Jim Rosica – Florida Politics

Jim Rosica

Jim Rosica covers state government from Tallahassee for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

John McKay says ‘no thanks’ to Citizens board chair

John McKay, a former Florida Senate President who serves on the Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Board of Governors, said Thursday he was “misunderstood” about serving as chair.

McKay

McKay told Florida Politics he’d be “honored that anyone would consider me,” but said he has “no interest whatsoever” in chairing the panel. Citizens is the state-run insurer of last resort.

The Bradenton businessman, a Republican who served as Senate President in 2000-02, was on a list of names released by CFO Jimmy Patronis‘ office earlier this week as having expressed interest in serving as chair.

At last week’s Cabinet meeting, the state’s chief financial officer had asked Citizens CEO Barry Gilway to identify board members who’d be interested.

The current chair, now Christopher Gardner, serves at the CFO’s pleasure; Patronis can name a new person at any time.

McKay confirmed he had spoken with Gilway, but said he likely misinterpreted a joking remark he had made. He was put on the board by Patronis last year.

Also on the list is Marc Dunbar, the Tallahassee-based lawyer and gaming lobbyist, whom Patronis only recently appointed to the board.

Gardner, CEO of HUB International Insurance in Orlando, has been chair since his appointment in 2013 by former CFO Jeff Atwater. He has told Patronis he’d like to stay on as chair. Also on the list is former state Rep. Gary Aubuchon, now the vice chair of the board.

Others who “indicated that they would be interested in accepting (the chairmanship) if asked,” include James Holton, president of Holton Companies; and Freddie Schinz, founder of the TIFORP Development Corp.

Family separations bring Tallahassee’s faith community together

Tallahassee faith leaders — in oratory ranging from subdued to fiery — and others on Wednesday prayed for a permanent end to the separation of migrant families crossing the Mexico-U. S. border.

Some, including pediatric cardiologist Louis St. Petery, long outspoken on children’s issues, called it “child abuse.”

But many of the roughly 200 who attended an interfaith prayer vigil at First Presbyterian Church in the city’s downtown were cautiously optimistic about President Donald Trump‘s executive order that for now ends the policy of removing children from their parents.

That order, however, doesn’t change his ‘zero-tolerance’ policy of prosecuting adults caught illegally crossing the border.

“I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” Trump said Wednesday, according to POLITICO. “I think anybody with a heart would feel strongly about it. We don’t like to see families separated.”

Copeland

First Presbyterian Pastor Brant Copeland applauded the move but said “a great harm has already been done to thousands of families,” calling the separations “heartless cruelty” and “callous mistreatment.”

 

Added Judith Lyons, a member of Temple Israel: “I don’t trust a momentary executive order. Time will tell … In the meantime, we must do whatever we can to stop this.”

Still others commented on the practice of keeping detained families in chain-link fence cages inside facilities.

Earlier Wednesday, state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, who is Jewish, drew an analogy after he tried to visit the federal Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead.

“I came here today to remind myself that children being separated from their parents and being thrown into cages is a practice my people have experienced before,” the Broward County Democrat told reporters there.

Imam Rashid Mujahid of Masjid Al-Nahl also picked up on that theme at the vigil: “We, as Muslims, feel a great pain with this … As my Jewish brothers and sisters say, ‘never again.’ Well, it’s happening again.”

And Lee Johnson, pastor of Loved by Jesus Family Church, lit up the pulpit, telling vigil-goers, “All of us have been asleep at the wheel. We need to wake up.”

The same immigration system that works for everybody else, he said, “ought to work for them. We are our brother’s keeper.”

In an interview before the vigil, St. Petery — who publicly opposed the now-overturned 2011 “docs vs. Glocks” state law that aimed to stop doctors from asking patients about guns in their homes — said “what is happening will have a permanent effect on these kids.

“There’s already been trauma; it should have never happened in the first place,” he said. “It needs to not happen ever again. It constitutes child abuse.

“If a parent puts a kid in a cage, that’s child abuse. Our government is doing the same thing. That’s crazy.”

Former Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant, who also attended the vigil, later said she had asked Copeland to organize the event. She too said she was cheered by Trump’s about-face on the separations but was concerned about those families already torn apart getting back together.

“I, for one, don’t have a lot of confidence in the people running the show up there”— referring to Washington — “to actually care enough to get it right,” she said. “That’s one of the things to pray the most for.”

Florida retailers cheer Supreme Court online sales tax decision

The head of the trade group for the state’s retailers said Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling opening the door for online sellers to collect sales tax the same as brick-and-mortar stores is “great news.”

That’s even though Floridians already are technically supposed to pay sales tax on online purchases.

“Retailers have been adamant in seeking equity in taxation of bricks and mortar and online sales,” Florida Retail Federation President & CEO R. Scott Shalley said in a statement.

“This decision paves the way for a level playing field throughout the industry. The Florida Retail Federation looks forward to working with Florida’s legislative leaders and the Department of Revenue to ensure fair and equitable application of the law.”

“At this time, the Department is reviewing the ruling and its impact on Florida sales tax,” a Revenue spokeswoman said.

The 5-4 opinion, “threw out a precedent that had blocked online sales taxes,” Axios explained. “Online retailers likely will have to pay billions more in taxes each year. Although some large online retailers like Amazon already collect sales taxes, smaller vendors don’t.”

Floridians, however, already pay tax on streaming services like Netflix, and are supposed to pay state tax whenever they buy “tangible” things like books and DVDs but seldom do, the Tampa Tribune has reported.

“In Florida, it is the buyer’s responsibility to pay tax directly to the state; there’s actually a (form for a) separate 6 percent tax for out-of-state purchases. But almost no one pays that because it’s virtually unenforced,” the paper reported.

Estimates have varied on how much Florida would get if it captured taxes on its residents’ online purchases, from $200 million to more than $750 million.

The nation’s highest court previously had determined that out-of-state retailers who don’t have a physical presence in a state, such as a store or warehouse, couldn’t be forced to collect that state’s sales tax on purchases. That has long meant cheaper online purchases with no sales tax to pay, especially on big-ticket items.

At least six times, former state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Tallahassee had filed a bill “aimed at capturing some of the Florida sales tax lost to online retailers,” The Tribune separately reported. Those efforts died.

In a statement, Florida TaxWatch said it “enthusiastically applauds today’s Supreme Court ruling, which will (also) have a positive impact on Florida jobs. All Florida taxpayers will benefit from today’s ruling, which will bring equity and fairness to Florida’s sales and use tax.

“With the appropriate action by the Legislature and Florida Department of Revenue, not only will the state be able to collect the sales and use tax that has always been legally due, but Floridians will no longer be unknowingly breaking the law.

“Florida TaxWatch has championed the collection of sales and use tax from online and remote sellers for more than a decade, and we are proud to be on the right side of this issue. We look forward to working with state leaders as they take the necessary actions to ensure that this tax, which has been required under Florida law for decades, is collected moving forward.”

Regulators plan to keep using emergency rule on race-dog drug testing

Gambling regulators this week said they plan to keep using an emergency rule that allows them to continue testing racing greyhounds for drugs.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates gambling through its Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, posted a “notice of renewal” in Thursday’s Florida Administrative Register.

In Florida, live dog racing is still conducted at 12 tracks.

The emergency rule on “Procedures for Collecting Samples from Racing Greyhounds” was adopted late last December.

That was after an administrative law judge struck down the testing program, saying it was invalid. Thursday’s notice said a rule challenge was still pending in the Division of Administrative Hearings.

Judge Lawrence P. Stevenson barred the state from relying on a 2010 testing manual because it wasn’t properly adopted, though as one of the division’s lawyers said, “There aren’t that many ways to do urine collection.”

The emergency rule, for example, includes using “evidence tape” to seal samples and storing them in “lockable freezers” until they’re sent off for testing.

A cocaine-in-dogs controversy came to light in Jacksonville last summer. That in part spurred a constitutional amendment for the 2018 ballot to ban greyhound racing in the state.

Attorney Jeff Kottkamp, who represents the Florida Greyhound Association, has said it has “a zero-tolerance policy for anyone that would give a racing greyhound any illegal substance.” The organization advocates for the state’s race-dog owners and breeders.

Photo credit: Van Abernethy

Marc Dunbar says he’s ‘interested’ in Citizens Insurance chairmanship

Marc Dunbar, the Tallahassee-based lawyer and gaming lobbyist, has officially “expressed interest in serving as chair of the Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Board of Governors,” CFO Jimmy Patronis announced Tuesday through a spokeswoman.

Dunbar, whom Patronis only recently appointed to the board, was one of six names released by Patronis’ office. Citizens is the state-run insurer of last resort.

At last week’s Cabinet meeting, the state’s chief financial officer had asked Citizens CEO Barry Gilway to identify board members who’d be interested in stepping up to chair.

The chair, now Christopher Gardner, serves at the CFO’s pleasure; Patronis can name a new person at any time.

Gardner, CEO of HUB International Insurance in Orlando, has been chair since his appointment in 2013 by former CFO Jeff Atwater. He told Patronis he’d like to stay as chair.

Also on the list is former state Rep. Gary Aubuchon, now the vice chair of the board.

Patronis’ office also disclosed the names of three people who “indicated that they would be interested in accepting (the chairmanship) if asked”:

James Holton, president of Holton Companies.

John McKay, a former Florida Senate President.

Freddie Schinz, founder of the TIFORP Development Corp.

Feds weigh entering lawsuit over FIU bridge records

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for north Florida has told a Tallahassee judge it now “is considering participation” in a lawsuit by The Miami Herald seeking records on March’s bridge collapse at Florida International University that killed six people.

U.S. Attorney Christopher P. Canova sent a notice dated June 15 to Circuit Judge John Cooper saying federal law authorized him to “attend to the interests of the United States in (any state) lawsuit,” court records show.

The three-page document, filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew J. Grogan, says that the Herald “seek(s) to compel disclosure of certain records … (that) are the subject of a pending accident investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

“Thus, the United States may have an interest in setting forth for the court its views with respect to the pending motions and potential disclosure of information,” it says. “The United States, therefore, is actively considering whether to file a statement of interest” in the case.

Canova asked Cooper to “defer (any) rulings” until it determines whether to get involved. The feds said they would let Cooper know by next Wednesday whether they would enter the case or stay on the sidelines.

“The United States appreciates the court’s consideration of its potential interest in the information sought” by The Herald, the filing says.

The newspaper, Capital bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas, and Tallahassee correspondent Elizabeth Koh sued the state’s Department of Transportation in Leon County Circuit Civil court last month, seeking “emails, meeting minutes and other records relating to the bridge’s design and construction.”

The March 15 collapse of the recently-erected bridge, spanning Tamiami Trail and meant to connect the campus to student housing in Sweetwater, killed six midday motorists or passengers, and injured nine others. It happened “just days after cracks had been observed in the $14.3 million structure,” The Herald has reported.

In another letter reported last month, NTSB assistant general counsel Benjamin T. Allen explained to Cooper that his agency has “prohibited” FDOT from releasing certain investigative information “absent NTSB approval.”

At a hearing in the suit earlier this month, Cooper called the NTSB an “indispensable party” and declined to dismiss the lawsuit.

“He … ordered FDOT to send (a) letter asking NTSB to join the lawsuit as a party or file an amicus brief to defend its legal reasoning,” The Herald reported. If NTSB declines, Cooper added, the state will tell it “we’re going to continue the party without you.”

Canova, a former assistant prosecutor under then-State Attorney Willie Meggs in Tallahassee and a former Assistant Statewide Prosecutor in Orlando, was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida “on an interim basis in April 2016” under President Barack Obama, according to his official bio.

The Herald is represented by Sandy Bohrer, a partner in the Holland & Knight law firm in Miami and co-chair of the firm’s National Media Team.

Judge close to decision in radio system bid protest

Lawyers on Monday filed recommendations as to how an administrative law judge should rule in a bid protest over the statewide law enforcement radio system, a deal potentially worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The recommended orders from Motorola Solutions and the Department of Management Services (DMS) were filed under seal, however, meaning they are unavailable for public view.

Another filed by Harris Corp. was turned in with redactions, citing the need to protect confidential information, such as trade secrets.

Attorneys argued the case last month before Administrative Law Judge J. Bruce Culpepper in Tallahassee.

Harris’ attorney raised the issue of radio towers and how their quantity and quality of service is paramount to officer and public safety. But Motorola’s legal counsel said his client’s superiority in communications technology essentially means the company can do more with less.

Culpepper’s request for recommended orders signals he’s likely close to a decision. His recommended order goes to DMS Secretary Erin Rock, who can adopt it, modify it, or reject it entirely. Any further challenge would go to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Melbourne-based Harris had challenged the award to Motorola this March to take over the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System, or SLERS, which Harris had since September 2000 and lost.

As we previously reported, “The awarding of the new contract concluded almost three years of bureaucratic and legislative infighting, with some lawmakers — often benefiting from political contributions — backing one side over the other.”

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Ed. Note — An earlier version of this post appeared in Monday night’s “Last Call” newsletter.

Appellate court puts hold on smokable medical marijuana

An appellate court has shot down a trial judge’s order to make immediate her ruling that medical marijuana can be smoked in Florida.

The 1st District Court of Appeal, in a one-page order dated Monday, quashed Circuit Judge Karen Gievers‘ order allowing patients to smoke

The state’s appeal of the decision placed an automatic ‘stay,’ or hold, on the ruling pending review. Gievers’ order lifted that stay.

“The stay provided for by (the) Florida Rule(s) of Appellate Procedure … shall remain in effect pending final disposition of the merits of this appeal,” the appellate court’s Monday order said. “An opinion setting forth this Court’s reasoning will issue at a later date.”

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Health had said the agency is reviewing the ruling and “working every day to implement the law.” Smoking was banned by lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott in an implementing bill passed last year for the 2016 constitutional amendment approving medical marijuana. 

The agency said medical marijuana is still available to patients — though not in smoking form. It regulates the drug through its Office of Medical Marijuana Use.

Meantime, attorneys for plaintiffs in the smoking case and for Joe Redner — the Tampa strip club mogul who won a decision allowing him to grow and juice his own medical marijuana — have asked the state’s Supreme Court to take over the appeals.

John Morgan, the Orlando attorney behind the constitutional amendment, also organized the smoking lawsuit. He has called on Republican Gov. Rick Scott, now running for U.S. Senate, to drop further court challenges of Gievers’ ruling.

She previously found “there is no likelihood of success” by the state on appeal.

The governor “is wasting taxpayers’ money on this frivolous appeal while veterans, cops, firefighters (with PTSD) and really sick people suffer,” Morgan said in a statement. “This callous meanness has no room in Florida. This act of cruelty will cost him the Senate seat.”

The department also reported last Friday that the state had surpassed 100,000 people with an approved medical marijuana patient identification card, but a spokesman said that would not trigger the issuance of another four licenses for marijuana providers under state law.

That “was everyone’s expectation and assumption,” Jeff Sharkey, founder of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida, said last week. “I think there will probably be more than a little disappointment over this.”

State investigating ‘possible’ criminal breach of driver’s license info

Agents are “investigating possible improper use of personal identifying information” of the state’s licensed drivers put online by a Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) vendor, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman confirmed to Florida Politics on Friday. 

Roughly 17 million people hold a Florida driver’s license.

Spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said FDLE agents in Tallahassee — including the agency’s Cyber Crime Squad — were working the case, which she said falls under the “active” criminal investigation exemption to the state’s public record law. Plessinger declined further comment, including how many Floridians’ personal data was misused, if any.

“Criminal investigative information shall be considered ‘active’ as long as it is related to an ongoing investigation which is continuing with a reasonable, good faith anticipation of securing an arrest or prosecution in the foreseeable future,” state law says.

The same vendor now at issue, Unisoft Communications of Miami, had previously been flagged in 2016 — about a year before the DHSMV agreed to a new contract — for posting the personal information from two individuals’ driving records, records show

Friday’s news highlights the growing concern over the security of personal information. On the retail side alone, Business Insider reported in April that “at least 14 separate security breaches occurred (since) January 2017 … many of them caused by flaws in payment systems, either online or in stores.”

In a media availability for his U.S. Senate campaign in Jacksonville Friday, Gov. Rick Scott said the state “has to do everything we possibly can to make sure your personal information is always secure.” Scott oversees the DHSMV.

“That is my expectation of all state agencies,” added Scott, a Naples Republican. “I will do everything I can to make sure people’s information is secure.”

Later in the day, CFO Jimmy Patronis‘ spokeswoman issued a related statement, claiming he was a victim of driving info “identity theft” because of the Unisoft breach.

Florida Politics reported last month that, unknown to him at the time, Patronis had his driver’s license suspended for nearly a year because of an apparent glitch in how the DHSMV tracks and responds to changes in drivers’ insurance coverage.

“We are pleased to hear that the recent identity theft that targeted driving records of CFO Patronis is being criminally investigated,” spokeswoman Anna Alexopoulos Farrar said.

“Our department is working with all those who are investigating this matter to provide any information they may need. The CFO has already taken extra measures to secure his personal information from future criminal attempts to misuse it.” 

In the context of state driver’s licenses, federal law defines “personal information” as “an individual’s photograph, social security number, driver identification number, name, address (but not the 5-digit ZIP code), telephone number, and medical or disability information.”

It “does not include information on vehicular accidents, driving violations, and driver’s status.”

Rep. Jamie Grant, a Tampa-area Republican and tech entrepreneur, tweeted Friday: “Having had my identity stolen and my identity posted online, this is no joke.

“If a company was selling or providing personally identifiable data, … we need answers. And now.”

DHSMV records, provided through a public records request, show that what should have been otherwise private information was made available online by Unisoft, the company that had contracted with the department, which has since pulled the plug on the deal.

A call to Unisoft President Hugo Montiel Jr. has not yet been returned.

In a statement, DHSMV spokeswoman Beth Frady added that “customer safety and security is the department’s top priority.”

“At this time, the department has not granted Unisoft Communications, Inc.’s request for a corrective action plan and we are currently coordinating with (FDLE) as part of an ongoing criminal investigation,” she said. “As such, Unisoft Communications Inc.’s MOU (memorandum of agreement) for data exchange remains terminated at this time.”

Frady also downplayed concerns of a “widespread data breach,” saying the latest investigation was triggered by “a record (that) had potentially been improperly obtained.” She did not confirm that that record was Patronis’ information.

Unisoft and DHSMV inked a three-year deal last July to get “electronic access” to driver’s license and motor vehicle information, with the agreement it wouldn’t share any “unauthorized” information from the department’s database. It’s not clear for how long after that the restricted information has been available from Unisoft.

The main goal was to offer information to insurance concerns “for the purpose of underwriting and rating,” according to a May 25 letter to DHSMV from Montiel after the breach was discovered.

The day before, Stephanie Duhart — DHSMV’s chief of motorist records — had told Montiel the department was “terminating” the contract because information “contain(ing) personal identifying information protected under” the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act was found on a Unisoft website. 

That info could be bought through the website by “only providing” someone’s driver’s license number, the letter said. But that would mean “someone other than themselves could easily obtain protected information,” Duhart wrote.

Duhart concluded Unisoft “does not have appropriate safeguards in place to protect and maintain the confidentiality and security of the data….”

In response, Montiel wrote back to Duhart to admit “an honest oversight on our part and we acknowledge our error.” He said he had deactivated its website, mydrivingreport.com. (Efforts to access the site received a “404 error” message on Friday.)

He also proposed several corrective measures, such as establishing an “internal control process,” all of which the department has so far turned down.

“We have been authorized … in the state for over 20 years and have had an excellent record of safeguarding sensitive data,” Montiel wrote.

But in May 2016, another DHSMV official had alerted Montiel of “personal information being displayed on the internet,” according to records released by the department. He confirmed in a letter dated the next month that “2 records were compromised” and disabled that information from appearing online.

Montiel also said his company told the affected drivers of the data breach affecting them and “secured all folders” containing drivers’ personal information to prevent it from happening again.

In another statement from DHSMV, the agency said that “customers with concerns regarding the dissemination of their information in accordance with state and federal law … may complete a complaint form and federal law allows for any injured party to sue for damages in federal court.”

The department “works with its national and state partners, including the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) to communicate learned best practices. When appropriate, the department will report suspected misuse to other states or the Department of Justice.”

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Jacksonville correspondent A.G. Gancarski contributed to this post.

State tops 100,000 marijuana patients — but no more providers

Florida now has topped 100,000 “active” and “qualified” patients in its medical marijuana use registry, the Department of Health announced in an email Friday.

But again, according to a department spokesman, that doesn’t mean the department will issue another four licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana, as provided under state law.

The state had exceeded 100,000 overall almost two months ago — coincidentally on April 20, or 4/20 — in its medical marijuana use registry. Friday’s mark of 100,372 refers specifically to those that have an approved patient identification card application.

“That figure does not completely reflect an actual threshold that would trigger the new licenses,” spokesman Devin Galleta said in a phone interview Friday. “Once we do have the ability to approve new licenses, we do expect there to be four new licenses available at that time.”

The latest 100,000-plus tally covers “all applications approved over time,” Galleta explained, including “renewals and nonactive patients, so that doesn’t necessarily reflect the true number of active and qualified patients in the registry.”

But exceeding 100,000 approved ID cards to trigger extra licenses “was everyone’s expectation and assumption,” said Jeff Sharkey, founder of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida. “I think there will probably be more than a little disappointment over this.”

State law says within six months of cracking the 100,000 mark, “the department shall license four additional medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTCs).” With every additional 100,000 patients, another four licenses have to issue.

Those patients, however, have to be “active” and “qualified.” That means “a resident of this state who has been added to the medical marijuana use registry by a qualified physician to receive marijuana or a marijuana delivery device for a medical use, and who has a qualified patient identification card.”

As the department’s own disclaimer says, “Not all patients entered into the medical marijuana use registry apply for medical marijuana use identification cards.”

When asked when the number of patients would trigger the issuance of additional licenses, Galleta said he “was not certain on that,” but would seek clarification from the department’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use (OMMU), which regulates the drug.

Added Sharkey: “I agree it would be good to know what that number is. I believe (having over 100,000 approved ID cards) is what most legislators thought would trigger new licenses.”

Approved MMTCs currently number 13, with 43 retail locations across the state, records show.

With a lack of new licenses, businesses seeking to get into the medicinal cannabis market in Florida will likely take to buying licenses from existing providers.

Earlier this month, MedMen Enterprises Inc. of Los Angeles, the country’s biggest medical marijuana provider, said it had agreed to pay $53 million for a license from Central Florida’s Treadwell Nursery.

Others, such as Louis Del Favero Orchids — a Tampa orchid nursery — are seeking to use a provision in state law that gives preference in granting licenses to companies with underused or shuttered citrus factories. That was part of legislation that implemented the 2016 constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana in the state.

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