April 28, 2016

Three Floridians among Obama nominees to federal district bench


President Barack Obama on Thursday nominated U.S. magistrate judges in Jacksonville and Ocala and a prominent Tampa lawyer for federal district court seats, adding their names to a backlog of dozens of judicial picks the Republican-controlled Senate has failed to confirm.

Obama named Magistrate Judge Patricia D. Barksdale of Jacksonville and Tampa white-collar defense attorney William F. Jung to the Middle District of Florida, and he chose Magistrate Judge Philip R. Lammens for the Northern District of Florida.

"There is a judicial emergency in the Middle District of Florida right now," Sen. Bill Nelson said. "Sen. Rubio and I have conferred on these three nominees, and even in this highly partisan environment, I'm hopeful that we can get them approved quickly."

Aides to Rubio confirmed that the two senators had worked together in recommending the Florida nominees to Obama.

Rubio, however, declined to say whether he would push for his Senate Republican colleagues to confirm them. Republicans are refusing to hold hearings or to vote on Obama's nomination last month of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

With 85 federal district seats unfilled nationwide, Florida has three of 28 vacancies deemed "emergency" by the U.S. Judicial Conference, the policy-making body for federal courts overseen by the Supreme Court.

The emergency designation is based on a combination of the length of vacancy and how many cases are pending before a court.

Both seats that Obama moved to fill Thursday for the Middle District of Florida are among the 28 emergency vacancies, with one seat empty since June 30, 2015, and the second seat unfilled since August 1 of last year.

The Middle District of Florida had 9,401 cases in 2015, which is considered a heavy load. It stretches from south of Naples on the Gulf Coast to the Georgia border and includes Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando.

Obama also nominated five other district judges to seats in Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina and the District of Columbia.

"Throughout their careers, these nominees have displayed unwavering commitment to justice and integrity," Obama said of his eight choices for judicial promotion. "Their records are distinguished and impressive, and I am confident that they will serve the American people well from the United States District Court bench."

The Senate on April 11 unanimously confirmed Waverly Crenshaw Jr., an African-American lawyer from Nashville, Tenn., to a federal district judgeship.

The Senate confirmed just 17 of Obama's judicial nominees last year, the fewest since 1960.

Before becoming a U.S. magistrate judge in 2012, Lammens was a federal prosecutor in Jacksonville, the city's No. 2 attorney and a civil trial lawyer in the torts division of the U.S. Justice Department. He earned his law and undergraduate degrees from the University of Florida.

A U.S. magistrate judge since 2013, Barksdale also previously worked as a federal prosecutor in Jacksonville. She, too, has undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida.

Jung is a founding partner of the Jung & Sisco law firm in Ocala, specializing in white-collar criminal defense. He was a federal prosecutor in Miami in the late 1980s and clerked before that for then-Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist. Jung received his law degree from the University of Illinois and his undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University





Fact-checking Alan Grayson's claim about LeBron James' taxes

Not only has U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson endorsed presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, he also has echoed one of the senator’s main platform planks that the rich should help shore up Social Security.

At a Senate campaign debate with U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, in Orlando on April 25, 2016, Grayson said the Social Security payroll tax cap on earnings needs to be lifted in order to make the program solvent. He used the mind-boggling salary of professional basketball superstar LeBron James to illustrate his point.

"Let's talk about LeBron James. Do you know when he stops paying his Social Security taxes? He stops paying his Social Security taxes at the beginning of the second quarter of the first game of the season," Grayson said. "Rest of the game, pays nothing. Rest of the 81 games of the season, pays nothing. The offseason, still pays nothing. That's ridiculous."

The Cleveland Cavaliers forward rakes in an average of $23.5 million per year as part of his current two-year contract, so it’s not like he’s going to depend on Social Security in his twilight years.

But is Grayson right that James is done paying into the program before halftime of the first game of the season? It’s not a slam dunk, but the Orlando Democrat does score points with this one.

Keep reading Joshua Gillin's fact-check from PolitiFact Florida.

April 27, 2016

Was David Jolly only House Republican to vote against House Planned Parenthood investigation?

Seeking Marco Rubio’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat, U.S. Rep. David Jolly said during a debate in Orlando that he’s committed to sticking to conservative principles, even if it means voting against his own party.

Jolly met with U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, at an Open Debate Coalition event on April 25, 2016, to discuss the Senate candidates’ platforms. After a question about whether he would support defending or defunding Planned Parenthood, Jolly said he opposed abortion and could not support the group, which has been under fire after being accused of selling fetal tissue.

But he acknowledged other women’s health services deserved funding and decried government wasting too much time and money on attacking Planned Parenthood.

"When my side of the aisle asked for an investigation of Planned Parenthood, I actually voted no. I was the only Republican to vote no," he said. "Should the issue be looked at? Yes. But there were already three committees looking at the issue. We didn’t need a fourth. We’re either going to be the party of less government or not."

Technically, the investigation Jolly is talking about doesn’t mention Planned Parenthood by name, but the Indian Shores Republican was the lone member of his party to oppose it.

Keep reading Joshua Gillin's fact-check from PolitiFact Florida.


April 19, 2016

Patrick Murphy is a shareholder in family business that gave $300K to pro-Murphy super PAC



Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Murphy consistently expresses disdain for super PACs — even while being a shareholder in a family business that recently dumped $300,000 into a super PAC supporting his bid for higher office.

The Jupiter congressman owns between $1 million and $5 million worth of stock in his father’s company, Miami-based Coastal Construction Group, according to financial disclosures Murphy has filed with the U.S. House of Representatives since his first election in 2012.

Coastal gave a $300,000 donation to the pro-Murphy super PAC, “Floridians for a Strong Middle Class,” at the end of March. That was on top of a $200,000 donation that Murphy’s father and Coastal’s chairman and CEO, Thomas Murphy Jr., gave in December.

Thomas Murphy’s and Coastal’s donations account for more than half of the super PAC’s reported income to date, according to Federal Election Commission records.

But “I hate super PACs,” Patrick Murphy told the Palm Beach Post on Monday after a campaign event in West Palm Beach. “ I think Citizens United was one of the biggest mistakes in our country’s history.”

Super PACs are not bound by campaign contribution limits, but they are prohibited by federal law from coordinating with a candidate’s campaign.

Murphy’s campaign said there was no coordination with “Floridians for a Strong Middle Class,” but his primary opponent U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, questions whether there was.

“I think it’s hard to explain how this isn’t an illegal coordination,” Grayson said. “He’s a shareholder in the company and the company turns around and gives a huge donation to his super PAC. It smacks of utter desperation on his part.”

More here.

Photo credit: Walter Michot / Miami Herald

April 18, 2016

Mazel Tov! Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera had Bar Mitzvah at western wall in Israel

Nothing clears up the ambiguity of Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera’s religion like having a Bar Mitzvah.

Yep, at the not-so-tender age of 42, Lopez-Cantera -- who once described himself in his house biography as Catholic -- had a Bar Mitzvah at the western wall in Jerusalem last week while traveling with the Republican Lieutenant Governors Association. The Jewish rite of passage into adulthood typically occurs at age 13, but it’s not unheard of for adults to have the ceremony if they didn’t have one as a teenager.

Lopez-Cantera’s wife, Renee, and mother are Jewish, while his father is Catholic.

Lopez-Cantera brought up his Bar Mitzvah with the Miami Herald during a brief interview Monday after an event at the Jewish Community Center in Davie, where Gov. Rick Scott held a ceremonial bill signing to create a Holocaust Memorial in Tallahassee.

Lopez-Cantera told the crowd at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie that he had recently visited Israel including Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial.

After the event, the Herald asked Lopez-Cantera about how he identifies religiously.

“I’m Jewish,” he replied, and then said that he had a Bar Mitzvah while in Jerusalem.

“It definitely wasn’t planned” in advance, he said. He noted that his family wasn’t on the tour of Israel with him.

But he said the opportunity “presented itself” while he was in Israel so he had the Bar Mitzvah with a Chabad rabbi. Typically those preparing for their Bar Mitzvah study for months with a tutor and a rabbi to learn how to chant a portion in Hebrew from the Torah and lead a service. But this was more of a quickie Bar Mitzvah.

We asked Lopez-Cantera what his Torah passage was and he said he didn’t read from the Torah but did recite a prayer.

“It was a moving experience,” he said.

It’s not surprising that a Chabad rabbi would perform a spontaneous Bar Mitzvah for Lopez-Cantera. Chabad, or Chabad-Lubavitch, is an Orthodox Jewish movement and is known for outreach to Jews who express interest but may be unaffiliated or didn’t always have a strong Jewish identity.

A Chabad news service wrote that in 2014, Tallahassee Shliach Rabbi Schneor Oirechman “has been visiting Lopez-Cantera for years, having helped him put on Tefillin during his term as Republican Majority Leader.” (That refers to the pair of black leather boxes containing Hebrew parchment scrolls that men wear.)

But the politician didn’t always wear his Judaism on his sleeve. Lopez-Cantera’s religion has been a bit of a mystery over the years.

In his official state House biography in 2010, Lopez-Cantera listed himself as Catholic. In a clerk's manual in 2012, he listed no religious affiliation.

In 2014 when he was named lieutenant governor, the Herald asked Lopez-Cantera about his religion. His reply: "I'd rather not be defined that way ... We're very spiritual." (According to Jewish law, he is a Jew because his mother is Jewish.)

But he has talked more openly about being Jewish this year.

"Now, you may not have known this from my name, Lopez-Cantera, but I'm Jewish," he said in Boca Raton earlier this month at a ceremonial signing of a bill that prohibits the state from doing business with companies that favor a boycott of Israel. "My father came from Cuba but he married a nice Jewish girl in Miami, and I followed suit and married a nice Jewish girl in Miami as well ... We keep a Jewish household and are raising our daughters Jewish."

Shoring up his Jewish cred may not get Lopez-Cantera very far at the ballot box because the vast majority of Jewish voters are Democrats (although the Orthodox lean right). But it does give him one way to differentiate himself in a crowded GOP primary that includes U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis and David Jolly, wealthy businessman Carlos Beruff and entrepreneur Todd Wilcox. (Jolly also recently visited Israel where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.)

On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, who is Jewish, faces U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.

About 3 percent of Floridians are Jewish, but they tend to vote in higher concentrations than other groups so the percent of primary voters who are Jewish could be in the ballpark of five to seven percent.

The Senate primary is Aug. 30, but some will start voting by mail in July.

National, state teachers unions endorse Patrick Murphy for U.S. Senate


The state's largest teachers union and its two national affiliates are endorsing Democrat Patrick Murphy in Florida's U.S. Senate race.

The Florida Education Association threw its support behind the Jupiter congressman with an announcement Monday morning in Palm Beach County. The FEA represents over 140,000 teachers and school support professionals in the state.

President Joanne McCall said, at the FEA's recommendation, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers back Murphy's U.S. Senate bid, too.

"We support Patrick Murphy for U.S. Senate because he has proven time and time again wholehearted commitment to education and Florida’s teachers and education staff professionals," McCall said. "Patrick has stood with our teachers, education staff professionals, parents and students when it mattered the most. He knows that there is nothing more important to Florida's children's futures than a high-quality education."

Murphy said he'd continue to support fully funding education including Title I and Head Start programs, better teacher pay and universal access to pre-K education, as well as backing away from high-stakes standardized testing.

"We’re setting back an entire generation. We’ve got to make sure we’re moving toward debt-free education," Murphy said during his remarks.

Murphy has racked up establishment endorsements during the course of his bid for Marco Rubio's open U.S. Senate seat. Other union support includes the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Florida Teamsters, among others.

His primary opponent -- fellow U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando -- has also gotten support from some unions, including the Communications Workers of America.

April 15, 2016

Super PAC supporting Patrick Murphy gets $300K from his father's Miami company



In a span of four months, the father of U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, and his business interests poured a half-million dollars into a super PAC supporting his son's bid for U.S. Senate.

In mid-December, Thomas Murphy gave $200,000 of his own money to "Floridians for a Strong Middle Class," and then on March 31, Thomas Murphy's Miami-based construction company -- Coastal Construction Group -- shelled out $300,000 to the super PAC.

The $300,000 donation was revealed Friday when the super PAC's quarterly financial disclosure was made available online through the Federal Election Commission. It accounted for 74 percent of the super PAC's intake between January and March, the report showed.

In all, "Floridians for a Strong Middle Class" reported $405,000 in contributions for the first quarter, entering April with $841,300 in cash on hand.

Since the super PAC was established about a year ago, 29 people or companies have donated $965,000 to it. The two donations from Murphy's father and his company account for 52 percent of that total income.

The funds are separate from Murphy's individual campaign account, which on Monday reported raising about $2 million in the first quarter and having $5.6 million in cash on hand.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama has emerged as another top donor for "Floridians for a Strong Middle Class." The tribe gave another $50,000 in March, after first giving $50,000 last year.

Super PACs are not bound by the $2,700-per-race cap on individual contributions, as candidate's campaign committees are, nor can they coordinate directly with the candidate.

Patrick Murphy has been critical of the growing prominence and plethora of super PACs in the modern political era, despite benefiting from them both in this election and in his first U.S. House race.

Murphy's Senate campaign declined to comment today on his father's company's donation to the super PAC last quarter, and a representative of "Floridians for a Strong Middle Class" would not comment directly on it either.

"Patrick Murphy is a proven leader who has stood up for Florida's hard-working families, and as our next Senator he will continue to invest in ways to grow and strengthen Florida's middle class. His record on standing up for Florida's families is exactly why our efforts are receiving broad support," Ashley Walker, the super PAC's senior adviser, said in a statement.

Thomas Murphy has a history of giving sizable donations to super PACs supporting his son. In Patrick Murphy's first U.S. House race in 2012, Thomas Murphy gave $250,000 to the pro-Murphy super PAC American Sunrise.

Murphy faces a contentious August primary against fellow U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, in a bid for Marco Rubio's U.S. Senate seat. Grayson does not appear to have a super PAC supporting him.

Among the five Republican candidates in the race, several have super PACs supporting them.

Photo credit: Walter Michot / Miami Herald

April 13, 2016

Fact-checking Alan Grayson's claim about ethics investigation


U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson waved off a recent congressional report on his alleged ethics violations, arguing that the findings mean he’s practically in the clear.

The Office of Congressional Ethics on April 5, 2016, released a report recommending that a House committee keep investigating Grayson. The Orlando Democrat, who is running for Sen. Marco Rubio’s soon-to-open seat, has been accused of improperly managing a hedge fund, not disclosing all his finances and conducting business deals with the federal government that would be conflicts of interest.

So far, the House has not formed a new subcommittee to keep looking into the allegations. Grayson said in a conference call with reporters that is a sign he likely won’t have to face serious repercussions.

"In every single instance where there's been any formal sanction -— an expulsion, a reprimand or a censure of any member — in every one of those cases since the Office of Congressional Ethics was established, there's been an investigative subcommittee that's been established first," he said. He added that if the House Ethics Committee doesn’t form one of these panels, it usually will dismiss the complaint.

"What this does very likely represent is the end of the road regarding this particular inquiry," he said.

We wondered whether Grayson was right that formal sanctions have only followed the creation of an investigative subcommittee. We found that Grayson has a point on the most severe types of punishments, but it doesn’t mean investigations (or potential penalties) have reached "the end of the road." There may yet be mileage to cover here.

Keep reading Joshua Gillin's fact-check from PolitiFact Florida here.


Patrick Murphy's misleading claim about Florida's payday loan law


Consumer groups have attacked Florida members of Congress, including Patrick Murphy, for defending a payday lending bill that they say traps the poor in a cycle of debt.

Murphy, a Democrat who represents the Treasure Coast and is running for U.S. Senate, disagrees with those consumer advocates.

"The regulations on the (payday lending) industry are some of the strongest here in Florida, stronger than almost any other state," Murphy said in a conference call with reporters April 6.

The position of Democratic lawmakers on payday loans has been a hot topic in Florida.

We will fact-check Murphy’s claim that Florida’s payday lending law is "stronger than almost any other state." We found that consumer groups, independent researchers at Pew Charitable Trusts and the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have raised multiple criticisms of Florida’s law. No expert we interviewed consider Florida’s law to be "stronger than almost any other state."

See how PolitiFact Florida rated this statement.

April 11, 2016

Alan Grayson raises $800K in first quarter, loans another $200K to U.S. Senate campaign



Democrat Alan Grayson reports having had his most successful fundraising period to date since entering the race for Marco Rubio's U.S. Senate seat last July.

But with a crowded slate of candidates, the latest fundraising numbers for the Orlando congressman continue to fall short of his competitors.

Grayson announced this afternoon that he'd raised about $800,000 during the first three months of 2016, of which $700,000 came from online contributions.

His campaign emphasized continuing grassroots support from small-dollar donors -- noting that Grayson has gotten more than 81,000 individual contributions since entering the race and that his first-quarter haul "arrived largely from average online donations of about $16."

“This is what real democracy looks like, when thousands of average citizens give what small amount they can to help elect a true progressive, someone who’s proven he gets things done,” Grayson political director Mario Piscatella said in a statement.

But there are signs that Grayson continues to burn through money.

Grayson, who has historically helped self-fund his political endeavors, reported giving his campaign a $200,000 loan last quarter. That's on top of two $100,000 loans Grayson gave his campaign during the latter half of 2015 and a $50,000 loan he gave about two weeks before officially diving into the Senate race.

His campaign also reported entering April with about $400,000 in cash on hand, about double what he had in the bank going in to 2016 but a modest amount compared to his competitors.

By contrast, his Democratic opponent in the August primary -- fellow U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter -- announced this morning he'd raised $2 million during the first three months of 2016. Murphy also reported having $5.6 million in cash on hand, about 14 times more than Grayson says he has.

Among Republicans, Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, said last week that he'd raked in $1.1 million between January and March and had $3.2 million in cash on hand.

The other four Republican candidates have yet to release numbers. They are: U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox and Sarasota home-builder Carlos Beruff.

Democrat Pam Keith, a North Palm Beach attorney, also hasn't announced her figures. Her fundraising in previous quarters has been nominal.

First-quarter campaign finance reports are due to the Federal Election Commission on April 15.

Photo credit: AP