July 08, 2014

State investigators accuse Dept of Corrections of systemic corruption

Four investigators with the Department of Corrections have accused the state of Florida of running a prison system rife with corruption, brutality and officially sanctioned gang violence — and of retaliating against them when they tried to expose what was going on.

The four filed a federal whistle-blower complaint on Monday alleging that state prisoners were beaten and tortured, that guards smuggled in drugs and other contraband in exchange for money and sexual favors, and that guards used gang enforcers to control the prison population. They claim those actions were either tacitly approved or covered up.

For weeks, the Miami Herald has reported on claims of abusive treatment by corrections officers, as related by inmates, nurses and a psychotherapist, primarily at Dade Correctional Institution, where an inmate was herded into a scorching hot shower and left until he collapsed and died. Now claims of abuse are coming from DOC investigators, the persons charged with rooting out such abuses.

“We have zero tolerance for unethical behavior, and take any allegations of abuse seriously,” said Melinda Miguel, Gov. Rick Scott’s chief inspector general. “An investigation into these allegations is currently active, and upon the conclusion of the investigation information will be made publicly available.”

In the complaint and accompanying documents, veteran investigator Aubrey P. Land described the death of a 27-year-old inmate, Randall Jordan-Aparo, who was found lifeless — a Bible next to his head, his body coated with yellow chemical gas — at Franklin Correctional Institution in September 2010. More from Julie K. Brown here. 


New FBI director visits Miami, spotlights threat of U.S. extremists traveling to Syria


FBI director James Comey said Monday that counter-terrorism is still the bureau’s No. 1 priority, but its focus has shifted toward U.S. travelers going to Syria bent on some “misguided jihad” — including a Florida man who participated in a rebel suicide-bombing attack in May.

The 22-year-old Vero Beach man, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, was believed to have been the first American suicide bomber in Syria.

Comey, who toured the FBI’s Miami field office for the first time since he was confirmed last September, said “Syrian travelers” are of grave concern to the bureau.

Comey, flanked by dozens of local, state and federal law enforcement officials during a brief speech at the Miramar Cultural Center, said the bureau is focused on U.S. travelers who go to Syria, receive terrorist training and return to the United States.

More here.

Suspended Miami Lakes mayor feels muzzled as federal trial set to begin


Michael Pizzi, the suspended mayor of Miami Lakes, has been in a funk since his arrest last summer on public-corruption charges — and not just because he faces the grim prospect of going to prison.

He can’t go to Town Hall, can’t throw his roast-pig street barbecues for senior citizens, can’t cook Mayor Pizzi’s pasta for schoolchildren and can’t hand out toys to low-income kids at Christmas.

He can't even issue his regular email blasts to political supporters, a command issued by a federal judge after Pizzi violated his bond and almost got sent to jail for contacting a government witness.

Stuck alone most days in his townhouse off the Palmetto Expressway, the perpetually hyper Pizzi says he feels like he has lost the ability to breathe.

“I miss my people,” Pizzi, 51, told the Miami Herald. “It’s killing me every day.”

Whether the two-term mayor gets his public life back will be up to Miami-Dade jurors. Pizzi’s bribery trial starts Tuesday in federal court.

More here.

Dem rivals for AG aim fire, for now, at Bondi


In the Florida Attorney General race, Democrats still must choose between George Sheldon and Perry Thurston in the Aug. 26 primary.

But nevermind that contest. For now at least, both candidates are focusing on the opponent who awaits -- Attorney General Pam Bondi.

On Tuesday, Thurston, who is the outgoing Minority Leader in the FLorida House as a representative from Fort Lauderdale, launched a new website: Bondi's Bungles.

The website mocks Bondi throughout, sporting a tagline: "Yeah, I said that," against a black-and-white photo of Bondi. Highlights include her stances against gay marriage, voting rights for felons, the Affordable Care Act, a proposed ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana, and a memorable trip to the University of Florida.  

The website classifies each one as a "bungle" and will add more in the coming weeks, said Zachary Meunier, Thurston's campaign manager.

"We're releasing Bondibungles.com to hold Pam Bondi accountable for every mess she has made in Tallahassee the last four years," Meunier said. 

The website encourages visitors to share the "bungles" on Facebook and Twitter as well submit their own nominations. 

At times, it gets personal. It calls out Bondi's defense of Florida's gay marriage ban as hypocritical because of her own history of two divorces. It highlights her comments about her dad getting her an internship and juxtaposes that against the tight job market for current college graduates. 

Continue reading "Dem rivals for AG aim fire, for now, at Bondi" »

Senate Prez-elect Andy Gardiner's staff takes shape


There is the expected churn in the Senate president's office as Don Gaetz winds down his tenure and Andy Gardiner prepares to take the reins.

Gaetz's chief of staff, Chris Clark, resigned and was recently named senior vice president of public affairs at the Florida Medical Association. Gardiner promoted Clark's deputy, Reynold Meyer, to serve as his chief of staff.

Tony Cortese, who has worked for Gardiner in various capacities over the years, will become his education policy advisor. Andrew Mackintosh will move over from the Senate Majority Office to serve as Gardiner's economic policy advisor.

Stacy VanCamp-Garcia, a longtime advisor to Gardiner, will also join his Senate presidency staff. 

There are several holdovers from Gaetz's staff, including communicators director Katie Betta, health policy chief Carol Gormley, general counsel George Levesque, and senior policy advisor Lisa Vickers.

Gardiner, R-Orlando, will officially become Senate president in a ceremony some time after the November election.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, still has two more years in his term and will keep Eric Edwards as his chief legislative aide in Tallahassee.

July 07, 2014

Tallahassee's next lobbying gold rush: cannabis

Marijuana rule hearing

The Betty Easley Conference Center was packed with a Who's Who of Tallahassee lobbyists Monday. Each of them were scouting out prospects at the Department of Health hearing on the rule that will be the template for Florida's foray into medical marijuana. 

Many of those in attendance Monday had not registered yet as executive branch lobbyists. In fact, there is still no category for the "marijuana" industry in the Legislature's lobbyists registry.

But it's a growing industry, literally, and the lobbyists crowded the room -creating a standing room only scene at what is normally a dull rules hearing.

In the audience was Louis Rotundo and Ron Watson ofthe Florida Medical Cannibis Association. Jeff Sharkey and Taylor Biehl of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida came with their prospective investors too. Clark Smith attended for the contingent of nine lobbyists hired at Southern Strategies by the perceived giant in the industry, Miami-based Costa Farms.

It's not clear where some lobbyists are affiliated. Jorge Chamizo, Dave Roberts, Ron Greenstein and Doug Mannheimer were working but none seem to be registered yet. Steve Schale and Jon Costello are registered for Sanctuary Cannabis, a Weston-based company seeking to develop the product in the Southeast region. John Lockwood is working for MJardin Management, a cannabis grower. Susan Goldstein is working for another Broward-based company, Innovative industries of Pompano.

Justin Sayfie said he has a few prospects he's working on but nothing firm. Jon Moyle represents the Stanley Brothers, who developed the trademarked "Charlotte's Web" in Colorado, and the family working closely with bringing the strain to Florida, Peyton and Holly Moseley of Pensacola.

Even Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, who is term limited out of office in November, appeared to be scouting out prospects as he roamed in and out of the hearing room Monday with a legal pad of notes. (State law prohibits former legislators from lobbying the legislature for two years but can freely lobby state agencies and other elements of the executive branch.)

Holder said he was in town "just clearing out my office'' but decided to come by. "My constituents have lots of questions,'' he said.

Dems' ad about ed cuts and tax breaks faces Truth-O-Meter

A new Florida Democratic Party TV ad accuses Gov. Rick Scott of siding with big business rather than public education.

"He didn’t side with students and parents when Rick Scott cut education funding by over a billion dollars," the narrator says in the ad, which began airing in the Tampa, West Palm Beach and Orlando markets in early July. "Working and middle-class families? Nope. Not on their side when Scott’s cuts forced tuition increases at 11 Florida universities. Why would he do it? Whose side was Rick Scott on? Scott cut education to pay for even more tax breaks for big, powerful, well-connected corporations. With his education cuts and tuition increases, Rick Scott’s not on your side."

We’ve already fact-checked claims about education cuts and tuition in the gubernatorial battle between Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Democratic frontrunner.

Here we will fact-check the claim that "Scott cut education to pay for even more tax breaks for big, powerful, well-connected corporations."

Crist rolls out first TV ad

Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist rolled out his first television spot Monday, and it is intended to win over working-class voters.

The title of the 30-second ad: Sunshine.

"'Sunshine' reflects who our campaign is about: Florida’s middle-class families and seniors, whose lives have gotten harder under [incumbent Gov.] Rick Scott," Crist campaign manager Omar Khan said.

The ad opens with the sun rising behind the iconic Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

"We’re famous for our sunshine here," Crist says. "But for many, work starts before it comes up and continues long after it goes down."

Crist goes on to say that he cut property taxes for senior citizens and middle-class families while serving as governor from 2006 to 2010.  He also says he saved 20,000 teacher jobs during the economic downturn, a claim PolitiFact Florida rated "half true."

The ad ends with three campaign promises. If elected, Crist says, he will raise the minimum wage, demand equal pay for women and restore school funding.

"I'll fight for you, from sunrise to sunset," he says.

State Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican, issued the response from the Scott campaign. 

"It's fitting that Charlie Crist's first campaign ad is called 'Sunshine' because he only wants to be around during good times," he said in a statement. "When times were tough here, Charlie instituted tax increases and teacher layoffs. Then he ran away."



Crist gets financial boost from Democratic governors

The Democratic Governors Association has funneled $500,000 to Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor now running as a Democrat against GOP Gov. Rick Scott.

The donation allowed Crist's political committee to raise more cash from June 21 to June 27 than Scott and a Scott's political committee, newly filed reports show. Candidates and their affiliated committees must now provide reports weekly.

The Crist committee -- "Charlie Crist for Florida" -- raised $625,150 during the seven-day period, including the money from the governors association, compared to the $262,000 Scott's committee -- "Let's Get to Work" -- raised during the same period. Crist's committee has raised a total of $9.34 million this election so far, compared to Scott's committee which has raised a total of  $28.85 million. 

Scott continues his fundraising edge over Crist however. Scott raised $253,237 in his campaign account during the June 21 to June 27 period, for a total of $5.5 million, compared to Crist who raised $62,910 for his campaign account during the period, bringing his total to $3.96 million.. Scott's largest contributor during this time was $100,000 to his political committee from The Villages, a Central Florida retirement community.

Former Rep. Gene Hodges of Cedar Key has died

Gene Hodges, a colorful Democratic state representative who represented Cedar Key and surrounding areas in the Florida House for nearly two decades, died Sunday at the age of 77.

A spokeswoman for the town of Cedar Key, where Hodges was a city council member, confirmed the death. A long-time colleague and friend of Hodges', former Rep. Frank Messersmith of Lake Worth, said on his Facebook page: "My old buddy, former Rep. Gene Hodges of Cedar Key, left us today. He really was a legend in his own time. Rest in Peace, buddy."

In an interview, Messersmith said he and Hodges roomed together for years in Tallahassee along with a third lawmaker, Rep. Dick Locke of Inverness. Messersmith said Hodges kept his houseboat docked at Posey's, a popular seafood restaurant and bar on the Wakulla River.

"Every Sunday, Hodges would get himself a bunch of mullet and we'd load up that houseboat and go cruising St. Marks and the Wakulla River and cook all that mullet," Messersmith said. "Hodges had a great sense of entertainment. He was a funny guy. He was a magnet."

In the House, the pace of lawmaking would immediately intensify when Hodges was handed the gavel and summoned to the speaker's rostrum. "When things got really slow on the floor, we'd yell 'HOD-ges! HOD-ges! HOD-ges!'" Messersmith said.

Hodges was a U.S. Air Force veteran and member of a prominent political family with deep roots in Florida. His father, the late Randolph Hodges, was a senator from 1952 to 1962 and served as Senate president before becoming a lobbyist for the parimutuel industry.

Gene Hodges was a House member from 1972 to 1988 and later served as a member of the Florida Parole Commission. Gene Hodges' niece is Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa.