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Felons’ lawyers chide state in rights restoration fight

Attorneys for felons trying to have their voting rights restored are accusing Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet of “foot-dragging” by trying to block a federal judge’s order that gave the state until April 26 to revamp its controversial rights-restoration process.

A response filed Thursday by the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the latest salvo in the case, filed last year on behalf of nine Florida felons.

In a series of harshly worded rulings, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker found the state’s vote-restoration process violated First Amendment rights and equal-protection rights of felons. He gave Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the other members of the Florida Cabinet, who serve as the state’s Board of Executive Clemency, until April 26 to overhaul the process. Walker last week also rejected a request by Bondi to put his order on hold.

“Rather than comply with the requirements of the United States Constitution, defendants continue to insist they can do whatever they want with hundreds of thousands of Floridians’ voting rights and absolutely zero standards,” Walker wrote in a six-page decision April 4. “They ask this court to stay its prior orders. No.”

Arguing in part that Walker “relied on unsubstantiated insinuations of actual discrimination,” Bondi on April 6 asked the federal appellate court to put a stay on the district judge’s order.

But in the response filed with the appeals court Thursday, lawyers for the plaintiffs chided state officials for complaining that Walker hadn’t given them enough time to craft a new process.

“Now that the day has come to set forth a rule-based, non-arbitrary system, they pretend to be caught off guard and unprepared after a year of litigation and after more than two months have elapsed” since a Feb. 1 order by Walker that found the current process unconstitutional and instructed both sides to come up with an alternate system, the lawyers wrote.

The clemency board could immediately impose new rules that meet Walker’s requirements while continuing to appeal his decision, wrote lawyers from the Fair Elections Legal Network and the Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC firm, who filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of the plaintiffs.

“Instead, they chose to delay even after the district court found the current system unconstitutional on February 1, and now seek to benefit from their own foot-dragging,” the lawyers wrote.

In seeking a stay, Bondi’s lawyers said the state needs more time to answer a slew of questions regarding the vote-restoration process.

“The issue is not whether the board could unilaterally prescribe new rules in a short span of time … but whether the state’s policymakers and citizenry — including but not limited to the board — should be afforded sufficient time to carefully consider the important issues at hand,” they wrote.

The lawyers for the state also sought to demonstrate that the state’s vote-restoration process does not violate constitutional rights.

The process comports with the Equal Protection Clause if it “bears a rational relationship to the achieving of a legitimate state interest,” the state lawyers wrote, reiterating an argument rejected by Walker. The state has a legitimate interest in limiting the voting franchise to “responsible voters,” they added.

“The state’s totality-of-the-circumstances approach is rationally calculated to effectuate that interest, because it permits board members to ‘gauge the progress and rehabilitation of a convicted felon’ based on the full range of information concerning the ‘individual defendant and his case,’ “ they wrote.

But lawyers for the felons said the state shouldn’t be trusted.

“Appellants’ only goal appears to be to fight for a ruling sanctioning unfettered discretion in voting rights restoration,” they wrote.

The state threatened to do away with restoring voting rights altogether but has since backed down, the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.

“In light of the harms inherent in such a system, and because appellants could adopt an interim scheme now, they have no cognizable injury that would merit a stay,” they wrote.

But the state argued that the clemency board hasn’t shown it will ignore Walker’s order.

Walker “did not find or suggest that defendants are likely to disregard its rulings and set up a new vote-restoration system incompatible with the requirements of its order,” Bondi’s lawyers wrote.

“Accordingly, the ‘drastic and extraordinary remedy’ of an injunction is not required,” they wrote.

Restoration of voting rights has long been a controversial legal and political issue in Florida. After taking office in 2011, Scott and Bondi played key roles in changing the process to effectively make it harder for felons to get their rights restored.

Under the current process, felons must wait five or seven years after their sentences are complete to apply to have rights restored. After applications are filed, the process can take years to complete.

A political committee known as Floridians for a Fair Democracy has collected enough petition signatures to place a measure on the November general-election ballot that, if approved by voters, would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, completed parole or probation and paid restitution. Murderers and sex offenders would be excluded under the measure, which will appear on the ballot as Amendment 4.

Ex-state prison official sentenced after inmate beatdown

A former correctional officer in the state prison system will serve federal prison time after he beat up an inmate in his office, then tried to cover it up, officials said Friday.

Michael J. Baxter, 49, of Grand Ridge, was sentenced Thursday in federal court in Panama City to 5 years in prison, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida.

Baxter was convicted in January of “falsifying records to obstruct a federal investigation,” the release said. He was a major at the Apalachee Correctional Institution.

He “knowingly falsified use-of-force and incident reports to obstruct an investigation into allegations of a violent assault on an inmate” in 2015, the release said.

The inmate “was assaulted in Major Baxter’s office on the day the inmate was going to be married,” the release said.

“Blood splatter from the inmate’s head was found on the floor of the office, and medical records confirmed significant damage to the inmate’s face and head. Afterward, Major Baxter falsified his reports to obstruct the investigation into the assault.”

In a statement, Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said Baxter’s actions “were unacceptable and are in no way a reflection of the thousands of correctional officers who work diligently every day to watch over our inmates.

“Protecting those in our custody is the Department’s chief priority, and we are committed to ensuring fair and appropriate treatment as they serve their time in the correctional system,” she added.

Philip Levine calls for DCF changes to offer support to young adults without

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine promised closer relationships between state government and nonprofits like Orlando’s Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, saying the state needs to re-evaluate how such programs are run through the Department of Children and Families.

After touring the Second Harvest Food Bank Friday — the second Democratic gubernatorial candidate to do so, after Gwen Graham did in December, Levine offered few details about his vision to address hunger, homelessness and other chronic social needs but spoke of making them priorities.

“We need to do all these things to lift the state up,” Levine said. “It requires us to have better education, better health care, a better environmental policy, non-discrimination policies.

“And when you come to an organization like this, and you see the opportunity they present if they could just get cooperation and partnership with the state of Florida, to me it’s a golden opportunity. I look at this and say, this to me is an asset of our state, and how do we utilize this asset?”

Levine faces Graham, Winter Park businessman Chris King, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in the battle for the August 28 Democratic primary. The leading Republicans are U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Partly through partnerships with big local corporate players such as Walt Disney World and Darden Restaurants, Second Harvest collects, sorts and distributes food to more than 500 local emergency food assistance programs throughout Central Florida.

After praising the model and vowing his administration would plug into it, Levine pivoted to a discussion of The Florida Department of Children and Families, saying he spoke with a Second Harvest volunteer trainee who had come up through foster care, who said that when he turned 18, he had virtually no support system.

“I think that’s an example of something that needs to change. We saw, unfortunately, that shooter from [Marjory] Stoneman Douglas [High School.] I think he had a similar experience. He [Nikolas Cruz] turned 18 and no one was looking after him, in terms of mental health,” Levine said.

“I think we need to start taking care of our people more, and maybe start modeling ourselves after some of the most admired companies in America who take care of their people very much so, the same organizations we want to attract to our state of Florida, whether it’s Amazon or Boeing, or Disney, whatever it may be, we need to start acting more to take care of our people,” Levine said.

Democrats charge Rick Scott with ‘illegal fundraising’ after PAC poll

New questions are being raised by Florida Democrats about Gov. Rick Scott and the New Republican PAC after a polling memo released by the committee Thursday.

The poll was released by the PAC Mar. 29 and conducted from Mar. 10 to Mar. 13.

Gov. Scott entered the Senate race on Apr. 9; at the time the poll was conducted and the memo was circulated, the PAC was still devoted to President Donald Trump.

The FDP asserts that, in light of a federal elections complaint filed by End Citizens United against the committee for allegedly raising “soft money” in support of Scott’s eventual candidacy, this is one more piece of evidence of “illegal fundraising.”

“The dates of this poll are the latest piece of evidence demonstrating Scott will break the rules and game the system to advance his own political interests … and now he needs to answer for this obvious and disturbing development,” asserted spokesman Sebastian Kitchen.

Scott disclaimed responsibility for the PAC in Jacksonville Wednesday.

“As you know, I’m only responsible for the campaign account. The campaign account is what we’re responsible for,” Scott said.

“You’d have to reach out to people at New Republican. We’re very transparent in what we do,” Scott added. “I’m responsible for the campaign account. You have to separate it when you have federal races.”

End Citizens United had a response to that Thursday.

“We appreciate Rick Scott’s advice to ‘reach out to the people at New Republican.’ We’d like to remind Rick Scott that as chairman of New Republican, he is the ‘people’ responsible and accountable for this violation,” said Adam Bozzi, communications director of End Citizens United.

“We can only imagine his confusion trying to manage so many campaign committees and raise so much soft money. It truly is a tangled web. But, the fact is, Rick Scott still needs to give Florida voters an answer as to why he broke election law to advance his own political ambitions,” Bozzi added. https://googleads.g.doubleclick.net/pagead/viewthroughconversion/951914972/?value=1.00&currency_code=USD&label=6MyjCPT36WYQ3KP0xQM&guid=ON&script=0

Billionaire GOP donor takes shots at Richard Corcoran while debuting E-verify research

Ahead of the Constitution Revision Commission’s vote on a controversial amendment (Proposal 29) to establish an employment eligibility verification process aimed at keeping unauthorized immigrants from working in the state, a slew of business leaders are ramping up efforts to prevent the proposal from appearing on the November ballot — and the battle now has manifested as fiery political discourse.

The IMPAC Fund and the American Business Immigration Coalition compiled research released Thursday that suggests a constitutionally mandated employment verification system — which would be modeled after the federal E-verify system — could significantly disrupt business in the Sunshine State.

During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, GOP billionaire rainmaker Mike Fernandez stressed pro-immigration policies shouldn’t be marked by party lines — the fight against E-verify is supported by the Florida Chamber and nationally by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.

But for some — particularly Republican state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, it seems to be the “flavor of the day,” Fernandez said. 

Corcoran, who appointed P29 sponsor Rich Newsome to the CRC, is not “shy in his fear and misinformation about immigrants to move an agenda that is very personal to him based on misinformation and lack of facts,” Fernandez said.

During the 2018 Legislative Session, Corcoran championed a bill banning so-called ‘sanctuary cities,’ a term coined for local governments that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Corcoran’s Watchdog PAC released an ad earlier this year suggesting illegal immigration results in an uptick in violent crime ahead of the Speaker’s anticipated entrance into the Governor’s race. He debated Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum on the issue in February.

If Corcoran owned a business that employed immigrants, he would understand the concerns raised by IMPAC and ABIC, continued Fernandez. IMPAC and ABIC are coalitions of business leaders supporting pro-immigration policies. They argue it leads to a diversified workforce beneficial to the overall economy. Former state Republican House Speaker Allan Bense and Greenburg Traurig Chairman Cesar Alvarez are among key active members in both groups.

On Thursday afternoon, Corcoran, who still has yet to announce a bid for the Governor’s Mansion, responded to Fernandez’ claim that the Speaker is using misinformation to push a political agenda. He aligned himself with President Donald Trump and said he appreciates Fernandez’ recognition that he’s “the only potential state-wide candidate who is actually standing up against illegal immigration.”

“Facts are facts,” Corcoran said via a prepared statement sent to Florida Politics from Fred Piccolo, the Speaker’s communications director. “We need to build the wall, end chain migration, and stop sanctuary cities. I am proud to fight for those policies alongside President Trump and the millions of Florida voters who feel the same way.”

Fernandez said he has “personally been told I’m a Southern Liberal” because of his opposition.

“Most of my life I have been a Republican. Most of my life I have given significant contributions to the Republican party,” Fernandez said. But he hinted that recent anti-immigration initiatives have caused him to question his party allegiance. 

In 2016, Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at free-market conservative think tank Cato Institute, wrote: “Many Americans are opposed to mandatory E-Verify not out of some Democratic Party-inspired desire for open borders but rather because they are justifiably skeptical of an error prone, easily fooled, and deceptively expensive federal mandate that has great potential to diminish the privacy of Americans and lead to a national biometric identity program.”

Among the key findings from IMPAC and ABIC: Florida employers could lose $4.7 billion; 1,173,360 legal Florida workers could face job delays or lose their jobs; and a mandated system overburdens small businesses and farm owners with hefty start-up costs, disruption and lost hours.

The report also reflects findings from studies that point to the inefficacy of the federal government’s E-verify. Legal foreign-born workers, the groups allege using supporting research from Cato and other sources, are 13 times more likely to be innacurately disqualified by a mandated system. That number is based on reports from Intel in 2008 when 12 percent of its workforce was deemed unauthorized to work in the U.S., but later received clearance. 

The research and conference call Thursday follows a letter last week authored by IMPAC urging commissioners to ax the proposal.

Fernandez said the letter was accompanied with calls to the 19 commissioners who cleared the proposal for drafting in March. But he didn’t get a response.

“It is very alarming that we’re not hearing a response from them, but we are hopeful that with the general public’s involvement and the business community’s involvement that [commissioners] understand that this is not an attack on what they’re doing, but we are trying to stop an attack on … free enterprises,” Fernandez said.

In March, P29 was cleared for drafting with 19 yes votes. Thirteen commissioners voted against the proposal and five commissioners were absent. To appear on the ballot, it will need the approval of 22 commissioners and will need 60 percent voter approval to pass in November.

The CRC reconvenes Monday to begin final consideration of the proposals.

Ashley Moody

Two more sheriffs endorse Ashley Moody for AG

Former circuit court judge and Republican candidate for Attorney General Ashley Moody announced Thursday that two more county sheriffs have endorsed her bid to succeed Pam Bondi in the fall.

The endorsements came from Taylor County Sheriff Wayne Padgett and Martin County Sheriff William Snyder, both Republicans.

“Ensuring safety and security for every Floridian is one of the most important obligations of any elected official. Ashley Moody has spent her life in service to the safety of our state, both as a federal prosecutor and a judge,” Padgett said.

“Ashley is a proven leader for our criminal justice system and I’m proud to endorse her and her vision for keeping our state safe and protecting Floridians from the evolving criminal threats that law enforcement confronts on a daily basis.”

Snyder, who is also a former member of the Florida House, added: “As Sheriff, my top priority is the safety and security of the people I serve and there is no one more qualified to help assist law enforcement in their mission than Judge Ashley Moody.

“A tough on crime former federal prosecutor who has the knowledge and track record of keeping our state safe, Ashley will make an outstanding Attorney General. I’m proud to support her.”

With the new endorsements, Moody has now earned the backing of 37 – nearly 80 percent, the campaign says – of Florida’s Republican sheriffs. Moody’s other backers include 11 state attorneys as well as Bondi, who is a lifelong friend.

Moody is running in the Republican Primary against state Reps. Jay Fant of Jacksonville, Ross Spano of Dover and Frank White of Pensacola.

Through March, White led the money race with more than $2 million on hand, though his total includes $1.5 million in candidate contributions. Moody is in second with $1.5 million on hand without the help of loans, followed by Fant with $1 million raised including a $750,000 loan and Spano with $71,000 banked.

Also running for the Cabinet post are Tampa Democratic Rep. Sean Shaw and Odessa attorney Ryan Torrens.

A recent poll showed Moody with a one point lead with a third of voters undecided if she and Shaw were the candidates on the November ballot.

Rick Scott calls for international monitoring of Cuban elections

Gov. Rick Scott has never shied away from taking foreign policy stances as Governor; as a Senate candidate, those positions will warrant even more attention.

In that context: a letter sent to Vice President Mike Pence Thursday ahead of the Summit of the Americas, where Pence and Sen. Marco Rubio will represent the United States.

Citing Pence’s “profound commitment to democracy and human rights,” Scott noted the “brutal dictatorship” in Cuba was imposing “so-called elections” to facilitate a “dynastic succession.”

Scott asserted the need for “elections with international supervision” in Cuba, called for by the “region, in one voice.”

He also pins the Cuban government with “orchestrating” the current “Venezuelan nightmare.”

In bold in the original, Scott emphasizes: “It should be made clear that until the United States knows that Cuba is on a path to democracy, Venezuela will remain on a path toward totalitarianism.

Scott is also a reliable advocate for muscular assertions of the American position and prerogatives.

Addressing potential military action in Syria, Scott said the following Wednesday: “I think it’s very important that America stands for freedom. I think we’ve got to defend our borders and our rights and all those things. But every chance we have the opportunity to help another group of individuals fight for freedom, we’ve got to do it.”

Adam Putnam keeps dumping on Rick Scott’s legacy

Now that Adam Putnam is the erstwhile frontrunner in the Florida Governor’s race, the Agriculture Commissioner seems more eager than ever to dump on Gov. Rick Scott.

Despite serving nearly eight years in the Florida Cabinet, working shoulder to shoulder with Scott – and standing with the Governor (and newly minted U.S. Senate candidate) at a “Let’s Get to Work” rally in Sarasota this week – Putnam nevertheless badmouths Scott’s legacy at every turn on the campaign trail.

For example, during a recent appearance on “This Week in South Florida,” the former congressman from Bartow shared his vision for education – highlighted by a call for increased school funding.

“The vast majority of our students are in a traditional public school, and we need to make sure the resources are following those students so that teachers and students have the tools they need to compete in this global economy and win,” Putman told hosts Michael Putney and Glenna Milberg.

Of course, Putnam did not acknowledge the recently passed Florida budget — the state’s largest ever – which included $21.1 billion for K-12 schools, an increase of $485 million from last year, or nearly $102 more in per-student funding.

In another reproach to Scott’s legacy, Putnam boasted that if elected, he would reverse current policy and revive the “drug czar” position to lead the state’s battle with opioid addiction. Shortly after taking office in 2011, Scott eliminated the Office of Drug Control, scrapped the state’s prescription drug database program and ended the position of drug czar.

However, in March, Putnam floated a return to the drug czar concept at an opioid roundtable: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a reinvention of the old drug czar … but we need a coordinator of the response to this crisis.”

But nowhere did the candidate credit Scott for working with state lawmakers this year to set aside $65 million for expanding treatment and give the overdose antidote naloxone to law enforcement and paramedics. The measure also imposes a new three-day limit on most opioid prescriptions, though doctors could extend that to seven days if “medically necessary.”

In addition, physicians and staff must now check with a statewide database before prescribing or dispensing such controlled substances.

Putnam has also been quite vocal lately in criticizing the Department of Children and Families – an agency that answers to Scott – for its lack of response to a series of red flags about Nikolas Cruz, the former student who killed 17 people Feb. 14 at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“The Legislature’s commitment to funding that Safe Schools account has gone down over time,” he told WJXT Jacksonville. “I think that complacency, unfortunately, potentially crept in … It’s unfortunate that it took the Parkland event to refocus everyone on the need to harden these schools.”

In a direct rebuke of Scott’s leadership, Putnam pointed out that DCF did nothing after “[visiting] the home because he posted a video online saying that he wanted to be a shooter and he was threatening to cut himself.”

At the time, Putnam’s criticism was the highest-profile attack from a Republican against Scott and the GOP-led Legislature, accusing them both of disregard for school safety.

It’s clear that Scott is term-limited, so criticism is far from unexpected. However, becoming a lame duck should not mean there is an automatic target on the Governor’s back, especially coming from a member of his own Cabinet.

Keith Perry

Keith Perry adds $54K, Kayser Enneking $44K in SD 8 race

Gainesville Republican Sen. Keith Perry’s money lead in the Senate District 8 race ticked up a couple notches in March with $54,100 raised between his campaign and committee.

Gainesville physician Kayser Enneking, the leading Democrat running for the Alachua County-based seat brought in $44,213 during the same stretch.

SD 8 is a top target for Senate Democrats this cycle and could be key in determining who will be Senate President after the 2022 elections.

Perry, a roofer by trade, won the seat in 2016 over Democrat Rod Smith, a former state party chair and former state Senator, by about four points. President Donald Trump also carried the seat by less than a point – the smallest margin among the 21 Senate districts he won.

With March in the books, Perry has raised a total of $416,207 between his campaign and committee, Building a Prosperous Florida. He started April with about $379,000 in the bank.

Enneking’s total now sits at $248,520 raised with about $195,000 on hand.

Perry’s March haul included a $4,000 check for his PAC from Floridians for a Strong Economy, a committee tied to Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, a dark horse candidate for Senate President.

The campaign report showed 53 contributions, 42 of which were for $1,000, the maximum contribution for a state legislative campaign.

He also received $15,357 worth of “in-kind” contributions from the Republican Party of Florida for staff, polling and research.

Enneking’s campaign report wasn’t as top heavy – just 14 max checks were among her 242 contributions, including more than 200 small-dollar donations of $250 or less.

Interestingly, more than 90 percent of the donors in Enneking’s campaign report had a zip code within Senate District 8, while Perry’s report didn’t show a single check from within SD 8’s borders.

Olysha Magruder, the other Democrat vying for the seat, brought in $3,568 in March. She’s now raised about $19,000 and has $7,727 in the bank.

SD 8 covers all of Alachua and Putnam counties as well as the northern half of Marion County and is one of a handful of districts that became more favorable to Democrats after the Senate map was redrawn ahead of the 2016 elections.

Already a comeback: Poll shows Bill Nelson leading Rick Scott by six points

It’s only been three days since Gov. Rick Scott announced he would challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, and a new poll shows him six points behind the longtime lawmaker.

The survey from Public Policy Polling finds that 50 percent of Florida voters are in favor of Nelson getting a fourth term in the Senate, while 44 percent said they would pick Scott for the job. The remaining six percent said they were unsure who they would vote for.

Another bit of good news for Nelson: he scored a plus-10 in the favorability poll, with 47 percent of voters saying they saw him favorably compared to 37 percent who did not.

The positive rating comes from voters who in the same poll had a not-so-negative outlook on President Donald Trump. He was slightly underwater, with 46 percent finding him favorable compared to 48 percent who of him.

Scott’s favorability score came in at a middling plus-1, 47-46.

The survey represents an 8-point swing from another recent poll of the high-profile U.S. Senate race that found Scott with a 2-point lead over Nelson, 43-41.

Part of the difference between the new PPP poll and the month-old Clearview Research poll can be explained by their turnout models.

PPP assumed registered Democrats will outnumber Republicans at the polls by 1 point. That’s a major break from past midterm elections, but is reflective of the expected enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans this cycle.

The Clearview poll gave Republicans a 2-point advantage at the voting booth, citing 2014 turnout numbers. As a midterm, it is the most recent comparable election, the firm said at the time.

The new poll was conducted April 10 and 11 and took responses from 661 Florida voters. Democratic consultant Christian Ulvert of EDGE Communications paid for the poll. He is currently serving as a senior adviser to Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine’s gubernatorial campaign.

Florida’s U.S. Senate race has national implications. Nelson is one of 10 Senators up for re-election in 2018 in a state that voted for Trump in 2016, and defending his seat is a near requirement for Democrats to have a shot at retaking the chamber.

Survey of Florida politics by Peter Schorsch on Scribd

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