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March 13, 2018

Lawyers in the Florida Legislature try again to get rid of ethics rule

Florida Budget
Spectators line the balcony as Senate President Joe Negron speaks at the end of the legislative session at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Sunday, March 11, 2018. Mark Wallheiser AP

On Friday afternoon, in the frantic final hours of the legislative session, Florida's Ethics Commission issued an extraordinary press release expressing "deep concern" and warning senators not to pass a bill that would have gutted part of the state’s ethics rules.

The bill didn't pass, but commissioners are worried after lawmakers have tried three times in the last two years to get rid of an obscure ethics rule dealing with lawyers serving on city and county commissions.

Currently, ethics rules say a lawyer with the Gunster law firm representing a trash company, for example, can't go before a local board in which another Gunster lawyer is a member.

The reasons are obvious and irreconcilable, ethicists say. Even if the board member discloses the conflict of interests, the board member could still easily influence the outcome of a bid in other ways, by giving his law partner advice on how to influence the board, or by influencing county staff about the bid. Even the board member's presence could influence his or her fellow board members.

"No matter which way you turn it, it’s just an inherent conflict," Ethics Commission Executive Director Virlindia Doss said Monday.

Nevertheless, lawyers in the Legislature are making a bipartisan effort to do away with the rule.

The example that prompted the ethics commission's warning came from Rep. Daniel Perez, a Republican lawyer from Miami who successfully amended a bill in the last week of session. His amendment allowed lawyers to present clients before boards in which their law partners sit, as long as the board member disclosed the conflict and didn't vote on it.

But Perez wasn't the only one. An hour before the ethics commission sent its press release, Sen. Perry Thurston, a lawyer and Democrat from Lauderhill, attached a word-for-word copy to another bill. He didn't respond to requests for comment.

Neither made it into law. Perez on Friday appeared confused as to why the ethics commission would be opposed to his amendment.

"I respect them, and I understand that they’re doing what they believe is in their best interests," he said. "I’m not sure that they understand the amendment."

But they did understand the amendment, because they'd seen it before. In 2015, then-Sen. Don Gaetz tried to do it. And in the waning days of the 2017 session, Sen. Rob Bradley, a lawyer and Republican from Fleming Island, tried to slip a similar amendment into another bill.

His amendment prompted the Ethics Commission to warn lawmakers in August, in advance of the 2018 session, against changing the rule.

"The Commission is wrong on this issue," Bradley said in a text message on Monday. "Hopefully, the Legislature addresses this matter next session."

Stripping away the rule wouldn't just benefit local officials. More than one in five lawmakers is a lawyer, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who works for Broad & Cassell, and Senate President Joe Negron, who resigned from the Gunster law firm last year. Any or all could run for local office when they're term-limited out of the Legislature.

In its press release, ethics commissioners said they were adamantly against any changes to the rule.

"The Commission feels so strongly about the importance of this public protection that in its 2018 legislative recommendations it specifically requested that this precedent not be relaxed in any way," the press release states.

Doss, the Ethics Commission executive director, said she could not remember commissioners ever issuing a press release advocating lawmakers vote one way or another on a bill.

"I think it really concerned them that in the last two years, this has come up as a floor amendment on the last few days of session," she said. "It does keep coming up again and again."

March 12, 2018

DSCC attacks Rick Scott ahead of possible run at Bill Nelson



Florida Governor Rick Scott said Sunday as the 2018 legislative session wound down that he's going to "think about my future" over the next couple of weeks -- a comment widely viewed as an allusion to a potential challenge of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in November.

Democrats aren't waiting to hear what the Republican governor decides.

On Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released two digital ads attacking Scott over his personal finances and corporate and public records.

One ad, called "Truth," rehashes old (failed) attacks based on Scott's stint in the 90s as the CEO of Columbia/HCA, a chain that was slapped with a massive $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud. The ad also says Scott "hid" voice messages left on his cell phone by representatives of a nursing home where 14 patients died after the power went out during Hurricane Irma, although Scott's office says the audio was deleted as allowed by state law only after the pertinent information was sent to the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Health.

In the second ad, "Blind," Scott is attacked over the management of his blind trust.

On Monday, Clearview Research released a poll showing Scott, whose final term as governor ends in November, slightly ahead of Nelson should he challenge the incumbent. Polls released over the last several months have largely shown the two men neck-and-neck.



Trump proposes package of policies, including arming school staff following mass shooting in Parkland

Parkland vigil AP


The White House said Sunday the federal government will help provide “rigorous firearms training” for qualified volunteer school personnel as part of a package of policy changes he will proposal in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.

President Donald Trump will call on states to pass measures allowing police to remove weapons or prevent gun sales for those who pose a threat. And Trump will ask Congress to pass the bills to increase the amount of records sent to the flawed National Instant Criminal Background Check System and to provide money to improve school security.

“There is no time to waste,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told reporters Sunday night. “No student. No family. No teacher and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine again.” Story here. 

Photo: Attendees raise their candles at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. An orphaned 19-year-old with a troubled past and his own AR-15 rifle was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder Thursday morning after being questioned for hours by state and federal authorities following the deadliest school shooting in the U.S. in five years. Wilfredo Lee AP

Parkland's legacy: Timing and tenacity as Florida lawmakers moved to the middle on guns for the first time in decades.

Parkland parentsJared Moskowitz seethed in anger as he met with the families of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on the evening of Feb. 14 as they waited in agony for police to tell them if their child was one of those murdered at school.

“My colleagues will do nothing,” he predicted, a jaded and discouraged response informed by the Republican-led Legislature’s lack of action after the 49 murders at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub 19 months earlier.

But Parkland, the town where Moskowitz grew up, attended the very same high school and was elected as state representative along with his fiery left-leaning assertiveness, proved him wrong. Read how Parkland's grieving students and parents changed Florida law.

Photo: Left to right: Marjory Stoneman Douglas parents Andrew Pollack, Gena Hoyer, Tony Montalto and Ryan Petty meet with reporters after the bill signing at the Capitol, Friday, March 9, 2018. Tony Montalto read a statement on behalf of the parents.

Scott Keeler Tampa Bay Times

CRC could put the Legislature's gun bill as an amendment onto the November ballot. Will it?

CRC Miami listening
With the first gun control measure signed into law in decades, a key Republican member of the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission has drafted a proposal to make sure the age limits and waiting period stand up to any constitutional challenge from opponents.

The proposal, by Miami attorney and CRC member Roberto Martinez, was filed with the CRC on Friday, just moments after Gov. Rick Scott signed SB 7026 into law, which bans the sale of any firearm in Florida to anyone under the age of 21, imposes a three-day waiting period on all handgun purchases and bans bump stocks.

The CRC meets once every 20 years with the goal of updating the state constitution. It has the power to put directly onto the November 2018 ballot proposed constitutional amendments. The group holds its final public hearing Tuesday, March 13, in St. Petersburg at the University of South Florida University Student Center. Martinez’s proposal will be amended to one of the three dozen existing proposals under consideration. Story here. 

Florida lawmakers approve last-minute change on behalf of powerful lobbyist

SCOTT KEELER | Times Senate President Joe Negron and Senator Rob Bradley talk to reporters during the last week of the 2017 Florida Legislative session.

In the last 45 minutes of the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers on Sunday approved creating a new section of law on behalf of a powerful lobbyist.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, created a new chapter of the Florida statutes for online handyman services like Handy. The new statutes make clear that the handymen used by Handy are independent contractors, not employees.

Senators approved it after barely 10 minutes of discussion. Immediately after, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, walked across the Senate floor to shake Bradley's hand.

When asked after why the amendment didn’t go through the full committee process, like most bills, Bradley said he believed the amendment didn’t change anything.

He said all it did was make sure that companies did not get sued over such employee-contractor questions. Uber has been sued in multiple states, including in Florida, over whether its drivers are employees or independent contractors, raising questions over whether the company owes unemployment and other benefits.

"I don’t think anybody’s rights or responsibilities changed with what we did,” he said. "What we did is ensure that there will not be litigation on these questions.”

He said that the app Handy, being represented by the powerful lobbyist Brian Ballard, came to him asking for the change. He said he supported the change because of he is a fan of such apps.

"I’ve always been a big fan of Uber, Lyft,” he said. "So when it was brought to my attention, it fit right in to my general worldview when it comes to these types of economic freedom matters."

Senate President Joe Negron defended the last-minute attachment of the amendment to benefit one particular company. 

"It is a recognition that the Uber model is going to spread to other industries and we were recognizing that fact to clarify that doesn't create an employment situation," he said. 
He also defended the decision to present it as a last-minute amendment, rather than a stand-alone bill. 
"This issue has been around for several weeks and has been discussed and we were looking creatively for an opportunity to address it and the tax package seemed to be a good fit," Negron said.
Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

March 09, 2018

Human trafficking bill dies on a technicality

SCOTT KEELER | Times Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, watches as Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, decides that Book's human trafficking bill could be ruled out of order on Thursday, March 8, 2018. State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, in the background, made the motion to rule it out of order. The bill died on another technicality Friday night.

A bill that would have allowed victims of human trafficking to sue hotels failed in the waning hours of the Legislative session Friday night.

It was killed after Republicans grilled the bill sponsor, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and protested the bill on a technicality.

Sen. René Garcia, R-Miami, who was breathing heavily after running back to his desk so he could speak against the bill, said he supported Book's effort.

But because the House didn't take up a separate portion of the bill - one that would have created a trust fund for trafficking victims - Garcia urged fellow lawmakers to vote it down. The Senate already passed a separate trust fund bill.

"I have to stand up today and ask you to vote down this amendment ... because our friends in the House did not do the right thing," Garcia said.

Book urged them to vote for it anyway, gesturing to three trafficking victims in the gallery.

"They have to drive home because they can’t stay in hotels," Book said.

It was a strange end to a bill that at one point appeared a sure thing.

Her bill would have allowed victims to sue the hotels and motels that turn a blind eye to human trafficking, and not a single lawmaker voted against it as it went through committees.

But last week, Book mysteriously postponed it, leaving trafficking victims furious and fellow lawmakers scratching their heads, wondering if Senate leadership and the powerful hotel lobby, including Disney, was working behind the scenes to kill the bill. 

On Thursday, however, it was given new life, after Book used some clever legislative maneuvering to force it to a vote on the Senate floor.

She used an amendment to sneak the bill's language onto a different bill, a tactic that violates Senate rules. But she was able to overcome the rule, creating a vote on the bill Friday night, in the waning hours of the legislative session.

But Republicans on Friday seemed determined to kill it.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, repeatedly questioned how someone could recognize the signs of trafficking.

"I don’t want people to be judged based on what they should have known," Stargel said, before throwing up her hands as she set her microphone down.

Senators Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Garcia also questioned Book about technical parts of the bill before Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, moved to disqualify the bill on a technicality.

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, then agreed with the technicality. One last-ditch effort by Book to save it also failed.

Under Book's bill, victims would have been able to sue companies that "willingly and knowingly" turn a blind eye to trafficking. That mostly meant hotels and motels, where trafficking usually takes place.

It coasted through committees, where lawmakers heard victims' horror stories of being trafficked in hotels and motels and employees doing nothing to help them. A former prosecutor told of trafficking cases she handled where employees knew victims were being trafficked, but did nothing.

During those committees, Garcia and Broxson raised questions about the bill but still voted for it.

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 already have similar laws, but lawsuits there have been scarce.

Miami Republicans urge Trump to denounce potential Raúl Castro successor



The entire Miami-Dade Republican congressional delegation along with a gubernatorial contender urged President Donald Trump to denounce Raúl Castro's successor as illegitimate unless Cuba schedules "free, fair, and multiparty elections." 

Sen. Marco Rubio, along with Miami Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Reps. Ron DeSantis (who is running for governor) and Ted Yoho all sent a letter to Trump on Friday voicing their concerns. 

Text of the letter below: 

Dear Mr. President,

We write today to thank you for holding the Castro regime accountable for its oppression and ongoing human rights abuses against the Cuban people, and for furthering U.S. national security and foreign policy interests of promoting democracy. We also request, within all applicable rules and regulations, that you continue to work toward empowering the Cuban people in their struggle for liberty. As you said in your June 16, 2017 announcement on Cuba policy from Miami:

For nearly six decades, the Cuban people have suffered under communist domination. To this day, Cuba is ruled by the same people who killed tens of thousands of their own citizens, who sought to spread their repressive and failed ideology throughout our hemisphere, and who once tried to host enemy nuclear weapons 90 miles from our shores. . . This is the simple truth of the Castro regime. My administration will not hide from it, excuse it, or glamorize it. And we will never, ever be blind to it. We know what’s going on and we remember what happened.

Toward that goal, we respectfully ask that you denounce Castro’s successor as illegitimate in the absence of free, fair, and multiparty elections, and call upon the international community to support the right of the Cuban people to decide their future.

As you know, dictator Raúl Castro has said that he will step down from the presidency on April 19, 2018. However, we know that a predetermined, charade election orchestrated by regime officials will continue the dictatorship.

This sham election is yet another example of the regime’s dictatorial repression of fundamental freedoms which must not be recognized by those who value freedom and democracy. This, along with your ongoing efforts to restrict financial transactions with the Cuban military that aid the Castro regime, will assist the Cuban people in their goal of self-government.

Thank you for your consideration of this request. We look forward to continuing to work with your Administration on this matter.

Florida and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service resolve stand-off over Everglades refuge

Old world climbing fern1

by @jenstaletovich

Florida and its federal environmental partners seem to be having a Kumbaya moment.

Over the last month, the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, frequently at odds over protecting endangered species and water management, solved two thorny problems: a land swap the district needed to expand a marsh to clean water and and standoff over the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. On Thursday, the district agreed to renew a 20-year refuge lease after finalizing the land swap, ending the two-year old dispute.

"We all know it takes a team effort," said the Service's Atlanta-based deputy regional director, Mike Oetker, who attended the governing board meeting in person this week to offer his thanks.

Old world climbing fern2

In 2016, the district's combative former director, Pete Antonacci, threatened to cancel the Service's lease for the 65-year-old refuge on 144,000 acres west of Boynton Beach, infuriating environmentalists who collected more than 67,000 signatures for a petition sent to Gov. Rick Scott. Antonacci claimed the Service had violated its lease by failing to control Old World climbing fern, an aggressive invasive plant that escaped a Martin County nursery in 1955 and now grows in two-thirds of the state.

But environmentalists suspected the motive was more sinister.

Florida has long struggled to meet strict water quality standards for water it discharges onto federal land under a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Booting the refuge off the land and returning it to state control might mean the standard no longer applied. The move caught refuge supporters off guard. Nancy Marshall, whose husband was a fierce defender of the refuge named for his uncle before his death in 2015, said disputes with the state were not uncommon, but usually got resolved.

Nathaniel Reed, the assistant Secretary of the Interior under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, complained that a small group of "out of step" men, presumably including Antonacci - Scott's former general counsel and a frequent critic of federal oversight - were pushing the agenda.

After Antonacci moved on to Enterprise Florida, new director Ernie Marks helped smooth over the flap, and found a way to resolve both issues.

"It's kind of like renewing their vows," said Audubon Florida Everglades Policy Director Celeste De Palma.

While the land swap may look like a tit for tat, she said it just made sense to negotiate the two together. The refuge lease hinges on the Service's efforts to control the fern and other invasive plants rather than performance measures included in the former lease. For every year the Service spends above a minimum $1.25 million, the lease gets extended a year. If spending falls short, a year is subtracted, meaning the lease could end after 10 years.

And while that may seem like the district is again setting up another stand-off, De Palma said it ensures the federal government holds up its end of the bargain to manage the refuge.

"If it ever gets to a point where they can’t get $1.25 million, then that [signifies] a bigger issue," she said. "That means the entire pot of money for invasives for all 565 national refuges has gone down significantly."





Nelson takes Twitter to task, says hoax ‘scares me to death’


via @timjohnson4

lorida Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday that Twitter is taking steps to guard against the kind of fake tweets that hit The Miami Herald last month, but that “a lot more has got to be done.”

Nelson called for a technical summit, led perhaps the Federal Trade Commission, to “get all of the relevant companies in the same room and talk about this problem with a collective sense of urgency and come up with some solutions.” Such a summit should include social media platforms, digital content companies, software developers, news organizations and government agencies, he said.

However, the Twitter executives who met with Nelson Thursday declined to identify those behind the hoax, which came shortly after the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.

In the aftermath of the school massacre, a perpetrator sent out tweets containing manipulated images purporting to be tweets from a reporter at the Herald. The fake tweets appeared intended to rile the public, asking the race of the gunman and seeking photos from the scene.

The Herald reporter, Alex Harris, notified Twitter in the late afternoon of the fake tweets and received a response from the company at 5:23 p.m. that it would look into the matter. Over the course of the evening, other fake tweets went out at 8:25 p.m. and again at 10:50 p.m.

According to the Twitter executives, the 10:50 p.m. fake tweet was seen only by 600 people. Harris posted her own tweet at 10:52 p.m. decrying the “doctored versions of tweets I sent while trying to tell the stories of victims and survivors.”

Nelson said Twitter executives told him the company’s algorithms elevated the visibility of Harris’s last response so that 600,000 account holders saw it. He said the hoax could have gone uncontested for many hours if it weren’t for the reporter’s quick response.

“What if she had been asleep and didn’t see that until the next morning when she’s drinking coffee?” Nelson asked.

Read more here.