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January 11, 2017

Rubio goes for it in Tillerson hearing: 'Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?'


U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio made clear before Wednesday's confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson that he had concerns about the secretary of state nominee's position on Russia.

In his first chance to publicly question Tillerson, Rubio did not hold back. 

First, Rubio tried to get Tillerson -- who called Russia a "danger" -- to agree to back sanctions on any Russian cyber attackers, something Rubio has proposed that Tillerson said he's not ready to do.

Then, Rubio escalated his questioning.

"Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?" the Florida Republican asked the Exxon Mobil chief executive.

"I would not use that term," Tillerson responded.

Rubio cited Russian targeting of civilians in Aleppo, Syria, and bombings in Chechnya. Tillerson said he'd need more information to assign direct blame to the Russian president. Rubio cut him off.

"Mr. Tillerson, what's happened in Aleppo is in the public domain," he said. "There is so much information out there about what's happened in Aleppo.... It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin's military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo."

He called Tillerson's "inability" to call Russia's actions in Syria a war crime "discouraging."

Rubio then mentioned the Russian political dissidents and journalists who have died "under suspicious circumstances."

"Do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissident journalists and political opponents?" he asked.

Tillerson: "I do not have sufficient information to make that claim." To advise future President Donald Trump, he added, it's important "that I deal with facts."

"None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson," Rubio shot back. "These people are dead."

Said Tillerson: "I'm not disputing these people are dead."

Tillerson: U.S. has not held Cuba 'accountable' in reengagement


President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Rex Tillerson, told the U.S. Senate in the opening to his confirmation hearing Wednesday that Cuba has not done enough to protect human rights since reestablishing diplomatic relations with the U.S.

"We we must adhere to standards of accountability," Tillerson said. "Our recent engagement with the government of Cuba was not accompanied by any significant concessions on human rights. We have not held them accountable for their conduct. Their leaders received much, while their people received little. That serves neither the interest of Cubans or Americans.

"Abraham Lincoln declared that America is 'the last best hope of Earth,'" he continued. "Our moral light must not go out if we are to remain an agent of freedom for mankind. Supporting human rights in our foreign policy is a key component of clarifying to a watching world what America stands for."

The hearing continues Wednesday, and will include questioning from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Fraud case that dogged Bush for 18 years comes to an end

via @adamsmithtimes

A long-running federal fraud case involving Jeb Bush, a Nigerian billionaire, a South Florida pump company and allegations of fraud, bribery and suitcases full of cash has finally run its course, with the company accused of ripping off the government cleared of any liability.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case Monday, effectively ending the epic whistleblower saga in which the government had accused politically-connected Deerfield Beach-based Moving Water Industries of fraudulently obtaining more than $74 million in federal Export-Import Banks loans for Nigeria to buy MWI water pumps in 1992.

"MWI is a small family-owned business located in Deerfield Beach since 1926 and this case has been extremely costly in terms of legal fees incurred and lost business since 1998," said MWI vice president and general counsel William Bucknam. "We are looking forward to resuming our previous international business activities providing pumps to grow food, mitigate flood waters and provide a source of safe drinking water in remote villages without electricity."

Continue reading "Fraud case that dogged Bush for 18 years comes to an end" »

House speaker takes aim at tourism, jobs boards, college groups

Having secured the scalp of Visit Florida's CEO, House Speaker Richard Corcoran is quickly moving on to other equally inviting targets of fiscal scrutiny: Florida's tourism councils, economic development boards and college and university foundations.

Dozens of groups are receiving letters on the official House letterhead that demand a wide array of information, in some cases under the threat of subpoena if they don't comply very quickly.

"Recent spending abuses and unwarranted secrecy in the tourism and economic development arena in Florida raise legitimate concerns among both taxpayers and elected offiicials," Corcoran wrote to tourism leaders in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Hillsborough and other large metropolitan areas, referring to the once-secret Pitbull contract that cost Visit Florida's Will Seccombe his job. "Recent news media reports have only heightened that concern and reinforced my belief that it is time we take a close look at where development money is being spent, how it is being spent and whether these expenditures are returning value to the taxpayers."  

Corcoran wants annual dollar amounts from tourism boards for tax revenues, grants, advertising, travel, lobbying, employee salaries, bonuses and reimbursements by Feb. 1. His demands include this love note: "If you choose not to provide this information, please be advised that pursuant to s. 11.143, F.S., you may be compelled by subpoena duces tecum to produce such information." Corcoran wants to see spending for "each event including the number of participants per event and the specifics of the expenditure, for example, food and beverage."

One of the most obvious targets of Corcoran's tourism industry wrath is in Hillsborough County, where Corcoran has threatened to "zero fund" Visit Tampa Bay, the county's tourism arm, funded largely through tourism bed tax revenues, for stonewalling requests for payroll data and other information, as WFLA-Channel 8 has reported.

Some of the information Corcoran is demanding is exempt from disclosure under Florida's public records laws, and colleges and universities are nervous about the potential impact on donors. But the Legislature has life-and-death control over higher education spending, so they will comply by a Jan. 23 deadline.

"They are preparing a response," said Browning Brooks, a spokeswoman for the Florida State University Foundation.

January 10, 2017

Sen. Bill Nelson endorses Stephen Bittel for Florida Democratic Party chair



U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has endorsed Stephen Bittel, a Coconut Grove developer and wealthy donor, for Florida Democratic Party chair.

Nelson's statement:

"I have known Stephen Bittel for over 30 years and believe he will be an extraordinary Chair of the Florida Democratic Party. Stephen has been a dedicated advocate for the principles of the Democratic Party for many years and is a leader who has the smarts and heart to unite the party in addition to implementing plans that will help rebuild the party from the ground up. While there are several qualified candidates in this race, I am convinced that Stephen is the right person to chair the Florida Democratic Party,  he has my full support and I ask that you join me in this effort.”

Nelson's endorsement isn't a surprise because he had previously praised Bittel saying in December he would "bring a lot to the Democratic Party" -- but stopped short of officially endorsing him until Tuesday afternoon.

Nelson is Florida's only Democratic statewide office holder and is running for re-election in 2018 and could face millionaire Republican Gov. Rick Scott as his opponent. Bittel has been a major funder of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot including Hillary Clinton and could help Nelson run against Scott.

Democratic elected officials and state committeemen and women throughout Florida will gather in Orlando Saturday to elect a new party chair.

The other candidates are former state Sen. Dwight Bullard of Miami-Dade County, Hillsborough turned Bradford County activist Alan Clendenin, Osceola Democratic chair Leah Carius and Duval County's Lisa King.

The chair race has been full of drama. Two candidates -- Bullard and Clendenin -- moved counties after they lost a state committeeman race, a prerequisite to run statewide.

Bullard moved to Gadsden County after he lost to Bittel in Miami-Dade and Clendenin moved to Bradford County. 

On Friday, the rules committee will discuss a complaint filed about Clendenin's residency as well as a complaint filed by a group of Miami-Dade Democrats about the procedures used for the county to elect Bittel to state committeeman.


Gov. Rick Scott appoints new leader for DBPR


Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday appointed Matilde Miller to be the interim secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulations just hours after current DBPR Secretary Kenneth Lawson accepted a new position to lead Visit Florida.

Miller has been the chief of staff for the DBPR since 2014 and has worked for the agency for 16 years. 

"Matilde has spent many years at DBPR serving in numerous leadership positions and understands how important it is to help businesses open and create jobs in our state," Scott said in a statement to the media.

Lawson agreed early on Tuesday to become CEO of Visit Florida, where he will replace Will Seccombe who was ousted by the board of directors at Visit Florida.

Karp: Overhaul embarrassing Florida Democratic chair election rules

From a Miami Herald op-ed by Florida Democratic communications strategist Joshua Karp, who recently worked on Patrick Murphy's U.S. Senate campaign:

On Jan. 14, the Florida Democratic Party will elect a new chair. Six days later, Donald Trump will be sworn in as president. The new state party chair will articulate the party’s response to Trump and run a party that hasn’t won a governor’s election in 22 years. The new chair will need to hit the ground running, raising money and recruiting candidates for the 2018 elections. This is a tough job.

Given the stakes, Florida Democrats should be passionately engaged in the election to pick their party’s next leader. But most of Florida’s nearly 5 million registered Democrats have no idea an election is happening.

It’s hard to blame them. This election is elitist, old fashioned and exclusionary.

Having helped set strategy for Florida Democrats during the past four years, I know the impact an energetic party chair can have. The current chair, my former boss Allison Tant, raised the bar for the job, traveling and fundraising tirelessly in support of Democratic candidates.

But the election to replace Tant should embarrass every Democrat.

More here.

The intriguing subplots -- featuring Trump and Breitbart -- of the race for Florida GOP chairman

via @adamsmithtimes

Florida Republicans will elect their party chairman on Saturday and, knowing current Chairman Blaise Ingoglia knack for whipping and counting votes, I'd be surprised if Sarasota State Committeeman Christian Ziegler knocks him off. But state Rep. Ingoglia is not a lock, does face a serious challenge, and the race has some pretty juicy undercurrents and sub plots thanks to Ingoglia's second job as a member of the Florida House.

As a state Representative, Ingoglia is widely viewed as House Speaker "Richard Corcoran's guy." And Corcoran, fairly or not, is viewed as the de facto state GOP boss. That's especially true since Gov. Rick Scott pretty much disowned the Republican Party of Florida after its leaders elected Ingoglia party chairman, rather than his preferred candidate. Neither the governor nor the Florida Senate nor any Cabinet members is aggressively raising money for the Republican Party of Corcoran/Ignolia.

That's why this Florida GOP chairman's race at least symbolically represents several intra-party proxy battles:

**Scott vs. Corcoran (though there is no sign Scott is actively helping Ziegler).

**Likely gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam vs. potential gubernatorial candidate Corcoran.

**Scott vs. Marco Rubio. Rubio endorsed Ingoglia, while Scott has stayed officially neutral. Who really leads the Florida GOP today, the senator working well with the state party and could challenge President Trump in 2020 or the strong Trump supporter likely 2018 senate candidate who relies on his own political committee?

**Donald Trump, Scott vs. the GOP establishment. Corcoran was vocal early on with his contempt for "repugnant" President-elect Trump, and Ingoglia certainly kept his distance from Trump, regularly refusing to discuss his party's nominee publicly. Trump himself was mistrustful of Ingoglia during Florida's March, 2016 primary.

Continue reading "The intriguing subplots -- featuring Trump and Breitbart -- of the race for Florida GOP chairman" »

Visit Florida CEO ousted over Pitbull deal, Ken Lawson named new leader


ORLANDO — The political pressure around a previously secret $1 million marketing contract with musician Pitbull was too much to save the head of Florida's besieged tourism marketing agency.

Even as board members praised Visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe for his work in helping set tourism records four years in a row, they turned around and voted unanimously to fire him, overtly hoping it will save the agency as the Florida Legislature threatens deep budget cuts.

The deal with Pitbull to promote Florida beaches and other mult-million dollar contracts to advertise with a car racing team and a British soccer team have brought scrutiny from the Legislature which determines how much funding the agency will get. Specifically Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran sued Pitbull's management company in December to force him to disclose terms of his contract with Visit Florida when Seccombe refused. That prompted Gov. Rick Scott to call on Seccombe to resign his position and Visit Florida to reform its rules on transparency.

While Visit Florida board chairman William Talbert III lauded Seccombe — who was not at the meeting in Lake Buena Vista — for his work and sounded reluctant to part ways with him, he acknowledged that politically Visit Florida could not afford to lose any of Scott's support for the agency as the political environment gets tougher in the Florida Legislature.

"That is a critical component because the governor recommends and fights for our budget," Talbert said.

Board member Gene Prescott, of The Biltmore Hotel, was even more blunt, suggesting that board members could agree or disagree with the governor's call to change leaders, but there is a political reality looming.

"We have the Speaker of the House who has said he wants to take away all of our funding," Prescott said. "So we really have our work cut out to save our money."

Continue reading "Visit Florida CEO ousted over Pitbull deal, Ken Lawson named new leader" »

Former Opa-locka commissioner pleads guilty to bribery

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via @jayhweaver

Former Opa-locka Commissioner Luis Santiago admitted Tuesday that he plotted with other top officials and employees to pocket up to $40,000 in bribes in a scheme that shook down several local business owners and corrupted nearly every level of the city’s financially troubled government.

In an effort to reduce his prison time, Santiago pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiring to accept multiple bribes and extort businesses seeking city licenses, water connections and zoning permits — an offense that will likely put him behind bars for more than three years under a plea agreement.

Santiago, 55, who otherwise would have faced up to five years under the bribery law, acknowledged to a Miami federal judge that he wanted to accept responsibility for his crime.

“I think that’s the best way to go,” said Santiago, who was flanked by his defense attorney, Roderick Vereen.

Santiago, the fourth defendant to plead guilty in the still-widening FBI probe of Opa-locka City Hall corruption, will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams on March 30. Santiago, who remains free on bail until then, is not assisting authorities in the investigation.

Santiago lost his city commission seat in November after a series of Miami Herald stories reported that he was the main target of the probe of an alleged extortion scheme involving payoffs for official favors. The one-term commissioner, who surrendered to FBI agents in late December on the bribery charge, is the only politician to be convicted so far.

More here.

Photo credit: C.M. Guerrero, Miami Herald staff