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Freaky Friday: Jacksonville’s power elite takes on the local paper

For those interested in the intersection of public policy and civil liberties, such as they are, the Florida Times-Union/ProPublica “Walking While Black” investigation and follow-ups were a revelation.

The article confirmed what many already knew: African-Americans are, compared to their size of the population, disproportionately ticketed for jaywalking and related pedestrian violations.

Fifty-five percent of the tickets; 29 percent of the population.

As well, “stopping people for pedestrian violations as a means for establishing probable cause to search them was also fully justified” per the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

These pretextual searches arguably are linked to a system of justice that walked arm-in-arm with Jim Crow through Consolidation and the integration of schools in the 1970s, and arm-in-arm again with “tough on crime” measures from then on.

An illegal street crossing, whether real or perceived, is a gateway to other interactions between police and citizens.

And — as anyone who has covered the Sheriff’s portion of budget hearings the last three years can attest — JSO would like a new jail … in part, because facilities need to be expanded and rehabbed (a consequence of a robust jail population).

The story picked up momentum — almost to the point where members of the Jacksonville City Council (historically a body with as much interest in civil liberties as it has in erotic cuneiform) — discussed potentially taking action. Or at least reacting to a documented enforcement tendency that spoke to a more extensive dysfunction in race relations.

Council President Anna Brosche, last week, said she supported a “pause” in these tickets. Others on a Council often at odds with its President backed the play.

Of course, that didn’t last. By the end of the week, Brosche walked back the call after a private conversation with Sheriff Mike Williams, saying that “it’s important that we are enforcing our laws correctly.”

Of course, this raises a lot of questions — questions that may be especially germane on the officially observed Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The commemoration of King typically stops, for establishment politicians, around the time of the March on Washington. The last five years of his life, in which his critiques of racism incorporated class elements, keening toward an evermore trenchant critique of the American system, are mysteriously excised from the narrative.

Are the laws correct in themselves? Is the act of jaywalking a ticket toward the carceral state? Should it be?

The idea of good faith between the state apparatus and African-Americans — specifically, men and women under 40 — is at least a questionable one. State statutes are written and voted on by politicians who happily take checks from private-prison purveyors such as the Geo Group, while attempting to get endorsements from police unions by any means necessary.

That’s a broader discussion that likely won’t be had beyond the few dozen who will read this blog post, as JSO found a way to derail it, via a point by point refutation of the “inaccurate” T-U/ProPublica article. From there, the T-U issued the “we stand by our accurate and important reporting” response that, while unavoidable, effectively kneecapped any potential linkage of this enforcement tendency to a larger discussion of the very institutionalized racism that Dr. King, Malcolm X, and others that have been forgotten necessarily reacted to.

The JSO response, and Brosche’s walk back on the issue (the biggest since her abandonment of Confederate monument removal months earlier), allowed advocates for the police to have their say.

Fraternal Order of Police head Steve Zona: “It doesn’t matter how many times you ‘re-up’ it or complain about taxpayer dollars spent correcting it is still garbage reporting.”

Duval GOP officer Alexander Pantinakis: “The TU misled the Council President about the SAO “bulletin” — which led to her initial statement. Thank you for setting the record straight today … Let’s review … (1) The TU / ProPublica misled the Council President and other members, (2) USED their reactions to pump a storyline, (3) got caught, and (4) now write about how hard they tried.

Even Mayor Lenny Curry‘s chief of staff, Brian Hughes, chimed in: “We can do away with prosecutors & judges since TU news staff can so succinctly decide which citations are correct.”

The discussion moved — inexorably — from the enforcement tendencies of JSO to the credibility of newspaper reporting. Don’t expect the T-U editorial page to have its newsroom’s back, pushing this issue in any meaningful way. Editorial and news serve discrete functions at the local paper.

For proof of that last sentence, consider local developer Peter Rummell and his latest frustrations with the City Council slow-walking the District deal through the body.

Rummell’s development will require millions of dollars of city money to get off the ground; Brosche, responding to concerns of Councilmembers who thought things were moving too fast, authorized a select committee to examine the deal.

Helming that committee: Republican Matt Schellenberg, who has said many times that the deal wouldn’t have been approved in the first place if the proposed change of terms was known at the time.

On the committee: Democratic Councilman Garrett Dennis, the council’s leading skeptic on proposals made by the Curry administration.

Rummell’s not thrilled, per an email to civic leaders

The special committee: “one of the most outrageous political moves I have ever seen in Jacksonville … this ploy by Anna Brosche  and Matt Schellenberg has to be politically motivated — she hates Lenny among other things — and we are caught in the crossfire.”

“I need your help however you think you can help to make Brosche see the light,” Rummell wrote to other city stakeholders. “We are happy to answer real questions and defend and explain what we have proposed — but I am not going to be defeated — or let this city be defeated — by this kind of small-minded, narrow thinking.”

Rummell added helpful guidance: “P.S. The Florida Times-Union Editorial Page got it right — Twice!  Links here: Sunday’s and Today’s.”

The T-U news side has covered the deal, including the evolution in terms. However, the editorial write-up was Rummell’s preferred share.

This could have been predicted.

Earlier this month, this reporter was on a media panel with Times-Union editorialist Mike Clark, and during a discussion of the District deal, Clark assured those on hand that a T-U editorial was going to explain the deal. This didn’t mollify Matt Schellenberg; the highlight of the panel was a spirited back and forth between the Councilman and Clark.

This set up a spirited discussion in Tuesday’s Jacksonville City Council agenda meeting, in which Council members wanted to put on the brakes, which in turn set up the special committee.

The Times-Union news side predicates itself on “accountability journalism.” The editorial side takes the longer view, one that aligns with the priorities of city stakeholders. In that, there is a tension.

Sometimes — as when Alvin Brown was mayor — editorial and news are allies. Other times, they seem at cross-purposes.

It will be worth watching to see how the paper resolves what could be seen as an internal contradiction, as city stakeholders ramp up an ambitious slate of projects — all with expectations, some of them unspoken, on the public — in the year ahead.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of what could be seen as slow bleeding of the product.

GateHouse Media — the new ownership of the paper — will no longer have a dedicated Tallahassee reporter from this region.

And regarding opinion columnists, the iconic Ron Littlepage has retired — and been replaced by no one … which will give this writer, an opinion columnist of some tenure, some new people/entities to lose to in various “best columnists” contests later this year.

Printing operations will be done elsewhere in a matter of weeks, further decreasing the paper’s local footprint.

The one upshot: the paper’s news operations will be moved to Downtown Jacksonville, saving reporters that long walk or drive from the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office blasts ‘inaccurate and biased’ Florida Times Union coverage

In a lengthy Facebook post Friday, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office took issue with Florida Times-Union  and ProPublica coverage of the ongoing pedestrian citation controversy.

The T-U has spotlighted a practice of pedestrian tickets for jaywalking, noting that a disproportionate amount of tickets are given out in African-American neighborhoods.

“Inaccurate and biased coverage by The Florida Times-Union and ProPublica has created a false impression and does a disservice to readers and citizens,” asserts the JSO, which offered myriad examples of “inaccuracy” and subsequent “clarification” in the article.

The article asserted that “the Jacksonville City Council president and other local lawmakers have called for suspending the issuing of pedestrian tickets in the wake of a state attorney’s office bulletin, the substance of which suggests that hundreds of tickets had been issued in error in recent years.”

The Facebook post attempts to undermine the reporters’ contention, disputing assertions made within the article; among the contentions, that there was no bulletin from the State Attorney’s Office to the Sheriff’s Office on the topic, but there was instead a “legal framework requested by the Sheriff.”

“The Times-Union and ProPublica continue to assume that citations were issued in error without any finding by any competent authority to that effect,” the JSO contends.

JSO also undermines the idea that there will be any meaningful City Council pushback as a result of the investigation.

“Multiple telephone and in-person conversations have revealed the Council members had been contacted by the reporters who alleged that an “analysis” by the State Attorney showed that pedestrian citations were issued in error. That assertion is factually incorrect,” the JSO contends. “Coverage by the Florida Times-Union/ProPublica seems to be urging a moratorium on the issuance of pedestrian citations. The use of the term ‘suspending’ suggests that the suspension would be temporary, but temporary until … when?”

Reform-minded Democrat Tony Cummings enters Jacksonville Sheriff race

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams has a Democratic challenger for re-election — ensuring that there will, in fact, be a policy debate ahead of the 2019 vote.

Tony Cummings, who also ran in 2015, filed Friday. Thus far, he is the only other candidate in the race.

In 2015, Cummings vowed to “rebuild the trust of the community,” by fighting for an increased use of civil citations and instituting civilian review and accountability boards.

At a candidate forum during that campaign, Cummings — the 2012 JSO employee of the year — advanced a blistering critique of law enforcement in Duval County.

Describing a “community hemorrhaging from violent crime,” Cummings questioned whether more officers on the street would lead to a reduction in violent crime.

“When Nat Glover was sheriff we had 1,800 officers on the street, and we still have a violent crime problem,” Cummings said.

Cummings was similarly pointed when discussing the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s attempts to stop the drug trade.

“We’ve been fighting the war on drugs since Ronald Reagan was president,” Cummings said, adding that those he ran against in 2015 “have not done a good job” at winning the drug war.

He also advocated instituting Civilian Review Boards with subpoena power, a position not shared by his opponents.

“You have to be held accountable,” said Cummings, who added, “I’m sure the Lord believes in Civilian Review Boards as well. I hope my colleagues will change their minds.”

Cummings likewise blistered the promotions within the department. He attributed them to “nepotism, cronyism, and favoritism,” as he remarked that people with DUIs were promoted to director positions and “individuals with high school diplomas” were in leadership roles.

Cummings also drew a comparison between the Sheriff’s Office and Enron, saying the latter was a “collapsed organization because they lacked character to do what was right by people.”

The candidate launches at an interesting time: a major controversy locally happens to be pedestrian citations. “Walking while black” tickets have been used by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office as excuses for pretextual searches, and African-American males have been more heavily targeted. City Council members and the State Attorney’s Office have objected, but the JSO is unmoved.

As well, 2017 saw Democrats on the Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee grouse that they felt “targeted” by a poll that showed that citizens wanted to hire more police in the now-current budget.

Meanwhile, the murder rate has continued to spike throughout the Williams era, with 148 murders last year. With 8 murders this year, the trend is not favorable.

Despite all of this, Cummings faces challenges.

One such challenge: many of those who supported other candidates in 2015 have committed to support Williams in next year’s election.

Another challenge: money.

After just two months in the race, Williams has amassed $138,800 in hard money, and has another $192,000 in his political committee.

There is no way Cummings approaches those numbers anytime soon. And there is plenty more money for the incumbent out there.

Modest December fundraising for Northeast Florida Senators

Northeast Florida State Senators Audrey GibsonAaron Bean, and Travis Hutson face no serious opposition; however, fundraising continued apace in December.

Gibson, who may face a 2018 primary battle from Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Brown, brought in $12,750 in December off of 16 checks — half of them from consultants and political organizations.

Bean, unopposed this year, topped $90,000 on hand after raising $18,250 in December off 25 checks from industries and lobbyists. He spent over $12,000, much of it on political consultants, which would seem curious given that he is a safe Senator in a safe seat.

Bean brought in $19,000 more via his Florida Conservative Alliance political committee, which now has $115,000 on hand.

Sen. Travis Hutson, who won’t face voters until 2020, raised $2,000 in hard money in December; this gives him $38,000 in hard money.

His Sunshine State Conservatives political committee raised nothing and has $90,000 on hand, after $1,000 contributions to the campaigns of Reps. Keith Perry and Debbie Mayfield, and $6,000 to the Responsible Leadership political committee.

Matt Carlucci’s $200K raised leads Jacksonville City Council candidates

December fundraising for 2019 Jacksonville City Council candidates presented few surprises, continuing trends that were established in previous months.

The leading fundraiser, still: At Large District 4 Republican Matt Carlucci. Running unopposed, the former Councilman and head of the Florida Ethics Commission now has $200,000 raised — with nearly $189,000 of that on hand — after $18,374 in December.

In City Council District 5, Republican LeAnna Cumber continued to press her advantage against underfunded Democrat James Jacobs.

Cumber has raised over $145,000 after $7,400 brought in to close the year; $142,000 of that is on hand.

Jacobs has raised just $853.

A similarly lopsided money race is taking place in At Large District 2, where Ron Salem continues to dominate Bill Bishop.

$11,050 of December money brought Salem to $136,040 raised, with $133,000 of that on hand.

Bishop, meanwhile, raised just $3,500 in December. The former Councilman and Mayoral candidate has raised $17,525, with under $11,000 of that on hand.

Two other Republicans — District 13’s Rory Diamond and District 14’s Randy DeFoor — are likewise over the $100,000 threshold. Diamond raised just $1,650 in December; DeFoor raised $10,537.

Diamond thus far has no opponent, and DeFoor is basically unopposed; her only opponent, Earl Testy, has raised all of $164 since entering the race.

Other candidates have yet to raise six-figures.

In City Council District 5, Republican Rose Conry has raised over $45,000, with $3,170 of it in December. Her GOP opponent Michael Boylan — former CEO of WJCT — raised just over $10,000 in his first month of fundraising, a month in which he was still technically employed at the local public broadcasting station.

In Council District 7, incumbent Democrat Reggie Gaffney has raised $17,600 after a $2,300 March. His closest competitor, Sharise Riley, has $5,000 on hand from a personal loan.

Races in Council Districts 10 and 8 see multiple candidates, none of whom have raised over $1,450; clearly, those fields have yet to establish hierarchy.

For Bill Gulliford, opioid crisis is a matter of life and death

“I walked through the morgue and into the cooler yesterday. That slams life and its realities home to you.”

Councilman Bill Gulliford — a man who ensured, despite pushback from much of the Jacksonville City Council, that the overdose-racked Northeast Florida metropolis would attempt a pilot treatment program to deal with the wave of opioid overdose deaths in 2017 — was talking about the issue that has come to define the twilight of his long political career.

Or rather, he was talking about the people swept up in the issue: casualties to toxic pharmacological cocktails in the last week.

Two pregnant women: mothers perished as they carried life within them, and children who would never draw their first breath or see light outside the womb.

A medical student. And the daughter of a doctor.

A rhetorical question from Gulliford: “What’s the value of a life like that?”

Gulliford has seen it all: he arguably has as much “institutional knowledge” as anyone in Jacksonville politics. But the scale and ferocity of the current wave of drug deaths is like nothing else: “so horrifically bad … we’re plowing new ground with addiction.”

And answers are elusive thus far; when discussing the mothers who passed away, the Councilman wondered if they could have been Baker Acted if they had OD’ed before.

In fact, solving the problem of compelling people to accept treatment is one that preoccupies Gulliford: the opioid program is still beginning, and it will be months before success can be measured.

Treatment or jail, Gulliford said, could be a choice compelled by legislators down the road, if people prove to refuse treatment over the course of the program in Jacksonville.

“If 75 percent refuse,” Gulliford said, “we have a story to tell the Legislature.”

With cannabis becoming accepted in some jurisdictions as a non-lethal alternative to opioids, we asked Gulliford if perhaps that should be an option locally.

Gulliford questioned whether those addicted would be interested in cannabis, given that many of those who overdose on opioids first encountered them via pharmaceutical prescriptions.

“I don’t know if it would necessarily help,” Gulliford said, “but I’m all in for anything that might help.”

While some cities have decriminalized possession-level quantities of cannabis, Jacksonville thus far has not seen legislation to that end.

Gulliford also took issue with our contention that the treatment program was off to a “slow start,” noting that with six people having accepted treatment and 24 in contact with peer specialists, the program is doing “better than we expected” at launch.

The real test, however, will be after it’s in place for a few months.

Elections complaint against Fred Costello amended; campaign says it’s ‘fraudulent’

On Wednesday, the congressional campaign of state Rep. Fred Costello was dinged with an amended Federal Elections Commission complaint.

Costello maintains the complaint is “without merit” and should be thrown out.

Costello, an Ormond Beach Republican, is vying to replace U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis in the district that runs from St. Johns to Volusia Counties.

The original complaint was reported just after the new year by POLITICO.

The charge: Costello had campaigned before becoming a candidate, telling potential voters and media in Florida’s 6th Congressional District that he was the “best candidate” and outlining his policy platform.

The second FEC complaint, filed like the first by Orange City’s Thomas Homan, is now 13 pages.

Much of the message is still the same: Costello was functionally campaigning since August (“beyond the deliberative process … and into the process of planning and scheduling public activities).”

The complaint asserts that Costello needs to retroactively report such activities and be subject to fines.

Moreover, Homan contends that Costello’s Dec. 28 campaign launch email lacked appropriate disclaimers.

Costello’s campaign responded to inquiries Thursday afternoon.

“I want to thank our adversaries for calling Fred’s campaign to your attention.  We got more coverage than we normally would at the kickoff of our Congressional campaign, which you missed,” said Costello spox Vic Baker.

Baker also provided a statement, which he said contradicted the complaint.

For example, Costello told a group of Republicans “that he would be a candidate for Congress IF and only if Ron DeSantis chose to run for some other elective office.”

“Further, Mr. Homan cites Fred Costello’s distribution of a palm card including a logo and verbiage. The palm card is permissible for prospective candidates under FEC rules. A closer examination of the verbiage further disproves the complainants claim. Dr. Costello clearly asserts that he would NOT be a candidate unless Ron DeSantis chose not to run,” Baker asserted.

Baker also addressed presenting a business card on Dec. 12, which presented him as Costello’s campaign manager.

“Because I did not want them to think that Fred would run against (the very popular) Ron DeSantis, I made it clear that IF Congressman DeSantis runs for Governor, Fred will run for Congress and I will be his Campaign Manager. I told each person to whom I gave the card that we believed Congressman DeSantis would soon announce for Governor and thus Fred would become a candidate for Congress,” Baker asserted, adding that the complaint is “fraudulent and should be rejected out of hand.”

Costello added his own take, via an email chain with the FEC.

He contends that, contra Homan, he did not declare that he was an active candidate, but a conditional, prospective one — only “if” DeSantis did not run.

He also addressed the building of a team pre-candidacy, saying that was legal given he had not spent $5,000.

“I was building my team to be ready for if/when Congressman DeSantis announced his bid for Governor. All of my team were fully aware that I would not run for Congress unless Congressman DeSantis ran for Governor,” Costello asserted.

“If it matters, and I believe it does not because we had not yet spent $5,000, we can provide the names of multiple attendees at the referenced December 12 Volusia County Republican Executive Committee Christmas Party who will state that when Vic Baker handed out his card to them, he specifically related to them that if Congressman DeSantis runs for Governor, Fred (Costello) would be running for Congress and he (Vic Baker) would be my Campaign Manager.”

“I had not yet gone over the $5,000 threshold (which would have forced me to announce within 15 days of going over that threshold) and because Congressman DeSantis had not yet made his plans public, at that time I had not yet chosen to file as a candidate.”

Costello continued: “I am fully confident I always said I would be a candidate “IF” Congressman DeSantis runs for Governor instead of re-election to Congress. And it was not out of concern for the FEC. I always said “IF” to assure friends that I would not run against Congressman DeSantis because we all like him. If necessary I can provide names of attendees at various meetings who will state that when candidates were invited to come up and speak, I did not go up and speak until the presider added a comment such as ‘and those thinking of running are also invited to speak’ at which time I would go forward and relate that I would run IF Congressman DeSantis did not run.”

Costello ran against DeSantis less than two years ago, of course. He was one of two candidates who didn’t withdraw after DeSantis decided to run again after abandoning his Senate run.

Costello finished second to incumbent Ron DeSantis in the 2016 primary, with 24 percent of the vote.

With DeSantis running for Governor, Costello is currently in against businessman John Ward.

Other candidates – including former Green Beret Michael Waltz, St. Johns County Commissioner Jimmy Johns, and Brandon Patty – are taking hard looks at the race.

Few surprises in Northeast Florida House fundraising for December

In Northeast Florida December fundraising for State House races, unopposed incumbents kept trucking, while the race for HD 15 remained competitive in fundraising.

HD 11: Incumbent Cord Byrd, a Jacksonville Beach Republican, brought in $12,400 to push him to $29,700 cash on hand. Among the donors backing the unopposed lawyer: the Geo Group.

HD 12: Incumbent Republican Clay Yarborough was just one more check away from $100,000 cash on hand. A $9,000 December — driven by insurance, CPA, and restaurant and lodging committee checks — brought the Southside Jacksonville conservative over $99,000.

Democrat Tim Yost raised nothing in December and has $1,800 on hand.

HD 13: Unopposed Democratic incumbent Tracie Davis brought in $7,000 in December, with beer wholesalers and firefighter unions standing out. Davis has raised $35,715 and reports no spending thus far in her campaign.

HD 14: Unopposed Democratic incumbent Kim Daniels raised $4,000 in December; $2,000 was from the Fraternal Order of Police, and $1,000 came from beer wholesalers to Daniels, whose day job is as a charismatic evangelist.

HD 15: Republican Wyman Duggan, a Jacksonville lawyer seeking to replace departing Jay Fant in House District 15, scored big in December on two fronts.

Duggan finally hit six figures in fundraising, reporting $10,124 of new December money, which pushed him up to $103,674 raised (and over $92,000 on hand).

Close behind: presumptive Democratic nominee Tracye Polson. Polson closed December with $69,642 cash on hand: she has raised $89,345 in hard money and an additional $15,665 in the account of her political committee, Better Jacksonville.

If previous presidential votes are predictive, this looks to be a competitive general election. Per Daily Kos, HD 15 “was R+8.7 for president after being R+12.6 in ‘12.”

HD 16: Unopposed Republican incumbent Jason Fischer brought in $4,500 of hard money in December; he closed 2018 with over $76,000 in his campaign account. $5,000 of new money into his Conservative Solutions for Jacksonville committee left that tally near $40,000.

HD 17: Down in St. Johns County, Republican incumbent Cyndi Stevenson brought in $10,481; she closed the year with just over $80,000 on hand.

HD 18: Safe incumbent Travis Cummings, a Clay County Republican, brought in $16,000, closing 2018 with $80,000 on hand.

Noted for opposition to AirBnB, Philip Levine holds Jax event at AirBnB house

“[Miami Beach] doesn’t want what [you’re] selling!!!!”

Per the Miami Herald in 2017, this was then Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine‘s reaction to AirBnB wanting to do business in the city.

Levine went on to tweet that while he loved AirBnB, in Miami Beach they would be “destroying neighborhoods/buildings [with] short term rentals.” He amplified this point on Facebook, saying that AirBnB “destroys neighborhoods, buildings, decreases real estate values and increases costs for workforce housing!!!!!”

Then he accused the company of “strong arm Mafia tactics!!”

In that context, it was ironic that Levine’s event in Jacksonville Wednesday was at a home used at least part-time for AirBnB.

The event host told us she and her husband split her time between Jacksonville and another city, and the home in the Riverside area is available for short-term rentals when they were out of town.

We did not ask the event host if real estate values had been depressed due to her decision to rent the home out sometimes. Nor did we ask about the impact on workforce housing.

Christian Ulvert, spokesman for Levine, characterized the former mayor’s strident anti-AirBnB position in 2017 as being due to the company being “not the right thing for Miami Beach.”

“He loves AirBnB,” Ulvert said, but Levine also “believes in local control.”

Levine was in Jacksonville as part of his ongoing multi-city tour of the state.

Rick Scott brings tax cut pitch back to Jacksonville

At Tuesday’s State of the State Address, Gov. Rick Scott evangelized — as he has for the past seven years — from the hymnal of tax cuts.

“This is my last Session to cut taxes,” Scott said, adding that “unfortunately, at some point, there will be politicians sitting in this chamber who are not as fiscally responsible as we are today.”

Scott’s asks: a constitutional amendment requiring a legislative supermajority for a tax hike; $180 million in tax cuts, including 10-day cuts in back-to-school sales taxes, disaster prep tax cuts for three separate weeks, and driver’s license fees.

If this sounds familiar to Jacksonville readers, it is: he made the same pitch here in November, when rolling out a budget proposal with much more robust spending than he had in 2011, when he first floated a budget.

Scott noted that he’d cut taxes 80 times since being elected, and reaffirmed his commitment to a Constitutional amendment requiring a 2/3 majority.

“I think the Legislature should think long and hard before ever raising a tax,” Scott said Wednesday in Jacksonville, adding that taxes should be cut every year in Florida.

“We’re walking into this budget year with $3 billion of projected revenue over recurrent expenses,” Scott noted.

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