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80 posts from July 2018

July 28, 2018

Wealthy Florida Democrats say their blind trusts won't be like Rick Scott's

Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott offered a convenient counterpoint Friday to the criticism he continues to take over his use of a blind trust to shield tens of millions of dollars in assets from public view: Florida’s wealthy Democrats will do it too.

Around the time they disclosed their own finances last month, three of the five Democrats running to replace Scott said publicly that they would either transfer their assets into a blind trust or at least consider doing so. The reason: a blind trust managed by a third party ostensibly allows a public official to make conflict-free financial decisions because they don't know what assets they hold or how and whether their decisions affect their own personal wealth.

Businessmen Jeff Greene, Chris King and Philip Levine each said last month that a blind trust was an option on the table should they become Florida's governor.

And Scott’s U.S. Senate campaign took note.

In announcing Friday that the governor filed a federally required financial disclosure that showed his net worth is north of $255 million and disclosed the assets held in his blind trust for the first time in four years, Scott’s campaign released a Q&A noting that former Florida officials Jeb Bush and Alex Sink used blind trusts before Scott ever did. And, they noted, “even now, a majority of the Democratic primary candidates for governor have committed to using a blind trust.”

But that’s not exactly true.

For one, Greene, who told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau in late June that he’d consider using a blind trust, has since decided against the “nebulous” option, according to a campaign spokeswoman. And while King and Levine said more definitively that they'd create blind trusts, they say they have no intention of mirroring Scott’s use of his own.

The governor is being sued for allegedly violating Florida's blind trust statutes by shifting assets into his wife's name and retaining control as the beneficial owner. Critics also note that the CEO of the trustee of his trust, Hollow Brook Wealth Management, is former business associate, though Scott says his trustee has always followed rules preventing the disclosure of assets.

“You don't have to be a legal expert to see that Gov. Scott's blind trust setup doesn't pass the smell test,” said King campaign manager Zach Learner. “Florida's blind trust law lacks many of the commonsense safeguards included in federal blind trust rules. It doesn't protect the public from potential or actual conflicts of interest.”

Learner also said that King, in addition to establishing a blind trust for himself and his wife, would seek a “comprehensive review to remove all potential conflicts of interest."

By evoking the three Democrats, Scott – a common foil for Florida’s left - is probably doing their primary opponents a favor.

Andrew Gillum has stressed that he’s the only “non-millionaire” in the race. And a campaign spokesman for Gwen Graham – who says she’s placed her $13.7 million in Graham Company stock into a more standard trust in order to distance herself from the family company’s operations – says the use of blind trusts by state officials has proven problematic.

But Levine’s campaign says it’s not the blind trust that’s been the problem, but the people who oversee and use it.

“Unlike Rick Scott ... Mayor Levine will govern with the highest ethics and integrity and will always be transparent regarding his assets,” Christian Ulvert, a senior advisor to Levine's campaign, said in a statement. “As Governor, he intends to seek legal counsel on the best course of action that ensures the public’s trust is properly upheld and he will be a full-time Governor singularly focused on advancing his vision for Florida."

In disclosure Q and A, Scott campaign provides its own questions, then avoids some answers

Rick Scott 2015 APHere is the Q and A provided by the Scott campaign as part of the governor's financial disclosure. Note that even some of their own questions didn't get answers.

Our updates and context are in blue italics:

"TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Today, the Scott for Florida campaign released Governor Rick Scott’s annual financial disclosure report, as required by federal law for U.S. Senate candidates. Following the Governor signing the federal financial disclosure report, his assets were immediately placed back into a blind trust. The use of a blind trust avoids even the appearance of a conflict of interest for an elected official, protects the people of Florida from an elected official making decisions based on personal finances, and is recommended by the Florida Commission on Ethics."

Update: Scott's campaign staff clarified that the governor has not decided whether or not to continue the use of a blind trust if he were to be elected to the U.S. Senate. 

"A blind trust has been used by Florida elected officials such as Jeb Bush and Alex Sink, and even now, a majority of the democratic primary candidates for governor have committed to using a blind trust. Blind trusts are also used by governors in other states, both republicans and democrats. The Governor’s blind trust has also been upheld multiple times by the State Commission on Ethics and the court system."

Scott is being sued for violating the blind trust statutes by shifting assets for shifting millions of assets into his wife's name and retaining control as the beneficial owner. A motion to dismiss the case has been rejected by the circuit court and is now on appeal in the First Circuit Court of Appeal. 

"Governor Scott has worked tirelessly to protect taxpayer dollars by selling the state plane, which has saved the state $2.4 million each year since 2011, and declining to take a salary throughout his time as governor. When elected to the U.S. Senate, Governor Scott will continue to decline a salary and will instead propose that all members of Congress have their taxpayer-funded salaries halted if they fail to pass a budget and appropriations bills on time."

CLICK HERE for Governor Scott’s Federal Disclosure Report 

CLICK HERE for Governor Scott's Notice to the Florida Commission on Ethics of his Blind Trust 

Please see the below FAQ and timeline for more information:

Q: What is Governor Rick Scott’s net worth?

That information is thoroughly provided in the financial disclosure.

No, it is not thoroughly provided. The governor has provided his liabilities but his assets are not clear because it is unknown how many assets held in the name of his wife, Ann, are also controlled by Scott. SEC documents show Scott has been the beneficial owner of many of the assets held in Ann Scott's name. Scott's worth may include the millions held by his wife, but the value of Ann Scott's assets are listed only as a range, with as many as 150 investments listed as "over $1 million." 

"Governor Scott grew up in a family that struggled financially. After attending high school and community college, Governor Scott enlisted in the United States Navy, then used the GI Bill to continue his education and ultimately open his first small business. He and his wife Ann, his high school sweetheart, have been able to live the American Dream thanks to the opportunities they had in this country, and now, Governor Scott is working to make sure every child in Florida will have these same opportunities. 

"Governor Scott has also worked tirelessly to protect taxpayer dollars by selling the state plane, which has saved the state $2.4 million each year since 2011, and declining to take a salary throughout his time as governor. When elected to the U.S. Senate, Governor Scott will continue to decline a salary and will instead propose that all members of Congress have their taxpayer-funded salaries halted if they fail to pass a budget and appropriations bills on time."

Q: Why has Governor Scott’s net worth increased over his years as governor?

Continue reading "In disclosure Q and A, Scott campaign provides its own questions, then avoids some answers" »

July 27, 2018

The Collective Super PAC pitches in another $1 million for Gillum



A pro-Andrew Gillum political group that drew headlines for running a TV advertisement attacking Democratic rival Gwen Graham is pitching in more money — and another anti-Graham ad — for the Tallahassee mayor.

The Collective Super PAC, a political group working to support black candidates, announced Friday it was boosting its support of Gillum's candidacy by another $1 million as direct contributions to the Gillum campaign and the affiliated political committee Forward Florida, in in-kind support and television advertising.

It will include a nearly $500,000 ad buy which will air in Tampa Bay, West Palm Beach and Jacksonville next week. The group's statement did not name Graham as the target of the ad — titled "Zero Regrets" — but it said the ad "focuses on one of Gillum's primary opponents, who continues to tout progressive credentials despite voting with banks, supporting the disastrous Keystone XL pipeline, and publicly undermining President Obama's Affordable Care Act to get reelected."

The Collective's 501c4 arm, Collective Future, has previously contributed $266,000 to Forward Florida. The parent group's largest contributors this cycle have included George Soros, ACTBLUE, Priorities USA and Planned Parenthood.

Gillum, despite the infusions from the Collective and billionaire Tom Steyer's NextGen America, has continued to trail in polling compared to some of his competitors for the Democratic nomination. A Mason-Dixon poll released earlier Friday showed 27 percent of registered voters backing Graham and 18 percent supporting former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, with a margin for error of 4 percentage points.

Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene was in third at 12 percent, and Gillum — who has been in the race since last year — trailed in fourth at 10 percent. Only Winter Park businessman Chris King polled more poorly, though according to the poll a quarter of Democratic primary voters remain undecided.

The primary election is on Aug. 28. Vote-by-mail started July 24.

Photo: Andrew Gillum, AP

Miami lawmakers plan to publicly rebuke Daniel Ortega for violence in Nicaragua

Nicaragua Unrest


Daniel Ortega’s biggest foes in Washington are trying to draw more attention to Nicaragua’s ongoing human-rights crisis, though they acknowledge that military action by President Donald Trump against the leftist leader is unlikely.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami are leading efforts in the House and Senate to publicly rebuke violent attacks by masked gunmen linked to Ortega’s government who have killed 97 people since July 11. This week, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution written by Ros-Lehtinen that condemns the violence and calls on the use of sanctions for individuals that are connected to the killings. Rubio has proposed a similar resolution in the Senate.

The retiring Miami congresswoman said the successful resolution was the first step in a four-part plan to rebuke Ortega.

Additionally, she’s angling for the Senate to pass her bill that limits U.S. loans to Ortega’s government until the longtime president carries out democratic reforms; more sanctions for individuals who can be connected to violent acts against anti-Ortega protestors, and overturning the Trump administration’s decision to end a temporary immigration program that allowed 2,500 Nicaraguans to live and work in the U.S. without the fear of deportation.

“I would not want to compare atrocities, but Nicaragua is a smaller country than Venezuela, smaller population, and they had almost 400 people killed and the international community shrugs,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “If we’re going to say that it’s terrible in Nicaragua, why are we going to deport Nicaraguan Americans to Nicaragua when we are saying that it’s in political chaos?”

The Trump administration decided to end Nicaragua’s Temporary Protected Status in November 2017, a designation that was made in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch killed nearly 4,000 people and uprooted land mines around the country. Nicaraguans who have been living in the U.S. with TPS since 1998 now have until January 2019 to seek another form of legal residency or else return to Nicaragua.

“By next year, they will all be deported,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “These are law-abiding people, they are legal, they have permits to work, they’re being educated, they’ve got driver’s licenses and now we’re going to deport them to the violent hell that is Nicaragua? That’s just not right.”

Ros-Lehtinen’s letter to Trump urging him to change Nicaragua’s TPS designation was signed by four of Miami-Dade County’s five House members, including Republicans Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart. Miami-Dade is home to about one-third of all Nicaraguan Americans.

Rubio said there is already work being done to sanction individuals and entities in Nicaragua that are responsible for the violence. Ortega’s recent decision not to move up elections that were scheduled for 2021, as requested by the nation’s business community and Catholic clergy, moved him past the point of no return in Rubio’s eyes.

“There is a direct national security interest for the United States in seeing a return to democracy and stability in Nicaragua,” Rubio said in a statement. “The message from the U.S. to the Ortega regime was very clear: Call for early elections and allow legitimate elections. That did not happen. As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path, the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

Read more here.

Former Florida Supreme Court chief justice: Amendment 8 'misleading,' 'deceptive'

It's still a long way to November, when voters will be asked to vote up or down on 13 proposed amendments to the state constitution. But only a few so far have generated as much debate as Amendment 8, a measure that is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters.

The amendment is a combination of three separate education proposals which were rolled into one. It would: (1) create eight-year term limits for school board members, (2) enshrine in the constitution the civics education graduation requirement that currently exists in state law and (3) pave the way for the Legislature to create a separate body to authorize and oversee charter schools, outside of the authority of the local school boards.

The lawsuit has its first hearing August 17, yet former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Wells has already decided where he stands: opposed.

Wells offered his thoughts in an unprompted eight-page "opinion," sent first to the League and then the Times/Herald. Wells now works at an Orlando law firm, which is not representing any of the parties in the suit.

"This significant change from local county school board control ... is hidden by packaging the change with what are thought to be attractive proposals for term limits and civics education," Wells wrote. "In reality, the terms limits and civics education proposals are only bait to attract voters to vote yes for Amendment 8."

Wells was appointed by Democratic governor Lawton Chiles and served on the court from 1994 to 2009, serving as chief justice from 2000 to 2002. Wells ruled against state school vouchers in the Bush v. Holmes decision.

The true purpose of the amendment, argues Wells, is to "overrule" a previous court decision by the First District Court of Appeal, which struck down a statewide charter school authorizer by finding it unconstitutional. That decision was referenced several times in the Constitution Revision Commission's discussion of the amendment during the drafting process.

The fact that the proposal's summary does not mention that original case is one of the reasons why it's "misleading" and "deceptive," Wells wrote.

You can read his entire "opinion" here.

RELATED COVERAGE: Explaining 13 constitutional amendments on Florida’s ballot

Gradebook podcast: Supporting Amendment 8, with Erika Donalds of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission

Is Rick Scott right to think releasing his schedule presents more of security risk than any gov before him? Lawsuit wants to know

Rick Scott and policeA not-for-profit healthcare company that lost a bid to renew its Medicaid contract with the state had a question for Gov. Rick Scott: Where can we find you?

They asked his staff to send them a copy of his schedule — in the office and on the campaign trail — for the next three months so they could talk to him about their concerns.

They argued that documents, compiled and recorded by taxpayer-paid staff and followed by the state’s top executive, his security entourage and other people on the state payroll, are public record and ought to be available for anyone in the state to see.

But the governor’s office wouldn’t turn them over, claiming the details on those calendars are exempt from public disclosure. His communications staff says it's about protecting the governor from a security risk -- even shielding details from calendars from years ago -- a higher standard than any governor before him. Story here. 

July 26, 2018

Can lowering Lake O stop toxic algae flows? The Trump administration wants to find out

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@alextdaugherty @jenstaletovich

Brian Mast crashed the party.

The first-term Republican congressman, who represents a Treasure Coast district decimated by toxic blue-green algae, wasn’t scheduled to speak at the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force’s first meeting since Donald Trump became president.

But as Mast emerged in the back of the auditorium, assistant Secretary of the Interior Susan Combs stopped a scheduled question-and-answer session with Army Corps officials to let the congressman question some of the officials in attendance.

His most pressing concern? Getting government officials to lower Lake Okeechobee water levels in the dry season so the lake has more capacity during the wetter summer months, decreasing the chances of algae-ridden water ending up in canals and rivers on Florida’s east and west coasts.

“This is the issue that’s at the crux of my community, the fact that water is being held on Lake Okeechobee, not just as it relates to risk management but as it relates to the benefit of a number of other entities to the detriment of an epicenter of population,” Mast said. “I think this issue needs to be dealt with in the short term as we wait for everything in this integrated delivery schedule to come to fruition. This is an emergency situation in an epicenter of human population.”

South Florida Water Management District Director Ernie Marks and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James were unable to estimate a minimum water level for Lake Okeechobee during the dry season.

“I don’t have an exact number for you,” Marks said. “I can tell you that there are several entities that rely on that water. We do focus on making sure that the tribes, the lower east coast get the water that they need to support the populations in those areas.”

“Which is to the detriment of communities that don’t need the water when it comes to the time of the wet season, which we’re in right now,” Mast replied.

The exchange between Mast and Marks highlights the tension between competing interests that have different immediate needs from Florida’s largest lake. Residents along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers are on the verge of an economic recession due to the algae flows, according to Sanibel mayor Kevin Ruane.

“I’ve been here for 15 years, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen this condition,” Ruane said. “We’re like Goldilocks: we need water during the dry season but we don’t water during the wet season. Right now, we’re have a situation where this is having a compound effect on the economy.”

Read more here.

July 25, 2018

After receiving challenges, regulators void FPL's Vero Beach request and order up October hearing


Fpl plantThe Florida Public Service Commission put a temporary halt to Florida Power & Light's deal to buy the Vero Beach municipal utility Wednesday.

After receiving four challenges to its June 5 ruling, the PSC swiftly declared the order "null and void" and scheduled a hearing into the matter on Oct. 10-11.

The regulators had voted 3-2 to allow FPL to charge customers to recover the $185 million cost of buying the Vero Beach municipal utility -- including $116.2 million over the book value of the property. 

Four groups challenged it for various reasons and so the PSC put the brakes on it. 

"The Civic Association of Indian River County, Inc. filed its amended petition on July 20, 2018, and the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, Mr. Michael Moran, and Mr. Bill Heady filed petitions on July 23, 2018,'' the PSC wrote on Wednesday. "Accordingly, our PAA [proposed agency action] order is null and void and a de novo hearing is set for October 10-11, 2018, to consider the petitions."

Here's our story on the ruling. 



A day after judge blasts state, counties look for on-campus early voting sites

A day after a judge struck down Florida's ban on early voting on college and university campuses, the Gainesville-area supervisor of elections asked the University of Florida to use the UF student union for early voting for the November general election.

In addition, Tampa's top elections official, Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer, said he has begun talks with USF leaders about holding early voting at the Marshall Student Center on the campus.

The developments come as both parties prepare to mount aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts in a year when Floridians will elect a governor, U.S. senator and other top elected officials and decide whether to restore the right to vote to most convicted felons and ban offshore drilling off the Florida coast.

Holding early voting on major college campuses could increase voting among students.  Alachua County, largely because of UF's commanding presence, is an overwhelmingly Democratic county, and the much larger Hillsborough leans Democratic.

Alachua Supervisor Kim Barton sent a letter to UF President W. Kent Fuchs, expressing her interest in using the J. Wayne Reitz Student Union for early voting for up to 14 days and checking on parking, security and sign issues.

"It is my responsibility to provide every voter in Alachua County access to an early voting site," Barton told UF. Read Barton's letter here.

The Reitz Union is the very building that Gov. Rick Scott's administration  said in 2014 was not allowed for use as an early voting site, an action that U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled Tuesday was a violation of college students' constitutional rights and showed a "stark pattern of discrimination" by the state Division of Elections.

In a blistering 40-page decision, Walker said the state has made college students a "secondary class of voters" by prohibiting them from casting early ballots on their campuses.

READ MORE: Judge: Florida's early voting on campus ban shows 'stark pattern of discrimination'

Scott's office said it is reviewing the ruling. The governor's office has not said whether the state will appeal.

In his ruling, the judge noted that about 52,000 students attend UF, and that statewide, the number of people living and working on public college and university campuses in Florida is equal to the population of the city of Jacksonville or the combined population of the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming and Washington D.C.

In her letter, Barton noted that Saturday, Nov. 3, which is the last Saturday of early voting before the general election, the Gators have a home football game against the University of Missouri.

"The last Saturday of early voting is generally one of the busiest days, and it is important that access to the early voting location not differ from any other day, even if there is a football game happening," Barton wrote.

Hillsborough voting chief Latimer said he was pleased with Walker's order, which he called a "good ruling." Latimer holds early voting at 19 locations, but the closest ones to the USF campus are on Busch Boulevard and in the nearby city of Temple Terrace.

"I don't have anything that's right in the immediate area (of USF) at all," Latimer said.

Latimer noted that the court order comes at a time when early voting is growing in popularity.

In the 2016 presidential election, Latimer said, four of every 10 Hillsborough voters cast ballots at early voting sites.

Florida's fight over felons' voting rights shifts to Atlanta courtroom

Gov. Rick Scott and his fellow Republicans on the Cabinet will defend the state's process of restoring voting rights to felons in an Atlanta courtroom Wednesday.

Three judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by the Fair Elections Center, a Washington-based voter advocacy group that persuaded a federal judge to strike down the restoration process as unconstitutional in February.

Scott and the Cabinet won a stay of U.S. District Judge Mark Walker's ruling in April, and the appeals court will hear both sides in the case, known as James Michael Hand et al vs. Rick Scott et al, brought by nine people whose voting rights were revoked due to past felony convictions.

Walker ruled that the system violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of freedom of expression and equal protection by giving four state officials, especially the governor, "unfettered discretion" to decide which felons regain their rights and which don't.

READ MORE: Judge strikes down Florida system for restoring felons' rights

Walker ordered that the system be scrapped and replaced with one that had more specific criteria for restoring felons' rights.

But the appeals court granted a stay on April 25, one day before Walker's sweeping order was scheduled to take effect.

"That seems to us to be a tall order," the Atlanta court said of Walker's decision.

In granting a stay, the appeals court said that the state has a "substantial likelihood" of winning on the merits of the case.

The judges who participated in the April stay were Stanley Marcus, William Pryor and Beverly Martin, with Martin writing a partial dissent.

One question is whether the Atlanta court will rule in time to affect the 2018 election in Florida, where an estimated 1.5 million felons are permanently disenfranchised by Florida's clemency system. The deadline to register to vote in the general election is Oct. 9.