September 14, 2012

Lawmaker slams Citizens' $350 million loan program, seeks audit

Another day, another controversy for Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which has moved aggressively to make itself less attractive ever since Gov. Rick Scott ordered it to downsize last year.

In recent months, the state-run insurer has hiked rates, sidestepped the state Legislature, spent lavishly on executive perks and backed a risky multi-million dollar loan program pushed by an insurance lobbyist. As Citizens plows ahead with its massive overhaul, it is picking up a host of enemies along the way.

This week, Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, sent a sharply-worded letter to Citizens’ regulator, the Office of Insurance Regulation, calling for an official audit into the insurer-of-last-resort’s latest controversy. Citizens’ board approved a plan last week to loan out $350 million in money from its $6.2 billion surplus to private insurers—under very generous terms—to incentivize the companies to take over some of the state’s policies.

The concept of plan was approved less than 48 hours after it was fully unveiled to the public, and there was no opportunity for public input. Artiles is now calling for a full audit of the companies involved, and has requested loads of public records from Citizens.

“It is our hope that the Citizens board can take a step back and allow an audit of these insurers while discussing its plan with its policyholders, the public, the governor, and the Florida Legislature,” Artiles said in a letter. “A decision like this, which affects both taxpayer dollars and the future of property insurance in Florida, deserves to be discussed in a rational public way.”

Florida’s insurance consumer advocate, Robin Westcott, also said last week that the plan—which could result in Citizens losing all or part of the $350 million loan--was being put through “in a hurry.”

Citizens disagrees, saying that it did provide several opportunities for public input, beginning back in June.

“Rep Artiles is misstating the chronology of what has occurred,” said Citizens spokesperson Christine Ashburn, in a statement. “Citizens began public discussions of depopulation proposals at the summit on June 1 which was open to all members of the public and broadcast live by the Florida channel.”

Artiles called the program, which was supported by a lobbyist for a politically-connected insurance company, an “inside deal” and said it made Florida’s $20 million Digital Domain debacle “look like a drop in the bucket.”

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September 13, 2012

DCF advances legal push for drug-testing welfare applicants

Florida’s Department of Children and Families furthered its legal push for drug-testing welfare applicants this week, asking for a federal judge to grant a motion of summary judgment in favor of the program.

A federal judge put a hold on the program last year after a University of Central Florida student sued the state, calling the law unconstitutional. The judge indicated that the student, Luis Lebron, had a good chance of winning his case based on the Fourth Amendment.

The law has not been enforced since that injunction, but DCF wants a judge to move forward and make a ruling. Gov. Rick Scott has advocated for the practice, as well as drug-testing state workers.

In its motion for summary judgment, the state argued that drug testing for welfare applicants should be found legal based on several grounds, including:

  •  Consent to drug test is voluntary, and applicants are not forced to undergo the urinalysis. The drug test is only required if people want to receive government benefits.
  • The state has a “special need” to conduct the “search,”
  • Drug use is an impediment to gaining and keeping employment
  • The reasonable expectations of privacy are “sharply reduced” due to the fact that this is a government program

 You can read the full motion for summary judgment, which includes other arguments, here:


September 11, 2012

Three counties reject revised Medicaid bills

Three Florida counties have opted to challenge their Medicaid backlog bills in court, arguing that even after months of review the state has still incorrectly calculated how much they owe. The Agency for Health Care Administration has asked for the state Division of Administrative Hearings to review bills for Broward, St. Johns and St. Lucie counties, the News Service of Florida reported.

By challenging the amount the state says they owe for unpaid Medicaid bills -- $18.6 million in Broward, $11.9 million in St. Lucie and $763,286 in St. Johns -- these counties are on the hook for repaying the full amounts if an administrative judge rules against them.

The rest of Florida's counties have agreed to pay back what they state says they owe over the next three years, minus a 15 percent discount for not challenging the final numbers. In total, the state stands to collect $120 million from the 64 remaining counties.

Initially, the state estimated that it was owed $325 million in upaid Medicaid bills.

However, most counties are still moving forward with a lawsuit filed in Leon County's Circuit Court by the Florida Association of Counties to challenge the new Medicaid billing system as an unfunded mandate.

September 01, 2012

Julien's claim of absentee ballot fraud focuses on nursing homes, ALFs

Rep. John Patrick Julien’s official challenge to the results of the District 107 primary race for the Florida House includes allegations of absentee ballot fraud at assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

Julien, D-North Miami, who lost a razor-thin Democratic primary to Miami Gardens Rep. Barbara Watson last month, is fighting the results of the race in a Leon County court. After a recount, Watson won with 50.06 percent of the vote—a 13 vote edge.

The court complaint, to be filed Tuesday, alleges that several absentee ballots tied to a North Miami nursing home may have been cast fraudulently. It highlights a political consultant who advertised  herself as “The Queen of Absentee Ballots” and a woman who appeared on Haitian Creole radio, warning absentee voters to consult with “teacher Carline” before filling out their ballots.

“We have meticulously researched the facts in this case and have very good evidence that the fraud in the District 107 is concentrated in ALFs and nursing homes,” said Juan-Carlos Planas, an attorney for Julien and a former Republican legislator.

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August 30, 2012

House candidate uses hurricane Isaac to stir up support, raise money

Jeff Solomon is hoping a little hurricane humor can help him blow past his incumbent challenger for a seat in the Florida Legislature.

Solomon, a Pinecrest Democrat who is challenging Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, sent out an email to supporters referring to Tropical Storm Isaac's impact on his campaign yard signs.

Solomon wrote "Isaac has helpfully removed many of our signs. While I appreciate the storm’s help, the election is not over – I will be on the ballot this November."

Bileca, an incumbent, has raised nearly 10 times as much money as Solomon, who is a chiropractor. 

Solomon's email, which asks supports for a "good final gust of financial support," is below:

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August 21, 2012

PIP savings greater than initially estimated, but insurers urge caution

The potential savings under the state’s new no-fault auto insurance laws are even greater than initially estimated, according to the final version of an independent actuarial study release today.

Bloomington, Ill.-based Pinnacle Actuarial Resources says that the amount insurers pay out in personal injury protection claims should decrease between 16.3 and 28.7 percent once the main components of the law go into effect in 2013. And that should cause PIP premiums to decrease 14 and 24.6 percent, the company said.

That is even better news compared to a draft report of the study released earlier this month. But insurers are continuing to caution drivers not to expect too much too soon when it comes to their auto insurance bills, of which PIP accounts for about 20 percent.

Donovan Brown, state government relations counsel for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI), said some of the assumptions made in the Pinnacle study could be premature. Besides, he said, the law should be allowed to take effect before its impacts are judged.

“Although we commend Pinnacle for its diligent and thorough work, the study cannot anticipate changes to Florida’s legal, social or economic environment which will directly influence the impact of the new PIP law,” Brown said via a news release.

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Julien: Voting irregularities and absentee ballot fraud tainted razor-thin race

Anyone looking for a little nostalgia from the 2000 Bush-vs-Gore Florida election can review last week's Democratic primary in House District 107, between South Florida incumbents John Patrick Julien and Barbara Watson.

  • A razor-thin margin separating the winner from the loser? Check.
  • Allegations of broken voting machines? Check.  
  • Dispute over absentee ballots? Check.
  • A manual recount? Check.
  • Lawsuit challenging the result? Coming soon.

Watson officially won the race with 50.06 percent of the vote—a 13 vote edge—but Julien said he was not planning to wave the white flag any time soon.

“I’m not conceding defeat,” said Julien, pointing out a number of voting irregularities and potential voter fraud that he says may have skewed the outcome.

He said he made his concerns known to the state attorney's office, and is planning to file a legal challenge to the election results sometime this week.

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August 13, 2012

New ethics complaint filed against Fresen over foreclosure, disclosure

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is facing yet another ethics complaint over his finances, one day before the Republican primary.

Fresen’s challenger, first-time candidate Amory Bodin, is pushing to make Fresen’s finances an issue as the primary vote nears. Bodin has put out a release highlighting the long list of ethics complaints filed against Fresen, who has experienced financial troubles with his mortgage, taxes and other obligations.

The latest ethics complaint comes in the wake of a Miami Herald article that highlighted some of Fresen’s financial troubles. The complaint alleges that Fresen failed to fully disclose his financial assets. Fresen, who is entangled in a foreclosure lawsuit, told the Herald that he makes enough money to cover his mortgage, but is going through a “legal nightmare” with his lender over a billing dispute.

“I can more than cover my mortgage,” Fresen told the Herald. “I’m willing to pay whatever must be paid.”

The new ethics complaint alleges that if Fresen truly has that kind of money, he has not disclosed it in his financial disclosure forms, which require major assets to be listed.


“It is not reasonable to believe someone with income in excess of $200,000 per year, who makes no mortgage and real estate tax payments, and who has used none of the cash flow to pay down reported debt, has no intangible assets in the form of bank accounts, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, etc., that exceed $1,000,” the complaint reads.

Read Scott Hiaasen’s story on the Fresen-Bodin race here.

Here’s a copy of the ethics complaint filed last week. 


Legislature silent as Citizens Insurance pushes up rates; challengers stage protest

Property insurance reform was nowhere to be found among Gov. Rick Scott’s “legislative priorities” during this year’s lawmaking session in Tallahassee.

But even as Scott pushed publicly for lawmakers to pass bills on car insurance reform, job creation incentives and education funding, he was working behind the scenes on another significant project: A massive overhaul of Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

The goal? Shrink Citizens drastically without involving the Legislature, which historically has set policy guidelines for the state-run insurer.

“We have to have real solutions, and I, along with everybody else up here, we expect the Citizens board to find them,” Scott told then-Citizens president Scott Wallace during a meeting of the Florida Cabinet last November.

Wallace had told Scott and other members of the Cabinet that Citizens would need “guidance” from the Legislature in order to make major headwinds. Scott did not address the request, instead telling Wallace and the board to “solve the problem by June of next year before the next hurricane season.”

Wallace resigned a month later, and was replaced by Tom Grady, Scott’s neighbor and political ally.

Read more here

Bonus: From the 'Never-let-a-good-crisis-go-to-waste' department, four challengers for state office are staging a protest today over Citizens' rates outside the Miami office of board chairman, Carlos Lacasa.

With less than 24 hours to go before the primary elections, candidates Paul Crespo, R-Miami, Waldo Faura, D-Miami, Eugenio Perez, R-Miami, and Libby Perez, R-Miami, will lead a rally against rising insurance rates at 1:30 pm in Miami. 

The group has pointed out that three incumbents, Reps. Michael Bileca, Carlos Trujillo and Jose Felix Diaz, all Miami Republicans, voted for SB 408, an insurance bill that has led to higher rates for sinkhole coverage. Crespo is trying to unseat Trujillo and Eugenio Perez is trying to unseat Bileca in tomorrow's primary.


August 07, 2012

Bondi and Legislature both claim authority over $300 million in foreclosure money

Florida attorney general Pam Bondi clarified Tuesday that she was not feuding with the Legislature over how to spend $300 million in cash earmarked for Florida as part of a $25 billion national foreclosure settlement.

But it’s abundantly clear that Bondi’s office and the Legislature have two very different views on what the law says about how the money should be processed.

The Associated Press reported Monday that Bondi has not been able move forward on the funds because the Legislature wants to have a say in how the money is spent. An official in the Florida House said Bondi has two options for how to appropriate the money, and both options involve getting approval from state lawmakers (which might not happen until next spring).

Asked if she believed she had to get legislative approval to spend the cash, Bondi said: “My opinion? No. I have the authority to distribute it.”

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