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March 09, 2017

Unanimous jury requirement for death cases passes Florida Senate

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@MichaelAuslen

The Florida Senate unanimously passed legislation requiring juries to vote unanimously on death sentences Thursday, paving the way for the House to do the same

After the Florida Supreme Court ruled the state's death sentencing laws unconstitutional last fall, the Legislature was tasked with passing the fix (SB 280). Legislative leaders made it a priority, lining it up for passage in the first week of the legislative session to allow prosecutors to pursue new death cases.

"I strongly believe if we're going to give someone the ultimate penalty ... that we need to require a unanimous jury," Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, said. "I just believe that it speaks to who we are as Floridians that if we're gonna send someone to death that they should have a fair trial and I believe unanimity speaks to that."

Current law requires murderers be convicted on a unanimous vote but that a sentence of death only requires 10-2 vote of the jury. That was passed last year after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the death sentencing scheme in the case Hurst vs. Florida. Prior to that, juries gave a recommendation of a death sentence on a simple majority vote and a judge had the final say in sentencing.

The Senate's 37-0 vote Thursday came with two words of caution from Democrats: Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, warned lawmakers could soon have to address other problems with the death penalty. Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said the state should stop the death penalty altogether. 

The House prepared its death penalty legislation Thursday for a final vote, which could come later in the afternoon or Friday morning.

(Photo: Florida Department of Corrections.)

Mental health 'crisis' demands more state money, lawmakers urge

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@MichaelAuslen

Despite pending cuts to the state budget, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday called on the Legislature to dramatically increase spending on mental health and substance abuse treatment in Florida.

The state ranks at or near the very bottom in the country in terms of mental health spending. And after passing a sweeping set of changes to the state's mental health system in 2016, lawmakers say the only thing standing in the way of significant improvement in treatment is funding.

"We're on our way, but the missing piece is the funding," state Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, said. "The governor's right that we have to increase the funding, but it's not enough. It's not enough."

Scott has proposed a $25 million increase to the annually recurring base budget for mental health and substance abuse. His budget proposal cuts the total spending by about $5 million, however, largely in one-time equipment and building expenses built into last year's budget.

Peters and others called for even more money.

But the Legislature is under tough pressure to cut spending across the board to cope with a projected revenue shortfall, a desire to do tax cuts and other prioritites of the legislative leadership.

"At the end of the day we're 49th (in spending nationally)," said Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah. "It means we've neglected this for too long."

A lack of funding generally means families cannot find help for their loved ones when they realize they need help.

That's what happened to Rick and Kathleen Marquis of St. Augustine, whose adult son is diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Marquis family has had to care for their son because hospitals are unable to take him when he has a psychotic break. 

"The terrifying question we and other families like us fear is: Who will be there for our children when we have passed on?" Rick Marquis said.

Peters says there are savings to be found down the road if the state addresses the mental health crisis head-on. Because more people with mental illness and substance abuse disorders are in the state prisons than in hospitals, there are ways to cut back criminal justice spending, as well as emergency mental health spending by focusing instead on treatment and prevention.

"It's past time, and if we we'd just address this, the return on investment in every other system would come," Peters said. "We did it for heart disease, we did it for cancer. We know prevention works, but we are not talking about prevention. ... We're not even encouraging prevention."

Photo: Flanked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, Candy Crawford, president of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, calls for more state funding to address a mental health and substance abuse crisis. (Michael Auslen | Times/Herald)

Former state Rep. Dwayne Taylor indicted for embezzling campaign funds

State_Representative_Dwayne_TaylorFormer state Rep. Dwayne Taylor, a Daytona Beach Democrat, was indicted Thursday by federal prosecutors for falsely claiming thousands of dollars in campaign expenditures in order to conceal cash withdrawals and checks written to himself in violation of state law.  Download Taylor Indictment

Taylor, 49, was charged with 9 counts of wire fraud. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison for each count, according to a statement released by U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley, III, of the the U.S. Attorney in the Third District.

According to the grand jury indictment unsealed Thursday, Taylor appointed himself his campaign treasurer on 2012 and 2014, withdrew $2,440 in his petty cash fund in 8 different instances between June 2012 and August 2016 and one check valued at $400. He then deposited the funds into his personal bank account.

The indictment claims that Taylor also wrote checks to himself and write on the memo line that the funds were for petty cash. He fraudulently obtained $62,834 in campaign funds, exceeding the state law that allows for $100 a week in petty cash expenses that must include only office supplies, transportation and other necessities, the indictment claims. 

Taylor served on the Daytona Beach City Commission from 2003 to 2008 and served in the Florida House from 2008 to 2016, when he sought election to the U.S. House to represent the 6th Congressional District. He was defeated in the primary. 

State law prevents a candidate his or her spouse from using campaign funds to defray normal living expenses for the candidate or the candidate’s family, other than expenses actually incurred for transportation, meals, and lodging during travel in the course of the campaign.


This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It will be prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Embry J. Kidd and Roger B. Handberg, according to the statement. 

Sugar loads up Adam Putnam’s political committee

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@JeremySWallace

U.S. Sugar Corporation officials are leaving little doubt that they support Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican most expect to run for governor in 2018.

U.S. Sugar and a railroad the company runs called South Central Florida Express, Inc. sent $200,000 in donations in late February to a political committee that Putnam runs called Florida Grown. U.S. Sugar has now given Florida Grown $465,000 since 2015, making it among the top 5 givers to Putnam’s committee.

His top donor is The Voice of Florida Business, a political action committee run by Associated Industries of Florida. They have given $605,000. That doesn’t count $525,000 that AIF has given Putnam’s committee through another committee called Associated Industries of Florida PAC. Yet another committee with ties to AIF called Floridians for a Stronger Democracy gave $150,000 to Putnam’s committee since 2015. Each of those AIF PACs get lots of support from the sugar industries. Since the start of 2016 those three PACs have raised a total of $4.2 million. But nearly $1.3 million of that comes from donations by U.S. Sugar, based in Clewiston, and Florida Crystals, a sugar producer based in Palm Beach County.

Since the start of February, Florida Grown has raised over $2 million, and since it was created in early 2015 it has raised over $9 million. Putnam has not announced if he is running for governor yet in 2018, when Gov. Rick Scott will not be able to seek re-election.

Here are the top donors to Putnam’s Florida Grown PC:

$605,000 - The Voice of Florida Business

$587,060 - Florida Power & Light

$550,000 - Florida Jobs PAC, a committee run by the Florida Chamber of Commerce

$525,000 - Associated Industries of Florida PAC $465,000 - U.S. Sugar Corporation and South Central Florida Express Inc.

$385,647 - Disney World Wide Services and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts

$200,000 - Florida Chamber of Commerce

$160,000 - Publix

$160,000 - Florida Retail Federation PAC

$150,746 - Florida Phosphate Political Committee

(Source Florida Division of Elections)

Meanwhile On Wednesday, Putnam delivered a speech at the Florida Capitol Complex stressing the importance of farming in Florida and reminding people about the challenges the industry has faced in the last year with crop killing diseases and pests.

Check out what Putnam had to say here:

 

Bill Nelson remains undecided on Neil Gorsuch

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via @learyreports

Sen. Bill Nelson met with Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch for an hour on Tuesday but remains undecided on whether he can support him.

“The two discussed several topics and Nelson expressed his concerns about the suppression of voting rights and the amount of undisclosed, unlimited money in campaigns,” spokesman Ryan Brown said in an email.

“Afterward, Nelson said he will continue to review his record before making a decision.”

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Photo credit: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg

GOP health care plan 'work in progress,' Gov. Scott says

Florida Governor Jobs
via @learyreports

WASHINGTON - Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday called the Obamacare replacement bill "a work in progress," stopping short of a full endorsement of legislation that has drawn the scorn of conservatives.

"As I've talked to people up here, I've let them know Florida has got to be treated fairly and I'm very interested in making sure that when the dollars come to the state  ... we have more flexibility to run a Medicaid programs and also we're not treated unfairly as compared to the states that expanded," Scott told reporters.

He's on his second day in Washington, a regular destination of late for the likely 2018 U.S. Senate candidate eager to show he's a player on national issues. Scott met Thursday morning with Sen. Marco Rubio and had meetings scheduled with Republican Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Francis Rooney and Vern Buchanan.

Asked about criticism from some conservatives that the health care bill is being rushed, Scott said: "I'm not familiar with the process. I'm excited we are having a conversation."

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Photo credit: Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

Florida man claims he was shaken down for $1.15 million. Now he wants a refund.

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@joeflech & @nicknehamas

Beneath the hulking foundations of the Oceana Bal Harbour — a 28-story, $1.3 billion condo tower in one of South Florida’s wealthiest towns — a toxic fight festers between two of Bal Harbour’s most prominent figures over a $1.15 million check.

Extortionist! Liar! Puppet master! Bully!

Insults and now a lawsuit are flying between Doug Rudolph and Joseph Imbesi, once friends and neighbors who teamed up to sell the storied but decrepit Bal Harbour Club to an Argentine condo developer for $220 million in 2012. The spacious, beachfront property was a gem, but the pair made for bad bedfellows.

Could public schools state capital funding disappear if reform plan succeeds?

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@ByKristenMClark

A complicated and controversial measure to change how Florida’s 4,300 public schools get taxpayer money for construction and maintenance projects is limping through the Florida Senate, advancing even as lawmakers agree it needs a lot more work before it might become law.

Senators behind the measure (SB 376) envision the final bill would have two main elements: It would require school districts to share local tax dollars with charter schools — and it would give school boards the freedom to raise local tax rates back to pre-recession levels, so that they could collect more revenue to address the backlog of maintenance needs in traditional public schools.

Senate education leaders say the first part is not possible without the second, but efforts to restore the school districts’ tax-rate cap might not have the votes to pass because it could be construed as a tax increase.

While that debate lingers, it’s not the only issue now. The ideal bill some senators want could also carry another consequence that Republican Senate leaders revealed this week but that lawmakers have not yet discussed in public committee hearings.

Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the chamber’s Pre-K-12 education budget committee, told reporters if SB 376 is implemented with both crucial parts, “there won’t be a need” for the state to provide its current share of capital outlay funding — an annual moving target that has dwindled over the years but nonetheless still accounted for $150 million this year for charter and traditional public schools.

More here.

Photo credit: Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, talks with reporters in Tallahassee during a media availability on the opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Tuesday, March 7. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

White House marks 10th anniversary of Robert Levinson's disappearance in Iran

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@PatriciaMazzei

The White House on Thursday marked the 10-year anniversary of the disappearance of Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent from Coral Springs who went missing from Kish Island, Iran, while working on an unauthorized mission for the CIA.

In a statement, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said President Trump's administration "remains unwavering in our commitment to locate Mr. Levinson and bring him home."

"We want him back, and we will spare no effort to achieve that goal," said Spicer, who repeated his statement from the briefing room podium Thursday afternoon.

He asked for any tips to be directed to the FBI.

In a tweet Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio also noted the decade since Levinson's disappearance. 

And U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson remembered Levinson in remarks on the Senate floor. Nelson, Rubio and U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami also filed a resolution calling on Iran to assist in finding Levinson.

"Since Bob's detention, American officials have sought Iran's cooperation in locating and returning Bob to his family," Nelson said. "And, of course, Iranian officials have promised over and over their assistance, but after ten long years, those promises have amounted to nothing. Bob still is not home."

This post has been updated.

Photo credit: Levinson family via Associated Press

Tampa's Buckhorn won't run for Florida governor in 2018

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via @Danielson_Times

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has decided not to run for governor next year, opting instead to finish his second and last term at City Hall in 2019.

Buckhorn, 58, is giving two reasons for his decision. First, he doesn’t want to miss important family moments with his daughters Grace, 15, and Colleen, 11, to pursue an “all-consuming” 18-month campaign.

“The state of Florida needs a course correction and a new direction,” he said in a statement emailed to supporters and posted on social media at 5 a.m. Thursday. But “the timing for me and my family would be a challenge.”

Also, he said he loves the job he has, and has work to complete in the 24 months that remain before he is term-limited out of the mayor’s office.

“Finishing Tampa’s next chapter is more important than starting mine,” he said. “Absent extenuating circumstances, I intend to finish the job I was hired to do and prepare Tampa for the great things that are about to occur.”

Even with Buckhorn out of the race, the Democratic primary is drawing a crowd: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who announced last week, plus expected or potential candidacies of former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Orlando area personal injury lawyer John Morgan, Winter Park businessman Chris King and Palm Beach businessman Jeff Greene.

See full story here.

Buckhorn's statement:

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