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Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at

Rick Scott non-committal about Groveland Four pardons request

If the Groveland Four need an advocate within the Florida Cabinet in order to get posthumously pardoned for false convictions that occurred more than 60 years ago, it doesn’t appear to be Gov. Rick Scott at this time.

When asked about the Groveland Four pardon request case Wednesday morning in Jacksonville, Scott offered no indication that he knew about it, or about the Florida Legislature’s impassioned call last spring to bring belated justice to four young, black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949. Two of them were killed in custody, and the other two went to prison after a trial in Lake County that has since been discredited as a Jim Crow-era injustice.

Last spring, the Florida Legislature approved  CS/HCR 631 formally apologizing to the families of Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas and urging posthumous, full pardons for Irvin and Greenlee, the only two who lived long enough to be convicted and imprisoned. The measure passed the House 117-0 and the Senate 36-0 in April.

In June, Josh Venkataraman filed a formal pardon request for Irvin and Greenlee, and a request for review, with Scott.

Wednesday, during a press availability following Scott’s discussion of his education budget, a reporter reminded the governor that the Legislature wants the Groveland Four pardons and that they have not yet come. The reporter then asked Scott about his plans, and whether the pardons might occur before Christmas.

Scott replied, “Say it again?”

“The Groveland Four case.”

“Yes. So, what I look at every year, my opportunities, what I can do for citizens around the state. And on issues like that, I always look at, you know, all year long, really, not just at the holidays,” the governor said.

“Is that a priority for you, to pardon these people?”

“Always making sure, first off, let me make sure, the clemency process. There is the clemency process, basically goes through the Cabinet. So it comes up through a process through the Commission on Offender Review,” Scott responded.

The governor then ended the press availability, said goodbye, and left.

The Commission on Offender Review has more than 22,000 requests for pardons and other forms of clemency on its docket, and takes them up in chronological-order based on their filing dates, unless a member of the Florida Cabinet intervenes and requests that any particular case be expedited.

In CS/HCR 631, the Florida Legislature explicitly asked for expedited pardons. And that was what Venkataraman formally sought from Scott with his request for review.

Without a Cabinet intervention, typically, it takes many years for any pardon request to reach the top of the pile.

A.G. Gancarski contributed to this story.

Darren Soto, Bernie Sanders pushing Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands rebuild bill

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto plans to help introduce a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would seek to provide comprehensive rebuilding money and resources for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands beyond what is needed to address just the devastation from Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

Soto, an Orlando Democrat, announced he would be joining Democratic U.S. Reps. Stacy Plaskett from the Virgin Islands, and Nydia Velázquez from New York in sponsoring the House version of a U.S. Senate bill announced late Tuesday by independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and cosponsored by several other Democrats.

The Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act, unveiled in Washington D.C. Tuesday by Sanders, Soto and the others, goes beyond just providing immediate humanitarian relief from the storms, which left the island U.S. territories in tatters, still largely without electricity and potable water more than two months later. The bill addresses longterm rebuilding of infrastructure including the schools and power systems, and equity in how the islanders are eligible for federal benefits, including Medicaid and Medicare.

It also calls for more equitable resolution of the Puerto Rico government’s $75 billion debt, now being addressed in bankruptcy proceedings, and seeks seeks to provide the additional aid without forcing the territories to take on more debt.

First, though, it calls for the federal government to immediately address the humanitarian crises by “mobilizing all necessary resources and assets to restore power, provide clean drinking water and food, safe shelter and access to health care,” according to a press release issued by Soto’s office.

“The people of Puerto Rico have been living in a nightmare for far too long,” Soto said. “We talk about power to the people. The people of Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands need power! I am proud to support this legislation that will help the islands get the lights back on and their economies going again. As we look to rebuild the islands, we have an opportunity to become an energy model for the 21st century if we invest right.”

“We will stand with the American citizens of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands,” Sanders said in introducing his bill Tuesday. “We will rebuild those islands better than before the disasters devastated them.”

In addition to stepped-up immediate relief, the bill calls for:

– Puerto Rico’s debt to be addressed in a way to ensure the territory can recover “with dignity” and that the recovery effort should not add additional debt.

– Replacing the “antiquated, centralized and inefficient”power systems with new grids incorporating renewable energies, including solar.

– Parity with states in benefits from Medicaid and Medicare, and equity in the amount of money available.

– Rebuilding and improving the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital and clinics.

– Improvements to public schools, colleges and childcare facilities, which the sponsors contend were “inadequate before the storms hit,” noting that hundreds of public schools were closed in Puerto Rico because of Austerity measures before the storms, and the Virgin Island schools struggled.

– Investments in infrastructure to spur economic development.

– And environmental cleanup, not just from the storms, but from prior pollution and military bombing exercises on the island of Vieques.

Rick Scott sets spring special election to replace Neil Combee in House

Gov. Rick Scott has set a special election for 2018 to fill the seat vacated by former state Rep. Neil Combee in House District 39, serving parts of Polk and Osceola counties.

Scott set a primary election for Feb. 20, 2018, and a general election for May 1. That would keep the seat open until after the 2018 Legislative Session, which runs from Jan. 9 through March 9.

Combee left his seat last week to take a federal appointment as Florida’s State Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

One candidate has filed, 22-year-old University of Florida political science student Josie Tomkow, a Republican, who actually filed for the regularly-scheduled 2018 election but is expected to refile for the special election. Combee is backing Tomkow, even over another potential Republican candidate, Polk County Commissioner John Hall, who expressed interest in running. No Democratic candidates have emerged yet.

Lee Mangold picks up John Cortes’s endorsement in HD 28

Democratic House of Representatives candidate Lee Mangold has picked up the endorsement of a sitting House member in his 2018 quest for House District 28.

Mangold, who owns a cyber security business, was endorsed Monday by state Rep. John Cortes, a Democrat from Kissimmee, Mangold’s campaign announced.

“I am proud to endorse Lee for State Representative, District 28,” Cortes said in a news release issued by Mangold’s campaign. “He is a proven leader who will always put his district first while serving in Tallahassee.”

Mangold, 35, of Casselberry, is aiming to fill a seat being vacated by Republican state Rep. Jason Brodeur of Sanford. Republicans in the field include former U.S. Marines Col. David Smith, a Winter Springs business consultant and Osceola County Deputy Sheriff Chris Anderson of Lake Mary.

“Representative Cortes was one of the first people I reached out to when deciding to run for office,” Mangold said in the release. “His motivation and support is a large part of why I’m here today. I’m honored to have earned his endorsement, and I look forward to working with him in the Florida House.”

Stephanie Murphy campaign pans tax bill as ‘massive’ cuts for ‘ultra-wealthy’

The re-election campaign for Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy on Monday blasted the Republican tax bill saying it would provide “massive tax cuts to the ultra-wealthy.”

The statement, in a fundraising communication from Stephanie Murphy for Congress, goes further than the Winter Park congresswoman has gone in official public statements criticizing the House tax bill, House Resolution 1, dubbed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

The statement also charges that she’s being targeted by Republicans who want “a rubber stamp for President [Donald] Trump‘s agenda.”

Murphy joined all Democrats in voting against the House tax bill on Nov. 16, when it was approved 227 to 205. Now attention is focused on the Senate version, expected to come to a vote this week.

The week of the House vote, she ran an unscientific poll of constituents through social media and announced that the overwhelming response was opposition to the plan. She also stated on social media, including in a video, that she that while tax reform is deeply important to her constituents, she concluded the GOP bill would not reduce taxes or simplify taxes for middle class families or small businesses, would add $1.5 trillion to federal deficits, and would trigger $25 billion in cuts to medicare. She called it fiscally irresponsible.

Now, Murphy’s campaign is staking out political ground for the 2018 election, with a fundraising letter noting that one of her opponents would support the plan. She didn’t say which. Two Republicans, Scott Sturgill, a Sanford businessman, and state Rep. Mike Miller, of Winter Park, are running, as is a Democratic primary opponent, Chardo Ricardhson.

“Stephanie’s opponent would vote to give massive tax cuts to the ultra-wealthy at the expense of middle class families and seniors. We can’t let that happen,” it reads. “Stephanie is proud to be your voice in Washington, but Washington Republicans are targeting her seat because they want a rubber stamp for President Trump’s agenda.”

The Republicans responded, through the National Republican Congressional Committee:

“Saying that Republicans want a rubber stamp for the President’s agenda is rich coming from Pelosi puppet Stephanie Murphy,” NRCC Regional Press Secretary Maddie Anderson chided in a written statement. “Her argument against the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has been widely debunked – so all Murphy is doing here is showing her constituents that she is unable to stray from her party leaders at the expense of her voter’s paychecks. What a campaign platform!”

Constitution revision would allow retroactive criminal law changes

A coalition of mostly conservative organizations is joining former state Rep. Neil Combee to push a proposal from the Florida Constitution Revision Commission that would allow lawmakers to make new criminal statutes retroactive.

CRC Proposal 20 would repeal Article X, section 9 of the Florida Constitution, which dates back to 1885. Called the “Savings Clause,” the law prohibits the Florida Legislature from applying reduced sentencing requirements and other criminal law changes to people who committed crimes before the new rules went into effect.

An example is a law Combee sponsored in 2016, CS/HB 135, which eliminated the requirement for minimum prison sentences for people convicted of aggravated assault under various circumstances, including with firearms. With the Savings Clause, anyone who committed such assaults before CS/HB 135 went into effect still faced the old minimum sentences, even if they were charged and tried long after the bill was enacted.

A repeal of the clause, as proposed by CRC Proposal 20, could allow those defendants to face sentences under the lighter guidelines of the new law.

The clause, and its potential repeal, also might apply to whether or not the “burden of proof” law approved by the Florida Legislature last spring could be applied to people retroactively.

Under the new standard, the burden of proof is on state attorneys, not defendants, to demonstrate whether someone was or was not standing ground in a shooting, and therefore protected from prosecution. That standard might not apply to anyone alleged to have shot someone before when the new law went into effect this year.

Another example dated to 2014 when Sen. Rob Bradley‘s SB 360 rolled back mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug offenses. Yet people who committed such crimes, who hadn’t been tried or even charged yet before the bill went into effect, still faced the old mandatory minimums.

New, reduced criminal laws would not be automatically retroactive. The Florida Legislature would have to stipulate retroactivity in the bills.

The Savings Clause and its repeal, if it happens, would not affect any legislative efforts to increase criminal sentencing or toughen the criminal law. Federal law prohibits expanded sentencing laws from being applied retroactively to someone who already has committed the crime.

The coalition — which includes The James Madison Institute, Unified Sportsmen of Florida, Florida Tax Watch, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, FreedomWorks, the R Street Institute, Right On Crime, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, among others — is pushing the amendment as an expression of reducing government overreach.

In this case, the government overreach involves criminal laws that the Florida Legislature later determines to be too much.

“The Savings Clause mandates that the cost of legislative overreach remains long after it has been corrected,” they wrote in a letter to Commissioner Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, Chair of the CRC General Provisions Committee.

“Proposal 20 frees the legislature from this rule, imposed in 1885, when virtually everything about Florida — its population, culture, demographics, and legislative process — was fundamentally different than it is today,” the letter argues.

The coalition contends that Florida is the last state in the union to have a Savings Clause that prohibits retroactive application of criminal statutes.

Anna Eskamani announces finance team

Democratic House candidate Anna Eskamani on Monday announced a volunteer campaign finance committee that includes three former state reps and other prominent Central Florida Democrats.

Eskamani, of Orlando, is running for the District 47 seat, occupied by Republican state Rep. Mike Miller, who is running for Congress. She faces Republican candidate Stockton Reeves of Winter Park.

The team she announced Monday includes former state Representatives Karen Castor Dentel, Mark Pafford and Joe Saunders, Democratic campaign financier Bob Poe, Democratic operative Steve Schale, and OnePulse Foundation Board Chairman Earl Crittenden.

Others include Jennifer Anderson of Winter Park, Brian Anderson of Orlando, Sarah Elbadri of Orlando, Danny Humphress of Winter Park, Nancy Jacobson of Orlando, Patricia Jotkoff of Melbourne, Jonathan Kellam of Washington, D.C., Boyd Lindsley of Oviedo, Maria Margenot of Orlando, Lindsay Oyewale of Sanford, James Paul Chan of Tampa, and Jenna Tosh of Santa Barbara, Ca.

Since entering the race in June and through the end of October, Eskamani’s campaign raised more than $126,000, not including $8,000 in in-kind contributions. Her campaign reported Monday her contributions total has topped $140,000 from more than 1,100 individual donors.

Orlando contemplating immigrant ‘trust’ resolution

The city of Orlando is considering a resolution that would have the City Council and Mayor Buddy Dyer formally declare their policy that police and other city officials not get involved in immigration matters, including a policy against questioning people whether their status is legal or not.

The resolution would state what already is the city’s policy. Under Dyer and Police Chief John Mina, police and other officials are not supposed to inquire about whether a traffic stop driver, a suspect, a victim, a witness, or anyone else interacting with city officials is a citizen or properly documented immigrant.

But that’s not on enforceable paper.

And while a resolution would put it on paper, it wouldn’t make it law.

The resolution proposal, pushed by Dyer and others in recent weeks, is a compromise offer between the city’s informal policies that essentially make it unofficially a safe city for undocumented residents, and immigration activists that have been pushing last summer for an ordinance that would make it law.

The debate in Orlando, at least in all public ways, is not about whether the city should be assisting federal authorities in identifying and detaining undocumented immigrants. It’s about how far the city wants to go in rejecting that approach.

A coalition of activists that includes 35 social justice, labor, and progressive groups and is part of a national movement, has been pushing for an ordinance since last summer, with rallies on the City Hall steps, art protests, and meetings and negotiations with city officials.

“We’ve looked for middle ground, a resolution, which is passed in a similar manner as an ordinance, to supplement the policy,” said Deputy City Attorney Jody Litchford.

“But frankly, unfortunately, we are not in agreement,” she added.

Litchford and others, including Dyer’s Senior Advisor Lori Pampilo Harris, argue that Orlando already is doing everything in practice that the advocates want. The city neither questions people about their status, nor detains them — even at requests from the U.S. Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But too many of the undocumented immigrants living in Orlando still remain fearful of coming out of the shadows, even as a witness to crime, the activists argue.

If Orlando wants to make undocumented residents comfortable enough to work with city officials, to not fear encounters, it needs something more than a policy. It needs a law, argued Curtis Hierro, organizing director of the Central Florida AFL-CIO and one of the leaders of the Trust Ordinance Coalition that has been pushing Orlando for an ordinance.

Hierro insisted they coalition is far from done with its effort.

“The reason we’re pushing for an ordinance is it is the strongest act a city can take to codify policy, something with real teeth,” Hierro said.

Without it, Hierro said, there have been at least isolated incidents of police officers or others asking people about immigration status, Hierro said. Word spreads. Trust erodes. People stay in the shadows. That’s why the ordinance they have drafted and offered the city that’s called the “Trust Ordinance.”

But an ordinance, besides being an inappropriate way to deal with city policies, Litchford said, also opens up liability issues for the city. That may start with threats from President Donald Trump‘s administration that it intends to reduce federal grants to cities that are formally sanctuary cities.

The city is offering not just the resolution, but a communication effort, an outreach program that would explicitly try to spread the word that city police and other officials would not do anything to “out” people who came here without visas, or overstayed their visas.

AIF to fight proposed constitutional amendment on environmental protection

Associated Industries in Florida is preparing for a legal fight to stop a proposed Florida Constitutional amendment, charging that the proposal declaring the right to a “clean and healthful environment” is “dangerously vague.”

AIF announced Tuesday it hired top environmental and regulatory attorneys with the Gunster law firm to stop the Florida Constitution Revision Commission’s Proposal 23, contending the proposal would unleash unwarranted litigation. Filed by CRC member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, the plan would give Floridians more legal standing when environmental problems occur.

The 37-member commission, which meets every 20 years, reviews proposed constitutional amendments for the 2018 ballot.

Proposal 23 would add to the Florida Constitution the paragraph:

“The natural resources of the state are the legacy of present and future generations. Every person has a right to a clean and healthful environment, including clean air and water; control of pollution; and the conservation and restoration of the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic values of the environment as provided by law. Any person may enforce this right against any party, public or private, subject to reasonable limitations, as provided by law.”

In a news release Tuesday, the Associated Industries of Florida declared such an amendment would “provide any person, not just Floridians, the ability to litigate ‘against any party, public or private.'”

Associated Industries, in a proactive effort, contends the language in the proposal by Thurlow-Lippisch — an appointee of Senate President Joe Negron, a fellow Martin County resident — would “unleash unwarranted litigation” that would drive up business costs.

“The language is extremely vague and would be open to a wide interpretation from Florida’s legal system, creating mass uncertainty and threatening to upend the work of manufacturers, small businesses, governments and many others across the state,” AIF declared in its news release. “Challenges could be brought against any government entity, business or private citizen, even if they are in full compliance with existing laws or the terms and conditions of existing, valid permits. This amendment circumvents existing avenues to address concerns over air and water quality and instead encourages frivolous lawsuits, which would inevitably drive up business costs and threaten future economic development and expansion in Florida.”

The Gunster firm, which has a long history of representing U.S. Sugar, once employed Negron. Negron left the firm this year to avoid a possible conflict of interest as he pushed for construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

The AIF legal team from Gunster will include former Florida Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Bell, former Florida Public Service Commission Chair Lila Jaber, former Florida First District Court of Appeal Judge Simone Marstiller, and former Flordia Department of Environmental Protection General Counsel Gregory Munson.

“CRC Proposal 23 would no doubt cause more harm than good to our state. This vague amendment would effectively replace the comprehensive and well thought out the regulatory system we have in place today with a piecemeal approach that is decided on a case-by-case basis by the courts,” AIF President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Feeney stated in the release.

Writing in a blog Nov. 8, five days after filing the proposal, Thurlow-Lippisch argued that existing language in the state Constitution is “vague” and that Florida statutes give environmental permit-holders standing over citizens.

“So a citizen is not at liberty to sue if a polluting entity is causing environmental destruction that is acting or conducting operations pursuant to a currently valid permit protected by a state agency,” she wrote. “And if someone attempts to sue anyway, they have no real standing in a Florida court of law.”

Thurlow-Lippisch pointed to a sinkhole that opened last year at a Mosaic phosphate plant in Polk County and years of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and South Florida Water Management District discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary, which flows around her community.

“What if, is now reality. Yes, permit holders should be `protected,’ nonetheless, having a valid permit should not be a right to infringe on the health, safety, and welfare of Florida citizens,” Thurlow-Lippisch wrote. “Florida citizens and their environment co-exist. When necessary, citizens should have the right to fight for a clean and healthy environment.”

Thurlow-Lippisch is a former Sewall’s Point commissioner who also wants voters next year to add an elected commissioner of environmental protection to the state Cabinet.

The proposal under fire by AIF is scheduled to go before the commission’s Judicial Committee on Nov. 28. If it is approved, the next step would be the General Provisions Committee.

Material from the News Service of Florida was included in this post. Republished with permission.


Group launches pro-tax bill robocall campaign in Brian Mast’s, Carlos Curbelo’s districts

American Action Network today is launching a one-million robocall campaign to support Republicans who voted in favor tax reform bill in targeted swing congressional districts including those of Republican U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Brian Mast in Florida.

The calls, from AAN’s Middle-Class Growth Initiative, tell voters that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last week would would cut the taxes of middle-class families by an average of $1,200.

“Your representative, [Curbelo or Mast], kept his promise and voted to cut middle-class taxes. Please call Representative [Curbelo or Mast[ at [his phone number] to thank him.”

The robocalls, going out today to voters in 29 districts nationally, are part of an ongoing campaign by AAN’s Middle-Class Growth Initiative, which has spent $20 million this fall on TV, radio, direct mail, mobile billboards, and other forms of advertising promoting tax reform in 60 total targeted swing districts, including Curbelo’s Florida Congressional District 27 in South Florida and Mast’s Congressional District 18 on the Treasure Coast.

Both Curbelo and Mast face stiff Democratic competition in the 2018 campaign.

“Last week, Congress took a major step toward delivering much-need tax relief for all Americans, but there is still work to be done,” AAN Executive Director Corry Bliss stated in a news release issued by his group. “The Tax Cut and Jobs Act paves the way for middle-class prosperity by lowering rates, increasing jobs, and giving the average middle-class family a $1,200 tax cut. AAN is working to share the winning message of pro-growth tax reform, and will continue spending resources to spread that message until meaningful tax reform is signed into law.”


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