Staff Reports, Author at Florida Politics - Page 3 of 162

Staff Reports

Money problem: Matt Caldwell calls for Denise Grimsley to return Jack Latvala cash

Clearwater state Sen. Jack Latvala may have been gone from Tallahassee for months now, but his political committee continues to be in play.

And that action is becoming an issue in the race for Agriculture Commissioner.

Per POLITICO Florida, Latvala’s Florida Leadership Committee has moved $400,000 into four other political committees run by lobbyist David Ramba. Of that pass-through money, $25,000 of it made its way to Sebring state Sen. Denise Grimsley — which Lehigh Acres Rep. Matt Caldwell’s campaign says helped her get “political welfare” (or public financing, as it is less pejoratively known).

Grimsley had returned $72,000 of Latvala lucre after the scandal broke. However, Caldwell is presently concerned with the ramifications of the recently revealed $25,000 drop.

“Denise already recognized it was wrong to take money from Jack Latvala by giving it charity — why has she continued to take his money? Was she hoping she could accept the contributions without anyone noticing? We cannot trust a Commissioner whose hand is always in the cookie jar when they need a personal bailout, or who will take money from anyone willing to write a check,” Caldwell asserted.

“Denise should return the money she received from Jack Latvala immediately. She should not accept his contributions and furthermore, should return the hard-earned money of Florida taxpayers — to the tune of nearly a quarter of a million dollars — and lead as a conservative. Public financing of statewide political campaigns is a waste of taxpayer dollars and a disservice to Florida’s hardworking families,” Caldwell added.

Grimsley’s campaign is dismissing Caldwell’s accusations as “dirty politics” from someone lagging in the polls.

“Is Caldwell implying earmarking and that Senator Grimsley is somehow engaging in such behavior? That would be very disappointing for him to engage in such nasty politics. We can only assume it is because she is the best candidate in the race and winning the primary, so now he is resorting to attacking her,” said Grimsley campaign spokesperson Sarah Bascom in an email to Florida Politics. “We also find it ironic that he calls on her to return campaign financing that candidates he is actively supporting have also accepted.

“Is he also going to call on all of the candidates that have accepted these funds to return them or is this just another political stunt to revive his campaign? He can’t have it both ways.”

This has been an expensive race, with all three candidates encountering name ID challenges.

Grimsley and Caldwell have each raised more than $2 million, and have over a million each on hand. Rep. Baxter Troutman of Winter Haven has invested $3 million of his own money in the race.

Sun Sentinel faces contempt for story on school shooting suspect

A Florida newspaper faced an ethical dilemma after a school district’s mistake exposed details that were supposed to be redacted from its lengthy examination of the education of school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz.

The material two judges had ordered kept secret shows that Broward County school officials failed to follow state and federal laws that provide for disabled students. It lays out in abundant detail why Cruz needed the school system’s therapeutic services. It describes how bureaucratic failures essentially left the mentally disturbed 18-year-old without support for 14 months leading up to the attack that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The district publicly released the report Friday with nearly two-thirds of its content blacked out to protect Cruz’s privacy rights. But the report was prepared in a way that anyone could see the entire text after copy-pasting the blacked-out report into a Word document.

Alerted by a reader that the full report was visible, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel decided that it couldn’t hold back these details, and had a duty to report Friday night on the mistakes school officials made.

Events surrounding the shooting are “of the utmost importance to our community,” Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson explained in a story on Tuesday.

The Broward County school board is urging the judges to hold the paper and two of its reporters in contempt. The board’s filing says the newspaper “opted to report, publicly, information that this court had ordered to be redacted despite agreeing, on the record, that this information was protected by Florida and federal law. This is a clear violation of court orders and constitutes contempt of court.”

The Associated Press and other media organizations limited their Friday reports to the blacked-out version, which was more general in nature.

Contempt of court can be punishable by a fine or even jail time. A lawyer for the Sun Sentinel declined comment, and no hearing has been set before Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer. She is presiding over the Cruz criminal case and approved release of the redacted education report Friday despite claims from Cruz’s defense attorneys it would threaten his right to a fair trial.

Another judge approved the redactions as well.

The Sun Sentinel is the main local paper in Broward County, and Anderson said its readers have a right to know as much as possible about events leading up to the shooting.

“After consulting attorneys about the situation, and realizing the school district had made the full report public, we published a second story that gave more context,” she said.

The 70-page report commissioned by the school board was done by the Tallahassee-based consulting firm Collaborative Educational Network Inc. The Sun-Sentinel reported that the consultant concluded that school officials did not follow state or federal law regarding special needs or disabled students.

The newspaper reported that officials misinformed Cruz about his options after the failure of efforts to mainstream him at Stoneman Douglas. This misinformation led Cruz to refuse special education services, and because he was 18 by then, he could make such decisions without parental involvement. Cruz later asked to return to an alternative school for special education students, but the district failed to follow through.

That meant Cruz had no counseling or special education services in the 14 months before the Valentine’s Day massacre. The report draws no conclusions about what role that played in the shooting.

Broward schools superintendent Robert Runcie said the board always intended to eventually release the entire Cruz report. The school board’s contempt filing says the redactions were done only to comply with state and federal privacy laws. Runcie told the paper Friday that “it should not be insinuated or suggested at all that we wanted to redact or hide portions from the public.”

Runcie also said that the purpose of the report was to explain to the public what happened, to fix any problems identified by the experts, and to better train staff in the future. The details accidentally revealed do not alter any of the conclusions, he said.

Cruz, 19, faces the death penalty if convicted of murder. His attorneys have said he will plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but prosecutors have rejected that offer.

Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

Delegation for 8.7.18 — Insights from the Beltway to the Sunshine State

Will Ohio special election leave any takeaways for Florida?

On Tuesday, the last special election before the November election, was playing out in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District. The final results can provide some useful information on whether the “blue wave” is alive and well and if Florida Republicans in competitive races should be concerned.

This contest between Ohio Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson and Franklin County (Columbus) Recorder Danny O’Connor to fill the unexpired term of retiring GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi, has the attention of the political nation. With good reason because even before the votes were counted, some interesting forces favoring both sides were in play.

Will the race to replace Ohio’s Pat Tiberi be a bellwether for Florida?

The latest poll showed Balderson with a statistically-insignificant one-point lead.

District 12 is comprised of parts of Columbus and surrounding areas. It is 87 percent white and the median income is over $60,000.

President Donald Trump won the district by 11 points in 2016. While redistricting has altered it to some extent, District 12 has been represented by a Republican for most of the last century, including several terms by Gov. John Kasich.

Fundraising is close with O’Connor raising $1.5 million and Balderson with $1.26 million. Democrats have reason to be excited by the fact that a staggering 53 percent of O’Connor’s donors are small donors of less than $200, while only 5 percent of Balderson’s contributions fit that description.

That could translate into enthusiastic voters and worthy of attention in Florida. The most recent fundraising reports from Florida’s competitive House races reveal that very few reach even the 20 percent mark in small donors.

Among Republicans in competitive races who have raised at least $1 million, only Brian Mast in District 18 tops the 20 percent mark in small donors. His $4 million total includes 31 percent from small donors.

Among Democrats, state Rep. David Richardson reported 37 percent of his $1.8 million raised came from donations under $200. Richardson, like his District 27 opponent Donna Shalala, has also self-funded at least 25 percent of their campaigns.

Among Sen. Bill Nelson’s $17.9 million haul, 20 percent came from small donors.

If there is a bright spot for Republicans in Ohio, it is the possibility of a strong voter turnout. In the primary, O’Connor earned the votes of 40 percent of the 43,910 percent of Democratic voters.

Balderson barely edged Melanie Leneghan by less than 1,000 votes but 67,120 Republicans showed up to vote, or 65 percent more than Democrats. Perhaps Democratic enthusiasm has increased since the primary, but Balderson has a larger pool of available voters.

Trump visited the district Saturday and Republicans are hoping he can inspire the base to embrace Balderson as Florida primary voters seem to be doing for Rep. Ron DeSantis in the primary for governor. The president’s endorsement of DeSantis has turned the race around.

In the end, whether it be in Ohio or Florida, independents and swing voters will make a choice as to whether they like a candidate. For his part, O’Connor says he will not support Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker, which is becoming more appealing even to a growing number of Democrats.

If O’Connor wins despite the inherent disadvantages, Florida Republicans will know District 27 will not be the only one in true danger of flipping. Even if Balderson squeaks by, the two will likely square off again in November.

Nelson preparing to hit the airwaves in a big way

Gov. Rick Scott has dominated the airwaves since announcing he would challenge Nelson for the incumbent’s Senate seat. The two-term governor has raised $22 million since announcing his run in the spring and spent $18 million, most of that on television ads attacking Nelson.

Nelson has been able to return a few punches and put out a positive ad through the help of the Senate Majority PAC (SMP), who paid for the recent ad hitting Scott on health care. Nelson supporters may have reason to believe the cavalry is on the way.

To watch the ad, click on the image below:


The Nelson campaign has confirmed a Politico report that they have reserved $18 million in television airtime to begin the day after the Aug. 28 primary. The amount is likely to keep Nelson on the air for the remainder of the campaign.

He will need to keep a strong fundraising effort to fund the ads and the rest of his campaign operations. He had $13.7 million on hand through June 30.

Nelson will get even further help from SMP, who has already committed $23 million more on pro-Nelson/anti-Scott ads. Those will begin October 2.

Rubio takes up cause of paid family leave

Last year, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio championed an issue normally associated with Democrats poll better than Republicans and he is doing it again this summer. Last week he unveiled the Economic Security for New Parents Act, which would give new parents the option of using some of their Social Security benefits to take at least two months of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child.

In late 2017, Rubio and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee took the lead on expanding the Child Tax Credit as part of the GOP tax cut bill under consideration. In the end, Rubio voted for the bill, but earlier threatened to vote “no” unless the Child Tax Credit was increased.

Marco Rubio and Mike Lee take a stand on paid leave for new parents.

Rubio has joined with Missouri Republican Rep. Ann Wagner in the effort to help low-income families earn paid family leave, which they describe as the “social insecurity of our time.” Wagner introduced the House companion bill.

“Far too many new parents take on new debt or fall onto welfare programs just to pay for their basic living costs after having a child,” Rubio and Wagner wrote in a recent op-ed for USA Today.

“Stories abound of mothers returning to work just days after giving birth. This sad reality threatens our nation’s ability to provide for safe and healthy moms and kids during one of the most important periods of their lives,” they added.

Trump, Jr. visits Panhandle for Gaetz, DeSantis

Last Monday, Trump was in Tampa whipping up the crowd for Republicans in general, DeSantis’ bid for governor in particular. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach was also in attendance.

Three days later, Donald Trump, Jr. was in Niceville campaigning for Gaetz, while DeSantis joined in. About 1,000 people gathered at Northwest Florida State College’s Raider Arena.

Trump Jr. touted his father’s successes and promoted a staunchly conservative agenda, coming out strong in support of DeSantis, Gaetz and other Republican candidates who he said would support and bolster his father’s policies. Like his father, he blasted Democrats and the media.

Donald Trump Jr. speaks at a Niceville rally for Matt Gaetz. (Image via Jim Little/

“If Donald Trump came out in favor of oxygen, the other side would be against it,” he said to raucous applause. “They’re overplaying their hand. Real Americans, hardworking Americans like yourselves … they see what’s going on and they’re going to come to our side.”

Once he reached the podium, Gaetz took verbal shots at his primary opponent, Cris Dosev, but then got to the red meat that the president is known to deliver. After touting his help in securing $70 million in funding for local military operations, Gaetz said it was time to “drain the swamp.”

“Special interests still have too much control in Washington, D.C., and there are really only two types of people in Washington: those who believe there’s a swamp that needs to be drained, and those who think it’s a mud bath to be enjoyed,” he said. “People like me and Ron DeSantis, we are going to drain that swamp.”

The crowd responded accordingly.

Gaetz is expected to have little difficulty in winning a second term. As of June 30, he had $455,000 cash on hand while his two Republican and two Democratic opponents had less than $35,000 combined.

Lawson, Brown go at it in CD 2 joint interview

Sitting side-by-side, Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee and his Congressional District 2 challenger Alvin Brown went at it late last week. The venue was not a formal debate, but a joint interview with the editorial board of the Tallahassee Democrat.

The two argued on several issues, including Lawson’s past support for the Stand Your Ground law. Brown, the former Mayor of Jacksonville wants the law repealed while Lawson stood by his support, but said it could be tweaked and the controversy surrounding a killing in St. Petersburg is about the law being interpreted incorrectly.

Al Lawson and Alvin Brown throw down.

Brown criticized Lawson’s vote that went against those Democrats calling for the abolishment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). Lawson pointed out that ICE does more than merely arrest illegal immigrants.

Lawson described Brown’s record as mayor as “a disaster” and offered a retort to Brown’s description of his accomplishments during his term. “If you did all those things, then the people would have probably sent you back as mayor, Alvin.”

Brown came back by calling Lawson “a conservative,” and “Donald Trump’s favorite Democrat.”

“His voting record (in the Florida Legislature) before he went to Congress was always a conservative,” Brown charged.

In response Lawson said he was a moderate, “and there’s nothing wrong with being a moderate.”

The exchange was for informational purposes only. The newspaper does not make candidate endorsements.

Sturgill brings abortion into CD 7 race with new attack ad on Miller

With the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for U.S. Supreme Court justice, the issue of Roe v. Wade, and abortion in general, has taken center stage. It is also trickling into primary and general election campaigns for Congress.

In District 7, Republican Scott Sturgill, a Sanford businessman, launched a new ad against his primary foe, state Rep. Mike Miller in which Sturgill seeks to reaffirm his pro-life bona fides. The ad’s title, Thank You Liberal Mike Miller, sets the tone.

To see the ad, click on the image below:


The ad features a young woman praising Miller’s support for women’s abortion rights, then takes a further step attempting to peel Republican support from Miller. It thanks Miller for “resisting President Trump’s ‘assault on Roe v. Wade.’”

About halfway through, the video screeches to a halt with Sturgill appearing on the screen saying “I’m the only candidate that is 100 percent pro-life, and endorsed by Florida Right to Life.”

Sturgill’s campaign said the ad is based on Miller’s vote on House Bill 41, which involved a vote on funding for Planned Parenthood. The campaign said Miller was one of only three Republicans to vote for it.

The Miller campaign blasted Sturgill, citing Miller’s record on pro-life issues.

“It looks like Planned Parenthood has either teamed up with Scott Sturgill or this ad is a complete fabrication, which presents even larger problems for our opponent’s campaign,” Miller campaign spokeswoman Dana Loncar said in a written response. “It is appalling that Sturgill would stoop to such desperate levels to mislead voters when Mike is an “F” ranked legislator by them, because of his pro-life stance.”

Both Miller and Sturgill reported under $400,000 cash on hand as of June 30. The winner will most likely take on Democratic incumbent Stephanie Murphy, who has $1.6 million left to spend.

Soto blasts deportation of veteran’s spouse

A controversial deportation of the wife of an Iraq veteran has some in the Orlando area upset with the procedures for selecting who among undocumented immigrants are targeted for removal. Democratic Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando is outraged it came to this.

On Friday, Alejandra Juarez boarded a plane for Mexico after attempts by Soto and others to prevent her deportation failed. Soto proposed legislation called the Protect Patriot Spouses Act and publicized his constituent’s plight, but to no avail.

Alejandra Juarez says goodbye to daughters Pamela, 16, and Estella, 8, as U.S. Rep. Darren Soto looks on.

“We are utterly disappointed in the decision by ICE to deny Alejandra’s stay of removal. Alejandra deserves to stay in the country she has called home for over 20 years,” Soto said in a news release. “The country her husband patriotically served as a Marine and Florida National Guardsman. The only country her two American-born daughters have known. The Juarez family deserves to stay together in the United States.”

Juarez has no criminal record, but was subject to deportation following her illegal entry into the U.S. in 1998, according to ICE. Spokesman Bryan Cox said Juarez was apprehended after initially trying to enter the U.S. illegally in 1998, but illegally re-entered, which is a felony.

Soto also sought a stay of removal under the parole in place program. Her youngest daughter accompanied her to Mexico, while her 16-year-old is remaining in Central Florida with her father.

“It is a sad day for our entire community as we will all be affected by this insensitive deportation order,” Soto said.

U.S. Chamber backs Gonzalez in tight CD 17 primary

The contest to replace the retiring Republican Rep. Tom Rooney has been a tight race since the veteran from Okeechobee announced his intention to leave Washington. State Rep. Julio Gonzalez and state Sen. Greg Steube have been evenly matched, but one has just recently received a big boost.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced late last week that it was endorsing Gonzalez. He has been a reliable vote for the Chamber’s priorities while in the House, earning an A rating, while Steube was given a C.

Julio Gonzalez gets thumbs up from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“As a state representative, Dr. Gonzalez has been a strong ally for job creators and consistently voted to reform regulations and cut taxes to help small businesses grow,” said Rob Engstrom, national political director for the Chamber.

“As a doctor and surgeon, he has been an advocate for real health care reform that focuses on the patient, not the government, as well as the impact health care costs have on small business. We need experienced leaders like Julio in Congress.”

Both candidates have been engaged in strong fundraising efforts since joining the race. As of June 30, Gonzalez had raised $467,000 and had $349,000 remaining, while Steube raised $400,000 and had $313,000 remaining for the last four weeks of the campaign.

“As a small-business owner, and health care professional, I deal with the challenges of government regulation on a daily basis,” said Gonzalez.

“I’ve worked to cut taxes and regulations so that small businesses can focus on growing and creating more jobs, not more paperwork. That is the focus I will bring in Congress.”

Veteran and conservative activist Bill Akins is also running in the GOP primary, but has raised only $26,000. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates District 17 as “Safe Republican.”

Deutch, Wasserman Schultz file legislation blocking 3D guns

The controversy surrounding the Trump administration’s decision to settle a case allowing plans for making 3D guns to be published online is not going away any time soon. A federal judge in Seattle blocked the move before it was scheduled to be published Aug. 1.

A hearing is set for Friday.

Two South Florida Democrats joined with two of their colleagues to file legislation that would make it a crime to publish online plans for making guns. Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston claim there is no reason to make it easy to create untraceable firearms.

Ted Deutch argues there is no reason to make it easy to create untraceable firearms.

“At a time when Congress hasn’t done anything tangible to prevent gun violence, the widespread availability of untraceable and undetectable 3D-printed guns would further threaten our ability to keep our children and our communities safe,” Wasserman Schultz said in a joint release. “This vital legislation is urgently needed to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of dangerous people.”

National Rifle Association lobbyist Chris Cox pointed to the fact that the 3D guns are already illegal, making any ban on their publication moot.

“Many anti-gun politicians and members of the media have wrongly claimed that 3D printing technology will allow for the production and widespread proliferation of undetectable plastic firearms,” he said.

Deutch called that line of reasoning “unacceptable,” and blasted the Trump administration’s legal strategy.

“President Trump should never have allowed this settlement to happen, and now, Congress needs to step in to ensure that internet access does not equal gun access.”

The effort by Wasserman Schultz and Deutch put the delegation in a leadership position on the issue. The House bill is a companion to legislation already filed in the Senate sponsored by Nelson.

Curbelo climate change bill attacked in new ad buy

Anyone running in a swing district understands the term “walking a fine line” between moderation and partisanship. Kendall Republican Carlos Curbelo understands that more than most.

While he is a Republican running in a district won big by Hillary Clinton in 2016, he also strongly supported the GOP tax cut passed in December and also favored the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Curbelo also supports finding a solution for DREAMers (which many in his party call “amnesty”) and is the co-founder and co-chairman of the House Climate Change Caucus.

Carlos Curbelo is coming under fire for a proposed national carbon tax.

It is in the latter role where he is coming under fire from conservatives. After Curbelo became the first Republican in a decade to introduce a national carbon tax to help combat climate change, the American Energy Alliance (AEA) launched a $75,000 digital ad campaign in Curbelo’s district.

“This new and innovative solution invests in American infrastructure, accelerates the transition to clean energy, repeals discriminatory taxes, and provides regulatory relief and stability that shows protecting our environment and strengthening the economy are not mutually exclusive,” Curbelo said upon launching the bill. “I look forward to the continued discussion around this proposal and thank all those offering support and adding to the constructive dialogue this bill has begun.”

The AEA claims the bill would lead to “inescapable economic harm.” In a release announcing the ad buy, they said: “Virtually no significant sector of our economy would go unscathed since this tax would impact the electricity and transportation sectors that are so central to commerce.”

The Curbelo bill, dubbed the Market Choice Act, is co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Francis Rooney of Naples.

On this day in the headlines

Aug. 7, 1945 — The most terrifying engine of destruction ever devised by man — an atomic bomb-carrying the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT — was turned loose against Japan Sunday as American airmen opened a “surrender or else” assault against the enemy homeland. President Harry S. Truman delivered the ultimatum.

“If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on earth,” he said. “Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already aware.”

Aug. 7, 2015 — For the first time, Americans were able to see billionaire businessman and reality television star Donald Trump in a debate format as 10 candidates took the stage in the first Republican presidential debate. Trump immediately made news by not pledging to support the GOP nominee if it is not him.

A total of 17 candidates are seeking the nomination to succeed outgoing President Barack Obama, but only 10 were invited to the event staged in Cleveland, site of next year’s Republican National Convention. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, were part of the debate, but Trump was the center of attention.

House candidates play possum

Campaigns often entail rough-and-tumble politics, while some might fit the old stereotypes of kissing babies as well as taking selfies with voters. Few, if any, have a tradition quite like the one held Saturday in the Panhandle.

An event known as the “Possum Festival” takes place in the town of Wausau during the summer months attracting local candidates as well as those running for statewide office. Often, more people come from out of town to attend the festival as there are residents of Wausau.

Republican Rep. Neal Dunn of Panama City was there for the 49th annual festival Saturday, as was Democratic challenger Bob Rackleff of Tallahassee, who threw in money toward a charitable cause to shake one of the critters by the tail. Dunn paid $950 through an auction to claim one of the possums.

It is far more than just participating. It is all about being seen participating.

Florida gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam appeals to voters at the 49th Annual Wausau Possum Festival and Parade.

“This is the single most high-profile and fun political event in the state and it supports the local volunteer firefighters,” Dunn said. “If you’re not here at the possum festival, you’re toast.”

Rackleff does not agree with Dunn’s politics but agrees with the need to hang around possums and District 2 voters on a blistering August afternoon.

“This is the place to be, and you can’t campaign in Northwest Florida without being,” Rackleff said. “I wouldn’t risk missing it — meeting the good people of Washington County and the surrounding area. It’s great to meet all the people.”

The two North Floridians were joined by other candidates like Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam and state Sen. Denise Grimsley, who is seeking to succeed Putnam as Commissioner of Agriculture.

“This is where you meet old Florida,” Grimsley said. “There is more to the state than coasts.”

The anti-AOB abuse crowd picks up remediation companies

Two water and mold restoration companies have joined a Florida Chamber of Commerce-led effort to stop abuse of assignment of benefits agreements, or AOBs.

They are Rytech and VetCor Services. Also joining the Consumer Protection Coalition Tuesday was the Insurance Information Institute and the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

“Rytech is a strong supporter of the coalition and its work to end AOB abuse,” said Daniel Kurzweil, the company’s marketing and business development director for South Florida. Rytech is headquartered in Kennesaw, Ga.

“Contractors don’t need AOBs to get paid by insurance companies, and those who pressure customers to sign them and abuse AOBs are hurting our industry and all the contractors trying to make an honest living,” he said. “It’s important we do something to stop these contractors from preying on customers for their own gain.”

“Assignment of benefits abuse has created a cottage industry and status quo within the insurance industry that is perpetuated by bad public policy and legislation that must be fixed,” said Paul Huszar, VetCor’s president and CEO.

The company, based in Tampa, primarily employs military veterans.

“These conditions are significantly impacting all citizens throughout our state by raising insurance rates. My team and I look forward to working with the Consumer Protection Coalition and industry partners to educate the public about AOB abuse in order to stop these practices that are hurting our citizens.”

AOBs allow policyholders to cede the ability to file insurance claims to contractors. The Chamber, many in the insurance industry, and the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation argue that dodgy contractors use AOBs to file illegitimate lawsuits against carriers that drive up premiums. The Legislature has debated reform legislation for two years without agreeing upon an approach.

“Support for the Consumer Protection Coalition is growing,’’ said Edie Ousley, the chamber’s vice president for public affairs.

“As awareness of the issue increases, more organizations are seeing the impact of AOB abuse on real people and want to get involved to stop it. We look forward to leveraging these members’ knowledge and expertise as we seek reforms in the 2019 legislative session to protect Floridians,” she said.

“Raising awareness about AOB is key to stopping the abuse and preventing fraudulently inflated claims. By getting involved in the coalition, we hope to better inform and educate the public on the dangers of signing an AOB so they don’t become victims,” said Lynne McChristian, the institute’s Florida’s representative. The organization describes itself as an industry information clearinghouse.

“We have been watching AOB abuse grow in Florida for some time now, and believe reform is critical to protecting policyholders and insurers from dishonest practices that are driving up the cost and reducing the availability of insurance,” said Alan Haskins, the Crime Bureau’s VP for government affairs.

“The NICB and its 1,100 members are eager to work with the coalition to raise public awareness of the issue and stop AOB abuse in Florida and other parts of the country,” he said.

Rebekah Bydlak

Rebekah Bydlak leads in new poll of HD 1 Republican primary

Gonzalez Republican Rebekah Bydlak has long been the better-funded candidate running to replace term-limited Rep. Clay Ingram, but a new poll shows she’s now the frontrunner among primary election voters.

Inweekly/Political Matrix found Bydlak was the pick for 40 percent of likely Republican primary voters, putting her 6 points ahead of her chief rival, former Republican Rep. Mike Hill.

The third Republican in the race, Lisa Doss, checked in with just over 6 percent support, putting her behind the 13 percent who said they didn’t know the candidates and the 7 percent who said they were unsure which of the three they would vote for.

The results are a major shift from mid-June when Hill held a 27-22 percent lead over Bydlak, the remaining 51 percent of voters either unsure or unaware of the candidates.

Bydlak’s support from area Republicans, including Ingram, likely has something to do with her surge, but fundraising — more specifically the ads campaign cash can pay for — has no doubt played a big role in turning the tide.

Bydlak started hitting the airwaves a month ago, touting herself as the “fresh conservative voice” in an ad that touched on her pro-life, pro-Second Amendment views while confirming her support for President Donald Trump, who carried the Panhandle seat in a landslide two years ago.

The most recent round of campaign finance reports show Bydlak has reeled in $168,300 to-date for her state House run, with about $96,000 at the ready on July 27. That gives her a better than threefold lead in overall fundraising compared to Hill, and when it comes to cash reserves she leads by a factor of 10.

The winner of the Aug. 28 Republican primary will face either Vikki Garrett or Franscine Mathis, both Pensacola Democrats, in the Nov. 6 general election, though HD 1’s strong Republican lean virtually assures the Republican nominee will succeed term-limited Ingram come Election Day.

The Inweekly/Political Matrix poll was conducted August 3-5. The automated phone poll surveyed 505 likely Republican voters living within the Escambia County district and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent at 95 percent confidence level.

Health Dept. launches controlled substances awareness campaign

With a new controlled substances bill having gone into effect last month, the Department of Health Monday announced a new “Take Control” campaign, including a website.

The measure (HB 21) “was passed to address the opioid crisis by limiting the risk of overprescribing for acute pain, and it will not impact patients who have established a treatment plan with their doctor that successfully manages their chronic debilitating pain,” Surgeon General and Secretary Dr. Celeste Philip said in a statement.

“The department is committed to working with patients and the health care community to clear up any possible confusion about the new law to ensure that patients are able to obtain and fill necessary prescriptions for pain medication.”

The new website “includes important information and a FAQ to answer any questions the public or health care providers might have about how the new law affects their prescriptions,” a press release said.

Under the new law, “prescriptions for an opioid listed as a Schedule II controlled substance to treat acute pain are limited to a 3-day supply, and under certain circumstances up to a 7-day supply,” it says. “However, these prescription limitations to do not apply to prescriptions to treat non-acute pain or chronic nonmalignant pain.”

The Take Control website is here.

Retailers expect near record spending during back-to-school tax holiday

The second biggest shopping holiday of the year is here.

No, it’s not the U.S. Coast Guard’s birthday, not in Florida at least. It’s the “Back-to-School” sales tax holiday.

According to the Florida Retail Federation, the weekend — scheduled yearly by Florida lawmakers — is second only to Black Friday when it comes to getting customers to open their wallets, and 2018 is no different.

“The Back-to-School Sales Tax Holiday remains as popular with retailers as consumers, and with the increased strength of Florida’s economy right now, we expect to see near-record sales this year,” said FRF president and CEO R. Scott Shalley. “We want to thank Governor [Rick] Scott and our legislative leaders for including this holiday in the state budget once again, and we look forward to another successful shopping season with retailers piggybacking discounts on top of the tax-free spending and consumers taking advantage of these deals.”

From Friday to Sunday, Florida’s tax-free holiday will see consumers shave a few bucks off the price of clothing, shoes and bags priced at $60 or less as well as school supplies costing $15 or less. Unlike recent years, electronics didn’t make the tax-free list.

Early proposals this year in the Legislature would have offered a 10-day holiday, as requested by Scott, with taxes lifted on the first $1,000 of the cost of personal computers and related accessories.

But as lawmakers shifted budget priorities after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a broad package (HB 7087) of tax and fee reductions was scaled down from a high of $618 million to a final amount of $171 million. And a proposal to extend the tax discount to computers was cut.

Still, FRF’s nationwide partner, the National Retail Federation, doesn’t think the slimmer version will bring about any grey skies for retailers.

The retail trade group said the back-to-school season will see the average American family spend $684.79 getting their kids ready for class. While that doesn’t shatter last year’s record of $687.72, it’s good enough for the third-highest total in survey history. Families with college-bound kids will shell out even more — $942.17 apiece, according to NRF’s data.

“This year’s expected spending continues a streak of more than 18 months of record or near-record spending on shopping holidays,” said Shalley. “This shows how strong the overall health of our retail industry is, as well as how vital it is to the economic strength of our state and nation as a whole.”

Clothing is once again the atop the shopping list for K-12 students and their families, with new threads and kicks expected to make up $237 of the back-to-school budget. Calculators and cellphones will account for another $187 for the average family, followed another $139 for new kicks and $122 on backpacks and the supplies to fill them.

The shopping list for college students is a little more complicated — electronics top the list, but dorm furnishings, food and college branded apparel will get their own categories on the ledger.

Florida lawmakers have approved a back-to-school sales tax holiday for 17 out of the 21 years since it first began in 1998. This year marks the ninth year in a row that the holiday has been included in the state budget.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.

Freedom Caucus chair stumping with Ted Yoho

U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, facing a primary challenge as he runs for his fourth term representing Florida’s 3rd Congressional District, will have the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus by his side at three Saturday stops.

Rep. Mark Meadows’ first stop with Yoho will be a freedom brunch” at 9:00 a.m. at the Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club.

Note: a $45 admission charge is expected of those 12 years of age or older.

The two Congressmen will be well advised to eat light, as noon offers the $30 a head Swamp Stomp BBQ at Newberry’s Clark Plantation Wedding and Events.

Yoho’s north-central Florida district sprawls northeast, and the two Congressmen close out the day with a Clay County variant on the Swamp Stomp BBQ theme.

The iconic Clay County Fairgrounds in Green Cove Springs sees that action kick off at 5 p.m. $30: the price of admission here as well.

Yoho, as of the end of June, had a sizable cash on hand advantage over opponent Judson Sapp ($431,093 to $133,012).

Campaigns on their own as cyber threats roil midterms

Kamala Harris has been the target of social media misinformation campaigns since she became a U.S. senator.

Every month for the last 18 months, her office has discovered on average between three and five fake Facebook profiles pretending to be hers, according to a Harris aide. It’s unclear who creates the pages, which are often designed to mislead American voters about the ambitious Democratic senator’s policies and positions.

The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity, like more than a half dozen campaign officials contacted for this story, for fear of attracting unwanted attention from adversaries or scrutiny on the Senate office’s evolving cybersecurity protocols.

Such internet mischief has become commonplace in U.S. politics. Facebook announced earlier this week that it uncovered “sophisticated” efforts, possibly linked to Russia, to influence U.S. politics on its platforms. Senior intelligence officials declared Thursday that foreign adversaries continue waging a quiet war against U.S. campaigns and election systems.

Still, one thing has become clear: With the midterm elections just three months away, campaigns are largely on their own in the increasingly challenging task of protecting sensitive information and countering false or misleading content on social media.

The Democratic National Committee has worked to strengthen its own internal security protocols and encouraged state parties to do the same, according to Raffi Krikorian, who previously worked for Uber and Twitter and now serves as the DNC’s chief technology officer.

But in an interview, he acknowledged there are limits to how much the national party can protect the thousands of Democratic campaigns across the country.

“We’re providing as much assistance to campaigns as we can, but there’s only so much we can do,” Krikorian said.

“For all the high-level campaigns I’m worried, but at least there are people to talk to,” he continued. “The mid-sized campaigns are at least getting technical volunteers, but the truly down-ballot campaigns, that’s where the state parties and coordinated campaigns can help, but there’s no doubt that this is an uphill battle when we’re dealing with a foreign adversary.”

Officials in both political parties have intensified cybersecurity efforts, although the known cases of interference have so far overwhelmingly focused on Democrats.

The DNC now has a staff of 40 on its technical team, led by Krikorian and other Silicon Valley veterans hired in the months after Russians hacked the party’s email system and released a trove of damaging messages in the months before President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory.

Top U.S. intelligence and homeland security officials raised new alarms Thursday about outside efforts to influence the 2018 and 2020 elections during a White House press briefing.

Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen said: “Our democracy is in the crosshairs,” while Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats added: “We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.”

Facebook said it removed 32 accounts from its site and Instagram because they were involved in “coordinated” political behavior and appeared to be fake. Nearly 300,000 people followed at least one of the accounts, which featured names such as “Black Elevation” and “Resisters” and were designed to manipulate Americans with particular ethnic, cultural or political identities.

In many cases, House and Senate political campaigns said they’re just beginning to adopt basic internal security protocols, such as two-step verification for all email, storage and social media accounts and encrypted messaging services such as Wickr.

There is no protocol in place for campaigns or national parties to monitor broader social media misinformation campaigns, however. Nor is there any sign that law enforcement is playing a proactive role to protect campaigns from meddling on a day-to-day basis.

The FBI has set up a Foreign Influence Task Force and intelligence agencies are collecting information on Russian aggression, but campaigns report no regular contact with law enforcement officials.

“At the end of the day, the U.S. government is not putting any type of a bubble around any (campaign). They do not have the authority, capacity or capability to do it,” said Shawn Henry, a former senior FBI official who now leads the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which works with political campaigns. “NSA is not sitting in the ISPs filtering out malicious traffic.”

Henry added: “They’ve got to take pro-active actions themselves.”

Earlier this month, Microsoft said it discovered a fake domain had been set up as the landing page for phishing attacks by a hacking group believed to have links to Russian intelligence. A Microsoft spokesman said this week that additional analysis confirmed the attempted attacks occurred in late 2017 and targeted multiple accounts associated with the offices of two legislators running for re-election. Microsoft did not name the lawmakers.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat., said Russian hackers tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate her Senate computer network in 2017. Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford of Nebraska also recently confirmed that his 2016 campaign emails had been hacked by Russian agents.

Ashford, who narrowly lost his seat to Republican Don Bacon that year, said hackers obtained all of his campaign email correspondence with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He said he was notified of the breach in late July or early August 2016 by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office.

Ashford has said he doesn’t believe any of the stolen information ever went to Bacon or the Republican Party, and he doesn’t know whether it made a difference in his race. He did face a series of anonymous political attacks on social media.

By their very nature, U.S. political campaigns can be a challenge to defend from a cybersecurity standpoint. They are essentially pop-up organizations that rely heavily on volunteers and are focused on a singular task — winning. In addition, high-level IT expertise costs money and campaigns typically run on tight budgets.

Some 2018 House campaigns have yet to hire basic communications staffers.

In the case of California Sen. Harris, who is considered a 2020 presidential prospect, her office plans to continue rooting out fake social media profiles on its own. They have had no contact with the FBI. They have reported the issue to Facebook in every case — not the other way around.

“It’s on the forefront of everybody’s mind,” said Patrick McHugh, a former Senate campaign official who now leads the Democratic-aligned super PAC Priorities USA.

He acknowledged the tremendous challenge for many campaigns.

“All it takes is one person on a campaign to make a mistake,” McHugh said. “You’re up against a foreign country. That’s a pretty big adversary that can and will go to all ends to get in.”

Material republished with permission from The Associated Press.

Committee backing dog racing ban spends $1.8M on media buy

A week after it brought in a $1.5 million check from a foundation established by movie star Doris Day, the committee backing a proposed constitutional amendment to ban greyhound racing followed through with a planned $1.85 million a media buy.

The money was paid in a lump sum from the Committee to Protect Dogs to Denver-based Blue West Media, which bills itself as a “full-service media placement agency.” The only other expenditures listed in the report, which covered July 21 through July 27, were a $6,500 payment for media production and a small fee for postage.

The media buy was expected — committee co-chairwoman Kate MacFall said the money received from the Doris Day Animal League would be used on an ad buy that would put commercials on the air in the Tampa, Miami and Orlando media markets starting in October.

Not as expected, however, was the recent ruling by a Tallahassee judge that the proposed amendment shouldn’t go on the November ballot. The media buy was placed just days before that decision was handed down.

According to Circuit Judge Karen Gievers, Amendment 13 would ban betting on live dog racing in Florida without making it clear that trackgoers could still bet on ‘simulcast‘ dog races from outside the state. The judge added that the proposal doesn’t was also opaque about a “yes” vote serving as an approval of other forms of betting — such as card games and slot machines — to continue at tracks that have them.

That ruling is being appealed by the state.

Also included in the new campaign finance report as another $100,000 check from Grey2K USA Worldwide. The group has now pumped more than $300,000 into the committee.

In all, the Committee to Protect Dogs has raised just over $2 million since it was formed in mid-March. It finished the reporting period with $110,545 in the bank.

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