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March 19, 2015

DOC Secretary Julie Jones: 'What we have is a group of disgruntled employees'

Julie JonesIn an interview with National Public Radio that aired Thursday, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones continued to push back against dissenters in her agency, portraying them as a "group of disgruntled employees that do not have the best interests of the department at heart." 

Jones also dismissed reports by the Miami Herald and other news organization that have drawn attention to the spike in suspicious inmate deaths and the sharp increase in use of force incidents.

"I would submit to you, if you look at the raw numbers, it tells you, 'Oh my gosh, we have a problem,' " she told NPR. "If you drill in, the actual stats don't portray it's a crisis."

Jones told NPR the "vast majority" of the 346 deaths in 2014 were from natural causes, something that should be expected in an aging inmate population. Of the 15 deaths determined to be homicides, she said, corrections officers were involved in only three of them.

Jones has accelerated her criticism of some DOC staff as legislators have conducted surprise inspections of prisons and the Florida Senate has advanced a bill to create an independent oversight commission with the power to investigate allegations at the troubled agency.

At least seven members of the DOC inspector general's staff have lodged allegations that high-ranking officials at the agency, particularly Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, have systematically attempted to cover-up their findings of corruption and avoided attempts to seek prosecution for criminal allegations.

"We are at the point where we can no longer police ourselves,'' said John Ulm, a veteran member of the inspector general's office at the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week. "The organized crime, the murders, the assaults, the victimization that goes on there every day is horrendous.”

Continue reading "DOC Secretary Julie Jones: 'What we have is a group of disgruntled employees'" »

Seminole Tribe: House and Senate are posturing but serious talks are not underway

CasinoThe Florida Seminole Tribe is on the defensive. 

After five years of quietly writing a monthly check to the state as part of the landmark gaming compact that gave them the exclusive right to operate black jack, chemin de fer and baccarat at their Hard Rock casinos, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature have sent a signal that they may not renew the deal when that portion of their agreement expires in July.

In an effort to make the case to continue the deal that drew at least $1 billion in revenue for the state over five years, the Tribe has broken its silence.

In the last month, it paid for a statewide television ad, espousing the value of the gaming compact. It financed a statewide poll, that showed that most voters support continuing the gaming compact. It launched a lobbying campaign to “educate” legislators about why provisions in the compact stifle the gaming “creep” that happens when states allow non-tribal gaming to expand.

And on Wednesday, the tribe’s general counsel and chief executive agreed to a rare on-the-record interview with the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau and the News Service of Florida.

“We want to see if there is a way to extend the contract before it expires. We’re still early in the game,'' said Seminole General Counsel Jim Shore. "We’re trying to figure out where everybody is on the compact or gaming issue.”  

Here’s what we learned:

Continue reading "Seminole Tribe: House and Senate are posturing but serious talks are not underway" »

March 18, 2015

Senate advances plan to create prison oversight and dedicates $6.9 million to effort

Jail Miami HeraldThe Florida Senate on Wednesday put money behind its pledge to reform the state’s troubled prison system, voting to spend $6.9 million on system changes and create an independent oversight commission that would have the power to investigate corruption and abuse.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously for the wide-ranging bill being pushed by Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, in the wake of reports of suspicious inmate deaths at the Department of Corrections, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that the agency’s chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse.

The bill, SB 7020, would create a nine-member Florida Corrections Commission, appointed by the governor, and under the independent Justice Administrative Commission. The panel would have the power to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud, and inmate abuse, as well as review budget proposals and make policy recommendations.

The commission staff could conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons, including those operated by private prison contractors. It would do regular “security audits” focusing on the institutions with the most violent inmates. It would require specialized training for sexual abuse investigations. And it would expand gain time for inmates who complete education programs, saving the state about $1.2 million a year.

Meanwhile, the House subcommittee on Justice Appropriations has discussed the issue but has advanced no similar legislation.

The most controversial provision in the Senate bill would establish new penalties for DOC employees or employees of private prisons who “willfully or by culpable negligence” neglect an inmate or cause bodily harm. It would making injuring an inmate a felony, with a separate charge for injuring a disabled or elderly prisoner.

More here.

Students rally support for college affordability plan

ScottpresserGov. Rick Scott took part in a rally in the Capitol Wednesday aimed at building support for his latest college affordability proposal.

The plan would prohibit state universities from increasing the cost of graduate-school tuition. It would also make college textbooks exempt from sales tax, require colleges and universities to publish the price of each course before the semester begins, and enable students to use Bright Futures scholarships during the summer semester.

The event was organized by more than a dozen student leaders who back the measure.

"We share the vision of an affordable education in Florida," said Florida State University Student Body President Stefano Cavalarro.

The governor's proposal is contained in SB 938 by Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, which is on the agenda for Monday's Senate Higher Education Committee meeting.

There is no identical bill in the House. But Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, has a bill that would make textbooks tax exempt (HB 1317).

Scott said he believed the $41 million tax cut for textbooks was possible, even despite some uncertainty about the budget.  

"We have the money to do all of these things with our budget," he said.

He urged the students to lobby their state senators and representatives on the issue.

Senate panel neuters grocery store booze bill

Senators on Wednesday watered down a bill that would’ve allowed whiskey to be sold in the same space as Wheat Thins.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee approved new language for a bill (SB 468), which now allows for big-box retailers like Publix and Wal-Mart to put a door between their main store and an attached liquor store. Under current law, a separate entrance is required to sell hard alcohol.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, was intended to balance convenience for customers with a desire to keep hard liquor out of grocery aisles, a cause supported by many lawmakers, including Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who wrote the amendment.

Even with a door inside the store, state law would require shoppers to buy groceries at a cash register inside the grocery store and liquor at a cash register inside the liquor store.

“It’s almost nothing,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, who opposes putting liquor inside grocery stores. “This was an art of compromise.”

Under existing law, there’s little overlap in what liquor and grocery stores can sell. Grocery stores sell beer and wine but no hard alcohol. Liquor stores can sell limited snacks and juices to be used for mixed drinks but not staples like eggs, milk or bread.

In fact, only Florida orange juice can be sold inside liquor stores.

“That’s a pretty good law,” said committee chair Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

Lawmakers voted down an alternative offered by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, that would have scrapped both the door and booze in grocery aisle provisions and instead focused the bill on delivery processes for hard alcohol at stores with separated grocery and liquor sections.

Latvala said his option would have helped businesses while ensuring children didn’t have access to the liquor store.

“There wont be any kids walking in the liquor store while their moms are shopping,” he said

No opinion yet from Florida Gov. Rick Scott on transgender bathroom bill

@PatriciaMazzei

Visiting Miami on Wednesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott wouldn't say if he would support legislation banning transgender men and women from using public restrooms of their choice.

The law, proposed by Republican state Rep. Frank Artiles of Miami, is aimed at Miami-Dade County, which has prohibited discrimination against transgender people -- including in public restroom.

But Scott told reporters at the BBVA Compass bank on Brickell, where he was touting the company's Florida expansion, that he hasn't seen the proposal yet.

"If it gets through, I'll review and see," Scott said, "but I don't believe in any discrimination."

Scott also declared himself against discrimination last year when Florida was fighting same-sex marriage legalization in court.

The governor often doesn't weigh in on proposed bills until they get closer to his desk. Artiles' proposal has cleared two Florida House of Representatives committees, but similar legislation in the Senate has yet to move forward.

--with Carol Rosenberg

Gray Zone radio hosts help Miami-Dade commissioner raise money

@doug_hanks

The hosts behind the raucous "Gray Zone" political radio show are among the headliners at a fund-raiser this week for Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban "Steve" Bovo

Marcos Lapciuc, one of four "Gray Zone" hosts and a founder of the show, is holding the Thursday evening fundraiser at the home he shares with his wife, Tiffany, on tony Pinetree Drive in Miami Beach. The invitation lists his three compatriots on the morning show as fellow hosts: Julio Avael, Henry Crespo, and Fred Menachem

"The reason why the hosts are supporting Bovo at the event is because it's at Marcos' house," said Menachem, who also serves as the show's executive producer. "We're a team."

The reality turned out to be more complicated. Contacted by Naked Politics, Crespo, chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida, said he wasn't aware his name was on the host list for Bovo, a Republican. Crespo said he's now off the event roster. "I don't even know the guy," Crespo said of Bovo. Bovoinvite

Bovo is the first county commissioner to form a campaign committee for the 2016 cycle, though Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez launched a political committee in January to start fundraising for his reelection. 

Bovo is seen as a potential mayoral candidate in 2020, when term limits would prevent Gimenez, a fellow Republican, from running again if he wins a second full term in '16.

Naked Politics asked Bovo: "Is it fair to say you are thinking of running for mayor in 2020?" He replied:

"It is fair to say that I want to be an effective public servant and it's fair to say that I'm running for reelection to the County Commission in 2016. What others speculate is flattering and their prerogative." 

Gray Zone airs daily on 880 The Biz, an AM station that sells time to the show. Launched in 2013, the show has gained a niche following among Miami-Dade politicos, and broken some news in recent months.

 Gimenez revealed his brief flirtation with exiting the Republican Party on a Gray Zone interview, and Raquel Regalado first confirmed she was eyeing a 2016 run against Gimenez on the program. 

The Gray Zone hosts' political activities aren't a secret. Crespo is an active Democrat, Menachem was a political director for then-mayor Alex Penelas, once a rising star in the Democratic Party. Lapciuc, a Republican, is a regular contributor to commission races and is the former board chairman for the county panel that oversees the Jackson hospital system.

The invitation for the event lists 25 hosts, including the four Gray Zone personalities. Among the electeds on the line-up: Hialeah City Councilman Luis Gonzalez, Miami-Dade School Board member Susie Castillo, Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset de la Cruz, and Miami City Commissioner Willy Gort.

House okays allowing victims to record crimes as evidence

Florida law makes it illegal to record a conversation without notifying everyone involved.

In December, this law led the state Supreme Court to overturn the conviction of Richard McDade, who had been found guilty in Lee County of sexual battery of a child younger than 12, among other things.

The appeals court had said that the most compelling evidence was a recording the alleged victim, his stepdaughter, had made without his knowing.

A bill passed by the Florida House on Wednesday seeks to change things.

The measure (H.B. 7001) by Reps. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, and Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, would grant an exception for cases just like McDade’s.

It would allow a person to record without notifying someone who “is committing, or has committed an unlawful sexual act or an unlawful act of physical force or violence against the person.”

The bill passed the House by a vote of 115-1, with only Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, dissenting because, he said, the bill is overly broad.

A Senate companion (S.B. 542) has passed its first committee but has not yet been put on the calendar by Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami.

Florida House votes to scale back testing in schools

Seeking to ease the pressure on schoolchildren — and quell the growing backlash from parents — the Florida House voted unanimously Wednesday to scale back testing in public schools.

The proposal (HB 7069) eliminates an 11th-grade English test and a requirement that local school districts create tests in every subject not covered by the new Florida Standards Assessment.

It also allows the school year to begin as early as August 10.

"The purpose of this is for us to be able to continue our improvement," said House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake.

The House declined, however, to suspend school grades during the transition to new standards and assessments, as superintendents, teachers and parents had requested.

Lawmakers also rejected a proposal supported by parents that would have given all students the option to take pencil-and-paper tests.

"We had an opportunity to do more and we failed to do that," said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville.

The state Senate is also considering a plan to scale back testing (SB 616), though it contains significant differences.

For one, the Senate version limits the amount of time students can spend on state-mandated tests. It also allows school districts to use this year's FSA scores for diagnostic purposes only in light of widespread technical problems.

Testing has been a hot-button issue in recent months, with parents across the state saying Florida’s testing program puts too much stress on students.

The outcry has only grown louder since software problems and an alleged cyber attack plagued this month’s roll out of the new web-based Florida Standards Assessments.