October 14, 2016

Advocates, officials react to Supreme Court's death penalty ruling

@MichaelAuslen and @MaryEllenKlas

Friday morning, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty sentencing law, declaring that all death sentences should be decided by a unanimous jury.

"I am profoundly disappointed by today’s Florida Supreme Court opinion that found a component of our death penalty law unconstitutional. ... Make no mistake, those impacted most by this miscarriage of justice are the families as they watch the perpetrators of some of the most heinous and vicious murders and tortures continue to live the days their loved one were denied," said Florida House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran in a statement. "This decision is indicative of a Court that comes to a conclusion, then seeks a judicial pathway, however tortured, to achieve its desired result.  That is antithetical to the rule of law and dangerous for our state."

Spokespeople for Gov. Rick Scott Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner and President-designate Joe Negron said they were reviewing the court's ruling.

So did Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. "We are reviewing the Florida Supreme Court ruling, but in the meantime Florida juries must make unanimous decisions in capital cases as to the appropriateness of the death penalty," said spokesman Whitney Ray in a statement.

Here's how advocates and elected officials responded in the hours following the court's ruling:

"It was a pretty simple question. We either found a compromise or nothing happened and doing nothing was not a reasonable outcome," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who also said he was not surprised by the court's ruling. “If we had done nothing then there would not have been a law that the Supreme Court of Florida could pass judgment on. Now we have direction and so we needed to act at the past session in order to end the delays in the death penalty system.”

"I supported unanimous juries in the past and I think it’s probably the right decision," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "This is just really a trend of what supreme courts have been doing around the country on this issue."

"We enforce the laws, the Legislature writes the laws and the Supreme Court interprets the laws," said Buddy Jacobs, general counsel of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which opposed unanimous juries. "So we will be talking and meeting on Monday to try to come up with some sort of road map of where we go from here based on this opinion."

"For years, we have warned the Florida legislature that unless they rewrote our state’s broken death penalty, the courts would take the issue out of their hands," saidHoward Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, in a statement. "Just as we warned the Florida Legislature that they would, the Florida Supreme Court has inserted some much-needed fairness in our death penalty process by declaring that anything short of a fully unanimous jury is unconstitutional."

“Today’s opinions released by the Florida Supreme Court continue to reveal a broken, mistake-prone death penalty system that fails victims’ families, the innocent, and taxpayers. It is time to end the use of Florida’s failed death penalty government program," said Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, in a statement. "For more than a decade, prosecutors have known full well that Florida’s death sentencing scheme was seriously flawed and could be unconstitutional, yet they downplayed concerns and advised against reforms. Victims’ families were dragged through long, repetitive, and painful procedures, record numbers of innocent people were sentenced to death, and Florida taxpayers paid the enormous costs."

"Florida finally joins the rest of the states in requiring what everyone has known for a long time -- that at least, the imposition of the death penalty requires a unanimous verdict," said Miami defense lawyer Philip Reizenstein, who handles death cases. "What remains is for Florida to join the rest of the civilized world and end the death penalty."

“The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that jury recommendations for the death penalty must be unanimous is a long overdue recognition of the state’s fatally flawed capital punishment regime," said Professor Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami School of Law in a statement circulated by the Fair Punishment Project. "The prosecutors who relentlessly pursued death sentences despite being repeatedly placed on notice that the state’s death penalty regime was constitutionally defective should be held accountable for the emotional and financial costs they have imposed on victims’ families and on taxpayers.”

We'll keep updating as reactions come in.

With reporting by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Laura Morel and Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle.

October 12, 2016

Incoming House Speaker predicts Rick Scott's job incentives program won't exist for next 4-6 years


Gov. Rick Scott's cherished job incentive program is not only dead this year, but will likely be so for years to come, incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran told a group in Texas today.

Corcoran acknowledged he was a big reason Scott's proposal for $250 million last year for Enterprise Florida never passed the Legislature and predicted Scott's $85 million request for next year will face a tough fight. Corcoran said the Florida House has a series of conservative leaders in place over the next six years that will not look favorably on future job incentive programs that hand out tax dollars to certain private businesses in exchange for them creating jobs.

"I don't think that fund will exist for at least the next four to six years given the Republican leadership in the House," Cocoran told a audience at The Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin.

Corcoran called the incentive programs "corporate welfare" that reward some businesses over others. He called the concept of job incentives "de facto socialism" because it takes money from the masses and gives it to a select group. 

"That is not the proper role of government," Corcoran said.

He recounted a story of Scott inviting him and Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, to his a meeting and saying to them he knew they were the one's really responsible for sinking his $250 million job incentives request. Corcoran said as he searched for a diplomatic response, but Oliva blurted out: "Oh yea, it's us."

The forum included pro-economic incentive advocates from Texas, who challenged Corcoran on the prospect that Florida could lose out to other states if it stops giving out incentives. Corcoran said he didn't believe it was true. He said the state stopped handing out incentive money for professional football teams, yet none of the teams have left the state and found private ways to fund their stadiums. He said the film industry didn't get new incentives, yet films are still being made in Florida. He said the new Republican leadership in the Florida House is firmly against the idea of taking taxes from the masses and handing it to selected winners in the corporate world.

He said instead of spending billions on corporate welfare, Florida would be better served in putting the money into improving the education system and state infrastructure, which would better position the state to lure other businesses to Florida.

Corcoran's comments come just weeks after Scott promised to keep fighting the Legislature to get money in the incentive program, which he credits for bringing hundreds of thousands of jobs to the state.

"I ran on a mission to turn Florida's economy around, and while we have added over 1 million jobs in just 5½ years, I will keep fighting for jobs until my very last day as governor," Scott said.

September 26, 2016

Digital currency popular in Miami draws congressional scrutiny



WASHINGTON Lawmakers have formed a special group in a bid to stay on top of the exploding use of bitcoins and similar forms of digital currency in Florida and elsewhere in the country.

Miami has become a bitcoin hotbed, which some federal prosecutors say is tied to South Florida’s reputation as a money-laundering hub tied to drug-trafficking.

The new Congressional Blockchain Caucus is named after the online foundation of bitcoins: The blockchain is a digital ledger that records every bitcoin transaction with an encrypted 32-digit code.

“Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize the financial services industry, the U.S. economy and the delivery of government services,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a North Carolina Republican, said of the caucus he helped form.

Bitcoin proponents say it’s a revolutionary way to move value quickly and anonymously from one point to another, whether around the corner or across the globe, with no middlemen, no fees, no central banks, no collection of personal data and almost impenetrable computer security.

In the first money-laundering cases tied to bitcoins, a Miami-Dade judge last month dismissed charges against website designer Michelle Espinoza. He was charged with illegally transmitting $1,500 worth of bitcoins.

Polner ruled that the Bitcoin is not “tangible wealth,” is not backed by any government or bank, and “cannot be hidden under a mattress like cash and gold bars.”

Polner wrote: “Even to someone with limited knowledge in the area, the Bitcoin has a long way to go before it becomes the equivalent of money.”

The judge also said that Florida law’s description of money-laundering is too vague to apply to use of bitcoins.

Espinoza paid his lawyer in bitcoins, which fluctuate in value based on buying and selling demand through digital exchanges.

As of Monday afternoon, one bitcoin was selling for $608, more than double its worth of $298 in January 2015.

Andrew Hinkes, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, said that Polner’s ruling could prompt Florida legislators to pass legislation more focused on bitcoins and other forms of digital currency.

“Hopefully, Florida’s Legislature will consider the impact of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and craft legislation to balance their potential for abuse with their potential to foster innovation, create jobs and generate wealth,” Hinkes wrote on coindesk.com, which provides news about the controversial currencies.

Polner in her ruling also urged state legislators to update its money-laundering laws.

The IRS calls bitcoins “virtual currencies” and describes them as property, not money.

Bitcoin enthusiasts from across the country gathered in Miami in January for the 2016 Bitcoin Hackathon.

Held at LAB Miami in the trendy Wynwoood neighborhood, the conference encouraged developing Smartphone apps and other software to expedite the use of bitcoins.

Photo credit: Gary Reyes, San Jose Mercury News




September 22, 2016

Tim Canova launches PAC




Tim Canova, who lost his primary race to U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, has launched a political action committee to support candidates and weigh in on ballot amendments including about medical marijuana in Florida this fall.

Canova will chair Progress for All, a federal and state political committee that can contribute to federal, state and local candidates.

According to a press release, Progress for All will support: candidates who oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal and support campaign finance reform, support action to address climate change and a ban on fracking, want an end to subsidies for oil/gas industry, support solar power and support ending the war on drugs and mass incarceration.

The committee supports the medical marijuana amendment and opposes the solar amendment that is backed by the industry and opposed by environmentalists. Both questions will appear on the Florida ballot Nov. 8.

Canova, a first-time candidate from Hollywood, raised about $3.8 million in the primary. Wasserman Schultz beat Canova by about 14 percentage points in the Broward/Miami-Dade district. He is on leave this semester from his job as a Nova Southeastern University law professor.

He ran a Bernie Sanders-style campaign that focused on soliciting small, online donations and his campaign got a major boost when Sanders endorsed him. But in the end, Canova appeared frustrated that Sanders didn't campaign for him in South Florida. 

Canova said in his press release that he will limit donations to small donors and reject any from corporate-funded PACS and then takes a swipe at Sanders: "This fundraising plan for Progress for All is in contrast to Our Revolution, started by Bernie Sanders, which was organized as a 501(c)(4) that could accept large undisclosed donations."

Earlier this month Canova opened a campaign account which could allow him to challenge Wasserman Schultz again in 2018. Canova said he hasn't decided yet whether he will run for the same seat in two years.

"I'm still kind of recovering from the campaign -- it was nine months of 24-7 nonstop," he said. "It's premaure to be deciding if I am running for office and when."




September 15, 2016

Rejecting Don Gaetz, UWF trustees promote provost to president

Trustees of the University of West Florida voted Friday to make provost Martha Saunders the school's next president, bypassing a better-known finalist for the position, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The vote was 9-4 with Saunders getting nine votes and Gaetz four.

Saunders will succeed Judy Bense as president of the Pensacola university. Her appointment is subject to confirmation by the state university system's Board of Governors.

Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County school superintendent, school board member, and chairman of a Senate budget subcommittee on education, was seeking to be at least the fourth political figure in Florida to head a state university.

The decision followed a meeting at which students, faculty and community representatives all testified about the selection. The Pensacola News Journal reported that 366 UWF students signed a petition opposing Gaetz's appointment.

August 31, 2016

A Miami tradition: Electing troubled candidates

Pjimage (8)


Miami-Dade County voters decided Tuesday that a candidate with 19 arrests, a candidate who has been investigated for Medicare fraud and a candidate still under suspicion of violating federal law by secretly financing a ringer campaign were all worthy of winning election.

Roy Hardemon is heading to Tallahassee as a state representative despite his lengthy rap sheet. He has no opponent in November.

Daphne Campbell is poised to move up to the state Senate from the state House despite her home healthcare business being shut down by the state. She defeated five rivals and now faces an independent candidate.

And David Rivera, a former congressman, is close to returning to the state House, where he began his political career alongside Marco Rubio, despite the ongoing federal criminal investigation into his 2012 reelection campaign. A Democrat with no political experience is the only thing that stands in his way.

In state legislative races, local voters seem to love a good political redemption story.

“It does say a lot about South Florida — and our society in general — that 33 or 34 percent of the electorate decided to vote for David Rivera,” said Emiliano Antunez, the campaign manager for Rivera’s chief primary rival, Kendall businessman Anthony Rodriguez.

As recount looms, Tampa Bay Senate race could tighten

As Pinellas and Hillsborough counties await a state order to begin machine recounts in a close state Senate race, more than 140 still-uncounted provisional ballots also still must be reviewed, adding more drama in Florida's closest race on Tuesday's ballot.

On Wednesday, Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, held a lead of 61 votes over Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, in a Democratic primary for Tampa Bay's Senate District 19. Rouson had 10,776 votes and Narain 10,715, for a difference of 61 votes, or less than two-tenths of 1 percent. Secretary of State Ken Detzner must order a machine recount in a multi-county race where unofficial results show two candidates within half of a percentage point.

Rouson ran much stronger in Pinellas and Narain ran stronger in Hillsborough, where Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer's office said Wednesday that about 100 provisional ballots still must be reviewed by a three-member canvassing board at a meeting set for 11 a.m. Thursday.

Hillsborough's web site includes a detailed explanation of provisional ballots. Counties must report their first set of unofficial returns to the state by noon Friday.

Latimer's spokeswoman, Gerri Kramer, said it was not clear how many of Hillsborough's provisionals were cast by Democrats in the Senate race. Pinellas, meanwhile, said it has 43 provisionals, and spokesman Jason Latimer said seven were cast by Democrats in Senate District 19.

The Pinellas canvassing board, chaired by County Judge John Carassas, will meet at 3 p.m. Thursday at the elections center in Largo to review those provisional ballots.

Both counties' canvassing boards have already rejected an unknown number of mail ballots for a variety of defects. By law, Narain and Rouson can examine those ballot envelopes and review the boards' decisions.

Narain has retained Tallahassee election law expert Mark Herron to represent him, and Rouson said he's also planning to lawyer up. "We're going to be seeking counsel," Rouson said. "We're working on it."

August 30, 2016

Rivas Logan resumes campaigning after being 'riled up' over personal attacks

Rivas logan

@YaneliG_SFL and @alextdaugherty

Democrat Ana Rivas Logan, a candidate for Florida state Senate, resumed her campaign shortly before Tuesday's Election Day after she said personal attacks against her “riled her up.”

The former Republican state representative has spent most of the past week talking to Democratic voters at precincts across Southwest Miami-Dade County, once again asking them to vote for her, she said Tuesday.

“I started engaging more when my opponent started dropping negative mailers on me,” Rivas Logan told a reporter at Richmond Heights Middle School.

The mailers paid for and approved by one of Rivas Logan’s primary opponents, businessman Andrew Korge, claimed she and GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump are “extremists of the far-right” and asserted Trump would be proud of her voting history.

“I have been publicly against Trump. You can bring up my voting record, but to say that I’m like him is not right,” Rivas Logan said.

Rivas Logan and Korge, along with state Sen. Dwight Bullard, are facing off for the Democratic nomination in District 40, a compact state Senate seat centered in Kendall.  

Rivas Logan said a resident sent her a recording of a robocall sent to voters Friday and again on Monday, urging them to disregard her name on the ballot. The political advertisement was paid for and approved by Progressive Principles, a political action committee run by a Korge supporter.

The Miami Herald obtained a copy of the robocall on Tuesday.

“Though her name will be on the ballot, voters should be aware that Ana Rivas Logan is no longer seeking election to the state Senate," the robocall said. "A vote cast for Ana Rivas Logan is a vote lost."

Rivas Logan said telling voters their vote for her would not count was unethical and immoral -- though she suspended her campaign in July.

She noted she never took her name off the ballot officially and never planned to.

“I have done nothing to attack anyone," Rivas Logan said. "I just wanted to be another option on the ballot and let the voters decide."

Rivas reemerged on the campaign trail after confronting Korge at a South Dade polling location on Aug. 21. The police were called but Rivas Logan and Korge were not arrested or cited. 

“If they don’t vote for me now, they’re at least getting to know me for the general election,” Rivas Logan said.

The winner of Tuesday's primary will face Republican state Rep. Frank Artiles in November.

State Senate candidates worried about campaign-worker behavior in North Miami, North Miami Beach



State Senate candidate Jason Pizzo rolled into the Uleta Community Center in North Miami Beach on Tuesday toting Gatorade bottles for thirsty campaign workers.

He didn't like what he saw at the precinct.

A woman in a pink tank top approached a man in the parking lot of the community center and walked into the precinct with him while speaking Creole. The man emerged from the precinct minutes later with an "I voted" sticker. She did not. The man left in a separate car while the woman remained at the precinct with a clipboard.

"It's pretty conspicuous that...some of my opponents have people being walked in," Pizzo said. "It's just overly suggestive, it seems inappropriate. If assistance is being provided by the elections department, they should...be mindful and watchful of voters being accosted basically harassed in parking lots."

Voters are allowed to have a non-elections employee help them vote if the person providing the assistance does not solicit the voter at the polling place or within 100 feet of the polling location.

Fellow candidate Michael Góngora didn't notice questionable behavior on Tuesday morning in Miami Beach, but witnessed apparent violations during early voting in North Miami.

"During early voting at the North Miami Library I saw...that Daphne Campbell had people walking people into the voting booths which is illegal,"Góngora said. "I'm not sure why they haven't cracked down or been watching that."

Former North Miami Kevin Burns echoed the concerns of Pizzo and Góngora, saying "nothing has been done" regarding potentially troubling behavior by campaign workers at the North Miami Library.

All three candidates plus a fourth, Anis Blémur, described election day turnout as slow in District 38, which extends from the MacArthur Causeway to the Broward County Line.

"We're expecting better outcomes at 6 to 7 p.m.," Blemur said about voter turnout in the district.

Six Democrats are vying for the District 38 seat. 


Richard Corcoran, Janet Cruz join forces to demand federal action on Zika


The incoming Republican and Democrat leaders of the Florida House are teaming up to demand that the federal government grant persmission to use genetically modified mosquitoes in an effort to curb the spread of Zika.

A letter released late Monday by House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and incoming Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, says that "red tape" creates "an unnecessary health risk to the people of our state."

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved trials of the mosquitoes, which mate with the Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes that spread Zika and produce offspring that do not survive.

Corcoran and Cruz's letter to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell and Dr. Robert Califf, commissioner of the FDA, calls on the feds to issue a public health emergency and give Florida cities and counties access to the mosquitoes, developed by a company called Oxitec.

"Red tape is never an acceptable justification for the loss of human life," Corocoran wrote.

Other members of the Florida House have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to sign onto the letter as well. Corcoran sent all 160 representatives a plea for unity: "Florida has a strong tradition of bipartisan cooperation in response to public emergencies. We have an opportunity here to speak in a strong, clear, and unified voice."

In a statement, Cruz called for "the flexibility to confront a growing public health emergency on the front lines of this outbreak."

The lawmakers cite successes in Brazil and the Cayman Islands. However, some scientists have said the genetically modified bugs are better suited for confined spaces like the Florida Keys and may prove less effective in larger areas.

"I'm not sure that in the Miami environment it would be as effective," Paul Linser, a biologist and member of the Florida Coordinating Council on Mosquito Control, told the Times/Herald early this month when the first local outbreak was attributed to mosquitoes in Miami's Wynwood district..

The Aedes Aegypti does not fly beyond 150 yards in its lifetime, making it much harder for genetically modified mosquitoes to blanket the total area of a community where Zika has been spread, such as Miami-Dade, Pinellas or Palm Beach counties.

As of Monday afternoon, Florida had 43 locally transmitted cases of Zika.