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U.S. probes banking of ex-Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort

U.S. Treasury Department agents have recently obtained information about offshore financial transactions involving President Donald Trump‘s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, as part of a federal anti-corruption probe into his work in Eastern Europe, The Associated Press has learned.

Information about Manafort’s transactions was turned over earlier this year to U.S. agents working in the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network by investigators in Cyprus at the U.S. agency’s request, a person familiar with the case said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to publicly discuss a criminal investigation.

The Cyprus attorney general, one of the country’s top law enforcement officers, was made aware of the American request.

A spokesman for Manafort did not immediately respond to questions from the AP.

Manafort, who was Trump’s unpaid campaign chairman from March until August last year, has been a leading focus of the U.S. government’s investigation into whether Trump associates coordinated with Moscow to meddle in the 2016 campaign. This week, the AP revealed his secret work for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago.

Federal prosecutors became interested in Manafort’s activities years ago as part of a broad investigation to recover stolen Ukrainian assets after the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych there in early 2014. No U.S. criminal charges have ever been filed in the case.

It was not immediately clear what time period was covered under the government request for information about Manafort’s financial transactions in Cyprus. Manafort was known to route financial transactions through Cyprus, according to records of international wire transfers obtained by the AP and public court documents filed in a 2014 legal dispute in the Cayman Islands.

In the 2014 case, Manafort used Cypriot shell companies as part of a nearly $19 million deal with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska to purchase Ukrainian cable television provider Black Sea Cable. Deripaska said that after taking the money, Manafort and his associates stopped responding to Deripaska’s queries about how the funds had been used.

As part of their investigation, U.S. officials were expected to look into millions of dollars’ worth of wire transfers to Manafort. In one case, the AP found that a Manafort-linked company received a $1 million payment in October 2009 from a mysterious firm through the Bank of Cyprus. The $1 million payment left the account the same day — split in two, roughly $500,000 disbursements to accounts with no obvious owner.

There is nothing inherently illicit about using multiple companies as Manafort was doing. But it was unclear why he would have been involved with companies in Cyprus, known for its history of money laundering before joining the European Union, with unclear sources of the money flowing in to them and with such secrecy surrounding the firms’ connections to Manafort.

A Treasury Department spokesman, Stephen Hudak, declined to answer the AP’s questions about Manafort’s records. “We often get press inquiries concerning individuals and our policy is to never confirm, nor deny the existence, or non-existence, of any potential investigation,” Hudak said.

Cypriot officials said further information would have to come to the agency through a formal request to the Cypriot Ministry of Justice and Public Order — under a mutual legal assistance treaty — although no request has been made, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the case.

Democrats on Capitol Hill who are part of two congressional investigations of Trump associates said the new disclosures about Manafort’s work for the Russian billionaire guarantee that Manafort will be sought as a key witness in upcoming hearings. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who is a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said revelations about Manafort’s work were “serious and disturbing.”

The AP’s reporting about Manafort’s activities “undermines the groundless assertions that the administration has been making that there are no ties between President Trump and Russia. This is not a drip, drip, drip,” said Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, a member of the House intelligence committee. “This is now dam-breaking with water flushing out with all kinds of entanglements.”

The White House said Trump had not been aware of Manafort’s work on behalf of Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006. “To suggest that the president knew who his clients were from 10 years ago is a bit insane,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer said. “I don’t know what he got paid to do,” Spicer said, adding, “There’s no suggestion he did anything improper.”

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN, was established in 1990 and became a Treasury Department bureau soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It collects a vast repository of records that financial institutions are required to report under the Bank Secrecy Act, such as suspicious activity reports and currency transaction reports, and assists law enforcement agencies in helping analyze complex data.

The agency is a part of an international network of so-called financial intelligence units that share information with each other in money laundering and terrorism financing investigations. It’s work has been critical in helping officials piece money trails together and identify leads for criminal investigators.

AIF, Florida Chamber, other business groups join forces to oppose Senate tax proposal

A bevy of business groups have joined forces in opposition to a Senate proposal to lower the tax commercial rents by eliminating a tax credit benefiting another industry.

Eight of the state’s leading business organizations — including Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the Florida United Business Association — sent a letter to Sen. Anitere Flores on Wednesday urging here to “support lowering the sales tax currently charged on all business leases without removing the insurance premium tax credit as proposed.”

Flores, a Miami-Dade Republican who serves as Senate President Pro-Tempore, is carrying the legislation (SB 378). The proposal initially would have paid for a cut in the state’s communications service tax by repealing a tax break for insurers. The move has been a priority for Senate President Joe Negron.

But on Tuesday, the Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee approved an amended version of the bill that would repeal the tax break for insurance companies, and use the money to reduce the tax business pay on their commercial rents. Gov. Rick Scott has long advocated for the reduction, as have business groups.

“The business rent tax is a heavy burden to say the least. It discourages new business start-ups and is subjecting existing Florida businesses to disproportionate regulatory burdens, creating instances of double taxation, and stifling business expansion — ultimately costing Florida jobs,” reads the letter to Flores.

“However, eliminating the insurance premium tax credit as a way to reduce the business rent tax does not solve the problem. In fact, it will likely make the problem worse as insurance companies increase insurance premiums on all Florida insurance holders, including homeowners and business owners,” it continues. “In Senate Bill 378 you are effectively swapping a tax cut for a tax increase that will end up costing Floridians more in the end.”

The letter was signed by Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida; Scott Shalley, the president and CEO of Florida Retail Federation; Mark Wilson, the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce; Lance Lozano, chief operating officer Florida United Businesses Association; Bill Martin, CEO of the Florida Realtors; Nancy Stephens, executive directors of Manufacturers Association of Florida; Carol Dover, president and CEO of Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association; and Bill Herrle, Florida executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

The group said it sent an identical letter to Negron.  The bill now heads to Senate Appropriations.

Chamber laments the rise of trial bar’s influence with Florida Legislature

The business community believes trial lawyers hold the upper hand in the Legislature for the first time in years.

The business community is not happy about that.

“Their bills are on rocket fuel and are moving through the process,” Mark Delegal, a partner at Holland & Knight, said during a panel discussion at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s annual Capitol Days symposium.

“We are sounding the alarm about what is going on. Let’s make this just a two-year anomaly. We’ve got to lock down as a community, as businesses, and stop this aggression that’s going on, and move back to where we are on the offense.”

Delegal participated in the discussion with Steve Kopnik, chairman and CEO of Beall’s Inc.; Barry Gilway, president and CEO of Citizens Property Insurance Corp.; and Quentin Kendall, vice president for government affairs for CSX Transportation.

Business priorities this year include workers’ compensation reform and assignment of benefits abuse.

But the panel also spent time decrying legislation that would give plaintiffs the opportunity to receive prejudgment interest on legal claims. The Chamber produced a video to warn the business community against the measure.

The bill stalled last week during a hearing before the Senate Rules Committee, but isn’t dead.

Kendall lamented that tort reform seems to be languishing in the Legislature, following good years beginning under former Gov. Jeb Bush and a subsequent equilibrium with trial lawyers.

“This prejudgment interest bill symbolically represents the turning of the tide, and the ongoing march of the trial lawyers to decrease the already low, 44th, ranking we have in legal climate in the United States,” Kendall said.

The bill would discourage defendants from fighting meritless claims, and defendants couldn’t recover their litigation expenses if they prevail, he said.

He surveyed the landscape. In the House, the bill’s sponsor is Shawn Harrison, who holds an “A” rating from the Chamber. It went through the Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee, whose chairwoman, Heather Fitzenhagen, “works for John Morgan,” the plaintiffs’ attorney.

“This isn’t the Onion, folks,” Kendall said.

The House bill passed out of that committee on an 11-4 vote, despite efforts by “our champion there,” Jay Fant.

“Jay said, ‘Quentin, they’re laughing at us. They’re just laughing at us now.’ ”

Even in the Senate, “we needed two Democratic senators to hold this thing up,” Kendall said.

“There were no questions about how this would affect the business community,” he said.

“We need to understand what this represents. This is a slippery slope of where the future is in our position vis a vis the Florida Legislature unless we’re able to stop this and turn the tide.”

Delegal recalled a time when Democrats controlled the Legislature and trial lawyers would try for one or two pieces of legislation each year, retreating when Republicans captured both chambers.

“The last 20 years, we’ve been on the offense. We’ve not always successfully prosecuted our bills, but many times we have.”

Now, “we have seen a radical sea change in just this year,” he said.

medical marijuana

Senate begins discussion of medical marijuana implementing legislation

Sen. Rob Bradley indicated he is willing to support opening up the medical marijuana market more than he first proposed, but continues to believe vertical integration is the right system for Florida.

Bradley, an Orange Park Republican, filed one of five medical marijuana implementing bills this Legislative Session. His proposal (SB 406) would, among other things, allow for the growth of the industry once the number of registered patients hits certain thresholds.

Under his proposal, the Department of Health would be required to register five more treatment centers within six months of 250,000 qualified patients registering with the compassionate use registry. After that, five new medical marijuana treatment centers would be registered when the number of patients reach 350,000; 400,000; and 500,000.

But on Wednesday, Bradley said he has come to believe his bill is “too restrictive based on the feedback (he) received.” Instead, he said he would support a measure that finds a balance between his proposal and one sponsored by Minority Leader Oscar Braynon.

Braynon’s bill (SB 1666), among other things, calls on the state to register 10 additional medical marijuana treatment centers by October 1. It then requires the Department of Health to register four more treatment centers each time the compassionate use registry adds qualified patients after Jan. 1, 2018.

“We’re going to have a population group (where) there isn’t enough competition to make sure the pricing is reasonable,” said Bradley during a Senate Health Policy workshop on medical marijuana implementation bills.

“The more people we have growing and selling, it provides different voices and ideas on how to treat things. One treatment center might have a specialty. That’s something that will develop organically.”

What Bradley doesn’t support, however, is a proposal to blow up the entire system and start from scratch. All but one — a bill (SB 614) by Sen. Jeff Brandes —  of the five proposals keeps the current regulatory framework in place.

Brandes’ bill gets rid of vertical integration, creating four different function licenses — cultivation, processing, transportation, and retail — that a medical marijuana treatment center can obtain. His bill also allows for treatment centers to get a combination of licenses, a departure from current law, which requires treatment centers to grow, process and sell their own product.

“I hear a lot of talk about the current system we have … being a cartel and we need a free market approach,” said Bradley. “This is not the selling of lawn mowers or office supplies. This is very different.”

The workshop marked the Senate’s first steps toward medical marijuana implementation, giving members a chance to questions Bradley and Sen. Dana Young, the committee’s chairwoman and a co-sponsor of Bradley’s bill, about medical marijuana measures that could be coming before the committee.

Sen. Frank Artiles and Sen. Denise Grimsley have also filed bills to implement the 2016 medical marijuana amendment.

Approved with support from 71 percent of Floridians in November, the constitutional amendment allows Floridians with debilitating medical conditions, determined by a licensed physician, to use medical marijuana. The amendment went into effect Jan. 3, but state lawmakers and the Florida Department of Health have been tasked with adopting rules and implementing the amendment.

The Department of Health initiated the process of creating rules in January. The state agency has until July to put rules in place, but a recent poll found Floridians think the state is moving too slowly when it comes to implementing the amendment.

The poll, which was first reported by POLITICO Florida, found 44 percent of Floridians think the state is moving too slowly when it comes to implementing the law. Of those people who voted in favor of the measure, 57 percent said they believe the state is moving too slowly.

No action was taken during Wednesday’s meeting, and Young said a bill will be discussed and voted on at a later date.

Florida investigating whether grad rates were manipulated

Florida is investigating whether or not school districts are moving students around in order to manipulate graduation rates.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart announced Wednesday that she has asked top officials in her department to look closer at students who were in their senior year but weren’t counted in final graduation rates.

Gary Chartrand, a member of the Florida Board of Education, said the state needed to look into what he called a “very serious allegation.”

News reports this year have detailed practices at schools, including those in Orlando, where students have been shifted from regular schools to alternative schools.

Florida leaders have continually touted the state’s rising graduation rate over the last few years. The state’s graduation rate was reported at 80.7 percent during the 2015-16 school year.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

With little debate, Senate advances Greg Steube’s courthouse carry gun bill

A proposal to allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to store firearms with security officers at courthouses advanced in the Florida Senate Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Greg Steube (SB 616), is one of 10 firearms-related pieces of legislation the Sarasota Republican has introduced in the current Session. Unlike many of those proposals, however, opposition to this bill isn’t as fevered in comparison.

Steube added an amendment to his bill that would define what a courthouse is. The current statute (790.06) explicitly refers to a “courthouse.”

“Would you agree that there are persons approaching a courthouse or going there on matters that might be emotional to them and that encouraging a person to bring with them such a weapon such as a knife or gun even to the front of a courthouse might be problematic?” St. Petersburg Democrat Darryl Rouson asked Steube.

Steube replied that under current Florida law, any citizen could walk up to the front of a courthouse with a license to carry. “I just can’t enter the courthouse, because 790.06 specifically says that’s a gun-free zone,” Steube said.

Like Rouson, Steube is an attorney, and he agreed with his Democratic colleague in the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee that there many people who go to court in a highly emotional state. But Steube added that attorneys are already sitting ducks for a disgruntled member of the public when they enter and leave a courthouse because they’re not allowed to carry a firearm while approaching or exiting a courthouse.

Broward County public official Edward G. Labrador said his county doesn’t want any guns in public buildings. He stated that courthouses are county facilities, not state facilities.

“Frankly, we should have a say in deciding whether or not guns can come into our facilities,” he said, adding that the proposed law requires court security officials to hold on to the firearms in a secure area.

“We just built a courthouse for $300 million, and it doesn’t have the capability of having storage facilities of all of the members who are going to bring their concealed weapons,” Labrador said, calling it an unfunded mandate.

Rouson said this would not even be an issue were it not for Steube being stopped by private security guards and a sheriff’s deputy on Valentine’s Day when he tried to enter a Manatee County courthouse.

Steube corrected him, saying that in fact he was stopped going into the clerk of the court’s office in Manatee County. 

The bill passed on a party-line vote, 4-3.

Officials use Orlando man, attempted insurance fraud, as example of abuse

Orange County and state officials are making an example of a man who attempted to collect a bogus insurance claim on his car after reporting it stolen, accusing him of arson and insurance fraud.

Michael Abrams, 43, is now held on $50,000 bond in an Orange County detention facility, a statement said Wednesday.

Abrams is charged with arson, insurance fraud, filing a false insurance claim, false reports in the commission of a crime and grand theft by the Orange County state attorney’s office, Orange County records show. He stands accused of devising a plan to have his 2016 Toyota Camry stolen and destroyed so that he could collect an insurance payout totaling $10,000, the statement continues.

“More often than not, acts of arson are committed in order to collect insurance payouts or to cover up a larger crime,” said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. “To concoct the plan that he did is an elaborate act of fraud — one that undoubtedly drives up the cost of insurance for every Floridian. I’m proud of our investigative team for getting to the truth and putting this man behind bars where he belongs.”

In early December 2016, a crew from the Orange County Fire Rescue (OCFR) department responded to a vehicular fire. The car had previously reported stolen from New York state by Abrams.

Suspicious, a supervisor with OCFR reached out to the Florida State Fire Marshall’s Office to investigate the cause and origin of the fire and that’s when Abrams’ story didn’t add up.

After being questioned by investigators, he admitted paying another man $300 to destroy his car while he simultaneously reported it stolen.

Abrams admitted to also actively participating in the fire, which was interrupted when the fire and rescue crews were called to the scene of the crime.

“Upon confessing to an active role in the burning of his car and the filing of an unlawful insurance claim, Michael Abrams was arrested and charged with several felonies,” the statement said. “Abrams was booked into the Orange County Jail, bail was set at $50,000.”

He faces 20 years in prison if convicted.

Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater, a statewide elected official, oversees the Department of Financial Services, serves as Florida’s State Fire Marshal, and is a member of the Florida Cabinet.

Atwater’s priorities include fighting financial fraud, abuse and waste in government; reducing government spending and regulatory burdens that chase away businesses, and providing transparency and accountability in spending.

White House distances Donald Trump from Paul Manafort after AP report

The White House is distancing itself from former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, saying his secret work for a Russian billionaire detailed in an Associated Press report happened during “the last decade.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer says nothing in Wednesday’s AP report references any action by the president, the White House or any Trump administration official.

Spicer says Trump was not aware of Manafort’s clients from the past decade and there are “no suggestions” Manafort did anything improper.

Spicer also says former presidential rival Hillary Clinton had her own Russia ties. He says Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta sat on the board of a Russian-based energy company and Hillary Clinton was “the face of a failed Russia reset policy.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Francis Rooney says Everglades doesn’t need a task force right now

Florida’s Congressional delegation is united in its position urging President Donald Trump to fully fund Everglades restoration and to do so quickly – but a small schism has opened between Republican U.S. Reps. Brian Mast and Francis Rooney over whether there needs to be another task force.

Last week Mast, of Palm City, and and Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg wrote to Trump, and got 16 of the other Florida’s 25 House members to co-sign, urging the president to fully and quickly fund Everglades restoration efforts, and included a call that Mast has made earlier, for the president to appoint a federal Everglades task force to make sure it is a priority.

Some members of Florida’s delegation said they didn’t sign because last week was a busy week and they didn’t get the chance; but Rooney, whose Naples-based Congressional District 19 includes a good chunk of the Everglades and related areas, said he declined, because he thinks the last thing the Everglades needs right now is another task force.

“I certainly applaud and am thankful for the work that Brian Mast and Gov. Crist are doing to help advance the ball, getting funding for the Everglades project. There’s no doubt about that,” Rooney said. “But I didn’t sign on to the letter, and I told the same thing to Brian, because the last thing I think we need in government is more task forces, advisory commissions and things like that.

“I actually think that could be an excuse for the feds not doing what I’ve been pushing them to do, to come up with the money to fund the projects that have been authorized,” Rooney added.

A Feb. 3 Rooney letter to Trump garnered all 27 signatures urging the president to fully fund the Everglades. “In your Inaugural Speech, you mdd clear that infrastructure is a priority of Your Administration. We applaud your desire to work on this issue, and we invite you to look at the incredible work being done by the Everglades federal/state partnership,” that letter opened. “We are especially encouraged by your comments at the Collier County Fairgrounds on October 23, 2016, when you said, “A Trump Administration will work alongside you to protect and restore the beautiful Florida Everglades.

“As you prepare your budget for Fiscal Year 2018, we request that you strongly support Everglades restoration projects,” it continued.

Rooney is running the long game, inviting and hosting key congressional leaders on Everglades projects tours. Last weekend he took U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, the California Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, on helicopter, car and airboat tours, showing him what’s being done, what still needs to be done, and what needs funding.

Rooney said he is also lining up similar tours for Republican U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Kevin McCarthy of California, who all hold key leadership roles.

 

Michelle Suskauer

Michelle Suskauer elected president-elect designate of The Florida Bar

West Palm Beach attorney Michelle Suskauer has been chosen as president-elect designate of The Florida Bar, according to a Wednesday press release.

Suskauer, 50, is a criminal defense attorney in a two-lawyer office in West Palm Beach. She’s married to Judge Scott Suskauer of the 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County.

She prevailed over Lansing “Lanse” Scriven, of Tampa, receiving 12,993 votes to Scriven’s 10,188 votes in the first contested election for Bar president since 2011.

Suskauer will be sworn in as president-elect at the Bar’s annual convention in Boca Raton on June 23, when current President-elect Michael J. Higer of Miami becomes president. Suskauer will begin her term as Bar president in June 2018.

Of interest to Capitol watchers, she has called the work of the Constitution Revision Commission a “major concern.”

“The issues to watch closely are term limits for judges, taking procedural rulemaking authority away from the courts, and the Supreme Court’s ability to regulate lawyers,” according to the release.

Suskauer received the Serving Justice Award from the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County; the Justice Barbara Pariente Award from the Palm Beach County Chapter of the Florida Association of Women Lawyers; and the Women in Power Award from the National Conference of Jewish Women.

Suskauer’s service with the Bar includes chair of the Disciplinary Review Committee, the Communications Committee and the Annual Convention Committee.

After graduating from Boston University in 1988 with a degree in communications, Suskauer received her law degree from The American University in 1991 and went to work that year at the Office of the 15th Circuit Public Defender.

Three years later, she joined Schuler, Wilkerson, Halvorson & Williams. In 1997, she launched her own firm, Suskauer Law Firm, P.A., now Suskauer Feuer LLC.

Suskauer is president of the Board of Directors of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and past-president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association and the Palm Beach County Chapter of FAWL.

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