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Charlie Crist fields questions for nearly four hours at his first town hall meeting

In the weeks since Donald Trump and the Republican Party have taken complete control control of Washington D.C., congressional town hall meetings around the nation have been marked by vitriol, confrontation and anger.

Those elements were decidedly not present at Charlie Crist’s town hall meeting held on Saturday at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus. Instead, it was a veritable love fest, with the mostly liberal crowd calling on Crist to hold the new regime accountable, as well as asking him to help guide them on what they could do to slow down the Trump administration.

“It’s not Democrats, Republicans or independents,” the freshman U.S. Representative said when asked who could bring the greatest pressure on Trump and the GOP agenda. “It’s Americans on Americans, encouraging these people in Washington to get to the truth. The more you do it, the more it’s going to happen.”

The St. Petersburg Democrat showed Springsteenian stamina in his first town hall, taking questions for nearly four hours before a crowd that started out over 500 people strong.

As he said last weekend in a community in South St. Petersburg, Crist wants an independent, 9/11-style commission to investigate the ties between the Trump administration and Russian officials. He said former Secretary of State Colin Powell would be an ideal personality to lead that panel.

He received a standing ovation when he said that he has called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign after it was reported that he met with Russian officials after saying he had not done so during his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing. But Crist said it was important “not to take the eye off the ball” on what was really important.

“The real issue to me in this whole Russian imbroglio, if you will, is what did they do? What did they hack? What did they cyberattack? And why did they do it? And who did they do it for? And who did they talk to about it before it was done?” he asked.

Crist said he was angered by the reports because he “loves democracy,” and what happened in this case “has the opportunity to shatter the very foundation of American democracy.”

Crist also announced that his first major piece of legislation he soon will be filing involves a measure to protect Social Security. He said his legislation would in part raise the cap on earnings that are taxed. Currently, earnings up to $118,500 are taxed for this purpose. Crist’s 13th Congressional District it should be noted,  has always been considered to contain one of the highest concentration of senior voters in the nation.

The other component of his bill would be to eliminate taxation on citizens beginning to cash in on Social Security benefits.

“The hard part is getting these things because we’re putting them in the same bill,” he said.

Members of the audience filled out question forms beforehand, and were given a number that was then announced in no particular order by a Crist staffer during the meeting.

That seemed to be working well enough, but nearly two hours into the town hall, Dr. David McKalip said he’d had enough. The Tea Party activist and St. Petersburg neurosurgeon interrupted the proceedings to say that it was time to interrupt the one-sided nature of the questions being asked,d before asking Crist to please “repeal Obamacare.”

As he continued speaking, the crowd began jeering loudly, yelling at him to “ask your question!”

McKalip said insurance rates had skyrocketed since the ACA officially went into effect in 2014, mentioning the deleterious affect it has on his patients.

Crist never directly responded, instead passing the microphone to the next woman scheduled to ask a question. She began by giving an impassioned defense of the ACA.

Always lauded for his skills as a retail politician, Crist was at his zenith in terms of people pleasing throughout the meeting, though sometimes in an over the top fashion. When a Clearwater resident introduced herself by saying she had just recently relocated from northern Illinois, Crist responded by saying, “Welcome to Heaven.”

When St. Petersburg resident named Cuthbert Hutton asked a question about Trump stripping down the EPA, Crist got a bit corny.

“Mr Hutton is it? So when you speak, people listen,” he quipped, invoking the not-so-recent television ad tagline. He then assured Hutton that he would do “everything in my power to make sure that budget, that has to be approved by the House and the Senate, before it goes to the president’s desk, is one that reflects your wishes. Because you’re my boss. Literally.”

When Seminole resident Randy Wright began his comment about preserving the Affordable Care Act by mentioning that Crist used to be Insurance Commissioner in Florida, Crist interrupted him.

“Education Commissioner, ” he said.

“Not Insurance Commissioner?” Wright responded.

“Hell no,” Crist fired back, eliciting a wave of laughter.

And at one point he gave Pinellas resident Tracy Crabtree his card with his personal cell phone numbers, which he then had her read aloud.

Another citizen who left a bit disgruntled was Beverly Young, the widow of the late C.W. Bill Young, the Republican who held the CD 13 seat for over forty years before his death in the fall of 2013. Young said that she was disappointed with Crist’s dealings with veterans in Pinellas County.

Bill Edwards to help raise money for Rick Scott in Pinellas next week

St. Petersburg entrepreneur Bill Edwards will be helping raise money next week for Let’s Get to Work, the political committee closely tied to Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

The reception begins 6 p.m. Thursday, March 9, at The Club at Treasure Island, 400 Treasure Island Causeway in Treasure Island. Minimum suggested contribution for the VIP reception is $5,000; tickets to the General Reception are $2,500.

Edwards, CEO of The Edwards Group, has been a longtime supporter of Scott and Republicans. He gave $1 million in 2013 for Scott’s re-election effort, as well as about $4.6 million to support Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012. In 2015, Edwards also gave $350,000 to the political action committee supporting former Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential bid.

Joining Edwards on the host committee are former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, Jay Beyrouti, Joe White and James Holton, president of real estate development firm Holton Companies. Beyrouti sits on the board of directors for both Space Florida and Enterprise Florida, the state’s job incentives arm currently under fire by the Florida Legislature. Baker, who serves as president of the Edwards Group, is also seen as a potential candidate this year for his old job as St. Petersburg mayor.

As owner of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Edwards is behind the latest effort to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to St. Petersburg. Edwards will be covering the entire cost of a May 2 special election to vote for giving the St. Pete City Council the authority to negotiate a long-term use agreement for Al Lang Stadium, home of the Rowdies and a key part of bringing MLS to the city.

Although Scott cannot run for re-election, many consider him a likely candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018 against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. According to the Florida Division of Elections, Let’s Get to Work raised nearly $1.7 million in January.

RSVPs are through Debbie Aleksander at 850-339-8116 or Debbie@flfstrategies.com.

Jeff Brandes and Kathleen Peters file legislation to limit the release of sewage discharges

Following the dumping of millions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay, Clam Bayou and other waterways by local governments in 2016, two state lawmakers filed legislation Thursday to incentivize local governments and private utilities to dedicate more resources to improving their sewage infrastructure.

St. Petersburg state Senator Jeff Brandes and Pasadena Representative Kathleen Peters‘ bill (SB 1476) creates within the state Environmental Regulation Commission, the Blue Star Collection System Assessment and Maintenance Program to limit the unauthorized releases or spills of treated or untreated wastewater and the unauthorized discharge of pathogens. 

“This legislation gives utilities an incentive to improve their infrastructure assets and prevent harmful discharges into our waterways,” said Brandes. “With this bill we are able to recognize those utilities that implement industry best practices and encourage continued upgrades to limit future discharges.”

“I have given my commitment to working on solutions for Florida as they relate to our sewer systems,” added Peters. “I believe this bill is a first step to ensure our public and private utilities are operating optimally state wide and an effort to prevent another storm from resulting in more overflows or dumping.”

Certification under the program requires a utility to engage in detailed assessments of their sewer infrastructure, reinvest resources into maintenance, identify strategies to improve infrastructure to meet state requirements, as well as several additional requirements. To incentivize participation in the program, the department may reduce penalties for a future sewer overflow based on a utility’s status as a Certified Blue Star Utility. The bill allows financially constrained counties to apply grants to implement the requirements of the Blue Star certification. The bill also authorizes existing grant funds to assess the vulnerability of wastewater infrastructure to identify needed improvements to prevent future discharges and overflows.

Peters has also filed legislation requesting $5.5 million for sewer improvements in St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach. Of that, $3 million in state funding would be earmarked for St. Petersburg to smoke test sewer pipes for leaks, install and seal manholes, among other work. The remaining $2.5 million would go to St. Pete Beach for the engineering, construction and permitting of the city’s sanitary sewer system. There is no Senate companion for that yet.

Sewer systems in South Pinellas were the focus of extensive news coverage last year after the repeated sewage discharges into Tampa Bay by local governments. St.Pete’s sewage system discharged more than 200 million gallons of waste into waterways, roadways and neighborhoods in the over the past two years.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has pledged to spend $304 million to fix the city’s sewers by 2021.

Charlie Crist calls for Jeff Sessions to resign after reports of meeting with Russian ambassador surface

St. Petersburg Democratic Representative Charlie Crist is calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, a day after published reports surfaced that Sessions met twice with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. during the president campaign last year, and yet said last month that he had not done so.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that one of the meetings between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race. Sessions did not disclose those meetings during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he was asked about ties between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin.

“As the former Attorney General of Florida, I find Attorney General Sessions’ actions inexcusable, and call for his immediate resignation. How can we have faith that the duties of the office of the Attorney General will be carried out when the chief legal officer of the country doesn’t tell the truth under oath to the United States Congress,” said Crist. “It is clear that we need to establish an independent, 9/11-style commission to investigate this administration’s Russian connections. The American people demand answers, and we have a responsibility to get to the truth of this Russian imbroglio.”

Crist had previously said that there should be a 9/11-style commission to investigate potential ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Earlier on Thursday, the man Crist lost to in the race for U.S. Senate in 2010, Marco Rubio, would not even go as far as to say that Sessions should recuse himself from any investigations regarding the potential Russian-Donald Trump campaign connection.

“We’re not at that stage yet,” Rubio said speaking with Steve Inskeep Thursday morning on NPR’s Morning Edition. “Let’s take this one step at a time, but this is certainly a relevant story. I want to learn more about it, and I want to learn more about it, and I want to hear from him directly.”

Vern Buchanan demands answers on VA drug thefts

Congressman Vern Buchanan Thursday demanded answers from the new Veterans Affairs secretary about the nationwide theft of opioids and prescription drugs intended to help suffering veterans.

In a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin, the Sarasota Republican wrote, “I’m concerned that Florida veterans may be at risk following press reports of a shocking spike in drug thefts at VA health facilities across the country.”

“The perpetrators are stealing directly from veterans who need help,” Buchanan wrote. “In addition, those VA employees may be using the stolen drugs at work, endangering the veterans they’re supposed to be caring for.”

A former VA employee in Baltimore was sentenced to 39 years in prison for causing a Hepatitis C outbreak after stealing a powerful painkiller intended for patients headed into surgery. After injecting the narcotic into himself, the employee refilled the same needle with saline solution and injected it into veterans. The employee had Hepatitis C and exposed more than 150 veterans to the deadly disease.

The Associated Press reported that drug loss or theft at federal hospitals, 98 percent of which are VA facilities, increased tenfold between 2009 and 2015 nationwide.

The VA’s inspector general has pointed to over 100 open investigations around the country.

The reports of missing prescriptions and opioids at VA hospitals come in the midst of a national crisis – drugs now kill more Americans than car accidents annually.

Charges have also been brought in VA drug theft cases across the country, including in Utah, Arkansas, New York, Rhode Island and California according to The Associated Press.

Buchanan specifically asked that the VA disclose how many facilities in Florida experienced drug theft and loss; which facilities were hit; the type and quantity of missing drugs; what the street value of the missing drugs was; how many Florida VA employees were involved, what had been done to discipline these employees and, most importantly, how many veterans were affected by the drug losses.

Buchanan urged the VA to thoroughly and swiftly discipline anyone responsible for the missing drugs. VA employees have been disciplined in roughly 3 percent of reported missing drug cases, according to the AP. Specifically, there were over 11,000 occurrences of drug theft or loss reported over the last six years – during which only 372 VA employees were disciplined for a drug or alcohol-related incidences.

“VA employees who are using, pocketing or trafficking prescriptions meant for our veterans must answer for their actions,” Buchanan said.

The congressman has been an active leader in addressing the opioid crisis in Florida. Last May, Buchanan chaired a hearing examining the impact of addiction on kids. He also hosted a roundtable in Bradenton. with local police officers, medical professionals and stakeholders. Buchanan also chaired a meeting of the bipartisan 29-member Florida congressional delegation in Washington, DC where members heard testimony from anti-drug experts. Buchanan serves as co-chair of the Florida delegation.

In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration adopted Buchanan’s proposal to make it more difficult for abusers to obtain certain highly addictive narcotics.

Full text of the letter can be found below:

Toddler dies after hours in hot car parked outside Tampa day care

A 2-year-old boy died after his half-sister left him in a hot car parked outside a Tampa-area day care for several hours while the girl was working, a law enforcement spokesman said Wednesday.

Hillsborough County Sheriff deputies were called to the Oak Park Shopping Center Tuesday at 2:40 p.m. at the corner of W. Lumsden Road and Kings Avenue in Brandon.

They were responding to a child found locked in an unattended vehicle, said Det. Larry McKinnon, a representative for the HCSO.

McKinnon told FloridaPolitics.com paramedics rushed Jacob Manchego to Brandon Regional Hospital, where the boy later died.

“We’ve told the public for years about the dangers of leaving small children and animals in hot cars, but we continue to see it happen,” he said. “We have a responsibility to protect our children, so we have to charge people in these cases even though they didn’t intentionally mean to do it.”

Fiorella Vanessa Silva-Tello, Manchengo’s 21-year-old half-sister, arrived for work at the BFF Kidz Child Care Center at 733 West Lumsden Road with Jacob in the back of the SUV she was driving, a police report noted.

Detectives are actively investigating Silva-Tello and any other potential witnesses, along with gathering physical evidence. No charges have been filed against the young woman so far, as the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office continues their portion of the inquiry.

Investigators will be reviewing the prior history of the child, including any calls for service at the residence, McKinnon said.

“In this case, a mother lost her 2-year-old son to her 21-year-old daughter and it’s a terribly sad situation,” the detective said.

He further noted investigators were trying to determine whether Manchego was enrolled at the day care or why he was in the car in the first place.

“That’s all being examined right now and we’re not going to leave any stone unturned,” he said.

In 2015 the Florida state legislature passed a bill — known as the Good Samaritan Law — protecting citizens from lawsuits when they break windows open to cars to free children or pets trapped in overheated cars to save their lives.

Pinellas GOP chief Nick DiCeglie confirms he will run for Florida House

Nick DiCeglie confirmed Wednesday he is running for House District 66 in 2018.

The Pinellas County Republican Party Chairman will make a formal announcement sometime this spring. 

When asked if he would run for office, DiCeglie told FloridaPolitics.com: “I’m really focused right now on my duties as chairman.”

But with nearly a year and a half before the GOP primary, DiCeglie is in no hurry to file.

“I certainly would like to make an official announcement in the next several months,” he said.

A Long Island, New York native who moved to Pinellas County in 1996, DiCeglie owns Solar Sanitation, a Clearwater-based trash removal and recycling company.

He was elected Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee chair in 2014 after defeating two other challengers to take the take the reins.

In January, DiCeglie was elected to serve as Republican Party of Florida caucus chair, leading all 67 county GOP leaders statewide.

The news comes as another Pinellas Republican, Berny Jacques, made it official Wednesday that he will also seek the House District 66 seat in 2018.

HD 66, which encompasses Clearwater, Largo, Seminole and Belleair, is currently occupied by term-limited Larry Ahern.

Berny Jacques announces his candidacy for HD 66 seat in Pinellas County

Former Pinellas County Assistant State Attorney Berny Jacques announced today that he is running for the Florida House District 66.

The seat is currently occupied by Republican Larry Ahern, who is term-limited from running again.

“I’ve had the great privilege of serving this area as a prosecutor, in community service groups, and as a grassroots conservative leader. As a proud first generation American, I’ve been fortunate to achieve the American Dream because of the opportunities available in our great state,” says Jacques, a Haitian native.

“My reason for running is simple: I am running because I’m passionate about public service, and I want to protect the opportunities that I had growing up. I believe that Pinellas County is a unique place of opportunity and must be protected! Protecting our quality of life, enhancing our schools, and growing jobs will be my focus in Tallahassee.”

The 29-year-old Jacques was =raised in Haiti until 1994, when at the age of seven his family sought asylum in the U.S. after political violence erupted in the country. He relocated to Immokalee, Florida.

In aninterview with SPB last month, Jacques spoke fondly of how hard his parents worked when they came to the U.S.

“They had to work hard to put their children in a better position,” he said. “And to see me go to college and graduate and become an attorney all within their lifetime, I mean, that’s a strong testament to what this nation has to offer, and I think that’s made possible by a free enterprise system that capitalizes on people’s desire to work hard.”

He’s a graduate of Washington Adventist University and received his J.D. from Stetson Law School. He then served as an Assistant State Attorney, working with local law enforcement and domestic violence victims. Now he works in private practice with the St. Petersburg law firm of Berkowitz and Myer.

Since coming to Pinellas County in 2009, he’s been extremely active in the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee.  He served as president of the Pinellas County Young Republicans, established the Young Floridians for Opportunity PAC, currently serves as a member of the Sheriff’s Advisory Board, and mentors at-risk youth in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

HD 66 encompasses Clearwater, Largo, Seminole and Belleair.

Newsprint vendor sues Tampa Bay Times over defaulted $340K debt

A newsprint vendor is suing the Tampa Bay Times, claiming the paper owes more than $340,000 in debt from the acquisition of the Tampa Tribune last year.

Emails submitted in the suit show a story of increasing disarray with vendors at the 121-year-old Trib leading up to the May 2016 purchase.

In April 2015, the Tribune issued a promissory note to Boise Packaging acknowledging an unpaid debt of nearly $600,000 for newsprint. Boise Packaging is a subsidiary of Packaging Corporation of America, an Illinois-based manufacturer of corrugated boxes and paper products.

The note came about three years after Revolution Capital Group, led by Robert David Loring Jr., purchased the struggling paper for $9.5 million.

Court records show the Tribune agreeing to weekly payments until the debt was clear. Boise’s credit manager Steve Grant, in a series of emails in 2015, communicated with Revolution Capital chief financial officer Stanley Huang about the Tribune’s unpaid debt.

On June 8, 2015, Grant wrote to Huang: “My patience has run out. Last chance to begin paying $10,000 a week without fail. Failure to do so will result in legal action. The ball is in your court.”

Huang responded with several excuses — including the postponed sale of the Tribune’s headquarters and unexpected employee health-insurance claims — for the paper’s failure to make payments.

“I can definitely appreciate and understand your frustration,” Huang responded. “To be honest, you weren’t at the bottom of the list. There were other current vendors that didn’t get paid this week. The medical claims typically come in around $50K a week, but this week it skyrocketed to $110K and ate up all the availability we had on paying vendors.”

“I wish people didn’t get sick and we didn’t have to pay these medical costs that just automatically get drawn,” said Huang’s email of June 26. “I don’t ever call in sick and rarely do I go to the doctor so I wonder where do all of these medical claims come from.”

“Hopefully you won’t find a lawsuit necessary,” Huang said.

Nevertheless, when the Tampa Bay Times took over the Tribune, it was with a stock deal in which the Times assumed the Trib’s liabilities.

By then, the Tribune owed Boise $403,773, plus interest.

Soon after, Times chief financial officer Jana Jones promised Grant the paper would set up a repayment plan, saying the previously agreed upon arrangement “is likely to work for us as well.”

A May 26 email from Jones acknowledges the Times acquired the debt to Boise Packaging, asking for a few weeks to set up a new plan.

“Things haven’t really settled down … it is very busy,” she wrote. “In addition to the systems/operations integration, we are still untangling all of the past due invoices from various vendors. Candidly, it’s taking longer than anticipated.”

However, Jones noted, the debt remained obligations of the Tampa Media Group.

“That company remains active,” she said. “We are not transferring obligations to Times Publishing Company.”

In July 2016, the Times promised Boise monthly payments ranging from $15,000 to $25,000 until December 2017, when the debt would be fully retired.

In the suit, filed Feb. 22 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, Boise claims the Times defaulted on the revised repayment plan, making only two such monthly payments.

A legal notice sent to Jones from Boise Packaging attorney Monica Cockerille points out that while the vendor did receive payments for July and August, they did receive one for September, and — at the time of the letter, Oct. 25 – no payment for October.

The suit, which names the Tampa Bay Times, Revolution Capital, and Tampa Media Group, is asking for $340,983 in unpaid principal, plus interest.

Charlie Crist to host first town hall meeting this Saturday

Charlie Crist will host his first town hall meeting as a member of Congress this Saturday in St. Petersburg.

The event will take place between 10:00 a.m and 12:00 p.m. at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Student Center (that’s at 200 6th Avenue South).

“My number one job is the be the voice of the people – hearing from my neighbors on issues of concern, advocating for the needs of our community, and providing updates on my work on behalf of Florida’s 13th district,” Crist said in a statement. “My constituents are my boss, and this town hall will be an open forum for Pinellas residents to share their views and priorities so I can better serve them in Washington.”

At a neighborhood meeting in South St. Petersburg last Saturday, Crist met with about 20 citizens and discussed local and federal issues. It was there that he said he would soon be announcing his first official town hall meeting since being elected in November.

The meetings seem to be an indication that Crist is now phasing into being “the people’s congressman” after a rocky first month in office that culminated a week ago with the announcement that he was divorcing his wife, Carole.

At that community meeting last week, two different citizens questioned his stance on issues such as the GOP’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and whether there should be an investigation into Donald Trump’s relationship with the Russian government. Crist said he had been clear on both issues – that he was against the repeal, and was calling for an independent, 9-11 type commission to investigate any potential Trump-Russia connection.

On Tuesday, Crist announced his support for a resolution of inquiry proposed by New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler that called on the Department of Justice to provide Congress with all information from any investigations into the president’s conflicts of interest, ethical violations and connections and contacts with Russia.

That proposal went down to defeat later in the day in a party-line vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

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