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July 31, 2017

Carlos Curbelo applauds Anthony Scaramucci firing, and he wants more



Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo isn't a fan of Donald Trump, but he hopes Trump's new Chief of Staff  Gen. John Kelly will continue doling out decisive action after Kelly orchestrated White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci's firing on Monday afternoon.

"General Kelly is 1 for 1. Let's keep it going," Curbelo said in a succinct tweet.

Scaramucci's firing is the latest White House staffing shakeup in recent days. On Friday, former Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus was let go by Trump via Twitter and press secretary Sean Spicer announced his resignation after Scaramucci was hired 10 days ago. 

U.S. to sanction Venezuelan president following ‘sham’ vote

@PatriciaMazzei @FrancoOrdonez

The Trump administration will freeze assets, ban travel and forbid business transactions Monday for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, accusing him of undermining democracy after he carried out an election Sunday for an all-powerful new legislative assembly in defiance of warnings from the U.S. and international community.

As part of what are expected to be a series of escalating sanctions, the Treasury Department will add Maduro to its growing list of sanctioned current and former members of the Venezuelan government and military. Administration officials began informing members of Congress of their plan early Monday afternoon.

The U.S. has yet to settle on steeper economic sanctions President Donald Trump threatened ahead of Sunday’s Venezuelan election for a new constituent assembly with the power to dissolve the opposition-held parliament, effectively wiping out the remnants of Venezuela’s democracy. On Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called the vote a “sham election.”

The Trump administration has threatened to sanction all 545 constituent assembly members once they are seated. That would include Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, and powerful congressman Diosdado Cabello, as well lowly socialist party members with no foreign assets to speak of. The new assembly is supposed to take over in the next two days. It’s unclear what U.S. assets, if any, Maduro might hold.

The administration had been debating whether to make a big sanctions splash Monday or roll out the measures in sequence over the next couple of weeks. 

The U.S. plans to refrain from deploying its harshest sanction — a ban on Venezuelan oil imports — though it had raised that possibility ahead of Sunday’s election. Instead, the Trump administration is considering Russian-type financial sanctions to limit U.S. companies from trading in sovereign debt on primary or secondary markets. The sanctions could even be retroactive, affecting Goldman Sachs’ widely criticized May purchase of $2.8 billion worth of bonds issued by Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, according to a former U.S. official who is familiar with the discussions.

More here.

Photo credit: Miraflores press office via AP

Tropical Storm Emily prompts state of emergency in 31 Florida counties


@ByKristenMClark and @stevebousquet

With Tropical Storm Emily bearing down on Florida's west-central coast, Gov. Rick Scott issued a state of emergency in 31 counties late Monday morning.

The affected counties include those in the Tampa Bay area, such as Hillsborough and Pinellas counties which are among those under a tropical storm warning. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are also covered by the emergency declaration, although they aren't forecast to be in the direct path of the storm. Read the declaration here.

"This state of emergency gives the state the flexibility to work with local governments to ensure they have the resources they may need," Scott wrote in one of a series of tweets just after 11 a.m. "[The Florida National Guard] stands ready to assist with any storm related impacts."

MORE on The latest on Tropical Storm Emily

Scott's office said at 8 a.m. the governor was en route to Tallahassee to monitor the storm from the State Emergency Operations Center.

Scott's chief spokesman John Tupps initially told the Herald/Times Scott was out of the state and Tupps declined to specify his whereabouts. Tupps later said Scott and his wife, Ann, were on vacation in Maine.

"When he found out about the storm very early this morning, he was immediately engaged and he immediately decided to head back to the state," Tupps said.

Scott was scheduled to speak by phone at 11:15 a.m. with Bryan Koon, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Photo credit: AP

Who will be the next South Florida Water Management district director?

Everglades sunrise by Jon KralWho will be the next director of the South Florida Water Management District?

The board convenes today in a conference call to announce a replacement to outgoing director Pete Antonacci, who was named by Gov. Rick Scott last week to head the embattled Enterprise Florida economic development agency, a lateral move for the governor's former general counsel and loyal supporter.

The replacement director may be an interim appointment or permanent -- potentially, only an 18-month job -- and the candidates include:

  • Ernie Marks, director of Everglades Policy and Coordination. He is considered the favorite of Antonacci, having moved to the district as recently as March 2016 from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission where he was South Florida regional director. He previously worked for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as Director of the Office of Ecosystem Projects and as a regulatory manager.
  • Terrie Bates, water resources director for the district, is a three-decade veteran of the agency. She manages the WMD's scientific focus on ecosystem and technology research.
  • Jeff Kivett, former director of the districts's operations, engineering and construction, who left in 2016 and is now vice president of the Northern California area at Brown & Caldwell, a California engineering firm. 
  •  Drew Bartlett, deputy secretary at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, has been with the state since 2007 and before that spent 16 years with the EPA. 

Once the new, or interim ED is in place, one question ahead is whether the  new director will pivot the agency to reversing the decision by Antonacci to sever ties with the National Academies of Science. Antonacci apparently took the governor's office, and his political staff, by surprise when he announced to the governing board that he no longer wanted his staff to continue the relationship with the top scientists charged with reviewing the Everglades project. 

The organization has a $358,000 annual contract with the SFWMD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review Everglades restoration progress and to produce a report every other year.

In a July 5 letter to Stephanie Johnson of the NAS, Antonacci referred to an agenda for the August 2017 Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress (CISRERP), criticizing it.  "It is plain on the face of the proposed agenda that your panel of distinguished scientists are being lead (sic) down a path of unscientific meddling into the art of budgeting, management and operation by entities designated for such purpose," he wrote.

He complained that "top down Washington nitpicking" was adding "little to the goals of Everglades Restoration" and suggested, for example, that the "development of a Combined Operation Plan" in South Miami-Dade was not helpful to Everglades restoration.

He added that if the group continued to "put science on the back burner," the SFWMD "will have no choice but to legally withdraw from any financial commitments" and he suggested the agency could instead rely on the University of Florida Water Institute, which was hired by the Florida Senate to author a 2015 a report on Everglades restoration.

Among the issues on the draft agenda was an update on Senate Bill 10 which asked the question:

"Does the Senate Bill in essence direct the Corps and District to choose the more expensive but slightly more effective '2nd best option' presented in the CEPP...i.e. the 12' deep 21,000 ac reservoir with 7000 ac STA on the A1-A2 footpront (sic) (estimated to cost $2B more but provide 2-% greater benefits?)

Antonacci was harshly critical of the Senate proposal to build a water-storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to offset the need for damaging water releases into nearby estuaries, arguing that buying land would postpone other needed improvements.

"It is well-recognized that more storage is needed system-wide, however, the myopic focus on land acquisition south of Lake Okeechobee does little to contribute to restoration success,'' he wrote in a letter to Miami-Dade commissioners.

In its latest report, the NAS noted that less than 18 percent of the $16 billion effort needed to complete the restoration project has been funded.

In his July letter, Antonacci suggested replacing the National Academies group with scientists from the University of Florida's Water Institute.

When Johnson responded in a letter, saying that "some information on budget and management is necessary for the Committee to understand the broader context for restoration progress and the relative impact of scientific issues," Antonacci was blunt.

He accused the group of "highly objectionable mission-creep" and suggested that the WMD staff "will not participate in your August meeting."

More from Craig Pittman here: Everglades restoration project leader tells top scientists: Stay in your lane

'Open carry' advocates ask Adam Putnam: Where have you been?

PutnamPinellas01Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is talking a lot about a "pathway" to an open carry gun law in Florida as he chases the Republican nomination for governor, and he proudly calls himself an "NRA sellout" on social media in response to media criticism of pushing a pro-gun agenda.

But his vocal support for an open carry law surprises people who have actually pushed for it in Tallahassee.

Two leading open carry supporters, Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, can't recall Putnam ever helping them get the bill passed.

"Zero," Gaetz said of Putnam. "He didn't help and he didn't hurt. He played no role in moving the bill. He never called me or approached me about the bill or offered to help."

Gaetz's Senate Bill 300 in the 2016 session would have allowed nearly 2 million people with concealed wepaons licenses to openly carry firearms. At an October 2015 Senate hearing, the witnesses included the NRA, Florida Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters, Fraternal Order of Police and Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith. Putnam was silent. Around the same time, Gaetz and his son Matt, then a House member and now a congressman, held a press conference with Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey. Putnam wasn't there. "He issued no statement, not even a press release," Gaetz said. "He was not involved."

Putnam's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services processes concealed weapons license applications. He has been very aggressive about promoting that, including partnerships with county tax collectors who process the paperwork. Putnam's support for the Second Amendment has never been an issue, and he got A-plus ratings from the NRA when he was in Congress. The question is his support for an open carry law.

Steube filed open carry (SB 140) in the 2017 session, and the bill was seven words long. Steube has no recollection of Putnam trying to help pass the bill.

"This is the first I'm hearing of him taking a position on it," Steube told the Times/Herald. Citing Putnam's "pathway" comments, Steube said: "Prior to that, I didn't know what his position was."

Neither Steube not Gaetz is supporting a candidate for governor.

After a speech to the Argus Foundation in Sarasota in January, Putnam was asked by the Herald-Tribune's Zac Anderson about Steube's bill. He said: "I haven't had an opportunity to review Sen. Steube's bill." Three weeks later, Capitol reporters pressed Putnam on the issue at AP's annual session for journalists. His response: "I think it is important for us to have that debate but I think, generally speaking, there are places where you can expand where people carry guns in a safe and effective way."

In a Times/Herald interview, Putnam said: "I've always been a strong supporter of the Second Amendment ... There's no inconsistency at all." He said he recalled meeting with Gaetz a number of times in the 2016 session, "but they were typically on matters related to my legislative agenda and my budget. So I certainly made the best use of time on the issues that were on the top of my list."

Photo credit: Doug Clifford, Tampa Bay Times

July 30, 2017

Matt Haggman, who may run for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat, to make "special announcement" on Tuesday


@alextdaugherty @patriciamazzei

Matt Haggman looks more like a congressional candidate with each passing day. 

When Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced that she would not run for reelection in 2018, Haggman told the Miami Herald in April a run for her seat is "something I've been actively thinking about for a while now."  

Two weeks ago, Haggman quit his post as the Knight Foundation's program director in Miami, telling a reporter to "stay tuned" about his future plans.

And now Haggman is hosting an event on Tuesday evening dubbed "Building a Better Miami" where he promises a "special announcement," according to an invitation obtained by the Miami Herald. 

Haggman, a Democrat and former Miami Herald reporter, declined to comment. 

If Haggman jumps in the race for Ros-Lehtinen's seat he will become the sixth Democrat aiming for the Miami-based seat that Democrats argue is likely to flip after Ros-Lehtinen announced her retirement in April. 

State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez of Miami, state Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, attorney Mary Barzee Flores, University of Miami academic adviser Michael Hepburn and Mark Anthony Person are all running in the Democratic primary. Miami Commissioner Ken Russell formed an exploratory committee as he considers a run. 

Three Republicans are also in the race, former Miami-Dade mayoral candidate and school board member Raquel Regalado, County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro and Maria Peiro

Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by nearly 20 percentage points in Ros-Lehtinen's district, the highest margin of victory in the country for Clinton in a district currently held by a Republican. 



July 29, 2017

Following fundraising scandal, Miami Beach commissioner expected to drop mayoral bid

Miami Beach Grieco@NickNehamas & @joeflech

After a fundraising scandal tarnished his populist campaign, Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco is privately telling supporters he will give up his bid for mayor, three sources with knowledge of his thinking told the Miami Herald on Saturday.

Grieco would instead run for his current commission seat, potentially throwing that race into disarray, one of the sources said.

“He’s following his heart,” said a donor to his campaign who asked not to be named. The donor said that he heard the news directly from Grieco and that the decision seemed to be final.

Read more.

July 28, 2017

Guarding Mar-a-Lago has cost $6.6M so far

From the Washington Post:

As the Trump administration threatened hefty budget cuts for the U.S. Coast Guard, the military service was spending more than $6.6 million protecting the president’s waterfront Mar-a-Lago Club during his seven weekend trips there this spring, documents show.

The Coast Guard deployed cutters, patrol boats, helicopters and anti-terror specialists from across the country to safeguard the luxury Palm Beach, Fla., estate.

The deployments came as Coast Guard leaders, bracing for possible budget cuts, have argued that the cash-strapped service has made painful sacrifices— letting some illegal drug shipments go and delaying certain repairs to its fleet.

The records, released Thursday to The Washington Post in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, offer a glimpse into the intricate costs and demands for a military force tasked with defending the president during his frequent getaways to his private businesses.

They also highlight how taxpayers have helped finance the unusually elaborate lifestyle of Trump and his family in ways that can also benefit his company. In this case, Mar-a-Lago, which Trump has dubbed a “Winter White House,” is also a for-profit, members-only club.

More here.

Members of Congress to Tillerson: Don't unilaterally ban Venezuelan oil imports


A group of nine House Democrats cautioned Friday against banning Venezuelan oil imports, a drastic sanction the Trump administration has considered imposing if the South American nation carries out an election Sunday for a national constituent assembly.

In a letter, the lawmakers asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has been largely absent from the Venezuela issue, to work with other countries in the region to pursue negotiations between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his opponents. Otherwise, they wrote, the U.S. risks triggering an"armed internal conflict [that] would undoubtedly provoke an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and would also likely lead to major disruptions in oil production."

"We would point out that U.S. unilateral sanctions in effect since 2015 and have done nothing to improve the political situation in the country," the lawmakers wrote Tillerson. "Instead, they were successfully exploited by the government to stoke nationalist resentment against U.S. 'imperialism,' undermining U.S. credibility as an impartial arbiter among Venezuelans."

 The letter was signed by Democratic Reps. John Conyers, Jr. of Michigan, Ro Khanna of California, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, James P. McGovern of Massachusetts, Barbara Lee of California, Henry C. 'Hank' Johnson, Jr. of Georgia, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri.

This week, the U.S. sanctioned 13 Venezuelans tied to Maduro's government. An oil-sector sanction would represent a far more serious punishment. Friday's letter was drafted, circulated and sent within one day, in response to Wednesday's sanctions. 

In pushing for negotiations, the lawmakers mentioned the past role of Pope Francis in trying to broker a Venezuelan peace. But the Vatican has stayed out of recent developments, after its initial talks went nowhere. 

The lawmakers nevertheless urged further talks.

"These negotiations should seek to address both the political crisis, with the objective of achieving a democratic, electoral solution within Venezuela’s constitutional framework, as well as the country’s economic crisis, for which foreign governments and multilateral institutions can be invited to contribute expertise and resources," the lawmakers wrote. "Talks must take into account legitimate concerns of retribution against both supporters and opponents of the government, and guarantee fundamental legal protections of both sides in the event of any political transition."  

Legislators had no kind words for Maduro, who has no apparent friends left in Washington. The letter noted that falling oil prices, corruption and "some of the worst economic mismanagement in the world" have led to widespread Venezuelan food and medicine shortages that have prompted the current political and social crisis. More than 100 people have died in nearly four months of street protests.

Still, they said, an oil-import ban is not the answer. 

At least one high-ranking Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, has also warned against an oil-import ban. The White House has said it is considering all options on Venezuela; an oil ban has the support of Miami Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. But a range of sanctions are possible, including financial restrictions aimed at limiting Venezuela's access to credit.

The opposition controls the democratically elected National Assembly, whose power would be wiped out by the new national constituent assembly to be elected Sunday.

Read the letter here.

Venezuela doesn’t have any friends left in Washington



Marco Rubio and Nancy Pelosi rarely see eye to eye.

But both the liberal Democratic leader from San Francisco and the conservative Republican from Miami agree on one thing:

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is a brutal dictator.

“The President of Venezuela, to me, looks like he’s a thug and we just can’t let them exploit poor people in the country... with a message that looks like he’s their champion,” Pelosi said.

Ahead of a vote Sunday that could dramatically change Venezuela’s constitution in favor of Maduro, the tough talk from Pelosi and other liberal Democrats now mirrors the rhetoric of Miami Republicans who have long opposed Caracas.

As a result, any sympathy towards Maduro in Washington, even among liberal Democrats who once praised the leadership of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, has vanished.

Members of Congress who maintained a dialogue with Caracas during Chavez’s administration no longer speak to Maduro.

The leadership of the Washington-based Organization of American States is demanding free and fair elections.

And the White House declared the U.S. “will take strong and swift economic actions” if the Maduro regime goes ahead with the vote Sunday.

For pro-Venezuela politicians and diplomats in Washington, Chavez’s commitment to the country’s 1999 constitution was a redeeming characteristic for a leader who trafficked in anti-U.S. rhetoric during his 14 years in power.

“I’ve known Chavez and Maduro. Anytime we met, [Chavez] would always go into his pocket and bring out the constitution of Venezuela,” said U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat and the only sitting member of Congress who attended Chavez’s funeral in 2013. “Unfortunately, what Maduro is doing is tearing up the constitution.”

Meeks maintained regular contact with Caracas even as Chavez accused the U.S. of orchestrating a failed 2002 coup and referred to former President George W. Bush as “the devil” in 2006.

But Maduro’s decision to annul the Venezuelan legislature in March, and widespread protests that have led to the deaths of more than 100 people, are too much to reconcile.

“He doesn’t seem to me to be same guy that I knew when he was the leader of the Parliament back when I first met him with Hugo Chavez or the individual I spoke with briefly after he became president,” Meeks said.

The congressman added that his conversation with Maduro in 2013 was about “getting diplomatic relationships going again.”

But something changed between 2013 and 2015, when Maduro arrested opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and began suspending democratic norms.

“It seems to me at some point, I don’t know what happened, that he was not interested in having further dialogue, he’s not the same guy,” Meeks said. “Something has to happen to change what has been going on for years now. The lines have been crossed and there’s no attempt at trying to have reconciliation.”

That wasn’t the case years ago, when Chavez enjoyed amicable relations with U.S. officials appointed by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.

“The name of the game was to engage,” said John Maisto, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 1997 to 2000.

Maisto said despite Chavez’s antagonistic rhetoric toward business interests and the United States, he was deeply committed to Article 350 of the Venezuelan constitution, which states “the Venezuelan people will not recognize any regime, legislation or authority that runs counter to democratic values, principles and guarantees, or undermines human rights.”

Protesters, including a man who attacked government buildings with a helicopter in June, have said Maduro is disregarding Article 350.

“The current regime is blatantly violating the constitution by not having local elections, by not having referenda... by trampling separation of powers and the non-recognition of the legislature,” Maisto said. “They are crossing a red line.”

Read more here.