Ana Ceballos, Author at Florida Politics - Page 5 of 9

Ana Ceballos

Ana covers politics and policy for Florida Politics.

Before joining Florida Politics, she was the legislative relief reporter for The Associated Press and covered policy issues impacting immigration, the environment, criminal justice and social welfare in Florida.

She holds a B.A. in journalism from San Diego State University. After graduating in 2014, she worked as a criminal justice reporter for the Monterey Herald and the Monterey County Weekly. She has also freelanced for The Washington Post at the U.S.-Mexico border covering crime in the border city of Tijuana, where she grew up. Ana is fluent in Spanish and has intermediate proficiency in Portuguese.

Richard Corcoran wants Congress to end its ‘perverse hush fund’

House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants Congress to put an end to a “perverse hush fund” that has been used over the years to settle sexual harassment claims.

The Land O’Lakes Republican sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan on Monday in response to reports that the Office of Compliance has used $17 million from a fund it manages to make sexual harassment claims of more than 250 Congressional members go away.

“I ask you to please bring a swift end to this perverse hush fund — it is not only the right thing to do, but it is also a needed step toward regaining the trust of the taxpayers,” Corcoran said.

While Corcoran has not yet announced a bid for governor, it is widely speculated he will enter the race after Session, and he may be capitalizing on this request because no Florida House members have yet been accused of sexual harassment.

“Congress should follow the lead of the Florida House in making it easier for victims to be heard,” he said.

But in his letter, Corcoran said the state is not “without fault” when it comes to sexual harassment and said he has “deep gratitude and admiration” for the women who have shared the harrowing accounts.

Narrowing the scope to Florida, numerous women have come forward within the past month, accusing powerful senators and the leader of the Florida Democratic Party, Stephen Bittel, of sexual harassment. So far two have resigned, Sen. Jeff Clemens and Bittel.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, is currently under investigation by the Senate in light of six unnamed women accusing him of sexually harassing and groping them.

The Senate sexual harassment policy is currently under review.

State keeps fighting for suspended law requiring 24-hour abortion waiting periods

As the state continued its fight to keep a law requiring women to see a doctor and wait 24 hours before getting an abortion on Tuesday, its latest argument included the comparison that if there are waiting periods for cremations and divorces, abortions should have them too.

As it stands now, women do not have to follow the 2015 state law, which was signed by Gov. Rick Scott, because it was indefinitely suspended by the state Supreme Court.

But a lawsuit brought forth by the American Civil Liberties Union remains pending in Leon County.

The ACLU of Florida wants Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis to strike down the law completely and deem it unconstitutional, arguing the state’s “paternalistic argument” that women are not capable of making a decision for themselves when they seek the procedure is offensive and should not stand.

Blaine Winship, an attorney with the office of the Attorney General, said that requiring women to come for an in-person consultation revolves around the ultrasound. If women see what’s growing in their uterus, he said, it “can make a lot of difference.”  He added that the 24-hour period is to make sure women have time to make an informed decision.

“We are not here to bully them one way or the other,” Winship said. “This was put in place not out of hostility, but out of concern.”

The ACLU’s attorney, Julia Kaye, said the evidence the state presented to defend the controversial law is “legally irrelevant,” and insisted it should be thrown out.

Following the arguments, Lewis asked both attorneys to submit their final proposals so he can take them into consideration before making a final decision.

Stephen Bittel intends to stay as Miami-Dade committeeman until successor is elected

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel resigned in shame for sexual misconduct in the workplace, but he intends to stay as Miami-Dade County’s state committeeman until his successor is elected.

As a committeeman, Bittel has significant power in elections. He gets 62 votes toward choosing the next leader of the state party — the most votes from any other member, except for Miami-Dade State Committeewoman Francesca Menes, who also has 62 votes.

Since Bittel expressed intent to keep his seat during the election — and can’t be forced out of his post — members of the People’s Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade said it was of the “utmost urgency” to replace him to make sure the election was a fair representation of the county.

To put members at ease, the voting strategy is being shuffled.

Juan Cuba, the chairman of the Miami-Dade Democrats, will now cast the former state leader’s 62 votes, per Bittel’s request. Cuba said he is also asking members to vote their preference for the next chair electronically. His vote will be based on what the majority of the membership wants, Cuba said.

“My expectation is that voting will be open on Dec. 8 for a certain time period,” Cuba said.

In an email, Cuba said the ousted chairman “intends to step down as State Committeeman on Dec. 10” — a day after the election for the next chair. Before the millionaire South Miami developer submitted his official letter of resignation late Monday night, a date was also set for a special election to choose a new state committeeman and a treasurer

Some party members say it is evident Bittel delayed his resignation, which was announced Friday following reports that he was “creepy” and “demeaning” toward women in the workplace,” to make sure he had a say in who gets to steer the ship next.

Jack Latvala now knows accuser’s name, agrees to keep it secret

Sen. Jack Latvala has learned the name of the woman formally accusing him of sexual harassment, but he and his legal team agreed to respect her anonymity after striking a deal with investigators.

The special master investigating the Senate Rules Committee complaint handed a copy to the Clearwater Republican’s attorneys late last week in exchange for keeping the accuser’s name and her claims confidential as the probe moves forward.

“We know who the complainant is and we are hopeful the special master won’t find probable cause,” said Steve Andrews, one of Latvala’s attorneys.

Under Senate rules, when a filing complaint, a special master is hired to conduct an investigation, sift through evidence and determine whether a punishment is appropriate.

The rules complaint is only one element of the Latvala investigation.

Senate President Joe Negron first opened an independent investigation into the harassment claims following a POLITICO Florida report. Tampa-based attorney Gail Holtzman is leading that portion, and Negron has also retained attorneys from the GrayRobinson law firm to represent his chamber.

The woman, only identified as a Senate staff member, created a separate investigation when she filed a rules complaint, which is presided over by a special master, retired 1st District Court of Appeal Judge Ronald V. Swanson.

The separate track has given Andrews some concern.

“We are concerned that there is a double jeopardy with two separate independent investigations going on,” Andrews said.

John “Mac” Stipanovich, a lobbyist who has worked in Tallahassee for more than 30 years, said he does not recall seeing a case such as the one Latvala faces.

And while the attorneys of both Latvala and his accuser have agreed to the Senate’s confidentiality terms, he added that in Tallahassee — a “petri dish for rumors” — not much can remain secret.

“Tallahassee is a very small town, and in this particular case ‘anonymous’ and ‘unpublished’ does not mean it is unknown,” said Stipanovich, with the Tallahassee office of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

Sally Boynton Brown resigns Florida Dems presidency

In a message to Florida Democratic Party leaders, embattled Sally Boynton Brown resigned her presidency — after “prayerful consideration”  effective immediately.

“The people of the Democratic Party are our greatest asset,” Boynton Brown wrote Monday afternoon, “and I hope you never forget the power you have to make real change happen every day with your actions.”

Boynton Brown added that staff “has been put through so much” and urged the leaders on the email to “follow my lead and put them above all else as you move forward.”

Boynton Brown is the latest domino to fall in the FDP hierarchy, following the swift resignation of FDP Chair Stephen Bittel — who was called “creepy” and “demeaning” toward women by anonymous sources.

Her abrupt resignation came as a surprise to several staffers, who on Monday morning thought she would keep her job despite coming under fire over the weekend for defending Bittel in a letter and being accused by two former staffers of “enabling” his misconduct toward women in the workplace, as Ana Ceballos reported Sunday on this site.

The systematic misconduct the women described included Bittel asking them about their sex lives on a daily basis and asking them if they had a lot of sex at their young age. The women were in their 20s.

“He would do it in front of Sally,” one woman told Ceballos. “He was really into talking about sex, and if you went along with his conversations, he would be more amicable to working with you.”

Ceballos’ reporting also exposed a letter to party members that clearly raised more questions than it answered.

“In my experience, Chairman Bittel has been refreshingly open to feedback, given by myself and others, about his conversational style and modified his approached when he learned that others found it off-putting.” Boynton Brown wrote.

The letter opened Boynton Brown to criticism from fellow Democrats who said the message was “self-serving.”

Boynton Brown’s own phrasings about sexual harassment — a major issue in light of resigned Florida state Sen. Jeff Clemens and embattled Sen. Jack Latvala, who has been accused of sexually harassing and groping six women — were noteworthy also, with the arguable nadir being a reference to “sexy harassment” in a Nov. 12 memo to staff to go over the personnel policy.

Meanwhile, the FDP is in apparent disarray, with a chair election and a presidency that both need filling, even as the all-important 2018 campaign season nears. Palm Beach County Democratic Chair Terrie Rizzo announced Monday her bid to be the new chair hours after Judy Mount, who will act as interim chair until a replacement is elected Dec. 9, said she reconsidered and will not be running for the post.

After Boyton Brown announced her abrupt departure, Bittel accelerated his resignation, making it official by the end of Monday.

Ana Ceballos contributed to this post.

Cost of Thanksgiving dinner hits lowest point in five years

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, there’s one more thing people can be thankful for this year: the price of a Thanksgiving meal is the most affordable it’s been in five years.

This year’s meal will cost below $5 per person, considering the average cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people is estimated at $49.12, according to the annual price survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The cost of the meal is down 75 cents from the 2016 average. And this year, the average cost for a whole bird is $22.38.

“Wholesale turkey prices are at their lowest level since 2013, and given that the turkey represent nearly 50 percent of the basket’s total, it’s the biggest factor driving the price decline,” said John Newton, the director of market intelligence at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The American Farm Bureau Federation started its Thanksgiving dinner survey in 1986.

In spite of Hurricane Irma, robust holiday spending is expected

Even as some Floridians cut back on spending this holiday season because of unforeseen costs brought by Hurricane Irma, overall holiday spending across the state is expected to increase, according to an annual study conducted by the Florida Retail Federation.

Shoppers are expected to spend an average of $967 on gifts, breaking down to people spending an average of $608 on gifts for family, friends and coworkers, $218 on decorations for the holiday season and $141 on gifts for themselves.

“Hurricane Irma hit our state extremely hard … and we factored in this impact in our forecast, but we feel the overall strength in the economy and the incredible recovery efforts that have taken place will help lessen the impact on retail sales this holiday season,” Scott Shalley, the president of FRF, said.

Buoyed by a boost in the economy and millennials splurging on gifts, total spending in the state is expected to reach $678 billion, up from $655 billion last year.

The spike in spending could also be due to the fact that 40 percent of Floridians started their holiday shopping early — as soon as Halloween. Nearly 30 percent of shoppers are expected to be done holiday shopping by the time Black Friday rolls in.

Judy Mount will not run to be Florida Democratic Party chair

Judy Mount, who was tapped to temporarily serve as chair for the Florida Democratic Party following Stephen Bittel‘s abrupt departure, had eyed a run to be the permanent chair but on Monday she said she reconsidered and won’t be seeking that post.

“I have always supported the Florida Democratic Party, its candidates and the causes so important to all of us true blue Democrats. I will continue to do so, just not as the next elected Chair,” Mount said.

Mount was serving as vice chair when Bittel, the leader of the state’s party, stepped down in shame in the wake of a POLITICO Florida report that has six unnamed women call his behavior “creepy” and “demeaning” toward women in the workplace.

Two former party staffers, both women in their 20s, told Florida Politics that Bittel would systematically talk about sex at work. That included asking individual women directly about their sex lives or suggesting they had a lot of sex because of they were young.

The women also accused the state party’s president, Sally Boynton Brown, of enabling Bittel’s misconduct, adding she would entertain those conversations at times.

“I said on Friday the focus was not on me. That’s true,” Mount said.  “The focus is on advancing the causes and candidates of the Florida Democratic Party, moving forward and winning in 2018.”

Mount said she would support whomever is elected chair on Dec. 9.

Visit Florida reports record nine-month tourism numbers

Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday a state tourism record, attributing it in part to the “aggressive marketing efforts” of VISIT FLORIDA, which has been entangled in a political fight for its existence, largely funded by taxpayers.

Scott said the state welcomed 88.2 million tourists in the first nine months of the year, which is a 3.3 percent increase over the 85.4 million visitors that came to the state in that same time period last year.

The largest chunk of tourism came from the 77.6 million domestic visitors, 7.9 million were overseas visitors and 2.7 million Canadians traveled to the Sunshine State.

Scott lauded the state’s three record quarters this year and said it would not have been possible without the “relentless work to market Florida as a top tourism destination.”

“That includes VISIT FLORIDA’s aggressive marketing efforts to make sure families across the world knew that Florida was open for tourism following Hurricane Irma,” Scott said.

In his proposed state budget for 2018-19, Scott wants the Legislature to invest $100 million in the state tourism agency to make sure the state continues to “break tourism records.”

VISIT FLORIDA got full funding last Session, which was a total of $76 million. That funding came after a fight between Scott and House GOP leaders, who tried to zero-out funding for the program. They eventually agreed to fund the program in return for new transparency language now in place.

Florida Democratic Party president accused of ‘enabling’ chair’s inappropriate behavior

As Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel resigns in disgrace, the state party’s president, Sally Boynton Brown, came short of defending his inappropriate behavior toward women by saying she never experienced it and that she was “heartbroken” women did not feel comfortable coming to her with complaints.

But two former staffers, who asked Florida Politics to not identify them for fear of getting a bad reputation in the political process, said Brown was well-aware of Bittel’s systematic workplace misconduct, which included him asking women about their sex lives on a daily basis. The former staffers said Brown enabled his behavior.

“He would do it in front of Sally,” one woman said. “He was really into talking about sex, and if you went along with his conversations he would be more amicable to working with you.”

The women, who are in their 20s, said it was their impression that Bittel’s behavior worsened after she took the job in May because she allowed it to go on.

“He would say, ‘at your age you must be having lots of sex,'” one woman said. “He was very systematic with this and he would only say it in front of women.”

In a letter to party members, though, Brown said she never experienced it and that he always treated her as a “full-partner.”

“In my experience, Chairman Bittel has been refreshingly open to feedback, given by myself and others, about his conversational style and modified his approached when he learned that others found it off-putting.” Brown said in a letter to party members.

The women said they were upset when they read Brown’s letter because she put the responsibility on victims to come forward when she knew about the misconduct as a top staffer and did nothing about it.

“She is trying to cover her ass (with the letter) and it is disgusting,” one woman said.

The other woman said it was only a matter of time before Brown was criticized for the letter because her saying she never witnessed his misconduct was “obviously not true.”

In the letter, Brown said the state party’s sexual harassment policy has been under review for the past few month and that efforts to change the “culture” at the Florida Democratic Party have been ongoing.

Moving forward she is suggesting hiring a personnel director to oversee staffing manners, updating the sexual harassment policy to include “all types of bullying and harassment,” and employ a third-party personnel committee for harassment reporting purposes.

Her recommendations to improve the state party’s sexual harassment policy and culture are a stark contrast to her approach in a Nov. 12 memo to staff, where she wrote “sexy harassment” instead of sexual harassment when going over a staff retreat schedule to do an overview of the personnel policy.

Bittel’s abrupt departure comes at a time of turmoil at the state Capitol, as he and two other lawmakers — Sen. Jack Latvala and Jeff Clemenshave recently been accused of acting inappropriately toward women in the legislative process.

Latvala, who has been accused of sexually harassment and groping by six unnamed women in a POLITICO Florida report, has said there is a political overtone to the claims. Brown is saying the same in the wake of Bittel being criticized.

As Bittel resigns in shame, one thing has been apparent as elected officials condemned his behavior: it was along party lines, only no Republican chimed in. All four Democrats running for governor called for his resignation, and Democrats in both Congress and the state Legislature, however, called his behavior disgusting and said it was good for the party to have him step down.

“I am dismayed to hear people piling on and making this into a political fight or sensationalizing these women’s very tragic experiences instead of demanding justice and solutions to ensure no women has these stories to tell again,” Brown said in the letter.

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