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14 posts from April 23, 2014

April 23, 2014

Former Hialeah mayor's wife testifies couple didn't cheat IRS, blames accountant for 'mistakes'


The wife of former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina stood by her man Wednesday, taking the witness stand in the couple’s federal tax-evasion trial to say they did not cheat on their tax returns by hiding $2 million in income from the U.S. government.

Raiza Robaina, 40, said she was responsible for her family’s household finances and tax returns, including interacting with a certified public accountant who did their joint taxes. She said that she and her husband relied on their accountant, Pelayo Vigil, for filing correct and accurate returns between 2005 and 2010 — the period covered in the couple’s conspiracy indictment.

The Robainas’ defense attorney, David Garvin, asked her if there were mistakes on the couple’s tax returns.

“Yes, but they were just that — mistakes,” she testified.

Who made the mistakes? Garvin asked.

“The accountant that we trusted to give us the correct information,” she responded.

She then blurted out that the whole ordeal has been “upsetting” because when others make mistakes, nothing happens. “But when we make mistakes, we get indicted.”

More here.

Joe Biden to speak at Miami Dade College commencement


Miami Dade College has announced its upcoming 2014 commencement speakers — a list that includes U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden will speak at the May 3 graduation ceremony for MDC’s InterAmerican and Homestead campuses. Because of MDC’s massive student body, the college will hold five separate commencement ceremonies on that day. Nearly 15,000 MDC students will be graduating in total.

Speakers at the other commencement ceremonies will include Duke University Richard Brodhead (Kendall campus commencement) and New York University President John Sexton (North and West campuses commencement).


Florida lawmakers show support for Venezuelan student protesters


Several members of the Florida Legislature and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera came together Wednesday to show their support for the student protesters in Venezuela.

The protests are being held in opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. The students have vowed to continue demonstrating until the government puts an end to the sporadic food shortages, inflation and crime that have gripped the country.

To date, the repression of protests has left at least 20 people dead, according to published reports.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a resolution by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, "recognizing the people of Venezuela and their peaceful protest as they call for democratic change."

Flores called the measure "a small but important and powerful message that the state of Florida is taking this sersiously."

Rep. Jeanette Núñez, R-Miami, presented a similar tribute to the student protesters.

Adding their names to the tribute: Reps. Frank Artiles; R-Miami; Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala; Michael Bileca, R-Miami; José Félix Díaz, R-Miami; Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah; Erik Fresen, R-Miami; Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah; Doug Holder, R-Venice; Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud; Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes; Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota; Victor Torres, D-Orlando; and Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.

Some of the lawmakers expressed their support for the Venezuelan students at a press conference Wednesday morning. They were joined by members of the Venezuelan Students Association at Florida State University, as well as several Venezuelan-American groups.

Lopez-Cantera also attended, and called for federal sanctions against Venezuela akin to the sanctions being considered for Russia. (The governor's office has been active on the issue. Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to President Barack Obama in February calling for sanctions against leadership of the Venezuelan regime.)

"We don't understand why in four months we haven't heard but one comment from the president on this issue, especially because there are so many Venezuelan-Americans in the United States of America and particularly here in Florida," he said.

Some Democratic lawmakers said they would have attended the news conference -- had they been invited.

"If the purpose was to support the Venezuelan community, I would have loved to have gone," said Rep. Ricardo Rangel, D-Kissimmee, adding that he hadn't been made aware of the event.

Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, called the situation in Venezuela "very important to me and my community." But he wasn't told about the press conference either, he said.

Núñez later said the invitation had been extended to members who signed the tribute.

"Everyone had the opportunity to sign," she said. "Nobody was being excluded."

Obamacare's "Freaky" product-placement: illegal slaughterhouse edition


FreakyObamacare has freaky bad luck.

It's still unpopular (despite recent good news), has played a role in Democratic mid-term woes and now it appears in the most-unfortunate of places: On the T-Shirt of Raul “Freaky” Fernandez, caught on video at an "illegal West Miami-Dade slaughterhouse where pigs destined for Christmas dinner tables were shot, stabbed, beaten with sledgehammers and gutted and boiled while alive," according to this Miami Herald story on a new arrest.

"We support Obamacare," Fernandez's shirt says.

Animal rights? 

Not so much.

The video is enough to make you think hard about being a vegetarian. Fernandez, 53, and Yonisley “Pipe” Garcia, 28, were arrested as part of "Operation Noche Buena," named after the Christmas Eve "good night" celebration that often involves a roast pig. And, in the process, Obamacare's ox gets gored in the freakiest of coincidences.


Charter school bill advances in Florida House

The Florida House approved a bill Tuesday that could limit school districts’ control over privately managed charter schools.

HB 7083 would require school districts and new charter schools to use standardized contracts, effectively stripping districts of their leverage in contract negotiations. The measure found strong support among conservative lawmakers, who said it would “create real choice within our school districts.”

“What we are seeing is that school districts are playing games with some of the contract issues,” said House K-12 Education Subcommittee Chairwoman Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach. “In order to have a successful, balanced system, we need to make sure we have a level playing field. That’s what this bill seeks to do.”

But Democrats said the bill would give too much power to charter schools, some of which are run by for-profit management companies. They also questioned whether the move was constitutional.

It passed in a 68-50 vote.

Read more here.

Bikes in, SkyRise Miami out as budget negotiations wind down


From a multi-million dollar bike trail through Central Florida to creating a high-paying job at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, a broad array of local pet projects have been negotiated into the Legislature’s proposed budget.

Fueled by a $1.2 billion surplus and an impulse to please constituencies in their districts in an election year, House and Senate lawmakers have reached so many accords that few major ticket items remain unresolved.

One exception: $10 million the House is proposing to spend on SkyRise Miami, 1,000-foot-tall observation tower planned for downtown Miami. House and Senate negotiators agreed they’ve hit a wall during a Wednesday meeting and that the request will get “bumped” to the next level of decision making: the House and Senate Appropriation chairs, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.

“The issue with the Miami SkyRise is determining what role the state has in a project like that,” said incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. “ An argument could be made that for infrastructure it’s consistent with other projects we’ve done, I think that’s open for discussion. But just a $10 million line item without really understanding how that will work, the higher bumps can decide a lot of that.”

Gardiner was successful in getting $15.5 million included in the legislative budget for the 275-mile Coast-to-Coast Connector, a series of bike and pedestrian trails from the Pinellas Trail in St. Petersburg to Titusville on the state’s Space Coast.

Continue reading "Bikes in, SkyRise Miami out as budget negotiations wind down" »

Voucher bill brought back to life, while immigrant tuition in peril in Florida Senate

A Senate committee used a procedural maneuver Tuesday to put a controversial school voucher bill back in play.

But the committee refused to use the same strategy to revive a bill that would allow certain undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates, a bill with major political implications for this year’s governor’s race.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, tried to add the immigrant tuition language to a higher-education bill (SB 1292) sponsored by Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz.

But Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who supports in-state tuition for undocumented students, determined Latvala’s amendment was not germane and ruled it “out of order.”

The ruling was yet another setback for the thousands of undocumented students hoping to pay the same tuition rates as other young adults who grew up in Florida. The original bill (SB 1400) was blocked from moving forward last week.

Gov. Rick Scott said it was “extremely disappointing” that the amendments had not been heard.

“This needs to get to the floor of the Senate,” said Scott, a Republican who hopes to win support from Hispanic voters in the November election.

Latvala, the bill’s sponsor, said there were still ways to make that happen.

“It’s not over,” he said.

Read more here.

Women senators: Don't raise speed limit to 75

The state Senate is likely to pass a bill this week that could increase the speed limit from 70 to 75 mph on certain Florida interstates, but it will be far from unanimous.

Several women senators in both parties are critical of the idea, calling it dangerous and an invitation to more car crashes. The opponents include Sens. Nancy Detert, R-Venice; Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville; Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange; Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa; Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura; Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood; and Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

"It's absurd," Gibson said at a Wednesday breakfast meeting of Senate Democrats, as the co-sponsor, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, sat a few feet away.

"The bill basically allows the state Department of Transportation to set the speed limit, rather than politicians," Clemens said. "It bases the speed limit on science rather than on opinion."

Clemens and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, filed the bill (SB 392) in the Senate. It would give DOT engineers the option to increase the "safe and advisable" speed limit to 75 on limited access interstates, including I-10 in North Florida, the Suncoast Parkway and parts of I-75, I-95, I-4 and Florida's Turnpike. Speed limits on other roads could rise from 60 to 65 and from 65 to 70.

Detert called it "crazy" to increase the speed limit to 75 in her southwest Florida district, which is bisected by I-75. "I'm against it because people always go 10 miles over, no matter what it is, so why up it? I don't see the point."

Clemens called it a "myth" that increasing speed limits results in more accidents. A Senate staff analysis of the bill says: "The Federal Highway Administration notes that 'the effects of speed on safety are complex and only partially known.' However, there is clear and convincing evidence that crash severity increases with individual vehicle speed. This finding is supported by theory and statistical analysis."


Bill to shield nursing home investors from lawsuits gets final approval

Investors in nursing homes in Florida would be shielded from lawsuits when residents are abused or neglected under broad new provisions authorized in a bill the Florida House sent to the governor on Wednesday.

The bill, SB 670, passed 109-7 after it had been passed in the Senate last week. The measure has the backing of the Florida Justice Association, the association representing trial lawyers, and AARP of Florida. But it was vigorously opposed by elder advocates and Tampa-based trial lawyer Jim Wilkes, who has successfully sued dozens of nursing homes that have attempted to shield their assets.

The National Organization for Women Florida Chapter and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, and union groups representing the health care workers in nursing homes, are among the groups that warned the measure will not only hurt residents of nursing homes but subject individual staff members to lawsuits while the owners are shieleded.

""The Florida Legislature just handed the nursing home industry a 'get of jail free card' in cases of abuse or neglect,'' said Brian Lee, director of Families for Better Care, a non-profit that advocates for senior rights and is heavily funded by Wilkes. "If enacted, the nefarious operators, those who cut staffing and care budgets just to maximize profits, will be exonerated from ALL wrongdoing."

He predicted that nursing homes will take advantage of this new shield on liability and warned that "care that's bad now is about to get whole lot worst."

The measure, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar,  would stop Wilkes’ strategy in Florida by preventing “passive investors” from being named in a lawsuit unless a court determines they have had an active role. Wilkes contends the bill is written too broadly to describe who is considered a passive investor and restricts discovery in such a way that it will make it more difficult to persuade a judge that there is a link between the investor and the nursing home.

The Florida Health Care Association, with represents nursing homes, has argued that it is impossible for all nursing home operators to hide all its assets and this will not stop anyone from getting sued.

“This doesn’t make it any easier or harder to get sued as a direct care giver. This is simply protection for the passive investor,’’ said J. Emmett Reed, executive director of the Florida Health Care Association.

The Florida Justice Association, the trial lawyers association to which Wilkes is not a member, endorsed the legislation after fighting similar proposals for the three previous sessions.

In return, it won new language that will make it easier for residents of nursing homes, and their relatives and lawyers, to get documents without having to establish an estate.

Wilkes believes the trade-off is for trial lawyers to file more frequent lawsuits that produce smaller settlements, while the industry gets a stronger shield against reporting how it spends its money. The Florida Justice Association denies that is its goal.

The legislation also shows the power of political contributions to buy into the session's agenda. The nursing home industry spent $2.4 million on political campaigns in 2012 and has contributed another $903,000 on legislative campaigns so far this cycle. Wilkes and McHugh, by contrast, have given $18,000 this election cycle to legislative campaigns.

In a statement, Reed urged the governor to sign the bill quickly because it would take effect upon becoming law. 

“Gov. Scott understands how excessive litigation can destroy investors’ interest in creating new facilities and new jobs in Florida’s vital nursing home industry,'' he said. "We look forward to working with his Administration to implement this new law to improve the lives of Florida’s elders.” 

In Broward home, Dems reject Rich's call to debate Crist

Last night the management committee of the Broward Democratic Executive Committee rejected a motion to encourage a debate between Nan Rich and Charlie Crist for governor.

The purpose of the resolution was to compel the Florida Democratic Party to call for a statewide debate between two major candidates -- understood to mean Rich and Crist.

That was a purely symbolic resolution -- the state party isn’t sitting around waiting for local DECs to dictate whether it encourages a debate or not. But it’s still a blow to Rich, a former longtime Democratic state senator from Weston, who appears not to have support of a group of her hometown activists. DECs in other counties including Palm Beach and Miami-Dade could follow with their own votes -- but such a vote is a bigger deal in Broward since that’s Rich’s county.

Broward Democratic chairman Mitch Ceasar wouldn’t reveal the breakdown of the vote that included about 18 people on the management committee which encompasses officers, area leaders and the heads of various caucuses including the black caucus.

“The philosophy was folks believed they should not be taking a position for one candidate or another in primary and in effect this is doing that, ....” Ceasar said. “As much as everybody in the room has respect for Nan -- tremendous respect for Nan -- many interpret this as being an indirect endorsement for one candidate.”

Maggie Davidson, a state committeewoman and Rich supporter from Pompano Beach, said she proposed the resolution. The vote “wasn’t really close,” she said.

“They were all pretty much in agreement that they didn’t want the DEC to be the one to put forth the effort for the debate,” she said. “They thought it should come from the candidates or the Florida Democratic Party. They felt it was going to be divisive.”

But Davidson said she believes in the principle of debates so that candidates have to answer to the voters.

“We have had primary debates in the past,” she said. “I don’t know why it’s any different -- why there should not be a debate.”

Davidson, a supporter of abortion rights, particularly wanted to hear Crist explain how he will handle abortion-related legislation if elected governor.

“He has been saying he is pro-life. I want to know he is pro-choice and will veto all the bad legislation that the Legislature has been putting forth the last four or five years. I haven’t heard that from him. The people of Florida, especially women, need to hear that from Charlie.”

Several Democratic activists -- including Ceasar -- and politicians were at Crist’s event Saturday to open his South Florida headquarters in Plantation. Broward has about 560,000 registered Democratic voters -- more than any other county in Florida. But the county has lagged behind in turnout in past non-presidential election years and only about 41 percent turned out to vote in 2010 when Democrat Alex Sink lost to Rick Scott. Sink was criticized for not spending enough time in Broward.

Crist has tried to boost his presence in Broward by opening his first field office there and renting an apartment on the beach. However he has not been as publicly visible as some Democrats would like in Broward -- the event Saturday was his first major public event here. Crist did not attend the Broward Democrats’ annual Unity Dinner last month where Rich spoke and he has not asked to speak to the DEC.