July 10, 2014

Judge invalidates Florida's congressional districts, appeal is likely

A circuit court judge threw out Florida's congressional redistricting map Thursday ruling that the Florida Legislature allowed for a "secret, organized campaign" by partisan operatives to subvert the redistricting process in violation of the state constitution.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ordered two of the state's 27 districts to be redrawn to bring the map into compliance with the state's new Fair District amendments.

The 41-page ruling, issued late Thursday, raises questions now about whether the congressional map will be redrawn before the November elections or revised later. Any change in the political lines for Congress would have a ripple effect on other races.

The ruling in the lawsuit brought by a coaltion of voters and the League of Women Voters is expected to be repealed and ultimately decided by the Florida Supreme Court.

Lewis judge rejected challenges to districts in South Florida and that Tampa Bay but said that District 5, held by Democrat U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, and District 10, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster of Winter Garden, "will need to be redrawn, as will any other districts affected thereby." 

"We were extremely gratified,'' said David King, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. 

Lewis blasted the role of the political consultants saying "they made a mockery of the Legislature's transparent and open process of redistricting" while "going to great lengths to conceal from the public their paln and their participation in it."

"They were successful in their efforts to influence the redistricting process and the congressional plan under review here,'' he wrote. "And they might have successfully concealed their scheme and their actions from the public had it not been for the Plaintiffs determined efforts to uncover it in this case."

He concluded, however, that the circumstantial evidence proved that the political operatives "managed to find other avenues...to infiltrate and influence the Legislature."

He drew no conclusions that House Speaker Will Weatherford, former House Speaker Dean Cannon, and Senate President Don Gaetz were aware of the scheme, but he raised doubts that they were not in some way complicit. Lewis detailed the involvement of Cannon's aide, Kirk Pepper, and repeated evidence that came out at trial about Pepper forwarding draft maps to GOP operative Marc Reichelderfer.

Lewis also noted that Legislative leaders and the political operatives destroyed almost all of their emails and other documents related to redistricting and concluded that the circumstantial evidence surrounding all of those developments, and the evidence that the consultants attempted to influence the same districts he has found problematic, proved the GOP operatives were trying to influence the process.

"There is no legal duty on the part of the Legislature to preserve these records, but you have to wonder why they didn't,'' he wrote. "Litigation over their plans was 'a moral certainty' as their lawyers put it earlier in the case, and intent woudl be a key issue in any challenge." 

He also defended his decision to allow the inclusion of documents from political consultant Pat Bainter into the record. Lewis rejected Bainter's claim that the documents were trade secret but that issue is now on appeal before the Florida Supreme Court, so Lewis closed the courtroom and sealed the documents to allow discussion of them during trial.

Lewis said they provided the evidence needed by the plaintiffs to show there was a secret, shadow redistricting process being conducted by the political operatives. "The evidence was highly relevant and not available from other sources,'' he wrote "....to show how extensive and organized" the shadow map-making process was "and what lengths they went in order to conceal what they were doing." 

Lewis tore apart the defense of the most controversial district in Florida's map -- District 5, a snake-shaped that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando that was first drawn by a court 20 years ago and which Brown has represented since then. Brown was so intent on leaving the district unchanged, that she challenged the constitutionality of Florida Fair District amendments adoped by voter in 2010, but she lost.

He said the decision by Republican leaders to increase the black voting age population in the district "was not compelling" but concluded it was done to improve the performance of surrounding districts to benefit Republicans. 

Lewis also concluded that the trail of emails and secret documents, which GOP operatives fought to keep out of the record, proved that "Republican political consultants or operatives did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process.

"They accomplished this by writing scripts for and organizing groups of people to attend the public hearings to advocate for adoption of certain components or characteristics in the maps, and by submitting maps and partial maps through the public process, all with the intention of obtaining enacted maps for the State House and Senate and for Congress that would favor the Republican Party," Lewis wrote. 

He concluded, however, that the legislative staff involved in drawing the maps were not part of this scheme and said that staffers Alex Kelly, John Guthrie and Jason Poreda were "straightforward, frank and credible." 

Lewis commended District 10 for following the requirement that districts be compact but he noted that an appendage added late in the process was "drawn to benefit the Republican Party and the incumbent," Rep. Webster.

He rejected claims by lawyers for the Legislature that a neighboring district was needed to be created to elected Hispanics and the appendage, which moved 80,000 voting age population out of Webster's district and another 71,000 into it, was needed to enable the partisan advantage. 

"The appendage benefited the incumbent Representative Webster by returning to District 10 territory that was part of his benchmark District 8 and improved the Republican performan of District 10 in two out of three elections relied upon by the Florida Supreme Court,'' Lewis wrote. 

Lewis also said the meetings held between legislators, political operatives and their staff involving Washington D.C. redistricting expert Ben Ginsberg raised some issues "that are troubling."

He noted that while the political consultants could have submitted maps, and showed intense interest in designing the maps, no on in the Legislature raised questions about why they didn't.

"I would think that the staff and legislative leaders would find it extremely strange, that they might even ask why not. But they didn't,'' he wrote. 

Lewis also raised questions about the decision by House and Seante leaders to ignore the potential political performance of most districts they drew and why they didn't concern themselves with the authors of publicly-submitted maps. 

"Turning a blind eye to the probability of improper intent in these maps is not the same as neutrality,'' he wrote.

Miami Rep. Diaz-Balart: Decision to give up on immigration legislation ‘highly irresponsible’


U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Miami, sharply criticized the decision to give up on immigration legislation this year.

In a Washington press conference Thursday afternoon, Diaz-Balart said he had been informed by House leadership earlier in the day that legislation he pushed that would have led to a path to citizenship for immigrants already in the U.S. was dead this year.

His legislation, he said, would have acknowledged that “we are not going to spend tens of billions of dollars to roundup and deport millions of undocumented workers who have been here for many years.” It would have required those who came to the U.S. illegally to earn legal status.

“It is an efficient and effective approach that is good for the American economy and fair to the people who came here legally,” he said.

But on Thursday, he said, he was informed by the Republican leadership that they have no intention to bring the bill to the House floor in 2014.

“It is disappointing and highly unfortunate,” he said.

He added it was “highly irresponsible not to deal with the issue.”

“We were sent here by the American people precisely to tackle difficult issues and not to take the easy way out,” he said. “By blocking reform, whether it was when Nancy Pelosi was speaker or now, we are in effect abdicating our duty. Particularly when we have a president that is willing to unilaterally act through executive action, that he himself has said is legally circumspect, will not provide a long-term solution to our immigration system, and I believe could even make it worse.”

Giving up on broad immigration legislation wasn’t a surprise to much of Washington, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said last month that the issue was effectively dead and unlikely to be pursued until after President Barack Obama left office. The issue shows the divide in a GOP that is trying to appeal both to Latino voters and business leaders who favor legalization and the tea party wing of the party that doesn’t endorse any mass legalization efforts.

As for the possibility of the bill’s success, Diaz-Balart had been optimistic.

“I feel absolutely confident that we had the support of the majority – the majority – of the House Republican conference, and also a very strong group of Democrats,” he said after delivering his prepared comments in both English and Spanish.

Dems attack Scott's education record in new Spanish-language ad

Democrats are taking aim at Gov. Rick Scott's education record -- en Español.

On Thursday, the party released its first Spanish-language TV ad, a 30-second spot called "Recortes," or "Cuts."

It opens with an image of the Republican governor on a chalkboard.

"Our community needs a governor who fights on our side," a woman says in Spanish. "That's why it's alarming to know that Gov. Rick Scott cut more than a $1 billion from our public schools."

The ad mentions neither former Gov. Charlie Crist nor former state Sen. Nan Rich, the two Democrats running for governor. The Democratic primary is Aug. 26.

Scott's campaign was quick to label the new ad "misleading."

"Whether we're talking about jobs, debt, or education, Charlie Crist took our state to the bottom during his failed term as governor," Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera said in a statement. "He ran up a $3.6 billion deficit and left our schools in worse shape. Then Charlie, a man who stands for nothing but his own ambition, tried to run away to Washington instead of cleaning up the mess."

Both parties are working hard to court Hispanic voters.

The Scott campaign has already released TV and radio spots in Spanish. And earlier this week, the Republican Party of Florida debuted a Spanish-language TV ad featuring the Vilariño family, owners and operators of a restaurant in Broward County.

Democrats say their Hispanic-outreach efforts will continue.

"There’s no doubt that the Hispanic community is an important electorate," Political Director Christian Ulvert said Thursday. "As we communicate with them, what we're hearing [is that] the issues they care about... are in line with the issues that Democrats care about and are fighting for."

The party's new Spanish-language ad will be seen in Orlando, Tampa and Miami.

Spokesman Max Steele would not say how much money had been spent on the buy, or how long the spot would air.


Crews suspends Dade warden involved in suspicious inmate death

 Facing a rising wave of criticism, Florida Department of Corrections Mike Crews on Thursday suspended the warden of a Florida City prison where an inmate died after he was locked in a scalding-hot shower.

In placing warden Jerry Cummings on paid administrative leave, Crews denied that the punishment was a direct consequence of the inmate’s death, which is the focus of an ongoing criminal investigation. Instead, Crews said that the move was “part of our overall leadership evaluation at Dade Correctional Institution.”

Cummings has worked for the department for 11 years, and has been the warden at Dade Correctional since 2011.

The two correctional officers who placed 50-year-old Darren Rainey in the shower for nearly two hours — allegedly as punishment because the mentally ill man had defecated in his cell — are still working at the prison.

Crews said the correctional officers have not been suspended because “right now, all we have are the allegations.” He expressed hope that the investigation, undertaken by Miami-Dade homicide detectives, will eventually provide “concrete information” as to what happened in that shower in June of 2012. More here.

-- Michael Vasquez

On-duty cops at Scott campaign event draws election law complaint

A leader of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, an officers' union that backs Charlie Crist for governor, has filed an election-law complaint against Gov. Rick Scott, accusing his campaign of violating the law by having on-duty police officers at a campaign event.

The complaint was filed by Jeff Marano of Fort Lauderdale, a 30-year PBA member who cited a state law that makes it a misdemeanor for public employees to engage in political activity during working hours, except for elected officials such as sheriffs.

"Rick Scott's political campaign facilitiated the violation of (law) by soliciting the assistance of on-duty law enforcement officers -- under the false pretense of security -- only to repeatedly feature them as props in the background of campaign events," Marano's complaint alleges.

Scott held a campaign event Monday morning at Patrick's Uniforms in Tampa, a business specializing in police uniforms and accessories. Top brass from several law enforcement agencies were there, including the police chief of Holmes Beach, William Tokajer; several uniformed Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies, and an enforcement officer from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission.

In his complaint, Marano cites reports by three media organizations: WTVT, WFLA and The Tampa Tribune. Marano cites a WFLA report that some police officers left when they discovered it was a campaign event, and that WTVT quoted Chief Tokajer as saying the Scott campaign did not specifically tell him that the event was political in nature.

Scott's campaign issued a response that did not specifically address the allegations in the complaint.

"Gov. Scott is proud to have the support of Florida’s law enforcement community, including the Florida Police Chiefs Association and 40 Florida sheriffs. This is just another sad distraction from Charlie Crist’s numerous ethical problems, including his broken promise to be transparent by releasing tax returns for both himself and his spouse,” spokesman Greg Blair said.

Ringer candidate in middle of fed probe of ex-Miami Rep. David Rivera sentenced to 7 months


Justin Lamar Sternad, a hotel worker and father of five, just wanted to be somebody in the eyes of his family. So he set his sights on a seat in Congress.

“I wanted my wife, children and family to be proud of me,” Sternad, 37, told a judge Thursday in Miami federal court.

Despite his good intentions, Sternad admitted in so many words that he allowed GOP campaign consultant Ana Alliegro and her close friend, then-U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, to recruit him as a straw candidate to challenge Rivera’s political enemy, Joe Garcia, in the 2012 Democratic primary. Garcia went on to beat Rivera in the final election.

“I hate to admit that I was naive,” Sternad told U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. “I hate to admit that Ana Alliegro and David Rivera were able to take advantage of me.”

Sternad, who had pleaded guilty last year to violating election laws, issued an apology but asked the judge for lenient punishment: home confinement. Showing some sympathy, Altonaga sentenced him to seven months in prison — less than the eight-month term recommended by the U.S. attorney’s office because of his cooperation. Under sentencing guidelines, Sternad had been facing up to one year in prison.

“You did begin with good intentions but were led astray and used by Ana Alliegro and others,” Altonaga said, without referring to Rivera by name.

More here.

This post has been updated.

July 09, 2014

Odebrecht may sue Miami-Dade over stalled Airport City project


A Miami-Dade County commissioner said Wednesday he wants to press Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration for a final decision on a commercial development proposed at Miami International Airport that has been in the works for six years but now appears to be on the verge of falling apart.

Airport City had already been diminished by Cuban exile politics before county aviation administrators recently began to reconsider whether what remains of the project is a good idea after all.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, the vice-chairman of the commission’s transportation and aviation committee, said he’s tired of the back and forth.

“I don’t know if we can continue to wait for the administration to give us a response,” he said. “Every time they give you a response it’s ‘Prepare for more and more delays.’”

Barreiro spoke after the aviation department informed the committee that it is still figuring out if what’s left of Airport City — once a 33-acre behemoth expected to bring to the county half a billion dollars over five decades — is the best development for the prime properties just east of MIA.

More here.

Crist's claim about Medicaid expansion and jobs

The White House has new ammunition for those fighting for Medicaid expansion: It would create create jobs.

The study by the White House Council of Economic Advisers — titled "Missed Opportunities" — provides a state-by-state analysis of how many jobs would be created by expanding Medicaid. The number for Florida: 63,800 jobs between 2014 and 2017.

The study is part of the Obama administration’s promotion of the Affordable Care Act, which includes the federal government picking up the initial tab for Medicaid expansion.

Democrats including former Gov. Charlie Crist are using the study to attack Scott for Florida’s decision not to expand Medicaid. Crist is expected to win his primary and face Scott in November.

"Expanding Medicaid would create 63k jobs -- but Rick Scott still won’t do it," Crist said on TwitterJuly 2.

Florida’s Republican-led Legislature opposes expanding Medicaid. Scott once opposed it, too, butswitched positions in 2013 and now supports it. Supporters of the expansion say Scott hasn’t done enough to turn the Legislature around.

Here, though, we wanted to focus on jobs. Would expanding Medicaid create 63,000 jobs? Read the full report from PolitiFact Florida.

DOC secretary now vows to get involved to expedite probe into inmate deaths

After weeks of silence, and months of receiving complaints about a suspicious inmate death by a scalding shower, Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews said Wednesday that he will travel to Miami to accelerate the investigation into the death of inmate Darren Rainey.

In a statement released Wednesday, Crews announced that he also will be traveling to prisons across the state to "assess operations, meet with leaders and officers, and take action on activities that run counter to the Department’s mission of maintaining a secure environment for officers and the inmates the Department houses."

He said he will also personally do what he can to assist Miami-Dade homicide detectives who are investigating the death of Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old mentally ill inmate who was found dead in a shower at Dade Correctional Institution in 2012.

Rainey was forced into the small shower by guards, who left him there, allegedly as punishment for defecating in his cell. For almost two hours, he screamed as he was drenched in scalding hot water until he collapsed, with his skin peeling from his body, witnesses said.

Police did not interview witnesses until May of this year, as the Herald was preparing to publish a story about his death. The case remains open and neither the police report nor the autopsy has been released. His family still has not been told how he died.

Crews has remained silent about the reports about Rainey's death until Wednesday when he said he was "outraged at these reports." He promised to fire anyone involved in the 2012 death. 

Crews' comments come a day after the Miami Herald reported that former DOC Secretary James McDonough said the events at his former agency "smacks of torture, sadism, murder, cover up, and ignoring of the facts." McDonough said he was "revolted...by the lack of sense of outrage by Department officials, and other officials." 

Crews' statement also follows a whistleblower complaint filed this week by four former DOC investigators who discovered the death of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Institution and news that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the FBI, have opened four additional investigations into suspicious inmates deaths at Florida prisons.

The whistleblowers allege that the prison’s medical staff, corrections officers and supervisors later conspired to fabricate reports and lie to law enforcement about the events of the inmate’s death. 

Four of those investigators complained to DOC officials and Gov. Rick Scott's inspector general Melinda Miguel but, when nothing was done, they filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit on Monday -- against the governor, Miguel and the agency. The lawsuit alleges they have been retaliated against. 
"The IG whistle blower complaint has been filed by pros,'' McDonough wrote. "They surely complained within the system as the cases were originally being investigated, and they would have run those complaints up the chain of command.  The names I see among them are mature, responsible, and conscientious.  They understand the parameters of use of force, its necessity, and its limits.   Whistle blowing would have been the last option exercised.  They must have been both frustrated and outraged at the inhumanity."
In his statement Wednesday, Crews acknowledged that the "integrity and trust of my department is at question, and we must do more to ensure facilities are safe.
"Let me be clear,'' he said. "There is zero tolerance for corruption or abuse at the Department of Corrections, and we will root out any-and-all bad actors who do not live up to our expectations.

"We will bring any truth to these claims to the light of day.  That is my mission and my promise. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will be traveling to each of our facilities to meet with corrections personnel to underscore this message – and take action whenever and wherever needed.”

Here's the full DOC statement: 

Tallahassee, Fla – Today, Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews announced he will be traveling to Dade Correctional Institution for a full assessment on the 2012 death related to Darren Rainey and will meet with Miami-Dade police officials to offer assistance on the investigation so it is completed as soon as possible.  The Secretary also announced that he will be traveling to facilities across the state and assess operations, meet with leaders and officers, and take action on activities that run counter to the Department’s mission  of maintaining a secure environment for officers and the inmates the Department houses.

Mike Crews said, “There have been numerous reports that officers at Dade put Darren Rainey in a scalding shower as punishment, which resulted in his death.  I am outraged at these reports of abuse and will not stand for it.  That’s why we are fully prepared to move forward with terminations of anyone involved in the June 2012 death. 

“As this investigation continues we will fully cooperate with local and federal partners to ensure that all responsible parties are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  I know that the integrity and trust of my department is at question, and we must do more to ensure facilities are safe.  Let me be clear: there is zero tolerance for corruption or abuse at the Department of Corrections, and we will root out any-and-all bad actors who do not live up to our expectations.

"We will bring any truth to these claims to the light of day.  That is my mission and my promise. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will be traveling to each of our facilities to meet with corrections personnel to underscore this message – and take action whenever and wherever needed.”

Rubio pressures Obama to drop hammer on Venezuelan leaders


U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio stepped up his pressure on the Obama administration to drop the hammer on Venezuelan officials involved in that country’s crackdown on peaceful protesters.

In a letter Wednesday to the White House, Rubio, a Florida Republican, requested that the Obama administration use the authority it has to impose visa bans and asset freezes on Venezuelan leaders involved in repressive tactics against their own citizens.

Since February, Venezuelans protesting the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro have been met with often brutal state-sanctioned violence, according to human rights activists and political leaders. According to Rubio’s letter this week, more than 40 people have died and “beatings of protesters have been routine.”

While members of Congress continue to work on legislation to impose sanctions, Rubio on Wednesday urged President Barack Obama to take action now.

He wrote: “Many senior Venezuelan officials and businessmen with ties to the regime frequently travel to and house their investments in the United States. They buy residences here. They use our banks and send their children to school in the United States…. You already have the ability to begin to make life more difficult for those involved in brutal human rights abuses and corruption. By preventing these individuals and their families from traveling to and investing in the United States, you can make clear that those who violate the Venezuelan people's fundamental freedoms will pay a significant price.”