January 22, 2010

Amtrak is ending agreement with state after CSX deal

UPDATED 3:50 p.m. An Amtrak spokeswoman is providing a clearer picture of what the letter below could mean. If the state doesn't strike a deal with Amtrak, it's possible Amtrak would discontinue service on theDeLand to Poinciana track -- the portion the state intends to purchase from CSX . (No changes in service are expected in the next 30 days, however.) As for federal funds for rail, this deal would not impact how the money is disbursed, despite implications in the Amtrak letter. The bottom line: It's just another glitch in the plagued Sun Rail deal.

UPDATED 12:45 p.m.: A letter sent Thursday to DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos puts Florida on notice that Amtrak is terminating the 2008 memorandum of understanding with the state. Without the agreement, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman writes that Florida possibly couldn't tap federal commuter rail money.

The problem is the liability clauses in the Sun Rail deal approved by the Legislature in the December special session and later signed by Gov. Charlie Crist. Amtrak raised these issues in a Nov. 30 letter to Kopelousos that went unheeded.

The termination would occur in 30 days if the state can't scurry to cut a deal with Amtrak, which is asking lawmakers to put in legislation an "enforceable, no-fault, indemnity agreement" similar to the one the state made with CSX.

The DOT's agreement with Amtrak on liability issues "preclude FDOT from assuming the indemnity obligations for which CSX is responsible," the letter states.

It's unclear whether this is just a bureaucratic mess or a roadblock that could interrupt commuter traffic in Florida.

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January 08, 2010

IG inquiry into Peterman turns up more details

Florida juvenile justice chief Frank Peterman's extensive travel at taxpayer expense includes thousands of dollars in extra charges because of missed flights as well as $2,300 in airport parking costs called "excessive" in an ongoing state review.

The inspector general's investigation was ordered by Gov. Charlie Crist after a Times/Herald report in November showed that Peterman spent $44,000 on travel over 21 months, about half of it for flights between Tallahassee and Tampa. The inquiry, expected to be completed next week, also shows:

• Peterman, who maintains a second office in St. Petersburg with a secretary, approved $26,000 in renovations to the office shortly after he took over the Department of Juvenile Justice in February 2008.

• Even though his family home is in St. Petersburg, he charged the state $785 for five hotel nights and a rental car at two Tampa conferences, and has paid to park cars in Tampa and Tallahassee for round-trip flights.

• On at least 18 occasions, he has changed flight times at an average cost to the state of $100 each. Shamika Baker, Peterman's executive assistant, says he overslept and missed some flights, but he says she's "misinformed." (Story here)

December 16, 2009

State asking for Avis fee money refund -- from state workers

Here's an interesting side note to today’s story about Avis’ agreement to refund some “Plate Pass” charges that were charged even on days customers didn't use the toll payment service.

From our review of several agencies’ travel records, it seems Avis is the company of choice when an agency head rents a car. There are multiple charges for tolls under the heading of Avis.

Is the state asking for its money back?

According to Attorney General spokeswoman Sandi Copes, it already has – from the employees themselves.

Copes isn’t sure about other agencies, but she had to cut the state a check for several days worth of charges after one trip she made. She used the Plate Pass on the first day of her trip when she realized it was 9 p.m., she didn’t have any cash and there was nowhere to stop. She paid the tolls with cash for the rest of the trip.

“I ended up having to write the check to the state,” Copes said. “The charges were ultimately billed to the individual employee.”

November 18, 2009

Crist orders IG to check into Peterman's travel

Gov. Charlie Crist has asked his inspector general, Melinda Miguel, to look into Wednesday's Herald/Times report that Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman has racked up $44,000 in travel expenses in less than two years.

That total includes nearly $20,000 in airplane trips between Tallahassee and Tampa. Peterman owns a house in St. Petersburg, and his wife and four children still live there.

Crist, who appointed Peterman to the DJJ post in February 2008, told reporters of his desire to have his in-house troubleshooter look into Peterman's travel. But he did not pass judgment.

"Hopefully, there's not more," Crist said. "You know, I like to go to St. Pete sometimes, too. But I pay for it."

Peterman, 47, is a former Democratic state legislator who said his travel allows him to interact more frequently with his staff and the agency's clients.

-- Steve Bousquet

November 03, 2009

Burn Notice star stumps for film tax credits

FILMPRESSER010Better known as a spy who uses special ops training to help people, Jeffrey Donovan played a lobbyist for the TV (news) cameras Tuesday to highlight the economic impact his show brings to South Florida.

Photo: Jeffrey Donovan, star of Burn Notice, lobbying for more film tax incentives. On the left is CFO Alex Sink and on the right is Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda.

The star of USA Network’s top-rated show Burn Notice, Donovan was at the Capitol to lobby for more state film incentives and to help announce the new Film, Entertainment and Television legislative caucus.

Flanked by about a dozen lawmakers, CFO Alex Sink and State Film Commissioner Lucia Fishburne on the Fourth Floor Rotunda, Donovan relayed one example of how his show pumps up South Florida’s economy.

While filming an episode in the second season, the film crew befriended a flower vendor in a bad area near Hialeah. The next season, a writer for the show crafted an episode around a similar flower vendor and the show paid $10,000 to rent out his shop for a day.

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April 14, 2009

Judge rules Florida law on Cuba travel unconstitutional

Travel_agents A federal judge Tuesday morning overturned a 2008 state law that increased registration fees and requirements for travel agencies specializing in trips to Cuba.

U.S. District Court Judge Alan S. Gold's decision comes just a day after the Obama administration announced lifting several travel restrictions to Cuba …allowing Cuban exiles to visit the Island more than once a year, pushing for use of cellphones on the island and easing requirements for
remittances to relatives.

 In question was the 2008 Sellers of Travel Act approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist. The act required travel agencies in Florida selling trips to Cuba to post up to a $250,000 bond and pay up to $25,000 in registration fees.

Local travel agencies decried the measure as unfair because their financial requirements were nearly 10 times he amount of agencies not selling trips to Cuba or any of the countries listed as terrorist nations by the U.S. State Department.

 Tuesday's decision was celebrated by the 13 local travel agencies that tried to stop the measure from going into effect by filing a federal law suit against the state in July.

 "We felt all along that justice would prevail and that the judge would see how irrational and unjust this law was,'' said Armando Garcia, owner of Marazul Charters Travel.

Despite Gold's decision, Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican, who sponsored the law, said any decision could potentially be appealed.

"I don't see this ending here,'' Rivera said after a Friday afternoon court hearing on the issue.