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Joe Negron: Frank Artiles ‘made the right decision’

Senate President Joe Negron said former Sen. Frank Artiles made the “right decision” to resign.

The Miami-area Republican resigned his seat Friday rather than face a hearing that could have resulted in his explusion from the Senate.

“Senator Artiles made the right decision,” ,” said Negron in a statement. “As Senator Artiles has noted, he holds himself responsible and accountable for his actions and comments.”

Artiles made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night. Thurston and Gibson are black.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black.

“Despite the events of the last week, Senator Artiles has a long and proud record of public service. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for serving our country in the United State Marine Corps, where he fought for our freedom in the Global War on Terror,” continued Negron. “Additionally, his years of service in the Florida House and Senate demonstrate a commitment to helping others that will not end with his departure from the Senate. My Senate colleagues and I wish Senator Artiles and his family well.”

While Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday, critics said it wasn’t enough. Thurston, the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, subsequently filed a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his explusion.

Negron said Thurston informed him he would be withdrawing his complaint; and Negron has “directed the special master to close her investigation.”

“No further action will be taken by the Senate in regard to this matter,” said Negron.

Florida’s unemployment rate dips to 4.8% in March

Florida’s unemployment rate is dropping.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity announced Friday the unemployment rate dipped to 4.8 percent in March, down from 5 percent one month earlier. That’s slightly lower than March 2016, when the state reported a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 4.9 percent.

“This is an exciting day — jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Gov. Rick Scott, who announced the March jobs numbers at Pelican Wire in Naples. “When I ran back in 2010, I ran on a campaign of 700,000 jobs over seven years. Now we’re at 6 years and 3 months and 1.35 million jobs. That’s great. This state is on a roll. We have job openings in our state, our labor force is growing.”

On Friday, Scott boasted the state has added more than 60,000 private sector jobs in the first quarter of 2017. That brings the total number of private sector jobs added since December 2010 more than 1.3 million, according to the Governor’s Office.

According to the Department of Economic Opportunity, the education and health services industry saw the most job gains in March. The industry, according to the agency, added 44,300 jobs, or a 3.6 percent increase.

The professional and business services industry added 43,500 jobs in March, followed by trade, transportation and utilities with 40,3000 jobs, and the construction industries with 36,500 jobs. The information industry was the only industry losing jobs, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The Orlando area led the state in job creation, adding 42,700 new private-sector jobs in March, according to the Governor’s Office. The unemployment rate for the region was 3.9 percent.

The leisure and hospitality industry led the pack in Orlando, adding 12,000 new jobs; followed by trade, transportation and utilities with 8,200 new jobs, and professional and business services with 7,1200 new jobs.

The Tampa Bay region added nearly 42,000 new jobs and had an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent. The region was first among the metro areas in job demand, with 44,544 job openings.

Monroe County had the state’s lowest unemployment rate at 2.8 percent, while Hendry County had the highest unemployment rate at 6.4 percent.

prison

Wexford responds to DOC’s cancellation of health care contract

Wexford Health Sources is striking back at the Department of Corrections for canceling its contract to provide health care services at the state’s prisons.

In a lengthy press release, the Pittsburgh-based private health care provider took issue with the department’s criticism of its performance:

Wexford Health Sources disagrees with the assessment of the Correctional Medical Authority regarding the treatment provided to a small number of inmates at the South Florida Reception Center. More significantly, we take strong exception to the idea that this limited number of cases—involving patients who were already experiencing significant psychiatric challenges before they ever entered our care—should serve as the basis for termination of our contract with the State of Florida.

Privacy regulations limit how much Wexford Health can say to refute the CMA allegations without risking disclosure of the patients’ identities. However, there was nothing in the treatment of these inmates that should, or could, justify contract termination.

It is extremely disappointing that the Department of Corrections acted without consulting our psychiatric providers regarding the affected inmates. Had the DOC done so, it would have learned why our clinical personnel, relying on their professional judgment, pursued the chosen courses of treatment. Instead, the Department relied on the opinions of CMA’s non-psychiatric auditors, who—without being licensed psychiatrists—told the Department how they thought the patients should have been treated. These allegations led to the declaration of an emergency situation.

Wexford Health President CEO Dan Conn summed up the situation: “Wexford Health’s culture is one of transparency. We have always been open and direct with the Department about our performance. In fact, the Department has consistently complemented us on our performance and partnership.

“Our responsiveness; and our ownership of issues as they arise; have been exemplary. Again, the Department has acknowledged this. This could not be more apparent, since the Department recently asked us to extend our current contract for another year.

“But in this case, we were not even given the opportunity to respond to the Department’s allegations. Upon hearing them, Wexford Health’s psychiatric providers immediately responded to the situation and evaluated the patients’ cases. These psychiatric experts’ findings are considerably different than the ones given by CMA’s non-psychiatric personnel.”

The unfortunate reality is that prison inmates represent a particularly challenging patient population. This is especially so in the area of mental health. Wexford Health treats every patient under our care with respect and dignity, with the full hope that we can help restore their health. Isolated cases, involving inmates with long histories of mental problems, would not appear to be a sound basis for termination of an entire contract.

Out of tremendous concern for the safety and well-being of the inmates in our care, Wexford Health acted immediately to assess and evaluate the patients involved in the CMA report. We can now state that for each of the affected patients, psychiatric medications were discontinued after a clinical evaluation by a psychiatric provider; and the patients were observed in an inpatient unit after their medications were discontinued.

The patients were not at risk; and no life-threatening situations existed. The patients were being adequately and regularly monitored, supervised, and treated by psychiatric providers at clinically appropriate intervals. Please note that Wexford Health is not financially responsible for the cost of psychiatric medications and therefore has no financial incentive to withhold or discontinue them.

It is equally disappointing that the Department chose to terminate our contract rather than to exercise its option to offer Wexford Health an opportunity to cure the alleged issues (as allowed by the contract). In the past, if there was an issue, the Department and Wexford Health always sat down and worked it out. However, for some reason, in this situation the Department suddenly decided to terminate us with no warning.

The motivations that led to the Department’s decision are questionable—especially since within the past several weeks, the DOC and Wexford Health were looking for ways to fund Wexford Health’s ongoing contract.

Wexford Health has been an excellent partner for the Department since 2013, as reflected in the dramatic improvements in audit reports from the time we took over responsibility for providing services, until our current fourth year of service. This week’s actions by the Department have been as surprising as they are unnecessary. It is regrettable that we were not given a chance to provide the Department with crucial information that would clearly have refuted the CMA allegations.

Updated 1:55 p.m. — In response to Wexford, Ashley Cook, press secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections, released this statement:

“Secretary Julie Jones sent a letter to Wexford Health Sources, notifying it that the Department is exercising its contractual authority to terminate the contract with Wexford at will.

“Secretary Jones is absolutely outraged at Wexford’s lack of performance and delivery of services as detailed in the Correctional Medical Authority’s notification issued April 18, 2017. The Department has been committed to meaningful health care reforms and takes the issues detailed in the CMA’s notification extremely seriously.

“Following this medical emergency notification, the Department immediately deployed a Mental Health Ombudsman and Behavioral Health Risk Management Team to review all inmate mental health needs handled by Wexford at South Florida Reception Center.

“In regards to an extension of their contract, this was prior to the CMA’s emergency notification and under the pretense that their contracted services were improving after previously being placed on direct notice by the Department. Since their performance did not improve, the Department terminated the contract.

“Please also note, mental health services has been an ongoing issue with Wexford, and the Secretary has had extensive discussions regarding their performance. These discussions were never complimentary of their mental health services.”

More than 40 top judicial, prosecutorial officials to file in support of Aramis Ayala

A group of more than 40 former Florida Supreme Court justices, and judges, prosecutors and legal officials from throughout the country are filing an amicus brief supporting Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala in her power-struggle with Gov. Rick Scott, contending that the issues in their court battles are of national importance.

“By seeking to remove Ayala from all cases that might implicate the death penalty, the Governor does serious damage to the fundamental values of separation of powers and the democratic process, and threatens the bedrock principle of prosecutorial independence upon which much of our criminal justice system rests,” the brief argues.

The group includes former Florida Supreme Court justices Harry Lee Anstead, Rosemary Barkett, Gerald Kogan, and James E.C. Perry; former United States Solicitors General Walter Dellinger, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., and Seth Waxman; four former Supreme Court justices from other states; five current or former state attorneys general from other states, and dozens of current or former judges, prosecutors, and justice officials from throughout the country. Anstead, Barkett and Kogan are former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court.

Ayala and Scott are battling over whether she has the right to refuse to pursue death penalty prosecutions in her 9th Judicial Circuit, as she has declared; and whether he has the right to intervene and reassign her potential death-penalty cases to other state attorneys. He has reassigned 23 of her first-degree murder cases to State Attorney Brad King of Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit. She has petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to determine if he can do so, and has sued Scott in federal court.

Scott’s action “is a dangerous, dangerous thing,” former Florida Chief Justice Kogan, who left the Florida Supreme Court in 1999, said to FloridaPolitics.com.

“Let’s assume for a moment that the governor did have the authority to move a state attorney or a district attorney off the case. What’s going to happen, it may not be limited in the long run to capital cases. It could be any case,” said Kogan, a former capital crimes prosecutor and criminal justice chief judge in Miami-Dade County. “So absolutely, you could have the governor as the one who is going to be running the prosecution in that particular state. That’s not what we have, with the balance of power and three equal parts of government philosophy.”

Such a precedent in authority could even lead to the point of the governor controlling prosecutions of overtly political cases, steering them to friendly prosecutors, he cautioned.

The group of judicial and prosecutorial officials intends to file their brief supporting Ayala in the Florida Supreme Court case, arguing that the traditional concept of prosecutorial independence is at stake, not just in Florida but nationally.

“The Florida Constitution establishes a decentralized prosecutorial system, which ensures that prosecutorial decisions will be made at the local level without interference from statewide officials,” the brief argues. Scott’s intervention, it charges, “usurps the will of Florida voters and the interests of justice.”

Written by Verrilli, former United States solicitor general under President Barack Obama and now a partner in Munger, Tolles & Olson in Washington D.C., the brief argues that Ayala has the discretion to decide whether to ever seek a death sentence and to establish an office policy on the matter.

It states, “Across the country, prosecutors routinely exercise their discretion by articulating a general policy regarding charging, diversion, sentencing, and enforcement priorities.”

The brief cites relevant policies created by head prosecutors in jurisdictions across the country, including Oregon, New York, and Chicago.

Lawyer: Frank Artiles’ racial slurs offensive, but also free speech

A lawyer representing a state senator who could be punished for using a racial slur and other vulgarities said Thursday that the remarks — as offensive as they were — are protected by free speech and that other senators have used similar language.

Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews wrote to the Senate lawyer reviewing the case of Republican Frank Artiles and said that a complaint filed by black lawmakers shouldn’t be pursued because Artiles is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

He also said Artiles’ comments should be judged side-by-side with the remarks of other senators.

“Should this matter be sent to the Senate floor, my client intends to put evidence of other similar speech by other Senators,” Andrews wrote to Senate lawyer Dawn Roberts.

He also said Roberts should step down from the case because of conflicts of interest, having previously represented Artiles and witnesses that could be called.

The matter began Monday night during a private conversation with two African-American senators at a members-only club near the Capitol. Artiles used obscenities with Sen. Audrey Gibson, including one particularly offensive to women.

Sen. Perry Thurston intervened and Artiles, a Cuban-American from the Miami area, used a variation of the “n-word” and used a vulgarity to describe Republican Senate President Joe Negron, according to the complaint filed Wednesday by Thurston.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, reviewed the complaint and found it’s likely Artiles’ comments and behavior violated Senate rules.

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus is asking for Artiles’ expulsion, which would be an option if the full Senate determines there was a rules violation.

Negron asked Roberts to make a recommendation by Tuesday.

In the meantime, Republican Gov. Rick Scott weighed in on the matter while speaking with reporters in Tampa.

“If I had an employee that said what he said, I would immediately fire him,” Scott said.

Thurston wasn’t immediately available for comment, according to a receptionist in his Senate office.

In a separate letter to Negron, Andrews told the Senate president that he should avoid voting on any punishment because he has already prejudged Artiles by condemning the comments earlier this week.

____

AP writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report. Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Legislative Jewish Caucus urges Senate to expel Frank Artiles

The Florida Legislative Jewish Caucus “denounced” state Sen. Frank Artiles Thursday, urging his Senate colleagues to toss him out of the Legislature.

“(We) denounce Senator Frank Artiles for his racist, sexist, and otherwise inflammatory comments directed at some of his Senate colleagues,” they said in a statement.

The statement was signed by Rep. Richard Stark, chair, and Reps. Lori Berman, Ben DiamondJoe Geller and Emily Slosberg, and Sen. Kevin Rader. All are Democrats.

“We stand in defense of our African-American and women legislative colleagues and any public official or private citizen subjected to this type of abusive behavior,” the statement added.

“We urge the Florida Senate to take the highest level of disciplinary action, including expulsion.”

Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County, made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night. Thurston and Gibson are black.

Artiles also used a variation of the “N-word,” referring to her and to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Thurston has lodged a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. An investigative report by General Counsel Dawn Roberts is due next Tuesday.

Kendall protesters call for ‘bully’ Frank Artiles to resign

On Thursday, dozens of protesters gathered outside Frank Artiles‘ office in Kendall to protest racist and sexist slurs he used against Florida Senate colleagues.

Constituents from his district called for his resignation, chanting outside the shuttered district office. The protest comes as elected officials, community leaders and organizations throughout the country demand he resigns from the Senate.

“Frank Artiles is a bully,” said Miami-Dade Democratic chair Juan Cuba. “This latest embarrassment is only the most recent in a long string of hateful incidents that show Artiles does not represent the values of his diverse District. There is no excuse or apology for hate. He must resign now.”

In 2014, Artiles used a slur to refer to Muslims, he has used hate-speech to refer to LGBTQ people and was caught punching a college student at a bar in Tallahassee. Artiles blamed being from Hialeah as an excuse for his hateful, bigoted language.

Wednesday, Sen. Perry Thurston, chair of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, filed a complaint with the Senate Rules Committee to formally seek the expulsion of Artiles. An investigation has begun and will present its findings on April 25.

 

Oscar Braynon, four other Democrats, set to file in support of Aramis Ayala

Five Democratic lawmakers led by Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon are preparing to file a brief with the Florida Supreme Court in support of Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala in her effort to challenge Gov. Rick Scott‘s power to take cases away from her.

Braynon, state Sens. Jeff Clemens, Perry Thurston, and Gary Farmer, and state Rep. Sean Shaw all filed a request Thursday with the Supreme Court to enter an amicus brief supporting Ayala and opposing Scott. The court quickly approved it.

Braynon is from Miami Gardens; Clemens, Lake Worth; Thurston and Farmer from Fort Lauderdale and Shaw from Tampa.

They explicitly stated in their friend-of-the-court brief would “provide an alternative perspective to that of amici Florida House of Representatives.” The Florida House, under the leadership of Speaker Richard Corcoran, also has sought and received court permission to enter an amicus brief, theirs on the side of Scott. That brief has not yet been filed.

The matter involves Ayala’s announcement that she would not pursue death penalty prosecutions, and Scott’s response of signing executive orders to reassign 23 first-degree murder cases from her in the 9th Judicial Circuit to State Attorney Brad King in the 5th Judicial Circuit. Ayala filed a complaint with the Supreme Court last week seeking writ of warrento, seeking to force Scott to prove he has the authority to do so.

The Democratic lawmakers alternative brief, according to the request filed Thursday,  “would address whether Governor Scott acted within the authority provided under Article IV, Section 1, Florida Constitution, and Section 27.14, Florida Statutes, when he issued executive orders that assigned another State Attorney to discharge the duties of the Petitioner Ayala with respect to a specific case or class of cases is whether there is ‘any good and sufficient reason the Governor thinks that the ends of justice would best be served.’ Austin v. State, 310 So. 2d 289, 292 (Fla. 1975).”

The Democrats expect to have their brief filed by Friday.

 

 

Florida’s NAACP joins those calling for Frank Artiles’ resignation

The head of the NAACP Florida State Conference is calling for state Sen. Frank Artiles to step down. 

The organization “stands fully behind the Florida Legislative Black Caucus … and several groups who have called for the resignation of Miami Senator Frank Artiles,” said Adora Obi Nweze, president of Florida’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County, made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night. Thurston and Gibson are black.

Artiles also used a variation of the “N-word,” referring to her and to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Thurston has lodged a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. An investigative report by General Counsel Dawn Roberts is due next Tuesday.

“The racial slur, profane language and degrading tone used to members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus—in particular, a black woman—has no place in our society,” Nweze said in a statement. 

In 2017, it’s unfortunate we still must remind everyone about the N-word and the negative impact it has had in the black community for many years,” she added.

“A public apology is not good enough … Do us a favor, take your racist language and racist actions and resign,” said Nweze, also a member of the NAACP’s National Board of Directors.

Supreme Court OKs gambling control, felon voting rights amendments

The state’s highest court on Thursday gave its approval for proposed state constitutional amendments on voter approval of new gambling and restoring voting rights to ex-cons.

But there’s a big ‘if’ before either can be placed on the 2018 statewide ballot—both amendments still need hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Moreover, Justices Ricky Polston and R. Fred Lewis dissented on the gambling amendment, saying “the ballot title and summary do not clearly inform the public that the proposed amendment may substantially affect slot machines approved by county-wide (referendums).”

The Florida Supreme Court does not pass judgment on subject matter, but reviews proposed amendments only to make sure they cover only one subject and that their ballot title and summary aren’t misleading.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has approved the language of this amendment,” said John Sowinski, chair of Voters In Charge, the group behind the “Voter Control of Gambling in Florida” amendment.

“(W)e can move forward with our efforts to ensure that Florida voters – not gambling industry influence and deal making – are the ultimate authority when it comes to deciding whether or not to expand gambling in our state,” he added in a statement.

Voters in Charge wants to “ensure that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling,” the ballot summary says.

The court, however, has not yet ruled in a case on Gretna Racing, the Gadsden County track seeking to add slot machines. Pari-mutuel interests have said Gretna and other facilities in counties where voters approved slots should be allowed to offer them.

If the court rules in favor, that could result in the single biggest gambling expansion in the state. The case has been pending since last June, when lawyers gave oral argument.

As of Thursday, state records showed the gambling amendment had 74,626 of the 766,200 valid signatures required for ballot placement.

“We will continue to collect the remaining petitions required to achieve ballot placement in 2018,” Sowinski said. “The expansion of gambling in Florida carries with it such significant consequences for our state that any decision to do so should rest with the people of Florida.’’

The “Voting Restoration Amendment,” backed by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, has 71,209 valid signatures. The court approved that amendment unanimously.

It aims to restore “the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation,” its summary says.

“The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis,” it adds.

“Today is a momentous day,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy. “The Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Voting Restoration Amendment to move forward marks a key milestone on our path to a stronger democracy and a fairer Florida … Those who have paid their debt to society deserve a second chance.”

ACLU of Florida Political Director Kirk Bailey said in a statement his organization was the “language approved today reflects the belief that those who have committed crimes should be punished, but once they have fulfilled the terms of that punishment, they should be restored to full citizenship.’

Florida is one of only three states with a lifetime ban on voting, he added: “This amendment modernizes Florida’s criminal justice rules by bringing our state in line with others nationwide.”

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet ended the automatic restoration of voting and other civil rights to nonviolent felons after their sentences are up, requiring at least a five-year waiting period before ex-convicts can apply to get their rights back.

 

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