December 17, 2014

Obama and Castro reach historic accord to release prisoners, normalize relations

@MarcACaputo and @MiamiHerald staff

In the biggest change to U.S.-Cuba relations in more than five decades, President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro each announced Wednesday that the Cold War-era enemies are trying to normalize relations and have engaged in a prisoner swap involving two jailed Americans and three Cuban spies.

The mutual prisoner release involved jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross, whose five-year imprisonment had become a symbol of Cuba’s repression and, Obama said, a “major obstacle” in talks between the two nations.

The talks, held in Canada, involved Vatican officials and were spurred by Pope Francis, who had urged rapprochement. Though cheered by many, Obama’s announcement drew condemnation from Castro critics in Miami’s Cuban exile community, where the U.S. president was branded as an “Appeaser in Chief.”

Obama said the U.S. plans to open a U.S. embassy in Havana — closed in 1961 — and would allow for increased travel and cash-remittances by U.S. citizens to the island. Obama also said the U.S. would review whether to designate Cuba a state-terrorism sponsor. Obama said it was time for the U.S. to lift some restrictions. Full story here. 

Miami mayor opposes a Cuban consulate in his city

@doug_hanks

Will liberalized relations with Havana put a Cuban consulate in Miami?

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said the White House told him Thursday that President Obama's move to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba would allow Havana to open a Washington embassy and consulates around the country to handle paperwork and other needs for travel between the two countries. Miami would be a natural for the facility, given its large Cuban population and its existing roster of Latin American consulates. 

Regalado said he's opposed to bringing a Cuban consulate to Miami, saying  he's not sure the facility can be kept safe.

"I would think having a consulate in Miami would be a mistake because it would create a safety issue," Regalado said. "Because some people eventually will try to do something to the consulate. So I’m afraid that this will happen.

"We cannot control that,"  Regalado said of a consulate decision. "But certainly we would not support it."

President Obama mentioned Miami in his address to the nation announcing his new Cuba policy, but the policy did not receive the blessing of the city's mayor. Regalado was born in Cuba, and his father, a journalist,  spent 20 years in a Cuban jail as a political prisoner. 

"To me, it's ironic that the United States defends human rights around the world, and not in Cuba," Regalado said. "The embargo has been a tool to have leverage to make Cuba more flexible, to free political prisoners, to allow free speech."

Regalado said he was briefed by a White House official about what Obama was going to say in his speech. "They sort of implied that they were looking for support from local leaders," Regalado said. "But I didn't respond to that." 

 

Gardiner: First bill to pass will be injury reporting for greyhound tracks

GreyhoundsSenate President Andy Gardiner said Wednesday he will revive the bill to require the greyhound racing industry to report animal injuries and have the measure sent to the House during the first week of the 2015 session.

“It’ll be named after Mrs. Gaetz,’’ he said, referring to Vicky Gaetz, the wife of former Senate President Don Gaetz who is an animal lover and worked to help persuade lawmakers to pass the bill last year. 

The bill died in the final week of the 2014 legislative session after it became entangled in pari-mutuel industry politics.

Unlike other states, Florida’s greyhound industry does not have to report when dogs are injured as a result of racing or training. The bill, SB 2, was filed Tuesday by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. It imposes fines on track veterinarians who fail to report race-related injuries and follows a similar bill passed in 2013 that requires tracks to report greyhound deaths. In the first 9 months of 2013, 74 greyhound deaths were reported – more than one every three days. 

Continue reading "Gardiner: First bill to pass will be injury reporting for greyhound tracks" »

Governor's spox says they want child abuse settlement paid, won't say how

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott has indicated that the governor's office wants the Department and Children and Families to pay the settlement to the surviving Barahona twin whose sibling died after years of torture by their adoptive parents, but questions remain. 

"DCF will work with everyone involved to honor the agency's commitment to compensate the victim of this terrible tragedy,'' said Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz in an email to the Miami Herald late Tuesday.

It is unclear how DCF will honor the agency's commitment or how long it will take. The department's deputy general counsel has objected to a claim bill that has been filed to compensate Victor Barahona for the $3.75 million the state owes him and, as a result of those objections and additional concerns raised by the Senate's lawyer, the bill has been put on indefinite hold.

DCF agreed in 2013 to settle the child abuse lawsuit of Victor and the estate of his deceased sister, Nubia, whose body was found doused in chemicals in his father's pickup on Valentines' Day 2011. Victor was rescued, barely alive and covered with chemical burns, nearby. The agency convened a panel and conducted a report that concluded the state's child welfare safety net had been a "systemic failure" for the twins who had been in state care since they were infants.

DCF did not admit liability in the settlement with Victor and his new parents. It agreed to pay $5 million but not admit liability and $1.25 million was paid immediately. The remaining $3.75 million was to come from the passage of a claim bill and the settlement indicated DCF would not object to its passage. After the bill was filed, DCF then objected to the "whereas clauses," most of which had been taken from the DCF report, and the bill has now been indefinitely on hold. 

Sen. Antiere Flores, R-Miami, the sponsor of the claim bill, said she would "not rest" until the victim has been compensated and she is working to find an alternative way to have the measure pass the Legislature this year. 

Schutz and DCF would not indicate how DCF will move ahead with compensating the victim. Will it ask the Senate to waive its rules? Will DCF withdraw it's objections to the Senate claims bill? Schutz did not provide a response

December 16, 2014

Jack Latvala orders another round in beer growler battle

It was one of the most spirited battles in the Legislature last year, pitting scrappy independent craft brewers against wealthy beer distributors intent on preserving their dwindling customer base.

On Tuesday, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, renewed the fight, filing a bill that would give microbreweries what they have long craved: half-gallon "growler" containers. Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, plans to file an identical companion bill in the Florida House.

SB 186  would allow local breweries to fill up the 64-ounce containers for customers to take home, which is currently illegal in Florida thanks to resistance from large beer distributors such as Anheuser-Busch. Brewers now can fill up containers that are 32 ounces or 128 ounces, but not those that are 64 ounces, which is the most popular size because it's large enough to satisfy and small enough to consume in one day (it goes flat soon after opening).

Mitch Rubin, the executive director of the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, said his group doesn’t plan to oppose Latvala’s bill this time.

“It’s a good bill, but we suggest the label requirement include alcohol by volume,” Rubin said, asserting that many growlers don’t contain that information.

While Rubin wouldn’t say if his group would propose new restrictions on craft breweries, he did say any additional rules will be separate from the growler issue.

“I’m taking them on their word right now,” Latvala said.

 

 

Running for president would be 'life-changing,' Jeb Bush tells Miami television station

@PatriciaMazzei

A Miami television station caught up with Jeb Bush on Tuesday afternoon after the former Florida governor formally jumped into the 2016 Republican presidential campaign.

"This is a time when we should be celebrating the incredible opportunities that exist in this country, and yet most people really don't feel it," Bush told WTVJ-TV, the local NBC station. "They think the government doesn't work for them."

Bush spoke to reporter Steve Litz outside the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, where the former governor has long had an office.

"If I can get comfortable with being a candidate that gives people hope that we can fix some of these big problems that we have, so that we can take advantage of our opportunities, that's what I'm pursuing," Bush said.

He noted, though, that just because he's going to "actively explore" a 2016 run -- and create a political action committee to raise money -- he could still decide not to run.

"It's not an easy decision, though, because it is a life-changing one for a long while," Bush said.

UPDATE: NBC 6 aired the interview over two newscasts. In the second one, Bush said, "I'm really kind of focused on Christmas right now, to be honest with you."

He stressed he will see early next year if his political message resonates with voters -- including on immigration, where some in the GOP have accused him of being too moderate.

"We've got to protect the borders, enforce the law, be respectful of the rule of law, and at the same time be able to enocurage young aspirational people to come to our county," Bush said. "It's a win-win; I have no problems advancing that idea."

"And a lot of your base disagrees with that," Litz said.

"We'll see," Bush responded. "If I run, we'll see."

 

Lawyer for victim asks judge to order DCF to stop fighting child abuse settlement

Lawyers for one of the surviving victims of the Barahona child abuse tragedy asked a judge on Tuesday to order the Florida Department of Children and Families to honor a settlement it agreed to last year and stop trying to delay the payments.

Neal A. Roth filed a "Motion to Enforce Settlement" with the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County suggesting that the agency's attempts to oppose legislation that authorizes payment to Victor Barahona and his new parents has "breached the settlement agreement and has completely undermined the settlement."

DCF last year agreed to pay $5 million for the rehabiliation of Victor Barahona, after he was found with chemical burns and near death alongside the body of his his twin sister, Nubia. The 10-year-old twins had been in the state's child welfare system their entire lives, including after they were adopted by Jorge and Carmen Barahona. Despite repeated warnings to the state's child abuse hotline, the twins suffered years of torture and sexual abuse from their adoptive parents as the state stood silent.

The Barahona parents are now facing  murder charges and DCF agreed to pay $1.25 million immediately. Although the agency did not admit liability, as part of the settlement it has agreed not to oppose legislation to authorize the remainder of the money. 

DCF has now changed its position and objects to the "whereas" clauses in the proposed bill. It claims the legislation could hurt DCF's attempt to fight two other child abuse lawsuits by two other Barahona children.

Several South Florida legislators have said they will not let the legal technicality stand in the way of getting payments to the victim of one of the most horrific child abuse cases in state history, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she “won’t rest” until Victor and his new parents are paid what they have been promised. 

Roth has also asked the court to order the agency to step back from its opposition so that the claim bill can move forward.

"The Survivor and the Victim's estate have suffered horrendous abuse which is well-documented,'' he wrote in the motion. "DCF settled the case because they knew what their exposure was relative to the issues in this case. To allow DCF to continue to engage in conduct which is outside the Settlement Agreement is inappropriate and cannot be condoned."  Download Motion to Enforce

 

 

Gov. Scott shakes up FDLE, forces Bailey to resign

Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday abruptly replaced Commissioner Gerald Bailey of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement with Rick Swearingen, director of the Capitol police. No explanation was given for Bailey's departure and the news came as a shock to others in the law enforcement community.

Bailey is a respected professional with a 35-year career in law enforcement who has been FDLE commissioner since 2006, when Jeb Bush was governor, and he appeared to have the strong backing of the three elected Cabinet members. A terse announcement from the governor's office cited Swearingen's interim appointment and thanked Bailey for his service to the state, and Scott's chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, declined to elaborate beyond the news release.

Throughout Scott's first term as governor, FDLE publicly shared in the credit for the steady decline in Florida's violent crime rate to a 43-year low. The governor's office and FDLE must have a close and trusting relationship since the agency provides round-the-clock travel and security protection for the governor and his family members.

Swearingen's appointment is subject to approval by the three Cabinet members, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who was surprised by the news.

"I appreciate Commissioner Bailey's service to the state of Florida and I look forward to meeting the governor's interim selection," Putnam said. "This position is vitally important to the safety of all Floridians and I will weigh my decision very carefully."

At Bailey's last public appearance at a Dec. 9 Cabinet meeting, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater expressed concern about how long it takes for FDLE's crime lab to complete DNA investigations. Bailey said one reason is that FDLE pays its crime analysts less money than county sheriffs and people are leaving after they complete a mandatory three-year employment period.

"We're having tremendous turnover problems," Bailey told the Cabinet. "It's because we're considered a training ground fo rother county labs -- Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Indian River -- who recruit our people."

Bailey is the second agency head to be apparently forced out this week without any public explanation. Department of Management Services Secretary Craig Nichols was told Monday his services were no longer needed.

 

What will Marco do?

@PatriciaMazzei @MarcACaputo

Jeb Bush has complicated Marco Rubio’s political future. Or maybe not.

It all depends on whom you ask.

With former Florida Gov. Bush announcing Tuesday that he’s formally exploring a 2016 Republican presidential run, pressure is building on sitting U.S. Sen. Rubio to decide whether he’ll campaign for the White House.

Rubio, 43, once appeared a shoo-in contender for the presidency. But that was before the prospect emerged of having to compete against the 61-year-old Bush, Rubio’s longtime mentor.

“I’m trying to figure it out,” Rubio said last week when asked about his intentions. He made sure to say he considers Bush a “friend.”

The fates of the two men, who live about two miles apart as the crow flies (Bush in Coral Gables and Rubio in West Miami), appear to be intertwined: They share many of the same supporters and financial donors, at least in Florida.

But Rubio’s plans won’t be influenced by Bush’s strategy, a spokesman for the senator maintained Tuesday.

“Marco has a lot of respect for Governor Bush, and believes he would be a formidable candidate,” Alex Conant said in a statement. “However, Marco’s decision on whether to run for President or re-election will be based on where he can best achieve his agenda to restore the American Dream — not on who else might be running.”

More here.

Suspended North Miami mayor found guilty of mortgage fraud

@jayhweaver

Suspended North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau was found guilty by a federal jury Tuesday of using her “celebrity” as a Haitian-American community leader to lure “straw buyers” into an $11 million mortgage fraud scheme during the past real estate boom.

The 12-person jury, which deliberated for only two hours, convicted Tondreau of conspiracy and wire-fraud charges after a two-week trial. Tondreau, who was elected as North Miami’s first Haitian-American female mayor in 2013, now faces up to 30 years in prison at her sentencing March 20.

U.S. District Judge Robert Scola refused to grant a request by her defense attorney, Ben Kuehne, to remain free on bond while she awaited sentencing. Scola said she used her “celebrity” and “hoodwinked” buyers into allowing their names to be placed on bogus loan applications in exchange for kickbacks in a “massive” fraud against various banks.

The judge, noting the fraud was committed before Tondreau was elected as mayor, said she was no different than any other convicted defendant and ordered her to surrender to U.S. Marshals in the courtroom while about 50 supporters watched in silence.

“I’m going to treat her like somebody who is what she is — a common criminal,” Scola said.

More here.