Note: This blog's templates will be updated this afternoon to a responsive design bringing it in line with

At that time, we will also change to the Facebook commenting system. You will need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment.

February 13, 2018

This bill would allow trafficking victims to sue hotels. Hotels aren't happy.


When Savannah Parvu was being sold for sex out of a central Florida hotel room, she was just 12 years old.

Men came in and raped her, and hotel staff asked nothing and did nothing, she told legislators on Monday.

Sometimes, her trafficker asked hotel staff for favors, asking them to open the door to let men inside. They obliged.

One night, when she didn't have a ride home from the hotel, her trafficker asked hotel staff to tell her to walk. They obliged.

"I was walking barefoot, bloody, beaten and alone at 12 years old down the hallway of the hotel," she told legislators. "Nobody helped me. No one asked questions. Nobody did anything."

Parvu's story is at the center of a debate over a bill in the Florida Legislature that would allow human trafficking victims to sue some of the businesses that most profit from it: hotels and motels.

On the surface, the bill has widespread support, passing three committees without anyone voting against it. But behind the scenes, the hotel industry is waging a campaign against it, legislators say.

"We've seen language, not from Disney directly ... that would have removed some of the teeth that exist," said the senate bill sponsor, state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation. When asked whether there has been a behind-the-scenes effort to weaken the bill, Book said, "I think that's a fair assumption."

The House version of the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, might be defanged. Spano filed an amendment that would exempt hotels and motels from being sued, but the amendment hasn't been taken up yet.

Neither Disney nor the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which are both registered to lobby the House version of the bill, responded to requests for comment.

And no one spoke against the bill during Monday's committee hearing, in which survivors of human trafficking told horrifying stories of rape and abuse in Florida hotel rooms.

"That is where the largest percent of sex trafficking takes place," said Connie Rose, who said she was sexually abused by her father from age 2 and then forced into prostitution at age 15.

The bill would not just allow victims to sue their traffickers and "willfully blind" companies that help carry out trafficking.

If the victims win their lawsuits, their defendants would have to pay an additional $50,000 penalty, which would go to a trust fund for other victims. If police rescued the trafficking victim, an additional $50,000 would be imposed on the defendant, for other anti-trafficking efforts by police.

But the bill gives hotels an easy way to escape such lawsuits. If the hotel trains employees to recognize signs of trafficking, has a protocol for reporting it, and employees followed the training and protocols, the hotel has an "affirmative defense" that would quash the lawsuit.

Texas and Pennsylvania have adopted similar laws, and at least two lawsuits have followed. In January, a Houston teen who was trafficked filed a case against 15 hotel chains and five truck stops. Last year, a 14-year-old girl filed a lawsuit against a roadside motel in Philadelphia where she was forced to have sex with as many as 1,000 men over two years.

Former Seminole County prosecutor Lisa Haba told legislators that the signs of trafficking are obvious, and that hotel staff often know what's going on. She recalled one case she brought against a man who was trafficking a 17-year-old girl in a Days Inn.

Haba said she put the hotel manager on the stand during the trial, where the woman admitted knowing prostitution was going on, but said she was only concerned with renting rooms and paying bills.

"That girl was raped more than 10 times in one day because that woman turned a blind eye and did nothing," Haba said.

On Monday, senators were awed by the women who recounted being trafficked, even if they expressed concern about creating a new market for trial lawyers to go after hotels.

"How do we protect an industry without just telling them they’re guilty before getting started?" state Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said.

Neither Broxson nor committee chairman René Garcia, R-Hialeah, who also expressed concerns about the bill, said they were approached by anyone in  the hotel industry. Broxson did say he had heard rumors that the industry was trying to influence the bill.

"They haven't spoken to me. The concerns that I have are my concerns," Garcia said. "I could care less about the industry. My whole concern is about the victims."

Both senators voted for the bill.

Broxson called one of the women who spoke "an incredible human being" for sharing her story.

"You will be remembered forever here for being one of the greatest people we’ve ever seen," he said.

Immigration showdown: First debate of 2018 Florida governor's race Tuesday night

image from
A screen grab from a video Richard Corcoran tweeted in preparation for the debate

Surely Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, intended to generate buzz with his explosive first campaign ad last month, but he's getting extra bang for his buck with a debate scheduled for Tuesday night with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

After Corcoran released an incendiary TV ad in late January that depicted a white woman being shot in a suburban Florida neighborhood by an "illegal immigrant," Gillum, who is running for governor as a Democrat, criticized him via Twitter. Corcoran then challenged him to a debate over the issue. Corcoran has repeatedly called Tallahassee a "sanctuary city" and has made this issue a centerpiece of the 2018 session in a classic Trump-era appeal to Republican base voters.

But this debate is anything but typical, as Corcoran technically isn't running for governor yet because he has not announced his candidacy. What's more, the debate will center around "sanctuary cities," which the Florida House tried to ban in a bill that has severely stalled the Senate anyway.

Even still, Tuesday night will be an opportunity for both candidates, neither of whom are early front-runners, to get their messages out and highlight their firmly held ideologies — which are essentially complete opposites.

The debate is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. and last 45 minutes. It's being held in Tallahassee and will be broadcast on Facebook Live at both Corcoran's and Gillum's Facebook pages.

Follow the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau's coverage for related stories and analysis during and after the debate.

February 12, 2018

Latvala keeps spending: $100,000 legal bill, fine dining, resorts -- and $19,500 in refunds

Jack LatvalaFormer Sen. Jack Latvala is not raising money for his failed bid for governor but the Clearwater Republican who resigned after being accused of sexual harassment continues to spend his campaign funds --- on legal bills, hotels, car rentals and fine dining at restaurants and resorts around the state.

In January, Latvala wrote a second check from his campaign for governor account for $100,000 to Tallahassee lawyer Steven R. Andrews, whom he hired to represent him when he faced a Senate ethics complaint from legislative aide Rachel Perrin Rogers. He also paid $5,100 to the Fournier Law Firm in Tallahassee. In December, Latvala paid Andrews $100,000 from his campaign account as well as $12,705 to Adams and Reese, a Tampa law firm. And in November, Latvala paid Andrews $40,000.

Latvala announced his resignation from the Senate on Dec. 20 but on Dec. 27, his campaign logged in expenses of $423 at the Lago Mar Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale, $412 at the Capital Grille in Miami, $277 at the Villa Bellini restaurant in Tampa and $16.61 for a meal at Cracker Barrel. 

Latvala said late Monday that even though the expenses appeared on his report in December, the travel expenses “were all in October. No reimbursements for expenses by me after this controversy started.” 

Latvala's January campaign expenses include $532 at the Avila Country Club in Tampa for "catering."

He also spent $6,100 for Hollywood, Cal., political consultant Fred Davis who advertises the fact that his firm, Strategic Perception Inc., uses "creativity, humor and emotion to win tough elections, even in years when Republicans are not favored."

State law prohibits candidates from using their political funds to “defray normal living expenses" and candidates often justify their expenses as part of their fundraising efforts. But Latvala raised only $110 in December and nothing in January.

He told the Times/Herald that he had obtained a legal opinion from John French, a Florida election law expert, who advised him he could use his campaign fund for pay his legal bills because "such serious charges as sexual harassment will indisputably produce results that will, in fact, influence the election for governor in 2018."

At least three groups of donors wanted their money back. Latvala's campaign returned $19,500 to three real estate and investment companies in Fort Myers and Destin.

“Those were just the first refunds,'' Latvala said Monday. "We have now begun processing refunds for the rest of campaign contributors."

Latvala’s campaign account for governor showed a balance of about $476,000 as of Jan. 31. Contributions to the campaign accounts for statewide candidates are limited to $3,000 per election cycle.

The individual account is separate from Latvala’s political committee, the Florida Leadership Committee, which can accept contributions of any amount. That account shows a cash balance of about $3.9 million on Jan. 31. The January expenditures of about $56,000 went primarily to Latvala's consultants and staff. 

Scott and Cabinet seek sole power to change felon voting rules




Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet told a federal judge Monday that the four Republican officials should decide on their own how to change a vote-restoration system for felons that the judge ruled unconstitutional.

But a national voting rights advocacy group that persuaded the judge to strike down the current system wants the judge to order the restoration of the right to vote for all felons after they complete "any waiting period of a specified duration of time."

"Such an order," the Fair Elections Legal Network said in its filing, "will effectively eliminate the requirement for ex-felons to affirmatively apply for restoration and eliminate the state's obligation to investigate each ex-felon in the state of Florida."

Fair Elections said its proposal defers to whatever waiting period exists in state law.

At present, all felons must wait five years after completing their sentences before they can apply for a restoration of rights. Murderers and sex offenders must wait seven years.

But that appears to go far beyond what Scott and Cabinet members want.

In their legal brief filed with U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, state leaders said it would be "inappropriate" for a court to order them to create any new vote restoration system.

"This court should not issue an injunction prohibiting the state from exercising its right to choose a particular course, so long as its course is compatible with the requirements of federal law," the state argued in a brief filed by Attorney General Pam Bondi's solicitor general, Amit Agarwal.

"An injunction requiring (the state) to affirmatively act to create a new vote-restoration procedure would be inappropriate," the state also argued.

Rather, the state asserted, Scott and the Cabinet should consider a number of options, including a uniform policy of declining to restore any felon's right to vote; amending its rules to permanently revoke voting rights of certain felons; providing for discretion or non-discretion in all cases or continuing the current system with its mandatory waiting periods.

The state's brief noted that Walker, in his Feb. 1 order, acknowledged that states have the power to pass laws that disenfranchise convicted felons by permanently stripping their right to vote.

Scott's office noted Monday that the judge had denied a request by Fair Elections Legal Network to automatically restore the voting rights of convicted felons.

As the legal skirmishes go on, supporters are mobilizing to win passage of a ballot initiative to automatically restore the right to vote to most felons in Florida, not including murderers and sex offenders.

Known as Amendment 4, it would require passage by 60 percent of participating voters to change the Constitution.

Florida is one of four states, along with Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia, that impose a lifetime ban on voting for convicted felons.

Those rights can be restored only after a five-year waiting period followed by the felon's successful petition to Scott and Cabinet members, who meet four times annually to decide each case.

Voting rights advocates say about 6 million Americans with felony convictions have been permanently barred from voting, and about 1.5 million of them are from Florida — far more than any other state.

Walker is expected to issue an order in the case, and Scott has indicated that the state will appeal it to a federal appeals court in Atlanta.

"I've been clear," Scott said in Tampa several days ago. "If you're a felon, I believe you should take the time so we can see that you have re-integrated and done the right thing to society before you get your rights back."

Led by Scott and Bondi, the state in 2011 scrapped a policy under which most felons could regain their voting rights without a formal hearing, a process that takes years. 

Instead, Scott, Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and former Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater approved a policy under which most felons had to wait for five years after completing their sentences before applying for clemency. That can take a decade or more.

The Fair Elections Legal Network and other advocacy groups challenged the constitutionality of Florida's vote restoration system, and on Feb. 1 Judge Walker granted a motion of summary judgment that said the Florida system, by giving "unfettered discretion" to four elected officials, is unconstitutional.

The next scheduled meeting of the clemency board of Thursday, March 8.

Photo: Tampa Bay Times

Miami wants rail permits. Trump: ‘We’ll get them for you so fast your head will spin.’


@doug_hanks @alextdaugherty 

President Donald Trump pledged environmental regulation wouldn’t hold up Miami-Dade’s quest for more rail projects, telling a county commissioner that federal permits will arrive “so fast your head will spin.”

The longtime owner of one of Miami-Dade’s largest resorts, Trump told Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo that federal red tape won’t hold up local transit projects.

“We’re going to get you the federal permits, OK? And we’re going to get you the environmental and transportation permits,” Trump said to Bovo, a fellow Republican seated a few seats down from the president at a White House event Monday touting the administration’s new infrastructure plan. “We’ll get them for you so fast your head will spin. The question will be whether you can get the local permits. That’s up to you.”

The moment put Miami-Dade in the spotlight for the president’s unveiling of his infrastructure plan, with Bovo literally having a televised voice at the table as the White House tries to drum up support for its $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. The plan relies on federal money to attract state, local and private dollars to major projects.

Bovo cited Trump’s history in Miami — he owns the Trump National Doral golf resort and tried to take over the county’s Crandon Park golf course shortly before running for president — in making a pitch for Washington’s help.

“Mr. President, you would appreciate, knowing Miami-Dade the way you do, the gridlock we’re experiencing,” Bovo said.

The presidential statement also arrived at an interesting juncture in Miami-Dade’s latest effort to revive stalled plans to expand the 25-mile Metrorail system. Summoned to the White House was Bovo, a champion of expanding rail, and not Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has warned that Miami-Dade can’t afford either the expense or the red-tape delays required to extend Metrorail farther into the suburbs.

Gimenez last year proposed a $534 million plan to create dedicated lanes and elevated stations for high-tech bus service connecting Metrorail to Florida City to the south and Miami Gardens to the north. He’s pitching the stations as convertible to rail if Miami-Dade later can afford to expand Metrorail.

Read more here.

Bill Nelson slams Trump's proposed NASA cuts



Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the only member of Congress who's been to space, had sharp words for President Donald Trump's proposal to cut funding for the International Space Station in 2025 as part of his 2019 budget framework released on Monday. 

"The administration’s budget for NASA is a nonstarter. If we’re ever going to get to Mars with humans on board and return them safely, then we need a larger funding increase for NASA. The proposal would also end support for the International Space Station in 2025 and make deep cuts to popular education and science programs," Nelson said in a statement. "Turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space at a time when we’re pushing the frontiers of exploration makes no sense." 

Nelson, the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee which has oversight of NASA, is a strong proponent of robust NASA funding and getting astronauts to Mars sometime in the 2030s. 

Trump's budget proposal isn't likely to get morphed into law by Congress, though his 2019 plan would keep the federal deficit intact if enacted, which is in contrast to his 2018 plan released last year. Keeping the federal deficit intact after 10 years is a deviation from a longtime Republican Party goal of balancing the federal budget. 

NOAA gets $400 million in disaster funds in latest spending bill



The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is getting an infusion of cash to finish Hurricane Irma recovery efforts in Florida. 

Congress agreed to spend $18 million for marine debris cleanup and $200 million to help damaged fisheries in Florida and Texas as part of a massive $300 billion spending plan that was attached to a bill to keep the federal government running until late March. 

The $400 million for NOAA included about $200 million initially approved by the House of Representatives in October, and the $200 million in fisheries disaster assistance was added by the U.S. Senate in the plan that President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday. 

The NOAA money will go towards cleaning up debris-clogged canals in the Florida Keys along with $50 million for hurricane and flood forecasting along with flood mitigation. 

"NOAA will now have the resources to unclog waterways and clean beaches," said Addie Haughey, government relations associate director at the Ocean Conservancy. "Fishermen from Key West to Galveston will get relief from NOAA so they can get back out on the water. With Hurricane season four months away, Congress has given NOAA the tools to continue predicting storms and prevent flooding along the coasts." 

Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson both praised the spending bill's disaster help for Florida and ultimately voted for it, though Rubio wasn't happy about adding billions to the federal deficit. 

Here's the breakdown of NOAA funds included in the spending bill, according to the Ocean Conservancy: 

Repair, replacement of property & equipment: $42.1 million 

Marine debris: $18 million 

Mapping, charting and geodesy services: $40 million 

Hurricane, flood forecasting and mitigation: $50 million 

Weather computing and satellite ground services: $50 million 

Fisheries disaster assistance: $200 million 

Miami-Dade mayor losing his spokesman after four years.


Michael hernandez ed board

(Photo caption: Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, left, communications director Michael Hernández, center, and Gimenez chief of staff Alex Ferro, right, during a 2016 meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board.)

Michael Hernández, communications director to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and one of the most recognizable faces in county government, is leaving for a public affairs firm.

The 35-year-old former political consultant and Democratic Party activist joined the Republican mayor's administration in 2014 at a time when Gimenez was considering an exit from the GOP. But Gimenez stayed, and so did Hernández -- representing Gimenez through his 2016 reelection bid, the county's Zika crisis and Gimenez's decision in early 2017 to unilaterally end Miami-Dade's status as a "sanctuary" community and change the county's policy on immigration detainers to match the wishes of newly elected President Donald Trump.

Hernández called the public outcry from the left over Gimenez's move, praised by Trump himself and later endorsed by the county commission, "probably the most challenging period for me in this role."

Hernandez, a married father of two who earned $174,000 last year under the title of communications director and senior adviser to the mayor, is leaving for a post at the South Florida office of the Mercury public affairs firm. Ashley Walker, Barack Obama's 2012 Florida campaign director, heads up the firm's Fort Lauderdale office and former Democratic congressman Joe Garcia was hired last year to represent the firm in Miami

"I had committed to a two-year stay. I'm on year four. The time is right," Hernández said Monday. 

His planned departure at the end of February creates a void for the mayor as he heads into his final two years in office before a term limit rules require a 2020 exit. There was no word Monday from Gimenez's camp on a potential replacement. 


Miami-Dade Commission chair meets with Trump ahead of latest infrastructure plan

Steve bovo


President Donald Trump is going to unveil his latest $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan on Monday and Miami-Dade County Commission chair Esteban “Steve” Bovo will be on hand. 

Bovo, head of the county's transit committee, was part of about two dozen governors, state legislators, mayors and local officials from around the country invited to the White House. 

"In DC today for meetings with before the roll out of trillion dollar infrastructure bill. Funding for transportation and transit is critical to the ," Bovo tweeted. 

Miami-Dade will need federal funds to move forward with the SMART transit plan which aims to reduce traffic along six major travel routes in and out of downtown Miami. The White House plan calls for $200 billion in direct federal funding with the bulk of the $1.5 trillion to come from state and local governments along with private firms.  

Philip Levine runs immigration ad on FOX News in D.C. to 'send message' to Trump



Taking a page from the book of "Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver, Philip Levine is hoping to send a message to President Donald Trump by running a campaign commercial critical of the president on FOX News in Washington D.C.

Levine's Florida gubernatorial campaign announced Monday morning that it's spending $250,000 to run a commercial around the state that smacks Florida House Speaker and likely Republican candidate for governor Richard Corcoran for an ant-sanctuary cities commercial that critics have slammed as "race-baiting." Levine is launching the commercial one day ahead of a scheduled debate between Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic rival Andrew Gillum.

Surely, Levine is hoping to steal some of the spotlight from Gillum, whose communications director threw some shade at Levine Monday morning.

"Glad to have Mayor Levine finally speak up the way Mayor Gillum did three weeks ago on Speaker Corcoran’s TV ad," Geoff Burgnan said. "Floridians need a fighter like Mayor Gillum in the Governor’s Mansion, not someone who waits for polling to tell him when to take a stand.”

But is he also hoping to get some earned media attention of his own?

Along with the quarter-million spent in the Sunshine State -- part of a roughly $2.5 million ad buy in his campaign's first four months -- Levine is spending $20,000 to air the same commercial in D.C. on CNN and FOX News. The ad not only knocks Corcoran, but also goes after Trump.

"It's bad enough we hear this from a president who bullies for a living," Levine says in the ad. "What's worse are those who encourage it."

So, why would Levine spend money in Washington D.C. when he's running for governor in Florida? Senior campaign advisor Christian Ulvert told reporters in a phone conference that Levine wants to send a message to "those in DCs who continue to stoke this kind of fear and message of hate."

Or, maybe Levine is hoping a @realdonaldtrump tweet will do the same thing (in reverse) for a Democratic candidate that it did for Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, who became an instant contender in December when Trump appeared to endorse him on Twitter. Perhaps vitriol from Trump is as good for a Democratic candidate as love from the president is for a Republican.

"I think we all can agree that it's hard to predict what this president would do," Ulvert said.