« March 18, 2013 | Main | March 20, 2013 »

22 posts from March 19, 2013

March 19, 2013

Legislators rush to return tainted campaign cash from Allied Vets chain

Shamed by the notion that they may have filled their political coffers with more than $1.4 million in campaign cash from a phony veterans group facing charges of illegal gambling, the Florida Legislature is scrambling to save face by donating the money to charity.

Rep. Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican slated to be House speaker in 2016, sent a letter to his Republican colleagues Monday saying that he’s giving away the $3,500 in questionable cash he received to a local veterans group. He suggested other legislators do the same and even attached a list of the suspected companies.

“The information that has come to light regarding the Allied Veterans group and their affiliates is outrageous,’’ he wrote. “These allegations of fraud especially in the name of those who risk it all in defense of freedom and our nation — must be prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

Allied Veterans of the World and its 57 owners and operators have been charged with operating a $300 million racketeering, gambling and money laundering scheme under the guise of charity. A Herald/Times analysis found they used 60 different organizations and 34 individuals to steer more than $1.4 million to state and federal campaign accounts.

Investigators reported this week that one alleged conspirator, Nelson Cuba, former head of the Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police, had $56,400 stuffed in a safe deposit box along with five million Iraqi dinars — worth $4,300. Police also seized $583,507 in cash, 59 vehicles and vessels, and froze $100.6 million in bank accounts, the Seminole County Sheriff’s office announced.

The list of politicians who were beneficiaries of the Allied Veteran’s political largess spans the political spectrum and reaches every corner of the state. More here. 

Scott likely to support Senate alternative to Medicaid expansion

Gov. Rick Scott said his objective in supporting Medicaid expansion was to ensure Florida doesn't turn down billions of federal dollars to help reduce the number of uninsured. He believes the Senate alternative that is taking shape does just that, so Scott now indicates he would sign off on that plan.

"My understanding is it's consistent with what I said I would support," Scott told the Times/Herald exclusively Tuesday. "It's 100 percent federal funding. It's taking care of the uninsured. It's using the two Medicaid waivers that I was able to get that will give us more flexibility. And it's going to deal with cost, quality and access to care."

The Senate plan is the brainchild of Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who will introduce proposed committee bill 7038 at Thursday's Appropriations Committee meeting. The 47-page plan lines up with the "guiding principles" Negron revealed last week when a Senate select committee voted against Medicaid expansion.

Although the proposal is officially titled the Healthy Florida program, it has also been referred to as the Negron Plan or even NegronCare. Among its features: 

Continue reading "Scott likely to support Senate alternative to Medicaid expansion " »

Hoping for next boom, lawmakers push to ease more growth rules

With the next homebuilding boom expected soon, lawmakers are still trying to offer incentives to developers to pave over Florida.

Of course, it wasn’t like Florida exploded with growth in 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers disbanded the Department of Community Affairs, which oversaw the regional planning in Florida. In that session, they also loosened development rules on large land tracts and gave cities and counties the option of imposing fees that charged developers for the growth they induced.

They took a break in 2012, but developer-friendly bills are back.

On Tuesday, HB 321 passed the Economic Development & Tourism subcommittee. It would prohibit counties and cities fromcharging traffic mitigation fees on business development that is 6,000 square feet or less until July 1, 2016 -- unless the governing boards overturn the ban with a majority vote (an early draft required a super-majority vote).

So that means one tool that local governments have in place, the charging of fees that can help pay for the growth that builders of these businesses cause, will be available only if local officials have the temerity to vote against the development interests that contribute most of the campaign dollars in local races.

“Someone will still have to pay for that road, so it’s either going to be the taxpayer or a large scale development down the road,” said David Cruz, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, which, along with the Florida League of Counties, opposed the bill.

But the bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, who is a real estate broker and developer, had the support of the Florida Homebuilders Association and easily passed. (Its companion bill, SB 1716, has been referred to three committees but, as of yet, hasn’t been heard yet. HB 321 has two more committees before it goes to the floor.

“It’s a great bill,” said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, who also applies free market principles as the powerful chair of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee in helping decide if or how Florida expands Medicaid.

As far as growth management, in Hudson’s view, regionalism is for suckers. Counties and cities are better off competing against one another in a relentless pursuit of growth. La Rosa’s bill gives them that power, Hudson said.

“Quite frankly, you have given (the cities and counties) more self rule and more self determination for them to recognize what is appropriate in their county and how can they compete against the other counties in the state to generate business for them,” Hudson said. “They have the opportunity to see what works in their community, what won’t work in their community, and at the end of the day, they can be aggressive in making jobs and opportunity happen.”

Former Lt. Gov. Carroll says she was duped by Allied Veterans

Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned last week after investigators questioned her about her business relationship with Allied Veterans of the World. That organization, which operated a chain of Internet sweepstakes cafes, was the center of a nationwide racketeering and fraud investigation.

"She was very shocked to learn — like many other public officials — of the allegations," said Rick Oppenheim, who Carroll recently hired to handle public relations. "Ms. Carroll has spent almost a lifetime helping veterans and it was very disheartening for her to find out that this organization used veterans in this way."

Carroll has not been charged with a crime. Her friends say she was too trusting of an organization that convinced her its mission was to help veterans.

She and her husband Nolan are former service members. They live outside Jacksonville in Clay County, a place where growth is spurred by the nearby Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Carroll's commitment to military causes seemed to be a good fit with Allied Veterans, which highlighted its philanthropic endeavors in the community, said Leslie Dougher, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Clay County.

"This was never ever about her personally," Dougher said. "It was always about benefiting an organization and what they represented to help people."

Read more here.

More lawmakers sign on to bill forcing higher property insurance rates

A bill to shrink Citizens Property Insurance and allow all insurance companies to raises rates higher and faster cleared another committee in the Senate on Tuesday. 

SB 1770, backed by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, is full of enticements long-desired by the insurance industry, along with proposals to make Citizens leaner.

The proposal is a massive insurance reform effort that targets state-run Citizens, but also includes potentially costly side effects for homeowners with private insurers.

It provides new options for insurance companies looking to charge higher rates, forces Citizens to increase rates and allows private insurers to access Citizens’ $6 billion cash reserves under favorable terms.

Some lawmakers from coastal areas expressed concerns about how the bill would impact the pocketbooks of their constituents, some of whom would see their rates jump if SB 1770 goes into law.

Sen. John Legg, R-Port Richey, said his constituents might see their rates triple under one of the provisions in the bill, which forces Citizens to charge “actuarially sound” rates.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, also expressed concerns, saying that lawmakers needed to be careful about the financial side effects of raising insurance rates to high.

Simmons said he will work to address lawmakers’ concerns, but that something had to be done to address the high level of risk that faces the state if a major hurricane occurs.

“I will promise to work with those of you who have doubts,” said Simmons. “I can tell you that something’s got to be done.”

The bill cleared the Government Operations subcommittee on Tuesday and heads next to the full Appropriations Committee before a full floor vote.

Read more about the bill here.


Political committee that formed around stadium renovation jobs says it's not tied to Miami Dolphins


A political committee created last month apparently prepared to take sides in the debate about the Miami Dolphins' proposal to renovate Sun Life Stadium has amended its paperwork to "broaden" its purpose.

When Truth in Jobs for Miami-Dade filed its paperwork with the county elections department Feb. 26, it listed as the committee's scope "Jobs for Miami-Dade County residents relating to expansion of Sun Life Stadium."

That line raised eyebrows. It seemed to indicate that the committee was either linked to the Dolphins or tied to an outside group intending to support the football team's $400 million renovation plan, which would be partly funded by state and county taxes. The Dolphins, however, were unaware about the committee's existence until a Herald reporter called last week.

José Castro of Homestead, the committee's chairman and treasurer, did not return calls for comment. But a lawyer for the committee, Albert Gayoso, did.

Continue reading "Political committee that formed around stadium renovation jobs says it's not tied to Miami Dolphins" »

Backed by Negron, drone bill picks up speed

Does the Senate budget chief get deference on his bills because he holds the purse strings?

It might look that way following SB 92, which is sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

His bill limits how law enforcement can use drones, prohibiting their use except in cases where there’s a warrant, there’s threat of a terrorist strike or there’s an an emergency such as a hostage crisis or a missing person.

By a 12-0 vote, the bill passed the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. It was the fourth committee the bill passed by a unanimous vote.

“In the wake of the budget allocations being released, I want to congratulate the budget chair on such a great bill, such an intellectual accomplishment,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. “It’s an honor to support this great bill.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, then asked Negron: “Can you present my bills?”

Kidding aside, its companion bill, HB 119, is doing just as well, having unanimously passed a committee last week.

Despite the vote, Negron did receive his toughest questioning yet. Only three law enforcement agencies have been authorized to use drones, and they follow rules by the Federal Aviation Administration and their own policies that limit them pretty severely.

Continue reading "Backed by Negron, drone bill picks up speed" »

Federal budget sequester blamed for more than 4-hour waits to clear MIA customs


So many international passengers missed their connecting flights at Miami International Airport last weekend that about 200 of them had to bed down at the airport’s auditorium, for one night turned into a makeshift hotel.

Blame federal budget cuts known as the sequester, which have limited overtime pay for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

The result: fewer officers at passport checkpoints, leading to waits more than four hours long last Saturday, the worst day of delays since the sequester began March 1. MIA is the nation’s busiest airport for international flights.

“I’d use the word brutal,” Airport Director José Abreu said of the delays.

The county-owned airport had already been experiencing a shortage of customs officers before the beginning of the sequester, which cut 2 percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget. Visiting MIA last month, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned passenger lines could get even longer. They did.

“Customs officers who would normally come in a little earlier or stay a little later with overtime pay — that’s gone now,” said Greg Chin, an airport spokesman.

A survey of 1,200 overseas travelers released Tuesday by the Consensus Research Group for the U.S. Travel Association found that 43 percent of respondents would recommend avoiding traveling through the U.S. because of the customs process. That negative word of mouth could cost the economy billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs, the travel association estimated.

MIA has issued an advisory on its website warning about longer-than-usual wait times for passengers arriving from international destinations. In the past few weeks, staffers have handed out some 15,000 water bottles to travelers waiting in line or forced to spend the night at the airport, Chin said.

Delays have been particularly heavy from Fridays to Mondays, when traffic at the airport increases by about 10,000 passengers — in part because that’s when many cruises depart and arrive, Chin said. Add Spring Break, the Ultra Music Festival and the Sony Open tennis tournament, and matters only get worse.

“This is probably one of the worst times for this to happen,” Chin said.

More here.

State Representative Clay Ford dies

Rep. Clay Ford, R-Gulf Breeze, died on Monday, after a battle with cancer, House Speaker Will Weatherford announced Tuesday.

Weatherford, Gov. Rick Scott, Speaker-designate Steve Crisafulli and House Minority Leader Perry Thurston expressed their condolences in statements on Tuesday.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel:

“It is with great sadness that I inform you of the loss of one of our family members and dear friend, Representative Clay Ford. The consummate gentleman of the House, Clay Ford was a friend, a mentor, and a tender conscience to all those who served with him.  Last night, Clay lost his brave fight with cancer. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Carol, his three sons David, Doug, and Clay, and his nine grandchildren.   

For those who know Clay, you will not be surprised by his request that we not mourn him with ceremony and fanfare, but that we would allow his family to grieve privately. We will work to honor his wishes, while also providing you with details that would be in keeping with their wishes. 

In the meantime, please keep them in your thoughts and prayers. We all know how painful and significant the loss of this genuinely good man will be to all of us.” 

Continue reading "State Representative Clay Ford dies" »

House revises its ethics bill, allows for revolving door lobbying of exec branch

The Florida House Subcommittee on Ethics unanimously agreed to make some revisions to its high profile ethics bill on Tuesday, tightening some rules and loosening others. The biggest change: exempting all legislators from the two-year ban on executive branch lobbyists except the House speaker and the Senate president. 

The decision to allow legislators who leave office to return the next year to lobby the governor and executive branch underscores the delicate dance legislators engage in. Many of them run for office to serve the public and others use the process as a ticket to lobbying.

A Herald/Times report found that as the state's budget has increasingly become dependent on steering contracts to private sector vendors, the size of the lobbying corps has exploded. There are now more people registered to lobby the governor, the Cabinet and their agencies — 4,925 — than there are registered to lobby the 160-member Legislature — 3,235.

The House bill adopts much of the Senate bill which passed the Senate on the first day of session, but makes some significant changes. 

Continue reading "House revises its ethics bill, allows for revolving door lobbying of exec branch" »