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15 posts from March 15, 2013

March 15, 2013

After guilty plea, suspect in David Rivera campaign-finance scandal: 'I was used'


Justin Lamar Sternad didn’t have to say much Friday when he admitted guilt in a federal case targeting former Miami U.S. Rep. David Rivera.

But Sternad wanted to apologize.

And he wanted to send a message: he’s ready to testify against those who helped lead him and his doomed congressional campaign into the maw of the federal justice system.

“I was taken advantage of and used by others,” Sternad said in a statement, hastily handwritten on a yellow legal pad and read by his lawyer, Enrique “Rick” Yabor, outside of the federal courthouse.

“This is not an excuse, nor do I want this interpreted as an excuse,” Sternad said. “I would now like to publicly apologize to God, my country, my wife, children, family and friends.”

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Senate gaming committee chairman relies on flights from gaming lobbyist

The chairman of the Senate committee that oversees gambling relies on the planes of the lobbyist of a chain of Internet cafes for travel to Tallahassee and his Naples home.

Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Gaming, said that his primary mode of travel is Capital Air, owned by Dave Ramba, who is a licensed pilot, lawyer, fundraiser and prominent lobbyist. In the past two years, House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith and others have also flown on what one senator jokingly calls "Air Ramba."

“Yes, I fly on the airplane that I understand is owned by David Ramba.’’ Richter told the Herald/Times on Friday. “I don’t fly alone. It’s my method of transportation. I receive an invoice for Capital Air. I submit that check for my reimbursement… I don’t see anything inappropriate about it.’’

Ramba, according to legislators, is one of a handful of lobbyists who own planes and makes them available for lawmakers.

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Brandes vs. Latvala heats up in Senate

There was a little political grudge match this week at the Capitol.

On Thursday, the Senate’s Community Affairs Committee heard SB 534, a bill that would subject the state’s 492 municipal pensions to tougher actuarial scrutiny.

Boring stuff, right? Well, not for political junkies in Pinellas County.

You see, the bill’s sponsor is Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. The bill already cleared one committee, by a 7-2 vote. Brandes has been a tireless champion of it, doing things like sitting in House committee meetings and tweeting his support for the sponsor of the companion bill.

But the bill didn’t get a particularly warm reception at its second Senate committee, especially from one member in particular – Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

When Brandes ran for the senate last year, Latvala backed his opponent, Jim Frishe. Then a state representative, Frishe backed Latvala in his bid for senate president in 2016. Brandes said he was neutral, but won heavy financial backing from another senator vying for the presidency in 2016, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Latvala brought up some concerns about the bill and even convinced one senator who voted for it last week, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, to hold off on his support.

Latvala told Brandes that he had questions about it.

“This really is not hazing,” Latvala told Brandes.

He then shared his concerns about the bill’s new reporting method for pensions, which would make them more in line with corporate bonds with more conservative rates of return.

Latvala said that could greatly exaggerate their liabilities and could shake investor confidence.

“Do you disagree that this could have a potentially adverse affect on local governments’ bond ratings?” Latvala asked.

At another point, Latvala advised Brandes that he should compare the performance of pensions to at least 10 years. 

“Don’t you think when we make decisions up here we ought to use numbers that are more than a year at a time?” Latvala asked Brandes.

As Brandes continued to defend the bill, he was interrupted by the chair of the committee, Wilton Simpson, R-New Port Richey. Save it for next week. His bill had been delayed. He had a week to sit down with Bradley and Latvala to work out any issues.


Bill to help child, and teen, sexual abuse victims backed by Lauren Book, law enforcement

Lauren Book understands how hard it is for a teenager to talk about sexual abuse. She was 11 years old when a live-in nanny began physically and mentally abusing her, a horror she lived with for six years.

That’s why Book, founder of the advocacy and educational organization called Lauren’s Kids, is behind a bill (HB 70312) that would allow prosecutors to use out-of-court statements made by young sexual abuse victims up to age 16. As of now, these statements are admissible for a child who is 11 or younger.

“It feels like you’re the one on trial,” said Book, who talked about the difficulty of children and teenagers having to recount lurid details in a courtroom setting, especially when confronting an abuser who may be a loved one. “The process is so scary. I’ve heard kids started crying call when they saw the judge in a big black robe.”

Book, of Plantation, is promoting the bill in advance of her 39-day, 1,500-mile “Walk in My Shoes” journey, which begins Tuesday and will take her from Key West to Tallahassee.

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John Morgan, Obama fundraiser and Crist boss, to lead medical-pot initiative in FL


John Morgan, a major President Obama fundraiser and the boss of former Gov. Charlie Crist, is taking the reins of a Florida medical marijuana initiative, promising to pump major money and political muscle into the popular issue.

Morgan, a top Florida trial lawyer based in Orlando, said he's ready to tap a network of donors and his personal bank account to get the measure in front of voters in 2014 as a proposed constitutional amendment.

“I can get the money. I have the money. I will be joined by people with money who will help,” said Morgan. “I’ve been very fortunate in life, and I can make it happen.”

It could cost as much as $3.5 million to fund paid-petition gatherers to collect the valid signatures of 683,149 Florida voters needed to get a measure on the ballot. An ad and absentee-ballot campaign could cost up to $10 million more.

Constitutional amendments need to be approved in Florida with 60 percent of the vote.

Morgan said he hasn't spoken about the issue with Crist or Obama, with whom he had dinner Monday. And, he said, he doesn’t care whether they support it or not.

Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat, is considering a run for governor. He wouldn’t return calls for comment.

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Miami-Dade mayor praises legislation outlawing gambling machines


Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Friday lauded Republican state Reps. Carlos Trujillo of Miami and Jimmy Patronis of Panama City for sponsoring Florida House legislation outlawing Internet cafés and gambling machines, known in Spanish as maquinitas.

"I have held a long-standing position against these machines and as a County Commissioner introduced legislation to address this issue, including the creation of an Illegal Gaming Task Force," Gimenez said in a statement. "I believe that 'maquinitas' have been behind the proliferation of illegal gaming operations, which are associated with organized crime. HB-155 makes it clear that these machines are illegal and will deter the continued growth of illegal activities in Miami-Dade County and throughout the State of Florida."

Gimenez proposed the gaming task force while campaigning for mayor in 2011. It has yet to move forward; PolitiFact Florida has rated it a "Promise Broken."

Several months ago, in an effort backed by Gimenez's administration, two county commissioners tried to prohibit the machines, but their proposal did not garner enough support from the dais to make it to a public hearing.

RPOF to donate $300,000 to veterans group after Internet cafe probe

From the Republican Party of Florida:

The Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) will donate $300,000 to the Florida Veterans Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group, after learning that political contributions had been raised from an organization that now stands accused of using veteran's charities as a front for alleged illegal activity.

"RPOF respects our nation's veterans, and we have zero tolerance for this kind of activity," said Chairman Lenny Curry. "It is outrageous to all Floridians that anyone would use our veterans as a front for criminal actions."

After a thorough review of financial records in connection with this case, RPOF has received approximately $271,000 during the current and most recent campaign cycle from entities currently under investigation.

"This is a complex, ongoing case and new facts may develop," said Curry. "But RPOF has a history of supporting the men and women who serve in the military, and we will always do everything we can to support America's veterans.  That is why we will contribute a total of $300,000 to this great organization and the heroes they help." 


Miami-Dade mayor names new MIA director


Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has chosen his pick to head the county-owned Miami International Airport.

Emilio T. González, former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under President George W. Bush, will replace retiring aviation director José Abreu, who is retiring at the end of the month.

In a memo to county commissioners announcing the appointment Friday afternoon, Gimenez highlighted González’s experience running a federal agency with a $2.5 billion budget and 19,000 employees.

“His experience and relationships, in particular with Federal agencies vital to the Aviation Department, will be invaluable as MIA’s construction program nears conclusion and transitions to fully operational and we look to maximize all of our community’s aviation assets,” the mayor wrote.

González’s appointment will be effective as of April 1, though he will begin working a week earlier to transition into the job. Abreu, the outgoing director, retires on March 31.

A 56-year-old Cuban exile, the accomplished González has a doctorate in international relations from the University of Miami. He spent 25 years in the U.S. Army, at one point teaching at the military academy at West Point.

Tampa immigrant moves step closer to Bar admission


Jose Gomprez-Samperio, the Tampa man seeking admission to the Florida Bar even though he's not an American citizen, has moved one step closer to realizing his dream. An administrative board that screens all applicants for bar admission has ruled that he is of sound character to practice law. 

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners has notified the Florida Supreme Court of its decision reached at a meeting last weekend that "nothing presently contained in the investigation file will, in and of itself, be considered disqualifying." That double-negative phrasing may not sound significant, but it is especially welcome news to Gomprez-Samperio, an FSU law school graduate who was valedictorian of his senior class at Armwood High in Tampa. 

In an accompanying notice, the board's general counsel, Robert Blythe, wrote: "While this present matter before the Court does not involve Mr. Godinez-Samperio's bar application directly, this supplemental authority is pertinent in that the status of the board's processing Mr. Godinez-Samperio's bar application has been a topic addressed in previous pleadings in the Court."

In Florida, the admission of attorneys to practice law is a judicial responsibility, and the 15-member Board of Bar Examiners screens all candidates for bar admission on character and fitness issues. Applicants must submit proof of good moral character and must pass the bar exam to practice law.

Godinez-Samperio's request for bar admission has been before the state Supreme Court since October. At issue is whether a license to practice law is considered a "public benefit," which a federal law bars undocumented immigrants from receiving.  In the past few months, Godinez-Samperio has received a Social Security card, Florida driver's license and federal approval for a work permit.

-- Steve Bousquet

FAMU suspends presidential search

The chairman of Florida A&M University's Board of Trustees said he was calling off the search for a new president, saying the the issues facing the university and not the quality of the candidate pool drove that decision.

Interim President Larry Robinson will remain at the helm of the school for the foreseeable future. Board Chairman Solomon Badger said the search was being suspending temporarily but didn't give a timeline on when it would resume in today's statement.

FAMU's presidential search committee was scheduled to meet Monday and Tuesday and interview finalists on Wednesday and Thursday. A new president could have been chosen by Friday.

It is the second state university to abruptly end its presidential search this year. In January, University of Florida President Bernie Machen agreed to postpone his retirement at the behest of Gov. Rick Scott.

Badger's full statement:

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