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NTSB search resumes today for the sunken El Faro cargo ship

The National Transportation Safety Board is set to resume its search today for the critical data recorder from the sunken El Faro cargo ship.

The 790-foot freighter sank during Hurricane Joaquin on Oct. 1, 2015, after leaving JAXPORT in Jacksonville, bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico. All 33 of the El Faro’s crew died at sea.

The NTSB says purpose of this second search is not only to find the ship’s vessel data recorder, but also better document the wreckage to help determine exactly why and how the ship sank.

In addition to navigational data, the ship’s so-called “black box” also contains voice data.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee which oversees the NTSB, has been vocal about the need to keep searching.

“Finding the El Faro’s missing data recorder is critical to understanding what went so tragically wrong that day,” Nelson said in a statement. “We owe it not only to the families of the lost mariners aboard the El Faro but to the future safety of all those who travel on the high seas to understand what happened and what we can do to ensure that it never happens again.”

The latest search effort will begin Monday when a “research vessel” departs from Charleston, S.C., and heads to the wreckage site near the Bahamas.

Reggie Fullwood indicted on federal fraud charges

A state representative from Jacksonville has been indicted on charges he used more than $65,000 in campaign contributions on personal expenses like liquor, jewelry, flowers and groceries, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville announced Friday.

The indictment says Democratic Rep. Reggie Fullwood of Jacksonville funneled about $65,000 from his campaign account through a business account and then spent it on himself. He is charged with 10 counts of wire fraud and four counts of failing to file tax returns.

If convicted, he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for each count of wire fraud and a year for each count of filing to file.

“Public officials, whether elected or appointed, hold positions of trust in the eyes of the public. That trust is broken when these officials commit crimes,” Internal Revenue Service special agent Kim Lappin said in a press release announcing the indictment. “No public official gets a free pass to ignore the tax laws.”

Fullwood didn’t immediately reply to a message left at his office. He didn’t answer multiple calls to his cellphone and his voice mailbox was full and couldn’t take messages.

According to the indictment, Fullwood said that once money was transferred to his business account, he used an ATM card issued to his business at restaurants, grocery stores, retail stores, jewelry stores, florists, gas stations, liquor stores and cash machines.

It says he submitted fraudulent campaign finance reports with inflated or non-existent campaign expenses in order to cover up the personal expenses.

Fullwood, 41, was first elected in 2010 and temporarily left office after failing to qualify for the ballot in the 2014 election. He returned to office after a special election in 2015.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, in a statement released by his office, called the charges “serious.”

“Rep. Fullwood has been indicted but has not had his day in court yet,” Crisafulli said. “These are serious charges that he must answer.”

Read the full indictment here. 

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Bob Graham to host free environmental advocacy webinar

Former Florida Governor and Senator Bob Graham will host a free environmental webinar next week for those interested in becoming politically engaged around environmental issues in the state.

The online event is in partnership with the group 1000 Friends of Florida, and is set for next Tuesday, April 10 at noon.

Billed as the state’s leading not-for-profit smart growth advocacy organization, 1000 Friends of Florida is engaged in “building better communities and saving special places in one of the fastest growing states in the nation.”

Graham, along with former Alvin Brown Chief of Staff Chris Hand and 1000 Friends of Florida President Ryan Smart, will discuss techniques “to upgrade the quality and impact of your advocacy to become a more effective champion for Florida’s natural resources.”

In recent years, Graham has become an increasingly vocal advocate for preserving Florida’s environment. (Not to mention making news of late with his thoughts on secret 9/11 records).

Graham and Hand, meanwhile, are the co-authors of America, the Owner’s Manual, which provides guidance on how to improve outcomes with government, and are releasing an updated version later this year.

The webinar invite calls upon participants by saying that “Floridians concerned about the deterioration of the physical environment and the negative impact on our quality of life need to speak directly and frankly to our elected leaders about doing a better job protecting Florida’s most important economic, environmental, and cultural assets.”

Jackie Robinson Day celebration, baseball game set for Jacksonville

A celebration at Jacksonville’s J.P. Small Memorial Stadium, which used to host the Negro League, is set for Wednesday afternoon to honor baseball great Jackie Robinson.

Jacksonville’s oldest publication targeted at the African-American community, the Florida Star, is also celebrating its 65th anniversary in conjunction with the Robinson celebration.

Robinson, of course, was the first African-American baseball player to take the field in Major League Baseball. He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15th, 1947.

Robinson played at the old stadium on Myrtle Avenue on the city’s Northwest Side in the Durkeeville neighborhood as a member of the Negro League. Other past Negro League players will be present at the event to autograph balls and pass on history, stories, and playing points.

And to add to the excitement, playing their first season game at the stadium will be Edward Waters College and Florida Memorial University, the two oldest HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in Florida.

Read this harrowing account to get an idea of the treatment Robinson faced at spring training in Jim Crow North Florida in the 1940’s.

Robinson is back in the national spotlight once again, of course, due to the well-received Ken Burns film on his life and enduring influence, which just aired on PBS.

Florida TaxWatch: “We need to look at statewide pension reform”

Pension reform (not just in Jacksonville, but statewide) was one of the hot topics at the Florida TaxWatch roundtable luncheon hosted by powerhouse legal firm Holland & Knight and attended by a local who’s who of players.

The forum, which also featured this website’s own A.G. Gancarski as a panelist, also touched on other issues ranging from economic opportunities for Florida in Cuba, to North Florida’s renewed muscle in Tallahassee.

“We have been calling for pension reform for more than a decade,” said Robert Weissert, Executive VP and Counsel to the President at Florida TaxWatch. Noting Mayor Lenny Curry‘s recent success in getting legislators to approve a referendum for Jacksonville voters that would extend the city’s half-cent sales tax to pay down massive pension debt, Weissert pointed out that statewide, unfunded pension liability is in the $11 billion range.

“We need to look at the statewide pension system itself.”

Holland & Knight’s executive partner Daniel Bean noted that Curry’s move to put the vote to a referendum in August, not November, brings with it pluses and minuses.

“It does present a time crunch,” Bean said, “but on the other hand, the November ballot will be long and complicated.”

In the crowd, Jacksonville City Councilman Matt Schellenberg, who told the group that “I don’t believe the sales tax extension is going to be a struggle,” and Aundra Wallace, who heads up the city’s Downtown Investment Authority.

Wallace pointed out that he was living in Detroit when that city went through bankruptcy. “This referendum passage will allow the city to prioritize what they want to get done.”

Linda Cunningham: Old people need a plan for ‘when it’s time’

Given our graying population and rising sea levels, Florida should be the role model for managing old people and coping with flooding backyards. We aren’t, though in fairness to Florida, neither is any other state.

Americans — outside of deep-thinking tank people — don’t talk about what the heck we are going to do with millions of old baby boomers arriving at the threshold of decrepitude with little more than a slimmed down Social Security check and an out-sized, erroneous belief that Medicare covers nursing homes.

Not that this should come as a surprise. Born between 1946 and 1964, 76.4 million baby boomers came of age believing they’d never get old, that trusting anyone over 30 was heresy and that because they were so special, there’d always be someone around to take care of them.

Boomers are the “me generation.” What’s good for one outweighs what’s good for the group, and if that means I get mine and you get nothing, well, too bad for you.

It’s a rigid, righteous, reactionary attitude that’s fueling the anger in the 2016 election cycle, though that and sea-level rise are stories for a different day.

Let’s stick with this old people theme for now. Florida knows old people. We’ve known old people since the 1930s when retiring in the Sunshine State became a “thing.” With the passage of the Homestead Exemption Act in 1934, followed shortly thereafter by Social Security checks in 1940, Florida ramped up tourist development and real estate developers paved over the Everglades.

Down came grannies and grandpops, shucking off the boots and coats of Midwestern winters and pulling their Lucy-and-Ricky-Ricardo Airstream trailers. A winter turned into a lifetime and Florida aged as rapidly as a Smithfield ham.

Florida is already considered the oldest state with 15 percent of its population 65-plus. Only Maine, Pennsylvania and West Virginia come close.

By 2025, 26 percent of Floridians will be 65 and older. The Villages, that stunning planned community of exotic golf carts and 24-7 entertainment for well-heeled boomers, is the fastest growing city in the state.

Seven in 10 boomers will need long-term care and 40 percent will need long-term nursing care. Neither Medicare nor private-pay medical insurance cover that so unless Florida boomers have bottomless bank accounts or kids with the will and the skills, there’s not much good news.

Actually, it’s worse than that. There is no good news. It’s all deplorably, horribly, depressingly bad news.

We could start building old people barracks today and still not be able to house and care for the old boomers banging on the doors. Anyone who has tried to find a place for an elderly parent in the past five years knows how bleak things are.

Key West is a city of aging boomers. We are the backbone of the arts and culture communities, the volunteer and nonprofit boards, the places of worship.

We pack the restaurants, marinas and fundraisers. And whether they were born here, arrived in the 1970s and stayed, or bought in a year ago, these boomers know one thing for sure: They are going to have to move “when the time comes.”

The health care, especially the kind that comes with assisted living and nursing homes and Alzheimer’s centers, does not exist in Key West. Public facilities are extremely limited; there are no private “retirement” centers; the closest big-city specialist care is in Miami, four hours away.

Unless one has the money to pay for private home care or has a family-and-friends support network, there is only one choice for Key West’s old boomers: move.

Over the next decade or so, that will change the face of Key West in ways we’ll be hard-pressed to recognize. That’s a lot of people, a lot of community and institutional memory and a lot of money that will leave the island, creating a void unlikely to be filled by Millennials or Xers, who can’t afford to buy in and for whom Key West is not a lifestyle choice.

It may not matter. About the time the last Key West boomer turns off the lights long about 2050, the island could be flooded almost to Solaris Hill. Sea level rise, remember?


Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, a digital solutions company for small businesses. And, yep, she’s got a plan for getting out of town “when it’s time.” Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Women’s rights groups to rally in Tally against alimony bill

A coalition of women’s groups including the National Organization for Women, the League of Women Voters, Breastfeeding Coalition, National Council of Jewish Women and UniteWomen FL will all rally in Tallahassee on Tuesday against Senate Bill 668, a family law measure awaiting Governor Rick Scott‘s signature.

The new statute would give judges a formula to use in deciding alimony payments in Florida and, more controversially, would specify a premise that a minor child should spend about equal amounts of time with each parent.

The Family Law Section of the Florida Bar supports the alimony portion of the bill, but not the child-sharing component.

The measure has generated both strong support – and opposition – as advocates on both sides await the governor’s decision.

“The media conference is being hosted to sway Governor Scott to veto this bill,” said Jacksonville family law attorney Heather Quick.

Speakers at the event, which begins at 10:45 a.m. on the steps between the new and old state Capitols, include Quick, NOW’s Barbara DeVane, and Polk County Judge Robert Doyel.

“Not only will alimony be affected by the proposed legislation, but also timesharing,” Quick said. “The bill is calling for a 50/50 timeshare split. This affects child support payments.  More timesharing equals less payments. Regardless if the child is more bonded with one parent over another, or if one parent works longer hours, or if the parent has emotional or substance abuse issues — there will be an equal split. The kids should have a say in whom they want to live with. And that person should be able to afford their clothing, food and activities.  We must ask ourselves ‘What is in the best interest of the child?’ “

Scott vetoed an earlier version of the proposal three years ago, but changes have been made to the legislation in the interim.

Audrey Gibson, Mia Jones both “absolutely” eyeing Corrine Brown’s CD 5 seat

Two potential heirs to the much-discussed 5th Congressional District long held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown have confirmed they are sizing up the seat should it become available.

“Absolutely,” said state Rep. Mia Jones, one of four veteran Jacksonville politicians seen as a viable contender to run in Brown’s stead. The others are former Jax Mayor Alvin Brown, state Sen. Audrey Gibson, and former state Sen. Tony Hill.

“I believe that you have to keep all options open, and it would definitely be something that I would consider doing,” Jones told WJCT.

Brown, of course, is dealing with both a federal investigation and an ongoing redistricting challenge.

Gibson, a member of the Senate redistricting committee and intimately familiar with the redrawn map and the process, said she’s also ready to vie for the congressional post.

“Yes, I would definitely consider running in that district,” Gibson said, while also pointing out much hinges on Brown’s fate and whether she decides to run in the redrawn CD 5.

“I believe that Jacksonville, Duval County is the anchor for that district. We have all of the business here, in fact, the entire economic development for CD 5 rests in Duval, and I think it’s critical that someone in Jacksonville be the representative.”

Gibson added that on Monday attorneys for Brown delivered more arguments in the redistricting case while all parties await a federal court ruling.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Texas redistricting case could be a potential setback for Brown’s argument that under CD 5’s new configuration, nonvoting prison inmates are counted in her district’s population, thus diluting the power of African-American voters.

The redrawn district has within its boundaries 18 state prisons, clustered mainly along the Interstate 10 corridor in North Florida.

Jac VerSteeg: Want a president from Florida? Don’t send Rick Scott to the Senate

It’s bugging me that Florida, now the third-most populous state, never has managed to get a Floridian elected president.

It looked like there was a great chance this year, with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio starting out as strong possibles. Even Ben Carson looked like he had a shot at one time. But each saw his candidacy collapse.

Donald Trump has deep Florida ties. The state could kind-of claim him if he were elected. But it’s not clear he could even carry Florida in the general election.

I’m not sure what needs to happen for a Floridian to be elected president. But I’m sure what should not happen. Do not elect Rick Scott to the U.S. Senate in 2018. He is virtually a conglomerate of all the weaknesses of this year’s Floridians who ran – plus Trump’s bad points.

More on that in a minute.

First, here are sad facts about Florida’s lack of a president. The two states above Florida in population and the five states below Florida all have sent men to the White House who were residents at the time of their election.

California has sent three (Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan). Texas has sent three (Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush).

Then comes Florida with zero, zip, nada.

New York has sent six (Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt). Illinois has sent three (Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Barack Obama).

Pennsylvania has sent one (James Buchanan). Ohio has sent six (William Henry Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding). Georgia has sent one (Jimmy Carter).

So what is Florida, chopped liver?

The best way for a modern politician to get elected president is to have a résumé that includes serving as a governor or as a member of Congress – preferably as a U.S. Senator.

You have to go all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower to find a president who wasn’t either a governor or member of Congress. Eisenhower, of course, represents the third-best way to become president: Be a national war hero. Changes in the nature of modern warfare make that avenue unlikely.

Although being a senator or governor is the best way to become a president, Florida has proved that serving in those positions is not sufficient to do the trick. Former Gov. Jeb Bush and current Sen. Marco Rubio both failed this year. And Bob Graham – who was both a governor and a senator – completely failed to stir significant national interest when he ran for president in 2004.

Were Scott to be elected to the Senate in 2018, he would be on track to share Graham’s sterling résumé. Even though Scott would be the state’s junior senator, he would be the state’s premier national politician.

But Scott would have zero chance of becoming the first Floridian elected president. Why? He shares the worst faults of all the Floridians who failed before him.

Scott is nerdy like Bush and Graham. Like many nerds, he is not a gifted public speaker.

But at least both Bush and Graham were accomplished nerds. They were policy wonks who truly understood how government works. Scott is more creepy-nerdy. Lacking a nerdy passion for policy, he has failed to put his stamp on the state.

Which means that, like Rubio, Scott’s ambition outruns his abilities. He is a creature of news releases and ribbon-cuttings. But what has he done? Where is the tax cut he championed this year? Where is the Seminole Compact he negotiated? Both failures. When you get down to it, Scott shares Rubio’s distaste for doing the hard work of government.

Then there’s the fact that Scott, like Trump, can claim the mantle of “Successful Businessman.” Perhaps that will become the new best way to be elected president.

Unfortunately, here again Scott shares the worst aspects of Trump’s claim to fame. Trump is under attack for multiple business failures, including bankruptcies and the allegations of scandal surrounding Trump University.

Scott never will be able to shake the taint from the $1.7 billion fine levied against his former company, Columbia/HCA, for Medicare fraud. He is Trump with all the sleaze but none of the marketing genius.

Now, none of this means that Scott can’t be elected to the Senate. He was, after all, elected governor twice.

But I am focused on finally getting a Floridian elected president. It doesn’t seem plausible to me that the candidates to replace Rubio in this year’s Senate race will be presidential material – at least anytime soon. (Can anybody even name the declared candidates without resorting to Google?)

The task, then, would be to find someone to send to the Senate with some pizazz, skill and national appeal. Such as … ?

What about the next governor? Well, Florida Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam might fill the bill. He was a high-ranking GOP member of the U.S. House before refocusing on state politics and his current position. Much would depend on his accomplishments were he to be elected governor in 2018.

But the end of Putnam’s potential first term is a long way away. There simply is no other Floridian on the horizon to replace Bush and Rubio as credible (once credible) presidential candidates.

Meanwhile, both the Democratic and Republican front-runners are from New York. It looks like the Empire State will get another president. And for the foreseeable future, Florida will remain the Chopped Liver State.

• • •

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is a columnist for The South Florida Sun Sentinel, former deputy editorial page editor for The Palm Beach Post, and former editor of Context Florida.

Linda Cunningham: Carry your gun almost anywhere – except near politicians

In the spirit of “we ain’t got the good sense God gave a goose,” we’re fixing to tar-and-feather poor “Jim,” the West Coast anti-gun guy who started that petition to allow folks to carry guns inside the arena at this summer’s GOP convention in Cleveland.

By the time Jim fessed up to being the creator, more than 52,000 people had signed the online petition, which Jim (he’s not giving his last name to interviewers) says was satire.

Now everyone’s mad at Jim. The gun lovers are mad because Jim was poking fun at them. The gun haters are mad because, well, because they got taken, too.

Me? I think Jim’s wicked smart. He got a ton of folks exercised — and made it abundantly clear that geese have more sense than Americans when it comes to guns. The Secret Service stepped in and did a bit of face-saving for the Republicans by saying “no guns” inside the arena in Cleveland.

That way the Republican National Committee and assorted candidates — gun lovers all — didn’t have to actually tell their minions to leave the guns at home, please.

The Democrats said they’d not planned on having guns anyway, which, I suspect, is not a surprise to anyone.

Why in the world are we mad at Jim? He’s just having some fun and making a point. Ought we not, instead, be wondering why our gun-carry laws make absolutely no sense? States, including Florida, are working at breakneck speed with their beloved NRA to make it perfectly permissible to casually carry – either openly or concealed — weapons everywhere people go.

The Florida Legislature missed by a heartbeat giving the go-ahead to campus carry this last session, despite the opposition of almost three of four state residents. But, don’t try to bring your gun to a meeting with those same legislators. They frown on armed constituents.

Here’s another good one from Florida. Back in 2012, when Tampa hosted the GOP national convention, the city banned masks, brass knuckles, clubs and water guns in the eight square miles around the convention center.

But, as the Tampa Bay Times reported at the time, Gov. Rick Scott said “no way” when Tampa asked for a temporary gun ban in the same area. Bring your water pistol; go to jail. Tote your loaded side arm? AOK, as long as you’ve got a permit.

It gets crazier because the state and federal legislators make sure no one’s carrying guns where they happen to be, but they work hard at getting guns in the hands of school teachers, on campus and in public gathering spots.

You cannot bring a gun to the U.S. Congressional offices or the Florida legislative venues. Wouldn’t be safe. Bringing them to Key West’s Smathers Beach on Spring Break? Well sure. What could possibly go wrong?

Two more for instances of geese-have-more-sense:

Ohio, where the brouhaha started over the GOP convention, traditionally has allowed you to walk around with a “long” gun slung over your shoulder pretty much anywhere and anytime you want. You don’t need a permit or license. Just grab you favorite rifle or shotgun and strut your stuff. You cannot do the same with a handgun. You’ll need a concealed handgun permit to strap on that bad boy before you can mosey around.

Except, of course, at the GOP convention. Apparently, you can stop in at the neighborhood coffee shop or saunter through assorted retail shopping areas, though we advise staying clear of schools, government buildings and places that sell alcohol.

In Pennsylvania, where the Democrats will do their thing in Philadelphia, as long as you have a permit to carry, you can wander the byways with your gun at will. It doesn’t matter whether you strap it across your shoulders or conceal it under your armpit.

And, here’s a delightful quirk in Pennsylvania law: There’s no law specifically banning open carry of weapons. That means as long as you keep the guns where they can be seen, you don’t need a permit to carry and you’re free to wander.

Except, of course, at the Democratic convention because the Secret Service isn’t going to allow guns there, either.


Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, a digital media solutions company for small businesses. The last thing Key West needs is gun-toting drunks on Duval Street. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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