Gov. Rick Scott Archives - Florida Politics

Rick Scott OKs emergency loans to cope with algae, red tide

Small businesses hurt by algae blooms and red tide can now apply to the state for emergency loans, Gov. Rick Scott‘s office announced Tuesday.

Scott activated the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program, which provides “short-term, interest-free loans to small businesses experiencing physical or economic loss.” The program is managed by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).

“Florida’s businesses are a large reason why our state is the best place in the country to live,” Scott said in a statement. “This program will help our business community recover from these emergencies.”

— Small businesses affected by blue-green algae in Glades, Hendry, Lee, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach, and St. Lucie counties may apply for assistance from today through Sept. 7.

— Small businesses affected by the red tide in Charlotte, Collier, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties may apply for assistance from today through Oct. 12.

The short-term, interest-free loans help ‘bridge the gap’ between the time damage is incurred and when a business secures other financial resources.

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For more information on the program, visit www.floridadisasterloan.org, call the Florida Small Business Development Center Network at (850) 898-3479 or email <Disaster@FloridaSBDC.org>. The phone line will be answered during regular business hours; all voicemails and emails will be responded to within 24 hours.

State has spent $2M on legal bills for medical marijuana

As it defends a slew of cases over medical marijuana, the state of Florida has spent close to $2 million on outside lawyers. Nearly all of that went to one firm.

Records reviewed last week show at least $1.9 million approved by the Department of Health (DOH) going to two law firms — mostly Vezina, Lawrence & Piscitelli, but also Shutts & Bowen.

The contracts, which were usually amended for increasing amounts of money, were posted on Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis‘ Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System, or FACTS. It’s an “online tool developed to make the government contracting process in Florida more transparent.”

Meantime, medicinal cannabis advocates – including Orlando lawyer John Morgan – have called on term-limited Gov. Rick Scott to drop appeals of cannabis-related rulings that went against the state. That includes a case that Morgan backed, challenging the state’s ban on smoking medical marijuana.

“Enough is enough, drop YOUR #MedicalMarijuana appeal,” Morgan said in a May 29 tweet that he has pinned to his Twitter page. “Do it for the PEOPLE!”

Paying big bucks for hired legal guns isn’t surprising: Under Scott “and other top Florida Republicans,” the state has “quietly spent more than $237 million on private lawyers to advance and defend their agendas,” the Associated Press reported last year.

That figure doesn’t include the nearly $16 million “Florida taxpayers have been forced to reimburse (for) opponents’ private attorney fees” when the state has lost, the AP said.

A request for comment with a Health Department spokesman was pending as of late Friday. It regulates the drug through its Office of Medical Marijuana Use.

Its director, Christian Bax, worked his last day Friday after tendering his resignation last month. Deputy director Courtney Coppola will serve as interim head. And the department’s general counsel, Nichole Geary, who signed the legal-work contracts, also has resigned. She leaves later this month.

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Contracts for outside legal work on medical marijuana begin in March 2015, with a $230,000 deal to the Vezina, Lawrence & Piscitelli law firm of Tallahassee, for “legal representation to DOH in a rule challenge.” Total paid: $219,568.09. 

Dahlia Barnhart, a then 4-year-old with a brain tumor, and her mother, Moriah Barnhart, challenged the department in order to “expedite … (patients’) access to low THC cannabis.”

This was before passage of the state’s constitutional amendment authorizing medical marijuana, but after lawmakers OK’d use of low-THC, or “non-euphoric,” marijuana to help severely ill children. THC is the chemical that causes the high from pot.

The state later expanded the use of medicinal marijuana through the “Right to Try Act,” which includes patients suffering intractable pain and loss of appetite from terminal illnesses.

The state won the case, with an administrative law judge finding among other things that the Barnharts alleged “insufficient facts … to show (Dahlia) would be substantially affected.”

Moriah Barnhart recently told the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau “she is still getting her daughter’s medical marijuana from out of state,” adding that she’s “never gotten a legal product from the state of Florida.”

The same law firm, in August 2015, also inked a contract eventually worth $1.275 million for “legal proceedings.” Total paid: $1,053,836.46.

Services include reviewing and analyzing files, attending meetings and preparing any court filings needed, the contract shows. For example, the firm has represented the state in administrative hearings on other medical marijuana rule challenges.  

Moreover, partner W. Robert Vezina III is listed as attorney of record for the department in an Okaloosa County lawsuit. That’s over whether a medical marijuana license preference for black farmers should include “Native American farmers and ranchers.”

The firm scored a third contract, similar to the second, worth a total of $700,000 in February 2017. Total paid: $540,721.34. 

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A fourth contract found on the FACTS system shows an August 2017 deal potentially worth $300,000 for the Shutts law firm, which has an office in Tallahassee. Total paid: $177,990.24. 

For instance, the firm helped represent the state in the lawsuit brought by Tampa strip club mogul, free speech fighter and medical marijuana patient Joe Redner.

Redner is suing the state to be allowed to grow his own marijuana and make juice of it; his doctor recommended fresh juice as the best way to keep his lung cancer in remission. He won at trial, but the state is appealing.

The firm has connections to Scott: Ben Gibson, a former lawyer to the governor, joined the firm this summer as a partner in its Business Litigation Practice Group in Tallahassee.

Gibson served as Deputy General Counsel and Assistant General Counsel to Scott for nearly five years, “helping advise the governor on the appointment of more than 120 judges to Florida’s courts.”

Mike Carroll quits as head of Florida’s child-welfare agency

Mike Carroll, Secretary of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), will quit his post effective Sept. 6, Gov. Rick Scott‘s office announced Friday.

“Mike embodies the ideals and mission of the Department … and has devoted nearly three decades to improve and change the lives of Florida’s vulnerable children and families,” the governor said in a statement.

“Mike’s tenure as secretary is the longest in DCF’s 21-year history,” he added. Carroll was appointed in December 2014.

He inherited a system documented earlier that year, by the Miami Herald’s “Innocents Lost” investigation, as “clearly broken, leaving children unprotected and at risk.”

Carroll worked at DCF and its predecessor, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), since January 1990. Scott, who is term-limited and leaving office in January, did not immediately name his replacement.

The press release from Scott’s office said Carroll oversaw “expanded substance abuse treatment services statewide, including medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorders; achieved record numbers of adoptions; (and) championed anti-human trafficking efforts,” among other achievements.

“Throughout his career, Mike has focused on innovative solutions to complicated problems, finding ways to enable better outcomes for children and families,” Scott said.

But lowlights during Carroll’s tenure include a foster child hanging herself while broadcasting it on social media. Naika Venant, a 14-year-old Miami-Dade County girl who was in and out of foster care starting in 2009, killed herself last year during a Facebook Live video.

“This case is kind of symptomatic of what we deal with,” he later told a state Senate committee. “Many of these kids have cracks … they’re broken, they’re in pieces …

“We’re charged as a state agency to put those pieces back together. And we aren’t always able to do that. And that’s the most tragic thing about our work.”

Two years before that, lawmakers heard results of a study into a series of missteps by DCF leading up to the father of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck throwing her off a bridge into Tampa Bay.

“The DCF report concluded Phoebe was subjected to a storm of mental health issues, substance abuse and domestic violence in her short life,” the Tampa Tribune reported.

Carroll told legislators he responded by “requiring abuse hot-line counselors to have a four-year college degree and undergo 13 weeks of training, including nine weeks in a classroom,” the paper reported.

“Getting (employees) who are qualified to do this work and then getting them to stay on the job is a challenge,” Carroll said. “It is very stressful work. The work hours are incredible and not predictable … and you always work with a level of uncertainty.

“Every family you address, every home you walk into, you’re asked to make decisions … and you think you make the right decisions but when you walk out of that home, you never know.”

And a 133-page internal review commissioned by Carroll in 2016 depicted a dysfunctional agency, with workers feeling “unsupported,” “overwhelmed,” and “defeated.”

Cabinet decision on top financial regulator postponed

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet are moving back a decision on hiring a new top financial regulator.

Scott and the Cabinet had been expected to make a pick during a meeting next week, but Kristin Olson, Scott’s Cabinet aide, said Wednesday that the Governor’s Office continues to review applicants for the job of commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation — and another position as inspector general of the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

“Our office needed more time to review those candidates, so they’ll be on the next Cabinet agenda,” Olson said.

The Cabinet meets only two more times this year after next Tuesday’s meeting: Sept. 11 and Dec. 4.

Scott and the Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — in June agreed to name Pam Epting as acting commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation and to reopen the application process after interviewing five applicants.

An additional 20 applications were submitted following the June meeting. Epting, who was deputy commissioner of the office, had her pay raised by $10,000 to $135,000 with the acting title.

She is not among the applicants to replace former Commissioner Drew Breakspear, who resigned under pressure from Patronis. He claimed there was a “lack of cooperation, responsiveness and communication” from the office under Breakspear.

Scott, Bondi and Putnam will leave their current offices in January, while Patronis is running in the November election to remain as CFO.

Putnam is running for governor, while Scott is running for U.S. Senate.  Bondi can’t seek re-election due to term limits and isn’t seeking another office.

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Republished with permission of The News Service of Florida

Judicial candidate filed campaign paperwork too late, appeals court says

A state appeals court has blocked Clay County judicial candidate Lucy Ann Hoover from appearing on the ballot because she filed her paperwork too late.

“We recognize that the public policy of Florida generally favors letting the people decide the ultimate qualifications of candidates,” the 1st District Court of Appeal concluded Wednesday, in an opinion by Judge T. Kent Wetherell II. Judges Ross L. Bilbrey and M. Kemmerly Thomas concurred.

“However, absent special circumstances, public policy considerations cannot override the clear and unambiguous statutory requirement that all of the candidate’s qualifying paperwork must be received by the filing officer by the end of the qualifying period.”

The court upheld a trial judge in the 7th Judicial Circuit, who heard the case because it originated with a motion filed by incumbent Clay County Judge Kristina Mobley. Gov. Rick Scott placed her on the bench in 2015.

Record show Hoover arrived at the county supervisor of elections office at 11:55 a.m. on May 4, just shy of the noon deadline. She filed her qualifying check at 11:57, but her candidate oath came in at 12:01 and her financial disclosure form at 12:12.

The office accepted the late documents, and certified Hoover as a candidate, under a policy of requiring only that prospective candidates be physically present and filling out their paperwork before the deadline falls.

Mobley then went to court to have Hoover’s name stripped from the ballot.

Hoover, a visiting professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida, cited a 1st DCA precedent allowing a legislative candidate to appear on the ballot under a similar policy maintained by Florida’s secretary of state.

But that was because an aide to the candidate was misdirected inside a crowded and confused elections office, Wetherell wrote, and had the paperwork completed and ready to file. By contrast, Hoover was the only candidate inside the local supervisor’s office.

“Here, there were no special circumstances that would excuse Hoover’s failure to meet the qualifying deadline, but rather … this is simply a case of a prospective candidate missing the qualifying deadline because she waited until too late to complete the necessary paperwork,” the opinion says.

State seeks to uphold ban on smoking medical cannabis

Pointing in part to smoking-related health effects, Attorney General Pam Bondis office on Friday filed a 57-page brief arguing that an appeals court should uphold a decision by the Legislature to ban smoking medical marijuana.

The brief, filed at the 1st District Court of Appeal, came as the state challenges a May ruling by Tallahassee Circuit Judge Karen Gievers, who said the smoking ban violates a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

The Legislature in 2017 passed a law to carry out the constitutional amendment and included the smoking ban.

Prominent Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who heavily bankrolled the constitutional amendment, filed a lawsuit last year challenging the smoking ban. Bondi’s office Friday filed an initial brief in its attempt to overturn Gievers’ ruling.

The brief raised a series of issues, including arguing that the Legislature “considered important health and safety factors” when deciding to ban smoking.

“Notably, the Legislature considered evidence of the health hazards of smoking and concluded that smoking marijuana constitutes a harmful delivery method,” the brief said. “Time and again during debate, elected members of Florida’s Legislature emphasized that the amendment is exclusively about medicine, and that smoking is antithetical to good medicine.

“In considering these health-related factors, the Legislature reasonably determined that the harms caused by smoking — including harms to patients and those exposed to secondhand smoke — were ample reason to exclude smoking from the statutory definition of ‘medical use.’

“The Legislature therefore acted under its general authority to regulate public health, safety, and welfare when it drew a reasonable line between the smoking of medical marijuana, and other delivery methods.”

But in her May ruling, Gievers found that language in the amendment “recognizes there is no right to smoke in public places, thereby implicitly recognizing the appropriateness of using smokable medical marijuana in private places consistent with the amendment.”

The “ability to smoke medical marijuana was implied” in the constitutional language “and is therefore a protected right,” Gievers wrote.

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Republished with permission of The News Service of Florida. 

Flags at half-staff for Fort Myers officer

Gov. Rick Scott ordered flags at half-staff for Officer Adam Jobbers-Miller, late of the Fort Myers Police Department.

Jobbers-Miller, a three-year veteran of the force, was killed in the line of duty on Saturday, July 28.

Scott directed the U.S. and state flags to be flown at half-staff at the Lee County Courthouse in Fort Myers, Fort Myers City Hall, the Fort Myers Police Department and the Capitol in Tallahassee from sunrise to sunset next Monday.

“Our hearts are heavy to learn of the passing of Officer Jobbers-Miller,” Scott said in a statement.

“Police officers like Adam Jobbers-Miller put their lives on the line every day to keep our communities safe. My wife Ann and I are praying for his family and everyone in the entire Lee County law enforcement community.”

Personnel note: Mark Kruse named Rick Scott’s new Legislative Affairs Director

Mark Kruse has been elevated from Policy Coordinator to Legislative Affairs Director for Gov. Rick Scott, replacing Kevin Reilly.

As Legislative Affairs Director, he will be Scott’s chief liaison to lawmakers as the term-limited governor prepares to leave office in January.

“Kevin Reilly was instrumental in so many of Gov. Scott’s outstanding legislative achievements over the past two sessions and the governor appreciates his service,” Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said.

“Mark Kruse has been on our team since 2012 and he will continue to serve the families of our state in his new role.”

As Policy Coordinator in the Tourism and Economic Development Unit of the Governor’s Office of Policy & Budget, Kruse advised Scott on issues related to the Department of Economic Opportunity, Enterprise Florida, VISIT FLORIDA, Space Florida, CareerSource Florida, and the Department of Transportation, according to his LinkedIn page.

Before that, Kruse was an attorney for the Florida House of Representatives and also was a lawyer and lobbyist in private practice.

He graduated from American University with a degree in International Affairs, and later got a law degree from Florida State University. He was admitted to practice law in Florida in 1999, The Florida Bar records show.

Andrew Gillum: Rick Scott should suspend ‘Stand Your Ground’ law

Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum Monday called on Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency and suspend the state’s “stand your ground” law by executive order.

In a news conference in Tallahassee, Gillum said the law has become an “opportunity for vigilantes to agitate conflict” from behind the legal shield of the self-defense provision.

The July 19 shooting of Markeis McGlockton in Clearwater has sparked another debate over the controversial measure. The stand your ground law, enacted in 2005, allows people who are attacked to counter deadly force with deadly force in self-defense without any requirement that they flee.

As Jacob Sullum of Reason explained in a Monday blog post, “Michael Drejka told police he shot McGlockton, who had just shoved him to the pavement in the parking lot of a convenience store in Clearwater, because he was afraid (McGlockton) was bent on continuing the attack.”

A spokesman for Scott later Monday said the governor “expects that every Florida law be enforced and applied fairly by law enforcement and state attorneys, who are elected by Floridians.”

Indeed, “several prominent Florida Republicans have criticized Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri‘s misrepresentation of (the) law, (saying) Gualtieri was simply wrong when he claimed the standard for using lethal force is ‘largely subjective,’ ” Sullum also wrote Monday.

Gualtieri declined to pursue a case against Drejka.

“If the Legislature wants to make any changes to clarify Florida’s laws next Legislative Session, they can do so,” added Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis in an email.

That’s not good enough for Gillum, who wants action now: “I don’t believe that ‘stand your ground’ has a place in civilized society,” he said.

Gillum pointed out that surveillance video of the incident, “which began with a dispute over a handicapped parking spot, shows McGlockton backing away when Drejka draws his pistol,” as Sullum put it.

Gillum said if elected governor he would press to repeal the ‘stand your ground’ law “so that no more life is senselessly lost, particularly among people of color.”

McGlockton, 28, is black; Drejka, 47, is white, and has a concealed carry permit.

A Periscope video of Gillum’s remarks are below.

Christian Bax quits as state’s top medical marijuana regulator

Christian Bax, director of Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use (OMMU), has stepped down after a controversial three-year tenure that frustrated patients, angered lawmakers, and witnessed an explosion in litigation.

His resignation is effective Aug. 10. Deputy director Courtney Coppola will serve as interim director, Department of Health spokesman Devin Galleta said Friday.

Bax’s resignation letter, released later Friday (see below), did not reveal his future plans.

News of Bax’s departure stoked an angry denunciation from Tampa strip club owner Joe Redner. In April, he won a court battle, only to be appealed by the state, allowing him to grow and make juice of his own marijuana to keep his lung cancer in remission.

“If they worked for me, I would have fired them in a minute,” Redner said, referring to Bax and Coppola. “They have no idea how a free market works … We can only hope the next governor believes in the fee market and not in cartels who gain marijuana monopolies.”

The state’s system of licensing scheme of cannabis providers, known as medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTCs), has resulted in a stream of legal and administrative challenges.

At least 11 are still pending, though some relate to matters other than licensing, including Orlando attorney John Morgan‘s constitutional challenge of the state’s ban on smoking medicinal cannabis. Plaintiffs backed by Morgan won, and that case too is now under appeal.

Morgan bankrolled the 2016 state constitutional amendment allowing medicinal cannabis, passed by a little more than 71 percent of voters as a ballot question. And Morgan leveled heavy criticism of Bax.

“He was so inept that it had to be intentional. Anyone would be better and more capable,” Morgan said. “He was to health care in Florida what Barney Fife was to law enforcement. This is a great day for the sick and injured in Florida.”

Ben Pollara, campaign manager for Amendment 2’s political committee, said it was “a shame it’s taken this long” for Bax to leave. “

“His tenure has been marked by repeated failures to meet the needs of patients throughout Florida. I sincerely hope the office’s new leadership will learn from those mistakes and act quickly to get Florida’s medical marijuana program fully functional,” said Pollara.

Bax also faced reports he “had little experience when he won a high-profile job that state officials refused to publicly advertise,” relying on his family connections with Gov. Rick Scott, including father James Bax, described as “a wealthy, wired Tallahassee insider.”

Gary Stein, a medical marijuana historian and advocate, acknowledged that Bax “had a Herculean task, made infinitely harder by his lack of experience and probable pressure from above.”

The system “created for him to manage had a flawed application process that forced him to spend far too much time in litigation and far less time in the mandated tasks of regulation and rule-making,” said Stein, a former employee of the Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I was very critical of him because of the high importance of his position and the great needs of hundreds of thousands of patients that relied on the efficiency of his department for critical access to medicine.

“There was no room for the kind of errors and snail’s pace of the OMMU that occurred,” Stein added. “I wish him well, but he didn’t belong there, and he didn’t get the support that he needed … Rather than giving him more infrastructure, they gave him more lawyers.”

But Dr. Jeffrey Sharkey, founder and head of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida, said he “always had a very productive working relationship with Mr. Bax.”

“… It is not surprising that he and his office have faced a lot of challenges over the last two years in trying to implement a brand new, highly regulated, fast-growing and dynamic medical cannabis industry in one of the largest states in the country, with all of its diverse players, politics and pressures,” Sharkey said.

“To his credit, he managed it professionally and the young industry is in better shape for his efforts. We wish him well.”

Patty Nelson, Bax’s predecessor and now an industry consultant, said the post is one that will draw criticism and scrutiny.

“There’s no denying it’s a hard job. It sometimes feels like an impossible job,” she said. “And you face critics from every direction, which makes it difficult to navigate.”

Coppola, Bax’s successor, began in state government as a 2013 member of the Gubernatorial Fellows Program, working for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation when she was a graduate student at Florida State University.

Kim Rivers, CEO of medical marijuana provider Trulieve, said in a statement Coppola “has a deep working understanding of the medical marijuana program in Florida, and we do not anticipate any issues or interruptions during the transition.”

Coppola appeared before lawmakers earlier this month to ask a special budget panel for another $13 million for operating costs. Legislators have been vexed over the slow-going of the office, including delays in issuing medicinal cannabis patient identification cards, though they granted the request.

They finally pushed back earlier this year when they included a provision from House Republican Jason Brodeur in the 2018-19 budget to withhold more than $1.9 million in Department of Health salaries and benefits until regulators fully implement medical marijuana.

“I can only add to the chorus of voices hoping the office will get going on the rule-making, in accordance with the clear direction given from the Legislature, to ensure people appropriately have access to the drug,” Brodeur said Friday in a text message.

One detail that troubled some lawmakers: $1.5 million of the extra money requested will go to outside lawyers hired by the office to represent it in ongoing litigation.

“Let’s stop wasting taxpayer dollars” on suits the state shouldn’t be appealing, House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz told Coppola. “Please start taking this seriously,” she added, calling the office’s actions part “intentional ineptitude” and part “simple sabotage.”

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this post.

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