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Scott Powers

Bob Cortes, others renew call for Aramis Ayala’s removal

Repeatedly saying that his concern is with her blanket statement to decline death penalty prosecutions, state Rep. Bob Cortes renewed his call Tuesday for the resignation or suspension of Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala.

Cortes is emerging as one of Ayala’s sternest critics after the state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit announced last month that she had concluded the death penalty is not just for anyone and would not pursue it.

That’s resulted in Gov. Rick Scott stripping 22 murder cases from her office and reassigning them, a move Cortes applauded Tuesday in a press conference at the Florida Capital.

But Cortes and state Rep. Scott Plakon, both of Altamonte Springs, made it clear they believe Ayala is derelict in her duties because her blanket statement means she will not review each case individually, as they believe she must.

The dispute with critics such as Cortes and Scott resides on the interpretation of a state attorney’s right and responsibility to exercise prosecutorial discretion.

Ayala and her supporters, who includes a group of lawyers, retired judges, retired Florida Supreme Court justices and law professors who signed a letter supporting her, and who, at last count, numbered more than 160, argue that prosecutorial discretion gives her the power to do what she has done.

Cortez and others counter that the prosecutorial discretion must be applied case-by-case.

“If she would not have made the statement that she was not seeking the death penalty, I think none of us would be up here, to be honest with you,” Cortes said.

“If she used each individual case, and [made decisions to not pursue the death penalty] based on the merit and aggravated circumstances, yeah, we would be a little critical,” he continued. “But I don’t think we’d be calling for her removal, because that’s within her purview. She made a statement that she cannot retract, that said, ‘I will not seek any death penalty cases here now or in the future.’ That’s where I’m coming from.”

For the third time in a month, Cortes said he has asked Scott to suspend her from office.

“Article 4, Section 7, of the Florida Constitution says the governor may suspend based on neglect of duty,” he said. “By not reviewing each case based on aggravating circumstances, I believe this is a neglect of duty and she must either resign or the governor must suspend her and appoint someone in her place.”

Cortes and Plakon also were joined Tuesday by two other members of Central Florida’s Republican House delegation, Mike Miller of Winter Park, and Rene Plasencia of Orlando, while Jennifer Sullivan sent her support for them but could not attend.

However, only Cortes and Plakon spoke up, with Plakon adding criticism that his proposed $1.3 million budget cut for Ayala’s office should not hurt prosecution in Orange and Osceola counties because her office has so many vacancies.

“In recent days the state attorney… has been in various media outlets talking about the ‘parade of horribles’ that may happen if the 21 positions and $1.3 million is cut from the budget,” Plakon said.

Plakon cited state data that says her office currently has 60 openings out of 386.5 positions. Ayala’s office told that it has 33 vacancies, with five more employees coming on line soon.

“Thirty-three is still greater than 21. So all of the statements she’s made about the harm coming and so on, these are vacant positions she’s talking about,” Plakon said.



‘Single worst case:’ Bill compensating Barahona twins’ survivors gets committee approval

In a case of two young children who endured torture, sexual abuse, violence, murder and attempted murder by an adoptive family while the Florida Department of Children and Families did nothing, a House committee Tuesday voted to support a $5 million settlement.

The money would go to Victor Docter Barahona, now 16, who survived the physical and mental abuse, torture, and attempted murder, and to other beneficiaries including blood relatives of his and his twin sister Nubia Docter Barahona, whose equally-horrific young life ended with her murder at age 10 in 2011.

“This is for me the single worst case that I’ve ever seen,” said state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican, who sponsored House Bill 6523 along with state Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat.

Jorge and Carmen Barahona, who fostered the twins and then adopted them, are awaiting trial on first-degree murder and numerous other charges in a Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

The 2011 case led to national outrage and alarm toward, and reforms of, the Department of Children and Families, including reforms pushed by Diaz.

“At every step of the way there were errors, there were flags that DCF should have seen,” he told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Government Operations and Technology while presenting the bill.

Revealed evidence alleges that the twins had undergone seven years of abuse that included being tied up in bathtubs, force-fed feces, electrical shocks, sexual battery, and numerous other torturous acts during their custody with the Barahonas. Eventually, in 2011, the two children were found in Jorge Barahona’s truck bed covered with caustic chemicals. Nubia was dead; Victor was alive but in critical condition.

In a report he filed with the Florida Legislature on Feb. 28, House Special Master Parker Aziz agreed with Diaz that DCF had numerous opportunities and responsibilities to intervene.

“In sum, the cumulative effect of the evidence shows that DCF should have known the twins were being abused and failed to prevent the situation from continuing. DCF employees performed their tasks in a mere perfunctory fashion, filling out forms and bubbling in boxes without adequate critical thinking and analysis of the data they were collecting,” Aziz wrote. “The Department and its employees had a duty and breached that duty.”

Victor and the other blood-family survivors had sued DCF in two cases, one in circuit court and one in federal court.

On March 6, 2013, DCF entered into a settlement with the plaintiffs in the federal case for $1,250,000, which has been paid. As a part of the settlement, DCF agreed to settle the state negligence claims and not oppose this $3,750,000 claim bill and submit a letter supporting the claimants. On June 18, 2013 the state case was settled under the same terms.

Yet the compensation attempts for Victor and some of his blood relatives have died in the Florida Legislature in each of the last three sessions.

This year the companion bill is Senate Bill 18, which is in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The twins had been placed with the Barahonas when they were preschoolers because their birth mother was a drug addict.

“God bless her children. May this never happen again,” Diaz concluded.

Randolph Bracy comes to Aramis Ayala’s defense with NY Times op-ed

Democratic state Senator Randolph Bracy has published a national defense of Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala Tuesday with an op-ed column in the New York Times contending Gov. Rick Scott has overreached in removing cases from her.

In the column headlined “Florida’s Vengeful Governor,” Bracy argues that Scott’s reassignment of 22 death penalty cases from Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, prosecuted by Ayala, to Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit, prosecuted by State Attorney Brad King, is without precedent or any legal foundation.

Scott did so because Ayala announced that she had concluded that Florida’s death penalty is not just for anyone and she would not pursue it in any cases. Last month Scott used an executive order to reassign the case of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd. On Monday he used 21 more executive orders to reassign the cases of 21 others.

Bracy called Scott’s actions “retaliation.”

“They are meant to punish the state attorney, Aramis D. Ayala, Florida’s first black elected prosecutor, for announcing she would no longer seek the death penalty because it was not in the best interest of her jurisdiction, which stretches from Orlando to Kissimmee,” Bracy wrote.

“Ms. Ayala rightly argued that capital punishment does not deter crime, nor does it protect police officers. Instead, it often leads to protracted appeals, and rarely delivers closure to the victim’s family,” he continued.

Bracy argued that Ayala is well within her rights and duties as a state attorney to make that decision and set that policy.

“Although Ms. Ayala’s critics have denounced her actions as dereliction of duty, they cannot point to a single law or statute that she has violated. That’s because she hasn’t,” Bracy writes. “There are no federal or state laws that say prosecutors must seek death sentences. And the United States Supreme Court has banned all state laws that make executions mandatory for murders.”

Although Ayala has received broad support from various Democratic, Civil Rights, religious, legal, and anti-death penalty groups, Bracy has been one of the few elected officials who has aggressively defended her.

Bracy concedes in the column that he might not share Ayala’s view on the death penalty, but he respects her rights and duties of prosecutorial discretion and the fact that she is an independent elected official placed in office by voters.

He also noted the racial history of the death penalty and his own effort, through a bill, to address equal justice concerns.

“As a black man, I see the death penalty as a powerful symbol of injustice in which race often determines who lives and who dies, especially in Florida,” Bracy wrote. “The state has the second-largest number of death row inmates in the country, after California, and African-Americans are grossly overrepresented on Florida’s death row. This disproportionality was a driving force behind my bill. And while I felt that Florida was not ready to relinquish the death penalty, I tried to make it more fair.”

Auburn license plate proposal dropped in committee

Football fans of rival Auburn University probably won’t be getting a Florida commemorative plate this year.

A provision to allow for the production of Auburn license plates was dropped from state Sen. Keith Perry‘s Senate Bill 1374 through an amendment added Monday in the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee.

That left the bill focusing on the intent of its title: on efforts to honor veterans in Florida with various highway designations and license plates.

The bill, touted for its veterans’ angles and with nary a word spoken about the Auburn plate during Monday’s committee meeting, was unanimously approved Monday afternoon by committee after an amendment struck the Auburn provision from the bill.

The companion bill, House Bill 1375, is now in the House Government Accountability Committee.


Chris King to kick off gubernatorial run as Democrat

After more than a month of silent campaign building since he filed to run for governor, Orlando Democratic businessman Chris King is ready to come out into the limelight,

King announced he will be holding his campaign kickoff at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Hillcrest Hampton House in Orlando. That is a senior affordable housing community his company renovated.

He is one of two Democrats to announce their candidacies to run for governor in 2018, along with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. But the silent mode of King’s campaign staff building since he filed his paperwork in February has left him behind three other potential candidates, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine, and Orlando attorney John Morgan, when it comes to introducing himself, his views and his plans to Florida.

An advisory released by his campaign Monday morning says he “will call for a new kind of leadership, and movement of people ready for a new direction to ‘rise up so Florida can lead again.’”

That is consistent with the few remarks the developer of affordable and senior housing projects has made in the past.

“As many of you are probably aware, next Tuesday I will be launching my candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Governor, and I look forward traveling all around this state getting to know so many of you,” King stated in a video presentation provided to a gathering of statewide Democrats Saturday night at the Florida Democratic Party’s DCCA Retreat.

“We can win this race in 2018, and I want to be the type of candidate that makes that possible and gets you excited again about what is possible in Florida,” King said.

Gillum, Graham, and Levine all attended the retreat in person, gave live speeches, and worked the crowd.

King, founder and CEO of Elevation Financial Group, a private equity real estate investment company, characterized himself as a “progressive entrepreneur” in his video to the Democrats’ retreat.

In tweets he posted last week, he declared, “I’m running for Governor of Florida because politics as usual isn’t working.” He also tweeted, “Florida should lead the nation, but today we’re falling behind on jobs, wages, education, health care, and hope.”

So far, he’s putting together a team that includes Charlie Crist‘s former campaign manager Omar Khan to serve as his senior adviser, as well as adding other Barack Obama alumni Jeremy Bird, Hari Sevugan, Larry Girsolano, and Isaac Baker to his team.

Rick Scott strips 21 more murder cases from Aramis Ayala’s jurisdiction

Gov. Rick Scott has stripped 21 more first-degree murder cases from Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala and reassigned them to Ocala’s State Attorney Brad King to prosecute.

In 21 new executive orders decrying Ayala’s announced policy to not pursue the death penalty in any cases in her 9th Judicial Circuit, Scott declared his “grave concerns regarding her willingness to abide by and uphold the uniform application of laws in the state of Florida.”

“The ends of justice will be best served by the assignment of another state attorney,” Scott’s orders declare.

The reassignments follow Scott’s action last month stripping the case of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd from her and reassigning it to King. Ayala has disputed the governor’s authority to do so and has vowed to challenge that action in court.

Ayala’s office replied with this statement:

“State Attorney Ayala became aware of the Governors reassignment of 21 cases this afternoon after the Governor released it to media outlets.

“There was never official notification from his office.

“Ms. Ayala remains steadfast in her position the Governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system.”

King is state attorney for the neighboring Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit.

The move drew swift response from one Democrat, state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa, who released the following statement:

“Regardless of your opinion of the death penalty, today’s decision by Governor Scott to reassign twenty-one first degree murder cases away from State Attorney Aramis Ayala is a gross abuse of his power and authority as the state’s chief executive.

“State Attorney Ayala was duly elected by the voters of the Ninth Judicial Circuit and her right to exercise prosecutorial discretion in the interest of justice is not up for debate.”

Six of the new cases are pending in the 9th Judicial Circuit Court. The other 15 cases involved inmates who already were convicted, but whose death penalties were overturned in the Florida Supreme Court decision in the Hurst vs. Florida case. Those cases are being remanded back for new trials.

And so, Scott stripped the current cases of Darell Avant, DeMorris Andy Hunter, David Lewis Payne, Larry Perry, Juan Rosario, and Sanel Saint-Simon, for whom Ayala’s predecessors, either Jeff Ashton or Lawson Lamar, had sought the death penalty.

He also stripped the remanded cases of Dolan Darling, Steven Maurice Evans, David Sylvester Francis, Thomas Lee Gudinas, Sean S. Huggans, Sonny Ray Jeffries, Jermaine Lebron, Derrick McLean, Lionel Michael Miller, Robert Ira Peede, Theodore Rodgers Jr., Henry Perry Sireci Jr., Dusty Ray Spencer, William Melvin White, and Todd A. Zommer.

Lionfish tagging, hunting pythons, designating reefs: bills pass House committee

If anyone has ever tried to insert a passive integration transponder tag into a lionfish, they may have an idea of how seriously the Florida House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee is viewing control of invasive species.

Under House Bill 587, lionfish become one of three invasive species animals, along with python snakes and tegu lizards, the state would seek to better control through a pilot project that includes state-sponsored hunting and fishing, and the requirement that pet shop owners tag any of the animals they sell.

“The problem is with lionfish, it’s really difficult to do. You’re going to have to tag them. This will perhaps essentially hinder them [pets hops] from selling this invasive species,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Halsey Beshears of Monticello.

“So the elephant in the room question is: why are we selling invasive species?” asked Republican state Rep. Rick Roth of Loxahatchee.

“That’s a fantastic question indeed. I would ask you the same,” Beshears replied.

While Florida’s efforts to control pythons and tegu lizards are well-known, long-standing, and likely to use most of the $300,000 this bill would set aside for invasive species hunts, lionfish, native to Pacific Ocean coral reefs, are a different challenge altogether. Once released from someone’s aquarium, lionfish tend to make their way to the Great Florida Reef, where they attack and decimate native species of fish.

Republican state Rep. Holly Raschein, whose Key Largo-based district includes much of the Great Florida Reef as well as much of the Everglades, where the pythons and tegus are multiplying, called the bill “incredible.”

“As you all know, District 120 is like ground zero when it comes to the invasion of these exotic species. I’d like to see us go even further,” she said.

HB 587 was one of two bills considered and unanimously approved by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Committee Monday that would potentially help the Great Florida Reef ecosystem.

House Bill 1143 would create the largely on-paper-only Southeast Florida Coral Reef Ecosystem Conservation Area, designating a geographic box around the north portion of the Great Florida Reef as a conservation zone.

This would allow for authorities to apply for and receive state and federal grants for specific research and protection programs for the reef, which has been undergoing significant degradation in recent years, said Chair Ben Albritton, the Wauchula Republican who presented HB 1143 on behalf of Democratic state Rep. Kristin Jacobs of Coconut Creek, who was unable to attend.

“A serious coral epidemic began in 2014 and is continuing to spread along the world-famous Florida reef track from the Dry Tortugas north to Martin County,” Albritton said.

“In the last two years, 21 of the 35 coral species off our southeaster coastline have died,” Albritton continued. “The intent of the bill is to create a box of the north Florida Reef track and bracket the area for water quality monitoring.”

Legislature to consider cuts to Aramis Ayala’s office — deeper or angrier

The Florida Legislature may be negotiating how to cut funding to the office of 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala — and ironically the less-controversial potential cut to her budget is the bigger of two now moving through committees.

That sorting may begin this week when the House and Senate appropriations committees begin their close looks at the pieces the state budget proposals coming in from their various subcommittees.

State Rep. Scott Plakon, the Altamonte Springs Republican who has been extremely critical of Ayala since she announced her no-death-penalty stance. And when he engineered the line-item, $1.3 million budget cut that wound up included in the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee he made it clear the cut was a result of that stance.

“She’s not prosecuting death penalty cases, so this is essentially the money to be used for death penalty cases,” Plakon said.

Democrats and Ayala’s office have blasted that cut and charged that the Orange County Republican members of that subcommittee — Eric Eisnaugle, Rene Plasencia and Jennifer Sullivan — are putting their own constituents at public safety risk by slashing money for prosecuting criminals.

“The impact of cutting 1.3 million dollars and eliminating 21 positions would severely impact this agency’s ability to effectively prosecute crimes,” Ayala declared in a public statement.

Toward the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice’s budget proposal, there has been very little public criticism. Yet that cut is about $160,000 deeper than Plakon’s plan, at $1.46 million shaved from her budget.

The lack of criticism might start because state Sen. Aaron Bean, chairman of that committee, has made no public criticisms of Ayala and made no overt connections between the cut he is proposing and the state attorney’s position on capital punishment. Instead, Bean, a Jacksonville attorney, characterized his proposed cut as eliminating two programs that were first funded only this year, and which he thinks can’t continue under tight budget restraints now facing the state.

Those two programs, funding for domestic violence and human trafficking, are two programs Ayala cares about a great deal. She campaigned in part on the need for improved prosecution of domestic violence cases.

State Sen. Randolph Bracy of Oakland has promised to try to get the Senate cut removed from the budget.

Either cut is assumed to eliminate 21 positions, and reduce the 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office budget and staffing back to roughly 2015-16 levels. This year, adding domestic violence and human trafficking prosecution earmarks, the office got $29.4 million, good for 385 employees. Last year the office got $28 million, good for 364 positions.

Poll shows 80% of Floridians OK with vacation home rentals

A new poll commissioned by the vacation home rental giant Airbnb shows that Floridians are overwhelmingly supportive of the idea of people renting out their homes to tourists.

The poll found 80 percent support allowing Florida residents to rent out their homes through Airbnb and more than half think the rapidly-rising trend is good for the state.

And the poll also found that surveyed voters would support taking away cities’ and counties’ abilities to regulate vacation rentals, leaving it up to the state, a question addressing two bills moving through the Florida Legislature.

Fabrizio, Lee & Associates pollsters David Lee and Tony Fabrizio, a Republican strategist who played key rolls in the campaigns of both Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump, surveyed 1,200 registered voters from March 9-12. The partisan split was 38 percent Democrat, 35 percent Republican, and 27 percent independent or something else; and the pollsters reported a 2.8 percent margin of error.

“There is overwhelming support for allowing Floridians to rent out their homes through Airbnb,” the pollsters concluded.

The poll gave overwhelming support for that conclusion. The key question about home rentals found 80 percent support and 20 percent opposition. And the support was within the margin of error of 80 percent for Republicans, Democrats, independents, and for voters in north, central and south Florida. Republicans and south Floridians offered the least support – 78 percent each.

The question of whether the practice is good for Florida showed similar unanimity. Overall, 52 percent of those surveyed said it was good for Florida, 35 percent said it was neutral, and 13 percent bad. Republicans were slightly below those levels, at 49 percent good, 35 percent neutral and 16 percent bad. All other breakouts showed majorities thinking it is good.

Seventy-three percent of those surveyed said they favored having the state, not local governments, registering rental properties; and 64 percent said they would support changing state law to prevent cities and counties from imposing restrictions on vacation homes.

House Bill 425 and Senate Bill 188 would prevent cities and counties from regulating vacation rental houses.

Opponents of those bills are raising several broad concerns. First, that in some communities the vacation rental business is expanding so fast it is taking over some communities. Second, that the vacation rental industry is in some cases is not following the home-owner renting out his house model, but rather seeing companies buying up numerous homes in a community and centrally renting them all like a hotel with units all over town. Third, they said they have rising concern that in some cases the vacationers staying in the homes become nuisances to both home owner neighbors on the block, and to city police and other services. And finally, cities and counties are arguing that they’re closer to the their communities and should have a say about how to regulate them.

But the poll sends a clear message about politicians interested in deciding the issues. Overall, 39 percent said they would be more likely to support politicians who favor home rentals, while 46 percent said such a policy would have no impact on their votes, and 15 percent said they would be less likely to support such politicians. The splits were similar for Republicans, Democrats, independents, and north, central and south Floridians, with Republican and south Floridians slightly less impressed by such politicians.

Brightline railroad wins key court decision for environmental permit

The company planning the Brightline passenger train service has won a key State Administrative Court decision in a case that was holding up an environmental permit needed for the West Palm Beach to Orlando leg of the train line.

On Thursday Administrative Judge Bram Canter sided with Brightline and the St. Johns River Water Management District, in a dispute in which another water authority was charging that the railroad’s proposed bridges were too low over canals.

Canter disagreed with the petition from the Indian River Farms Water Control District in Indian River County. That frees up the Environmental Resource Permit Brightline needs to build the bridges in Indian River County. Without the permit the company could not move forward, and its limbo state since Indian River Farms WCD challenged it last fall was one of key factors preventing Brightline from being able to move foreword seeking $1.1 billion in financing it needs for the project.

Brightline, formerly known as All Aboard Florida, intends to open up a privately-owned and -operated passenger service train this year connecting West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Its next phase is to upgrade and double-track a route from West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport, to accommodate passenger trains that can go 110-mph up the coast, and 120 mph heading inland to Orlando.

But that plan requires the environmental permits to build new bridges over numerous canals and other water bodies.

Thursday’s victory is only one of two Brightline needs. It still faces a petition challenging another permit it needed for projects farther south along the route. Martin and St. Lucie Counties are fighting to invalidate Brightline’s environmental permit from the South Florida Water Management District.

Still, Brightline hailed Thursday’s victory in a statement.

“This ruling is further demonstration that Brightline is adhering to all regulations for the construction of its system,” Myles Tobin, General Counsel for Brightline stated in that release. “As Treasure Coast taxpayers continue to spend millions on legal challenges fighting Brightline, we continue to invest more than $1.3 billion to connect the state’s most populated centers, creating jobs and spurring economic opportunities. We are planning for Phase 2 while preparing to launch the South Florida service in several months.”

Indian River Farms WCD had contended that its engineers had determined the bridges would be too low, putting them within the 100-year flood plain, and creating a obstruction problem that could cause drainage problems in the canals. Yet Brightline’s plans for double-tracking the route include building new bridges identical in height to the old ones they would join. And the St. Johns River WMD convinced the judge that height was not in the 100-year flood plain.

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