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7 posts from January 17, 2014

January 17, 2014

Hollingsworth: Top lobbyist doesn't influence Scott's handling of CONNECT

It was Jan. 8 when lobbyist Brian Ballard met with Adam Hollingsworth, Gov. Rick Scott’s chief of staff.

That’s not necessarily a freak event. Ballard, who served as the chair of Scott’s finance committee for his 2011 inauguration, is one of the most powerful lobbyists in Tallahassee, who bundles millions in campaign cash from clients for Scott and other Republicans.

What is noteworthy is what they discussed: Deloitte Consulting, a Ballard client.

Deloitte is the vendor of the state’s troubled $63 million CONNECT website, which since its debut in October has struggled with technical glitches, delaying unemployment benefits for thousands of recipients.

Since Dec. 20, Deloitte has been fined $15,000 a day until the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity deems the contractor to be in compliance with its contract.

The night before they met, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson requested that the U.S. Department of Labor investigate what has gone wrong with the website.  

On the day of the meeting, the DEO’s executive director, Jesse Panuccio, announced that another company, a rival that was beaten out for the job in 2010, was getting hired to consult on the project. Capgemini, a French company, would be paid $365,000 to serve as the state’s eyes and ears, looking over the shoulder of Deloitte programmers scrambling to fix the website.

Asked Friday about the meeting, Ballard wouldn’t comment, stating client confidentiality.

Continue reading "Hollingsworth: Top lobbyist doesn't influence Scott's handling of CONNECT" »

Weatherford gearing up for another pension showdown

Are all government employees in Florida treated equal?

We’re about to find out in what promises to be a sequel to one of the biggest legislative showdowns last year: Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate Republicans like Jack Latvala who have strong union support.

Weatherford lost the dramatic first round last year, when a third of Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting 22-18 against a bill that would have banned new state workers, teachers and county workers from joining the state’s $132 billion pension system. Instead, they would have been steered into private, 401(k)-style investment plans. Such a bill would have shifted the risk from taxpayers to workers.

Pension reform was a top priority for Weatherford last year. He’s of the belief that the $500 million used to shore up the Florida Retirement System is money better spent elsewhere. He believes that while it’s generally regarded as one of the more secure public pensions in the nation, it’s doomed to fail one of these days. He share this belief with two entities -- the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee libertarian think tank that promote similar beliefs. Weatherford’s father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense, sits on the boards for both.

Weatherford vowed he would return with new legislation this year. On Thursday, he met with representatives from the Florida Professional Firefighters, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, Florida State Fraternal Order of Police and the Florida Sheriff’s Association to discuss the upcoming legislation.

Following that meeting, the union representatives walked across the hall for a 15-minute meeting with Senate President Don Gaetz.

What’s the deal? Where are the other union groups included in the Florida Retirement System that would like to know what’s being proposed?

Chances are they wouldn’t like what’s being considered: the exemption of those public safety, or “special risk,” employees from this year’s legislation. So while new teachers, county workers and state workers would be subject to the new rules, preventing them from getting the guaranteed returns they get now, new special risk employees would not.

Continue reading "Weatherford gearing up for another pension showdown" »

Brown blasts lawsuit aimed at dismantling her district

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown on Friday slammed the federal lawsuit against the state that is aimed at dismantling the meandering district that she represents. The plaintiffs in the case are Gainesville residents but they are being represented by two law firms with ties to the Democratic Party.

Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, represents a multi-county district that was first drawn in 1992, during a different era -- when the courts required that districts be drawn to maximize minority voting strength. Since then, Florida voters enacted a law requiring that districts be compact, preserve minority voting strength and prohibit any attempt to favor incumbents.

The plaintiffs allege that the district, which was endorsed by the NAACP, violates their federal right to equal protection because they allege that it packs black Democrats into the district in an attempt to make the adjoining districts more white and Republican. They describe the district as following a "serpentine route." 

Brown, a 21-year incumbent, said in a statement that rejecting her district will set the clock back.

"Prior to the 1992 election, Florida had not had a federal African American representative since Josiah Thomas Walls in 1871, a time span of 129 years,'' she wrote. "Overturning the current District 5 map would ignore an essential redistricting principle: maintaining communities of interest or minority access districts.  Certainly, minority communities do not live in compact, cookie-cutter like neighborhoods, and excessive adherence to district 'compactness' while ignoring the maintenance of minority access districts fragments minority communities across the state."

She acknowledged that her district, congressional District 5, "is essentially the same as the previous District 3, which was drawn by the courts and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court."

In addition to the federal lawsuit, the district is being challenge in circuit court in Florida by some of the same plaintiffs for violating the constitutional protections that prohibit legislators from favoring incumbents or political parties. Brown failed to mention, however, that the district upheld by the courts in the past was drawn prior to the enactment of the current constitutional amendments.

Here is Brown's full statement (her emphasis added): 

Continue reading "Brown blasts lawsuit aimed at dismantling her district " »

The hush-hush FL fundraisers of Chris Christie; Scott donor calls secrecy "stupid"

@MarcACaputo

Image001New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is coming to Florida to help fundraiser for FL Gov. Rick Scott in Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. The venues are like a state-held secret now that Christie is taking fire over "Bridgegate."

But word of the locations is leaking out anyway (see below). And Scott supporters are shaking their heads in the meantime about the secrecy that, they say, is being insisted upon by Christie's political handlers.

"This is ridiculous. It's stupid, amateur hour," said one major Scott donor, who plans to attend at least one of the events. "They took a little story and made it into a bigger one than was necessary. Trust me, this isn't Rick making this a state secret."

So the somewhat-run-of-the-mill fundraising story could now become a spectacle, replete with Weston Rep. and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz announcing that she'll hold press availabilities to highlight how Christie is hiding.

What we know of the closed-press events:

The Orlando event is scheduled for Saturday morning at 1601 Country Club Drive in an event hosted by Pat Christiansen, Bill Heavener, Frank Kruppenbacher, Genean McKinnon, and former Ambassador John Rood.

The Palm Beach fundraiser is slated to be held later Saturday (time unclear) at the private residence of Jose F. "Pepe" Fanjul, Jr., who runs the Florida Crystals empire.

The Broward event will be held Saturday at 6 p.m. at the home of lobbyist William D. Rubin, a longtime friend of the Florida governor who lobbied for the Columbia/HCA hospital chain when Scott ran the company. Rubin is such a loyalist that the longtime Democrat switched to become a Republican in 2010 to vote for Scott in the GOP primary.

Amid all of this, there's also a Christie meet-and-greet to be hosted by Kenneth Langone, Home Depot co-founder and North Palm Beach-area property owner, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Note: the latter two fundraisers are based on word of mouth from sources. The hosts won't comment or can't be reached. The Orlando event is pretty certain because we actually have the invite (the only one available to the press). 

UPDATE: After all that, is Precourt out of a job?

Not so fast Steve Precourt.

On Jan. 9, 53-year-old former Florida House majority leader resigned his $29,000 a year job as an Orlando representative to take a job as executive director at the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority that would pay him between $175,000 to $200,000 a year. (The proposed contract pays him $185,000).

It was a job he’s wanted since at least 2011 when he first applied for it, and he only had until November before term limits would have forced him out, so it was a big win for Precourt.

All looked good until Friday, when Jeffrey Ashton, state attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit (which covers Orange and Osceola counties) issued a letter asking the authority to hold off on hiring Precourt.

Ashton’s office is investigating irregularities with how Max Crumit, the last executive director, was voted out of his position last year, a series of events that suggest collusion among board members and the upper reaches of the Department of Transportation that could involve a violation of the Sunshine Law.

“While I hesitate to involve myself and my office in another agency’s internal personnel affairs, I would be remiss in my duties...not to request the Authority delay any changes in the leadership of the organization until the conclusion of my investigation, in that it may discover information relevant to that decision.”

Ashton said officials involved in that decision have shown his investigation a “lack of candor and questionable lapses in memory” that have only reinforced his suspicions that Precourt’s hiring may be somewhat involved in how his would-be predecessor left.

“The public has a right to know what did or did not occur and Mr. Precourt deserves the opportunity to accept his new employment free from a cloud of suspicion,” Ashton writes.

Continue reading "UPDATE: After all that, is Precourt out of a job?" »

FL's Brian Ballard, top Romney fundraiser, dumps on 'horrific' Chris Christie before FL visit

@MarcACaputo

Some of Florida's biggest money men will attend the state's various fundraisers for Gov. Rick Scott headlined this weekend by NJ Gov. Chris Christie, with one notable exception: Brian Ballard.

"The guy, as a person, is horrific," said Ballard, a top lobbyist and finance chair of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Like other Romney insiders, Ballard deeply resents Christie for the way the governor sidled up to, and gushed about, President Barack Obama in the 2012 campaign's final days just after Tropical Storm Sandy ruined parts of the Northeast's coastline.

"Charlie Crist got a lot of grief for what was called a hug of Obama. But what Christie did to Obama isn't suitable to say in a family newspaper," Ballard said. "I firmly believe he helped swing that election in Obama's favor just to help himself. I busted my ass for two years raising money and supporting Romney and this guy Christie just wiped his hands of us when we were no longer useful to him."

Ballard said "90 percent" of other major Romney fundraisers outside of the New Jersey-New York metro area "wouldn't touch Christie with a 10-foot pole right now."

Ballard's certainly not the only one in Romney World who despise Christie. There's a reason someone from the Romney campaign leaked the confidential vice-presidential vetting jacket of Christie --and only Christie-- to reporters. Many in the Romney campaign began to dislike him ever since Christie's egocentric Republican National Convention speech where he barely mentioned the GOP nominee.

Asked if his criticisms had more to do with supporting the possible presidential ambitions of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016, Ballard said "No. I'm not a paid assassin." Indeed, if anything, Ballard's public contempt for Christie probably doesn't score any points with Gov. Scott, for whom Ballard lobbies and fundraises.

Still, Ballard's contempt is but one sign that, should Christie run for president in 2016, swing-state Florida will be a hostile place for the candidate in the primary. This is Rubio country. It's also Jeb country (though I still don't think he'll run). And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's people are essentially running Scott's gubernatorial campaign this year.

Ballard said he never planned to attend any of the events headlined by Christie, but the recent flap over "Bridgegate" made his low opinion of Christie even lower.

"Christie probably didn't know his staff was shutting down the George Washington Bridge for political paybacks or whatever," Ballard said. "But the fact is, he had people around him who thought it was ok. And that speaks to his character."

Miami-Dade mayor on Beach convention center: 'Let's just get it done'

@PatriciaMazzei

Carlos Gimenez has long cited renovating the Miami Beach Convention Center as one of his priorities as Miami-Dade County mayor -- even though the heavy lifting falls to the city.

He said Thursday his position has not changed, despite a new city administration scuttling the latest $1 billion renovation plans this week.

"It's a priority, and I'm going to have lunch with Mayor [Philip] Levine and the manager, and find out what their process is," Gimenez said. "I read some of the things that they said, that they can actually speed up the process."

Levine has said starting over on the project in smaller chunks (one for the convention center and one for a nearby hotel) could get the remodeling completed more quickly.

"We need a revamped, renovated, first-class convention center," Gimenez added. "And it does affect our economy. It does affect our tourism ... So I want to speak to them and see what their path is going to be, and do everything that I can and give as much county support to getting that project done."

Gimenez said he is not worried -- yet -- that continued delays to the renovation could bring fewer conventions and, as a result, fewer convention development taxes coveted by local government.

"It could be affecting development taxes in the future, because as these conventions are booked a year or two out, I already know that at least one or two conventions haven't come because of the antiquated state of the convention center," he said. "And so it's very important for us to really renovate that convention center. And I think the mayor understands that. He just wasn't in favor of that particular process.

"Let's just get it done and hopefully have some kind of a hotel component, either with it or somewhere close by."