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Rick Scott administration again mishandles individuals’ personal information

The private information of nearly 1,000 individuals was mishandled by the state’s Division of Elections as it responded to a public records request last year, making it the second time in four months that a state agency has compromised the private information of Floridians.

State officials said Friday that the last four digits of the social security number of 945 individuals were sent in error to a member of the public.

The department has notified all the individuals whose confidential information was released by mistake.

While officials say there is no reason to believe their private information has been misused, they are offering those affected a year-long membership to an identity theft protection service.

Earlier this month, officials with the Agency of Health Care Administration confirmed that the medical records and personal information of up to 30,000 people enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program may have been compromised after a data breach.

The incident in that agency stemmed from a state employee opening a malicious phishing email. The data breach exposed the Social Security numbers, dates of birth, Medicaid ID numbers and private health care information of clients.

‘Not a candidate’: Rick Scott coy on Louisiana fundraising question

Gov. Rick Scott made a trip this week to Louisiana, where business development meetings populated his official schedule.

However, the most prominent Democrat in the Pelican State — Gov. John Bel Edwards — thought that there was more to the trip than just pitching Florida relocation to local companies.

“Gov. Scott should call this what it is – a fundraising stop on his yet-to-be announced U.S. Senate campaign. Louisianans would appreciate the honesty and hope that he’ll take his political contributions and leave,” Edwards offered Tuesday.

Louisiana’s Advocate newspaper tried and failed to get Scott to discuss what most believe is a protracted pre-candidacy.

Friday in Ponte Vedra, we covered some of the same territory. Specifically, we wanted to know if Scott had fundraised while in Louisiana on an official jobs “mission.”

Scott spent much of the answer covering familiar ground, talking about job creation (“the four years before I got elected, the state lost 832,000 jobs”).

“My trip to New Orleans was to try to get more companies there. As you know, I have not made a decision as to whether I’m going to run for the Senate or not. I’m not a candidate. I’ve said all along I’ve got to focus on my job as Governor.”

“A lot of politicians are thinking about their next job,” Scott added. “I’m right in the middle of my Legislative Session, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The question remained: was there fundraising or not? We restated it.

“I’m not a candidate,” Scott said.

We reminded Scott of Let’s Get to Work, his political committee, which has robustly fundraised over the years ($57 million since inception). And asked if there may have been Louisiana fundraising for that.

“I’m not a candidate,” Scott repeated. “We weren’t — I didn’t — A.G., I’m not a candidate.”

Rick Scott: Offshore drilling still ‘off the table’

Gov. Rick Scott scored a political victory earlier this year, when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told him Florida would not be subject to offshore oil drilling.

Scott asserted that he’d been “clear forever” in his opposition — a point disputed by Democrats, who have painted him as an “election-year environmentalist” who has flip-flopped on the drilling question.

Friday saw fireworks in a U.S. Congressional committeeWalter Cruickshank, acting director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said Florida is still in play despite Zinke’s assurances.

Zinke’s statement, said Cruickshank, is not a “formal action.”

Florida is still part of the bureau’s analysis, Cruickshank asserted.

Democrats were quick to pounce on this, of course. Meanwhile, Scott — in a gaggle Friday afternoon — told reporters that he wasn’t worried about the gap between Zinke’s assurance and Cruickshank’s testimony.

“Secretary Zinke is a man of his word. He’s a Navy Seal. He promised me that Florida would be off the table, and I believe Florida is off the table,” Scott said.

“Secretary Zinke has made a commitment,” Scott added, “and he’ll live up to his commitments.”

Scott added that he continued to be opposed to members of the Trump administration proposing relaxing restrictions imposed after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The Governor then attempted to change the subject to the impending shutdown of the federal government (a remarkable feat, given one-party control in Washington).

“…[H]ere is what I find fascinating today – a lot of people want to talk about politics, what they ought to be doing is they ought to be making sure we keep government going. This shouldn’t be a day of politics, this should be a day we keep our government going … we should be happy with what Secretary Zinke did, we should be happy with the fact the he committed to take Florida off the table and this shouldn’t be about politics.”

Philip Levine launches Spanish commercial on DACA

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine has launched another television commercial – his fourth overall and second this week – with a Spanish-language ad decrying the administration of President Donald Trump‘s policies toward so-called DREAMers, the young, undocumented immigrants who essentially grew up in the United States.

The 30-second spot “Injusticia” shows images of DREAMers and their families while a narrator attacks Trump for rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program initiated by former President Barack Obama, and for his rhetoric threatening to send them back to their native countries even though their parents brought them to the United States when they were small children.

It’s the second-consecutive commercial in which Levine, a state candidate, targets Trump on what is essentially a federal issue. Earlier this week he launched an English-language commercial, running statewide, going after Trump for his policy position to open up oil-drilling off the Florida coast, thought that commercial also mentions Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

“President Trump is turning his back on these young people who, filled with dreams, became doctors, lawyers and teachers. And who today are ready to work for America,” the narrator states. “Philip Levine will work to end this injustice!”

Levine then uses his own Spanish, declaring, “We are talking about kids, and what it means to be an American.”

Levine is the only gubernatorial candidate to place commercials on television so far. He faces Chris King, Gwen Graham, and Andrew Gillum in the Democratic primary contest, while Ron DeSantis and Adam Putnam are the leading Republicans.

Levine’s independent political committee All About Florida is putting up $100,000 to run the ad for 10 days on Spanish-language television channels across Florida.

“We want DREAMers to know that they are not alone, and that there are many who are fighting for them and believe in doing the right thing,” Christian Ulvert, senior advisor, stated in a news release from All About Florida.

AFP-FL says ‘no way’ to Amazon HQ2 incentives

Miami made the cut when Amazon announced its top-20 shortlist for its second headquarters Thursday, but Americans for Prosperity Florida says the retail giant shouldn’t get any state incentives if it chooses to set up shop in South Florida.

“Miami would be a fantastic choice for Amazon’s HQ2, but not if it means having taxpayers fork over hundreds of millions of dollars for the supposed privilege. Instead of focusing on what Florida’s taxpayers have to offer, Amazon should look at what our skilled workforce and pro-growth economic environment can provide,” said AFP-FL Director Chris Hudson.

“Thanks to the leadership of free market champions like Speaker Richard Corcoran, Florida has shown how implementing free-market principles can help our state become more competitive and business-friendly, and we should not stray away from that by enriching private corporations at the expense of taxpayer money. Amazon is a private business that does not deserve taxpayer handouts.”

The AFP-FL statement comes after Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott gave differing opinions on how the Sunshine State should go about courting the Seattle-based company.

“The way I always look at any incentives we give, we’ve got to get a good return for taxpayers. That’s what I’ve done at the state. I’m going to continue to talk to companies around the world to try to get them to come here,” Scott said Friday.

Corcoran on the other hand, told News Service of Florida the state should focus on other priorities that would improve the state which could also attract companies without the use of incentives money.

“Here’s what we ought to do as a state. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face,” Corcoran said. “There are five things that site selectors look at. The most important being having a great educational system.”

“If you have low crime, low taxes, low regulation, a good infrastructure and you have, more than anything, a great educational system, we will not have a single problem luring all the businesses and all the people in this country here,” Corcoran added.

Amazon HQ2 will be a complete headquarters for Amazon, not a satellite office, according to the company. The company reported it plans to invest over $5 billion and grow this second headquarters to accommodate as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs. In addition, the company projects that construction and ongoing operation of Amazon HQ2 is expected to create tens of thousands of additional jobs and tens of billions of dollars in additional investment in the surrounding community.

Amazon said it expects to pick the city for its HQ 2 later this year.

Incentives for Amazon? Richard Corcoran, Rick Scott see it differently

Gov. Rick Scott was in Ponte Vedra Friday as the PGA Tour unveiled plans for a new global headquarters — and 300 jobs to go with that build out.

Yet one of the topics we broached with the Governor in the gaggle had to do with a potentially bigger future job announcement … if Amazon locates its second global headquarters in Miami.

Miami is the sole Florida city being considered still. Jacksonville, Tampa, and Orlando were eliminated.

And many areas are offering deluxe incentives for Amazon — a potentially transformative corporate partner for even the biggest cities in the world. It’s been a top priority for Enterprise Florida, a board that accords with Gov. Scott’s vision.

While specifics of those incentives are not public, it was clear from Scott’s remarks Friday that his position hasn’t changed; incentives are part of the tool kit.

Scott called it “exciting” that Amazon was considering Miami, saying there are “lots of reasons why they should do that.”

“Taxes are low in this state, we have less regulation, a great workforce. U.S. News and World Report says our higher education system is the best higher education system in the country,” Scott said.

But the Governor realizes that’s not the whole story. Incentives, which will be offered elsewhere, are part of the sales pitch.

“The way I always look at any incentives we give, we’ve got to get a good return for taxpayers. That’s what I’ve done at the state. I’m going to continue to talk to companies around the world to try to get them to come here,” Scott said.

Scott’s position diverges from that of Speaker Corcoran, who said that companies pass on Florida for reasons that go beyond incentives.

“Here’s what we ought to do as a state. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face,” Corcoran told News Service of Florida. “There are five things that site selectors look at. The most important being having a great educational system.”

“If you have low crime, low taxes, low regulation, a good infrastructure and you have, more than anything, a great educational system, we will not have a single problem luring all the businesses and all the people in this country here,” Corcotan added.

With multiple cities offering upwards of a billion dollars in tax breaks, it’s at least debatable that low crime and low regulations will counteract material incentives.

Yet that seems to be a debate Corcoran and Scott will have as each prepares to leave their current offices.

E-Verify proposal opposed by ag and construction groups heads to full CRC

An immigration measure heading toward the full Constitutional Revision Commission would require all employers in the state to use a federal electronic system to verify the legal work eligibility of every new hire drew criticism on Friday from agriculture and business groups concerned with filling a worker shortage in their industries.

Representatives with the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Homeowners Associations said the verification system, called E-Verify, would make it more difficult to find workers to work in the fields and in the home building industry.

“The immigrant community is not opposed to E-Verify, but the visa program is broken,” Adam Blalock, an attorney with the Florida Farm Bureau, said.

Christopher Emmanuel, of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, also opposed the proposal saying that if it goes on the November ballot and voters approve it, the system’s “unintended consequences” will be harder to fix.

“We are putting it in a nearly permanent and nearly unchangeable place,” he said.

Emmanuel is skeptical about the program’s “random auditing program,” which would allow employers and employees to be investigated.

The proposal cleared its last panel with a unanimous vote on Friday, but commissioners Chris Nocco and Jose Felix Diaz, a former state representative most recently hired by the Ballard Firm, still questioned if the proposal should be part of the state constitution.

Nocco and Diaz were both appointed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a big proponent of tougher immigration enforcement in the state.

“I think (E-Verify) is a good idea, but I think it needs to go back to the Legislature,” Commissioner Chris Nocco said. “It is not enforceable and it is a feel-good band aid.”

Nocco had reservations about the fiscal costs the new system would bring to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which is tasked with licensing and regulating more than a million businesses in the state.

“This is a lot of responsibility on them and the fiscal impact needs to be addressed along with the unintended consequences that can go with (the system),” Nocco added.

Attorney Rich Newsome, a commissioner also appointed by Corcoran, is championing the measure and said the issue has failed to garner legislative support in past years because of “wealthy lobbyists” tied to agriculture and construction. The same groups that opposed his proposal on Friday.

But Newsome believes that if the system is implemented statewide it will prevent illegal employment of undocumented immigrants in the future and protect undocumented workers from exploitation.

Newsome cited a Naples Daily News investigation that found businesses and insurers in the state profit from undocumented workers and then dump them after they are injured. He said a system like E-Verify would help put a stop to that.

Nearly 800 undocumented workers in Florida have been charged with workers’ compensation benefit fraud for using illicit Social Security numbers to either get their jobs, file for workers’ compensation benefits, or both.

As Newsome’s proposal heads to its final stop before it can go on the November ballot, he said he is open to “tweaking the language.”

Unemployment number ticks up from historic low

The big takeaway from December’s Florida jobs report: the unemployment rate has ticked up, albeit from a historic low.

The December number: 3.7 percent, up from 3.6 percent the month before.

Despite this slight raise in the official unemployment rate, Gov. Rick Scott‘s narrative of being the jobs governor remains as intact as it was.

In December, 30,000 jobs were created. This capped off a year when 205,000 jobs were created, and 1.497 million were created in the last seven years.

“Florida had a great year of job creation in 2017 and we will fight each day to make sure our state remains the best place for new opportunities in 2018, and for years to come,” Scott asserted.

Labor force participation, per the Department of Economic Opportunity, is at 57.1 percent — which trails the overall American figure of 62.7 percent.

A thousand fewer people have jobs compared to November, with 25,000 new people in what is called the “civilian non-institutional population.”

Metro areas are booming, with Orlando, Miami, and Tampa leading the state in job creation.

Earlier this month, Scott addressed the jobs situation in a Jacksonville gaggle.

“We’re going to continue to work both in our large counties and our rural counties to get more jobs,” Scott said.

“What you see in our state is the labor force is growing at multiples of what the rest of the country is. The job market is growing at multiples of what the rest of the country is. People are coming to Florida. Numbers came out last week — over 340,000 people have moved to the state since last June. We’ve had a significant number of people move here from Puerto Rico and they’re getting jobs,” Scott said.

Bad pot advice leads to lawyer disbarment

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday disbarred a former Jacksonville lawyer who charged sick people nearly $800 for a “patient identification card” he claimed could keep them from getting arrested for having or growing marijuana.

Several of Ian Christensen’s clients were arrested and prosecuted after following the lawyer’s advice, according to court documents.

Doing business as “Health Law Services,” Christensen and Christopher Ralph charged patients $799 for services that included a visit with a doctor, legal services and documents, as well as the ID card, which was not sanctioned by any government agency.

Critics interviewed by The News Service of Florida in 2014 accused the duo of running a scam. Christensen stopped practicing law in 2015 and no longer lives in Florida, according to an affidavit filed with the court last year.

The justices’ disbarment of Christensen was a far harsher penalty than a two-year suspension recommended by Florida Bar lawyer Carlos Alberto Leon, who served as a referee in the case spawned by a complaint about Christensen filed in June 2016.

According to Thursday’s order immediately disbarring Christensen, several of his clients were arrested and prosecuted after following his advice. In at least three instances, Christensen provided clients with a “grow sign” to post outside their homes indicating they were cultivating marijuana, according to court records.

St. Johns County residents Scott and Marsha Yandell suffered life-altering consequences after following Christensen’s advice, the records show.

In January 2015, police responded to a 911 call at the Yandell’s residence, which had a “grow sign” posted outside. The next day, the Yandells asked Christensen if they needed to dismantle their grow operation, but the lawyer told them they “had nothing to worry about” and that he or someone from the office would contact law enforcement, according to court records.

The following month, a SWAT team raided the Yandells’ home, and they were arrested and charged with manufacture of cannabis, possession of cannabis with intent to sell or deliver, possession of a place or structure for trafficking or manufacturing a controlled substance, and trafficking in cannabis in excess of 25 pounds.

The Yandells’ home, valuables, and vehicles were seized and detained for forfeiture, according to court documents. The Duval County couple hired a new attorney and accepted plea deals of three years’ probation, a $15,000 fine, and 100 hours of community service.

Marsha Yandell, who had been a nurse for 25 years, lost her nursing license and her husband lost his engineering job of 15 years. In addition, their landlord obtained a judgment against them in excess of $25,000 for damages to the home during the raid and lost rent.

In rejecting the referee’s recommendation, the Supreme Court found that disbarment “is the appropriate sanction.”

“The most prominent features of respondent’s misconduct are incompetence and extremely serious harm to clients,” the court wrote.

In a document filed in August, Christensen blamed his wrongdoing on being “inexperienced, young and naïve in the advice he gave and the positions he took in dealing with individuals already involved with marijuana.”

Christensen opened a solo legal practice just three months after being admitted to the Florida Bar in 2013. Shortly afterward, he and colleague Ralph launched “Health Law Services,” which focused on giving legal advice about medical marijuana. Months later, Christensen incorporated “Cannabinoid Therapy Institute,” or CTI. Ralph, who was not a lawyer, was CTI’s director, as well as the “legal administrator and consultant” for Health Law Services, according to court documents.

Christensen referred clients for medical exams at CTI, and the patients would receive “Official Legal Certification” and an identification card if a doctor found it was medically necessary for the clients to use marijuana. Three of the clients found out that the doctor they saw was not licensed to practice medicine in Florida, according to Thursday’s order.

Christensen “advised his clients that they had, and his clients believed, that based on Florida law, the clients had a right to possess, use, and grow cannabis due to medical necessity and that they were protected by the affirmative defense of medical necessity,” the Supreme Court wrote. “The lawyer did not tell his clients that this affirmative defense would not apply, if at all, until after the clients were arrested, charged, and prosecuted.”

Lawyers familiar with the medical necessity defense told the News Service it has been used successfully on rare occasions and that its use is left up to the discretion of a prosecutor or judge.

“Respondent erroneously advised his clients and provided them with legally meaningless ‘Official Legal Certifications’ purportedly authorizing them to grow and use marijuana, based on determinations made by a physician not licensed to practice medicine in the State of Florida,” the court wrote.

Christensen “continued to insist on the correctness of his clearly erroneous legal positions” during criminal proceedings pertaining to his clients and during his disciplinary proceedings, “until he was ordered to show cause to this (Supreme) Court why he should not be disbarred,” the court wrote.

“We will not tolerate such misconduct by members of The Florida Bar,” the justices concluded.

In the August document, Christensen’s lawyer, D. Gray Thomas, argued that his client’s misconduct was not “motivated by greed or bad intent, but rather by naïve, youthful, unmentored overconfidence.”

And, Thomas wrote, Christensen’s medical marijuana-focused practice took place as laws about the issue were evolving.

“The current state of laws poses ongoing legal tensions, as well as ethical tension and ambiguity, for practicing attorneys,” Thomas argued.

But Leon, the referee, rejected Christensen’s defense, saying “none of these contentions is worthy of belief.”

“Mr. Christensen makes these protestations at this late juncture only to prevent potential enhanced discipline and not as the result of any epiphany or genuine remorse,” Leon wrote in a response filed in August.

While marijuana laws are evolving, “no specific training or experience is required to distinguish what is evidently right from what is evidently wrong,” Leon wrote.

“Quite simply, advising clients to grow their own marijuana based on a fake doctor’s advice is wrong and cannot now be said to be subject to interpretation based on the evolution of medical marijuana law,” he added.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Senate announces new policy on sexual, workplace harassment

Prompted by a series of sex scandals that enveloped several senators, the Florida Senate on Thursday rolled out new guidelines on how to handle sexual harassment in the workplace.

The new employee code of conduct cites “patting, pinching, or intentionally brushing against an individual’s body,” unwelcome kissing or hugging as part of a greeting — including a peck on the cheek –, and sending emails, text messages or notes — whether it be a cartoon, a photo or a joke — of sexual nature, as examples that could violate the policy.

But any type of sexual harassment, whether verbal, nonverbal or physical, is prohibited. An employee found to be in violation of this policy could face immediate termination.

“The Senate has zero tolerance for sexual and workplace harassment and through these changes to our policies and rules we intend to make our commitment to a safe, professional work environment even clearer and even stronger,” Senate President Joe Negron said in a memo obtained by Florida Politics.

Any individual — including Senate staffers, visitors, senators, lobbyists and members of the media — who experiences sexual harassment in the Senate can log a complaint with numerous individuals, including human resources and their immediate supervisors.

Their identities will be kept confidential and exempt from public records.

Once a complaint is made, the first step is to investigate and try and resolve the issue informally. If no informal resolution is possible due to the severity of the allegations, the Senate may contact an outside professional service provider to conduct an investigation on the allegations. That includes interviewing witnesses.

Once a case is resolved, the Human Resources director will be tasked with provides resources to every complainant.

The new administrative policy takes effect immediately. And in the coming weeks, Negron said online anti-harassment training will be provided to all senators and staff.

The announcement comes as allegations of sexual harassment threatened to overshadow the 2018 Legislative Session since opening day. Gov. Rick Scott, Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran all addressed sexual harassment in their speeches on the first day of session.

But action on this issue became urgent after the conclusion of two separate Senate investigations late last year that said former Sen. Jack Latvala may have violated state corruption laws by trading legislative favor for a sexual encounter.

The reports contained testimony from several women in the legislative process who noted a pattern of sexual misconduct by the Clearwater Republican that stretched for years. No complaints were ever filed against Latvala in the Senate until POLITICO Florida reported the accounts of six unnamed women who accused the once powerful senator of sexual harassment.

Latvala resigned early this month and his misconduct is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, said Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers has worked to revise administrative policies regarding harassment in the Senate. The proposed change includes annual one-hour anti-harassment training for senators.

Negron said that rule change will be up for a vote on the full Senate floor next week. But Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez is concerned Senate Rules that governor senators have not changed are continue to be vague on sexual harassment.

“If we had another Latvala there are no new rules that would protect victims from the type of behavior his accuser went through,” Rodriguez said. “The rules are the same, very vague. When there are vague rules, the only ones that win are lawyers.”

The House addresses sexual harassment in its formal rules, unlike the Senate. But Negron says a violation of these administrative guidelines would be a violation of the rules.

Phil Ammann contributed to this report.

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