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16 posts from March 18, 2013

March 18, 2013

Ex-Fort Laud Comm Cindi Hutchinson to jail next month

Former Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson pleaded guilty today to unlawful compensation and official misconduct. The three felony counts will land her in the Broward County jail for four months starting April 15th. As a convicted felon, she loses her right to vote.

Hutchinson voted in favor of rezonings for  residential projects and then years later the developer arranged $14,000 worth of free home repairs and improvements including installing a toilet and changing lightbulbs and installing pavers and a fence.

Hutchinson declined to speak to the media but her attorney  Bruce Udolf described it as a  "fair settlement" since sentencing guidelines called for about eight years.

Udolf wouldn't reveal where Hutchinson now works. Hutchinson represented southern Fort Lauderdale from 2000 until she hit term limits in 2009. She initially launched a bid for mayor but dropped that effort shortly before she was charged. Former Democratic state legislator Jack Seiler won the mayor's race easily.

Senate panel moves Internet ban amid vigorous protests from operators

A Florida Senate committee followed the House lead on Monday and passed legislation to clarify state law to ban electronic sweepstakes games operated at Internet cafes in strip malls across the state.

The move comes less than a week after a federal and state investigation led to the arrest of 55 individuals in Florida and five other states on racketeering and corruptions charges linked to gaming centers run by the Allied Veterans, a purported charity that gave only 2 percent of their proceeds to veterans.

The fallout also prompted the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll who previously represented the Allied Veterans in her consulting company and has led to one of the fastest legislative responses to a gambling probe in decades. 

The Senate Select Committee on Gaming voted unanimously to pass the bill, even amid concerns that there may be unintended consquences that could affect penny arcades for children and seniors. The House gaming committee passed a nearly identical bill on Friday and is expected to pass it on the House floor on Wednesday. 

The Senate committee spent most of the meeting laying the foundation for why the bill is needed this year, when they had planned to wait until next year to clarify the law, when they will attempt a sweeping rewrite of the state's gambling laws. 

Continue reading "Senate panel moves Internet ban amid vigorous protests from operators " »

On ethics reform, 'one step forward and two steps back'

A leading ethics expert in Florida said Monday that the Legislature's efforts to strengthen state ethics laws are
"one step forward and two steps back" and in some cases would make things more lax than they are now.

Attorney Phil Claypool, the retired executive director of the Commission on Ethics, appeared at a news conference with Integrity Florida, the Tea Party Network and Progress Florida -- all groups that say the current ethics proposals before the Senate and House are not strong enough. They critiqued the legislative proposals on the eve of a scheduled vote Tuesday in the House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee.

"It's not progress," said Claypool, who worked for the ethics agency for more than three decades. He said he was especially troubled by these proposed changes:

* Providing for blind trusts for elected officials that "blind" the public from holdings that could be conflicts of interest, by excluding the ethics commission's recommendations, such as requiring public disclosure of the
assets that are in the trust.

* Giving public officials a 60-day grace period to file amended financial disclosure forms to avoid being prosecuted for improper filings.

* Prohibiting the ethics commission from investigating cases if an official's mistakes were "immaterial or inconsequential."

"Does this protect us, the people of Florida, or does it protect the interests of public officials?" Claypool asked. In all his years as an ethics watchdog, he said, "I did not hear from the public that we were being too aggressive
against public officials. What I regularly heard from the public and the press was that we were toothless tigers, we were ineffectual, and we didn't have enough power."

Claypool said there are some positive aspects to the ethics proposals, such as requiring financial disclosure forms to be posted online, giving the ethics commission up to 20 years to pursue scofflaws who don't pay fines, and
broadening "revolving door" restrictions on legislators who become lobbyists. But it's not enough, he said.

-- Steve Bousquet

PolitiFact Florida: Checking Rubio's CPAC claims on nation's unfilled jobs, Chinese Internet access

Marco Rubio used his Thursday speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference to touch on the need for the country to better prepare its students for the modern workforce and fend off an oppressive Chinese government on the rise.

PolitiFact Florida broke out the Truth-O-Meter to test two of Rubio's claims.

The first: "There are 3 million jobs available in America that are not filled because too many of our people don’t have the skills for those jobs."

Rubio is basically right about the number of available jobs in the country, but there's no data to prove his contention that these unfilled jobs are all open because of a mismatch in job skills. In fact, we found a heap of evidence to contradict it. We rated this claim Half True.

The second: "The Chinese government provides their people no access to the Internet."

Rubio overstated the Internet problem in China. Chinese Internet users outnumber the rest of the world by a long shot, so there is clearly access. However, the government blocks access to popular Western websites and often prevents users from reading information it does not want getting out. We rated his claim Mostly False on balance.

Read the full stories here and here.

Charter school supporters plan to tone down lobbying strategy

After suffering bruising defeats during last year’s Legislative session, charter school advocates have descended upon the capital city with a revamped strategy.

Circle the wagons. Narrow the agenda. And make nice with the school districts.

This year, charter school lobbyists will focus their efforts on winning state money for maintenance and facilities. If they can’t secure the dollars, they want the right to use the empty space in traditional public schools free of charge.

With the state running a surplus, charter school advocates find themselves in a stronger position than last year. They have an all-star lineup of lobbyists, the ear of House Speaker Will Weatherford, and a crop of lawmakers sympathetic to their cause.

But victory isn’t guaranteed, especially with Gov. Rick Scott trying to win over public-school teachers and parents in advance of the 2014 election. The moderate Senate could be an obstacle, too. Rather than vote on any of the charter-school bills, the Senate Education Committee will hold a workshop on the issue Monday, signaling a desire to move forward cautiously.

Read the story here.

Five Things To Know for Monday's Legislative Session

The legislative week kicks off with some controversial issues including a possible ban on Internet cafes, tax breaks for another sports team and a workshop taking up a dozen charter school bills. Here are five things to watch for on Monday:

The Senate Gaming Committee takes up a bill (SB 502) that would ban the operation of illegal gaming devices by so-called Internet cafes. The ban has gained momentum after a state and federal investigation into Allied Veterans and its affiliates led to 57 arrests last week and prompted Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to resign. The House Select Committee on Gaming passed a companion bill (HB 155) on Friday.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee tackles legislation (SB 922) sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, that would provide millions of dollars in tax breaks to pay for improvements at Everbank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Gator Bowl, among other events.

The Senate Education Committee studies 12 charter school bills in an afternoon workshop that could indicate where the legislators stand on a range of issues, including funding, accountability and transparency.

A bill (HB 1315), sponsored by W. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, that would allow young adults, under certain circumstances, to remain in foster care until age 21 instead of 18 is being considered by the Healthy Families Subcommittee.

Ian Kysel, author of the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch report, Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. The panel is considering the Youth in Solitary Confinement Reduction Act (SB 812), sponsored by State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, which limits solitary confinement for juveniles in Florida’s jails and prisons.  

(By Rochelle Koff, Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau)