Jim Rosica – Page 5 – 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.

Technology, towers at issue in state radio system bid protest

Motorola’s bid for a statewide law enforcement radio system is based on an “unknown design,” one that “no one knows what it’s going to look like” and that it “may never be able to deliver,” an attorney for Harris Corp. told an administrative law judge Tuesday.

Furthermore, the state’s decision to go with Motorola is “based on an unspecified and unknown true price,” Holland & Knight attorney Karen Walker said — referring to a deal worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lawyers delivered opening statements in a bid protest before Administrative Law Judge J. Bruce Culpepper in Tallahassee.

The Melbourne-based Harris is challenging the Department of Management Services‘ (DMS) award to Motorola Solutions this March to take over the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System, or SLERS, which Harris had since September 2000 and lost.

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.

“This is not just any type of procurement,” Walker said in her opening. “This is not a procurement for office supplies (or) contract management services (or) affordable housing … This is for a system that thousands of law enforcement officers throughout the entire state of Florida will use.”

SLERS is “a single, unified digital radio network that meets the radio voice communications needs of state law enforcement officers and other participating agencies throughout the state,” according to the DMS website. “The current system serves over 20,500 radios in patrol cars, boats, motorcycles and aircraft throughout the state.”

Walker also raised the issue of radio towers and how their quantity and quality of service is paramount to officer and public safety.

But Motorola attorney W. Robert Vezina III later told Culpepper that Motorola’s superiority in communications technology essentially means the company can do more with less.

At a courtroom whiteboard, Vezina sketched out the general terms of the bids: Harris, with 190 towers or sites, offered to charge the state $978 million, while Motorola bid $688 million and has 144 towers or sites.

“The state knows what it’s buying; the state knows what it’s paying,” said Vezina, of the law firm of Vezina, Lawrence & Piscitelli.

And Joseph Goldstein, an attorney with the Shutts & Bowen firm who represents DMS, told Culpepper that among “the handful of providers in this industry, DMS got this right.”

Goldstein also faulted Harris for “never once” during the “countless hours” of the bidding process saying they had concerns about  the DMS negotiators understanding the technical terms of the deal.

“To go through the whole process … when they were face-to-face with these people” means they shouldn’t have a valid case now, Goldstein said. “These were high-level people,” he added, referring to DMS staff.

Witnesses were expected before Culpepper Tuesday afternoon, with the proceeding scheduled through the end of the week.

Lawmakers fire another warning shot over medical marijuana rules

A legislative panel is again taking the state’s medical marijuana regulators to task, asking whether they are “refusing to modify the rules” governing the drug.

Kenneth Plante, coordinator of the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee (JAPC), fired off a letter Tuesday to Department of Health general counsel Nichole Geary.

In it, he said the department’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use had failed to address the committee’s prior objections in its proposed rules issued May 1.

“Was this an oversight, or is the Department now taking the position that it is refusing to modify the rules?” Plante wrote.    

Among other things, medicinal cannabis regulators didn’t respond to objections earlier this year over a $60,000 “nonrefundable application fee” to become a marijuana provider, and a provision for “contingent” licenses, saying they weren’t in state law.

“I think it is fair to say that the Department’s failure to address the Committee’s objections … is not indicative of a good faith effort” to work with lawmakers, Plante wrote.

The letter was copied to Sen. Kevin Rader, the Delray Beach Democrat who chairs the committee; Health Secretary and state Surgeon General Celeste Philip and Office of Medical Marijuana Use director Christian Bax.

“The department is reviewing the letter received today,” Health Department spokesman Devin Galetta said Tuesday. “We are committed to pushing forward with the additional licenses and look forward to working with JAPC to finalize these rules as quickly as possible in order to meet our goals.”

The committee, which ensures that agencies write rules that line up with statutes passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, has previously had problems with medical marijuana rulemaking.

Lawmakers have been upset for months, mainly over what they call the department’s slow-going in implementing medical marijuana under a 2016 constitutional amendment that voters passed by 71 percent.

Lawmakers later approved and Gov. Rick Scott signed an implementing bill, which gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.

At a meeting this February, the committee formally approved 17 individual objections, including the ones mentioned, and listed more than 40 distinct operations violations “with no standards or guidance … , thereby vesting unbridled discretion in the Department.”

The committee had also sent 15 letters to the department since October giving Health officials a heads-up as to concerns—to be met with no response.

“Our responses are a collaborative process between leadership, legal and policy,” Bax said at that meeting. “We think it’s appropriate to give these objections the time and consideration they’re due … We’ll respond in good time.”

The Legislature also included a provision in the 2018-19 state budget that freezes a portion of salaries and benefits for the department’s brass, including Philip and Bax, until they get a move on in writing new rules.

Pay up: Joe Redner seeks costs after winning ‘home grow’ lawsuit

Joe Redner now wants a court to order the state to reimburse his legal costs — including $16,000 for PowerPoint presentations — after he won a lawsuit to start growing and juicing his own medical marijuana.

The Tampa strip club mogul last week filed a motion with Circuit Judge Karen Gievers, seeking more than $45,000 to pay for court fees, transcripts, and travel and lodging, among other things. 

The PowerPoint displays used at trial should be reimbursable, attorney Luke Lirot argued in the motion, because they “were admitted into evidence.”

“All requested costs are within reasonable bounds,” he added.

In a decision now under appeal, Gievers last month ruled that Redner — a 77-year-old lung cancer survivor — has an immediate right to ‘home grow.’ 

His doctors say juiced marijuana is the best way to keep Redner’s cancer in remission. The owner of the Mons Venus nightclub also is a vegan.

Gievers’ order limits Redner to no more than eight ounces or raw marijuana daily, based on his doctors’ recommendations. It applies only to Redner and allows him to “possess, grow and use marijuana” only for juicing.

The 1st District Court of Appeal later reinstated a delay of the effect of the ruling while the case is under review there. Redner has asked that court to expedite the appeal.

The Department of Health regulates medicinal cannabis through its Office of Medical Marijuana Use. Spokesman Devin Galetta again on Monday said the agency “fully expects Judge Giever’s ruling to be reversed on appeal.” 

NTSB confirms local, federal criminal investigation into FIU bridge collapse

A lawyer for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has told a Tallahassee judge that “at least two federal agencies” and Miami-Dade police are pursuing criminal investigations into March’s collapse of a pedestrian bridge at the Florida International University campus.

The disclosure came in a letter sent this week to Circuit Judge John Cooper, who’s presiding over a public-records lawsuit filed Wednesday against the state Department of Transportation (FDOT) by The Miami Herald newspaper, Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas and capital reporter Elizabeth Koh.

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.

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

“The bridge collapse is also the subject of multiple other ongoing investigations,” Allen wrote, including “federal criminal investigations … by at least two federal agencies, several federal regulatory investigations, and a criminal investigation … by the Miami-Dade Police Department.”

The letter did not name the federal agencies involved.

Allen further said he spoke with the Herald’s attorney, Scott D. Ponce, a partner in the Holland & Knight law firm’s Miami office, to explain that “restrictions” on information about the collapse are “temporary” and will be lifted once the investigations are completed.

Ponce did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

“The agency would not be serving the families affected by this investigation … if it failed to follow its mandate to complete a thorough investigation,” Allen wrote.

An NTSB regulation, which Allen referred to in his letter, bans “parties … from releasing information obtained during an investigation at any time prior to the NTSB’s public release of information.”

He added: “If investigative information is released prematurely, it can lead to witnesses refusing to talk to us, changing their stories, or potentially destroying evidence.

“We have also found that premature public disclosure results in reduced cooperation by parties to the investigation because suddenly they are focused on public relations concerns and responding to erroneous information in the press, rather than diligently assisting our investigation to understand the causes of the accident.

“Based upon experience,” Allen wrote, “the Board’s message is delivered best when it is delivered first and with the completed investigation supporting it.”

Requests for comment to FDOT and NTSB spokesmen were pending late Friday.

State settles lawsuit by worker fired after ‘all caps’ email

A former employee of state Insurance Consumer Advocate Sha’Ron James has settled her wrongful termination lawsuit after a mediation conference, court dockets show.

Camille Rawls had said she was fired for, among other things, “sending James an email in all capital letters.”

A spokeswoman for state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, to whom James reports, on Friday released the terms of the settlement. It shows Rawls was paid $11,000 in compensatory damages and $11,500 in back pay.

Former CFO Jeff Atwater appointed James as the state’s Insurance Consumer Advocate in August 2015, after which Rawls said her troubles began.

She had started in the Office of Insurance Consumer Advocate in 2007 as an executive assistant, and rose to a “government analyst,” after working 17 years for the House of Representatives.

A complaint in a lawsuit tells one side of a story, but James allegedly told Rawls that she “should have known (that’s) ‘the same as yelling at someone in person,’ ” according to the lawsuit Rawls filed in Leon County Circuit Civil court.

That’s despite Rawls saying she had received “exemplary performance reviews, bonuses, and numerous accolades.”

But James also raised concerns about Rawls’ “professionalism, attention to detail, and timeliness,” the suit said, which added she was eventually replaced “by a younger person.” (Rawls was 64 when she filed suit in 2016.)

She said she was the victim of age discrimination under the Florida Civil Rights Act, and sought damages of over $15,000, as well as back and future pay.

“The role of Florida’s Insurance Consumer Advocate is to independently and ardently represent the needs of policyholders when insurance decisions are made,” according to its website.

Circuit Judge Karen Gievers presided over the case. Rawls was represented by Chipley attorney Elizabeth Peskin, who received $15,000 in fees through the settlement.

“The last straw that broke the camel’s back was not the only straw that broke the camel’s back,” Peskin wrote in a brief. “(But Rawls’) age was at least the ‘last straw’ that caused (her) termination.”

Amendment 1 lawsuit still moving toward trial

As a May 25 deadline to complete discovery approaches, depositions continue in a lawsuit over how the state funds environmental conservation. 

Court dockets viewed Friday show a flurry of notices filed late last month for what are called “depositions duces tecum,” which compel witnesses to produce documents and be interviewed before a trial.

Environmental advocacy groups filed suit in Leon County in 2015 over the Water and Land Legacy Amendment, also known as Amendment 1. The constitutional change mandates state spending for land and water conservation.

The amendment, which needed a minimum of 60 percent to pass, got a landslide in the 2014 election of nearly 75 percent, or more than 4.2 million “yes” votes.

Amendment 1 requires state officials to set aside 33 percent of the money from the real estate “documentary stamp” tax to protect Florida’s environmentally sensitive areas for 20 years.

But advocates — including the Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club — sued the state, saying lawmakers wrongly appropriated money for, among other things, “salaries and ordinary expenses of state agencies” tasked with executing the amendment’s mandate.

Named defendants include the Legislature, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the Department of Environmental Protection.

Circuit Judge Charles Dodson scheduled a weeklong bench trial in Tallahassee for July 23-27, with a pretrial conference set for June 15, records show.

Joe Negron to leave Senate early

Senate President Joe Negron tendered his resignation from elected office to Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday, to be effective Nov. 6, “the same day his term as Senate President ends.”

Despite his current and final term not ending till 2020, Negron had telegraphed his decision his recent months in ‘exit interviews’ he gave to state news media, including Florida Politics. He was last elected in 2016.

“I have always been a big believer in term limits,” the Stuart Republican said in a statement. “I have had the privilege of representing the Treasure Coast and parts of Palm Beach County in the Florida Senate for nine years.

“The way I see it, I actually received an extra year because I came to the Senate in a Special Election in 2009. The additional two years of my final term were added only through the vagaries of reapportionment litigation.”

He replaced former Senate President Ken Pruitt, a St. Lucie County Republican who himself left office early after the 2009 Legislative Session.

In his resignation letter, Negron said he wanted “to afford as much notice as possible to allow the next State Senator from District 25 to be elected in the regular 2018 primary and general election cycle without the necessity of a special election.”

“I would respectfully request that you consider scheduling the dates of the special primary election and special general election to coincide with the dates of the primary election and general election,” Negron told Scott.

“With key election-related deadlines and activities scheduled in the ensuing weeks and months, I believe this proposed course of action would be in the best interests of constituents.”

Negron was elected to the House in 2000, serving for six years, including a term as Appropriations Committee chair in 2005-06 under then-House Speaker Allen Bense. He was first elected to the Senate in 2009, and also served as budget chair there in 2012-14 before becoming president for 2016-18.

Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, is slated to take over the presidency from Negron after the November election, assuming the GOP holds its majority in the chamber.

“I know @joenegronfl has been thoughtfully considering this choice for some time, and I support his decision,” he tweeted Wednesday. “Julie and I will certainly miss having Joe and Rebecca in Tallahassee. We wish their family well as they prepare to conclude his term as Senate President in November.”

In a March interview with Florida Politics, Negron said lawmakers over the last two Sessions “made tremendous progress” on goals he set out in his 2015 designation speech, “a blueprint of things I tried to accomplish.”

Among those, beefing up higher education “with world class faculties,” addressing pollution in Lake Okeechobee, and “decriminalizing adolescence” with pre-arrest diversion programs and making it easier to expunge juvenile arrest records.

What “didn’t get a lot of attention” last year, he added, was reforming eyewitness identifications in criminal cases “to reduce the chance of wrongful convictions.”

Negron then he hadn’t yet decided whether he would serve his bonus time: “I’m going to take a few weeks to think about it … Term limits are there for a reason.”

He said in the interview he plans to focus on his business litigation work for the Akerman firm in its West Palm Beach office.

“I’m a lawyer first, a legislator second,” Negron said. “This was one part of my life that I greatly value … but my primary professional identity is as a lawyer. I’m back in the office. I enjoy what I do.”

On Wednesday he added: “I believe in a citizen Legislature where women and men from all walks of life serve for a reasonable period of time and then return to the private sector. I have done my very best to fight for my community in Tallahassee and November is the right time to retire from my service in the Legislature.”

The resignation letter is below.

Jeffrey Soffer closes deal to buy South Florida’s Mardi Gras Casino

Real estate billionaire Jeffrey Soffer has closed on a deal to buy South Florida’s former Mardi Gras Casino and Race Track.

The closing was disclosed in a final order filed Monday and released Tuesday by the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR).

But the department, which regulates gambling in the state, withheld a final OK for a slot machine license, pending Soffer’s 831 Federal Highway Acquisition company paying $2 million for the license fee and a $250,000 “regulatory fee.”

Otherwise, “this Final Order approves of the transfer of assets and ownership interests” of its other gambling permits, the department said.

The sale marks an end to the four-decade long ownership of the Hallandale Beach facility by Hartman & Tyner (H&T), a Southfield, Michigan property management firm. Now named “The Big Easy Casino,” it has been closed since it was damaged by Hurricane Irma, though a poker room has since reopened. 

It also marks the completion of Soffer’s quest to buy the property.

The Soffer-family controlled Turnberry Associates real estate development company also owns Miami Beach’s famed Fontainebleau Resort

Speculation arose whether Soffer wanted to move the casino license from the Hallandale Beach track to the Fontainebleau. But according to Soffer, “such a move is both illegal and not in the cards.”

“I just like the real estate … I like the business. I think it’s a good opportunity,” he told the Miami Herald in January. 

Soffer had retained lobbyist Michael Corcoran, brother of GOP House Speaker and likely candidate for governor Richard Corcoran.

And, as reported by The Associated Press in January 2017, Senate President-designate Bill Galvano “acknowledged that he did legal work for Turnberry Associates on a ‘commercial transaction’ as recently as three years ago.” Galvano, past president of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States, has long been the Legislature’s go-to man on gambling issues.

The terms of the Mardi Gras sale were not disclosed in the DBPR’s final order, but The Real Deal, a South Florida real estate news website, reported last month that Soffer “paid $12.5 million” for the nearly 28-acre property “and financed the deal with a $19.5 million mortgage from Florida Community Bank.”

A message seeking comment from Soffer was left Tuesday.

It wasn’t immediately clear what involvement longtime casino head Dan Adkins will have with the facility. A request for comment from him also is pending.

As Florida Politics reported in March, Adkins had been locked in a legal battle with H&T and its directors, accusing them in federal court of lying to him that he’d be paid “millions of dollars” upon sale of the company’s gambling businesses in Florida, West Virginia and Michigan.

H&T struck back by filing its own federal suit, saying the 60-year-old Adkins “engag(ed) in self-dealing, corporate waste, and gross mismanagement … conceal(ing) the poor financial state of H&T’s businesses caused by his misconduct so that he could … enrich himself and his family members.”

H&T’s suit also blamed Mardi Gras’ damages on Adkins, saying “oversight was poor, (and) the roof of the racetrack came off during Hurricane Irma because it was incorrectly installed under Adkins’s direction.” 

Those cases were settled out of court and closed last month, dockets show.

TIKD fights back against Bar’s effort to shut it down

A Miami firm that fights people’s traffic tickets for them is fighting back against The Florida Bar‘s effort to brand it as the unlicensed practice of law, or UPL.

In a document filed late Monday with the Supreme Court of FloridaTIKD said The Bar “has yet to explain how (our) activities actually run afoul of the purpose of UPL regulation, namely, ‘to protect the consuming public from being advised and represented in legal matters by unqualified persons who may put the public’s interest at risk.’ ”

The Bar regulates the state’s more than 100,000 lawyers and prosecutes the unlicensed practice of law. 

It maintains that TIKD is in the wrong, in part because founder and CEO Chris Riley — a U.S. Navy commander-turned entrepreneur  isn’t a lawyer but his company advertises and acts like a law firm. 

The company hires lawyers to fight people’s traffic tickets; if TIKD loses, it pays customers’ fines or court costs.

“The administrative and financial services provided by TIKD are separate and distinct from the legal services provided by the lawyers who represent TIKD’s customers,” the company’s Monday filing said.

“… All legal advice and representation is provided by independent, licensed Florida lawyers pursuant to a separate attorney-client agreement,” it said. “TIKD is not involved in the attorney-client relationship or attorney-client communications and does not direct or influence the attorneys’ legal judgment or representation.”

But The Bar has argued that “… a corporation owned and operated by nonlawyers (can’t) employ an attorney to give legal advice to its customers.”

Judge sides with insurers in SB 966 lawsuit

A Tallahassee judge has ruled that life insurance companies doing business in the state don’t have to track down beneficiaries under a 2016 law (SB 966) championed by former Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, in an order granting summary judgment for the plaintiffs filed April 20, said such a requirement can only be applied “prospectively,” that is, after the law’s passage. Summary judgment allows a party to win a case without a trial.

The plaintiffs — United Insurance Co. of America, Reliable Life Insurance Co., Mutual Savings Life Insurance Co. and Reserve National Insurance Co. — have written policies in Florida.

They sued the state over the law, which makes them check which policyholders have died back to 1992, then track down any beneficiaries.

If beneficiaries can’t be found, insurance proceeds must be turned over to the state as unclaimed property, which the CFO’s office oversees.

The bill was a priority of Atwater and featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” It passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously and was signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

The law itself says its changes are “remedial in nature and apply retroactively.” But the companies had said applying the law retroactively is unfair, making them have to sift through potentially millions of old death records to find beneficiaries.

That’s too burdensome, they’ve argued, especially when the law prohibits them from passing along their search costs to insureds or beneficiaries.

Lewis agreed, saying the law creates “new obligations or duties” that violate the companies’ due process rights.

This office has fought hard for Floridians in this case,” current CFO Jimmy Patronis said in a Monday statement. “It is a common sense, consumer protection law that passed the Legislature unanimously. We will continue to look into options for next steps.”

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