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More judges needed in Orlando and Tampa, Florida Supreme Court says

The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday said four additional judges are needed in the Orlando area and Hillsborough County.

It added, however, that judgeships in some counties could be eliminated.

The Supreme Court is required each year to “certify” to the Legislature its analysis of the need for judges, though lawmakers often have not followed the court’s recommendations.

In Wednesday’s opinion, the Supreme Court certified a need for two additional circuit judges in the 9th Judicial Circuit, made up of Orange and Osceola counties, and a need for two more Hillsborough County judges.

But it “decertified” the need for 13 county judges across the state.

That included three county judges in Brevard County, two in Pasco County and one each in Escambia, Leon, Putnam, Alachua, Polk, Monroe, Charlotte and Collier counties.

The Supreme Court’s analysis takes into account factors such as trends in the types of cases filed and judicial workloads.

For example, the analysis found increases in civil filings in circuit and county courts but decreases in traffic-related filings.

Rick Scott, Aramis Ayala battle over missed deadlines in death penalty cases

New twists in the battle between Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala and Gov. Rick Scott after she agreed to prosecute death penalty cases; Scott is accusing her of missing a filing deadline, and Ayala responding Monday that Scott missed the case, and it will still be filed for capital punishment.

“It is absolutely outrageous that Aramis Ayala failed to seek justice in the case against Emerita Mapp who is accused of attacking multiple people and killing Zackery Ganoe,” Scott declared Friday, contending that she missed an Oct. 7 deadline to file death penalty provisions against Mapp.

The governor has made misleading and inaccurate statements,” Ayala responded Monday.

“It is clear, the governor failed in his review and missed this case,” Ayala responded in a statement Monday afternoon, charging that Scott would have only himself to blame had the case missed the deadline, since he had been monitoring her caseload and was grabbing away all the death penalty cases and re-assigning them to another state attorney well into August, but overlooked this one.

Not so fast, Scott’s office replied to Ayala’s statement.

“It is outrageous State Attorney Ayala is attempting to pass the blame for her failure. Let’s be clear — State Attorney Ayala failed to meet this deadline, and she alone is responsible for not fighting for justice for the victims in this case,” McKinley Lewis, Scott’s deputy director of communications declared.

But the deadline did not pass, Ayala insisted Monday, and she declared she still intends to pursue the death penalty against Mapp.

“The state’s ability to seek the death penalty has not been compromised, and with the filing of the Notice of Intent to Seek Death, we have preserved the issue and remedied the governor’s failure,” she said.

A newly-sworn-in 9th Judicial State attorney, Ayala had denounced Florida’s death penalty on March 16 as unjust for anyone, due to its lengthy delays, high costs, and tendency to be ruled unconstitutional. Scott vehemently disagreed, and the two spent the next five months battling in court over who could do what, while he stripped death penalty cases from her jurisdiction and reassigned them to State Attorney Brad King of Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit.

In August, the Florida Supreme Court sided with Scott, and Ayala announced a new policy in which she would have a panel within her office, which did not include her, review all murder cases and make determinations on whether her office would pursue the death penalty.

Ayala is chief prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties.

On Aug. 31, she announced the Mapp case would be the first death penalty pursued under her new policy. The case involves an April 11 murder in an Osceola County hotel.

But on Friday Scott announced that Ayala had missed the legally-required 45-day deadline to file the death penalty case against Mapp.

“I have been clear that I stand with the victims of crime and their families and they deserve answers from the State Attorney’s Office on how this critical deadline was not met. I’ll continue to review reassigning cases from her office since she is failing to fight for victims and their families,” he insisted.

Her response came late Monday:

“Once the Florida Supreme Court issued its ruling regarding a Prosecutor’s discretion to seek the death penalty, I created a Death Penalty Review Panel to review every first-degree murder case. At my direction, once they convened they reviewed every first-degree murder case since the start of my administration Jan. 3. I requested the panel go back to the beginning of my administration to ensure Gov. Scott did not make a mistake and miss cases, which he clearly did,” she wrote.

“Of course, I knew the potential of some of those cases passing the 45-days. This is something the Review Panel discussed prior to reviewing cases. The issue was well researched, so again this was an anticipated hurdle. But it was the right thing to do and consistent with the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling,” she continued

“The state’s ability to seek the death penalty has not been compromised, and with the filing of the Notice of Intent to Seek Death, we have preserved the issue and remedied the governor’s failure,” she concluded.


Philip Levine launches Puerto Rico help ad, speaking English and Spanish

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine has launched a new, bilingual television commercial highlighting his relief efforts for Puerto Rico and declaring he will never turn his back on Puerto Rico.

The 30-second spot “Siempre” [“Always”] includes narration in Spanish and Levine orating in both English and Spanish, while images of the island’s devastation from Hurricane Maria, and of a relief plane, and of Levine being welcomed by a joyous San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, appear.

The ad, payed for by his All About Florida independent political committee, will run for five weeks in select markets, including “heavy rotation” in Orlando.

Levine, the former mayor of Miami Beach, faces former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, Winter Park businessman Chris King, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in seeking the 2018 primary nomination to run for governor.

The commercial begins with the narrator saying, in Spanish, “The people for Puerto Rico needed help, and Philip Levine took action.”

Levine then declares, in English, “Washington politicians pointed fingers at each other; I pointed a cargo plane filled with life-saving supplies to San Juan. I said we will never turn our back on the people of Puerto Rico––I meant it and I always will.”

He then switches to Spanish, declaring, “We will always be with Puerto Rico.”

The narrator concludes, in Spanish, “Philip Levine, our leader.”

Puerto Rican coalition calls for full recovery funding and debt relief

A national coalition of Puerto Rican groups with heavy representation in Central Florida urged in Orlando Monday for Congress to offer full relief funding for the hurricane-ravaged island and for Florida and federal relief for evacuee housing in the Sunshine State.

Joined at Acacia’s El Centro Borinqueño by U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, and Orlando Democrat, and state Rep. John Cortes, a Kissimmee Democrat, Power4PuertoRico criticized federal relief efforts as inadequate and worse, given that still more than half the island is without electricity, water remains a critical shortage, many hospitals are operating on generators, and schools remain closed.

The group also turned its attention to the needs of Puerto Rican evacuees in Florida and elsewhere stateside, particularly making an urgent call for housing assistance, especially in the Central Florida area.

For the group, whose members include Orlando-based Hispanic Federation, Chicago-based Puerto Rican Cultural Center and various non-profit and labor groups, the coalition also called for major federal relief efforts that go beyond addressing Hurricane Maria’s landfall two months ago, on Sept. 20. Saying that broader economic reforms are necessary for Puerto Rico to fully recover, the group called for debt relief for the island’s government, something that is tied up in bankruptcy proceedings under the Promesa Act approved in 2016, and for repeal of the Jones Act, which restricts maritime commerce in and out of the island.

“We have come together to focus on economic recovery through significant investments in infrastructure, workforce development, and health care,” said Zoe Colon, a local organizer of Power4PuertoRico. “We are asking for longterm solutions to the crisis in Puerto Rico.”

Colon and others in the coalition’s press conference decried that two full months after the hurricane, “more than half of the island is still without power, disease is spreading, and people don’t have the resources they ned to build their homes.”

Soto said he supports reform of the Jones Act but not full repeal, and supports Congressional actions that could address the island government’s debts beyond what is the domain of the bankruptcy proceedings. “We’ve had assurances that every debt that can be challenged, will be challenged … and that Congress needs to do everything we can so that Puerto Rico isn’t drowned in a sea of debt during this crisis.

He said the $4.9 million loan, an initial federal Hurricane Maria relief package, “must be forgiven” and that any future FEMA funds must be exempt from creditors. “This is essential for the recovery. It would a twisted, cruel fate to have this money go down and only be taken by opportunistic creditors.”

Soto also said the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, on which he sits, will push for the island’s power generation and distribution grid to not just be restored, but replaced with 21st century, renewable technologies.

He turned attention toward Thanksgiving, saying, “Here in Florida we have much to be thankful for, but we have much to do,” he said. “Puerto Rico, in short, is still in crisis.”

Cortes offered praise for efforts of Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, for offering Florida help on the island, and for doing much to welcome Puerto Ricans coming to Florida, saying efforts must be bipartisan.

He said the next step must be to get state money to address the housing shortages, particularly in Central Florida where most of the 160,000 evacuees appear to be settling. He decried Scott’s budget proposal for taking $132 million from the Sadowski Fund for affordable housing, and redirecting it to other spending. That has to be stopped, and the money has to be used to develop more affordable housing, Cortes said.

“In my area in Osceola County, forget about getting an apartment, because either they’re too much, or FEMA doesn’t give you enough voucher for them. And your voucher is going to end, and after that you’re going to be homeless.”


Ruth’s List Florida backs Anna Eskamani in HD 47 contest

Florida House District 47 Democratic candidate Anna Eskamani has received the endorsement of Ruth’s List Florida, a backing that usually comes with fundraising assistance.

“Anna is a lifelong advocate for reproductive health and women’s rights. She is a dynamic leader who has already proven herself to be a passionate and effective advocate,” Ruth’s List Florida Executive Director Marley Wilkes stated in a press release issued by Eskamani’s campaign. “The Ruth’s List community – now tens of thousands members strong – is excited to support her candidacy.”

The endorsement is a natural fit. Ruth’s List promotes Democratic women for office. Eskamani, of Orlando, faces Republican Stockton Reeves in a quest to replace Republican state Rep. Mike Miller, who is running for Congress rather than re-election.

“I am grateful to the grassroots aid Ruth’s List Florida provides Democratic women in Florida,” Eskamani stated in the release. “My commitment to women and families is unmatched and driven by my own personal story as an Orlando native and daughter of immigrants who lost her mom to cancer at age thirteen. Women face deep disparities compared to our male counterparts, and as more allegations of sexual harassment and assault are made across the country and right here in Florida, the need for more women’s voices in Tallahassee has become even more apparent and important.”

Where are the Groveland Four pardons? Their story continues in silence

There is no pardon for the Groveland Four.

At least not yet, and possibly not in the foreseeable future, despite much celebration last spring that they deserved and should receive posthumous pardons.

The Groveland Four are the young, black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in rural Lake County in 1949. It was an infamous case that unraveled into a pile of racial hatred, apparent lies and reportedly manufactured evidence, all coming to light largely through the efforts of legendary NAACP attorney and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But the truth began to emerge too late to save any of them from the fates suffered by so many black men in the Jim Crow era. Two were killed in custody, and the other two were wrongly [the record now shows] convicted and imprisoned.

Their story, largely unknown or forgotten even in Florida, was spread internationally by Gilbert King’s best-selling book, Devil in the Grove, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and awakened Florida’s conscience about the matter.

Last spring, in a passionate flurry that rivaled any call anywhere for belated justice, the Florida Legislature approved a resolution apologizing to the families of Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas and urging full pardons for Irvin and Greenlee, the only two who lived long enough to be convicted and imprisoned.

The resolution declared the quartet, “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history.”

“This is Florida’s version of the Scotsboro Boys. This is our To Kill a Mockingbird,” state Sen. Gary Farmer declared after the resolution’s adoption. “We cannot change the hands of time. We cannot go back to this terrible event and undo it. But we can acknowledge our wrongs. And we can bring peace, and healing, and closure to the families who have suffered so long.”

Yet seven months after the Florida Legislature passed CS/HCR 631 by votes of 117-0 in the Florida House of Representatives and 36-0 in the Florida Senate, the request it contained for pardons has vanished into bureaucracy.

And no one wants to talk about it.

Several communications by Florida Politics to the office of Gov. Rick Scott last week resulted in no response, except a referral to the Florida Commission on Offender Review, which declined to comment on Greenlee or Irvin. Neither Farmer nor state Rep. Bobby DuBose, the Broward County Democrats who sponsored the resolutions in the Senate and House respectively, responded to requests to talk about the pardons either.

“I’m not aware of anything going on,” said former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, the Orlando Democrat who first brought the Groveland Four to the Legislature’s attention in 2016, in a resolution that failed that Session, shortly before she left the Senate herself.

Also not aware of anything going on is Josh Venkataraman, the young activist who carried the matter back to the Florida Legislature this year, and who, as it turned out, wound up being the one who actually filed the request for pardons.

“They [Farmer, DuBose and others including House Speaker Richard Corcoran] did an incredible job of making this happen, and really bringing the passion to it. I just don’t know that they knew how to get this next step,” said Venkataraman, who now lives and works in New York City. “I think the passion is still there. I just don’t know if they have the answers. And, frankly, nobody does. As of this moment, the only thing I’ve been told is it’s a waiting process.”

Technically, it turned out, the Legislature demanding pardons was not the same thing as someone formally requesting pardons. That may have gone unrealized until weeks later. When he discovered there were no pardon requests on file from anyone, Venkataraman took it upon himself to write and file one in June.

At the suggestion of the office of Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who as a member of the Florida Cabinet will have a final vote on the pardons, Venkataraman also wrote what is called a “Request for Review” application and submitted it to Scott’s office. That’s the legal document that could get the case expedited, if Scott pursues the request. Venkataraman also submitted that in June.

And that, apparently, was the last anyone on the outside has heard of the pardons requested for Greenlee and Irvin.

Kelly Corder, director of communications for the Florida Commission on Offender Review, said law mandates that any specific pardon request remain confidential. She could not discuss it.

“Investigations are processed in the order in which they are received by the Office of Executive Clemency, and maintained in chronological order based upon the original application date,” Corder explained.

Think of the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the crate is wheeled into a stadium-sized warehouse and shoved into its appointed spot.

“As of November 1, 2017, there were 22,376 pending clemency cases,” Corder added.

The Florida Legislature didn’t just call for their full pardons last spring. In CS/HCR 631, lawmakers unanimously urged the “Governor and Cabinet to expedite review of the cases” toward those pardons.

Corder noted that “The [Florida] Commission [of Offender Review] cannot consider an application out of order without direction from a member of the Clemency Board,” which is the cabinet: Scott, Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

Venkataraman filed his request for review with Scott, and said he has not heard back. Scott’s office did not respond to Florida Politics inquiry on whether he had accepted the request, or was considering it, or had any statement at all on the Groveland Four.

Irvin and Greenlee were released from prison in the 1960s. Irvin returned to Lake County in 1969 to attend a relative’s funeral, but never showed up. Eventually he was found dead in his car. Greenlee died in 2012.

Stephanie Murphy leads effort to get $1.2B to help schools accept Puerto Rican migrants

School districts and colleges in Florida and other states may be in line for some of $1.24 billion in federal support for taking in Puerto Rican children displaced by Hurricane Maria, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy announced Friday.

Murphy, a Democrat from Winter Park, has been leading the charge, which has included several other Florida Congress members and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, to get education dollars included in a $44 billion emergency funding request that the White House Office of Management and Budget submitted to Congress. The money was in there.

It will be available to school districts, colleges and universities to support their efforts to provide refugee schooling to the children among the estimated 160,000 Puerto Ricans who’ve fled to Florida and countless more to other states since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September.

In Florida alone, more than 6,300 Puerto Rican children had enrolled in Florida schools by the end of last week. More than 1,300 enrolled in Osceola County and 2,400 in Orange County, leading to immediate crunches in many of those schools. More are on the way. State and local officials have projected as many as 300,000 Puerto Ricans may move to Florida before the end of the year.

“When disaster strikes anywhere in our nation, Congress has a duty to act swiftly to help those families affected,” Murphy said in a news release issued by her office. “I have been working with members of both parties to ensure that Florida and Puerto Rico receive the federal funding they need to recover and rebuild in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria. In particular, I’ve led the bipartisan effort to ensure schools in Florida who enroll students from Puerto Rico have sufficient resources to provide a great education to both their new and current students. Although I am concerned that the overall request of $44 billion is insufficient and I do not support OMB’s proposed offsets, I am pleased that the request includes this critical funding for students and families in central Florida.”

On Oct. 5, Murphy authored a letter to the House Appropriations Committee and OMB urging the to allocate school and college funding for the displaced students. The letter was co-signed by U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Darren Soto, Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, and Frederica Wilson from Florida and several more members of Congress from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Nelson sent his own letter making a similar request on Tuesday, signed by five other senators. Murphy, Soto, Wilson, and Nelson are Democrats, Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen are Republicans.

The signatories all come from states with large Puerto Rican populations that will likely be destinations for island families moving to the mainland in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Since the letter, Murphy has worked closely with OMB, her colleagues on the Appropriations Committee, and school districts in Florida in support of her bipartisan effort, her office said in the release.

Nelson was less enamored than Murphy with the OMB proposal.

“This request by the administration doesn’t come close to providing what is needed. People are hurting and they desperately need our help, yet this request has no money to provide housing for evacuees and barely any money for Florida’s citrus growers,” Nelson said in a news release from his office. “That’s unacceptable. Congress needs to pass a more robust disaster bill that actually provides the funding needed to help people recover.”

On Monday, Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló requested $94.4 billion for Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts alone. Likewise, earlier this month, Texas officials requested $61 billion for its recovery in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Florida has not yet requested a specific amount of additional funding, Nelson stated.

The next step is for Congress to consider OMB’s request, and Congress can—and likely will—provide funding beyond that requested by OMB, Murphy’s office said. This will be the third emergency appropriations bill that Congress approves, having already approved two bills in September and October. OMB has made clear there will be a fourth request for funding, intended to meet the significant long-term needs of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Personnel Note: Florida Chamber taps Orlando Health’s David Strong as Central Florida Chair

The Florida Chamber of Commerce announced Friday that it appointed Orlando Health CEO David Strong chair of the Central Florida Regional Board.

“David Strong is a highly experienced business leader that fully understands what it takes to lead Florida to a new and sustainable economy,” said Florida Chamber President Mark Wilson. “In his role as a Florida Chamber Regional Board Chair, Strong will help lead the Florida Chamber’s mission to secure Florida’s future.”

Bob Grammig, who chairs the Chamber’s board of directors and is a partner at lobbying firm Holland & Knight, picked Strong for the job.

In his new role, Strong will represent the Florida Chamber in the Central Florida business community and connect area business leaders with resources to help make the Central area—and Florida—more competitive.

“Serving as the Florida Chambers’ Central Florida Regional Board Chair is an exciting opportunity,” Strong said. “I am eager to unite Central Florida’s area business leaders behind the Florida Chambers’ pro-business initiatives.”

Strong has been the president and CEO of Orlando Health since mind-2015. Before joining the $2.8 billion health care network, he worked as the chief operating officer of UNC Health Care.

In addition to his work with the Chamber, he serves as a member of the CHRISTUS Health Audit and Finance & Strategy Committees, chairs CHRISTUS St. Vincent, and is a member of the Florida Hospital Association board of trustees.

Val Demings calls reported Stephen Bittel conduct ‘extremely inappropriate’

U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando denounced reported conduct by Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel Friday though stopped short of describing it as sexual harassment.

The former Orlando chief of police said she told Bittel that this morning.

“As a former law enforcement officer and a member of Congress, sexual harassment is an issue I take very seriously,” Demings said in a written statement. “While I do not believe the behavior (as described) rises to that level, I do believe the behavior was extremely inappropriate and a result of poor judgment. I shared my concerns with Chairman Bittel.”

Demings is the first member of Florida’s Congressional delegation to weigh in.

UPDATE: On Friday morning, Bittel announced he is resigning following reports that he created a hostile work environment for women by “belittling” them in front of male staffers and making suggestive remarks.

Teresa Jacobs not done with I-Drive, convention center plans

Don’t count Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs out quite yet, she told the International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce Thursday, pledging to push ahead in her last year on long-term planning for the district and support for Orange County Convention Center expansion.

Jacobs, whose term limits expire at the end of 2018, was honored Thursday as “Visionary of the Year by the chamber at its 30th-anniversary celebratory luncheon at the convention center. The award came for her push, during her eight years, for a plan begun by her predecessor Mayor Rich Crotty to turn the I-Drive district into a second downtown area, and turned it into a plan focusing on the year 2040, with full sidewalks, street life and residences in addition to the towering hotels, attractions, restaurants and shops that cater to tourists.

“I’m not done yet by the way,” she said. “I have just over twelve months left to do and we’re going to get back to work in a minute.”

That may start with a push for the next major expansion of the convention center, already the second-largest in the country. The I-Drive chamber, the convention center board and others have pushed for a $500 million, 800,000-square-foot expansion that likely will be the next big controversy in Orange County politics.

“The convention center has been such an important priority. We have too many jobs, we have too much economic impact relying upon our convention center, and you have invested too much in I-Drive,” Jacobs said. “And the convention center is really the heart of this area.”

She did not explicitly commit to the expansion, but added that in the next 12 months there was a lot of work to be done.

Chamber President Maria Triscari and Chairman John Stine described dramatic growth and change in the 11-mile corridor that started as a hotel and restaurant strip between SeaWorld and Universal Orlando and then grew into a tourism destination area all its own. Today it has 125 hotels and 4,500 hotel rooms, 40 percent of the rooms in the Orlando market, 350 restaurants, and 900 retail outlets, and 23 attractions of its own, from the Fun Spot America amusement park to the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye 400-foot-tall ferris wheel.

“The transformation of I-Drive in the last few years has made our destination fresh and exciting,” Triscari said. “It’s official, the International Drive resort area is a destination. And we’ve only just begun.”

Jacobs’ I-Drive 2040 Strategic Vision plan would build around the convention center, convention hotels, attractions and restaurants already there, with layers of commerce, retail, and housing.

It calls for more complex street grid systems with alleys, access streets, back streets and scores more intersections, urban plazas, public squares, and other downtown features to make it a more walkable community. Public transit also is emphasized.

The proposal covers 5.5 square miles, 3,500 acres, stretching southward from Carrier Drive, following International Drive to Central Florida Parkway, and Universal Boulevard to State Road 528.


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