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9 posts from January 3, 2013

January 03, 2013

Marine veteran Jon Hammar, back home in Miami, recounts Mexican prison ordeal

Only days after U.S. Marine veteran Jon Hammar was thrown into a Mexican prison for carrying an antique shotgun into the country, gangsters in the jail warned him of his likely fate – beheading.

“They threw every threat in the book at me,” Hammar said Thursday in his first public remarks since his release Dec. 21 after more than four months in prison.

“They’d cut my head off, they told my family,” he said.

The gangsters demanded money to let Hammar, 27, remain alive, and the beheading threat was a scare tactic that harkened back to his tours of duty as a U.S. Marine in Iraq.

Mexican authorities arrested Hammar on Aug. 13 at the Texas-Mexico border when he crossed into Mexico in a motor home with a vintage shotgun that once belonged to his great-grandfather. Authorities slapped weapons charges on him. A traveling companion went free.

Hammar’s ordeal, first brought to light in a McClatchy story Dec. 6, sparked outrage in the United States, where fellow Marines demanded his release and members of Congress called for a boycott of Mexican tourism.

The outpouring has left Hammar feeling grateful.

“In America, we have people who care,” he said in a telephone interview from his family home in Palmetto Bay, south of Miami.

Lois Frankel, Joe Garcia sworn into Congress

WASHINGTON -- Lois Frankel, the former mayor of sunny West Palm Beach, had to buy her first pair of winter boots in decades. Joe Garcia, who represents southern Miami-Dade County and the Keys, found a temporary room at University of Miami President Donna Shalala’s home in Georgetown.

As Garcia and Frankel joined their colleagues being sworn in Thursday, the two newest Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Florida have already found plenty of ways to get comfortable in Washington, D.C.

Both have spent time in Washington before. Frankel attend law school at Georgetown University and Garcia ran the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Minority Impact early in the Obama administration.

And both are ready to make their mark. Frankel, whose district stretches from Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County to Fort Lauderdale and Plantation in Broward County, vows to be a champion at constituent services, as well as fighting for women’s health care issues, Medicare and Social Security. But she also said she sees transportation as her No. 1 area of focus.

She’ll be sitting on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where she hopes to remind fellow members that there are two ports, a railroad, the Intracoastal Waterway and plenty of other transportation needs in her stretch of Florida.

“I think being on the Transportation Committee will allow me to focus on economic issues that are very very important back home,” she said. “These are issues that will drive the economy, that will drive issues back home. If I can’t do my part in giving a boost to the South Florida economy, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a congressperson.”

State report: Crashes down at intersections with red-light cameras

Crashes are down across Florida at intersections equipped with red-light cameras, according to a new state report.

A report of accidents compiled by the state from 73 different law enforcement agencies found that more than half of Florida agencies, 41, say accidents are less frequent at intersections using red-light camera technology. Crashes were more frequent in just 11 of the 73 jurisdictions while the rest saw no change or didn't have enough information.

The five-page report from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles contains data from Hillsborough County, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale and Miami and includes accidents between July of 2011 and June of 2012.

Tampa has issued 52,760 violations and St. Petersburg has issued 27,086. Accidents at intersections with cameras are down in Tampa but up in St. Petersburg. The cities were not asked by the state to detail how much accidents are up or down.

Most agencies also reported that traffic safety had improved throughout their jurisdictions "as drivers were more cautious when approaching all intersections."

The statistics have been delivered to the Legislature, and are likely to influence debate on whether red-light cameras are in Florida to stay. Lawmakers have tried to outlaw the cameras in years past.

Read more here. 

New ‘faster foreclosure’ bill filed

A “faster foreclosures” proposal that faced sharp consumer outcry and protest last year has resurfaced in a more moderate form this year, with a new bill filed by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, Thursday.

The bill, HB 87, offers a slew of changes to the civil procedure governing foreclosures in Florida—the state with the highest foreclosure rate in the country.

Most of the provisions appear to be aimed at speeding up and cleaning the foreclosure process, which currently take  more 600 days to run its course in Florida.

The bill would require mortgage lenders to certify that they have the correct paperwork proving they have the right to foreclose. Paperwork problems gummed up the foreclosure system in Florida and across the nation in 2010 and 2011, leading to a massive $25 billion mortgage settlement with banks accused of using faulty documents to foreclose on homeowners.

The bill also gives condominium associations the ability to speed up the foreclosure process when a bank is moving too slowly. Condo associations have been forced to shoulder significant maintenance costs while banks carry out foreclosures. Banks have been accused of purposefully slowing down the process in order to limit their costs.

For their part, banks get a bit of a gift in the bill as well. If a lender forecloses on a home and later is sued for doing so wrongfully, the lender can only be forced to pay monetary damages. That means the homeowner can’t get his or her house back—a proposition that could be especially difficult if the bank has sold the home to an unsuspecting third party. Passidomo’s bill would theoretically eliminate that awkward hypothetical scenario, and free the bank from having to recoup a house it sold to another party after a faulty foreclosure.

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State, vendor OK deal to privatize S. Fla. inmate care

Gov. Rick Scott's administration announced Thursday the state has signed a contract with a Pennsylvania based company, Wexford Health Sources, to outsource all medical care to more than 15,000 inmates in several South Florida prisons.

The Department of Corrections said it signed a deal to pay Wexford about $48 million a year, with a promised savings to state taxpayers of $1 million a month. The contract includes a 90-day transition period, so it is expected Wexford will actually begin work in March. An estimated 400 state workers are affected, but Wexford has said that most will be offered jobs with the company.

Four of the major prisons where health care is being privatized are in Miami-Dade County. They are the South Florida Reception Center, Dade Correctional Institution, Homestead C.I. and Everglades C.I. The others are in Charlotte, Hardee, Martin and Okeechobee counties and a prison annex in DeSoto County. The region accounts for about one-sixth of the state's total inmate population.

In December, a state judge struck down the planned privatization of inmate health care in prisons elsewhere in the state because the proposal was approved through a 14-member Legislative Budget Commission (the state is appealing that ruling). The outsourcing of prison health care in South Florida -- an area known as Region IV in prison parlance -- was not affected by that decision.

-- Steve Bousquet

Gun interest soars in Florida as 800k people request required background checks

Nearly 800,000 people requested background checks so they could buy guns in Florida in 2012 — far more than in any recent year.

Statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show 797,970 background checks were requested last year — nearly 200,000 more than were requested in 2011 and more than double the number for 2004, the earliest year for which statistics were provided.

The numbers were already higher than usual in the first 10 months of 2012, but surged after President Barack Obama won re-election in November and skyrocketed in the days after the Dec. 14 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults.

The dramatic spike is likely fueled by fear that greater gun control laws may be passed after the Connecticut shooting.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the national tragedy. It's not the direct cause," said Marion Hammer, the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in Florida. "The direct cause is when politicians call for gun bans, that creates fear."

-- Aaron Sharockman

Two new staffers head to Marco Rubio's DC office

Sen. Marco Rubio on Thursday will announce two staff additions: Alberto Martinez as deputy chief of staff, and Brooke Sammon as deputy press secretary.

The move brings a trusted operative closer in the fold and expands Rubio's press shop as he claims a bigger share of the national spotlight.

Martinez, 33 and a Miami native, has been close to Rubio since his rise in Florida politics, helping stoke some of the early opposition to then-popular Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. He arrives in Washington after working as a paid advisor to Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC and Mitt Romney's campaign.He served as communications director for the Republican majority while Rubio was speaker of the Florida House. In 2009, Martinez stepped down as chief of staff to the House majority whip to join Rubio's U.S. Senate campaign. He also worked on Tom Gallagher's 2006 losing GOP primary with Crist, served as deputy speechwriter for Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida communications director for President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign.

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Miami-Dade commission names new committees

In her first move as incoming chairwoman of the Miami-Dade commission, Rebeca Sosa expanded the number of board committees and named commissioners to head them.

In a memo issued Wednesday, Sosa set eight committees, up from six, to handle the business of the county's 25 departments, including Miami International Airport and PortMiami. Sosa has said more committees will result in shorter meetings. Some critics have suggested that number will be unwieldy and lead to longer commission meetings, because, with fewer commissioners in each committee, they will be less informed on matters before the full board.

Sosa rewarded the six commissioners who backed her bid for chairwoman -- Lynda Bell, Esteban "Steve" Bovo, Jose "Pepe" Diaz, Sally Heyman, Javier Souto and Juan C. Zapata -- with committee chairmanships of their own. The two other chairmanships went to Audrey Edmonson and Dennis Moss, who had not backed Sosa.

The remaining commissioners -- Bruno Barreiro, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime and Xavier Suarez -- will serve as committee vice-chairs.

Sosa also wrote that committees should begin their meetings half an hour earlier.

Read the committee assignments after the jump.

Continue reading "Miami-Dade commission names new committees" »

Annual Report from DEO lists 2012 highlights, 2013 goals

Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity has released its annual report for 2012, its first full year of operation.

DEO, the job-creation agency created by Gov. Rick Scott in 2011, oversees much of the state’s economic development and workforce training initiatives.

Its annual report lists the highlights of Florida’s economy last year—falling unemployment, increased tourism and growing migration into the state.

The report also outlined strategies for achieving the goal of making Florida a national leader in “economic growth and prosperity,” and “economic competitiveness” for businesses.

The agency is looking to collaborate more effectively with local agencies, develop industry “clusters” in different parts of the state and push improvements in education, infrastructure and the regulatory environment.

The report, while embracing the glass-is-half-full economic positivism of Scott, acknowledged that Florida’s economy still has a number of troubles.

The unemployment rate continues to be higher than the national average, while job growth in Florida continues to lag the national rate. Additionally, there are issues with the state’s transportation infrastructure, water supply, energy consumption and regulations that hamper economic growth.

To tackle these and other issues, DEO came up with 20 objectives to implement over the next five years. They range from “increase film and entertainment productions” to improving “customer services to businesses seeking economic incentives.”

"With job creation as the primary focus, DEO intends to capitalize on the recovery and increase the number of jobs, businesses and tourists coming into the state," wrote Hunting Deutsch, who resigned as director of DEO in January. His replacement, the Scott administration's top lawyer Jesse Panuccio, will take over the reins of the agency on Monday, as the third director in 18 months.

The department’s recommendations, and full report, can be found here.