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13 posts from January 31, 2013

January 31, 2013

Long before FBI raid, Sen. Menendez boosted donor's D.R. port business

Sen. Bob Menendez used his influence to advocate for a Dominican Republic business deal that helped a longtime friend and donor whose South Florida office was raided by federal agents this week.

Menendez questioned Obama administration officials at a July hearing about what it was doing to help U.S. businesses that he felt were being unfairly treated by the government of the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries.

One company Menendez was apparently referring to: ICSSI, acquired the year before by Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Palm Beach County eye doctor and friend. The firm was seeking to enforce a contract it had won to X-ray Dominican Republic port cargo, that could be worth $500 million to $1 billion over two decades.

“You have another company that has American investors that ... has a contract actually given to it by the — ratified by the Dominican Congress — to do X-ray of all of the cargo that goes through the ports,” Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said at the July 31 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. “And they don’t want to live by that contract either.”

Menendez didn’t mention ICSSI by name in talking to Francisco J. Sánchez, the Commerce Department’s undersecretary for international trade and Matthew Rooney, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the State Department.

Continue reading "Long before FBI raid, Sen. Menendez boosted donor's D.R. port business" »

State loses attempt to have Sansom suit dropped

A Leon County circuit judge on Thursday denied a motion by the state to dismiss a suit by former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who is seeking more than $800,000 to cover his legal defense against corruption charges that were later dropped.

Calling it a “fascinating case,” Judge Kevin J. Carroll said the suit should move ahead to a hearing.

Sansom, a Republican from Destin, had been charged him with conspiracy and grand theft in his role as House budget chairman after he secured millions of tax dollars for a local college that later offered him a job. Prosecutors argued that Northwest Florida State College received money for a building that could also be used as a hangar for a jet business owned by Jay Odom, who was a major supporter of Sansom’s.

Sansom resigned and state prosecutor Willie Meggs later dropped the charges against the former legislator and Odom, after a judge ruled that the state had failed to show evidence of a conspiracy to steer money to the college building and possible hangar.

Lisa Raleigh, special counsel with the Office of Attorney General argued on Thursday that Sansom’s complaint failed to show that the original litigation resulted from Sansom's official duties.

But Sansom’s attorney, M. Stephen Turner of the firm Broad and Cassel, said an issue involving an appropriations act in the Legislature constitutes a public purpose.

“I believe the state knows it’s responsible” to pay Sansom, Turner said, adding “We’re not here to retry the case.”

Turner, who said he will also be asking the state to cover his attorney fees, noted that costs associated with the case are climbing. Sansom is already asking for $817,518.73 plus interest to pay the Tallahassee firm Dobson, Davis & Smith, which is now joining the suit.

Rochelle Koff, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

After 25 years, financial woes at Collins Center force it to shut its doors

The Collins Center for Public Policy, one of the state's most well-respected think tanks, announced Thursday it is closing its doors after 25 years as a non-partisan policy center based in Miami.

A roller coaster period of growth, followed by recession-induced decline over the last two years, led to a financial fall from which the organization, named after former Gov. LeRoy Collins, could not recover.

"This is a sad, somber day for the Collins Center, the causes it espoused so valiantly, the numerous people and organizations the center helped and those who've fought to save it from a fiscal abyss that proved too deep to overcome,'' siad Merrett R. Stierheim, the board's most recent chairman, in a statement.

Parker Thomson, a Miami lawyer who served as the board's long-time chairman, said the center had been "the standard bearer for the legacy of former Gov. LeRoy Collins and his vision for a better Florida." 

Continue reading "After 25 years, financial woes at Collins Center force it to shut its doors" »

How Sen. Menendez undercut an ethics probe -- and spared himself some extra FBI scrutiny

Just weeks before the FBI raided his friend’s South Florida business, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez put another legal issue to rest by cutting a $58,500 check to cover the cost of two air-charter trips to the Dominican Republic.

By reimbursing Dr. Salomon Melgen for the flights, the New Jersey Democrat effectively undercut a standing ethics complaint and the possibility he’d face something more serious: a possible federal charge.

“It’s technically a federal crime to not report gifts on a federal financial-disclosure form,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington called CREW.

The flights, however, would no longer be considered a gift because Menendez just paid for them. And it doesn’t matter that he took the then-freebie flights more than two years ago, in 2010.

Menendez would have been required to disclose the flights on his federal financial disclosure forms if the trips were considered gifts that he didn’t pay for.

But FBI agents aren’t done examining Menendez, who drew federal scrutiny after a shadowy tipster accused him and Melgen last year of hiring underage prostitutes.

Menendez called the charges “fallacious.” His office said that the senator’s decision to pay for the flights was a case of him taking responsibility for the error because he felt it was the right thing to do.

Menendez cut the personal check to Melgen on Jan. 4. Weeks later, this Tuesday and Wednesday, Melgen's office was raided. Prior to the raid, the Senator was unaware of either the investigation or the raid itself.

Ostensibly, the raid concerned a separate criminal probe conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which typically investigates Medicare fraud. However, agents were also looking for evidence in the other case concerning the alleged underaged prostitutes.

The allegations of illicit contact with prostitutes were reported right before Menendez's election by the conservative Daily Caller website. Menendez said it was politically motivated, a charge the website denies.

The case exploded in Washington after the raid this week, however.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who days before had trashed the reports about Menendez, was mum.

"First of all, Bob Menendez is my friend. He's an outstanding senator," Reid said. "He is now the new chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Any questions in this regard, direct to him. I don't know anything about it."

White House spokesman Jay Carney had no comment, either.

Menendez's chief of staff, Danny O'Brien, said the senator maintains his innocence and has taken responsibility for his error in failing to pay for his charter flights with Melgen, a longtime friend.

"The Senator realized it was an oversight, that it was sloppy," O'Brien said. "It was junior varsity at best."

O'Brien said the error was caught after Menendez was accused in a Republican ethics complaint about the flights. O'Brien double-check the senator's schedule and compared it over the years with flight logs of Melgen's plane, which he researched online.

Menendez was wrongly accused of taking three flights on Melgen's plane, O'Brien said; Menendez wasn't on those trips. Another flight was already lawfully reported. But one flight flagged in the complaint hadn't been reported or paid for. And, O'Brien said, they found a second flight Menendez hadn't paid for that wasn't in the complaint. 

So Menendez paid for both of them, he said.

Under the Senate's ethics rules, Menendez won't face any punishment now that he has paid Melgen back.

"He'll probably get a letter saying: You shouldn't have done that," said CREW's Sloan.

The cost, $58,500, is so high because members of Congress have to pay the charter rate, as opposed to the commercial-air rate, for these types of flights.

The payout is significant for Menendez as well. His most-recent financial disclosure forms show he had as little as $66,000 and as much as $165,00 in the bank.

"Looking at his forms, it appears $58,500 is a sizable amount of money," said Viveca Novak, an analyst with Open Secrets, a government-disclosure group.

Ad touting Florida oversells state’s language skills

From Doug Hanks and the Miami Herald's Economic Time Machine:

[UPDATE: Around 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Enterprise Florida wrote to the Economic Time Machine to say the ad had been revised to fix the error we pointed out earlier in the day. The version of the commercial on the campaign’s website, perfectbusinessclimate.com, no longer mentions multi-lingual wokers in Florida. Here at the ETM, we sometimes have to correct faulty figures, too, so we’ll happily consider the matter closed.]

A new ad touting Florida’s diverse workforce mistakenly puts English-only workers in the minority.

Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday rolled out the state’s new “Perfect Climate for Business” campaign, which seeks to convince companies that Florida is just as good a place for commerce as it is for vacations. The video spot that’s a highlight of the $5 million effort includes the line: “We offer a talented workforce of over 9 million, including 5 million multi-lingual workers.”

That’s not quite right, according to Census figures. Florida does in fact have 9 million people in the workforce, but fewer than 3 million speak a foreign language at home, according to Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. And only a portion of those workers are proficient in English, too.

Continue reading "Ad touting Florida oversells state’s language skills" »

Gov. Rick Scott proposes $74.2 billion budget

Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday unveiled details of a $74.2 billion budget proposal — the largest in Florida history.

Scott, who is seeking re-election in 2014, proposes to increase spending statewide by $4 billion, including $1.25 billion more for education. Much of that would cover a $2,500 teacher pay raise and a pension fund contribution that won’t be felt in classrooms.

“It’s the right thing to do for our children,” Scott said of his spending plan as he stood at a lectern adorned with his budget logo, “Florida Families First.”

As a candidate in 2010, Scott campaigned on a promise to shrink government, and his first budget in 2011 cut school spending by $1.3 billion. But his spending plan contains one of the biggest one-year increases in spending in Florida history.

Follow the developing story here.

Amid IRS probe, The Villages developer hires Al Cardenas to lobby on tax issues

Open Secrets:

One of the Republican Party's biggest donors -- a Florida real estate developer who apparently is facing a federal investigation over the use of special tax districts for his retirement complex -- hired a lobbyist in the last quarter of 2012 for the purpose of "contacting the federal government" about the districts.

The Villages, owned by developer H. Gary Morse and his family, had not previously hired a lobbyist at the federal level, according to OpenSecrets.org records. But the new lobbying report shows that it paid $30,000 during the quarter to Cardenas Partners, led by Al Cardenas, the Cuban-born two-time chairman of the Florida Republican Party. Cardenas has done state-level work in the past for the Villages.

An overwhelmingly white, mostly Republican retirement community 90 miles north and inland from Tampa Bay, the Villages cuts through parts of three counties. Sometimes referred to as Disneyland for retirees, it includes dozens of golf courses and about 50,000 homes.

More here

Scott launches new 'business brand' for Florida. Orange neckties and sand sculptures

Gov. Rick Scott joined top business leaders Thursday to unveil a new “business branding” campaign, the latest initiative in a multipronged effort to cast the state of Florida as an attractive place for commerce.

The branding campaign will feature orange-colored neckties, strategically-placed sand-sculptures and the slogan: “Florida: The perfect climate for business.”

“To help achieve my goal of creating 700,000 jobs in seven years, I am constantly calling on CEOs to let them know why Florida is the best place in the world to start, grow or expand their business,” said Scott. “Now we will be able to have an ongoing initiative and brand to reinforce what we’ve been saying.”

The campaign is part of Scott’s ongoing mission to create jobs by catering to business interests. The governor has appeared on several cable shows, sent letters to business professionals and traveled across the globe to talk up Florida’s business climate.

Scott’s administration has also made use of taxpayer funds to pitch the message that Florida is open for businesses, approving billions of dollars in business-freindly tax breaks and incentives in recent years.

After spending $205,000 to have a Tennessee-based company research strategies for marketing Florida as a business-friendly "super state," a state-run organization is asking for $3 million in taxpayer cash to push the “perfect climate” message out over the airwaves.

 

Continue reading "Scott launches new 'business brand' for Florida. Orange neckties and sand sculptures" »

Florida university presidents push for immigration reform

Saying the need for comprehensive immigration reform is as much about economics as it is fairness, four Florida higher education leaders are joining forces with a national organization lobbying for change.

Florida State University President Eric Barron said “now is the time to act” on the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, calling it a bipartisan solution. He said allowing foreign students who come to the United States for college to remain in the country to live and work will create a stronger workforce.

“We are truly a nation of immigrants where we know that education has driven the economic success of this nation,” Barron said.

Foreign graduates who stay and work in the U.S. create 2.5 new jobs for American workers on average, University of South Florida PresidentJudy Genshaft said. She said there aren’t enough U.S. born students to keep up with demands in science, technology, math and engineering fields.

“Really it is very important for us to work closely and to support the visas for STEM graduates,” Genshaft said.

She and Barron joined Miami-Dade College President Eduardo Padron and University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala on a conference call today. The four leaders announced they were joining forces with the Partnership for a New American Economy, a national group of business and community leaders who are pushing for immigration reform.

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Court upholds legislature's ability to set university tuition, rejects challenge

Florida Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed the authority of the state legislature to set university tuition and fees, rejecting an appeal by former Gov. Bob Graham and other advocates who contended that the power resides in the board that oversees the schools.

In an opinion written by Justice Barbara Pariente, with the remaining six justices concurring, the court said that the 2002 constitutional amendment creating the Board of Governors did not transfer authority over tuition and fees to the board.

The court upheld a lower court ruling and concluded "that the constitutional source of the Legislature's control over the setting of an appropriations for the expenditure of tuition and fees" comes from the state Constitution.

Two lower courts ruled that power lies with the Legislature but Graham, a Democrat and former U.S. senator, led other plaintiffs challenge that ruling.

The 2002 constitutional amendment established the Board of Governors and allowed the governor to appoint  14 of the board's 17 members. The state education commissioner and leaders of faculty and student associations appoint the remaining three seats.

Graham, a Democrat and former U.S. senator, led a petition campaign that put the amendment on the ballot with the aim of taking politics out of the State University System. Graham's initiative was prompted by a decision by the Republican-led Legislature to abolish an earlier board that opposed lawmakers' pet projects such as new law and medical schools. The amendment won approval from nearly 62 percent of voters.  Download Graham v. Haridopolos