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Aramis Ayala anti-death penalty stand surprises many

The Florida prosecutor who thrust herself into the forefront of the anti-death penalty movement is a political novice who was elected just seven months ago.

Aramis Ayala, a Democrat and former public defender and assistant state attorney, surprised many of her own supporters when she announced this week that her office would no longer seek capital punishment in a state that has one of the largest death rows. In response, the state’s Republican governor promptly transferred a potential death penalty case — the killing of a police officer and a pregnant woman earlier this year — to another Florida prosecutor.

“I understand this is a controversial issue, but what isn’t controversial is the evidence that led me to my decision,” said Ayala, the first black state attorney elected in Florida.

She said there is no evidence that shows the death penalty improves public safety for citizens or law enforcement, and it’s costly and drags on for years for the victims’ families.

Advocates seeking to abolish the death penalty said Ayala sent a powerful message. Her decision reflects decreasing support for capital punishment in the U.S., said Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty.

“There are some prosecutors who in practice are following her lead. They just haven’t spoken out like she has,” Clifton said. “It would be wonderful if they spoke out and we could have a louder voice.”

Ayala spent the first decade or so of her career as an assistant state attorney and public defender. She was a prosecutor in the state attorney’s office for Orange and Osceola counties for about two years before she decided to seek the top job. The county is home to Walt Disney World and other tourist attractions and has grown more liberal over the past two decades.

Ayala was a political newcomer last year when she took on her former boss, then-State Attorney Jeff Ashton, who had been one of the prosecutors in the Casey Anthony case. Anthony was acquitted of murder in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.

Ayala didn’t run on an anti-death penalty platform when she campaigned, since at the time Florida’s death penalty law was in question after the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. A new death penalty bill was signed into law this week.

She instead emphasized during her campaign that she would engage with average citizens if elected. She acknowledged that her husband had served time in prison for drug conspiracy and counterfeiting checks years ago.

Even some of Ayala’s supporters said Friday they were taken aback by her decision.

Lawson Lamar, a former state attorney and sheriff, who backed her run for office, said: “Anyone who raises their hand and takes the oath to be state attorney must be able to go with the death penalty even if they feel it’s distasteful.”

Ayala’s campaign was helped by a Washington-based political action committee with ties to liberal Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros. The committee gave Ayala’s campaign almost $1 million, as well as millions of dollars to candidates in local races around the nation.

When asked if the donations influenced her decision, she said it did not.

Florida has 381 inmates on death and shows no sign of slowing down future prosecutions. The other state attorneys in Florida issued a statement Friday saying they would continue to seek the death penalty.

Rafael Zaldivar, whose son was murdered in Orlando in 2012, said Ayala’s decision is part of a political agenda and has no place in the state attorney’s office. He demanded her resignation.

“She is an activist. She isn’t a prosecutor. She has an agenda,” said Zaldivar, whose son’s killer was sentenced to death in 2015. Questions over Florida’s death penalty law have cast doubt over the sentence. His case is currently on appeal.

After Ayala announced her decision, Gov. Rick Scott transferred the case of Markeith Loyd from her authority to another state attorney in a neighboring district. Loyd is charged in the killing of police Lt. Debra Clayton, as well as Sade Dixon, who was Loyd’s pregnant ex-girlfriend.

Dixon’s mother said she supported Ayala’s decision, saying the death penalty would drag out the process for her family.

“I would love for him to die right now, but that isn’t going to happen,” Stephanie Dixon-Daniels said at a news conference outside the Orange County Courthouse.

Ayala’s decision could play into any future political aspirations. In California, then-District Attorney Kamala Harris faced similar circumstances a dozen years ago when she decided not to pursue the death penalty against a man accused of killing a San Francisco police officer. Harris went on to become the state’s attorney general and a U.S. senator.

Orlando Trust Coalition urges legislators pass protections for immigrants

The TRUST Orlando Coalition Friday unveiled statewide legislation designed to protect the safety and constitutional rights of Florida’s immigrant communities.

Carmen Torres, wife of Senator Victor Torres, and Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith, spoke on the steps of Orlando City Hall urging passage of House Bill 1407 and Senate Bill 1674.

“Florida is home to 925,000 undocumented immigrants, and 110,000 live in the Orlando Metropolitan area,” said Smith, whose parents were immigrants. “This is very urgent legislation that will protect our hardworking immigrants.”

The bills would protect the constitutional rights of immigrants and prevent harassment from law enforcement without a court order. It would also prohibit Florida’s public schools and universities from releasing information about immigrant families to federal officials.

Smith conceded that the bills might be difficult to pass.

“It will be really challenging,” said Smith. “But we need to send a message that there are leaders that have their (immigrants) back.”

Fernan Lauro Gregorio, an 18-year-old UCF student who moved to the U.S. from Argentina in 2004, said he lives in fear for his family.

“We fear for our family members, not aliens, who might hear a knock on their door and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) might come and get them,” Gregorio said.

More than 40 people gathered on the steps of City Hall and carried posters that said “We are here to stay” and “All families united to protect immigrants and refugees.”

“We are sending a loud message that we are united in solidarity, justice and equality,” said Rasha Mubarak, a Palestinian, Muslim American who is a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida. “Let us stop this rhetoric of hate and division.”

TRUST Orlando Coalition is a collaboration of 28 nonprofits that have banded together to protect immigrants and refugees. Groups that attended Friday included The Farmworker Association of Florida, The Interfaith Council of Central Florida, Council on American-Islamic Relations and UNITE HERE Local 737.

Police union head John Rivera calls Aramis Ayala coward

Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s decision to not pursue death penalty cases drew blistering criticism from one of Florida’s police union heads who called her a coward and a traitor.

John Rivera, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, blasted Ayala in a press release saying that her decision outraged law enforcement officers. He called for her resignation.

“In life there are cowards, and then there are cowards with titles,” Rivera stated. “Orange-Osceola State Attorney Ayala is a coward with a title. In fact, it is our opinion that she is a bigger coward than the killer of pregnant Sade Dixon, and an honorable guardian angel of society, Orlando Lt. Debra Clayton.”

Ayala, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, announced Thursday that after a review of Florida statutes and case law she concluded that the state’s capital punishment laws were not just for anyone, in part because they lead to years and decades of costly appeals and delays that force victims’ families to endure endless disappointment.

She said she would not pursue death penalty charges but would instead seek life imprisonment, including for the case of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd, charged with killing Dixon and Clayton, who was a master sergeant when she was slain in January.

Gov. Rick Scott then took the Loyd case away from Ayala late Thursday, using an executive order to reassign it to State Attorney Brad King of the neighboring 5th Judicial Circuit. Ayala said she would cooperate.

But Rivera called for more action.

“Anything short of Ayala’s resignation amounts to an act of terrorism against victims within our justice system – the very people our justice system seeks to protect,” he concluded. “We are a nation of laws and Ayala’s inability to follow our laws makes her unfit for office.”


Rick Scott yanks cop-killer case from Aramis Ayala, reassigns it

Gov. Rick Scott has used an executive order to pull the prosecution of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd away from Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala and to reassign it to State Attorney Brad King in Lake County.

Scott’s unprecedented move comes hours after the unprecedented announcement by Ayala that she would not prosecute death penalty charges, including in the case of Loyd, charged with killing his pregnant girlfriend Sade Dixon last December and that of Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton in January.

Ayala stated later she is complying.

“Upon receipt of any lawful order, my office will follow that Order and fully cooperate to ensure the successful prosecution of Markeith Loyd,” she said in a written statement issued by her office.

The move is the latest event in a day of uproar that began with reports that Ayala, a newly-elected state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, had concluded that Florida’s death penalty law was unjust and would not use it, even in the Loyd case.

The outrage included Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s swift condemnations, the head of Florida’s largest police union to demand Ayala resign, and Scott’s demand that she recuse herself from the Loyd case.

“She informed me this afternoon that she refuses to do that. She has made it clear that she will not fight for justice and that is why I am using my executive authority to immediately reassign the case to State Attorney Brad King,” Scott announced in a press release this afternoon.

Ayala was elected as state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties. The Dixon and Clayton murders occurred in Orange County.

King was elected as state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, covering Marion, Lake, Citrus, Sumter, Hernando counties.


Jeff Ashton: Aramis Ayala may not have legal grounds to ban death penalty

Former State Attorney Jeff Ashton – former boss and then election opponent to current State Attorney Aramis Ayala – said Thursday he believes she might not have legal ground to take the unprecedented “no death penalty” position she announced earlier Thursday.

Ashton also said he believes Ayala may have adopted the position to please her political benefactor, New York progressive activist billionaire George Soros, who ran an independent campaign on her behalf last summer.

Ayala beat Ashton in the Democratic primary last August after she had worked as an assistant state attorney under him in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties.

On Thursday she announced that, after a review of law, she concluded the death penalty is not just for anyone and she would not pursue it in any cases in the circuit, including that of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd.

Ashton said her position enters unchartered legal waters for a state attorney, and that he knows of no top prosecutor anywhere who has done so, certainly not in Florida.

“I don’t know, honestly, based on the statute, that she even has the right to do any of this,” he said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.com.

Ashton’s position is that Florida statutes, including the new one just approved by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, give prosecutors the discretion to decide whether a case has enough aggravating circumstances to merit a death penalty. He argued they do not give discretion to make a decision about the death penalty without even considering the aggravating circumstances.

He predicted legal challenges to her policy, perhaps by families of victims who want suspects  prosecuted for capital crimes. And even though he is a Democrat, Ashton applauded Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi for accusing her Thursday of dereliction of duty, which could be a precursor to attempts to oust her.

“As they should,” he said. “It’s the law. You can’t just pick and chose which laws you will follow.”

Ashton has reason to be bitter about how he lost re-election to a former protege who not only challenged him but questioned his efficiencies, management, and priorities.

Ashton’s beef, however, goes deeper, because of Soros. In the last month before the election, Soros ran a surprise, ugly, third-party, $1.4 million advertising campaign on Ayala’s behalf against Ashton, going so far as to accuse him of racist policies.

Ayala, the first-ever African American elected to the office of state attorney in Florida, denied then and denied Thursday that she had any contact with Soros or anything to do with his campaign for her and against Ashton, or that she owes Soros anything.

Soros has never discussed why he got involved in the race, though he also got involved in at least a half-dozen other elected prosecutor races across the country last year, backing African American candidates in all of them.

Ashton said Ayala’s justifications for abandoning the death penalty “parrot” statements made by Soros’ political committees, such as his Safety and Justice Political Action Committee.

“When you throw in the George Soros money, it smells really bad,” Ashton said of her ban on death penalty prosecutions. “That’s why I suspect it’s purely political.”

While serving under Ashton, Ayala began prosecuting a death penalty case, that of David Payne, suspected of kidnapping an ex-girlfriend and then murdering her in the trunk of her car in late 2015.

Ashton said Ayala was excited about having the opportunity to prosecute the case, though she didn’t stay long enough to do so. A few weeks after receiving the assignment, she resigned to run against him.

But because of that case, Ashton said he was confident that Ayala did not oppose the death penalty. Before she was assigned to that unit, “as a part of that process we discuss with them their feelings about the death penalty,” he said. “She made it very clear to us she didn’t have any qualms about the death penalty.”

The Payne case, still pending, is one of the cases for which Ayala vowed Thursday to withdraw capital charges, and to then prosecute seeking life imprisonment.

Ayala said in her press conference that her conclusions about the death penalty came only recently after reviewing her staff’s analysis of the laws and case history, and that her personal feelings did not factor into her decision.

Ashton, however, claimed she offered no justifications Thursday that provided any new evidence or insight that hasn’t been part of the anti-death-penalty movement’s playbook for decades.


Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala vows no death penalties

Saying she has concluded that Florida’s capital punishment laws are unjust for all, State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced Thursday she would not pursue the death penalty in any cases in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, which includes Orlando.

The policy begins with perhaps the most obvious and highest-profile potential death penalty case that has come along in Orlando in years, that of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd. She said she would prosecute him for life imprisonment for the alleged murders of his pregnant girlfriend Sade Dixon last December and that of Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton in January.

Making her announcement on the steps of the Orange County Courthouse, newly-elected Ayala declared that she made the decision after asking her staff for a full review of the death penalty, Florida’s law, including the newly-enacted statute approved by the Florida Legislature this Session, and case history. After reviewing the findings, she said only then did she conclude that she could not and would not pursue death penalty prosecutions.

“I took an oath to support, protect and defend the Constitution and the American Bar Association rules of conduct outline my duties as a prosecutor. My duty is to seek justice, which is fairness, objectivity and decency. I am to seek reform and to improve the administration of justice. I am prohibited from making the severity of my sentences the index of my effectiveness,” she said.

“What has become abundantly clear through this process is while I currently do have discretion to pursue death sentences, I have determined that doing so is not in the best interests of this community, or in the best interest of justice,” she said. “After review and consideration of the new statute, under my administration, I will not be seeking death penalty in cases handled in my office.”

Word of the policy leaked and was reported Wednesday by WFTV news, leading Orlando Police Chief John Mina to condemn her decision passionately.

It also brought a swift reaction from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott

“State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s decision today sends a dangerous message to residents and visitors of the greater Orlando area — furthermore, it is a blatant neglect of duty and a shameful failure to follow the law as a constitutionally elected officer,” Bondi declared in a written statement.

“I want to be very clear, Lt. Debra Clayton was executed while she was laying on the ground fighting for her life. She was killed by an evil murderer who did not think twice about senselessly ending her life,” Scott stated. “I completely disagree with State Attorney Ayala’s decision and comments, and I am asking her to recuse herself immediately from this case. She has made it abundantly clear that she will not fight for justice for Lt. Debra Clayton and our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day.”

It also brought praise from Civil Rights leaders.

“A powerful symbol of racial injustice has now been discarded in Orange County,” declared Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, in a written statement. “We are so thankful that Aramis Ayala recognizes that an institution plagued by racial bias has no place in our society today. Ending use of the death penalty in Orange County is a step toward restoring a measure of trust and integrity in our criminal justice system.”

“I applaud State Attorney Ayala’s announcement to no longer seek the death penalty,” the Rev. Russel Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, stated. “People of faith across Florida are deeply troubled by capital punishment–its needless destruction of human life, its toll on murder victims’ families, and its enormous cost to the state.”

On Thursday Ayala held firm against criticism, insisting that families of slaying victims are ill-served by a death penalty process that almost assuredly leads to years and decades of delays and costly appeals, and insisting she was prepared for consequences.

When asked why she did not express such doubts about the death penalty during her campaign last year to allow voters to know, Ayala replied, “All voters know now.”

Nor does she express fear or concern about House Joint Resolution 999, which would create an avenue for the impeachment of state attorneys. That bill moved swiftly through a house committee Thursday morning after news first was reported about Ayala’s policy.

She said she is confident she is doing her duty under the  Constitution and Florida Bar requirements.

She said she would withdraw death penalty charges in current cases, and would deal with mandated cases sent back to her from the Florida Supreme Court on a case-by-case basis, and follow the Supreme Court’s instructions.

Ayala outlined five reasons for her decision, her conclusions that:

— The death penalty has no public safety benefit. She cited studies showing no difference in homicide rates between places that have it and places that do not.

— It does not increase safety for law enforcement officers. She said she could not find any credible evidence that suggests it does.

— It is not a crime deterrent. She said deterrents need to be swift and consistent, and said death penalty administrations are neither.

— “False promises of death penalty give families no closure … I have learned that death penalty traps many victims’ families in decades-long cycles of uncertainty … some are left waiting for an execution that may never occur. I cannot in good faith look a family in the face and say any death penalty handed down by our courts will result in an execution.

— “The death penalty costs millions of dollars that far outweigh the costs of life sentences.”

Ayala was elected in what was largely a surprise course of events last year, ousting high-profile State Attorney Jeff Ashton after New York progressive politics billionaire George Soros spent $1.4 million on an independent campaign to support her. It left her Thursday deflecting questions about whether Soros had any influence on her policy. She insisted she did not know what Soros’ position was and had not communicated with him. “Ask him,” she said.

She also attempted to dismiss her “personal feelings,” and to distance herself from statements she made during the campaign that she could support death penalty prosecutions.

“When I am in the position of state attorney I have to eliminate my personal feelings and pursue whether or not the evidence supports my decision, and I believe it does,” she said.

She also said she does not worry about taking the death penalty off the table in cases where it could be a bargaining chip for police or prosecutors to extract information or plea bargains.

“One thing I think is inhumane is to negotiate life,” she said.

Val Demings, Darren Soto, Stephanie Murphy submit transportation list

Orlando’s three Democratic members of Congress, U.S. Reps. Val Demings, Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy, have sent the White House a wish list of transportation projects that include I-4, Sunrail and the Orlando International Airport.

The trio sent the list Wednesday urging the administration of President Donald Trump to push the Central Florida package because of what they described as Orlando’s unique position.

“Central Florida – in particular the greater Orlando metropolitan area – is home to numerous high-profile destinations, venues and institutions, and therefore requires a world-class transportation infrastructure network to support the safe and efficient movement of residents and visitors,” the three lawmakers wrote.

The list they provided is essentially the consensus of local political, civic and transportation planning leaders in the Orlando area, though not all of the projects have universal backing. Among them:

– The Phase 2 expansion of the SunRail regional commuter train from DeBary to DeLand in Volusia County. This expansion is in the district of Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Port Orange, who is opposed to it.

– Phase 3 expansion of SunRail running east-and west between Meadow Woods and Orlando International Airport. This would connect the now entirely-north-south railroad to the airport’s Orlando Intermodal Transportation Facility, a multi-level train station now under construction.

– The I-4 “Ultimate Improvement Project,” now underway through most of Orlando and Seminole County, expanding that freeway out to its maximum capacity.

– Orlando Intermodal Transportation Facility at the airport.

– The planned second major terminal at Orlando International Airport, which would largely serve international flights. That facility is to be built next to the train station.

“The president has called on Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion infrastructure investment. We look forward working with the administration on this initiative, and we hope that these priority transportation infrastructure projects in our region will be included,” the three lawmakers concluded in a news release Wednesday.

Draft-Anna Eskamani for Orange Mayor movement draws Bob Poe backing

A social media campaign to draft Anna Eskamani to run for Orange County mayor is catching steam on Facebook and has convinced at least one major potential mayoral candidate to declare he won’t run because he’d rather back her – Bob Poe.

Eskamani, a 26-year-old Orlando Democrat who is director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said Tuesday she is inspired and humbled, and is exploring the possibility of running for the top job in Orange County this year.

“I’m definitely giving it serious thought. But at the end of the day, I’m listening to the people,” she said.

So far, no serious candidates have filed, though several are known to be organizing support for a run in 2018, when incumbent Republican Mayor Teresa Jacobs will be term-limited. The two registered candidates are Harry Legrand-Torres and Robert Edward Melanson.

Poe was one such potential candidate. A businessman and major Democratic campaign fundraiser, fresh off a failed run for Congress, Poe said on Tuesday that he has decided to not run for mayor. Instead, after he saw the draft-Anna page, Poe decided he wants to back Eskamani, and is urging others in his orbit to do so as well.

“I’m out,” Poe said. “And I’m encouraging Anna.”

By late Tuesday, the “We Want Anna Eskamani for Orange County Mayor” page started Sunday afternoon on Facebook had more than 700 likes.

Eskamani is young, but an already well-established figure in Central Florida Democratic circles. She’s known for strong progressive views, fiery speeches, sharp preparation on issues, and appearing at nearly every progressive politics event in the area.

She has a twin sister Ida Eskamani, who fits the same bill and serves as a legislative aide to Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando.

“We deserve an authentic voice,” Anna Eskamani said. “We deserve a mayor who works for all people and pushes back against dangerous policies that come from Washington D.C. and Tallahassee. For me, organizing, fighting for equality, is what I have committed my life to.

“And I’m absolutely inspired by this new-found energy around the potential of me running for mayor. And I would be honored to serve this county and its people.”

Poe said he is attracted to her youthful energy and fearlessness, and his belief that the Democratic Party needs a new generation of leaders. He called her a leader who does her homework.

“She’s been on the cutting edge of what has been happening politically here,” Poe said. “She is a driver. I’m encouraging Anna to run. And I’m going to encourage other people to encourage Anna to run.”

While they make up their minds, so are several other potential candidates and their backers. Another draft page has been started on Facebook for Democratic Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh. Democratic Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph and Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings also been frequently projected as candidates. Potential Republican candidates have included Orange County School Board Chair Bill Sublette, former Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner and Former Orange County Commissioner Scott Boyd.

Darren Soto: Current GOP health care bill won’t pass

The current bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act will never pass Congress in its current form, freshman U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, told members of the Polk County Tiger Bay Club during a Monday lunch in Bartow.

“I believe ‘Trumpcare’ will be difficult in the House now that the joy of victory has subsided. And things in the Senate can come unraveled,” said the new congressman from Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which includes Osceola County and parts of Polk and Orange counties, during a post-luncheon interview.

“We must have a health care system other than (patients going primarily to) emergency rooms, which is the most expensive option,” Soto said.

A uniform bill with both parties working together is needed, respecting both sides.

But it is also an opportunity for the minority Democrats to have a say in defending or preserving parts of the Affordable Care Act because Republican lawmakers are so divided.

“In chaos, there is opportunity,” Soto said.

He has no problems calling the current bill “Trumpcare.” It is a play on words after Republicans called the ACA “Obamacare,” he said.

“He endorsed it (the Republican repeal and replace bill) so he owns it,” Soto said.

He also told his audience that the deportation of undocumented immigrants could devastate the agricultural and tourist industries in Florida, two of the three pillars of the state’s economy.

“This is the opinion of many ranchers and growers,” he said. “You are not going to have mechanical pickers in the groves. That is not going to happen. You need a guest worker program that actually works and need overall reform.”

Soto serves on the House Committee on Agriculture and on the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Citrus greening, a disease that attacks and destroys citrus trees, is a foremost concern he said. He said he is working with Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, to get more funding for research crucial to Florida agriculture.

He and Ross have worked on several issues and will be among a congressional delegation Soto proposed to visit Iraq to determine the political and military situation.

The Florida Delegation, in fact, has developed a series of bipartisan issues on which members from both parties have agreed to work. They include Everglades Restoration, Infrastructure, Tax Reform and solving Red Tide.

“You can’t drive on 17/92 or US 27 and not understand the need for infrastructure funding,” Soto said. And citrus greening is a major concern to the Congress members from citrus counties, he said.

Soto may be a freshman member of Congress, but is not new to legislating. He served for nine years in a Republican-controlled Florida House and Florida Senate before being elected to Congress, which is Republican majority-controlled.

“I have to take that into consideration and thread the needle with good ideas. An example of that is money I have asked for to provide additional hurricane monitoring aircraft working with both parties. There is only one group to monitor the entire Gulf,” he said.

“Congress is more bipartisan than you may think,” he said. “We pass 10-12 bills a day on voice vote meaning no one objects enough to ask for a vote by name. It is the two or three controversial ones that get the press.”

Federal grant to provide $8.5 million to help Pulse victims

The U.S. Department of Justice is awarding an $8.5 million grant to help the victims of last June’s massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

The grant, to be awarded Tuesday by the Department of Justice to the Florida Office of Attorney General Pam Bondi, was announced Monday by the office of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

Florida will get $8,466,970 to assist survivors and victims’ families of the mass shooting, which left 49 dead and 53 wounded, as well as to help witnesses, and first responders. The Antiterrorism Emergency Assistance Program grant, administered through the DoJ’s Office for Victims of Crime, will aim to ensure that victims, witnesses and first responders receive necessary services to help them adjust in the aftermath, begin the healing process and cope with re-traumatization, according to an advisory from the department.

The money also will be used to reimburse authorities for the family assistance center that Orlando, Orange County, Heart of Florida United Way, Florida and the non-profit foundation Orlando United established in the days after the massacre.

The Orlando United Assistance Center was initially opened at the Camping World Stadium in the days immediately following the tragedy, but was moved to a building at 507 Michigan Street later on, where it has remained, with funding set for 2017. There, patients have access to mental health care and other needs, such as referrals for housing and rental assistance, emergency financial assistance, employment, training and educational opportunities.

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