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February 08, 2017

To thwart fear of retaliation, Legislature looks to shield murder witnesses

Stafford_witnessbill 0208@ByKristenMClark

Someone — a child, a mother, a brother — is killed. Witnesses are too afraid to speak up. A murderer goes free.

In many of Florida’s vulnerable neighborhoods, talking to police could be a life-or-death decision for those who witness violent crime. Their reluctance to cooperate makes it difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors to seek justice.

State lawmakers want to change that culture by affording murder witnesses protection and shielding their identities in public records for two years after the crime.

“Let’s stop this no-snitch mentality,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, a Miami Democrat who’s sponsoring HB 111 this year. “Someone knows what happened but no one is coming forward because they’re afraid. Witness intimidation, retaliation — all of these are issues and concerns that people have about helping law enforcement help us.”

More here.

Photo credit: State Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, speaks before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee about her "witness protection" bill. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to speak to Broward Democrats



New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will keynote the Broward Democratic Party's annual fundraising dinner.

The event, which the Broward Democrats recently renamed the "Obama-Roosevelt Dinner," is March 4 at the Hyatt Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale.

“Mayor De Blasio has distinguished himself as a voice of the people. His message of inclusion and acceptance of all Americans is what we need as a nation of diversity in these troubling times. America is the melting pot of the world, and nowhere is that more true than in Broward County and New York City. Mayor De Blasio is a rising leader in the Democratic Party, and it will be a great honor to welcome him to beautiful Broward,” said Cynthia Busch, chair of the Broward Democratic Party.

Broward has about 600,000 registered Democrats -- the highest number in Florida.

Check out de Blasio's Truth-O-Meter record from PolitiFact New York including a claim he made about Trump and sanctuary cities.



Uber bill easily clears first hurdle in Legislature


17093487__1__17199009_8colWith just one "no" vote in its first committee, legislation that would stop local governments from regulating companies like Uber and Lyft appears to be a on a fast track to passage by the Florida House.

The bill (HB 221) by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, sets insurance and background check requirements for ridesharing companies that use smartphone apps to connect users with drivers. More significantly, it tells local governments they cannot set their own conflicting regulations.

A House transportation subcommittee passed it on a 14-1 vote Wednesday. Just one more committee -- the Government Accountability Committee -- will weigh in before the full chamber takes a vote. A similar bill in the Senate (SB 340) by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has not yet had its first hearing, though it is expected to in the coming weeks.

Uber and Lyft are the subject of years of debate in the state Capitol. Though the House passed legislation similar to HB 221 last year, the state Senate stood in the way. But new Senate President Joe Negron appears more supportive of the legislation.

Sprowls said his legislation will provide uniformity in regulation statewide, ending situations where neighboring communities have different laws on the books. Hillsborough County, for example, has long taken a harder line on Uber and Lyft than Pinellas County, putting drivers under different sets of rules whenever they cross the Howard Frankland Bridge.

The lone dissenter Wednesday was Miami Gardens Democrat Rep. Barbara Watson, who said she worries about high prices during peak times -- she called it "price gouging" -- and accessibility for disabled riders.

Photo: Associated Press

Rick Scott's top priorities under seige today in Legislature



Undeterred by an unusual tonguelashing from Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Legislature today continued a two front war on his biggest priorities: job creation programs and tourism marketing.

State Sen Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, kicked off the action by holding a hearing that outlined how taxpayers are shouldering more of the load in funding the state's business recruitment agency, Enterprise Florida, despite claims that the private sector is a partner. While taxpayers spent $25 million to fund Enterprise Florida, the private sector put up just $4.8 million. That's less than 20 percent of Enterprise Florida’s funding coming from the private sector.

But Brandes’ committee was just a tame sample of what was expected to be a much harsher critique of Enterprise Florida later. The Florida House later today is expected to take up a bill that would eliminate Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida completely.

Scott has been fuming about the Legislature’s opposition to a pair of agencies he says are key to Florida’s economic turnaround since 2010. On Tuesday Scott held a 15 minute venting session with reporters that questioned the Legislature's motives and warned that they were on the cusp of greatly damaging the state's economic momentum.

“Why in gods green earth would anybody think we should go back to that,” Scott said of 2010 when the state’s unemployment rate was in double digits.

Scott proposed a budget last week that calls for $85 million for Enterprise Florida to give tax incentives to companies to relocate and grow in Florida. He's also called for continuing record funding - $76 million - for Visit Florida.

The assault on those programs has provoked a response from both supporters and opponents of both agencies. More than 50 local economic development groups from around the state were planning to pack hearing rooms in Tallahassee to stress the key role incentives play in small and medium sized companies relocating to Florida.

The Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce is among those who issued a “call to action” to its members to pressure the House to back off their efforts to gut both agencies.

But on the flip side, the Americans for Prosperity of Florida was also planning to pack the room in support of ending government incentives to businesses of all sorts.

House Republicans (and some in the Senate) have criticized both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida. House Speaker Richard Corcoran said both programs are forms of “corporate welfare” because they divert tax dollars to private businesses.

“There won't be any incentives in the budget,” Corcoran said last week.

Both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida have faced major upheavals over the last 12 months. Both agencies have pushed out their highly paid CEOs and have been warned by Scott to clean up their finances and their overall transparency. 

Enterprise Florida was faulted by auditors for overspending on office space, management and travel expenses plus for lacking proper financial controls. Visit Florida meanwhile has come under fire for some spending more than $5 millions to advertise the state on a race car, with a British soccer team and in a music video with pop star Pitbull.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz staffer under investigation, report says

A staffer for U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, is under a criminal investigation for equipment and data theft, according to Politico.

Imran Awan has worked for various members of the House of Representatives since 2004. Multiple relatives of Awan who have also worked for House members are also part of the investigation. Efforts to reach Awan were unsuccessful.

A spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, David Damron, didn't respond to questions about Awan but sent a statement to the Miami Herald:

"At this time we are continuing to gather information from House officials, and will determine the best approach to move forward once we have received a thorough review. We are consulting House counsel to ensure that due process is afforded to her employees before any action is taken.”

A spokeswoman for U.S. Capital Police, Eva Malecki, sent a statement to the Miami Herald: "At the request of Members of Congress, the United States Capitol Police are investigating the actions of House IT support staff. No Members are being investigated. No arrests have been made. We have no further comment on the ongoing investigation at this time."

Read the Politico report here.

Who'll pay for Japanese prime minister's visit to Mar-a-Lago?

  Japan Trump Inauguration
via @anitakumar01

WASHINGTON -- The visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Trump-family-owned Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, this weekend is fraught with ethical problems.

Will U.S. taxpayers pay for Abe? Will Abe stay for free? Will Abe pay Trump, who will give the money to the U.S. Treasury?

“I’m hoping the White House will clarify the arrangement, but every financial scenario I can think of compromises the office and presents a significant conflict of interest that every other modern president has taken pains to prevent,” said John Wonderlich, executive editor of the Sunlight Foundation, which pushes for government openness.

The White House referred questions about who is paying to the State Department, which referred questions to the Japanese government. Several Japanese officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The lack of transparency about the arrangements is also troubling,” said Norman Eisen, who served as a White House ethics lawyer under President Barack Obama. “Most fundamentally, this demonstrates that Mr. Trump’s unresolved business conflicts are going to hang over almost everything he does. . . . This news provides one more reason that Mr. Trump should’ve made a clean break with his businesses instead of hanging on to his ownership interests.”

More here.

Photo credit: Koji Sasahara, AP

Gov. Scott: Confirm Gorsuch to Supreme Court

From a letter to the Miami Herald editor sent by Florida Gov. Rick Scott:

In business, people come together, certainly with their own objectives in mind, to make a deal. The goal is to arrive at a win-win where everyone leaves happy. Politics, on the other hand, too often is a game to make the other side lose at any cost.

We should demand better. The men and women who were elected to represent their districts and states have a duty to actually represent them. Working to obstruct progress at any price is why people hate politics and a large part of why voters elected President Trump to make major changes.

He has made some great appointments, and one of the greatest is his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. I believe this appointment follows my own standard for appointing judges here in Florida: Choose someone who wants to interpret the law, not write it.

More here.

South Florida Congressman Ted Deutch to host town halls

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, will host town halls in Broward this weekend.

The town halls will be held at E. Pat Larkins community center, 520 NW 3rd St., Pompano Beach at 10:30 a.m. Saturday and at The Pride Center at Equality Park, 2040 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Deutch represents District 22 which includes parts of Fort Lauderdale, Coral Springs, Parkland, Margate and Boca Raton.

Deutch, who represents a solidly Democratic district, has been a vocal critic of the administration of President Donald Trump including Stephen Bannon's role on the National Security Council and his nominee, Neil Gorsuch, for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Deutch supported the Treasury department's recent sanctions against Iran. He opposed the Iran deal in 2015.


Rubio calls for civility after McConnell rebukes Warren

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio joined Republicans in voting last night to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was speaking out against Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sen. Bill Nelson joined Democrats in objecting to the move.

The rebuke came as Warren was reading a 1986 letter Coretta Scott King wrote as Sessions was being considered for a federal judgeship. The letter said Sessions, as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, “had used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens."

Amid the debate, Rubio gave a lengthy speech. "We have become a society incapable of having debates anymore," he said, adding figures in both parties, himself included, have engaged in heated rhetoric.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

GOP says it will target Crist, Murphy in 2018

via @learyreports

Florida Reps. Charlie Crist and Stephanie Murphy are among GOP targets for the midterm elections.

The National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday named 36 seats it will focus on in 2018. Crist and Murphy are in their first term.

The DCCC recently named its targets, which include FL-18, held by Rep. Brian Mast; FL-25, Mario Diaz-Balart; FL-26, Carlos Curbelo; and FL-27, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times