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Scott Powers

Bill to discount boat safety beacons gets approval

A bill aimed at preventing tragedies like when two 14-year-old boys disappeared in a fishing boat off the coast of Jupiter in 2015 won approval from the House Government Oversight Committee Thursday.

House Bill 711, embraced by Blu Stephanos, the father of of one of the boys in that ill-fated boat, Austin Stephanos, would give Florida boat owners registration fee reductions if they install and register an emergency position-indicating radio beacon on the boat.

The goal, said sponsor Republican state Rep. MaryLynn Magar of Tequesta, is to encourage far wider-spread use of the devices, which she said can quickly lead Coast Guard and other authorities on rescue operations, instead of search-and-rescue, or search-and-recovery operations.

“This bill means a very lot to me and my family, to the foundation, and to my son, who’s not here. I have put a lot of thought, more than anyone, into what could happen here, and what could make a difference,” said Stephanos, who started the AustinBlu Foundation to promote boating safety for children. “And the only thing that could have made a difference that day, in my mind, to this day, is having a beacon on the boat.”

Republican state Rep. Colleen Burton of Lakeland then declared that her own son Tim was rescued just this past December.

“The reason Tim and his friend Billy were rescued, was because they had a personal locating beacon,” she said. “This is real life. It saves lives.”

The bill’s unanimous and enthusiastic approval was one of scores of items the committee took up, including dozens of local bills that would do everything from abolishing the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission to forcing the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority to offer toll discounts to drivers who use transponders to pay tolls electronically.

The committee face a few controversial measures, even from the local level.

From Gainesville, the committee took up a local bill that would establish a city vote on a charter change that would restructure governance for the Gainesville Regional Utilities. The citizens would be asked to take power over the municipal power company away from the city council and create a commission, appointed to 12-year terms by the city council, to run it instead.

The bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Charles Wesley Clemons Sr. of Newberry, was being pushed by the Gainesville chamber of commerce and other business groups who complained that the GRU’s utility rates are too high, second-highest in the state.

The city opposed it though, and Alachua County, while it took no position this year, has opposed similar measures proposed the past three years. The Alachua legislative delegation voted 3-1 to support.


‘Groveland Four’ exoneration resolution passes committee

‘The Groveland Four’ were four young men and teenagers who endured one of the darkest known moments of Florida’s Jim Crow history when they were falsely accused of rape, then all of them were beaten, two of them were killed, and two were convicted and imprisoned on what legal researchers are now convinced was false evidence.

On Thursday the House Judicial Committee unanimously approved a House Resolution 631, declaring the story, which began with a 1949 incident on a Lake County back road outside of Groveland, to have been a “grave injustice.”

The bill declares that injustice toward Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, offers an official apology on behalf of the state of Florida, exonerates them, and urges Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet to pardon Irvin and Greenlee, the two who lived long enough to be convicted and imprisoned.

“You’re going to get a unanimous vote on the house floor, I betcha,” Republican state Rep. Shawn Harrison of Tampa predicted for the co-sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Bobby DuBose of Fort Lauderdale.

A companion measure, Senate Resolution 920, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale, already is heading for the Senate floor.

The story, as DuBose and the bill itself laid out for the committee, was one of two horrific episodes from Florida’s past that the committee sat through Thursday, including the earlier descriptions the committee received of the horrors of the Dozier School for Boys. The Groveland Four story was no less powerful.

The Groveland Four, whose story was told in detail in the 2012 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Devil In The Grove, by Gilbert King, were falsely accused by a 17-year-old, white, married, teen girl and her estranged husband of raping her.

Thomas was then shot dead by a posse. Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were arrested and severely beaten in custody until Greenlee and Shepherd offered false confessions. The three were tried and convicted, even though all had alibis and much of the testimony and evidence against them appeared manufactured. Greenlee, who was only 16 at the time of the crime, got a life sentence, while Irvin and Shepherd were given death sentences. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned their cases. Before the new trials, Irvin and Shepherd were shot in custody, and Shepherd died. Greenlee and Irvin were re-tried and re-convicted.

In 1955 Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1968. The next year, hours after he made his first return to Lake County, for an uncle’s funeral, he died under mysterious circumstances. Greenlee was paroled in 1962, and died in 2012.

The matter was first brought to the Legislature by then-state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat who was unable to get it through in several tries. This time, so far, DuBose and Farmer are finding unanimous backings.

State Rep. Larry Metz, the Republican whose district includes Groveland, cautioned that the Legislature cannot know what happened that night in 1949; but that he is is convinced the Groveland Four underwent nothing but “a grave miscarriage of justice” after that.

“So many horrific things occurred at this time,” Metz said.

DuBose said he had met some of their family members, and besides all the other horrors, the family had to endure shame, because the community thought the four were rapists.

“Things like this do carry down fro generation to generation. Although we can’t change the past, we can correct, and change the future,” DuBose said. “This means so much more to this family than I can express.”


‘A beautiful hell:’ Dozier survivors draw tears, approval for apology, memorials from house committee

Many of the members of the House Judiciary Committee were reduced to fighting off sobs Thursday after hearing a half-dozen survivors’ stories from Florida’s horrific Dozier School for Boys reform school, which one survivor, Robert Straley, dubbed “a beautiful hell” for the picturesque grounds maintained for misleading appearances.

One after another described the trips to the building on the hill known as “The White House.” There they were led or dragged in, laid on a cot stinking of urine and vomit, and stained with blood, and then flogged, many until they passed out. For infractions like eating wild blackberries, or refusing to go out for the football team.

They spoke of the frequent beatings, the sexual molestations they and others endured as young boys, the psychological torture, the constant terror, and the deaths of other juvenile detainees that marked so much of the school’s history until it was closed in 2011.

Some of them went on to recover enough to lead productive lives, but all of them said the Dozier time left deep scars on their bodies and souls.

“All they did was brutalize me and sexually molest me and beat me,” said retired Army captain Bryant E. Middleton, who was there as a 14-year-old in the late 1950s. “I’m sorry I didn’t sugar coat that. I thought you really needed to hear what it was like.”

After more than an hour of such testimony, as many members of the committee fought through emotional responses, they voted unanimously to approve two measures to do what they could about it.

“I guess the picture is painted, right?” asked one of the sponsors, Democratic state Rep. Tracie Davis of Jacksonville.

The first measure, House Resolution 1335, offers an official recognition of the horrors and an official apology from the state of Florida.

The second, House Committee Bill 17-01, authorizes and funds two memorials to be designed and built, one on the Dozier grounds in Marianna, and the other on the Capitol grounds in Tallahassee.

It also authorizes and pays for the re-burial of 51 sets of remains – children who died in the school and were buried in secret, unmarked graves, which were later discovered by a University of South Florida research team. Ten who died in a 1910 fire will be reburied with grave markers at Dozier, and the other 41, who have not been identified, at a cemetery in Tallahassee. Seven other sets of remains that were identified have been reunited with families.

And the survivors said there are more undiscovered graves there; one said a whole additional secret cemetery.

“There are no words,” said Republican state Rep. Ross Spano of Dover, who took nearly a half-minute to power through his own emotions to complete his first two sentences to the Dozier victims. “that we can offer. We’re sorry.

“There’s something about revealing the truth, and shining the light, and exposing the wound to oxygen, so to speak, that allows for the healing to begin,” Spano continued as he recovered. “I hope and I pray in my heart that in some small way that what we are doing will allow you to do that.”


Florida sheriffs accuse federal authorities of demanding illegal detentions

Florida’s sheriffs are mad at federal authorities for calling them out for not taking what the sheriffs believe are illegal actions.

The Florida Sheriff’s Association is charging that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is asking them to illegally detain prisoners. And when the sheriffs refuse, they risk being being spotlighted for failing to detain criminal aliens, through a weekly national list of sheriffs that ICE claims are being uncooperative with federal authorities.

“Sheriffs have to follow the law. And we are being asked to do something by the federal government that at least nine – nine – federal courts have said we can’t do,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a press conference held Tuesday by the Florida Sheriffs Association.

“At the very least it’s a public perception nightmare for sheriffs across the country,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, president of the FSA.

At issue is a strategy invoked by the administration of President Donald Trump to send out detainer requests to sheriffs and jail managers, anytime an undocumented alien is arrested for a crime. The detainer requests that the sheriffs and jailers hold the prisoner until ICE agents can come get him or her, up to 48 hours. But the requests offer no legal authority for the sheriffs or jailers to continue to hold prisoners who make bail or are set to be released through conventional channels.

And if the sheriffs or jailers release the prisoners as the law requires, instead of holding them longer, they wind up getting cited in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s weekly “Declined Detainer Outcome Report,” which the Trump administration began publishing two weeks ago.

ICE officials declined Wednesday to comment on the sheriffs’ complaints, or their assertion that the detainers call for them to illegally detain prisoners. However, they released a statement issued earlier when such complaints began to arrive.

“While DHS has not retreated from its position that detainers serve as a legally-authorized request, upon which a law enforcement agency may rely, to continue to maintain custody of the alien for up to 48 hours so that ICE may assume custody for removal purpose, ICE continues to allow law enforcement agencies to provide us with advanced notification of an individual’s release so that we may make arrangements to transfer custody at the time the alien was already scheduled for release by the local,” the statement read.

So far, two Florida authorities have made the Homeland Security DDOR list, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, and the St. Lucie County Jail.

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said the listing brought her office “great notoriety” and said the DHS releases are misleading and frustrating.

“I consider the list the ‘smart list,'” she added. “They are sheriffs who know the law.”

“The implication that Alachua County and other counties on the list are not cooperating with ICE or Homeland Security, that is simply not the case, at least from the state of Florida,” Darnell said. “When people are booked into our jail who are foreign-born, we notify ICE, and give them the release date.”

Also in response to early complaints from sheriffs, federal authorities now are sending federal warrants along with the detainer requests.

The warrant, the Department of Homeland Security said in its response statement, “will help mitigate future litigation risk and will further our efforts to ensure that our law enforcement partners will honor our detainers.”

But it doesn’t help any, Gualtieri said. That’s because they’re federal warrants and local sheriffs have no legal authority to execute them, he said.

“We support and cooperate with ICE with their efforts to identify and deport criminal aliens,” Demings concluded. “However, we also swear under oath to protect, support and defend the U.S. Constitution. And that really is what we sheriffs intend to do.”

Legal debate over Aramis Ayala’s decision turns into hockey game

You get a former prosecutor, a retired judge and a defense attorney together to talk about legal issues underpinning Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s decision to not pursue death penalty prosecutions, and you might expect lively disagreement.

But a brawl?

A debate in Orlando Wednesday between former 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Jeff Ashton and retired 18th Judicial Circuit Judge O.H. Eaton Jr. broke down into near chaos at times, with shouted interruptions leading to political accusations, a few insults, a bit of belittling, sarcasm and condescension, and angry protests of unfairness.

And most of that wasn’t between the prosecutor and the judge who were officially squaring off, but between Ashton and the debate moderator, Orlando defense attorney Mark O’Mara.

“I hoped this discussion would not become political but it almost immediately did,” said an exasperated-sounding Ashton, who lost the JC9 seat to Ayala in a nasty election battle last year, and then took the positions opposing her decision. “I hoped that somebody would show me a case or an interpretation or a rule or a statutory construction.

“But all I’ve heard is you two yelling at me that I’m wrong!”

“I haven’t yelled at you at all. I’m very soft spoken,” corrected Eaton, quipping about his reputation on the bench.

The debate, held in front of a crowd mostly of lawyers and sponsored by The Ramsey Law Firm, the Law Firm of Jennifer J. Jacobs and a couple of others, illustrated the levels of passion and politics emerging in Orlando from what Ayala has done, and what Gov. Rick Scott has done as a result, stripping her of 22 murder cases.

The combatants Wednesday did agree on one thing, that the ramifications of Ayala’s and Scott’s actions could be far-reaching for Florida criminal justice.

“What is going to happen, I hope, is that Ms. Ayala is going to challenge this and we’re going to get a ruling, and the issue is going to be very clear: does the prosecutor’s discretion trump the governor’s right to disagree with it,” said Eaton, described by the Orlando Sentinel as a “death-penalty expert judge” when he retired in 2010.

“And I agree on both counts,” Ashton replied. “I hope that it goes to the Florida Supreme Court, because this is an issue that could fundamentally change the concept of what a prosecutor is, in the state of Florida.”

And there were other times, especially early on, when the debate flowed smoothly.

Ashton’s chief argument centered on Florida Statute 782.04(1)(b), which states that, in all first-degree murder cases, “the procedure set forth in Statute 921.141 shall be followed in order to determine sentence of death or life imprisonment.” Shall, Ashton said, is a command, not a suggestion. Ayala, he said, did not follow the procedure in 921.141, which essentially is the procedure to determine if there are aggravating circumstances that could lead to a death penalty. She just decided in advance, for all cases, there would be no death penalty.

Eaton argued that prosecutorial discretion, which Ayala claimed in deciding against death penalties, is an absolute concept that dates to English common law, and he cited a number of cases where courts have upheld that discretion.

“If she had said, ‘I’m not going to use the death penalty,’ and gave no reason for her decision, that decision could not be reviewed by any court, and it is not reviewable by the governor, I don’t think,” Eaton said.

He added that he believes the consequences a governor’s action to overrule prosecutorial discretion, as Scott has done, are very serious, because they could send the message to all of Florida’s prosecutors that anytime they use their prosecutorial discretion in a murder case, he might intervene if he doesn’t like the choice.

In short, state attorneys might become politically intimidated by the governor, he said, and very nervous about not pursuing death penalties.

Ashton contested that, and said he wanted to know who could speak up for victims if prosecutors go their own way.

“When the prosecutor decides to break or ignore the law to the benefit of the defendant, how is it reviewed?” Ashton demanded. “Who do you go to? If you are aggrieved victim who believes the state attorney is ignoring the law, who do you go to?”

Andrew Gillum raises $765K in first report for governor’s race

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is breaking from the gate with $765,000 raised for his Democratic gubernatorial campaign in the first few weeks.

Gillum’s campaign is reporting Wednesday morning that he has raised that much and has $635,000 on hand at the time of his first-quarter 2017 campaign finance report, through the end of March.

Gillum is claiming grassroots support, contending that the donations include 3,500 on-line contributions and have come from 56 of Florida’s 67 counties.

It puts him in contention with but behind the leading Republican candidate, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is reporting that his campaign raised $872,000 in March and is likely to be reporting a total in the range of $1.1 million when the campaign finance reports are fully released in a couple of weeks.

There is no word yet from candidates and potential candidates. The only other major announced candidate is Orlando businessman Chris King, a Democrat, though Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine and former state Rep. Gwen Graham are on the Democrats’ campaign trail.

Full details are not yet available on Gillum’s report.

“This resounding statement of early support proves that Andrew Gillum has the momentum to become the next Governor of Florida,” Gillum’s senior campaign advisor Sharon Lettman-Hicks declared in a press release. “Our campaign will continue to work to earn every vote in all corners of the state and invest in building the infrastructure needed to retake the governor’s mansion. After nearly 20 years of failed leadership in Florida, Andrew Gillum will be a Governor the Sunshine State can be proud of again.”

Chris King vows to bring ‘progressive entrepreneur’ spirit to Governor’s office

Orlando Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King introduced himself to Florida Tuesday evening as the “progressive entrepreneur” promising to bring bring a head for hard work, return on investment and financial stewardship but also a heart to Tallahassee.

King, a 38-year-old Winter Park businessman with no experience in politics, kicked off his campaign for the state’s highest office at an Orlando rally with 400 to 500 people, a musical warmup, several advance speakers and an ice cream truck, in the parking lot of the 14-story Hillcrest Hampton House, an affordable-housing senior tower his Elevation Global Initiative company developed.

“Whether you are an old friend or a new friend, we come together tonight at a momentous time in my life, and in the life of this state,” King said standing beneath the “In front of the family that loved me, the community that raised me, and the senior tower that gave me my mission, I announce my candidacy for governor of Florida.”

King’s 27-minute speech placed him squarely in the center of most Democratic issues and values, from environmental protection [“I would put scientists back in charge of environmental agencies;”] to affordable housing [his business speciality;] from minimum wage increases, to investing far more in public education [“I will be a champion and advocate for public education;”] social and legal equality for all, to expanding health care access and investment in mental health.

“If you’ve come here tonight and you are an advocate for public education or environmental protection or housing, or health care, I’m with you,” King said. “I want to be too.”

Yet King also dismissed all of that as secondary to his primary concern, fixing the economy to better provide for working families. King criticized Florida’s economy as low-wage, dead last among the 10 most-populous states in incomes, wages and productivity, with 45 percent of jobs paying $15 an hour or less.

“The biggest issue, the motivating issue for me and this campaign as we move forward, is to me the issue Florida faces today. And that is the fact that we have an economy that no longer works for so many our families,” he said.

For that he promised to lay out his economic plan which he is calling “Home Grown Florida,” focusing on fostering entrepreneurs and small businesses, education, and investment in infrastructure.

He also spoke in detail about the need to address water issues, and promised his campaign would “not take any money from big sugar. Not because it’s always wrong… but because the issues around water, sugar and the health of this peninsula are so critical, so compelling, that the citizens of Florida must know that their next governor is an honest broker, able to sit down with all parties, and not beholden to the financial interests of any.”

King comes into the race largely unknown politically outside limited circles in Orlando, but not unconnected. His father David King is a powerful lawyer who argued and won the redistricting cases on behalf of the League of Women Voters in Florida that forced Tallahassee to redraw congressional and state senate districts. His mother Marilyn King is a longtime patients advocate who served as chair of the board of directors of Orlando Health.

After graduating from Harvard and getting a law degree from the University of Florida and a brief law career, King and his brother Michael King started Elevation Global Initiative, which arranges creative financing to re-invest in old housing and senior housing properties, to redevelop them as affordable-housing.

Both his father and brother say that Chris King has probably been preparing to run for governor since he was in high school. David King said his youngest son has “a calling,” and has been seriously contemplating the run for about a year and a half. In recent weeks he’s been raising early campaign money and assembling a campaign team that includes veterans of the Barack Obama and Charlie Crist statewide campaigns,

So far King faces Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum for the Democratic nomination, while several others are openly exploring runs, including Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Orlando lawyer John Morgan. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam appears to be clearing the field for his run for the Republican nomination.


Bill requiring gambling warnings on lottery tickets gets panel approval

Lottery tickets, and places that sell them, could come with a warning: “Gambling can be addictive,” under a bill approved Tuesday afternoon by the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries.

Senate Bill 1370 may go where some Florida lawmakers are uncomfortable to follow, declaring the state’s lottery games to be a form of gambling.

As a result, the bill got a few no votes, including one from Democratic state Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville.

But the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Keith Perry of Gainesville, said he believes the Lottery is gambling and needs the warning; a majority on the committee agreed.

“This bill seeks to better inform individuals that gaming can be addictive,” Perry said.

The bill would require the Florida Lottery Commission to have all vendors and retailers place or print a warning on all lottery tickets, and on prominent signs in retailers which sell them, which read: “WARNING: GAMBLING CAN BE ADDICTIVE.”

The bill does not call for a phone number to also be printed for people to call if they fear they are addicted, but Perry said he would be open to such in an amendment.

Gibson, who asked about that, pressed Perry for what she saw as the heart of the issue, that the bill would have the Florida Legislature declaring that the Lottery is a form of gambling.

“I don’t consider the purchase of those products offered by the lottery to be gambling,” she said. “And I’m not inclined to support these [warning] statements either.”

The companion, House Bill 937, is in the House Commerce Committee.

Bill Nelson seeks to extend prescription drug subsidies to Puerto Rico seniors

Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is seeking to extend Medicare low-income prescription drug subsidies to resident of Puerto Rico, with a bill he filed today.

Nelson’s office estimated that the bill could help an estimated 400,000 low-income seniors in Puerto Rico afford the cost of prescription drugs.

While low-income seniors living in the continental U.S. may be eligible for the Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy program, seniors living in a U.S. territory, such as Puerto Rico, are not.

A separate program was established in 2003 to allow for low-income seniors’ subsidies for prescription drugs but the program requires the government of Puerto Rico to match about half the subsidy and the economically-strapped government is unable to anymore, Nelson’s office said in a press release.

“This is inherently unfair,” Nelson said in the release. “This bill will help seniors living in Puerto better afford the cost of their prescription drugs by simply putting them on the same footing as seniors living in the states.”

Last month Puerto Rico warned the U.S. of a looming health care crisis if it is unable to solve its current fiscal crisis.

Nelson’s measure, which has yet to be assigned a bill number,  will head to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.

Airbnb signs up Miami-Dade, Broward for vacation rental tax collection

Vacation rental home marketing giant Arbnb has signed agreements with the state’s two most populous counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, in its efforts to coordinate tax collection from participating property owners, the company announced Tuesday.

The agreements mean that Arbnb will collect tourist taxes from the vacation rental homes it is booking and turn those over to the tax collectors of Broward and Miami-Dade, the two busiest counties in the company’s app-based marketing system.

Airbnb now has arranged such contracts with 38 of Florida’s 63 counties that assess tourist taxes.

The company stated in a news release that it also seeks to collaborate with the city of Miami Beach (one of three Florida municipalities that requires its own tourist tax deal) on a municipal tax collection agreement that would infuse over $2 million in new annual revenue to the city.

“The tax agreements with Miami-Dade and Broward counties reflect a core component of Airbnb’s mission to be good partners to Florida counties and municipalities,” Airbnb Florida policy director Tom Martinelli stated in the news release. “Hundreds of thousands of people seek to responsibly and authentically experience South Florida through home sharing platforms. These agreements will infuse vital new revenue streams into Miami-Dade and Broward by making it seamless and easy for our hosts to pay their fair share of taxes.”

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