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Associated Press

Fantasy sports companies fold as legislative battle resumes

The daily fantasy sports industry sharply contracted since the online games offered by companies like FanDuel and DraftKings sparked court and legislative battles across the United States last year.

More than two-thirds of companies that existed this time last year have shuttered, changed focus or joined with competitors, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, the industry’s lobbying arm.

Among the most prominent examples is the proposed merger between the industry’s two largest companies — Boston’s DraftKings and New York’s FanDuel. That deal, which was announced late last year, is currently being reviewed by the Federal Trade Commission.

At least three notable companies — Fantasy Aces, FantasyHub and FantasyUp — shuttered while still owing players money, prompting other operators to assume their assets and pledge to make customers whole.

Many smaller operators have also quietly folded. At peak last year, 118 member companies offered some form of paid daily fantasy sports, the trade association said. Of those, 81 are no longer offering contests or their status is unknown.

The legal chaos and uncertainty that befell the industry starting with the 2015 NFL season has driven away investors, making it impossible for many startups to continue to raise the financial capital to survive, said Peter Schoenke, the trade association chairman.

The uncertainty also shook out companies not offering much new or distinctive from the competition, added Daniel Barbarisi, author of “Dueling With Kings,” an inside look at the industry’s rise and fall released last month.

“Everyone thought DFS was the next gold rush,” he said. “It couldn’t sustain that level of speculative growth, especially from small operators. Now that the barrier to entry is higher, I’m not surprised at all to see many of them falling by the wayside.”

The legal landscape, meanwhile, remains unsettled, and the industry is again engaged in a costly, state-by-state legislative push. Roughly half of all U.S. states have seen proposals introduced to legalize and regulate the industry.

Arkansas has so far passed new legislation, joining 10 other states from prior years: Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Tennessee and Virginia.

Lawmakers in other states will become receptive to the proposals as they see how the regulations are working in other states, said Marc La Vorgna, a spokesman for DraftKings and FanDuel. “The evidence is there for legislators,” he said. “Any uncertainty around the impact of these laws has been removed.”

Indeed New York, one of a handful of states that impose a tax on daily fantasy sports, says it took in nearly $3 million in revenues in the first months of its new law.

DraftKings and FanDuel are again “investing heavily” in state legislative efforts, La Vorgna said, declining to provide specific tallies for lobbying costs and political donations this year. The trade association is spending “very little” on direct lobbying this year, said Schoenke, also declining to provide specifics.

During last year’s legislative push, DraftKings, FanDuel and the trade association spent at least $500,000 on lobbyists and its employees donated roughly $380,000 to political campaign committees at the state government level, according to the most recent data collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, Montana.

That was a big jump from 2015, when the industry wasn’t quite in the crosshairs of regulators. The three entities accounted for at least $275,000 in lobbying and donations that year, up from at least $18,000 in 2014, the institute’s data shows.

Some of the laws being considered this year may hasten the industry’s consolidation, said Ted Kasten, who has advised several daily fantasy sports startups.

Some states are considering imposing costly licensing fees and other regulatory hurdles that smaller operations complain could put them out of business.

Ryan Huss, co-founder of Syde Fantasy Sports, said he and his partners ended their fantasy sports contests and shifted the company’s focus after their home state of Virginia started requiring a $50,000 registration fee.

“The fees seem like more of a deterrent than anything else,” he said. “Only the largest operators can truly afford to pay them.”

Despite the consolidation, demand for the games still appears healthy.

From 2015 to 2016, the total amount of entry fees paid by players grew 4 percent to about $3.3 billion and net revenues for companies rose about 15 percent to $350 million, according to the California-based gambling research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming.

New startups are still emerging, just nowhere near the levels to replace the ones closing down, Schoenke said.

Some new companies say they’re in a better position to succeed than their predecessors.

Teague Orgeman, co-founder of Starting 11, a Minneapolis-based daily fantasy soccer site hoping to launch soon, says his company’s contest will be more innovative than what’s already out there. And, as a practicing attorney, he’s prepared to navigate the ever-changing regulatory landscape.

“We see opportunity, not the flip,” Orgeman said. “We think regulation is a good thing long-term for industry. It really wasn’t a deterrent.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

House backs Governor in battle with Orlando prosecutor Aramis Ayala

Florida’s House is backing Gov. Rick Scott in his legal battle against an Orlando prosecutor who refuses to seek the death penalty in cases handled by her office.

The state Supreme Court said Monday it would allow attorneys working for House Speaker Richard Corcoran to file legal briefs in the case between the governor and State Attorney Aramis Ayala.

Ayala is challenging Scott’s authority to transfer murder cases from her office to another prosecutor.

The Republican-controlled House in a legal filing with the high court said it wants to address “the ill effects that flow from” Ayala’s opposition to seeking the death penalty. The House may also argue whether Scott has the authority to suspend Ayala.

Ayala is a Democrat and Florida’s first African-American state attorney.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Who’s Dina Powell? A rising Donald Trump national security figure

The photo from inside Donald Trump‘s makeshift situation room at Mar-a-Lago affirmed what White House insiders have recognized for some time — that Dina Powell has quietly established herself as a White House power.

Though sandwiched between other administration officials, the deputy national security adviser for strategy stands out as the only woman among 13 staffers in the room on the night the president ordered the missile attack in Syria.

And in a White House that is split between outsider ideologues and more traditional operators, Powell is viewed as a steady force in the growing influence of the latter. Her West Wing experience, conservative background and policy chops have won over Trump’s daughter and son-in-law. Now, Powell is at the table as the president turns more of his attention to international affairs, attempting to craft a foreign policy out of a self-described “flexible” approach to the world.

“No one should ever underestimate Dina Powell.” says Brian Gunderson, a former State Department chief of staff. He hired her to work in former House Majority Leader Dick Armey‘s office early in her career and later worked with her in George W. Bush‘s White House.

Powell, 43, declined comment for this story.

She is a rare Bush veteran in a White House that has largely shunned its Republican predecessor’s legacy. She came via Goldman Sachs — decidedly not a rarity for the new president — originally to work on economic development at the behest of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. An Egyptian-American with international experience and fluency in Arabic, she was soon moved to the National Security Council, though she retains her economic title.

Powell’s ties to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who recruited her, and to economic adviser Gary Cohn, a fellow Goldman alumnus, mean she has been labeled by some as part of a more moderate group at the White House. But GOP leaders describe her as a longtime conservative thinker.

She has quickly earned the respect of the president, who said in a statement to The Associated Press: “Dina is an extremely intelligent and competent member of my team. She is highly respected and a great person.”

National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said he recruited Powell “because of her exceptional expertise and leadership skills, to lead an effort to restore the strategic focus of the national security council. She has already accomplished this shift in a few weeks, establishing great relationships across our government and with key international allies.”

Powell’s foreign policy experience was forged under Condoleezza Rice, who brought her into the State Department when the Bush administration was trying to improve diplomacy in the Middle East.

Calling her a “member of my Middle East brain trust,” the former secretary of state said that Powell knows the region well and “not just confined to Egypt.” She added that Powell was “somebody who understood the limits of secularism in the Middle East but the dangers of fundamentalism. She brought sensitivities to those issues.”

Still, Powell is plunging into a national security role at a fraught moment, as the United States ponders next steps with Syria, navigates complex relationships with North Korea, China and Russia and seeks to combat the rise of ISIS. All under a president, who campaigned on a platform of “America First” but whose foreign policy has proved unpredictable.

Tommy Vietor, who served as NSC spokesman under Barack Obama, said the administration is still struggling to present a coherent foreign policy.

“Does ‘America First’ mean we don’t care anymore?” he asked. “They need to do a better job making clear people understand where they stand on many issues.”

Powell was brought onto the national security team after a period of tumult.

Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn was asked to resign in February amid revelations that he misled senior administration officials about his Russian contacts. One of his deputies, K.T. McFarland — notably absent from the Florida photo — is expected to exit soon. She is in line to be U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

As deputy national security adviser for strategy, Powell is working to coordinate the various U.S. security-related agencies and advisers. According to a recent national security memo, she attends meetings of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee and Deputies Committee. Those advisers briefed Trump with options last week after a chemical attack that the U.S. determined was ordered by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Born in Cairo, Powell moved to the United States with her family at the age of four and had to learn to speak English. She is a Coptic Christian, the faith that was targeted with bombings of two churches in Cairo on Palm Sunday.

Entering Republican politics at a young age, Powell put herself through the University of Texas by working in the state Legislature. After stints with several GOP congressional members and at the Republican National Committee, she joined George W. Bush’s administration. There she became the youngest person to ever run a president’s personnel office. Later she served Rice as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs and as deputy undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

From the White House, Powell went to Goldman Sachs, where she worked for a decade, becoming a partner, looking after global investment and serving as president of the company foundation, overseeing an effort to invest in female entrepreneurs around the world.

Speculation is already underway about whether her current role could grow.

“She’s already ascending in a big way,” said Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, who has known Powell for years. “My sense is she will continue to be someone to look for.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Water shortage warning for 8 million from Orlando to the Keys

A water shortage warning has been issued to 8.1 million residents from Orlando to the Florida Keys.

South Florida Water Management District Board Chairman Dan O’Keefe said Thursday that residents’ voluntary efforts will help the water supply last through the region’s dry season. If those efforts prove insufficient, mandatory water restrictions may be considered.

Drought conditions have prompted the district to prohibit fires on its lands and prepare to close navigation locks on Lake Okeechobee’s north shore.

Officials said rainfall across the district’s 16 counties since Nov. 1 has been 6.75 inches below average. Water levels in Lake Okeechobee have dropped to 12.04 feet.

Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department Director Lester Sola released a statement Thursday reminding residents about year-round, twice-weekly watering restrictions. Sola said individuals in Miami-Dade each use roughly 134 gallons of water daily.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this post.

Tax breaks still possible for businesses that use solar

Florida businesses installing renewable energy devices on their properties would get tax breaks under a bill that is moving ahead in the Legislature.

A Senate panel on Thursday unanimously advanced the bill (SB 90) to its last committee stop saying it was the “will of the people.” The bill differs from a house version (HB 1351), which critics say would impede rooftop solar installations by creating consumer protections that would act as barriers for the solar industry.

The state’s three largest electricity companies have spent $26.9 million on campaign contributions in both the 2016 and the upcoming election cycles.

The measures are meant to create a plan for a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2016 that puts businesses on equal footing with residential properties for property tax exemptions.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

‘I’M A GONER’: El Faro’s last hours as ship sails into storm

Danielle Randolph squinted through rain-splattered windows as the sea freighter lunged upward sharply, then fell into the trough of a 30-foot-tall wave. The skies were black. The second mate stood on the navigation bridge high above El Faro’s main deck, which spread out before her like an aircraft carrier stacked high with red, white and blue cargo containers.

News blurted through the bridge’s radio speaker: Forecasters had named the storm Hurricane Joaquin as it built into a Category 3, with winds of 130 mph. “Oh my God,” she said to the helmsman standing nearby, bracing when the ship she called “the rust bucket” shuddered over another wave.

Danielle Randolph, a second mate on the freighter El Faro. (Laurie Randolph via AP)

“Can’t pound your way through them waves. Break the ship in half,” the helmsman said.

It was 1:15 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2015, and the Atlantic was boiling over. El Faro, sailing near San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, was being knocked about by the strongest October storm to hit these waters since 1866. In the coming hours, El Faro and its crew would fight desperately for survival.

Another wave slammed into them. “Oh (expletive),” said Randolph. “That was a bad one.” The alarm sounded. The ship was now pushed in another direction, off the captain’s chosen course. After a few tense seconds, El Faro righted herself.

“She’s doin’ good. I’m impressed. Knock on wood,” said Randolph.

El Faro was one of two ships owned by TOTE Maritime Inc. that navigated in constant rotation between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. It brought everything from milk to Mercedes Benzes to the island. If El Faro missed its run store shelves sat empty, an economy suffered and TOTE lost money.

This run was to be El Faro’s last before a major retrofit. Inspectors had found parts of the vessel’s boilers that were “deteriorated severely” and service was scheduled in the next month. This came as no surprise: One Coast Guard inspector had identified a “disturbing” uptick in safety discrepancies during El Faro’s inspections from 2013 to 2014. The Guard was in the process of adding the 40-year-old ship to its “target list” of U.S. cargo vessels that needed a higher level of scrutiny.

The El Faro cargo ship docked in Baltimore. (Will Van Dorp via AP)

To add to the danger, El Faro was equipped with open-top lifeboats similar to those used on the Titanic or Lusitania. Modern ships carry the round, tent-like lifeboats with electronic beacons that dramatically increase survival chances in a shipwreck.

Once, Randolph texted pictures of El Faro’s lifeboats to her mom. “Is that your lifeboat? It’s open,” her mom replied, aghast. A coastal Mainer, Laurie Bobillot knew open lifeboats to be a thing of the past. “Let’s hope you never get into some rough seas,” she wrote, “because you know kid, you’re screwed.”

“Yes, I know,” Randolph replied. “Mom, if I ever die at sea, that’s where I want to be.”

___

Randolph had a cordial relationship with the captain of El Faro. She respected him, but told her mother and friends she didn’t like his dismissive attitude. The storm had been growing, so Randolph suggested they consider taking a longer, slower route south through the Old Bahama Channel. But the captain had the final word on voyage planning, and he refused to deviate.

She’d noticed the captain was sound asleep when she’d called. It rang a few times before he answered.

The ship was taking a beating, she’d said, but was holding course. The captain asked about the latest weather reports. He would return to the bridge in a few hours. She hung up the phone as the ship took on another huge wave.

“He said to run it. Hooold on to your ass!” Randolph shouted.

“Figured the captain would be up here,” the helmsman said. Microphones on the bridge picked up their conversations, which were sent to a voyage data recorder, the ship’s “black box.”

“I thought so too. I’m surprised,” Randolph replied.

“Damn,” the helmsman said with disappointment. “He’ll play hero tomorrow,” he said laughing. The captain would be praised for the ship making it through Hurricane Joaquin to San Juan on time.

Even after a decade at sea, Randolph, 34, maintained a youthful air. Her round, freckled face was slightly weathered from the sun, and her dumb jokes endeared her to the 32 crewmates who relied on her skillful navigation. She stood only 5-foot-3, but her mariner toughness was displayed in the large anchor tattoo on her chest, which peeked over the neckline of the vintage ’50s dresses she liked to wear on shore.

Danielle Randolph. (Laurie Randolph via AP)

Randolph was one of only two women on this cargo run. Raised in a military family whose motto was “suck it up,” she worked hard and asked few questions.

But now, she was helpless against the crushing waves, wind and rain. “It would help if I knew which direction the swell was coming from,” Randolph said to the helmsman. “I could alter course a little more. I can’t see.” They heard a massive thump from below, in the bowels of the ship. El Faro carried heavy cargo in its interior holds: If that was a car or something else coming loose, it was a sailor-crushing danger.

“Whoooo!” Randolph exclaimed.

“Yeah, it’s startin’ to get a little bit more active around here,” the helmsman replied. The swelling seas shoved El Faro around like a cork.

Randolph could not know exactly how hard the wind was blowing. El Faro’s anemometer, or wind gauge, had been broken for years. To adapt, the sailors usually stepped out on deck to gauge wind speed the old-fashioned way, by checking the flap of the boat’s flags. That was impossible in the dark. Randolph scanned the radar for a fellow vessel in the area, but every other ship had diverted to avoid the storm. El Faro was alone.

The cargo ship, El Faro. (TOTE Maritime via AP)

“Hello, Joaquin,” Randolph said to the storm. “It’s just getting bigger — our path is going right through it.”

At 3:34 a.m. the captain emerged from his stateroom. Randolph greeted him, grateful for the chance to go down to her room for a quick rest. She’d found time to fire off a quick email to her mother. “We are heading straight into it, Category 3, last we checked. Winds are super bad. Love to everyone.”

Later that day, reading the email in Denmark, Wisconsin, Randolph’s mother knew something was wrong. Randolph never signed her emails, “Love to everyone.” Her mother understood that her daughter was sending a coded message: I may never see you again.

___

With his square chin, salt-and-pepper hair and thick Mainer’s brogue, El Faro’s captain was a meticulous master who struck a commanding presence. Yet Michael Davidson‘s detached, hands-off style led Randolph and some others to describe the 53-year-old master as a “stateroom captain.” Stateroom captains didn’t get their hands dirty and weren’t seen a lot on deck. They didn’t share smokes and chit chat with the crew.

On the bridge, he greeted Randolph’s replacement, chief mate Steve Shultz, and a new helmsman, Frank Hamm. He set out to calm their nerves. “There’s nothing bad about this ride,” the captain announced, despite the hurricane raging outside. “I was sleepin’ like a baby. This is every day in Alaska,” the captain continued. No one could see out of the windows, except for when brief sparks of lightning illuminated the rain. “A typical winter day in Alaska.”

Earlier in his career Davidson had navigated freighters in the Alaska trade, known in the industry as one of the most bruising theaters of sailing. But his leadership had been questioned by TOTE’s upper management, and after initially leaning toward offering Davidson the job heading one of its new ships the company decided to go in a different direction. Now favored were younger captains who could drive the new high-tech freighters.

Before leaving port in Jacksonville, Davidson expressed disappointment to colleagues that he hadn’t been chosen to command the modern, liquefied natural gas-fueled ship that was to replace El Faro. The captain had been disappointed by the news, but he was a professional. Perhaps he thought he could show them that they’d made a mistake by making El Faro’s cargo run on time, even with a major storm system in his way. Davidson knew what could happen to masters who raised safety concerns that weren’t considered serious enough by the company.

The memory module that stores data from the voyage data recorder of El Faro. (James Anderson/NTSB via AP)

He had been fired by a prior employer after an incident with another ship. The steering was bad on that one, and he’d refused an order to take it to port, requiring the company to hire tugboats to drag it there instead.

The course alarm, which blared every time the ship deviated from its programmed route, was now ringing every few seconds as the seas flung the vessel around. The captain ordered it turned off, along with the auto-piloting system, nicknamed the “Iron Mike.” They would have to steer the ship manually, to use their human senses to feel the swell and winds, as they piloted blindly into the waves.

Containers the size of Mack trucks were breaking free from their chain lashings. They’d left port not expecting the heavy weather and didn’t ask the longshoremen for extra storm lashes, the ship’s third mate had said ruefully earlier in the day, as the storm worsened. Now, thrown off balance, El Faro tilted precariously to the right, or starboard, as it plunged into the pounding waves.

Unsure why his boat was listing, the captain searched for a solution. The steep angling of the ship was making it hard to stand up straight. If he knew the hurricane-force wind’s direction — difficult to detect at night in a hurricane with a broken wind gauge — the helmsman could position the freighter so that the wind hit its left, port side, correcting the vessel’s pitch. Flooding in the cavern-like interior holds could be battled with pumps to redirect the water into other areas for balance. If the ship lost some of its 20-ton containers, he could use the pumps to help compensate for that, too.

None of that mattered without power, though. The captain called down to the engine room to check that the ship’s boilers, its only source of power, were still operational. Without propulsion in a Category 3 storm, El Faro would be lost.

Coast Guard Captain Jason Neubauer, left, and Tom Roth-Roffy, the NTSB Investigator-In-Charge. (Bob Self /The Florida Times-Union via AP, File)

“How you guys doing down there?” he asked. The engineer replied that they were “blowin’ tubes,” or trying to remove obstructions from the engine as it chugged. There was another problem: the intake tube that sucked oil like a straw from a large tank into the engines was starting to lose contact with the oil due to the ship’s tilt. Without oil, the engines would stop running altogether.

Standing with the captain on the bridge, chief mate Shultz noted the barometer readings were headed downward, which could indicate they were closer to Joaquin’s eye. That ran counter to the storm track models Davidson had used — those showed the storm farther away. He still planned to outrun it.

“We won’t be goin’ through the eye,” the captain said: If they could skirt a bit further south, away from the eye toward Crooked Island, they would reach its backside more quickly.

With the ship tilting and oil pressure decreasing, the captain decided to use the wind to force the ship more upright. If he could do that, he could get oil pressure back, and increase the ship’s power. “Just steer that heading right there the best you can. That’ll work for us,” the captain instructed Hamm and Shultz.

The ship dropped down a three-story-tall swell. “Feel the pressure droppin’ in your ears just then? Feel that?” Davidson said, trying to make light of the situation.

Hamm’s large frame was bent over in fear at his console. Two days earlier, the 49-year-old father of five had called Rochelle, his wife, just

Frank Hamm is shown in a framed photograph at the home of his widow, Rochelle Hamm. (Courtesy Rochelle Hamm via AP)

before he sailed out of range. He said everything was OK — Hamm liked and trusted the captain, with whom he’d often worked. But in the chaos of the storm, he had been unable to send his customary daily email home.

“Take your time and relax,” Davidson said. Hamm managed to find his breath, then took the helm back. “I am relaxed, Captain.”

Davidson turned quickly to the ship’s computer. He needed to check the Bon Voyage System, or BVS, an online subscription weather forecasting tool, to get the latest hard data on Joaquin. “Hanging in there (Frank)?” Shultz said, trying to keep the jittery helmsman engaged as the captain scanned his email for the weather updates. “Still got us on course. You’re doin’ great.”

Rochelle Hamm holds the hard hat of her husband, Frank. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

The captain grew confused. Though the forecasting tool told him the storm was still farther north, clearly they were right in it. “We’re gettin’ conflicting reports as to where the center of the storm is,” he said.

Davidson didn’t know that there was a problem with the BVS system emails he was receiving: One update he’d received had storm tracking information that was 21 hours old. While he had access to other forecasts on the internet, Davidson relied on BVS. The storm they now faced was far more advanced than his weather models showed.

“Our biggest enemy here right now is we can’t see,” he said. He believed they were nearing the back side of the storm, but had no way of knowing for sure. By overruling his crew’s suggested alternate routes, he had made a horrible mistake.

An engineer from below deck appeared on the bridge. Something wasn’t right. “I’ve never seen it list like this,” the engineer reported. El Faro’s steep list was not just from sliding shipping containers, the engineer reasoned — something else was to blame.

The phone rang with a call from the engine room. The ship was losing oil pressure, and needed to be righted now.

“I’m tryin’ to get her steadied up,” the captain replied.

Water surged over the ship’s stern, and the sound of the ocean pounding the old ship was deafening. Another electric ring of the telephone. Davidson answered, “Bridge, captain.”

A moment passed and he turned to his chief mate: “We got a prrroooblem.”

Water had started flooding one of the ship’s warehouse-sized holds used to store cars and other large containers. He ordered Shultz, a 54-year-old former Navy captain and seasoned mariner, below deck immediately to start pumping out the hold. It was a perilous assignment. Any piece of heavy cargo afloat in the hold could easily pulverize Shultz. The chief mate grabbed a walkie-talkie and climbed down from the bridge.

The top of El Faro navigation bridge. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP)

The captain took the ship’s helm from Hamm. With water flooding into El Faro’s insides, he knew why he’d been unable to right the ship. He turned the steering wheel hard, trying to use the wind again — anything to decrease the ship’s angle. Shultz radioed from down below, in the flooded cargo chamber.

“About knee deep in here,” he said.

___

At 6 a.m., Randolph came back to the bridge from her stateroom. She’d changed out of her work clothes, and hadn’t changed back before coming up.

She moved over to the dead radar screen — it’d gone dark, maybe from water coming through a gap in one of the bridge’s windows — to try and get the ship’s current position. After a few minutes, the radar fluttered and suddenly blinked back to life. “All right, good,” the captain said. He ordered Randolph to sync the latest BVS weather models with their current position, still not realizing the data was hours old, and useless.

The ship groaned over yet another tall wave. “Nooooo,” Randolph said, bracing. “There goes the lawn furniture.”

“Let’s hope that’s all,” said the captain.

Family members of El Faro crew members stand with photographs of their loved ones. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP, File)

Randolph wasn’t supposed to be on the bridge, but Davidson didn’t question her. “You want me to stay with you?” Randolph asked. “Please,” the captain said. “It’s just the …” He couldn’t finish his sentence.

Shultz called from the flooded hold again. He wanted the bridge to move the ship so the water below would shift to the other side.

All at once, a terrifying silence gripped them. The rumble and vibration of ship’s engines ceased. El Faro was adrift.

“I think we just lost the plant,” Davidson said.

Somehow, he needed to balance the ship — an almost impossible feat without propulsion.

Down below, the whirring pumps continued to push thousands of gallons a minute from the flooded holds. Up top, everyone had to use their leg muscles to stay standing on the angling ship. “Feeling those thighs burn?” Randolph asked Hamm, as he dug in to turn the rudder.

Just after 7 a.m., Davidson picked up the ship’s emergency satellite phone. He dialed the cellphone number of TOTE’s designated person ashore, the only human in charge of knowing what was going on with the fleet.

The call went to voicemail.

Davidson rattled out a brief message, then called the company’s answering service. A woman picked up with a pleasant hello.

“We had a hull breach; a scuttle blew open during a storm,” Davidson explained tersely. “We have water down in three hold, with a heavy list. We’ve lost the main propulsion unit, the engineers cannot get it going.” He asked for her to patch him through to a TOTE official immediately.

“Can you please give me your satellite phone number and spell the name of the vessel?” she asked slowly. “Spell your name, please?”

Retired Rear Admiral Philip H. Greene, Jr, President and CEO of TOTE Services, Inc., left. (Bob Mack/The Florida Times-Union via AP, File)

TOTE safety officials had identified the answering service as a problem previously, but it had not been fixed.

“The clock is ticking” the captain said, his voice calm despite the chaos. He tried again. “This is a marine emergency, and I am tryin’ to also notify management!” He gave the operator his name and number and hung up.

Electronic alarms echoed throughout the steel freighter. Randolph read out their current position. The captain called down to the flooding hold. “Can you tell if it’s decreasing or increasing?” he asked. “I can’t tell captain. Seems as if it’s goin’ down,” the chief mate replied. He turned to Randolph. “Say second mate. How ’bout our range and bearing from like San Miguel Island? Or San Salvador? Whatever that island is there,” he said, looking for any sign of land they might be able to reach. He grabbed El Faro’s emergency beacon that would aid rescuers in finding their position.

The satellite phone rang, it was his boss. “Yeah, I’m real good,” Davidson said matter-of-factly. “Three hold’s got considerable amount of water in it. Uh, we have a very, very healthy port list. The engineers cannot get lube oil pressure on the plant, therefore we’ve got no main engine. And let me give you, um, a latitude and longitude. I just wanted to give you a heads up before I push that, push that button,” he said, referring to the Ship Security Alert System, or SSAS, an emergency beacon. It was 7:07 a.m.

“The crew is safe,” he said into the phone. “Right now we’re tryin’ to save the ship. But it’s not gettin’ any better. No one’s panicking. Our safest bet is to stay with the ship during this particular time. The weather is ferocious out here.” Davidson told his boss it was time to alert the Coast Guard. “I wanna wake everybody up,” he said. “I just wanted to give you that courtesy, so you wouldn’t be blindsided by it. Everybody’s safe right now, we’re in survival mode.”

Randolph stood at the ready. “All right now, push the SSAS button,” he commanded.

“Roger,” she said.

“Wake everybody up. WAKE ‘EM UP!” Davidson shouted. “We’re gonna be good. We’re gonna make it right here.”

Chief Mate Shultz radioed from the flooded hold again. “I think the water level’s rising captain,” he said. He could think of nothing more to do.

Rochelle Hamm speaks during an interview at her home. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

“All right, chief,” the captain replied.

Davidson’s tinny voice sounded over the ship’s intercom ordering the crew to muster. He wanted everyone accounted for. The high-frequency bell of the abandon ship alarm rang out.

“Can I get my vest?” Randolph asked.

“Yup, bring mine up too and bring one for (Frank)” the captain replied. The helmsman, a large man and diabetic, yelled out as Randolph left the bridge: “I need two!”

“OK buddy, relax,” the captain said. The ship heaved, the tip of its bow sinking beneath the black water.

“Bow is down. Bow is down,” Davidson said over the ship intercom.

“Get into your rafts. Throw all your rafts in the water,” he yelled. “Everybody. EVERYBODY GET OFF THE SHIP! STAY TOGETHER!” he screamed.

Hamm was unable to move. “Cap, Cap,” he said.

“You gotta get up,” Davidson ordered. “You gotta snap out of it and we gotta get out!” he said, his voice firm, urgent.

A year and a half has passed since Rochelle Hamm’s husband Frank, and 32 others died on Oct. 1, 2015 when the cargo freighter El Faro sank during a hurricane. In Frank’s memory, Hamm is now advocating for a new safety system she calls Hamm Alert. (April 12)

“Help me!” Hamm pleaded.

“Ya gotta get to safety!” the captain yelped. Hamm couldn’t move.

The shrill beat of alarms continued as the ship’s tilt worsened.

The captain reached for Hamm. “Don’t panic. Don’t panic,” he said. “Work your way up here. Don’t freeze up! Follow me,” he pleaded with Hamm.

“I can’t! My feet are slipping! I’m goin’ down!”

Davidson looked at his terrified helmsman. “You’re not goin’ down. COME ON!” he yelled.

“You gonna leave me,” Hamm cried.

“I’m not leavin’ you. Let’s go,” the captain responded.

“I’M A GONER!” Hamm screamed.

“NO, YOU’RE NOT!” the captain replied.

El Faro’s bridge reared up as the ship sank deeper.

“IT’S TIME TO COME THIS WAY!” Davidson shouted, as El Faro slipped beneath the sea.

___

It would be months before search crews found the wreckage. El Faro had come to rest 15,000 feet down, on the seafloor near the Bahamas. The bridge where Hamm and Davidson struggled for survival had separated from the vessel’s hull, and lay a quarter mile away.

No bodies were ever recovered. It was the worst maritime disaster for a U.S.-flagged vessel since 1983.

The U.S. Coast Guard has held six weeks of investigative hearings over the past year, and the National Transportation Safety Board is conducting its own probe. Both agencies are expected to issue findings later this year.

TOTE defended its safety record, and emphasized that El Faro was permitted to operate by the Coast Guard despite the issues flagged by inspectors. The company also said it had been working on fixing the problems with its emergency answering service, but had not gotten to it before El Faro’s voyage. It now is paying for a more expensive storm forecasting tool for its entire fleet.

In December 2015, about two months after El Faro sank, a couple picking up trash on Ormond Beach in Florida found a green hard hat among the plastic bottles and other garbage. The name “FRANK” was scrawled in Hamm’s writing across the front.

Rochelle Hamm recognized it immediately as her husband’s. It’s encrusted with sand and bits of dried seaweed.

She keeps it in a bag by the side of her bed.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Last of drug-smuggling ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ arrested in Florida

Gustavo Falcon

The last of South Florida’s drug-smuggling “Cocaine Cowboys” has been arrested — some 26 years after he went on the lam — while on a 40-mile bike ride with his wife near the Orlando suburb where they apparently lived under assumed names.

The Miami Herald reports Gustavo “Taby” Falcon, 55, was booked into the Orange County Jail Wednesday evening and is charged with smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s along with his notorious brother, Augusto “Willie” Falcon.

He is expected at a first appearance hearing in Orlando on Thursday and likely will be transferred to Miami.

The organization was linked to dozens of murders and shootings. The 2006 documentary “Cocaine Cowboys” detailed suitcases full of cash, hit men with machine guns, drug-laden speedboats and nighttime drops of drugs in South Florida’s swamps.

Deputy marshals arrested Falcon and his wife, Amelia, at an intersection near Orlando during their bike ride, said U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Barry Golden. He said Falcon had obtained fake driver’s licenses for himself, his wife and their two adult children, using Miami addresses. Gustavo Falcon and his wife went by the names Luis and Maria Reiss.

Golden said marshals caught a big break when Gustavo Falcon was involved in a car accident near Orlando and used a fake driver’s license with a Miami address. That led marshals to trace him to his history in South Florida.

“We figured this all out a month ago,” Golden said. “We pulled his driver’s license and saw it was the same Gustavo Falcon.”

The family had been under surveillance by marshals at the home they were renting in Kissimmee, which is near Orlando. Golden said they’d been living in the Orlando area since 1999, which surprised marshals who thought Gustavo Falcon was hiding out in Mexico or Colombia.

He was last seen in South Florida in 1991. Gustavo Falcon’s brother and Salvador “Sal” Magluta were recognized as kingpins of the organization, which used their speedboats to haul loads of cocaine smuggled from Colombia. A 1991 federal indictment charged the two brothers, Magluta and several others with smuggling 75 tons of cocaine into the U.S. between 1978 and 1991.

Willie Falcon and Magluta were acquitted of the charges in 1996. Authorities later discovered they bought off witnesses and at least one member of the jury.

Magluta was retried and convicted of drug-related money laundering charges in 2002 and sentenced to 205 years in prison. That was reduced to 195 years in 2006. Willie Falcon then accepted a plea deal in 2003 on similar charges. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and is scheduled for release in June.

Jail records don’t list an attorney for Gustavo Falcon.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump boasts of hiring only the best, but picks haunt him

President Donald Trump likes to boast that he hires only the best people. But his personnel choices keep coming back to haunt him.

One of the people Trump hired for the White House was working as a foreign agent while advising him during the election. His campaign chairman caught the Justice Department’s attention for similarly surreptitious work. And a third campaign adviser was reportedly surveilled by the FBI as part of an investigation into whether or not he was a Russian spy.

The tales of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Carter Page — none of whom still work for Trump — have created a steady drip of allegations that have clouded Trump’s early presidency and raised persistent questions about his judgment.

At worst, Trump’s personnel picks appear to have left his campaign — and perhaps his White House — vulnerable to the influence of foreign powers. At best, they expose the long-term implications of his understaffed and inexperienced campaign organization and undermine his promises to surround himself with top-notch talent.

“Vetting new hires is standard procedure for presidential campaigns for exactly this reason,” said Alex Conant, who advised Sen. Marco Rubio‘s 2016 presidential campaign. “Every employee is also a potential liability on a presidential campaign.”

During the campaign, Trump said he hired “top, top people” and would fill his administration “with only the best and most serious people.”

Yet Manafort, Flynn and Page have indeed become political liabilities for Trump that he can’t shake in the White House. All three are being scrutinized as part of the FBI and congressional investigations into whether Trump associates helped Russia meddle in the 2016 election. The president has denied any nefarious ties to Russia and says he has no knowledge that his advisers were working with Moscow during the election.

The president’s culpability appears greatest with Flynn, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who traveled with Trump frequently during the campaign and was tapped as national security adviser after the election. Flynn had been lobbying for a company with ties to Turkey during the 2016 election and even wrote an editorial on behalf of his client that was published on Election Day.

“No one expects them to do the equivalent of an FBI background check, but a simple Google search could have solved a lot of these problems,” Dan Pfeiffer, who served as senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said of Trump’s team.

After Trump’s victory, Flynn’s lawyers alerted the transition team that he may have to register as a lobbying for a foreign entity, according to a person with knowledge of those discussions. The White House hired him anyway. After the inauguration, Flynn’s lawyers told the White House counsel’s office that the national security adviser would indeed have to move forward with that filing.

Flynn was fired in February after the White House said he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Lobbying for foreign interests is legal and lucrative. Both Republican and Democratic operatives offer their services to overseas clients. But the Justice Department requires Americans working on behalf of foreign interests to register, disclosing the nature of their work, the foreigners they dealt with and the amount of money they made.

Willful failure to register for foreign lobbying work can carry up to a five-year prison sentence, but the Justice Department rarely brings criminal charges and instead urges violators to register.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for former Trump campaign chairman Manafort said that he, too, under pressure from the Justice Department, would formally file for prior foreign lobbying. Manafort’s work for political interests in Ukraine occurred before he was hired as Trump’s campaign chairman, spokesman Jason Maloni said, though the U.S. government raised questions about his activities after he was hired by Trump.

Manafort was pushed out of Trump’s campaign in August after The Associated Press reported that his consulting firm had orchestrated a covert Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine’s ruling political party without disclosing that work to the U.S. government.

The White House did not respond to questions Wednesday about when Trump learned about Manafort’s foreign lobbying work and his discussions with the U.S. government about registering as a foreign agent.

The questions surrounding Page are perhaps the most serious. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department obtained a highly secretive warrant to monitor his communications because there was reason to believe he was working as a Russian spy.

In March, Trump personally announced Page as part of a newly minted foreign policy advisory team. But as questions began swirling about Page’s ties to Russia, the campaign started moving away from the little-known investment banker. Trump has since said he has no relationship with him.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Justice Department only obtained the warrant after the campaign distanced itself from Page.

In an interview Thursday with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Page described his affiliation with the Trump campaign as having served as “an informal member of a committee which was put together — a team of individuals who were looking at various foreign policy issues.”

Chris Ashby, a Republican elections lawyer, said that while it’s easy to blame Trump for missing red flags about his campaign advisers, it’s not always possible to dig up details that potential hires aren’t willing to disclose on their own.

“In the ideal world, you could rely on paid background checks, but you’d have to have the money and the time,” Ashby said. “The farther down the ranks you go and certainly when you reach the ranks of unpaid advisers, that becomes impractical.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Paul Manafort registering with U.S. as foreign agent

The Latest on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his firm’s work (all times local):

3:05 p.m.

President Donald Trump‘s former campaign chairman is registering as a foreign agent.

Paul Manafort’s spokesman says he was in talks with the government about registering before the 2016 election and is now “taking appropriate steps” in response to “formal guidance” from the government.

The spokesman says Manafort’s lobbying work was not conducted on behalf of the Russian government and began before Manafort started working with the Trump campaign.

It’s unclear whether Trump was aware that Manafort was in talks with the government about registering before he hired him.

Michael Flynn, who was fired as White House national security adviser in February, has also had to register as a foreign agent for lobbying work he did with ties to Turkey.

__

12:49 p.m.

A Washington lobbying firm that worked under the direction of two former Trump campaign advisers has registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. The firm said its work could have benefited the Ukrainian government.

The Podesta Group’s cited details of lobbying it performed from 2012 through 2014 on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. The firm reported being paid more than $1.2 million for the effort.

The disclosure follows reporting by the AP in August that the firm of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, who served in a senior role in the Trump campaign, had overseen the lobbying effort. The effort sought to promote a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party’s interests in Washington.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Ben Carson gets stuck in elevator on Miami housing tour

The Miami leg of U.S. Housing and Development Secretary Ben Carson‘s national listening tour started with a glitch.

Carson got briefly stuck in an elevator after a visit Wednesday to the rooftop of the Courtside Family Apartments, a complex co-developed by former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning and his non-profit AM Affordable Housing.

The Miami Herald reports that Mourning arrived a few minutes late, so Carson and Miami-Dade County Public Housing Director Michael Liu began the tour without him. They got stuck along with five other people on the way down.

The elevator descended safely but the doors were jammed, so Miami-Dade Fire Rescue crews had to pry them open. Carson smiled as he emerged from the elevator, and Mourning apologized profusely.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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