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Rick Mullaney on moderating the upcoming Al Lawson/Glo Smith debate

Though it’s somewhat under the radar since Corrine Brown lost the primary, there is a competitive election in Florida’s 5th Congressional District this year.

Tallahassee Democrat Al Lawson takes on Jacksonville Republican Glo Smith.

As compared to the primary, when candidates hustled around the east-west district to forums, joint candidate appearances are few and far between thus far in the general election period.

One notable opportunity, however, has been slated for such: the Southside Business Men’s Club has scheduled a debate between Lawson and Smith on Oct. 12 during the noon hour at the San Jose County Club in Jacksonville.

Moderating the non-televised event is Rick Mullaney, a former city general counsel, mayoral chief of staff, and mayoral candidate who now helms the Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute.

Mullaney expects the debate format to be familiar to those who have watched the seven televised debates from Jacksonville University over the last year and a half. There will be opening and closing statements, and alternating questions with each candidate given the opportunity to respond, in what Mullaney expects to be a “real discussion of policy” rather than politics.

And that “substantive” policy discussion will be tailored toward Northeast Florida concerns, including issues related to international trade and the dredging of the St. Johns River to deepen the port, issues related to the military (including Mayport), and issues related to transportation.

When asked if Smith had an advantage over Lawson based on locality, Mullaney conceded that was the case, but that’s “not an advantage that can’t be overcome,” lauding Lawson’s performance in the August primary debate at Jacksonville University.

Smith should, because she is from here, have an advantage talking about Northeast Florida issues, and she will need it; Lawson has proven to be the stronger fundraiser thus far, with deep bipartisan connections throughout the state.

If Lawson were to win in November, it creates a situation Mullaney says is “new for Jacksonville [after] more than two decades with Corrine Brown.”

It would be incumbent upon city insiders and leaders to bring Lawson up to speed quickly on local concerns, should he be elected, “working with him very closely” on important issues such as deepening the port.

Another challenge to be faced: no matter who wins in Congressional District 4 or Congressional District 5, the reality is two rookies are going to D.C.

Thus, “getting them off to a quick start” is necessary, with local leadership “working closely with both,” Mullaney said.

Orlando facing prospect of all-freshman lineup in Congress

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and her nearly 24 years in Congress – gone.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson and his nearly six years in Congress – gone.

U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster and his nearly six years in Congress – gone, moved to an outside district.

U.S. Rep. John Mica and his nearly 24 years in Congress – more at risk than he’s faced in more than a decade.

This year, Orlando is losing most and potentially all its seniority, experience, leadership and clout in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Whoever gets elected, the voters’ choices for change may wind up being for the better. And in the long run, who knows, at this point, how effective the new class might become?

But at first it could be like replacing an entire college basketball team starting lineup with freshmen for the coming year. And it’s not about wins or losses. At least in the short term, it’s about attracting Washington’s attention to Central Florida’s needs and priorities, and about finding and bringing federal money for such discretionary goodies as transportation improvements, veterans’ facilities, military simulation center support, social services’ grants, and college and university research funding.

Might Central Florida’s next congressional starting line-up be able to compete?

“It certainly might have a big effect when you lose so many people who are established in Washington and have been serving this area for at least some time,” said University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett. “How much it hurts will be determined by which party is in control of Congress. That’s going to play a big role.”

Technically, Orlando still has U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, the Rockledge Republican, assuming he wins re-election in Florida’s 8th Congressional District. But he’s always been first and foremost about the Space Coast, not the inland counties, though his district includes a sparsely-populated corner of Orange County.

Technically, Orlando may be picking up U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Flagler County Republican, whose newly-redrawn Florida’s 6th Congressional District, assuming he wins re-election, stretches into the northernmost Orlando suburbs in Volusia County. But his attention more likely would be focused east and north, from Daytona through St. Augustine, where his base always has been.

Technically, Orlando may be able to count on Webster, the Clermont Republican, assuming he wins re-election, because he’ll still be representing Orlando’s western-most suburbs in Lake County, if he’s elected in Florida’s 11th Congressional District. But he no longer has any responsibility toward Orlando voters. And any congressional clout Webster had was largely stripped away in 2015 anyway, after he first challenged John Boehner and then Paul Ryan for the house speakership. Insurgents who lose are not rewarded with shared power.

That leaves Mica, the Winter Park Republican who is the only Orlando-oriented member of Congress with a chance to still be in office next year. Suddenly he is getting a stiff challenge from Stephanie Murphy in a race the national Democrats are trying very hard to win, for Florida’s 7th Congressional District seat representing north Orange County and Seminole County. A poll commissioned by Democrats last week showed her in the margin of error against him.

Mica, first elected in 1992, is almost a poster child for how a member of Congress grows in power with seniority, key committee assignments, and longterm relationships, and using them to bring federal support for his district. SunRail, the Interstate 4 expansion, Orlando International Airport expansions, the Orlando Veterans Administration Medical Center, Orlando’s National Center for Simulation, and other Orlando projects have gotten federal approval and money, due in part to his his connections, and in part to his work with Brown, Grayson, and Webster, who had their own clout.

Mica makes congressional seniority and the power that comes with it a key part of his campaign message.

“I do have a senior position in Congress and because there are 435 members it takes many years to gain positions of importance,” he said.

Mica offers another advantage, as big brother to the new members of Congress. Orlando will have two freshmen for sure, either Democratic state Sen. Darren Soto or Republican businessman Wayne Liebnitzky in Grayson’s old Florida’s 9th Congressional District; and either Democratic former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings or retired businesswoman Thuy Lowe in Webster’s old Florida’s 10th Congressional District. Brown’s entire district is gone. First her district was pulled from Orlando in last year’s redistricting, then she lost her primary.

Statewide, there will be at least seven freshmen, out of 27 Florida members of Congress.

“If I’m re-elected one of the things I’m going to work with both Republicans and Democrats in my position – I’m fairly well respected – to help them get on committees that they want. Eventually they will benefit our community and our state, and of course our country too,” Mica said. “That’s one of my goals: to help place and mentor the new kids on the block.”

But there’s that word “if,” which seemed unnecessary and modest until recently, though Mica always says he never takes re-election for granted.

Mica also has political policy positions and records, particularly conservative views on social issues, which Murphy and the Democrats are portraying as out of step with the changing, younger, more diverse, more Democratic new CD 7, which covers much of north Orange County and all of Seminole County.

Murphy is asking voters to trade Mica’s seniority and experience for fresh ideas and more liberal policies. National Democrats are investing millions of dollars to help her knock off Mica. A recent poll – commissioned by Democrats – showed the race within the margin of error.

She also says that Congress simply doesn’t work anymore, adding that Mica votes with the Republican line 97 percent of the time. So his seniority is partisan, she said.

“I think seniority is important if you are willing to work across the aisle in a bipartisan manner and actually lead on issues,” she said.

She dismissed any notion that the next class of Orlando members of Congress would lack experience.

“I have deep experience in business, in national security and academia and I would be able to draw on those real-world experiences to bring fresh perspectives to Congress, and a willingness to work across the aisle to get things done,” Murphy said. “I’m excited about the prospect of having a trio of members of Congress representing the Orlando area who will be a powerhouse representing the area with fresh new ideas that actually represent the people as opposed to being very partisan.”

Meanwhile, Orlando leaders are bracing for changes that are likely to require them to start over in building relationships with member of Congress, whether Mica or Murphy wins. The lobbyists and institutional leaders across the region insist they play no political or partisan favorites – they just want someone they can talk to who can get things done.

“We’ve been very fortunate in terms of the team we have there, not just who’s there, but the length of them they’ve had there, and their abilities to be effective. I’m very mindful about the changes that might take place. I’ve had discussions with board members about what that might mean,” said Harry Barley, executive director of MetroPlan Orlando, Central Florida’s transportation planning agency.

He noted both Brown and Mica have had senior positions on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, saying, “They’ve worked well together over the years. I’m not sure they’ve agreed on anything other than transportation. But that’s been a very great team. They’ve both been very, very helpful to us.”

Michael Waldrop, chair of Orlando’s Veterans Advisory Council, said the issue is making sure the new members of Congress are willing to work together to forward veterans’ and defense concerns, which he said must be non-partisan matters.

“You would hope a newer delegation that represents us in Central Florida realizes this and if they can work together on any one or two topics then it is the defense of our nation nd supporting our veteran community,” he said.

UCF Senior Vice President Dan Holsenbeck, who has overseen the university’s lobbying for decades, said there is reason to be concerned, but ultimately reasons to be hopeful.

“Seniority is the way you get a principal voice in budgeting, the way you get access to make meaningfully comments on policy,” Holsenbeck said. “So if you lose your seniority in the eleciton, then it does have a significant impact on policy and budgeting, on persuasion opportunities.”

But, he added, new relationships eventually lead to new opportunities.

“We’ve done very well over the years, our president and others, to build new relationships,” he said. “That would be our challenge, to build new relationships of trust and support for UCF.”

Will Marco Rubio and Patrick Murphy debate in Jacksonville?

The Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute, in conjunction with WJXT-TV, has hosted a number of meaningful debates in the last couple of years.

Candidates for mayor and sheriff have debated at the private university, as have candidates for state attorney and the United States Congress.

Now, the non-partisan Public Policy Institute wants the two major party candidates for the United States Senate to debate.

So far, one of them (Marco Rubio) has confirmed a willingness to debate. And the Public Policy Institute has indicated a willingness to set a date that works for both campaigns.

PPI director Rick Mullaney extended an invitation to Rubio and Rep. Patrick Murphy to a televised debate before the election.

Mullaney, a veteran of politics himself, understands the nature of political scheduling, and he’s said that the broadcast partners would be “flexible” on the date.

Murphy, thus far, has not responded to the invitation, but Mullaney is “hopeful” that response will come and will be affirmative.

We have reached out to the Murphy campaign for status on this also.

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It is worth noting that, at least in terms of local and regional races, debates held at Jacksonville University have shifted electoral narratives.

The pivotal third debate between Lenny Curry and Alvin Brown certainly contributed to a changing of the guard in Jacksonville’s City Hall.

And the sole televised debate between Corrine Brown and Al Lawson saw the incumbent congresswoman become unhinged, comparing the federal charges against her to unfounded claims of sexual deviance among the media.

Rubio and Murphy, both careful and polished public speakers, undoubtedly would avoid such pyrotechnics.

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That being said, a debate between these candidates would certainly help to educate Northeast Florida voters on these two candidates.

Rubio, who had strong support among Jacksonville’s establishment during his campaign for United States President, is a known quantity regionally.

Murphy has had, thus far, less exposure in Northeast Florida.

This debate could change that.

If it happens.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

Al Lawson’s financial disclosure shows lobbying pays well

It looks quite possible that Democrat Al Lawson, who dispatched incumbent Corrine Brown in the primary in Congressional District 5, will win the election against Republican Glo Smith in the end.

With that in mind, a review of Lawson’s financial disclosure form shows if Lawson does go to Washington, he’s going to lose out on a number of lobbying and consulting gigs that pay more than $5,000 a year.

Lawson consults for SGS Technologic in Jacksonville, Florida State University, Ballard Partners, and Citiworks.

The candidate lobbies, meanwhile, for Excellence in Education, Charter Schools USA, Accolite (an Indian company that handles IT needs for healthcare companies), and the Leon and Gadsden County boards of county commissioners.

Beyond that money, Lawson made over $200,000 last year, the bulk of it from commission sales related to health care companies.

This year, he made somewhat over $75,000 as of the May 19 filing.

Beyond those gigs, Lawson has interests in a number of rental properties — both commercial and residential.

For each of his three properties, he had derived $5,001 to $15,000 of income up until May.

Lawson seems to be a careful investor, and his assets dwarf his liabilities.

He owed, as of May, under $15,000 on his mortgage, and had two lines of credit: one with Bank of America, between $15,001 and $50,000; and a credit card with a balance between $10,000 and $15,000.

Meanwhile, Glo Smith’s financial disclosure has not been filed for 2016 yet; she says she will have it in later Monday.

‘Woman of integrity’ Corrine Brown seeks ‘legal defense’ funds

Rep. Corrine Brown has a message for her supporters: send money now!

To that end, a new website reflects the new operational reality for the 23-year congresswoman, whose last election likely was the Aug. 30 primary she lost to Al Lawson in Florida’s 5th Congressional District.

The Corrine Brown Legal Defense Trust is “under construction,” a cyberspace synecdoche for her defense efforts themselves, which have exhausted the efforts of three sets of lawyers, and now are being handled by Orlando barrister James Smith, who is adamant the case will not be plea bargained, but instead will go to trial.

“They redrew my district in order to make it harder for me to be re-elected. Then sadly, on July 8, 2016, I was falsely accused by the federal government. It is not a coincidence that these charges were filed immediately prior to my Aug. 30 Primary Election, which I ultimately lost. I am a woman of integrity and I categorically deny the charges,” Brown writes.

“I am fighting the Department of Justice, which has unlimited resources. They have smeared my good name. They are trying to take my freedom. I am asking for your help to fight these false charges. On this website, you can make a donation to my legal defense fund. Any contribution would be greatly appreciated,” Brown added.

Unlike with campaigns, there is no cap on “legal defense” contributions.

Offered on the page: a testimonial to Brown’s help sending 22 children to China in 2015. It’s notable that the trip doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with One Door for Education, the charity that prosecutors say was a slush fund for Rep. Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons.

In 2015, the last year for which financial disclosure data has been filed for Brown, she took in $65,500 for her legal defense fund.

The next court date for Brown and Simmons’ defense lawyers is Oct. 25, although neither defendant is required to be present.

Status conference set for Oct. 25 in Corrine Brown, Ronnie Simmons trial

Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, are staring down 24 counts for fraud and misrepresentation related to the One Door for Education charity.

And now, they are staring down a status conference, slated for Oct. 25 at 2 p.m. at Jacksonville’s federal courthouse.

Neither Brown nor Simmons have to attend.

Counsel for the defendants and prosecutors have already agreed to push the trial back to February 2017, with defense counsel noting the voluminous discovery burden — encompassing 77,000 pages of documents.

While defense lawyers agree on the proposed trial commencement term, there may be divergence on strategy.

Simmons’ lawyer, Anthony Suarez, has noted the very good likelihood of a plea deal being the final resolution of the case.

Brown’s lawyer, James Smith, is opposed to such a plea deal.

More will be learned Oct. 25, if not before then, in a trial that has been flush with procedural moves but bereft of meaningful progress since the July 6 indictment was served.

Coherence emerges in Corrine Brown’s defense strategy?

At long last, a coherent defense strategy in the One Door for Education case — one that sees Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, as co-defendants — is taking shape.

Brown and Simmons both — as has been amply documented — have had difficulties retaining counsel in their case, which involves 24 counts of allegations that the One Door charity was a slush fund for Simmons and Brown, rather than a legitimate charitable endeavor, with counts relative to fraud, misrepresentation, failure to disclose earnings, and so on.

Demonstrated last week was, at long last, a commitment to a strategy to push the case forward, a commitment that never was officially in doubt in the courtroom of Judge James Klindt, but was doubted by some outside that space.

Evidence of the strategy and the continued harmony of the alleged co-conspirators was presented last week, via a joint filing signed by defense and prosecution attorneys that seeks to set meaningful deadlines in the case after they were “vacated” as the defendants “attempted to secure legal representation.”

With legal representation secured, and with the burden of discovery cited by Brown’s lawyer James Smith, the desire was to move the trial into the February trial term (which was what Suarez had told media he wanted, even while Smith suggested a springtime date would be more ideal).

If the February schedule is adopted by the court, the pre-trial action in the case would happen this fall.

All discovery and dispositive motions would be completed by the end of October, with motion hearings completed by early December 2016.

One of the reasons for the extended timeframe of this case cited in the filing: “the number of witnesses” set to testify, “many of those traveling from outside the Middle District of Florida.”

Conceptually, a February trial date will help facilitate such travel.

Despite the delayed trial (compared to early expectations the trial could take place during election season, a concern rendered moot in light of the electoral result Aug. 30), there are still factors to watch going forward.

One such: the divergence in strategies between Brown and Simmons’ defense lawyers.

Smith, on behalf of Brown, adamantly stated there would not be a plea deal after his client’s hearing last week.

Suarez, on behalf of Simmons, cheerfully opined that 95 percent of all cases are settled with plea deals.

There also, in terms of Smith’s defense of Brown, is another factor worth watching: “Volunteer” lawyer on Team Corrine, Natalie Jackson, recently suspended by the Florida Bar and facing money troubles, including a foreclosure auction later this month.

Speculation will, no doubt, swirl about the trial in the weeks ahead.

However, there is a chance Brown’s last few months in office, though pre-trial motions and such will be worth watching, may be surprisingly drama-free.

Financial troubles mount for ‘volunteer’ lawyer linked to Corrine Brown defense

In the federal courthouse WednesdayNatalie Jackson was responsible for getting the business cards of every media member and generally letting the press know the legal team representing Rep. Corrine Brown was accessible and willing to talk about the case.

Jackson was represented as a colleague of James Smith, the sole attorney of record in the Brown case, but she was not attorney of record … which raised questions among the media as to what her exact role was at the defense table.

It seems some answers surfaced between Wednesday’s court date and Thursday.

News 4 Jax reports that Jackson was recently suspended by The Florida Bar. Her infraction?

In May, Jackson was “suspended in connection with financial mismanagement of a trust fund for clients.”

That financial mismanagement, the report claims, resulted from overdrafts of the trust fund.

From there, an investigation revealed flawed record keeping, including transaction receipts, and overdrafts that extended as high as $2,406 at one point.

Jackson is no longer suspended by The Florida Bar.

However, there will be those who note, with some sense of irony, a lawyer involved in a case predicated on flawed record keeping has her own history on that front.

For her part, Jackson represents herself as a volunteer on the case.

Jackson’s issues with the Bar are not her only worries, however.

FloridaPolitics.com has learned Jackson has had tax troubles dating back to 2007, with liens totaling $39,254.

As well, a foreclosure auction on her home in Orlando is possible later this month.

Unless Jackson pays up $474,175.72 by Sept. 26, her home will be auctioned to the highest bidder.

This would, for some, raise questions as to why she’s doing volunteer work when she’s a half-million dollars in the red.

James Smith is latest Corrine Brown lawyer; trial likely delayed until 2017

The big reveal from Wednesday’s hearing for Corrine Brown included a new defense lawyer, and likely a new trial date.

Despite the fact that Congresswoman Brown’s political career appears to be over, she and key exponents of her political machine still have a show to put on in federal court.

To get there, however, hurdles have to be hopped.

Among those was who will represent the congresswoman in court?

Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons was allowed to keep his lawyer as of Wednesday morning. This, despite judicial and prosecutorial protestations that his Orlando barrister had a conflict of representation that possibly could preclude effective representation.

A question still remained. Who would represent Rep. Brown in the One Door for Education trial? Her previous attorneys walked off the case, citing an unworkable atmosphere of “distrust.”

On Wednesday, shortly before her 3 p.m. hearing, a notice of appearance was filed for James Smith, an Orlando attorney.

Smith, a former Army JAG lawyer and FAMU law professor, has almost seven years of experience as a federal public defender.

Smith confirmed he is on this case for the duration.

The hearing Wednesday addressed various housekeeping matters, including disclosure of Brady materials and a protective order from July.

The big question: would the trial start as scheduled in November?

Simmons’ attorney, said Judge James Klindt, wanted to push the trial back to the first quarter of 2017.

“I wouldn’t take it off the November calendar,” Klindt said, but added that a status conference Oct. 11 at 2 p.m. might be the occasion for pushing the trial back as the co-defendant’s lawyer wanted.

Smith stated he preferred a trial in the first quarter of 2017 — then after the hearing amended that, saying “sometime in early spring.”

The prosecution said, meanwhile, there was a “joint desire” for a February commencement.

After the hearing, material differences between the approaches of Smith on behalf of Brown and Anthony Suarez on behalf of Simmons were revealed almost instantly.

One major one: Suarez said “95 percent” of cases end in plea deals, implying that One Door for Education may end up that way. On the other hand, Smith flatly said “there’s not going to be a plea deal in this case.”

Another important one: while Suarez left open the possibility his client may be interested in a plea, Smith held firm.

“We emphatically deny all the charges,” Smith said, adding that “the timing of these charges influenced the election.”

Worth watching are further divergences between Brown and Simmons, which could become more apparent as their professional relationship (as congresswoman and chief of staff) runs its course by January.

Stakes are high for the co-defendants, who face 22 and 18 counts respectively of a total 24.

Brown faces a possible 357 years in prison and $4.8 million fine if all counts are found valid.

For Simmons, it would be as many as 355 years and $4.75 million, if guilty of all counts.

For now, the trial is left on the November calendar.

Ronnie Simmons’ lawyer sees ‘some weak spots’ in One Door for Education prosecution

There is a lot of uncertainty about the One Door for Education case, in which Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, are co-defendants.

As of Wednesday afternoon, it is still uncertain whether or not Brown has a lawyer.

That will be resolved, theoretically, by 3 p.m.

And it is still uncertain when this case, which now involves a sitting congresswoman without a campaign, will go to trial.

One thing is for sure, however; co-defendant Simmons does in fact have an attorney.

Overcoming objections posed by the prosecution and the judge, Simmons was allowed to retain Orlando barrister Anthony Suarez, in spite of Suarez having represented, on a “transactional” basis, one of the grand jury witnesses in this case: Orlando consultant/lobbyist LaVern Kelly.

Kelly essentially filled a role that Von Alexander did in Jacksonville for Rep. Brown, as a conduit between the congresswoman and her donor base.

After Wednesday’s hearing, Suarez talked with Jacksonville media about where he sees this case, including fielding questions on the likelihood of Simmons turning on his boss, Simmons’ beliefs of his own guilt or innocence in this matter, and why he doesn’t believe he can represent Simmons and Brown in tandem.

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Regarding the alleged conflict, Suarez had the following to say.

“I know the testimony [from Kelly]. I know what she said. If there had been a conflict,” Suarez said, “I wouldn’t have taken the case.”

While the charges his client faces — 18 counts unique to him, with a potential penalty of well over three centuries in prison if all are upheld in court — are “very serious,” Suarez wonders “do they have all the facts?”

Though most observers still envision the theatrics of a jury trial, Suarez notes that “95 percent” of cases — local, state, and federal — are “settled by plea.”

Suarez doesn’t know if this will be one yet or not, as 77,000 pages of “discovery is voluminous.”

“There are always possibilities for a plea deal,” Suarez said.

However, less possible: Simmons turning on Brown.

“I don’t see that as a possibility.”

Also an increasingly remote possibility is a trial anytime soon in this case.

Suarez’s best guess: February, which if that were the case, would push the trial into the next CD 5 congressperson’s term.

Simmons has told Suarez that he is innocent, and for his part, Suarez is confident.

“I know where the case is going to go,” Suarez said, and there are some “weak spots in the case” from the prosecutors.

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