 29, took over the Division of Emergency Management on Oct. 1, three weeks after Hurricane Irma made its first of two Category 4 landfalls.

Maul was prepared and escaped unscathed. His debut in the Senate was an exercise in damage control, as senators have fielded many complaints from local officials about the extraordinarily long delays in reimbursement.

“We are updating what I believe to be an inadequate system,” Maul told senators.

For example, Putnam County is waiting for the state to repay it for Hurricane Matthew more than a year ago. County Commission Chairman Larry Harvey said Putnam got its first repayment check Oct. 11, and the county has received a total of $11,000.

Also briefly on the hot seat was Scott transportation chief Mike Dew, who was grilled on DOT’s no-bid emergency contract for debris removal in the Florida Keys that has drawn critical attention.

DOT limited bid proposals to six firms already under contract. Senators glossed lightly over the report by CBS4 in Miami that DOT’s action dramatically raised debris removal costs in Monroe County.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who represents 11 North Florida counties, asked Maul why a spreadsheet showing the status of hundreds of payment requests lists many as “unrequested,” a year later.

Maul said that means the state has not yet received invoices and receipts for actual work completed. He said “discrepancies in supporting documents” is one reason why payment delays occur.

State officials estimate the current recovery costs from Irma at about $650 million, and that all but about $50 million will be reimbursed by the federal government.

Scott’s budget director, Cynthia Kelly, said the state is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on a higher-than-usual federal reimbursement rate that she said will reduce the impact on the state budget over a period of years.

Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, urged senators to increase state aid to county school districts, hospitals and clinics to absorb the influx of Puerto Rican evacuees from Hurricane Maria. Bursting into tears, Torres urged the state to act with urgency “as if it was your family members who were suffering.”

October 24, 2017

The state asks: Is it fair to waive KidCare premiums for families financially stressed from the hurricane?

Beth KidderRep. Bobby Dubose, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, was one of five legislators who wrote to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Agency of Health Care Administration on Friday asking them to waive the monthly KidCare premium for families who are financially stressed from Hurricane Irma.

They argued that because there is an estimated 185,000 low-income kids who get the state-subsidized insurance in 48 counties under the federal disaster declaration, and because more than 9,000 of them dropped out of the program in October because of non-payment -- more than twice the monthly average -- the impact of the hurricane is exacerbating the decline in coverage. 

Democrats want the state to seek a federal waiver to allow Florida taxpayers to cover the $20 in premiums for the months of October and November for the families on state-subsidized insurance in the hurricane-affected counties. The cost to the state is estimated at $240,000. Federal funds would cover the rest, an estimated $6.1 million. 

But their request was met with silence from both the governor and state agency.

So on Tuesday, Dubose put the agency's deputy secretary Beth Kidder on the spot before the full House Committee on Health and Human Services.

"I've been trying to get an answer -- right up until before this committee meeting,'' Dubose asked Kidder, who serves on the Florida Healthy Kids board,which oversees KidCare.

"Will you be voting on this or calling for the vote and basically tell me your position regarding my request?"

Kidder for the first time confirmed that the issue would come before the board at its Thursday meeting -- at the request of AHCA Secretary Justin Senior -- but she would not offer her opinion on whether or not she supports the request.

"I'm a board member. I'll listen to the debate and make my vote accordingly,'' she told Dubose.

If the agency has any interest in pursuing the waiver, they won't say.

For the past month, children's advocates have urged the state-run KidCare health insurance program to seek a waiver, as Texas did after Hurricane Harvey, to help families that lost homes or faced financial losses in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

But rather than seek the waiver, Florida officials have instead offered to extend the deadline for October and November payments until Oct. 31. In the face of the deadline extension, however, more than 4,000 families failed to make their payments in October.

Meeting with reporters after the meeting, Kidder said they will need "additional authority" to pursue the waiver because of the fiscal impact. She said that because "the vast majority of families" have paid their monthly premium, the question is: "would you refund those payments?" 

"Do you then reward people who dragged their heels, didn't do it?'' she asked. "Thousands of families don't pay every month -- regardless of a storm or not. We can't distinguish which one of those who can't or won't pay that month, or drop it and seek other coverage, have other priorities...and those who have a storm impact."

She said one of the questions the Healthy Kids Board will ask is: "Why would you give a freebee to those who did not act responsibly in the beginning?" 

Dubose said Kidder's response is part of a pattern -- a reluctance by state officials to help the state's neediest -- and an assumption that a helping hand for the most vulnerable is perceived as unfair.

"Here's what bothers me about all of this,'' he said. "We're talking about the most vulnerable population, low income folks."

When a storm hits, the average person may have some inconveniences" but when a family on fixed incomes loses power and groceries and has to spend any extra income on preparing or recovering from the storm, they struggle to recover,'' he said. 

"For folks at or below the poverty line, it takes month for them to get stable,'' Dubose said. "We're talking about being fair and equitable, but things aren't necessarily fair within this situation." 

Healthy Kids CEO Rebecca Matthews confirmed late Tuesday that more than 9,000 families dropped out of KidCare programs in the 48 counties in the month of October but "there is no way to know how many Florida KidCare families may have been directly impacted by Hurricane Irma,'' she said.

"New families enroll and others choose to leave the program each month for a variety of reasons (e.g., historical decline in enrollment during last quarter of the calendar year, parents move to employer coverage, move out of state, opt for private coverage, age out of the program, etc.)"

Photo: Florida Agency for Health Care Administration Deputy Secretary Beth Kidder. 



UPDATED U.S. marshals, search no further: Rivera is in Tallahassee


Former U.S. Rep. David Rivera, who for months has been avoiding U.S. marshals trying to serve him with lawsuit papers in Miami, showed up Tuesday in Tallahassee for designation ceremony of Republican Bill Galvano of Bradenton the next state Senate president.

Rivera, a Republican, refused to answer questions from Politico Florida about the civil lawsuit filed against him in July by the Federal Election Commission, which wants $486,000 in penalties for unreported campaign cash Rivera funneled to a ringer 2010 Democratic candidate for Congress.

The FEC sued Rivera in July, Since then, U.S. marshals have attempted to serve him in person on four occasions in Miami but have been unable to find him, either at his Doral residence or at two other locations. That forced FEC attorneys to request and obtain an extension. They now have until Dec. 11 to serve him.

Rivera, a former state representative, chatted with legislators Tuesday inside the Senate chambers, including Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes, who has chosen not to impose a nearly $58,000 Florida Commission on Ethics fine against Rivera over double-billed travel expenses from when Rivera was in state office.

Rivera is running for the Florida House again in 2018.

Politico Florida also has video of chasing down Rivera to try to get him to respond to questions. Rivera indicated in the video he would be in Tallahassee for a couple of days:

UPDATE: Turns out the feds served Rivera with a legal summons on Oct. 18, Politico reported Wednesday, just five days after U.S. District Judge Robert Scola extended the deadline. So Tuesday in Tallahassee, Rivera was lying to reporters and feigning ignorance of a lawsuit he actually knew about.

UPDATE #2: The Oct. 18 filing showed a new court summons had been issued -- but not served -- to Rivera. He wasn't served until Oct. 20.

Photo credit: Mary Ellen Klas, Miami Herald

Republican senators officially designate Bill Galvano as Senate prez, he promises two years focused on innovation

Galvano family
Florida Senate Republicans formally announced their support of Bradenton state Sen. Bill Galvano as their next leader Tuesday, selecting him to be Senate president in November 2018 if they hold the majority in the next elections.

Galvano, 51, a lawyer who grew up in Bradenton as the son of a golf pro, has been on a leadership trajectory since 2002, when he was first elected to the Florida House. He told the Senate chamber, filled with fellow lawmakers, supporters and family members, that his goal for his tenure was to focus on innovation to move the state forward.

He said his father, Phil Galvano, an innovator in the golf world, used to tell him, “Remember to play the hole we’re on,” he said. Today, that means focusing on repairs to infrastructure, roads, waterways and utilities in the wake of Hurricane Irma, he said.

But in the long term, Galvano said his focus will be on “better ways to do things — innovation. Innovation to prepare us to move boldly and strongly into the next century, to stand out as a leader in how we incorporate and how we serve the millions that come to visit us and come to stay with us, including our friends from Puerto Rico.”

He named his political committee “Innovate Florida” and since 2013 has raised $7 million to amass support, pay for his presidency race and reward supporters.

The two-year president’s position is one of the three most powerful positions in state government, in charge of a Republican-controlled chamber that has 24 Republicans to 16 Democrats but has become increasingly divided along ideological issues. He will lead the political campaign to maintain the majority in one of the most active mid-term elections in recent Florida history, with open seats for governor and entire Cabinet being heavily contested.

Galvano thanked his mother, Betty, 82, for leading him to public service. He spoke of his father, the son of Sicilian immigrants, who became one of the nation’s top golf instructors with a list of clients that included celebrities like Johnny Carson and Perry Como. Galvano hosts an annual golf tournament each spring and has raised more than $3 million for Manatee County schools.

When Galvano told his dad he was running for office, Phil Galvano replied: the good thing about that is “you’ll get to find out for sure how many people don’t like you.” Story here. 

Photo: Michael Galvano, Jacqueline Galvano, Julie Galvano, Betty Galvano, Bill Galvano and Michael Galvano pose for a family portrait after Bill Galvano was designated by Republicans to be the next Senate president. 

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

Before and after 7

@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. 

Bill Nelson blasts FEMA response in Florida and Puerto Rico



Sen. Bill Nelson sharply criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday, arguing that the federal government isn't doing enough to get inspectors out to damaged properties and help people who are still displaced. 

in a 15-minute speech on the Senate floor, Nelson said it takes too long for people to reach FEMA by phone, and that the agency is caught up in bureaucracy. 

"People are suffering and people are hurting," Nelson said. "Red tape just should not stop anyone in this country from having a safe place to live."

Nelson also referenced a Miami Herald report detailing that 50,000 people waited in Tropical Park last week for special food stamps handed out to Hurricane Irma victims. 

"People are getting desperate," Nelson said."There were 50,000 people waiting at a center in South Florida and many were turned away after waiting in the heat for hours and hours. And then the next day, it was the same story in another city." 

Nelson's remarks come as the Senate is expected to pass a $36.5 billion hurricane relief package this week. The package was passed by the House two weeks ago and will likely not include $2.5 billion in specific funding for Florida's citrus industry and direct funds to help Puerto Rico, elements that Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio argued must be included into a relief package now. 

The White House has said a third relief bill will likely come sometime in November. This week's relief package must be passed to keep the federal flood insurance program afloat and fund FEMA.

"I hope very much that in November...we’re going to pass a new thing, and it’s going to have this money in there to help them," Rubio said in a speech on Monday. "That would be fantastic. But we all know how this place works, and I just don’t know why we couldn’t do it now." 

Nelson also said it's taking too long for FEMA to get inspectors out to damaged properties in the Florida Keys and Southwest Florida. 

"You call FEMA, you're supposed to get a FEMA representative and you have to wait and wait and wait," Nelson said. "The last time we checked, the expected wait time to get a housing inspector is 45 days. That's too long for families to wait for an inspector." 

As Maria's evacuees seek Florida driver's licenses, there's a catch

TALLAHASSEE -- As tens of thousands of newly-arriving Puerto Ricans slowly rebuild their lives in Florida, one of their first steps is to apply for a Florida driver’s license.

The state is working with county tax collectors to help evacuees work through red tape and apply for licenses, a critical first step to getting a job in the state.

But an Orlando-area lawmaker says the state should be doing even more to help Hurricane Maria’s victims.

Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, wants Gov. Rick Scott to waive the $48 fee for a Florida license.

“They‘re coming from Puerto Rico with no money in their pockets,” Cortes told the Times/Herald. “And we’ve already set a precedent in Florida.”

What Cortes is referring to is the governor’s decision to waive various other fees, such as the Department of Business and Profession Regulation’s charges for more than 50 types of professional licenses -- fees that DBPR Secretary Jonathan Zachem has described as “burdensome.”

The Department of Education is waiving teacher certification fees and higher out-of-state tuition.

Cortes, whose parents relocated from Puerto Rico to New York City when he was a child, says the license fee should be set aside for another reason: If evacuees apply for a state ID card, that’s free under state law because new arrivals are considered homeless. A first-time license costs $48.

“Governor Scott is continuously working to find ways to help Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria and coming to Florida,” Scott‘s office said in a statement. “Our office will continue to release updates on action the state is taking at the direction of Governor Scott to assist these families.”

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has dispatched four mobile units to the Orlando and Miami airports. The FLOW (Florida Licensing on Wheels) vehicles are all staffed with bilingual examiners and are open seven days a week until 7 p.m. Evacuees applying for licenses can also register as voters.

As evacuees arrive at one of three state-run disaster recovery centers in Orlando and Miami, the first thing they see is a large colorful sign that reads: “Governor Rick Scott welcomes you to Florida.”

On Sunday alone, the agency issued 83 licenses and 41 state IDs at the DRC located at Orlando International Airport, and 189 other evacuees had license-related questions.

Under Florida, Puerto Ricans can legally drive in Florida with their original licenses. They can also apply for a temporary 180-day license. But Cortes said a lot of Florida employers want to see a Florida driver’s license from job applicants.