October 24, 2016

South Florida a focus of Obama human-trafficking initiative



Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a White House meeting Monday of a high-level task force set up by President Barack Obama in 2012 to combat forced labor and prostitution.

Federal law enforcement agencies have initiated more than 6,000 human-trafficking cases and secured at least 4,000 convictions since Obama took office in January 2009.

"While more work is required to tackle the root causes and consequences of human trafficking, the United States continues to be a leader in the global movement to end modern slavery," the White House said in a statement.

Part of the Obama initiative is focused on Miami and New York, two national trafficking hubs.

The U.S. Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Justice are collaborating to provide job and training services in those cities for victims of human trafficking.

More than 1,200 instances of human trafficking were reported in the Sunshine State through the Florida Abuse Line in fiscal year 2014-15.

South Florida is the third-most-active region for sex trafficking in the country, with minors often the victims, according to the Justice Department.

Before it was cancelled because of Hurricane Matthew, Attorney General Pam Bondi had scheduled the Florida Human Trafficking Summit for Oct. 10 in Orlando. Five-hundred law-enforcement officers, service providers, healthcare professionals, educators, legislators and community leaders had signed up to attend, along with trafficking victims.

Obama's task force gave a presidential anti-trafficking award to Students Opposing Slavery, a network of high school and college students who raise awareness about trafficking among youth. The University of Central Florida in Orlando has one of the most active chapters of the group.

"Leaders in our state are committed to making Florida a zero-tolerance state for human-trafficking," Bondi said.

In a recent case, the drug-overdose death of a 14-year-old girl in Orlando led police to break open a human-trafficking ring based there.

Jose Ignacio Santiago-Sotomayor, 22, and Avorice Jeno Holman, 19, were arrested and charged with first-degree murder, human trafficking of a child and procuring a minor for prostitution. Police said they and other members of the ring drugged girls in order to have sex with them.

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott declared January the Human Trafficking Awareness Month and signed four bills into law that stiffened penalties for human traffickers, established protections for past victims, and promoted efforts to help people recognize warning signs.

"It is unfathomable that this evil occurs in our state, but by expanding services and passing important legislation this year, we are helping to save and heal the lives of our state's most vulnerable," Scott said.

In July, police busted a human-trafficking ring in Seminole County with more than 20 victims, arresting Christian Pena Fernandez and Rachel Gonzalez.

Detectives said that Pena Fernandez ran a sophisticated organization in which he recruited and harbored women to provide sex. He ran ads seeking women on backpage.com, they said.

The couple used motels and hotels across Central Florida in their operation, detectives said.

Photo credit: Getty Images


October 15, 2016

Bondi calls Trump remarks 'disgusting' but says she believes in 'forgiveness'

via @learyreports

Attorney General Pam Bondi broke her silence Friday over Donald Trump, calling his comments about women “disgusting” but that she remains a supporter.

"I believe the statements that Donald Trump says are disgusting. Disgusting, period," Bondi said a luncheon with the Florida Federation of Republican Women in Pasco County.

"I have spoken to him multiple times (and) he believes what he said was disgusting. He is horrified, apologetic and as Gov. Pence, as Mike Pence, a great man said, he's an evangelical Christian, I believe in forgiveness. I believe what Donald Trump said was disgusting. I also believe in the Constitution of the United States of America."

Bondi's comments were captured by ABC Action News, which has video. It was the first time she had commented since the 2005 video of Trump making sexually aggressive comments surfaced.

Since the video came out, a growing number of women have come forward to say Trump made unwanted advances.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

September 30, 2016

Attorney: Bondi's office never checked for conflict of interest with Trump donation


Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has no written policy about checking for conflicts of interest and never looked into any possible conflict surrounding a $25,000 check from Donald Trump that has caused allegations of pay-for-play politics.

In a letter responding to requests filed by Massachusetts lawyer J. Whitfield Larrabee, a Bondi staffer wrote that "a search of our records has produced no public records responsive to your request." Larrabee provided the letter to the Times/Herald.

On Sept. 6, Larrabee, who has filed ethics cases alleging Bondi's political committee improperly accepted money from Trump, requested copies of "records setting forth the policy, practice or procedure of the attorney general's office for checking conflicts of interest" both in 2013 and in 2016, as well as any records of a check into the $25,000 check.

Even after questions were raised about the check, it appears no one in Bondi's office investigated whether there was any impropriety.

That check dominated presidential politics early this month as national news organizations stirred up a a third wave of questions about it. The September 2013 contribution from the Donald J. Trump Foundation to Pam Bondi's political committee, And Justice For All, came around the time that New York filed a lawsuit against Trump University, alleging it scammed students out of thousands of dollars.

Florida never followed suit, and records show that even when Bill McCollum was attorney general and as early as the first months of Bondi's term in 2011, the state showed little interest in complaints against Trump's real estate seminars.

Earlier this month, Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray told the Times/Herald that the attorney general's office does not require employees to sign a code of ethics and instead has distributed chapter 112 of the Florida Satutes, which includes ethics rules that all state employees are required to abide by.

Chapter 112 bans conflicts of interest, but Larrabee has raised concerns that the attorney general's office does not have a written policy about checking for them.

Bondi has insisted that she did nothing wrong. And in fact, she didn't even need the money, winning re-election handily in 2014 and with funds to spare.

"I just knew there was nothing improper," Bondi said at a press conference last week in the Florida Capitol. "I will never let money from anyone affect what I do. I'm proud of my office. I'm proud of the work that we do."

Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

September 20, 2016

Watch Pam Bondi answer questions about Trump donation


After weeks of silence on the issue, Florida's Attorney General Pam Bondi answered questions for more than 15 minutes Tuesday morning about a controversial $25,000 campaign donation she previously accepted from Donald Trump, as her office fielded a complaint about his Trump University real estate seminars.

Bondi convened the press conference shortly before the Florida Cabinet's monthly meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee.

Watch her comments and answers to reporters' questions in the videos below, and read the full story here.

Will the governor and Cabinet hold FDLE accountable for investigating inmate deaths?

Prison deathsSix years after 27-year-old prison inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo died at Franklin Correctional Institution  after being gassed by corrections officers, an investigation has still not been complete and witnesses to the incident, who allege he was tortured and beaten by corrections officers, have still not been interviewed, according to a 33-page federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday.

On Tuesday, the head of the agency charged with investigating the state's role in the death, Rick Swearingen, faces his six-month performance review before the governor and Cabinet today. The governor and Cabinet jointly are responsible for oversight of FDLE.

On Monday, the Herald/Times asked if the governor and Cabinet believed FDLE was sufficiently following up  on the abuse-related deaths at the Department of Corrections, as the agency had told legislators it would do. For the past three years, the Miami Herald has chronicled or revealed details about many of the deaths.

The question was not about the pending investigation but how the governor and members of the Cabinet is holding FDLE accountable regarding its performance about an inmate death nearly six years ago and other deaths the agency is charged with reviewing. 

Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater responded. No one chose to answer the question, or explain why they didn't want to answer it. We did not receive a response from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Here is what we asked:

"We are writing today about a federal lawsuit being filed in connection with the death of inmate Randall Jordan Aparo in 2010. We understand the investigation was re-opened by FDLE, however, many of the witnesses in the case and others have not been interviewed, according to the lawsuit. 

"As you prepare the performance review of FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen on Tuesday, could the governor provide us with an answer to this question:

"Have you have been assured that Commissioner Swearingen and his staff are sufficiently following up on the abuse-related deaths at the Department of Corrections? If you are confident these investigations are underway, please explain how you reached that conclusion."

Here's how the governor's office answered the question at 9:47 p.m.

"Commissioner Swearingen has done a great job in his leadership role at FDLE. We look forward to his performance review tomorrow,'' said Lauren Schenone, the governor's press secretary. "Florida is now at a 45-year crime low because of the hard work of Florida’s law enforcement officers, and Commissioner Swearingen has dedicated his career to making sure Florida is the safest state in the nation.”

Here is how the office of CFO Atwater responded: "Our office has not had specific conversations about inmate investigations," said Ashley Carr, spokeswoman for Atwater.

Here is how Bondi's office responded: "It would not be appropriate to comment on a pending investigation,'' said Kylie Mason, Bondi press secretary. "Furthermore, any discussion relating to FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen's performance review must be addressed in the open at the public Cabinet meeting."

September 15, 2016

Democratic Party complaint: Trump broke Florida election law


TP_402180_BORC_1_flaprimaryThe Florida Democratic Party on Thursday morning filed an election complaint against Donald Trump, claiming he violated Florida election laws early this year when he reimbursed his foundation $25,000 for an illegal contribution to Attorney General Pam Bondi's reelection.

In 2013, the  Donald J. Trump Foundationg gave the Bondi-controlled political committee And Justice for All $25,000. But that donation violated federal tax law because charities cannot contribute to political causes. So earlier this year, Trump personally reimbursed his committee.

That, allege the Democrats, is a violation of a state law that says "A person may not make any contribution through or in the name of another, directly or indirectly, in any election."

Because of the reimbursement from Trump's personal wealth, they say, he has essentially donated to Bondi under the name of his foundation, which has separate accounts.

FDP chairwoman Allison Tant filed the complaint Thursday morning with the Florida Elections Commission.

The law exists to prevent people from using reimbursements to get around campaign finance caps. But while there's no maximum contribution for a political committee like And Justice for All, the law against donating in someone else's name applies.

After news broke earlier this year that the $25,000 contribution could be in violation of tax laws, accountant Nancy Watkins, treasurer for Bondi's political committee, said she sent a refund to Trump.

"It was refunded and he declined to accept the refund because he had already taken care of the issue," she said.

The contribution has caused a firestorm for Trump but also for Bondi, who in various complaints by liberal-leaning groups has been accused of bribery and pay-for-play politics.

Trump's donation came around the time that New York's attorney general filed a lawsuit against Trump University alleging it scammed thousands of people. Florida has never opened any investigation into similar complaints.

Photo: James Borchuck, Tampa Bay Times

September 14, 2016

Hillsborough state attorney wants another prosecutor to handle bribery complaint against Trump, Bondi


Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober has requested that a different prosecutor handle a complaint alleging that Donald Trump bribed Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Ober received a complaint from J. Whitfield Larrabee, a lawyer from Brookline, Mass., requesting an investigation by the state attorney's office into a $25,000 campaign contribution by the Trump Foundation to Bondi's reelection in 2013. The donation came around the time other states were investigating fraud complaints at Trump University, which Bondi's office declined to do.

But Ober has a conflict of interest, he says. Bondi worked as an assistant state attorney in that very office for 19 years, including nine years under Ober's leadership.

"General Bondi is a personal friend to Mr. Ober and other members of his staff," wrote Michael Sinacore, chief assistant state attorney, in a letter to Scott. "To avoid the appearance of impropriety, State Attorney Mark Ober requests taht another state attorney be assigned to discharge the duties of the state attorney in this matter."

The request was first reported by the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday.

Scott now can choose which of the other 19 state attorneys in Florida should consider an investigation into Bondi.

Though the request came from Ober's office Aug. 22, it has not yet been acted on by the governor.

“We received the letter and will process this reassignment request with the same protocol as other reassignment requests," Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in a statement.

It's common for state attorneys to request their cases be reassigned when they see a conflict of interest. However, it's less common for the subjects of a complaint to be Florida's top legal officer with ties to every state attorney.

Bondi's office and Trump's campaign have repeatedly insisted that the bribery allegations are not true. Addressing reporters in Washington on Tuesday, Scott, who chairs a pro-Trump super PAC, echoed those complaints.

“It’s just partisan politics," Scott said.

September 13, 2016

Congressional Democrats call for federal investigation into Trump, Bondi


Congressional Democrats are calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Donald Trump’s $25,000 donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2013, saying that it is a case of “bribery.”

In a Tuesday afternoon letter signed by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, including Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, members of Congress called for the  DOJ to look into bribery laws that may have been violated.

The Donald J. Trump Foundation gave Bondi’s political committee, And Justice for All, $25,000 in September 2013 around the same time her office decided not to pursue an investigation into Trump University.

“This fact pattern indicates that these payments may have influenced Mrs. Bondi’s official decision not to participate in litigation against Mr. Trump,” the members of Congress wrote in the letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

They are not the first people to call for an investigation. Democratic activist groups have done the same. Several newspaper editorial boards in Florida have as well, including the Tampa Bay Times last Thursday.

Bondi’s office was not immediately available for comment. However, a spokesman, Whitney Ray, has maintained for months that the decision of whether or not to investigate Trump University following consumer complaints never reached the attorney general’s level and was entirely handled by staff.

The New York attorney general did investigate Trump University, and lawyers in California are pursuing a class action lawsuit.

Though three years old, the $25,000 check came back into the news recently after Trump paid a $2,500 fine because of tax law violations. Charities like the Trump Foundation cannot contribute to political causes.

But congressional Democrats are concerned about a different issue.

“Our concerns extend beyond Mr. Trump’s violation of tax laws,” they wrote.

“We also note that this allegation — that Mr. Trump bribed a Florida state official to protect his business interests — is consistent with Mr. Trump’s own statements about using money to influence politics.”

Earlier Tuesday, Deutch, D-Boca Raton, and U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, called for a DOJ review.

"I went to law school," said Deutch, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. "You've got to think about ethics and you have to worry about conflicts of interest all the time."

September 12, 2016

Democratic group files FBI complaint against Bondi, Trump


TP_405699_ELLI_0403_trumpspA Democratic group has filed a complaint with the FBI questioning contributions from Donald Trump to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, calling it a "prime example of public corruption."

The complaint by the Democratic Coalition Against Trump highlights $651,000 in contributions received by Bondi and her political committee, And Justice for All, when she was seeking reelection in 2013 and 2014.

Among them is a $25,000 check that came as Bondi's office was reviewing a New York lawsuit alleging that Trump University scammed thousands of people. Bondi and her predecessor, Bill McCollum, received more than 20 complaints about Trump University.

As well, the anti-Trump group's complaint points to two $500 donations by Trump and his daughter, Ivanka. And it raises questions about money given by Republican groups.

In July and August 2014, Donald and Ivanka Trump gave a combined $125,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, which spent more than $1.4 million in support of Bondi's reelection.

And they ask that the FBI investigate a $500,000 donation to And Justtice for All from the Republican State Leadership Committee, though there are no known links between that group and Trump.

Both Bondi and Trump have insisted that they never discussed Trump University when Bondi called to ask for a campaign contribution. Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi, said in an email last week that "the matter never rose to the attorney general's level for any decision of any kind."

Last week, the Democratic Coalition Against Trump filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging bribery and civil rights violations.

Photo: Loren Elliot, Times