June 25, 2014

In wake of child deaths and new law, DCF launches new child welfare web site

Two days after Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure that requires greater openness from state child welfare administrators, the Department of Children & Families unveiled a new website designed to make a host of new information available to ordinary Floridians.

The website went live Wednesday morning, a week before the major provisions of a child welfare overhaul are expected to be implemented broadly. It also rolled out one day after a Miami-Dade grand jury blasted DCF for “intentionally and deliberately” undercounting the very child deaths that are reported at the site.

“This website will serve as an important tool to maximize transparency and to raise public awareness of the tragedies our department is committed to ending,” Interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a statement. “We know this data will be useful to communities statewide and will allow the department and our partners to improve child welfare practice and better protect children and assist at-risk families.”

The Senate bill Scott signed Monday overhauled Florida’s long-troubled child welfare system in the wake of a Miami Herald series, Innocents Lost, that detailed the abuse and neglect deaths of 477 children — most of them infants and toddlers — whose families had a history with the state. The measure requires far greater transparency from DCF, which has often been accused of using state confidentiality laws to shield accountability. More from Carol Marbin Miller here. 

 

Citizens board agrees to lower rates for most, raises for condo owners and coast

For the first time in four years, Citizens Property Insurance wants to lower rates for nearly 70 percent of its customers while everyone else – mostly South Florida condominium owners and homeowners in coastal areas -- will see another year of increases.

The rate changes were recommended Wednesday at the quarterly meeting of Citizens’ Board of Governors and now must go before the Office of Insurance Regulation for final approval.

Base rates vary greatly from policy to policy but, in Miami-Dade County, Citizens is proposing average rate cuts of about 4.3 percent for homeowners with multi-peril policies. Similar policies in Broward will see rates drop an average of 7.3 percent and homeowners in Monroe County will see rates rise 2.6 percent.

For condominium owners in South Florida, however, the rate hikes will continue with average increases of 6.4 percent in Miami Dade, 3.2 percent in Broward and 1.4 percent in Monroe County.  Download 2015 RATES county by county

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Human rights group asks federal government to intervene in probe of prisoner's death

Several human rights groups on Wednesday asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Florida Department of Corrections for the death of a mentally-ill inmate at the Dade County Correctional Institute last year who, other inmates allege,  was placed in a locked, scalding hot shower and left there as punishment. 

Darren Rainey, 50, died June 23, 2012, at Dade Correctional but the death was never investigated by either DOC or Miami-Dade police. The inmate assigned to clean up the shower after his death, told the Miami Herald on Tuesday that he found a blue canvas sneaker and 

Mark Joiner, a 46-year-old convicted killer, reported that he could hear Rainey screaming as hot steam filled the unit that night. He also heard the guards taunting Rainey, before he died, saying “How do you like your shower?’’

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Amnesty International, the Florida Council of Churches and a host of other human rights organizations wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Holder Wednesday urging the justice department to intervene. More here by Julie K. Brown. 
 

Grand jury rips DCF for systematically covering up child deaths

A Miami-Dade grand jury accused state child welfare administrators Tuesday of “intentionally and deliberately” manipulating the investigation of child deaths because of abuse and neglect — making it appear that fewer children were dying across the state.

In a 30-page report that explores whether the Department of Children & Families has improved since the shocking 2011 death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona, grand jurors found much that pleased them. But they also scolded the agency for what they described as a systematic attempt to conceal the true number of children whose lives are cut short by abuse or neglect.

“I thank the members of the grand jury for their comprehensive look at Florida’s child welfare system,” said Mike Carroll, the agency’s interim secretary. “It is clear from their thoughtful recommendations that they understand the challenges in the work we do, and it’s also clear they recognize our commitment to continuing to improve so we can better protect Florida’s children.”

The grand jury presentment, handed up to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Gisela Cardonne Ely Tuesday afternoon, comes on the heels of a series of stories in the Miami Herald, called Innocents Lost. Details of the series are discussed in the report. In particular, grand jurors confirmed the Herald’s findings that DCF had revised its definition of “neglect,” resulting in an artificial reduction in the number of children reported to have died the past four years.

More from Carol Marbin Miller and Audra Burch here.

Scott hits Crist over taxes; Crist releases returns

Gov. Rick Scott's political committee, Let's Get to Work, launched a new TV spot Wednesday that criticizes Democrat Charlie Crist for not releasing his federal income tax returns. But in the ensuing back-and-forth between the two campaigns, the tone took a decidedly more nasty turn.

"What's he hiding?" Scott's spot asks. Three hours after the Times/Herald posted an item about the commercial, Crist's campaign released his tax returns for 2011, 2012 and 2013. 

The Republican Party of Florida would not disclose the size of the ad buy or say which TV markets are showing it. Scott and his wife Ann released their joint tax returns for 2010, 2011 and 2012 when he filed his candidate qualifying papers last week, and Crist has said he'll release more years of tax returns. (Scott has not released his latest tax return, for 2013, because he and his wife requested an extension from the IRS).

"He's going to out-transparent me?" Crist said. Crist was adamant that he wouldn't release his wife Carole's taxes: "She's not running for office," Crist said. The campaign accused Scott of a "shameful new low" in Florida politics by trying to make a candidate's wife a campaign issue (Crist and his wife file separately).

Crist spokesman Kevin Cate posted on Twitter: "In one week, we've had Rick Scott's backers and campaign race-bait on radio and attack Charlie's spouse. And it's June."

Scott's TV ad shows a fleeting glimpse of Carole Crist, and the ad also notes that in 2010, Democrat Alex Sink released her tax returns along with those of her husband, the late Bill McBride.

In past years, Crist has routinely released his tax returns, as he did in March 2010 in his last campaign, an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, when he released his first and challenged his Republican rival, Marco Rubio, to do the same.

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June 24, 2014

Another break-through ruling: Divided Supreme Court takes Bainter redistricting appeal

The unprecedented rulings keep on coming. A divided Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear the question of whether 537 pages of documents of political consultant Pat Bainter should have been introduced in a lawsuit by a coalition of voters groups challenging the state's congressional redistricting maps.

In a 5-2 decision, the court said it would decide the case at the urging of the appeals court last week. It ordered that briefs be filed on a schedule, concluding on July 31. The majority offered no reason for its decision but Chief Justice Ricky Polston, who was joined in the dissent by Justice Charles Canady, scolded the other justices for accepting the case.

"We take jurisdiction of this case to do what?" Polston wrote. " ... The procedural posture of this case is unprecedented and bizarre." Download SCOFLA certifies Bainter redistricting

The challenge to the state's congressional districts was brought by a coalition of voting groups led by the League of Women Voters. Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis is expected to rule on the case any day. The parties submitted their final arguments to Lewis nearly two weeks ago, but the fate of 537 pages of documents produced by Bainter and his Gainesville-based consulting firm, Data Targeting, Inc., remains in dispute.

Continue reading "Another break-through ruling: Divided Supreme Court takes Bainter redistricting appeal" »

New 'progressive' mailer links Scott and Crist

The latest mail piece from a mysterious group that calls itself Progressive Choice Florida is a two-fer that attacks both Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic opponent Charlie Crist as "one in the same."

The allegations in the mailer are that both men oppose health care reform and women's health care and support the expansion of school vouchers and have appointed conservative judges.

Progressive Choice is thought by some to be a conservative front organization trying to help Democrat Nan Rich gain ground in her primary fight against Crist.

The latest mailer doesn't mention Rich but says "Florida deserves a real progressive leader!" Progressive Choice is run by a Baltimore political consultant, Jamie Fontaine-Gansell, who has told TalkingPointsMemo that the group is a "real deal progressive organization." Its donors remain a mystery. The group is not required by Florida law to reveal donor information until a month before the election.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Progressive Choice is paying for a racially-tinged radio ad in central Florida that cites Crist's strong support for the NRA's political agenda and his support for stricter sentencing laws when he was a Republican governor and state senator.

“It’s time Charlie Crist answer to Floridians for his record, for a lost generation of African-Americans and for trampling on the ideal that the punishment fit the crime,” the spot says.

Two road-safety bills become law

Gov. Rick Scott signed two road-safety bills into law Tuesday.

One of the new laws (SB 102) increases the penalties for drivers who leave the scene of a crash in which a person is killed. The minimum mandatory sentence will now be four years, the same as for DUI manslaughter.

The legislation is called the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, in memory of a Miami cyclist who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2012. 

The driver, Michele Traverso, served less than two years in jail for leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Had he stayed behind and been found guilty of DUI manslaughter -- evidence suggested he had been drinking before the crash -- his sentence would have been longer.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican, said he sponsored the bill because there was an obvious incentive for drunk drivers to take off.

"Creating the appropriate penalties for hit-and-run drivers is the right thing to do for our state," he said Tuesday.

Patty Cohen said she hoped her husband's death would help make the roads safer.

"While nothing will bring Aaron back, it gives us comfort to know that the change we have made may prevent other families from suffering as ours did," she said.

Scott also signed HB 225, which strengthens state law on child safety seats. 

Florida law already requires federally approved safety seats or restraining devices for children who are 3 years old or younger. The requirements will now apply to 4- and 5-year-old children, too.

Sen. Anitere Flores, the Miami Republican who sponsored the legislation, said the new law would save lives.

"I am grateful to have played a part in passing legislation that will promote the well being of Florida's youngest and protect them on the roads," she said.

Scott has just one bill remaining on his desk.

The bill, HB 561 by state Rep. Erik Fresen, requires the court to appoint attorneys for children with special-needs if a legal guardian is not available. The proposal passed by unanimous votes in both the House and Senate. 

June 23, 2014

The latest David Rivera mystery: What has he been doing for a living?

@PatriciaMazzei

For the first time, David Rivera is running for Congress without holding a political office.

So what has the former U.S. House of Representatives member been doing for the past two years to pay the bills?

"Business development," the Miami Republican said Monday night.

What that means, exactly, will for now have to remain a mystery. Rivera repeatedly refused to elaborate on his profession, saying only that he will eventually file his required financial disclosures with the House. He would not name any clients or businesses that have paid him.

"That'll all come out in the financial disclosures," Rivera told a Miami Herald reporter. "They will speak for themselves." [See the transcript of the interview below.]

Earlier this month, a Florida administrative law found that, as a state representative, Rivera violated three ethics laws, included one every year between 2005 and 2009, when he failed to properly report his income. Rivera claimed in those financial disclosures that he worked as a contractor for the U.S. Agency of International Development.

USAID had no record of ever hiring him. After the Herald asked about the discrepancy in 2010, Rivera amended the financial disclosures to delete any USAID references.

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UPDATED GOP debate prompts Democrats to highlight 'scandals' in FL-26 race

@PatriciaMazzei

The first debate among most of the Republican candidates running in Florida's 26th Congressional District will be held Monday night, with the likely absence of ex-Congressman David Rivera.

Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo, Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, former Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Joe Martinez and attorney Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck are expected to attend the forum, hosted by the Women's Republican Club of Miami, Federated.

National Democrats are using the event as a way to attack Curbelo and Rivera. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Monday that it's adding the two men to its "House of Scandal" website criticizing GOP members of Congress.

Rivera's scandals are well-known. He's under federal investigation in a campaign-finance investigation stemming from a ringer candidate in the 2012 Democratic congressional primary. Most recently, a Florida administrative judge ruled Rivera broke ethics laws while in the state Legislature.

By comparison, the accusations the DCCC levels against Curbelo -- chief among them that he voted for school district contracts that benefited political donors -- appear less scandalous.

But expect scandal to be a buzzword in this campaign -- including against the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Joe Garcia. Garcia's former chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, served time in jail for orchestrating a 2012 scheme to unlawfully submit online absentee ballot requests.

UPDATE: Republicans have countered by noting Congressman Garcia's own negative headlines.

"Apparently, [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi's attack dogs at the DCCC have yet to meet Joe Garcia or they would know that not only is Garcia under two FBI investigations, but his former chief of staff just got done doing jail time over his absentee ballot fraud scandal," Katie Prill, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. "If Garcia wasn't so corrupt we would actually feel sorry for him seeing these are the political 'geniuses' tasked with getting him re-elected and keeping him out of jail."

Curbelo also sent a response of his own, via text message, with the hyperbole that can be expected in these attack-counterattack situations: "I appreciate the DCCC making this election about ethics, considering that Joe Garcia is one of the most corrupt politicians serving in Congress."

Read the DCCC's press release below.

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