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.

RELATEDDeSantis taps Seminole County SOE for Secretary of State

Attorney General-elect Ashley Moody names sheriff to lead opioid group

BRONTE WITTPENN | Times Florida's new Attorney General Ashley Moody stands with her husband Justin Duralia and eight-year-old son Connor in front of a crowd of supporters after winning the Attorney General race during election night at the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel on Tuesday, November 6, 2018.

Florida Attorney General-elect Ashley Moody announced today she was creating a new advisory group about opioids, with Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma at the helm.

Details on the working group are scarce — her spokesman said to expect more details on Friday — but its goal is to identify best practices "to stop the influx of deadly opioids, treat addiction, raise awareness and reduce the death toll."

“Combating the opioid crisis is one of my top priorities, and beginning on day one, as Florida’s Attorney General, I will aggressively pursue strategies to fight addiction, increase access to treatment and lock up drug traffickers," she said in a statement.

Lemma supported Moody in last year's election, appearing in television ads criticizing her Republican opponents during the primary. He's a member of the Seminole County Opioid and Heroin Task Force.

Moody will replace Pam Bondi as attorney general on Tuesday.

December 28, 2018

DeSantis taps Seminole County SOE for Secretary of State

Michael Ertel, courtesy of Seminole County


Governor-elect Ron DeSantis' transition team announced the appointment of Seminole County Supervisor of Elections, Michael Ertel, as Secretary of State Friday. 

"As Supervisor of Elections in Seminole County — where he has been elected by the voters four times — Mike has proven that he is vastly qualified to lead the state’s elections efforts as Secretary of State, and will strive to ensure that Florida voters are confident that elections continue to be fair and accurate,” DeSantis wrote in a statement. 

Ertel, who uses inspirational quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt in his email signature, was appointed to his current role by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005. He was re-elected as the Seminole County SOE in 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2016.

His name will come to the foreground in 2019, as the 2018 midterm recounts and calls to investigate claims of voter fraud will likely spur election-related discussion and legislation this legislative session. 

Before Ertel became an elections supervisor, he served as his home county's first public information officer and worked for the state's tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida.

He will replace Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who was appointed to the role first by Bush in 2003 and then again by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012.  

December 21, 2018

DeSantis pledges water quality accountability, more voucher funding in magazine interview


While Ron DeSantis has significantly changed his tone since the election, there's one aspect of his campaign that has so far remained constant: his promise to prioritize environmental issues and water quality.

That theme emerged again in a Florida Trend business magazine piece published this week, in which DeSantis repeated that the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee should be fully built "as soon as possible." (The piece is only available in print)

Florida Trend is owned by Times Publishing, the same company as the Tampa Bay Times.

DeSantis also talked about water management districts, which hastily renewed a land lease with sugar growers in November in an area targeted for the new reservoir. Environmental activists have railed against Gov. Rick Scott on the issues of these districts, saying he replaced experienced regulators with people who had previously worked for industry.

"We're going to have people on the water management boards that understand the issues and are going to be problem-solvers," DeSantis said in the interview.

When it comes to health care policy, incoming state House Speaker José Oliva told the magazine he fully expects DeSantis to support his proposed hospital reforms — chiefly, to roll back certificate-of-need regulations that limit when and where hospitals can be built. Oliva has said these rules give hospitals "monopolies" and jack up health care prices.

"I think you will see a great deal of action in trying to extricate government from the free market," Oliva said.

READ MOREFlorida's new House Speaker wants to reduce government, health care spending

The magazine also touched on DeSantis' sketch for education, which is to expand vocational and career-specific training and continue to push for more funding for vouchers through the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships. His ultimate goal would be for every family to get a set amount of money for their student's education and so they could use it in a myriad of ways, he said.

On the economy, DeSantis plans to continue to use public incentives and Enterprise Florida to attract business to the state and wants to reduce the sales tax on commercial leases.

As far as who's helping DeSantis call the shots, his "inner circle" includes well-known advisers such as his transition executive director, Susie Wiles, as well as transition chairs U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and former House speaker Richard Corcoran. The magazine also named a few others very close to the incoming governor: state Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples; Kent Stermon, the COO of a military moving company that previously rented out a condo to DeSantis; and of course, his wife, Casey.

DeSantis announces pick to head Department of Elder Affairs

Elder affairs
Douglas Clifford | Times

As the transition team continues to build up the new state government, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis announced his pick to lead the Department of Elder Affairs on Thursday evening.

Richard Prudom previously served as deputy secretary of the department, as well as chief of staff. Before 2011, he worked as the director of financial management and chief of staff to the Department of Corrections.

"Richard Prudom is a proven and dedicated public servant with extensive leadership experience within Florida's government," DeSantis said in a press release.

Prudom is the ninth agency head to be announced by the DeSantis team since he was elected.

December 19, 2018

DeSantis' education committee talks challenges of K-12 spending campaign promise, teacher pay

Bus1 fleet lnew cmg (1)

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis' transition committee on education met Wednesday to discuss how the state could begin to implement his campaign proposal that 80 percent of all education funding be directed "into the classroom." The short answer: it's not going to be simple.

Many committee members said the first step is to define what "classroom spending" would actually include.

"While we've made great progress in the state and much of our intent has been very noble, we've missed the mark oftentimes in the execution phase in how we define, and I'm using air quotes, 'instruction' and 'classroom' ... to make sure we don’t devalue things like school security, the arts, etc.," said Desmond Blackburn, the CEO of a national nonprofit called New Teacher Center and a former Brevard County superintendent.

"It seems to me we could have much more productive conversation about ...  how to improve instructional efforts in our schools if we had a more uniform way of evaluating the way that money is being spent," added Rick Stevens, managing director of the Florida Citizens Alliance, an educational advocacy group.

READ MORE: Ron DeSantis says Florida public schools are wasting money. Are they?

Andy Tuck, who is the vice chairman of the State Board of Education and hails from Highlands County in Central Florida, suggested that rural counties could combine administrative resources to eliminate the need for some positions, since the total student population of six rural districts might equal one urban district anyway.

"We've got to have bus drivers, food service people — I'm not saying we're totally top heavy — but there are some thing we could look at privatizing to save some money or cooperating to achieve that number," Tuck said.

He said he was "thrilled" with DeSantis' proposal of 80 percent of expenditures going to the classroom, "but that being said ... it's going to be a pretty tough goal to meet."

The 44-member committee, which met by phone and was open to the public via a dial-in number, also discussed the issue of teacher pay, and how it can be changed to mitigate Florida's teacher shortage.

Many on the committee were on board with the current system of performance-based bonuses for teachers, though several members wrangled with the many different factors that should be included in measuring how effective a teacher truly is. Others said teachers should be rewarded with more professional development, like getting help to go back to school and earn a master's degree.

"With the VAM scores (model for teacher evaluations), you’ll see across the board that some teachers that think it's unfair and doesn't work and others who think it's critical to assessing them fairly but I think it's worth looking at again," said Connie Milito, a lobbyist for Hillsborough County Public Schools.

She also said Florida should reconsider returning to national board certification as an incentive. The state used to subsidize teachers' applications to the national board as well as give them bonuses for having that certification, but that was eliminated in recent years.

But a few members also advocated for a general rise in the base pay, saying it was crucial to keeping Florida competitive with other states — perhaps a signal that the familiar debate over teacher bonuses vs. raises may continue this year.

"We just have to figure out a way so the masses of educators feel they start every day out with fair and appropriate compensation before we figure out what a bonus structure looks like linked to performance," Blackburn said.

The final issue of the meeting was the revelations earlier this year that the University of Central Florida misused state funds that were supposed to be spent on operating expenses, instead directing them to constructing a new $38 million building.

"It's imperative we look at what UCF did ... to make sure they rectify it, obviously it is an embarrassment that it did happen but he need to move forward without affecting students or the educational experience at UCF," said state Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs.

There is an ongoing review of university spending on construction, according to staff on the call.