August 19, 2014

Citizens defends foreign travel, draws flak from Scott

Summoned before Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet Tuesday, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. president Barry Gilway defended the state-backed insurer's foreign travel.

Scott called for a prohibition on foreign travel by Citizens executives after a series of abuses two years ago. The controversy flared anew after a report in The Palm Beach Post that Citizens board chairman Chris Gardner spent two nights in a $425-a-night resort in Bermuda at a reinsurance conference in April, despite a $373-per-night cap on Bermuda travel.

After the Post's disclosure, Gardner reimbursed Citizens for the difference in rates of $104 for the two nights. Citizens officials say the company first discovered the overcharge.

Gilway said he urged Gardner to attend the Bermuda conference at the last minute, and that as a result of the trip and all other foreign travel by Citizens executives that cost a total of $48,000, savings to Florida taxpayers totaled $233 million.

"I know first hand that face-to face discussions with the individuals making the decision ... is absolutely essential," Gilway said. "You cannot do business internationally without traveling overseas."

Gilway said the Post made a public records request for hundreds of expense account transactions and "this was the only error they found."

"Welcome to government," Scott replied. "Everybody, they're going to watch you. When there's an example like this, it makes it look like you're not watching the dollars ... It makes it easy for you guys to get attacked."

Mayor's new chief aide gets big raise with promotion


Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez's new top aide got a hefty pay increase with his promotion and expanded duties.

Alex Ferro, who became Gimenez's chief of staff earlier this month, is still making well below what his predecessor earned. But his new $145,000 salary represents an 84 percent raise over the $79,000 he made running the external-affairs office for Gimenez. (County records show Ferro's take home pay amounted to $73,000 last year thanks to benefit costs and other reductions.)

Ferro's new pay, laid out in a personnel form obtained by The Miami Herald through a public-records request, is still significantly lower than what Lisa Martinez made as chief of staff before resigning her post in early August. County records show she earned $180,000 last year, about 25 percent more than Ferro's new pay.

"We saved $35,000 on the position," Gimenez said during a brief interview Tuesday. He noted that he isn't bringing in a new staffer to replace Ferro or Chip Iglesias, who recently left as a deputy mayor. Ferro retained responsibility for external-affairs in his new post. 

The compensation boost for Ferro, 33, comes as Gimenez is trying to get unions to accept less-generous health care benefits while also planning for job reductions and service cuts across county government.

Though it hasn't been made public yet, Ferro's new compensation wouldn't remain secret for long.

After taking office in 2011, Gimenez had Miami-Dade post its compensation database online, allowing a detailed look at what all county employees make. Because of lags in pay cycles, Ferro's entry still shows the $79,000 compensation rate.

Gimenez and Rivera attempt peace talks at Biltmore


Two of the biggest foes in Miami-Dade's budget battle, Mayor Carlos Gimenez and police union chief John Rivera, met Tuesday on neutral territory. 

The morning sit-down  happened in a private office at the Biltmore hotel in Coral Gables, after weeks of the men and their surrogates lambasting each other over police funding and contract talks. 

"I need to move on," Gimenez said during a brief interview in a Biltmore hallway before the 10:30 a.m. meeting. "I need to save some jobs." Leaving the meeting about an hour later, Gimenez said: "Problem solved? No. But it was a good, frank discussion."

Rivera's comments before the meeting weren't warm.  "My members have strictly instructed me: No more concessions," he said. 

In an email afterwards, Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association, wrote: "Pretty much no different than before I walked in." 

The two  did not bring aides into the closed-door meeting in the office of Biltmore president Gene Prescott. Rodney Barreto, a partner in a top local lobbying firm who is on friendly terms with both men, brokered the meeting and sat in during the discussion, Barreto said. 

"I wouldn't say it was really tense. But there were a few moments there,'' Barreto said. "The reality is John hasn't had a working relationship with this mayor." 

When Gimenez's staff first proposed about 450 job cuts in the county police department, Rivera told the media Miami-Dade residents may need firearms to protect themselves. Earlier this month, a Gimenez spokesman accused Rivera of "flat-out lying" regarding the mayor's attempts to negotiate with the union.

Rivera had objected to a former PBA lawyer serving as the county's negotiator, and recently Gimenez said he would tap a new representative if it would jump-start talks. 

Gimenez's negotiating team this week dropped demands that county unions extend concessions set to expire later this year, and recently announced he had found enough revenue to bring police-job cuts down to about 150, including civilian posts.

Now he's pressing unions to accept less generous health benefits in order to cut costs and prevent any job reductions in police. 

Rivera said he had an "open mind" about the meeting, but was not ready to comment on the healthcare proposal. "I'm sitting here to see what he has to say," Rivera said on his way to the private meeting. 

The meeting was posted on the mayor's daily schedule. Gimenez, dressed in his usual business suit, and Rivera, in jeans and a Nike shirt, arrived separately and alone.

Rivera questioned the need to publicize the talks, and said multiple people have tried to arrange a reconciliation.
"Everybody's trying to be a king maker," he said. "Everybody's trying to get us together."

Years before child was mauled by dogs, DCF was warned of dangerous home

Javon DadeThree years before Javon Dade Jr. was mauled to death by his father’s dogs, state child protection workers were warned about “the smell and danger” of the six “untrained dogs” living in an apartment with Javon’s family. Two of the dogs were pit bull terriers, which are banned in Miami-Dade County, a caller said.

“The dogs have not really been trained,” an unidentified caller told the Department of Children & Families’ child abuse hotline. “There is concern for the safe care of the children in the home.”

Javon’s father, also named Javon Dade, told investigators the animals did not belong to him. “Dad’s response has been, ‘I know, I know,’ and that he is trying to get the dogs out of the home,” a report said. But the dogs remained.

Last Wednesday, Miami-Dade police made a gruesome discovery: 4-year-old Javon’s badly mauled body lying in overgrown grass in the backyard of the family’s Goulds home. Javon had last been seen at 5 a.m., about four hours before his father noticed he was missing, and six hours before his body was found, a DCF report said.

Javon became the most recent child to die of abuse or neglect after state child protection workers had come in contact with their families. In a recent series, Innocents Lost, the Miami Herald documented the cases of 477 children — most of them younger than 5 — who died following some DCF activity, and the deaths have continued to mount. Story by Carol Marbin Miller here.

Read more here:


August 18, 2014

Mitt Romney campaigns, fundraises for Miami congressional candidate Carlos Curbelo


RomneySweltering heat, protesters and key-lime pie cupcakes greeted former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Monday when he campaigned in Miami's West Kendall suburb for congressional hopeful Carlos Curbelo.

"It's nice to be out campaigning for other people," Romney told reporters at Vicky Bakery, where he went behind the serving counter to try the cupcakes. He appeared relaxed in jeans, shirt-sleeves and a loose tie.

When asked if he would consider a third presidential run, he said, "No, I'm not doing that."

The Obama administration, Romney said, "has a good heart but doesn't understand what's needed to get America working for the middle class." 

Romney had already endorsed Curbelo. The brief campaign appearance preceded an evening Coconut Grove fundraiser for the Miami-Dade School Board member, who's running in the 26th congressional district GOP primary along with Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Joe Martinez, attorney Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck and ex-Congressman David Rivera.

Democrats have ignored the other candidates and instead focused on Curbelo, the presumed frontrunner in the race to challenge incumbent Joe Garcia. The party organized a group of about 20 demonstrators outside the bakery. They brought back chants from the 2012 presidential campaign, including "We are the 47 percent." At one point, a Curbelo supporter yelled at them, in Spanish: "Comunistas!"

Photo credit: Charles Trainor Jr., Miami Herald staff

Council aims to fight human trafficking

Human trafficking is a crime that reaches a broad spectrum of victims -- teenage runaways, the homeless, undocumented workers and even "kids who hang out at the mall every day,"  Mike Carroll, interim secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families said Monday at the first meeting of the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking.

Many victims are also foster care kids who are under state care or have aged out of the state system and have no where to go, Carroll, the council's vice chair, said.

Florida has been ranked third in the number of calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which estimates there are 27 million people enslaved worldwide.

"Four years ago, no one wanted to believe this existed," said Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has reached out to truckers, emergency medical workers, business owners, law enforcement and recently Mexican authorities to fight human trafficking. "It has to be stopped."

Now, Bondi, is also counting on a new panel with law enforcement, health care officials, educators, advocates and experts to fight the crime. The 15-member trafficking council, which Bondi chairs, was created during the 2014 legislative session to tackle specific goals in the human trafficking realm, including recommending programs and services to help victims; certifying safe houses and safe foster care homes; recommending ways to better apprehend and prosecute traffickers; and organizing a statewide summit.

Continue reading "Council aims to fight human trafficking" »

Acquitted but still-suspended Miami Lakes mayor vows to go to court to be reinstated


The dueling mayors of Miami Lakes, battling over which man is truly in charge, tussled again Monday in sloppily disjointed press conferences that were at times off the mark, but intensely theatrical.

First up: Mayor Wayne Slaton. Standing before cameras and constituents at Town Hall, Slaton defiantly declared he is the mayor of Miami Lakes and that Florida’s governor agreed — and then incorrectly argued that a similar case in Miami four years ago wasn’t similar at all.

With Slaton done, Michael Pizzi, the still-suspended mayor, held court in a baking parking lot, telling the crowd he had reclaimed his seat the moment a jury found him not guilty of federal corruption charges. Then Pizzi marched to the back door of Town Hall — but the door was locked.

With a pack of reporters in tow, and one woman booing furiously from the sidewalk, the mayor-in-limbo made his way to the front entrance, where he asked receptionist Laura Munoz to contact the city clerk and manager. For 20 minutes, Pizzi entertained the crowd with stories, including one about how as a child he would sing himself a lullaby when he was stressed out.

When the two hours of tit-for-tat finally ended, little had changed.

More here.

New Dania casino wants to close for a year but regulators have final say

Dania Jai AlaiSix months after opening, Dania Casino and Jai-Alai announced late Friday that it will close for a year starting in October, putting an estimated 300 people out of work.

Company officials say closing the brand new casino is necessary to expedite the company’s $50 million in renovations needed to help Broward’s newest casino compete in the rigorous South Florida gaming market. But the move also comes after the company’s revenue performance was the worst in the region, and its owners were forced to write a check to the state for nearly $400,000 after it under-reported its taxes for three months because of an alleged software glitch.

"We are not shutting down because there are any money problems,’’ said John Lockwood, Tallahassee-based lawyer for the company. "It’s about speeding up our investment in the property. This has nothing to do with the performance of the facility."

Meanwhile, the Division of Parimutuel Wagering could have a say on whether the facility will be allowed to close at all.

The company needs the agency’s approval before it can alter its jai alai schedule and the division is "still reviewing it,’’ said Tajiana Ancora-Brown, spokeswoman for the agency. State law requires that the facility perform a certain number of performances to maintain its permit.

Continue reading "New Dania casino wants to close for a year but regulators have final say" »

Soon-to-be-closed charter school once hosted Gov. Scott, Michelle Rhee

As thousands of students went back to school on Monday, the state Board of Education voted to close three failing charter schools.

One of the schools, Florida International Elementary Academy, has been in the news before.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott visited its sister middle school, Florida International Academy, just days after taking office in 2011. While touring the Miami-Dade campus, he and former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced a plan to increase the number of charter schools statewide.

"We have to make sure our system does exactly what you are doing here at Florida International Academy," Scott said.

At the time, Florida International Academy was an established middle school that had recently earned consecutive A grades from the state. Its elementary school, Florida International Elementary Academy, was just getting off the ground.

The schools share a common campus and administration.

The elementary school earned an F in its first year. It improved to a D in 2012, but earned failing grades in 2013 and 2014.

State law requires the closure of any charter school that receives consecutive Fs.

Florida International Elementary Academy had applied for a waiver that would have granted the school an additional year to boost its grade. But the state board denied the request, saying the school did not improve as much as neighboring schools had.

Florida International Academy middle, which earned a C in 2014, will remain open.

Neither Florida International Elementary Academy nor Florida International Elementary is affiliated with the university of the same name.


FDLE protected Lopez-Cantera after May threat

Florida taxpayers spent nearly $2.4 million last year to provide round-the-clock security protection for Gov. Rick Scott and to protect out-of-state elected officials visiting the Sunshine State.

Security for the governor cost $1.6 million between July 1, 2013 and June 30 of this year, slightly less than the year before, according to the report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. First Lady Ann Scott's security cost $381,000, compared to $225,000 the year before.

The biggest surprise in the report was a $27,000 expenditure to provide six days of security last May for Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. An FDLE spokeswoman, Samantha Andrews, said the reason for the security was a threat against the lieutenant governor. She provided no other immediate details. That was the first week immediately following the end of the 2014 legislative session.

By law, Lopez-Cantera is entitled to a Florida Highway Patrol trooper for his security and transportation, but FHP said he declined that detail when he took office in February.

FDLE agents also provided security on three occasions in the past year for Attorney General Pam Bondi that cost a total of about $4,000, and five times for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at a cost of about $6,400.