January 15, 2015

Is Kevin McCarty Scott's next target? Atwater, Bondi & Putnam say they haven't discussed it

Kevin McCartyBy Jeff Harrington and Mary Ellen Klas

Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty has survived sitting on one of the hottest seats in state government for more than a decade. 

Since becoming the state’s first appointed insurance commissioner in January 2003, he’s endured a string of governors and Cabinets. He’s sidestepped controversy over soaring property insurance rates, a rash of insurer insolvencies, the ever-changing mission of state-run Citizens Property Insurance and how the state’s health insurance model should integrate Obamacare.

But there’s growing signs that Gov. Rick Scott may want his tenure to come to a close, just as he sought to end the career of FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

Sources inside and outside the insurance office acknowledge McCarty is under pressure to resign, after 26 years in state government. 

As head of the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, McCarty is responsible for setting rates and regulating insurance companies throughout the state.

McCarty could not be reached Thursday. His office said he was traveling to a National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ gathering to assign committee posts and would not be available for comment.

Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz would not respond to questions about McCarty but insisted we print her statement indicating she was not dismissing it either.

"Government too often gets stuck in a rut and doesn’t like to change,'' Schutz said in a statement to ther Herald/Times. "But, just like in business – it is good to get fresh ideas and new leadership, especially as we move into a second term.  Executive office positions are not lifetime appointments and for the same reason there are term limits in elected office – it is important to search for the best and newest ideas whenever possible.  In regards to OIR, we have no announcements at this time.”

She did not respond to requests for an explanation of whether they thought the state's insurance regulation was "stuck in a rut."

McCarty's deputy chief of staff Monte Stevens said he could not address reports that the insurance commissioner may be stepping down.

“Commissioner McCarty is focused on doing his job,” Stevens said. “He has spent this week speaking to hundreds of corporate executives and investors, encouraging them to bring their capital to Florida.  He has also met with Legislative leaders to discuss what may be on the horizon during the 2015 session.”

Removing or replacing McCarty will take a majority of the three-member Cabinet, or a vote of the governor plus one other member. That didn't happen this week, when Scott unilaterally asked former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey to resign or be fired.

After Scott admitted to forcing Bailey out, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he had been misled by the governor’s office, which had falsely told him that Bailey had agreed to step down. 

He and other Cabinet officials told the Herald/Times they have not discussed McCarty's fate, and now appear to be more careful in handling the governor's manuevers.

"Transparency and measured deliberation about the changes of those in leadership positions is important,'' said Ashley Carr, spokeswoman for Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. She said Atwater had "absolutely not" been consulted by anyone about a reported "deal" to replace McCarty.

Attorney General Pam Bondi has "absolutely not" been contacted about replacing McCarty, said her spokesman Whitney Ray. 

Erin Gillespie, press secretary to Putnam said he also "has had no discussions regarding Kevin McCarty in the second term.” 

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National Republicans name Florida state senator 'rising star'

@PatriciaMazzei

The Republican National Committee on Thursday added four politicians to its program highlighting women and minority candidates, and one of them is from Miami.

State Sen. Anitere Flores, a Cuban-American, was named an RNC "rising star" -- a designation that gives her some national exposure and suggests the GOP would seriously consider her for a potential run for higher office. Her name has often surfaced for Miami-Dade County Commission or Congress.

Flores and the other three Republicans tapped for the program -- New Mexico state Rep. Conrad James; Hadley Heath Manning, director of health policy at the Independent Women's Forum, and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes -- formed a panel at the RNC's winter meeting in San Diego, according to a news release from the party.  

"These four individuals are a fantastic addition to our Rising Stars program," GOP Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. "I am thrilled to work with Anitere, Conrad, Hadley, and Sean and I look forward to hearing their unique perspectives as they continue to do great things for the Republican Party."

AFP Florida rolls out legislative agenda

Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group affiliated with the Koch brothers, is pursuing an aggressive agenda in Tallahassee this year.

Among its top priorities: eliminating the corporate income tax, as well as any business-specific tax subsidies and exemptions.

"We want to make taxes fair and we want to end political favoritism," Florida State Director Chris Hudson said Thursday.

Hudson said AFP would also be promoting accountability and transparency.

"It is a healthy practice and something we will strive to make sure is on their plates moving forward," he said.

The group's other priorities include expanding school choice and eliminating "burdensome regulations and licensing laws at the state and local level."

Hudson is the son of state Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples.

Scott admin didn't save records from former employees, but tells court it's not gov's fault

Gov. Rick Scott has sent a warning to his former employees: you’re on your own when it comes to defending yourself in court over lost public records.

In a response to a lawsuit filed in circuit court in Tallahassee accusing the governor of intentionally hiding public documents, the governor’s legal counsel argued that the governor’s office has done its part to turn over the records sought in the lawsuit and, if there are more records to turn over, it’s not their fault.

The argument was made as part of a response to an amended complaint filed by Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews, accusing the governor of failing to turn over text message and emails about public business conducted on private email accounts of more than 40 former employees.

Andrews is asking the court to order the governor’s office to produce records, which he wants as part of a lawsuit relating to a property dispute, and is asking the court to order the governor to use a forensic technician to retrieve documents that may have been improperly deleted.

It is a bit of a catch-22 for the departed staffers of the governor, ranging from his former deputy chiefs of staff to his office interns. Many of them were instructed by Scott’s former chiefs of staff to use private accounts and cell phones to conduct public business via text message and email.

Under state law, and governor’s office Code of Personal Responsibility, they were required to turn over those records when they left the governor’s office and forwarded to the records custodian to be archived.

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Putnam sends mixed-signals on Bailey exit

@mikevansickler

Now that the exit of Gerald Bailey from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has caused a media firestorm, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam is suddenly concerned that he wasn’t properly informed.

He told the Times/Herald on Wednesday that Gov. Rick Scott’s office mishandled the ouster of Bailey and that law enforcement officials around the state knew first hand of his “frustration.”

In Wednesday’s interview with Times/Herald capital bureau chief Steve Bousquet, Putnam suggested that his office was misled by Scott’s office about the true intentions with the FDLE shakeup.

“We were given a heads-up on a staff level that there was an interest in making changes going into the second term, including at FDLE,” Putnam told Bousquet on Wednesday. “Period. That’s all that was conveyed to me.

"The manner in which it was handled was not known to me and not at all how it should have been handled."

All fine and good, but where was Putnam’s concern when he was asked about it after Tuesday’s cabinet meeting?

After voting for Bailey’s replacement, Putnam was asked straight-up if he had been told about Bailey’s resignation or that he had been forced out.

Putnam didn’t show any surprise or concern, and instead avoided responding to the question.

Check it out on video.

On Tuesday, the Times/Herald even asked Putnam's spokeswoman, Erin Gillespie, for clarification about where Putnam stood on the issue of Bailey leaving, but never heard back. 

Which Putnam should we believe? The one who on Tuesday would rather change the subject or not bother to respond to the media? Or the one on Wednesday who said Scott’s office didn’t handle it appropriately?

Perhaps Putnam, who is constantly rumored to be a lock for the state's next governor, could help us out on this puzzle.

“If Adam Putnam believes he was misled he should call for a reconvening of the Cabinet to discuss and vote on Bailey’s termination,” CFO Alex Sink told the Times/Herald in an e-mail. “He can then put in the record whether he supported Bailey or not!”

UPDATE: Coincidence? HNTB Corp. gets DOT contract two days after hiring Prasad

@mikevansickler

(UPDATE: FDOT spokesman Dick Kane said late Thursday that Prasad "had no role in this procurement." He said the contract was was awarded after two internal committees reviewed the bids for the job, which was advertised on Aug. 11. He said the selection of HNTB was not Thursday, as announced by the firm, but on Oct. 13, when Prasad was still FDOT secretary. But Kane said Prasad had no oversight of the committees and didn't steer the contract to his future employer in any way while he was secretary. "Again, he had no role in it," Kane said. HNTB for the next three years will provide consulting to the FDOT about how the state can prepare for autonomous vehicles, or driverless cars.) 

Timing really is everything.

Just two days after the engineering firm HNTB Corp. announced it had hired former Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad, the DOT's central office selected HNTB for a three-year contract. 

What optics.

HNTB announced on Tuesday that Prasad was to "develop and direct strategies that enhance HNTB’s service to state departments of transportation across the country," including Florida. It picked the right guy, considering that Prasad resigned from the FDOT in December after serving as secretary since 2010.

Before getting hired by the FDOT, Prasad had been vice president of HNTB. And before working for HNTB as its vice president, Prasad had served as assistant secretary for engineering and operations for, yes, the FDOT.

For those keeping score at home, Prasad's resume reads: FDOT ==> HNTB ==> FDOT ==> HNTB. Two days after he rejoins HNTB, FDOT hires HNTB for big new contract.

Here's how HNTB announced its good fortune:

Florida Department of Transportation’s Central Office selects 
HNTB Corporation for automated vehicle support

Infrastructure firm will assist Florida as the state establishes itself as an industry leader

 

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Jan. 15, 2015) – The Central Office of the Florida Department of Transportation has selected HNTB Corporation for a three-year automated vehicle support contract.

“Florida is one of a handful of states leading the way toward a future where cars talk with one another, the roadway and eventually drive themselves,” said Mike Inabinet, HNTB Southeast Division president. “Connected and automated vehicles will inform drivers and transportation users, making travel safer and more efficient. HNTB is proud to support the Sunshine State as it moves forward with national and international partners and explores how the car of the future will work and be deployed, developing curriculum to nurture local talent, as well as attracting new businesses and innovators to Florida.”

HNTB will support FDOT by working directly with auto manufacturers, related original equipment manufacturers and suppliers on pilot projects, working with universities on automated vehicle research projects, and developing policy to move forward with application testing.

“Big changes on are the horizon for the driving public and those of us in the transportation industry,” said Jim Barbaresso, HNTB national practice leader for intelligent transportation systems (ITS). “With automated and connected vehicles being integrated into the marketplace over the next decade, it is foreseeable that available roadway capacity can be greatly increased without adding another inch of pavement.”

“And, because automated and connected vehicles have faster reaction times and are not prone to distracted or impaired driving, there could be a tremendous decrease in vehicle crashes, injuries and fatalities as well,” he added. “Florida is setting the bar for other states across the nation.”

HNTB’s ITS work in Florida also includes consulting with the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority as it plans fulfilling its role as an affiliate test bed for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Connected Vehicle Test Bed program, in this case along the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

The firm is a recognized leader in the ITS industry, with extensive experience developing transportation, toll and emergency operations centers; traffic management systems; and conducting the latest infrastructure and connected vehicle research. Since 2005, HNTB has been involved in a growing number of projects related to the national Connected Vehicle initiative, including designing and building one of the first live test beds with the Michigan Department of Transportation.

HNTB Corporation is an employee-owned infrastructure solutions firm serving public and private owners and construction contractors. Now celebrating a century of service in the U.S. and 60 years in Florida, HNTB continues to grow in size and service offerings to clients from 13 regular office locations, currently employing approximately 380 full-time professionals in the state. HNTB understands the life cycle of infrastructure and addresses clients’ most complex technical, financial and operational challenges. Professionals nationwide deliver a full range of infrastructure-related services, including award-winning planning, design, program management and construction management. For more information, visit www.hntb.com.

Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes' attorney says she won't run

Should Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes retire her attorney says she won’t run for the seat.

Snipes, 71, told the Herald on Monday that hasn’t decided whether she will seek re-election in 2016 and has no timeline to make up her mind.

Rumors have been swirling about who will run if Snipes does retire, but some of those individuals have said the rumors are wrong including Snipes’ attorney Burnadette Norris-Weeks.

“No ma’am, I’m not running,” Norris-Weeks told the Herald today. “You can stop calling me about that -- I’m never running. I’ve said it a thousand different ways. I have no intentions of running.”

Political consultant David Brown told the Herald he might run (www.browardbeat.com reported that previously). Brown lost a race for supervisor in 2000 when Miriam Oliphant won. Click here to read about the responses from other rumored contenders including state Sen. Eleanor Sobel.

 

Marco Rubio calls eased restrictions 'windfall' for Cuba

@PatriciaMazzei

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio swiftly hammered the Obama administration's announcement Thursday that travel and trade restrictions toward Cuba will be loosened beginning Friday:

"This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against U.S. national interests in Latin America and beyond. Given existing U.S. laws about our Cuba policy, this slew of regulations leave at least one major question President Obama and his administration have failed to answer so far: what legal authority does he have to enrich the Castro regime in these ways?   

“Yesterday I requested answers from Secretary Lew on how this new Cuba policy would be implemented without violating the letter and spirit of several U.S. laws, and without increasing the moral and financial risk to the American taxpayer and financial system of doing business through Cuba’s government-controlled financial system. While those questions remain unanswered, one thing that’s become even more crystal clear today is that this one-sided deal is enriching a tyrant and his regime at the expense of U.S. national interests and the Cuban people."

Scott to recommend $100 million for charter-school construction

Gov. Rick Scott wants to give charter schools $100 million for construction and maintenance.

He will make the announcement Thursday while visiting Sports Leadership and Management Academy charter school in Miami. The school is run by the for-profit management company Academica, and counts the rapper Pitbull among its founders.

The current state budget includes $75 million for charter-school construction.

Charter schools receive public funding, but are run by private governing boards.

Earlier in the week, Scott said he would like to see lawmakers increase the statewide K-12 education budget from $18.9 billion to $19.75 billion. His recommendation includes $7,716 per student, a record high not accounting for inflation.

He is expected to release the rest of his budget proposal later this month.

Looser Cuba travel, trade restrictions to take effect Friday

@lesleyclark

New rules that will make it easier to travel to Cuba - and bring back Cuban cigars - will go into effect Friday, less than a month after President Barack Obama announced plans to restore long-severed diplomatic ties with the communist-led island.

The new Treasury and Commerce Department regulations -- to be published Friday in the Federal Register -- include making it easier to travel to Cuba and raising the limits on how much money can be sent to Cuba.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the changes a “significant step forward” in carrying out Obama’s new policy.

“These changes will immediately enable the American people to provide more resources to empower the Cuban population to become less dependent upon the state-driven economy, and help facilitate our growing relationship with the Cuban people,” Earnest said in a statement.

The new regulations are here and here.

The changes will mean that travelers who meet certain categories will no longer need to apply for a license to travel to Cuba. The categories include family visits, official U.S. or foreign governments, journalistic, professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; private foundations or research or educational institutes; export, import, or transmission of information.

More here.