January 11, 2019

'We have people counting on that.' Gov. DeSantis weighs in on using hurricane funds for border wall

Desantis hurricane tour
Al Cathey, Mayor of Mexico Beach, left, shows Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, center, some of the destruction from Hurricane Michael along Canal Parkway, Wednesday, January 9, 2018. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Ron DeSantis hasn't even finished his first week as Florida governor and he already appears to be on a collision course with the man who helped him get the job: President Donald Trump.

On Friday, DeSantis said that it would not be acceptable for Trump to take funds from hurricane relief to be used toward the border wall.

"We have people counting on that," he told reporters. "If they backfill it immediately after the government opens, that’s fine but I don’t want that to be where that money is not available for us."

DeSantis' comments came after news broke Thursday night that Trump, his political benefactor, was considering using disaster funding intended for storm-damaged Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and for wildfire recovery in California to pay for the wall at the border. Trump has mentioned several times that he's considering declaring a national emergency so he can bypass the standoff with Congressional Democrats over the $5.7 billion in wall funding.

Such a Plan B for Trump would almost certainly put him at odds with DeSantis.

A former Navy lawyer, DeSantis said he's unsure of the legality of Trump's national emergency Hail Mary.

"In all my years in Congress we never dealt with this idea of an emergency so I just need to look at the law," he said. "My sense, just as somebody who studied the Constitution, the president wouldn’t be able to just appropriate his own money under any circumstances. You may be able to repurpose some money. I'm not sure how that works."

DeSantis added that he's not spoken to Trump about this matter, and did not say if he has plans to do so. One of the hallmarks of his campaign last year was that Florida would have a close relationship with the White House because of his political relationship with Trump, whose endorsement helped DeSantis beat a more established candidate in Adam Putnam in the GOP primary.

DeSantis' comments Friday struck a different tone than when he was asked about the shutdown on Thursday — before news broke that Florida's hurricane funding could be in sacrificed for the border wall. DeSantis said then that he has his "hands full down here," indicating he didn't want to get involved in all the "political posturing" in Washington.

DeSantis toured some of the worst of Hurricane Michael's damage in Mexico Beach on Wednesday, a trip he said was "really, really powerful." On Thursday, he announced a sweeping executive order to address toxic algae blooms aimed at cleaning up Florida's water.

But progress on both the issues of hurricane recovery and environmental cleanup have been stunted by the partial federal government shutdown, which began at midnight on December 22.

The shutdown has meant federal scientists researching Red Tide are at home instead of in their labs tracking the toxic algae as it has subsequently popped back up near the beaches of Sarasota and Manatee counties.

And as the New York Times reported, it's intensified the hardships in the Panhandle where government employees who were already struggling post-hurricane are now making due without paychecks. Meanwhile, the website for the Federal Emergency Management Agency is not being "actively managed" during the shutdown, per a disclaimer on the site, which adds: "We will not be able to respond to inquiries until after appropriations are enacted."

Bradenton Herald staff writer Mark Young contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This post has been updated to include comments delivered Friday morning by DeSantis.

January 08, 2019

"Here's to the winners." Ron DeSantis, political insiders celebrate win at Inaugural Ball

Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis share their first dance at the Inaugural Ball. | Scott Keeler TIMES

TALLAHASSEE — Tuesday night, the sound of the thunderous military jet flyover from the swearing-in ceremony was swapped for the plucking of a stand-up bass and the breathiness of a saxophone, as the state’s capital slipped on their gowns and tuxedos for the swanky Inaugural Ball.

Around 1,600 lawmakers, lobbyists and other political insiders mingled and drank complimentary cocktails in the dimly lit Donald L. Tucker Civic Center at Florida State University. Meanwhile, in the VIP area, an electric violinist twirled on a stage while carving away at his violin with an electric blue light-up bow.

Earlier in the night, about 150 people lined up to take photos with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Casey, the First Lady.

Just before 9 p.m., the first couple emerged onstage for their first dance, along with Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and their dates. Also invited onstage was Brian Ballard, the chair of the inauguration and Nick Iarossi, who led fundraising efforts, with their wives. Inaugural events are paid for by private donors.

“We had a really great day today,” DeSantis told the crowd. “We wanted to thank you all for your support and your friendship we’re really excited for Florida and excited to work with the folks up here.”

“I’m going to try to not step on her dress,” he also said, referring to Casey’s triple-peplum red gown.

Some of the lyrics of the song, played by the band: “Here’s to the winners.”

DeSantis kicks off Inauguration Day with prayer breakfast



Incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off the morning of his swearing-in as Florida’s 46th chief executive with a prayer breakfast at Florida A&M University Tuesday morning, surrounded by a bevy of faith leaders and elected officials offering prayers for the new First Family, the Cabinet and the administration's new leadership for the state.

In a cavernous multipurpose center often used for basketball and volleyball games, a few hundred attendees listened as a handful of speakers prayed also for the DeSantis’ marriage, their children, and for the military and those affected by Hurricane Michael. The last was delivered by Rep. Mel Ponder, R-Destin, who prayed to “send a revival into Northwest Florida” thanked those helping with recovery efforts still ongoing from the Category 4 storm.

In brief comments mirroring those she delivered the previous day, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez described herself as a “woman of faith” and thanked those praying for them as they are inaugurated later today. DeSantis also invoked his faith, noting a reason they had canceled the inaugural parade was because he and First Lady Casey DeSantis intended to baptize their newborn son Mason later that afternoon at the Governor’s Mansion with water brought from the Sea of Galilee.

Police presence around the FAMU campus was heavy that morning, with several roads blocked off and a drone overhead. As the event concluded, police had already begun blocking off Monroe Street downtown for the inaugural swearing-in ceremony, scheduled to start at 11 a.m.

January 07, 2019

Inaugural celebrations begin with event honoring Nuñez, Casey DeSantis and female leaders

Incoming First Lady Casey DeSantis speaks to reporters. | Emily L. Mahoney, Times/Herald

Two days of inaugural festivities were underway Monday morning up in chilly Tallahassee, starting with a ceremonial breakfast honoring Florida's female leaders that featured Lt. Gov-elect Jeanette Nuñez and incoming first lady Casey DeSantis.

Nuñez, who is the highest ranking Hispanic woman in state history, talked about receiving the phone call from Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, when he asked her to be his running mate shortly after he won the Republican primary. After term limits forced her retirement from the state House, she said she was looking forward to a "hiatus" from politics and considering a state Senate run in 2020.

"It seems like my plans have now changed," Nuñez said, to laughs from the crowd. "I could have not been more proud to stand alongside (DeSantis) and tour our extraordinary state."

Nuñez, who is widely admired for her effectiveness by insiders in both parties, was crucial to the campaign gaining traction with Cuban and South Florida voters.

She spoke sweepingly about her vision for health care reform, increased school choice options, protecting the environment and improving Florida's transportation and infrastructure, but offered few details so far.

Contrary to tradition, outgoing Gov. Rick Scott appointed more than 70 people to boards and committees across Florida on Friday, which some considered a rebuke to DeSantis' authority.

When asked if the new administration would rescind any of those appointments, Nuñez would only say that they will "take a look at it" but added they did not have a "definitive plan."

The event was attended by several of Florida's top female leaders from both the Rick Scott administration and incoming leaders, including Attorney General-elect Ashley Moody, State Board of Education chairwoman Marva Johnson, the incoming administration's Director of Communications Helen Aguirre Ferré, Agriculture Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried and Simone Marstiller, DeSantis' recent pick to lead the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Several speakers also threw out praise to another woman crucial to the campaign: Susie Wiles, who has managed both the campaign and the transition.

Casey DeSantis, who also spoke, said the First Family has been in the process of moving into the Governor's Mansion, which needed to be baby-proofed for their two children, Madison and Mason (who are both under 2 years old).

"I was thinking about this beautiful, early 20th-century wallpaper. Orange crayon wouldn't look so good on that," she told reporters after the event. "We want to make sure people have the opportunity to see two young children growing up in the mansion — this is the first time this has happened in 50 years."

Amid the applause of celebration and the sense of fresh blood, Casey DeSantis had one central message, that she offered tearfully to the volunteers and supporters: "We will not let you down."

January 04, 2019

Ron DeSantis picks Tampa's Dana Young to head Visit Florida

Dana young
SCOTT KEELER | Times Senator Dana Young on the floor of the Florida Senate during debate, 2017 session.

Friday afternoon, Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis named former state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, as his pick to lead Visit Florida, the state's public-private tourism program which uses taxpayer funds to promote the state to visitors worldwide.

"Dana Young is an exceptional leader who has worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life for all Floridians through her work in the state senate," said Governor-elect Ron DeSantis in a released statement. "Her leadership ability and experience make her an excellent candidate to lead Visit Florida in their mission to maximize the economic impact of travel and tourism to our state."

In order to take office as the CEO of Visit Florida, Young must first be approved by the Visit Florida Board of Directors.

Young, who first served in the state House before being elected to the Senate, lost her re-election bid to Democrat Janet Cruz in November after a razor-thin race that required a manual recount.

Visit Florida came under scrutiny in 2016 after the Florida House filed to sue the rapper Pitbull to reveal the details of a secret $1 million contract with Visit Florida to promote tourism to the state.

The charge against Visit Florida's operations was led by then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has now been appointed to be the commissioner of education in DeSantis' administration.

January 03, 2019

Ron DeSantis fills press shop in administration

MONICA HERNDON | Times Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis talks to the media after a campaign stop on October 4, 2018 at the Italian Club in Ybor City, Tampa, Fla.

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis' transition team announced Thursday that they were adding two more communications staff members to the administration.

Dave Vasquez, an early staffer in DeSantis' campaign who worked as his spokesperson, will be hired as press secretary. Vasquez also worked as a campaign manager for state Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs.

Meredith Beatrice will serve as the administration's deputy communications director. She was the director of communications for the Republican Party of Florida during the 2018 election and previously served in the same role for the Florida Department of State.

Both will work under the administration's director of communications, Helen Aguirre Ferré, who served as Trump's White House director of media affairs for two years.

Ron DeSantis taps Trump’s ex-federal prison chief to lead Florida corrections

President Donald Trump speaks to Gov.-elect Kristi Noem, R-S.D., during a meeting with newly elected governors in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Washington. From left, Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, D-Ill., Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., Trump, Noem, and Gov.-elect Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In a rush of new appointments days before his inauguration, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis tapped Mark Inch, the former director of the federal bureau of prisons and a retired two-star Army general to lead the Florida Department of Corrections.

Inch's appointment marks the first major hire of an agency head who hails from outside Florida. The transition team had previously said they were  recruiting out-of-state, but the only picks that had been previously announced were of Florida public officials, lobbyists or business-people.

Inch's time as chief of the federal Department of Justice's prison arm was brief. He was appointed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in August 2017, then resigned unexpectedly in May 2018. 

The New York Times later reported that Inch told Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein he was tired of the administration flouting “departmental norms.” And he felt that Sessions largely excluded him from major staffing, budget and policy decisions, according to the Times, in addition to being caught in an ideological war between Sessions and Jared Kushner, who disagreed on criminal justice reform.

During his career in the Army, Inch was the commanding general of the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force 435 in Kabul, Afghanistan, according to the transition team's announcement, and he advised senior Army officials on policing, rule of law and detainee operations.

When it comes to criminal justice reform, Inch wrote a December op-ed in The Daily Caller in which he supports the federal First Step Act and said that "rehabilitation is an honorable and integral calling of the corrections professional."

Andrew Gillum's ethics case to be heard later this month

Former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum with his brother, Marcus, and former lobbyist Adam Corey.

A complaint over Andrew Gillum's trips with a lobbyist in 2016 will get a hearing later this month, when state officials will decide whether there is probable cause that the former Tallahassee mayor violated state ethics laws.

Gillum, who narrowly lost a bid for Florida governor last year and is now being talked about as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, will be present at the Jan. 25 hearing, his lawyer, Barry Richard, said.

"I think it’s clear that there’s no credible evidence that he violated anything,"  Richard said.

If ethics commissioners find probable cause that ethics laws were violated, records in the case become public and commissioners would later determine what Gillum's punishment might be. If commissioners find no probable cause, the case ends and the records also become public.

The hearing, which isn't open to the public, was first reported by the Tallahassee Democrat.

The complaint revolves around trips then-Mayor Andrew Gillum took with lobbyist Adam Corey and others in 2016, before Gillum launched his bid for governor.

Tallahassee businessman Erwin Jackson, who filed the complaint last year, alleged that Gillum received benefits from Corey above the $100 limit during trips to Costa Rica and New York.

Gillum has denied the allegations, and he has turned over receipts that he says shows that he paid his own way during the trips.

The complaint received little attention, however, until the final two weeks of the election, when Corey's lawyer, former Rick Scott and Charlie Crist advisor Chris Kise, decided to release hundreds of pages of records that he had given to ethics investigators.

The records revealed that undercover FBI agents arranged outings for Gillum and his brother in New York, including providing tickets to see the Broadway musical "Hamilton." And they showed that one of the agents sponsored a fundraiser for Gillum in Tallahassee.

The extraordinary revelations revealed the lengths FBI agents had gone to investigate Gillum, and they cast new questions about his ties to Corey, whom Gillum described as a friend who'd led him astray.

No charges have been brought against Gillum, who has said that FBI agents assured him that he was neither a target nor a subject of the investigation.

Jackson, who has long been a thorn in Gillum's side, said he would attend the hearing.

Jackson has filed numerous ethics complaints against city officials over the years, including against then-Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox in 2014. That complaint alleged that Maddox was still involved with his lobbying firm, Governance, Inc., and that he didn't disclose the conflicts when the company had clients before the city.

The ethics commission found no probable cause for the allegations, since Maddox had declared he'd sold his interest in the company before running for city commission.

But according to the FBI, Jackson was mostly right. Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Maddox on 44 counts, including bribery and racketeering relating to his relationship with Governance while he was in office.

January 02, 2019

DeSantis names former judge, lobbyist to head Department of Juvenile Justice

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis. JOE RAEDLE, GETTY IMAGES

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis has tapped Simone Marstiller, a former judge, state agency head and lobbyist, to lead the Department of Juvenile Justice — arguably one of the state's most troubled agencies in the past.

The Department has had an interim secretary, Tim Niermann, since August 28. The former secretary, Christina K. Daly, stepped down last summer after a tumultuous tenure that featured juvenile justice reforms but also the questionable deaths of several youths in state custody. The Miami Herald published an investigation in October 2017 that also revealed some DJJ staffers ignored beatings or offered pastries as bribes for beatdowns of detainees.

Marstiller grew up in St. Petersburg and was a judge in the First District Court of Appeal for six years, according to a news release from the DeSantis transition team.

In 2001, she was named assistant general counsel to Gov. Jeb Bush, and has served in various high-up state government roles, including secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and deputy attorney general.

Since 2017, Marstiller has worked at Gunster, Yoakley, Stewart, P.A, a corporate law and consulting firm. State records show that last year, she registered to lobby Florida's executive branch for Associated Industries of Florida, a business group supported by prominent special interests such as U.S. Sugar and Florida Power & Light.

Ron DeSantis adds four more to ranks of new administration

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis. JOE RAEDLE, GETTY IMAGES

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis' transition team announced four more hires to the new administration Wednesday, less than one week before his inauguration on Jan. 8.

All four have been working on the transition team or helping to coordinate the inauguration.

Chris Spencer, who helped manage the office of state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was named policy director. Spencer has also served as chief Legislative assistant in the Florida Senate and helped coordinate DeSantis' transition advisory committees, according to the transition team.

Justin Caporale, who previously worked on Donald Trump's campaign and as a special assistant to the president in Trump's White House, will be DeSantis' director of external affairs. He's currently the executive director of the DeSantis-Nuñez inauguration.

The transition's director of scheduling, Amanda Emmons, will stay in charge of DeSantis' schedule in the administration. She is a former staff assistant to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Finally, Makenzi Mahler, who has been working on recruitment for the transition, will be the director of appointments. Mahler was the campaign's deputy finance director and previously worked for the Republican Party of Florida.

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