April 29, 2019

Florida House passes criminal justice reform package bill. But it’s not over yet.

Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, is the sponsor of the House's criminal justice reform package.
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House passed a sweeping, 296-page criminal justice reform package on Monday with only one lone “no” vote, signaling to the Florida Senate that they are willing to come to an agreement on many issues that have long failed to cross the finish line in the Legislature.
The proposal, House Bill 7125, contains a slew of changes praised by both Democrats and Republicans, including raising Florida’s theft “threshold” — the dollar amount at which a misdemeanor theft becomes a felony — from $300 to $1,000. This would bring Florida’s amount close to the national average and adjusts for inflation since the $300 amount was set in 1986.
We all know theft is wrong,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples. “The question is, ‘At what point are you going to be branded a felon for the rest of your life?’ Because once you’re a felon in this system, there’s no coming back from that.”
The bill also would allow state attorneys to decide if juvenile cases should be transferred to adult court, which currently happens automatically if the crime is severe or the child has certain prior convictions. In a win for advocates for former felons’ rights, the bill would also make it easier for people with prior felony convictions to get occupational licenses for everything from barbering to auctioneering, helping people get jobs more easily after they are released from prison.
It also repeals and reduces driver’s license suspensions as a penalty for non-driving related crimes, and would give crime victims a longer period of time to file for compensation after the original crime was committed.
The only “no” vote came from Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, who said he was concerned that being more lenient on theft was not “moral."
“I don’t think we should be soft on crime, because we are not championing the rights of the individual,” he said.
There are major things the Senate has sought that the House does not have: chiefly, a piece that would give judges discretion over the sentences they hand down for certain drug trafficking crimes — under current law for example, someone caught with at least 28 grams of cocaine would face a required sentence of at least three years imprisonment and a $50,000 fine. Those required sentences are often referred to as “mandatory minimums.”
The Senate bill would also allow prison inmates to earn “gain time," through programs and good behavior, that would allow them to be released after a maximum of 65 percent of their sentence. Current law requires them to serve at least 85 percent. It’s estimated that that change alone could save the state $860 million and remove about 9,000 people from prison by 2024.
But that piece has also prompted major opposition from Gov. Ron DeSantis as well as the Florida Sheriffs Association, who have both said 65 percent is not enough.
Those major differences are still being negotiated behind the scenes, which means the House’s passage Monday was just one step in that process. The Senate is expected to amend the House bill and then send it back to the House for their final approval in the coming days.
The legislative session is scheduled to end Friday.

April 09, 2019

Amendment 4 leader, Tampa lobbyist receive “Floridian of the Year” awards from UF Center

Desmond Meade is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
The leader of the group that got Amendment 4 on the ballot and a Tampa lobbyist were named “Floridian of the Year” and “Young Floridian of the Year,” respectively, by the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service. The recognition is an annual award.
Desmond Meade is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group that was one of the creators of the amendment to the Florida constitution that ended permanent disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies.
That amendment, which passed in November, is mired in controversy as the Florida Legislature has proposed bills that would require ex-felons to pay all their restitution before being eligible to
“What we’ve seen in Amendment 4 was people being willing to put aside partisan differences and racial differences and to come together to move something that was major,” Meade said, adding
that he was “honored” by the award.
The recognition itself is “in the spirit of how Amendment 4 was passed and that’s the spirit I’m trying to relay to our Florida Legislature ... it’s about people over politics,” he said.
Prior to his political activism, Meade overcame homelessness to graduate from Florida International University’s college of law, according to the Center.
The “Young Floridian of the Year” is James Chan, the Florida director and a lobbyist for the the State Innovation Exchange, a group that helps advance progressive issues in state legislatures.
Chan has devoted much of his career to increasing the civic engagement of communities of color and he also leads the Tampa Bay chapter of the New Leaders Council, a national organization
geared toward training young progressive leaders, according to the Center.
“As a University of Florida alum and a Graham Center alum it means a lot that Sen. Graham and the awards committee thought I was good enough to be picked,” he said.

April 02, 2019

As Venezuela's Guaidó faces threat of arrest, Ron DeSantis says it would be "big, big mistake"

VZ presser
Fabiana Rosales, wife of Venezuela interim President Juan Guiado, speaks in the Governor's Mansion on Tuesday flanked by Gov. Ron DeSantis, First Lady Casey DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez. Emily L. Mahoney | Times/Herald

TALLAHASSEE — On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis, First Lady Casey DeSantis, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez and Fabiana Rosales, wife of Venezuela's interim President Juan Guaidó, met in the Governor's Mansion to hold a press conference — only to be delayed by an emerging safety "situation" in Venezuela.

The 20-minute delay only underscored the ever-changing nature of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, a country where Rosales said death and hunger have become the norm. She did not expand on what Tuesday's "situation" entailed, but the governor's office confirmed it was related to Guaidó's safety.

"In Venezuela today there isn't electricity, there isn't food, there isn't medicine. And our children are dying every second," she said in Spanish. Throughout the event, she bit her lip and appeared nervous. "Today, Venezuelans live in danger. Today, the life of the President of Venezuela Juan Guaidó is in danger."

She was in Tallahassee meeting with both DeSantis and lawmakers. Florida is home to America's largest community of Venezuelan exiles, a fact that state leaders have said underscores their commitment to helping those in crisis in Venezuela as Guaidó seeks to oust President Nicolás Maduro.

Gov. DeSantis said there are "rumors" that Guaidó could be arrested by authorities controlled by Maduro, something he said President Donald Trump would not take lightly.

"I can tell you having spoken with the president about this very subject multiple times, that would be a big deal for him and I think he's shown he's willing to follow up his words with action," DeSantis said. "To arrest (Rosales') husband —and God knows what they would do after that — that would be a big, big mistake." 

Rumors of Guaidó's arrest have been swirling for months, but intensified Monday when Venezuela's chief justice asked lawmakers to strip Guaidó of immunity, taking a step toward prosecuting him for alleged crimes.

Casey DeSantis offered her "full support" in helping with humanitarian matters, while the governor and Nuñez pledged Florida's support for Guaidó. 

"As the daughter of Cuban immigrants I understand all too well the plight of the Venezuelan people," Nuñez said. Florida is "going to lead the nation in making sure they understand that we stand with democracy. We stand with freedom. And we stand with the true president of Venezuela." 

The leaders did not take questions from reporters, citing concerns for Guaidó's safety. The press conference coincided with Vice President Mike Pence's meeting in Washington with families of six Citgo executives — five of whom are U.S. citizens — who have been detained by the Maduro government in Venezuela.

April 01, 2019

Ron DeSantis appoints military company exec related to ethics complaint to university board

SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida's 46th Governor Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd, Tuesday, January 8, in front of Florida's Old Capitol during his inauguration.
DeSantis had a lot of job vacancies to fill after he rescinded scores of last-minute appointments made by his predecessor, now-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, shortly after taking office in January.
He filled several Friday, including naming Kent Stermon, a longtime friend and campaign donor of DeSantis', to the Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s public universities.
Stermon is the chief operating officer of Total Military Management, a company that contracts with the federal government to relocate military members. Stermon, along with the CEO of the same company, rented a condo to DeSantis when he was in Congress — prompting an ethics complaint. The complaint was never resolved because it did not rise to the level of an investigation
before DeSantis resigned from Congress to run for governor, though his spokesman has said that DeSantis paid up front and above market value for the condo.
It’s not unusual for a governor to appoint corporate executive-types to the Board of Governors. The chancellor of the board, Marshall Criser, is the former president of AT&T Florida, for example. The board members are not paid.
But Stermon has drawn increased attention throughout DeSantis’ rise to power because of the ethics complaint. Stermon also served as DeSantis’ Northeast Florida chair during the campaign and was appointed to one of DeSantis’ policy advisory committees during the transition. Stermon previously told the Times/Herald that he met DeSantis nearly 10 years ago in Jacksonville through mutual friends and that DeSantis has requested his help along the way because he trusts his friend “to do it right.”
Also named to the Board of Governors was Eric Silagy the president and CEO of Florida Power and Light Company, the state’s top utility.
The company has long been considered one of the most influential special interests in the state which donates millions to political campaigns each year.
DeSantis, in the statement announcing the appointments, said that the corporate leaders understand the value of education from a workforce perspective.
“Human capital is our greatest strength to ensure the success of our economic future and Florida’s universities lead the way in shaping that success,” he said. “These individuals have demonstrated a strong commitment to public service and the economic growth of our state."
The third appointee was Steven Scott, the chairman of Scott Holdings, LLC, a medical investment company, who previously served as a trustee for the University of Florida. Earlier last week, DeSantis also appointed Brian D. Lamb, chairman of the University of South Florida’s board of trustees, to the Board of Governors.

March 29, 2019

Ron DeSantis appoints two new Tampa-area judges

Tampa judges
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters flanked by two prosecutors he appointed to be judges in Tampa-area courts on Friday. Thomas Palermo, left of DeSantis, will serve on the 13th Judicial Circuit Court and Jessica Costello, right of DeSantis, was appointed to the Hillsborough County Court. Emily L. Mahoney | Times/Herald
TAMPA — Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed two new judges to Tampa-area courts on Friday, one of whom is replacing Laurel Lee, who was a judge in the 13th Judicial Circuit Court before DeSantis named her to be secretary of state.
Thomas Palermo, an assistant U.S. Attorney working as a prosecutor for the Department of Justice, will replace Lee in the circuit court, which is located in Tampa. Florida’s circuit courts handle felony cases, civil disputes of more than $15,000 and appeals from county courts.
Palermo, 43, said he was humbled to replace Lee, whom he called “a dear friend.” Lee was present at Friday’s announcement on the University of South Florida campus.
The second appointment was Jessica Costello, an assistant statewide prosecutor working in the Florida Attorney General’s office who will now serve as a judge in Hillsborough County Court.
“As a member of the Tampa community, I can’t explain how honored I am to serve,” she said. “As a local and statewide prosecutor I’ve prosecuted cases ranging from human trafficking to homicides, drug trafficking and counter terrorism matters — all with a focus on making our community safer and stronger.”
DeSantis commented that Costello, at 34, will be one of the youngest judges in the state, adding that she has “accomplished a lot in a relatively short time.”
Both appointees will serve with distinction, he said.
“As prosecutors they’ve demonstrated a commitment to serving the public, and also a commitment to being there for our victims and also supporting the rule of law.”

January 11, 2019

Does Gov. DeSantis believe in climate change?


At a press conference Friday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis took questions from reporters on topics ranging from his latest appointments to the South Florida Water Management District to Thursday's robust environmental policy addressed in an executive order.

The newly minted governor addressed each question fully but when it came to climate change, he danced around his words. DeSantis angered environmentalists on the campaign trail after he repeatedly dismissed climate change as a real threat.

"We put in the executive over that as climate changes, as our environment changes, as water rises in places like South Florida and there’s increased flooding, we want to make sure that we’re taking the steps that we can to combat that," he said.

DeSantis then referred to the part of the executive order that establishes a resiliency office to address climate impacts.

"To me, I’m not as concerned about what is the sole cause. If you have water in the streets, you have to find a way to combat that," he said. "We’re going to work to do that and I think this office will be able to coordinate a thoughtful response."

At the end of the press conference, a reporter asked if the governor believes the scientists who say humans cause climate change.

DeSantis' response?

“Next question.”

June 29, 2017

Miami Beach mayor mulling run for governor will do Florida bus tour for radio show



Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democrat seriously considering a run for governor, is about to hop on a bus and scoot around Florida to get to know folks across the state. But the millionaire entrepreneur hasn't formally launched a gubernatorial bid yet. 

Consider it a campaign bus tour that he insists is not a campaign bus tour.

Levine's been tapped by Sirius/XM to make a five-part audio documentary called "A Day In The Sun." Billed as an encounter with everyday people who live in the Sunshine State, the documentary will be recorded during Levine's road trip July 10-14. He'll start in Miami and head north, stopping in areas like Tarpon Springs, Orlando, Daytona Beach, St. Augustine and the Panhandle.  

"Along the way he’ll speak with Floridians of diverse backgrounds and interests - from alligator wranglers to farmers to NASA engineers - exploring the rich tapestry of everyday people who help make the state unique," reads a press release from Sirius/XM.

The five-part weekly series will premiere on SiriusXM Insight channel 121 on Aug. 1. Always eager to bask in the spotlight, Levine hosts another Sirius/XM show called "The Mayor," which features him interviewing different political leaders and cultural figures from across the U.S.

Although not technically a campaign tour, the trip will put Levine in front of more voters as he mulls a bid for governor. The mayor has told the Miami Herald he plans to make a decision in the fall. He would enter a field of Democrats that includes former North Florida congresswoman Gwen Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Orlando entrepreneur Chris King. Another potential candidate, trial attorney and noted medical marijuana advocate John Morgan, has said he's in no rush to decide.

June 01, 2017

‘Give cops back their bullets, remove their body cams’ says Miami Beach commissioner and congressional candidate

Rosen Gonzalez
Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, a Miami Beach commissioner and congressional candidate, reacted to this weekend's shooting in South Beach by blasting the city's police chief in a strongly worded email obtained by the Miami Herald.
Just before 7 a.m. Tuesday, Rosen Gonzalez fired off an email to City Manager Jimmy Morales where she questioned Police Chief Dan Oates' leadership, suggested the city stop its police-worn body camera program and "give the cops back their bullets.
The full text of the email below:


Did you ever stop to think that maybe, the Chief is failing at leading his troops?

We need to give the cops back their bullets, remove their body cams, give them their dignity, and let them work all the off hours stuff they want.

Maybe then they will start policing the city again.

What do you think about this?

Chief Oates is a highly educated and gentile guy. He should be the Chief in Palm Beach. Not Miami Beach.
(She later told the Herald she meant to type "genteel").
Rosen Gonzalez, a first-term city commissioner and Democrat, is running for the 27th Congressional District. She announced her candidacy before Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced her intention to retire at the end of her term.

February 02, 2017

State of Florida joins lawsuit against Miami Beach’s minimum wage law



When Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine proposed creating a mandatory citywide minimum wage, he touted the proposal in radio ads that ran in California while Gov. Rick Scott was there recruiting companies to move to Florida.

It was a clear move by Levine, a Democrat, to distinguish himself from the Republican governor and an indication the mayor might be eyeing a run for higher office.

Now, Tallahassee is joining a lawsuit filed by business associations against Miami Beach over the city law. Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a motion to intervene in the suit and defend the constitutionality of a state law that the Beach is challenging.

Attorneys at City Hall who drafted and championed the ordinance welcome the challenge. So does Levine, who is now seriously considering a run for governor in 2018, when Scott is term-limited out. The mayor looks to raise his profile during a tour of Florida this spring.

"So to the state, I say, see you in court," said Levine in a statement Thursday.

Read more here.

February 01, 2017

State senator declares bid for Florida Ag Commissioner


A longtime state lawmaker from Central Florida announced Wednesday she’s running for state Agriculture Commissioner in the 2018 election, setting up a GOP primary for the open seat.

Sen. Denise Grimsley, a Republican from Sebring, called her candidacy “a continuation of the public service that has meant so much in my life.”

Current Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is term-limited next year, after having served two terms. The only other candidate seeking to replace Putnam so far is Orlando Republican Paul Paulson, who launched his campaign in December.

Grimsley said she intends to file paperwork with the state on Wednesday, which will allow her to begin raising campaign money. That paperwork is not yet available through the state Division of Elections. State records show she has less than $4,300 in the bank from her state Senate re-election fund.

Grimsley is a nurse and hospital administrator, as well as a businesswoman, citrus grower and rancher. She has been in the Florida Senate since 2012 and, last term, served as the deputy majority leader. She was re-elected in November to a two-year term. Previously, she was in the state House from 2004-2012.

“I’ve operated our family businesses and know treating the customer well and with respect is key to any success,” Grimsley said in her campaign statement. “We are the sum of our experiences, and I offer my candidacy to continue the principles of conservative public service I have followed in my career, both in the private sector and in the Florida Legislature.”

“Florida has many challenges in our agriculture industry, yet we have so many more exciting opportunities,” she added. “We will continue to fight for a smart statewide water policy, we will protect our environment and blessed Florida resources, and we will pursue expansion of the over 2 million jobs Florida agriculture provides our state.”