Orlando Archives - Florida Politics

Fate takes a hand in whiskey & Wheaties bill as Amy Mercado cares for her parents

Sometimes fate plays that unexpected card that makes all the difference, such as Wednesday when the Florida House of Representatives narrowly approved the controversial “whiskey & Wheaties bill, allowing whiskey to be sold in grocery stores.

Earlier that day a 30-year-old Monticello man driving in Tallahassee was distracted by a device, didn’t see the red light, and slammed his SUV into the back of a car stopped at the light. Victor and Carmen Torres in that car were injured, and transported to the hospital by ambulance.

Victor Torres happens to be a Democratic state senator from Orlando; but the real connection in this narrative is that he and Carmen are parents of Democratic state Rep. Amy Mercado of Orlando.

Mercado rushed to the hospital to be with her parents, taking leave of the House of Representatives’ session.

In her absence, the House approved Senate Bill 106 by one vote: 58-57, sending it to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott.

The Torreses were eventually released from the hospital, fine, but hurting.

“I have been against the bill from the beginning, so if I was in the chamber today [and not in the hospital with my parents] my vote would have been a no and made it a tie,” Mercado wrote last night on Facebook. “Therefore, my one vote could have killed the bill.”

Stephanie Murphy introduces bills to address North Korea, Asia-Pacific security

Winter Park Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy is introducing two bills aimed at addressing international security concerns with North Korea and the Asian-Pacific theater.

Her bills, which she discussed Wednesday in a committee hearing and again on the floor of the House of Representatives, would require the U.S. intelligence and diplomatic agencies to set up special units to deal with both areas.

One bill,  the “North Korea Intelligence Enhancement Act,” would require the director of national intelligence to create a North Korea-focused integration cell, consisting of experts who would streamline, synthesize and synchronize intelligence on North Korea so that U.S. policymakers have the best information possible upon which to base decisions.

The other,  the “Asia-Pacific Defense Commission Act,” would create a commission of U.S. security officials and their counterparts from allies to ensure stability of the Asia-Pacific region, by working on issues ranging from terrorist networks to international intelligence coordination, and from cyber-security to free navigation of international waters.

Murphy is a former U.S. Defense Department national security analyst who now sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

Neither bill has been assigned a number yet.  Murphy discussed them both during an Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday with Commander of U.S. Pacific Command Navy Admiral Harry B. Harris, and then again Wednesday on the House floor,

“North Korea is a difficult intelligence target. It is a secretive society where dissent is severely punished. This makes the recruitment of human sources inside the country very challenging. Moreover, high-level defectors from North Korea with intelligence about the regime are rare,” Murphy said on the House floor.

The unit her bill would seek to create, “would seek to ensure that the U.S. government is collecting intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, missile programs, weapon sales, and other activities that violate U.N. sanctions,” she continued. “The cell would also work to make certain that this intelligence is efficiently disseminated to the appropriate national security policymakers so it can inform decision-making.”

She also discussed both economic opportunities and  security challenges involving the 40 countries of the broader Asia-Pacific region that have 60 percent of the world population. She cited  “senior American officials” as describing the area as “the most consequential region for the future of our country.”

“I think you may agree that the strengths of our relationships in the region come from trust, credibility and across time,” Murphy told Harris in the committee hearing. “These measures are meant to send a clear signal both to our allies and our adversaries that the U.S. is committed to the Asia-Pacific region in a credible and enduring manner.”

Victor Torres, wife Carmen Torres, recovering after car crash

Orlando Democratic State Sen. Victor Torres and his wife Carmen Torres were injured in a car crash Wednesday morning in Tallahassee but have been released from the hospital.

The three-car crash – with the Torreses in the middle – occurred early Wednesday right in front of the Capitol Building, at the corner of Apalachee Parkway and Calhoun Street, said their daughter, state Rep. Amy Mercado of Orlando.

“They are OK,” Mercado said. “Obviously they are going to have a little pain, but they are good.”

The Torreses were treated at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare and released a short time ago, according to Sen. Torres’s Facebook page.

“Thank you for all the well wishes & prayers, Carmen & I have left the hospital and aside from being a little sore, everyone is ok!” he posted.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Torres and the driver in front of him were stopped for the red light on Apalachee at Calhoun at 8 a.m. A 1999 Toyota Tacoma slammed into the rear of Torres’s car, pushing it into the car in front of him. The patrol reported that the Toyota driver, John B. Williams of Monticello, was distracted by an electronic device and failed to stop. He was cited for careless driving.

The Torreses and the driver of the front car were all taken by ambulance to Tallahassee Memorial.

Supreme Court denies Aramis Ayala’s first writ to win back cases Rick Scott reassigned

The Florida Supreme Court denied the first attempt by Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala to win back first-degree murder cases that Gov. Rick Scott reassigned to another state attorney.

In denying Ayala’s emergency, non-routine petition to overturn Scott’s executive orders reassigning the cases to Ocala’s State Attorney Brad King, the Supreme Court concluded that the matter “is more properly addressed” through her other legal challenge, a writ of quo warranto, which she later filed.

That leaves the matter where most expected it to be left, in her second challenge of Scott’s action, a case that has drawn broad support for both Ayala and Scott from a variety of outside groups who expect the ruling to be pivotal in determining the extent of powers in Florida of both the state attorney and the governor.

At issue are Ayala’s refusal to pursue death penalty prosecutions in her 9th Judicial Circuit, and Scott’s determination that she is derelict in her duties, giving him the responsibility to reassign potential death penalty cases to someone else, in this case to King in Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit.

In a ruling issued late Tuesday, the Supreme Court denied the first petition from Ayala, stating, “The Petition asks this Court to answer the same question of law, on a temporary basis, that the Court is asked to address in the separately filed Petition for Writ of Quo Warranto. That question is more properly addressed after both parties have been heard in the Quo Warranto action and will not be answered on a “temporary” basis.”

OC Property Appraiser Rick Singh sues to get at mysterious PACs he says libeled him in campaign

Saying he’d had enough and isn’t taking it anymore, Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh announced he’s suing to find out who was behind political action committees that ran a smear campaign against him in last year’s election.

Flanked by his lawyers at Morgan & Morgan, two Orlando political heavyweights, Frank Kruppenbacher and former Judge Belvin Perry, Singh announced he is suing for libel over attack ads and other campaign events that he says raised false accusations about his past during his re-election to property appraiser.

The suit is being filed in circuit court for the 9th Judicial Circuit. It contends that outside money was covertly funneled into two Orange County PAC known as Leadership For Florida, and For a Better Orange County, to run an independent smear campaign, spreading falsehoods about Singh’s past. The PACs were not properly registered. The suit does not name individuals, and goes after John and Mary Does, but Kruppenbacher and Perry pledged that it ultimately would.

Singh’s opponent in last year’s election, Edward DeAguilera, always maintained he knew nothing about the two PACs or their campaign.

Kruppenbacher said those falsehoods included claims that Singh was arrested for shoplifting in 1988, that he lost a judgment in 1993, that he changed his name to hide his past, and that he committed a felony by not disclosing his past on an affidavit. Singh said at least $3.4 million was funneled into those two PACs to run TV, internet, mailer and other advertising, and campaign communications.

The suit may have statewide ramifications.

Kruppenbacher, a Republican fundraiser and political appointee, and Perry, a retired 9th Judicial Circuit chief judge, insisted Wednesday that they want to upend the statewide practice of dark money and shadowy operatives using political action committees to try to ruin certain candidates’ reputations.

“During the last year or so throughout this nation, we have seen outside interests use their money to get involved in campaigns… by spreading falsehoods and attacking folks with mailers that are not true,” Perry said. “This seriously affects our Democratic process.”

Kruppenbacher said he knows of no similar campaign libel suits that sought to trace the sources of money and direction of an independent campaign.

In this case, the money trail appears to have possible stops in Orange County, Duval County, Lee County and Leon County.

“I think people do this thinking nobody will ever know we did it. And somebody big wrote” checks, Kruppenbacher said.

The suit also would have immediate implications for the Orange County political scene.

Singh is openly contemplating a run for Orange County mayor in 2018. And though he denied Tuesday that the suit is an attempt to clear out old allegations against him before he runs again, it does send a message that he’s willing to fight back in court against any claims he contends to be false.

It also could have ramifications for some of Central Florida’s – and Florida’s – business heavyweights.

It’s no secret that Singh’s aggressive reappraisals of commercial properties have brought ire and lawsuits from powerful entities, including Walt Disney World, Sea World, Universal Orlando, and many of the big hotel and other business groups in Orlando’s tourism corridor.

Kruppenbacher said the suit intends to use the discovery process to follow the money and direction of the campaign against Singh wherever it might go. He refused to speculate as whether that might include the tourist business giants who already are taking on Singh’s appraisals in court. But Kruppenbacher said he does expect the ultimate source to be commercial, entities that are losing money because of how Singh is running the property appraiser’s office.

“We decided that when we’re ready to name individuals, we’re going to name them all at one time,” Kruppenbacher said. “We do have information that a number of people conspired knowingly.”

“We are trying to shine the spotlight on those individuals so that they can’t throw a rock and hide,” Perry said.

“That’s one of the goals, but the ultimate goal is to get people to stop this kind of foolishness,” he added.

Morgan & Morgan is taking on the case on a contingency fee. Kruppenbacher said Singh agreed that any recovered damages that he receives would be donated to charity.

Sean Buchan of Winter Haven enters CD 9 Republican field

A second Republican candidate, political newcomer, banker and veteran Sean A. Buchan of Winter Haven, has entered the race for Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

Buchan, 31, a banker with Wells Fargo Bank in Winter Haven, filed to run late last week, joining last year’s GOP nominee Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud in hoping to take down Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto in the 2018 election.

“The time is right,” Buchan stated of his entry into politics.

Married with two children, Buchan spent eight years in the U.S. Marines and two in the Army, and served two tours in Iraq.

His top concern is the economy which he described as “doing better, but not well enough,” particularly in Polk and Osceola counties, which he said are in need of across-the-board jobs from technical trades to high-tech.

He also stressed national security as a critical concern, and expressed a strong desire for tax reform that simplifies the system for tax payers.

CD 9 includes most of south Orange County, all of Osceola and much of eastern Polk. Last year Soto, a former state senator, defeated Liebnitzky, to replace two-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson. Liebnitzky won in Polk but Soto handily carried the vote in the other two counties.

Buchan said he’s currently reaching out to county Republican executive committees and Young Republican clubs to begin pulling together support and organization.


SunRail airport route set with transfer station only, for $250 million

The next big SunRail project, connecting the north-south line to Orlando International Airport, has settled on a route that would provide for transfer passengers only – with no parking lot – with a $250 million estimated pricetag.

The Florida Department of Transportation still is a long ways from settling on how to extend service from the commuter train’s DeBary to Poinciana route to the airport but an engineering study moving through the department and surfacing last week at a SunRail meeting shows the preferred route.

That route would go mostly along a 3.5 mile existing railroad track corridor from a railroad transfer station to be constructed north of the Meadow Woods subdivision to the airport property, and then along a two-mile route to be negotiated with the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority across airport property to the new OIA train station now under construction.

Last week the SunRail governing board, the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission, received a brief update on the plan, which has been in the works since at least 2005, and first settled on the route – one of five alternative routes being considered – in internal documents last fall, and presented to the department’s inter model group in late February.

SunRail Executive Director Nicola Liquori told the board last week did not rule out the other four routes, which would connect to full-service stations at either Sand Lake Road or in Meadow Woods, but said the department decided to break out the transer-station only route for more detailed study. The most recent cost estimate of $250 million was being revisited but she did not have any information on when a firmer estimate might be available.

The internal documents project a 2020 opening. But that is unlikely considering MetroPlan Orlando, the metropolitan transportation planning organization projects seeking federal funding in 2020, and otherwise there are no sure plans for where the money might come from.

The plan calls for creating a transfer station just north of the Meadow Woods station now under construction. The transfer station, would be at the point where the Stanton Spur railroad track, owned by the Orlando Utilities Commission, now enters the north-south railroad corridor. Except for potential bus transfers, the transfer station would not have any parking lots or any facilities for drive-up or kiss-and-ride drop-offs.

SunRail currently operates a 32-mile track running north and south from DeBary to Sand Lake Road in Orlando. The next phase, an expansion southward to Poinciana, is now under construction, and would include new stations at Meadow Woods, the Tupperware headquarters, the Kissimmee Amtrak station, and Poinciana.

From the transfer station to the OIA Intermodel Terminal Facility – the airport train station – would be a 5.5 mile route that would take the train eight to ten minutes, according to the draft preliminary engineering report Liquori discussed with the board last week.

Most of the cost would cover construction, adding two new tracks in the corridor of sufficient quality to handle passenger trains capable of reaching speeds of 45 mph, plus the transfer station. Liquori said about $50 million would be needed for right-of-way purchases.

The FDOT preliminary engineering study projects 2,550 daily riders at the start, and a peak of 3,050 by by 2030. The current line carries an average daily load of fewer than 4,000 riders, though that is expected to increase with the southern expansion.

Families of homicide victims, ACLU, Janet Cruz join filers in Aramis Ayala case

Friends of the court are beginning to crowd into the Florida Supreme Court case pitting Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala and Gov. Rick Scott, with families of homicide victims siding with Scott, and the ACLU and House Minority Leader Janet Cruz siding with Ayala on Friday.

Several filings Friday are loading the case with friends. Also Friday, a group of more than 40 former judges and prosecutors filed a brief supporting Ayala’s case, and a group of Democratic Florida lawmakers filed their promised brief supporting her.

Now on the way is a brief from family members of homicide victims including those of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton and Sade Dixon, who asked the court for permission to file their brief supporting Scott.

And a coalition of several groups led by the ACLU asked to file on Ayala’s behalf Friday.

Cruz filed requesting to join the group of Democratic lawmakers, led by Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, supporting Ayala.

Those are all in addition to amicus briefs filed or pledged by another coalition of groups supporting Ayala, and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Florida House of Representatives supporting Scott.

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.

The homicide victims’ families include those of Clayton and Dixon, who were slain in January in a case that sparked outrage throughout Central Florida, and then fired a storm against Ayala when she announced in March that she would not seek any death penalty prosecutions, starting with that case against suspect Markeith Loyd. Others seeking to file in support of Scott include the families of 9th Judicial Circuit homicide victims Darrell Avant Jr., Jasmine Samuel, Elena Ortega, Alexandria Fransa Chery, and Teresa Ann Green.

The Supreme Court granted their requests Friday. They’ve promised to file their brief by May 3.

“The Family Members have special rights afforded by the Florida Constitution and statutes. The Florida Supreme Court would benefit greatly from the unique perspective of this group so seriously affected by the Petitioner’s refusal to consider their constitutional and statutory rights,” their filing states.

“Family Members can provide the Court useful insight regarding the Petitioner’s disregard of a homicide victim’s family’s rights and input in making prosecution decisions,” the filing continues.

The other new request for a friend of court brief came from a coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the Sentencing Project, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Earlier the Florida State Conference of the NAACP had filed a friend-of-the-court brief favoring Ayala, as part of a coalition that was formed and is led by The Advancement Project’s National Office.

The ACLU coalition request also was approved right away Friday.

“The proposed amicus curiae brief would address the crucial question of the Governor’s authority to reassign 23 capital cases from State Attorney Ayala to a different State attorney not elected by the people of the Ninth Judicial Circuit,” The ACLU request states. “It will further address why the Governor lacks authority to reassign the cases, as he claims, under Section 27.14, Florida Statute.”


Twine noose lowlights hate being sent Aramis Ayala’s way

A twine noose taped to a postcard and nasty comments sent in the mail and via social media are showing racist hatred Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala is receiving as she battles in court with Gov. Rick Scott over whether she has the power to refuse to pursue death penalty prosecutions.

The twine noose was discovered attached to a card inside an envelop mailed to her office, one of two racist-material and potentially threatening mailings that her office has reported to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office recently.

Ayala, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit serving Orange and Osceola Counties, told sheriff’s office investigators she believed the twine noose was meant as a threat to her as a public official, and could be constituted as a hate crime. The sheriff’s office referred the mail to the U.S. Postal Inspectors Office.

The sheriff’s report on the matter did not detail what was said in the letters. Parts of the report were redacted.

Ayala’s office declined to comment.

Ayala’s office also reported receiving hate-filled and potentially threatening messages via social media. One Facebook message called her a “stupid b—-” and a “damn inbred snowflake” for choosing “not to ever seek the death penalty. “Can’t wait till you get stripped of you license,” it continues. “Then you can go back to being the useless hood rat you are.”

Another told her, “You should watch where you bring attention to yourself at. The FBI is now being informed of the actions you’ve been taking behind the scene. You’re about the windup in jail instead of prosecuting cases.”

A YouTube.com comment declared, “fucking n—–s. n—–s everywhere. the black woman is sticking up for a convicted COP killer. She should be on trial for her job and fired and thrown to the streets. she should pick cotton for the rest of her life and be whipped”

In each of those three cases, names are attached to the comments.

David Simmons condemns Frank Artiles comments; calls for due process, suggests PTSD might be factor

Republican state Sen. David Simmons sharply condemned racist and vulgar comments made earlier this week by state Sen. Frank Artiles. 

The behavior is nothing new, Simmons said, but he puts his faith in the Senate’s due process to determine a judgment by the body.

Simmons, of Altamonte Springs, then suggested that Artiles’ behavior might be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder — or some other circumstance — and the Senate needs to hear of any aggravating or mitigating circumstances before passing formal judgment.

Artiles has acted like this before, he added.

“I consider his comments reprehensible and unacceptable. I believe that at the same time that he is entitled to a full and fair hearing,” Simmon said.

On Tuesday night, in the Governors Club in Tallahassee, Artiles reportedly accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, who are both African-American, calling her a “b***h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation.

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, but refused growing calls for his resignation.

Thurston has lodged a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. An investigative report by General Counsel Dawn Roberts is due next Tuesday. Simmons said that process needs to proceed.

“I do not believe this is an isolated incident of conduct. I believe that Sen. Artiles has spoken to multiple people in this fashion,” Simmons said.

“I also know that he is an Iraq veteran. I know while there’s no question that he said these things, because he’s admitted it and apologized fort them. The question I have is what aggravating and mitigating circumstances exist regarding why he is and has been acting in this manner. I don’t believe that he should be denied the ability to show that he may have PTSD; he may have some other circumstances,” Simmons continued. “I don’t know. I’m not going to prejudge the type of judgment that we should impose upon him as a Senate.”

Simmons explicitly said he condemned Artiles’ comments Thursday, a declaration that came after the Orange County and Seminole County Democrats jointly issued a statement Thursday afternoon demanding that Simmons speak up. Simmons said he had previously spoken up, giving a similar response to another reporter before the Democrats’ joint statement.

The Orange and Seminole Democrats’ statement, signed by Orange Democratic Chair Wes Hodge and Seminole Democratic Chair Jeff Wilkinson, denounced Artiles’ comments as “bigoted” and called on Simmons, “to immediately condemn his colleague’s remarks. They do not represent Central Florida’s values, and cannot be allowed to go unaddressed.”

Simmons, who says he’s 98 percent decided to run for Congress in Florida’s 7th Congressional District for Orange and Seminole counties, a seat currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, did just that, calling Artiles’ comments “reprehensible,” and part of a pattern of behavior.

“We all know they’re not the only comments he’s made. He made comments against the Senate president. He’s made comments against other Republican senators. And he’s made comments to other senators, on other occasions,” Simmons said.

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