Influence Archives - Florida Politics

Frank Kruppenbacher leaves Florida Virtual School

Orlando lawyer and Florida Republican stalwart Frank Kruppenbacher has left the Florida Virtual School after serving as its general counsel for 18 years.

Kruppenbacher submitted his resignation at Sunday’s board meeting and the board accepted it, a school spokesman said Tuesday.

“It’s been 18 years. I just didn’t want to do it anymore. It was time to go,” Kruppenbacher told Florida Politics.

Kruppenbacher’s activities in state and regional boards is widespread, as has been his involvement in political activities, chiefly for the Republican Party. He is chairman of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, the board that runs the Orlando airports; and served as a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission this year. He’s also a past president of the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce, was the general counsel for the Orange County School Board and several city and county governments, and served on the Florida Ethics Commission.

The Florida Virtual School is the state’s online K-12 school. It began in 1997 as the nation’s first, statewide internet-based public high school. In 2000 it became an independent institution, serving students from all 67 counties through contracts with local school boards.

Kruppenbacher became its general counsel when it became an independent institution in 2000.

Rick Scott OKs emergency loans to cope with algae, red tide

Small businesses hurt by algae blooms and red tide can now apply to the state for emergency loans, Gov. Rick Scott‘s office announced Tuesday.

Scott activated the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program, which provides “short-term, interest-free loans to small businesses experiencing physical or economic loss.” The program is managed by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).

“Florida’s businesses are a large reason why our state is the best place in the country to live,” Scott said in a statement. “This program will help our business community recover from these emergencies.”

— Small businesses affected by blue-green algae in Glades, Hendry, Lee, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach, and St. Lucie counties may apply for assistance from today through Sept. 7.

— Small businesses affected by the red tide in Charlotte, Collier, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties may apply for assistance from today through Oct. 12.

The short-term, interest-free loans help ‘bridge the gap’ between the time damage is incurred and when a business secures other financial resources.

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For more information on the program, visit www.floridadisasterloan.org, call the Florida Small Business Development Center Network at (850) 898-3479 or email <Disaster@FloridaSBDC.org>. The phone line will be answered during regular business hours; all voicemails and emails will be responded to within 24 hours.

State debt reduction called ‘sea change’

Florida has reduced debt that helps finance initiatives like roads, schools and environmental projects by more than $7 billion over the past eight years, according to a new report from the state Division of Bond Finance.

The debt amount dropped from $28.2 billion in July 2010 to $21 billion through June 30, Ben Watkins, director of the bond finance agency, told Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members Tuesday. That represented a 25 percent reduction.

The debt reduction, which came as Scott pursued a policy of limiting state borrowing, was “unprecedented,” Watkins said, because it reversed a long-term trend of annual borrowing by the state.

“We had 30 years of annual, perpetual increases in debt that was reversed, which was a sea change in terms of the direction in which we were headed,” Watkins said.

A key element in reducing the debt has been the Division of Bond Finance’s effort to refinance older debt with new bonds carrying lower interest rates. Since the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the state has carried out 104 bond refinancings, totaling $14.7 billion, resulting in a gross savings of nearly $3 billion.

Watkins said the state used the process to refinance some 70 percent of the state debt since 2010. However, the report also noted the state’s ability to refinance debt will be more limited in the future, with the federal government’s decision to eliminate the use of a financial tool known as “advance refunding.”

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take advantage of historically low interest rates,” Watkins said. “These are big numbers. And this is real money that saves citizens and the taxpayers of the state.”

Watkins’ report also highlighted other financial improvements, including paying back $3.4 billion borrowed from the federal government to cover unemployment benefits after the last recession. The fund now has a $3.7 billion surplus, which Scott said has resulted in a reduction in the amount of payroll taxes that employers have to pay to support the fund.

“In Florida, we’ve shown that you can have a balanced budget, reduce debt and create jobs all while cutting taxes,” Scott said in a statement.

The report also noted improvements in the state’s financial ability to respond to major hurricanes.

The state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has reduced its exposure to what is known as a “1-in-100-years storm” from $21.4 billion to $5.8 billion, largely the result of reducing its customer base from 1.3 million to 440,000 since 2010, the report said. The reduction in exposure is important, since a large hurricane could result in the state having to borrow money that would be paid off by assessments on insurance policyholders across the state.

The financial improvements, including a relatively healthy $160 billion state pension fund, has resulted in Florida earning “triple A” credit ratings from major financial rating agencies.

“This is the first time we’ve had three triple A’s. So I call it a royal flush,” Watkins said. “The good news is it recognizes the strength of the state, the management of the state, the financial position and policies of the state, which translates into lower borrowing costs for the state. It is, in effect, a validation from the rating agencies that we are doing the right thing.”

In wake of fake degree scandal, Melissa Howard withdraws from Florida House race

A Republican candidate for the Florida House of Representatives who went to extensive lengths to prove that she had a college degree that she actually didn’t complete is abandoning her campaign.

“I have come to the realization that the right thing to do for my community is to withdraw from the race,” said Melissa Howard, who last week posted a photo of herself with what looked like a Miami University diploma after being accused of lying about her degree.

The Ohio university later sent reporters a statement saying she attended the school, but never graduated and the diploma Howard had a litany of inaccuracies, from the degree being one not offered by the university, to the signatures of university officials displayed on the degree being incorrect. The university’s statement proved damning, as the story went from a contained fire in the local news to a full on blaze that trended on social media and got the attention of many of the largest news outlets in the nation.

In a statement first provided to Florida Politics, Howard said she will withdraw from the race today. Her decision comes less than 24 hours after she issued an apology for the lie but said she planned to stay in the race for House District 73.

Her statement yesterday: “I would like to apologize to my family and my supporters for this situation. It was not my intent to deceive or mislead anyone. I made a mistake in saying that I completed my degree. What I did was wrong and set a bad example for someone seeking public service. I am staying in the race and intend to win and lead by example from now on.”

Tuesday, she took the next step.

“I made a terrible error in judgement,” Howard said in a statement. “I am thankful for everyone who gave so much toward my success, and I am deeply sorry.”

“Gave so much,” indeed. As of Aug. 3, Howard had reeled in more than $81,000 from donors, including nearly $55,000 in campaign funds and another $26,100 for her affiliated political committee, Citizens For Transparency In Government.

Those who chipped in to the campaign fund — 126 people at last count — shouldn’t expect a refund. That money is spent. The $82,120 left in the account is all thanks to a $100,000 loan that Howard staked her campaign with in the early going, and it’s likely that part of her decision to drop out came after realizing donations would slow to a trickle and it would be her own money on the line from here on out.

As far as the committee cash goes, maybe its donors can expect a pro-rated refund for their trouble.

While Howard’s exit ends some immediate story lines surrounding the race, such as what would happen if she won in spite of the lie, there are still plenty of question marks.

The biggest: Why lie in the first place?

Howard is by all accounts a successful person. She runs a medical trade show business with her husband that reportedly pulls in enough money for them to have five employees other than themselves on payroll. She has risen up the ranks in many groups, including serving as a board member for the Easter Seals of Southwest Florida; on the advisory council for Southeastern Guide Dogs; as a board member for Junior League; as co-chairwoman of Israel@70 for the Jewish Federation ofSarasota -Manatee; as chapter president of the Gulf Coast Republican Women Federated; and as a court-appointed Guardian Ad Litem in Manatee County.

A prestigious degree from Miami University would have been nothing more than icing on top — the substance was already there. And there’s no indication that a degree even matters to voters in the first place. Senate District 8, which has one of the highest levels of educational attainment in the state Legislature, had no qualms electing Sen. Keith Perry, a successful businessman who skipped college altogether.

Another question: How does Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh really feel? She wanted the seat, she even filed for it, but she stepped aside for Howard and has been one of her most vocal supporters throughout the scandal. Now, Tommy Gregory — like him or not — will be the Republican nominee in HD 73. Many preferred him, to be sure, but many wanted someone different. Howard has defrauded Republican voters out of having a choice.

Even though she is dropping out, it’s too late to get her name off the ballot ahead of the Aug. 28 primary. Vote by mail ballots were sent out a month ago. HD 73 represents portions of Manatee and Sarasota counties, where about 20,000 Republican votes have already been cast. The seat is open due to current Rep. Joe Gruters decision to run for state Senate. Gruters served as treasurer for Howard’s campaign to replace him and was one of the first to react to her announcement.

“She made the right decision and saved the community and the party any additional heartache,” Gruters said after Howard’s announcement. “I hope she gets whatever help she needs. We wish her success moving forward and look forward to supporting Tommy Gregory.”

Gregory didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

He is now poised to go head-to-head against Democratic nominee Liv Coleman in the Nov. 6 general election, and he’ll be favored by a wide margin — GOP voters make up nearly half of the HD 73 electorate compared to a 25 percent share for registered Democrats.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this post.

Cabinet approves latest conservation easement

The Florida Cabinet is moving forward with the purchase of a large parcel of land in Highlands County to ensure its preservation.

On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam authorized the $5,528,250 buy of the specified 2,457 acres of ranchland, known as the Sandy Gully property. 

Funding from the state Rural and Family Lands Protection program will be used to cover the cost of the purchase. Known as a conservation easement, the buy allows agricultural operations to continue on the Sandy Gully property but restricts future development. A potential federal grant totaling $3,312,500 could help offset that cost.

Sandy Gully is a cow/calf operation. Hay and timber production are secondary operations. A former dairy farm, it shifted focus to cattle in 2002, and now run anywhere from 650 to 700 heads of cattle, according to documents from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Species of black bear and gopher tortoise — both considered rare — have been present on the property. In the past, the owners of the land also have identified sightings of sandhill cranes, bald eagles, Sherman’s fox squirrels, eastern indigo snakes, gopher tortoises and Florida panthers.

Justifying the purchase, the state believes the property could serve as a pathway for animals in between two nearby parks.

“What’s really key about [Sandy Gully] is it’s sandwiched between the Highlands County Sun N Lake Preserve and the Highlands Hammock State Park,” DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein noted to the Cabinet. “[The land] will be a pretty good corridor for the wildlife that moves along the ranch.”

As well, the Sandy Gully property is integral to some of the area’s wetland systems, according to DEP documents.

Valenstein noted to the Cabinet that the state has purchased 46 conservation easements with the addition of Sandy Gully. In total, 53,121 acres have now been preserved under the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program since its creation in 2001. 

Activists launch effort to light a spark for medical marijuana

Florida medical marijuana activists announced the formation of a new money group aimed at legalizing the drug for medicinal use nationwide.

The organization, called “Empowering Wellness,” was formed in part by longtime Florida activists Eric Stevens and Ben Pollara. The pair worked on Florida’s medical marijuana campaigns in both 2014 and 2016.

The group was formed as a coalition of more than 30 state and national organizations which support federal legalization.

“Empowering Wellness is going to do whatever we can to help move the needle forward on medical marijuana policy in Washington, D.C., and here in Florida,” Stevens said.

“Medical marijuana is legal in 31 states, and D.C., but an outdated, out-of-touch federal policy still stands in the way of patient access for too many Americans. We aim to change that, starting here in Florida.”

As Vox recently explained, “the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it’s perceived to have no medical value and a high potential for abuse. The classification puts marijuana in the same category as heroin and a more restrictive category than schedule 2 drugs like cocaine and meth.”

To begin, Empowering Wellness is throwing its support behind a pair of bipartisan lawmakers who have spoken out in favor of the group’s goals.

Republican Matt Gaetz of Florida’s 1st Congressional District and Democrat Darren Soto of Florida’s 9th Congressional District both earned the group’s “Champions of Wellness” designation for their commitment to the issue.

The organization has endorsed both Gaetz and Soto in their respective primaries, and plans to expand its financial support of candidates in the general election.

Pollara said that Empowering Wellness “will be a powerful, bipartisan voice for creating meaningful, patient-friendly policy in D.C. that respects states and treats medical marijuana users, caretakers, physicians and the industry with compassion and fairness.”

He also lamented the” vacuum of strong advocates on these issues in Washington. Empowering Wellness will itself be such an advocate, but also do whatever we can to send ‘Champions of Wellness’ back to their seats in Congress, and hopefully pick up some new champions along the way.”

Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 which authorized medical marijuana. However, that was followed by state legislators passing a series of restrictions on the use of medical marijuana, including a ban on smoking and limiting the number of dispensaries.

Many of those restrictions have been challenged in court and struck down, with Florida taxpayers footing an increasingly larger bill as the Rick Scott administration continues to challenge those rulings.

Unsurprisingly, Florida groups that stand behind the legalization of medical marijuana were eager to join together to form Empowering Wellness, including NORML Florida, Buds for Vets and attorney John Morgan. Morgan bankrolled the marijuana amendment and litigation challenging the smoking ban.

“It’s really incredible to see such a diverse array of advocates and businesses join together for the shared cause of moving medical marijuana policy meaningfully forward,” Stevens added.

Melissa Howard apologizes for faked degree; Opponents respond

After a weekend of press surrounding allegations she faked a college degree, Republican state House candidate Melissa Howard issued a public apology for misleading the public.

“I would like to apologize to my family and my supporters for this situation. It was not my intent to deceive or mislead anyone,” she wrote Monday on Facebook.

“I made a mistake in saying that I completed my degree.”

But she also made clear she has no intentions of folding up her campaign for House District 73.

“What I did was wrong and set a bad example for someone seeking public service. I am staying in the race and intend to win and lead by example from now on.”

Even if Howard dropped out, it’s too late to get her name off the ballot ahead of the Aug. 28 primary. Vote by mail ballots were sent out a month ago. The seat represents portions of Manatee and Sarasota counties, where about 20,000 Republican votes have already been cast.

Howard faced questions about her academic credentials and flew last week to Miami University in Ohio, posting a photograph of herself with a supposed degree from the school.

But when officials at Miami University saw the photo, they called the integrity of the degree into question, noting it listed wrong titles for faculty and listed a major (Marketing) not offered by the university. The bizarre sequence of events drew national media coverage and calls for Howard to drop out of the race.

She also temporarily took down her Facebook page and Twitter page. Both are online again.

As the scandal unfolded, Howard also had to deal with a family health crisis, as husband, Ian, suffered a cardiac event. He has since been released from Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.

Howard, a Lakewood Ranch business woman, is running against Tommy Gregory, a Sarasota attorney, in the Republican primary. The winner of that primary will face Democrat Liv Coleman in the general election.

Gregory, a Sarasota attorney and former JAG officer, said sticking in the race was the wrong thing to do.

“Melissa Howard has lied, broken the law, and been caught red-handed. In the military, she would be discharged dishonorably,” he said.

“Yet instead of withdrawing gracefully, she is doubling down on her deceit even to the detriment of other Republicans. I will be making my case that I have the courage and integrity to fight the establishment and clean up the sort of corrupt behavior represented by Melissa Howard.”

Coleman was anxious to draw a contrast in herself and Howard. The Democrat teaches political science at the University of Tampa, and considers deceiving voters about academic credentials a huge character issue.

“It’s so important that our representatives are role models of honesty and integrity, and that includes how we choose to represent our educational credentials,” she said.

“I offer a strong alternative to what we’ve seen the last few days and I look forward to the general election contest in November because I know voters will want someone who will stand up for the values that they share.”

Party leaders in Sarasota and Manatee counties for the moment have said the decision whether Howard should be the nominee remains with voters. In Tallahassee, state House leadership took a similar approach.

Jose Oliva, the incoming Republican House leader, said voters should have their say. “The Speaker-designate has no comment at this time,” said Oliva spokesman Fred Piccolo. “The voters of each district will determine the Republican nominee.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this post.

Personnel note: Amanda Gorman joins Adams St. Advocates

Adams St. Advocates, the two-person lobbying shop run by Claudia Davant and Rebecca Roman, said Tuesday that it’s bringing on a third: Amanda Gorman.

“We are delighted to welcome Amanda to our team,” said Davant, president of the firm. “Amanda’s impressive background and experience in both the government and private sectors will tie in nicely with the forward-thinking advocacy services we offer our clients at Adams St. Advocates.”

Gorman joins the firm with more than five years of political, legislative, and executive experience in both the government and private sectors.

“I’m excited to join Adams St. Advocates,” Gorman said.  “My last five years spent working in various capacities from legislative to campaigns to executive experience in both government and private sectors has prepared me well for my new role at Adams St. Advocates.  I am looking forward to my future here and working with such a passionate team.”

Most recently, Gorman served the Department of Management Services in their Legislative Affairs office, where she assisted in developing and implementing strategy to successfully pass the department’s legislative and budget priorities. From this position, she brings extensive knowledge in health care, telecommunication, and technology policy, as well as state term contract and procurement experience.

Before that, Gorman was a campaign fundraiser for Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign, and subsequently served two and a half years on his administration, where she was responsible for ensuring the appropriate handling of high-level and sensitive information and providing guidance and training on matters relating to records requests and public documents.

While earning her bachelor’s degree in political science and her master’s in applied American politics and policy at Florida State University, the Tallahassee native interned with the private lobbying firm of Corcoran & Johnson and the private law firm of Jansen & Davis.

Adams St. Advocates is a small but successful lobbying firm. According to their reports from the first quarter of the year, which included the 2018 Legislative Session, Davant and Roman handled the needs of 19 clients and brought in an estimated $185,000 in fees during the three-month stretch.

Poll gives Robert Doyel a 5-point lead over Kelli Stargel in battleground SD 22

Retired Circuit Judge Robert Doyel has the largest competitive edge of any of the six Republican-held Senate seats specifically targeted by the Florida Democratic Party, according to a recent internal survey.

The Winter Haven Democrat is running for Senate District 22, which covers northern Polk County and southern Lake County and is currently held by Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel.

The Florida Democratic Party’s internal poll numbers show Doyel has a higher name recognition in his district than any other Democratic Senate candidate in a targeted race at 54 percent — that means higher than House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, higher than former state Rep. Amanda Murphy and higher than Gainesville physician Kayser Enneking, who started hitting TV last week.

The internal survey also shows Doyel with a 5 percent advantage over Stargel, 45-40 percent, giving him the heretofore biggest lead among the six contested races. The only recent public poll showing one of the six targeted candidates with a lead came in SD 18 early last month, where Cruz held a 1-point lead over Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young, 44-43 percent.

The random sample poll was conducted July 23-26 and took responses from 402 likely voters from all parties and results were statistically adjusted to mirror the demographics of the district.

Unlike Stargel, Doyel has to get past a primary challenger in two weeks, however, the poll didn’t give a window on his chances in that contest.

Doyel faces former state Rep. Ricardo Rangel, who represented Osceola County from 2012 through 2014. His campaign headquarters is listed as Auburndale which, unlike his former stomping grounds, is within SD 22. Still, he has been a no-show from many forums and campaign events.

In addition to District 22, the state party is targeting Gainesville-based SD 8, Pinellas and Pasco-based SD 16, Tampa-based SD 18, St. Petersburg-based SD 24 and Hialeah-based SD 36. In each instance, party officials have determined that the seats are winnable by a Democrat, though only SD 18 and SD 36 were carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Party officials added that the bright polling for Doyel may help him boost his fundraising numbers over the next few weeks as large institutional donors have their doubts assuaged and begin to see his potential for success in November.

As of Aug. 3, Stargel had about $425,000 banked between her campaign account and an affiliated political committee, Limited Govt for a Stronger Florida. Doyel, meanwhile, has raised $125,215 in campaign funds and has $73,212 at the ready, followed by Rangel with $6,145 raised and pennies in the bank.

State has spent $2M on legal bills for medical marijuana

As it defends a slew of cases over medical marijuana, the state of Florida has spent close to $2 million on outside lawyers. Nearly all of that went to one firm.

Records reviewed last week show at least $1.9 million approved by the Department of Health (DOH) going to two law firms — mostly Vezina, Lawrence & Piscitelli, but also Shutts & Bowen.

The contracts, which were usually amended for increasing amounts of money, were posted on Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis‘ Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System, or FACTS. It’s an “online tool developed to make the government contracting process in Florida more transparent.”

Meantime, medicinal cannabis advocates – including Orlando lawyer John Morgan – have called on term-limited Gov. Rick Scott to drop appeals of cannabis-related rulings that went against the state. That includes a case that Morgan backed, challenging the state’s ban on smoking medical marijuana.

“Enough is enough, drop YOUR #MedicalMarijuana appeal,” Morgan said in a May 29 tweet that he has pinned to his Twitter page. “Do it for the PEOPLE!”

Paying big bucks for hired legal guns isn’t surprising: Under Scott “and other top Florida Republicans,” the state has “quietly spent more than $237 million on private lawyers to advance and defend their agendas,” the Associated Press reported last year.

That figure doesn’t include the nearly $16 million “Florida taxpayers have been forced to reimburse (for) opponents’ private attorney fees” when the state has lost, the AP said.

A request for comment with a Health Department spokesman was pending as of late Friday. It regulates the drug through its Office of Medical Marijuana Use.

Its director, Christian Bax, worked his last day Friday after tendering his resignation last month. Deputy director Courtney Coppola will serve as interim head. And the department’s general counsel, Nichole Geary, who signed the legal-work contracts, also has resigned. She leaves later this month.

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Contracts for outside legal work on medical marijuana begin in March 2015, with a $230,000 deal to the Vezina, Lawrence & Piscitelli law firm of Tallahassee, for “legal representation to DOH in a rule challenge.” Total paid: $219,568.09. 

Dahlia Barnhart, a then 4-year-old with a brain tumor, and her mother, Moriah Barnhart, challenged the department in order to “expedite … (patients’) access to low THC cannabis.”

This was before passage of the state’s constitutional amendment authorizing medical marijuana, but after lawmakers OK’d use of low-THC, or “non-euphoric,” marijuana to help severely ill children. THC is the chemical that causes the high from pot.

The state later expanded the use of medicinal marijuana through the “Right to Try Act,” which includes patients suffering intractable pain and loss of appetite from terminal illnesses.

The state won the case, with an administrative law judge finding among other things that the Barnharts alleged “insufficient facts … to show (Dahlia) would be substantially affected.”

Moriah Barnhart recently told the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau “she is still getting her daughter’s medical marijuana from out of state,” adding that she’s “never gotten a legal product from the state of Florida.”

The same law firm, in August 2015, also inked a contract eventually worth $1.275 million for “legal proceedings.” Total paid: $1,053,836.46.

Services include reviewing and analyzing files, attending meetings and preparing any court filings needed, the contract shows. For example, the firm has represented the state in administrative hearings on other medical marijuana rule challenges.  

Moreover, partner W. Robert Vezina III is listed as attorney of record for the department in an Okaloosa County lawsuit. That’s over whether a medical marijuana license preference for black farmers should include “Native American farmers and ranchers.”

The firm scored a third contract, similar to the second, worth a total of $700,000 in February 2017. Total paid: $540,721.34. 

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A fourth contract found on the FACTS system shows an August 2017 deal potentially worth $300,000 for the Shutts law firm, which has an office in Tallahassee. Total paid: $177,990.24. 

For instance, the firm helped represent the state in the lawsuit brought by Tampa strip club mogul, free speech fighter and medical marijuana patient Joe Redner.

Redner is suing the state to be allowed to grow his own marijuana and make juice of it; his doctor recommended fresh juice as the best way to keep his lung cancer in remission. He won at trial, but the state is appealing.

The firm has connections to Scott: Ben Gibson, a former lawyer to the governor, joined the firm this summer as a partner in its Business Litigation Practice Group in Tallahassee.

Gibson served as Deputy General Counsel and Assistant General Counsel to Scott for nearly five years, “helping advise the governor on the appointment of more than 120 judges to Florida’s courts.”

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