Jeff Brandes – Page 6 – Florida Politics

Jeff Brandes, Randy Fine file bills to slash state contracts with anti-Israel companies

A pair of Republican state lawmakers filed bills Tuesday to strengthen a 2016 law capping contracts between Florida governments and companies that support the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestiture, and Sanctions” movement.

Current law allows Florida municipal governments to do up to $1 million of business each year with anti-Israel companies, but the 2018 measures, HB 545 and SB 780, would institute a zero-tolerance policy for contracts with pro-BDS companies.

Brevard County Rep. Randy Fine, the only Jewish Republican in the Florida Legislature, said he was grateful to Senate President Joe Negron and former Rep. Ritch Workman for championing the 2016 law, but said it’s time to take it a step further.

“BDS is the latest incarnation of anti-Israel sentiment that goes back since the formation of the Jewish State. To oppose the State of Israel is to oppose Judeo-Christian values. I am proud that the legislation we introduce today takes the next step to make Florida a zero-tolerance state,” Fine said in a press release.

St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes, who is sponsoring the Senate bill, said he was “proud to stand with Representative Fine in defense of Israel and to show support for our friends and for an important ally.”

“Strengthening our position by removing the $1 million threshold sends a strong message — Florida stands with Israel,” he added.

If passed and signed by the governor, the bills would go into effect July 1, 2018. They would leave in place the $1 million cap for companies doing business with Cuba or Syria.

Jack Latvala allies come to his defense after sexual harassment claims

After six women anonymously accused Sen. Jack Latvala of sexually harassing and groping them, at least five women who have worked closely with the powerful senator have come to his defense.

The allegations against Latvala, a Republican candidate for governor who turned 66 Friday, range from him grabbing a female lobbyist’s buttocks to making unsolicited comments about breasts, according to a POLITICO Florida report Friday.

Latvala came out swinging in what appears to some as a coordinated campaign to clear his name following the news report. That included a lawsuit threat — though he has yet to file one — and requests for female lobbyists and staffers in his orbit to come to his defense.

The women Florida Politics talked to said they were not among them, but they have worked with him closely in The Process.

Following criticism from members in both parties in the House and Senate, these women continued to praise the Senate budget chief’s ethics. Two of them acknowledged that they too have experienced sexual harassment at the Capitol by other elected officials, but insisted they never saw Latvala act inappropriately.

“If you are a female elected official then you should have an expectation that people will say and do things to you in a sexual nature with the intention of being offending,” former Sen. Ronda Storms, a Republican, said.

“That hasn’t been my experience with (Latvala), but it has been my experience with other people, with another male senator.”

Storms declined to name her sexual harasser because she said the harassment stopped when she addressed him directly. She said he is still in office, “but not in the Senate.”

The allegations against Latvala come after Senate Democratic Leader-designate Jeff Clemens, a close ally of his, resigned after he admitted to an affair with a lobbyist. Since then, rumors have swirled at the Capitol, painting a picture of women being exploited and victimized in the policymaking process.

One GOP female lobbyist, according to the POLITICO report, said she would get a “cold shoulder” from Latvala if he didn’t get enough attention. Latvala has denied the sexual harassment allegations.

Missy Timmins, a lobbyist who worked as Latvala’s chief legislative aide during his early years in the Senate, told Florida Politics she was worried male legislators might be hesitant to work with female lobbyists in the wake of the claims made against Latvala.

Timmins added she never witnessed inappropriate behavior from Latvala, but that he once “turned red face” when another legislator told her she “had the nicest legs in the Senate.” She too declined to name that lawmaker.

“I can assure you as his staffer he got offended when people said something inappropriate to me,” Timmins said.

Jacqueline Elise D’Heere, who worked with Latvala in 2006, took another approach when defending Latvala. In a Facebook post she aggressively discredited the unnamed women who accused him.

“There is no more accurate way to describe (the accusers’) behavior than reprehensible,” wrote D’Heere.

“Failure to disclose their names leads me to believe they are the very idiots who clunk around the Capitol’s marble floors in short skirts and giant stilettos looking for the first elected who will destroy their families for some physical attention.”

Republican state Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Pinellas County ally of Latvala, also was quick to discount the accounts of the six women who say the senator sexually harassed them.

“If it’s anonymous, it’s not legitimate,” Peters, of Treasure Island, said in a Facebook post. “Anyone can make up stories if that person is protected under secrecy.”

The unnamed women told POLITICO Florida they did not “want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, getting a bad reputation in the male-dominated Capitol or running afoul of an influential politician who can kill their clients’ issues.”

Jennifer Wilson, a former staffer for Latvala, told Florida Politics the news came as a surprise to her. She said she worked many late nights with Latvala — sometimes alone with him in his office — and that he never acted inappropriately with her.

“I’m trying to pick my words because I know there have been women harassed in this process, but I don’t know that it has happened with Jack,” Wilson said. “It surprised me so much and based on the little information we have, it just looks very fishy.”

Senate President Joe Negron has opened an investigation into the allegations against Latvala, which he called “disgusting.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican who is expected to announce a run for governor after the 2018 legislative session, has since called for his resignation.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, the top Democrat on the House budget committee, also has asked Negron to remove Latvala from his appropriations chairmanship. The 2018 Legislative Session starts Jan. 8.

Though the Republican-controlled Senate has been mostly mute, Sen. Jeff Brandes did express concern over the “very serious” accusations, and said the Senate should seek an impartial special counsel to investigate the allegations.

It now will have to: Negron initially tapped Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts to lead the investigation, but she has since recused herself from the case, citing a potential conflict of interest based on her longtime work association with Latvala.

Ben Diamond wants to unshackle judges from minimum drug sentencing

(UPDATE) Before the 2017 Legislative Session, a number of Florida lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle — talked a good game on criminal justice reform.

Nevertheless, they fell far short on a number of fronts.

But there’s always next year, which is why Democratic state Rep. Ben Diamond of St. Petersburg is proposing legislation (HB 481) to give judges discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences when sentencing nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.

Under current Florida law, judges have no discretion in sentencing certain low-level drug offenders. Diamond’s bill will provide judges with discretion to fashion a more appropriate sentence on a case-by-case basis.

To use the so-called “judicial safety valve,” courts must find that the offender has no previous conviction for a similar offense, is not part of a continuing criminal enterprise, did not use or threaten violence while committing the offense, and the offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury.

“We need to bring smart reforms to our criminal justice system in Florida,”  said Diamond. “And this bill is an important part of that effort.”

Diamond pointed out that Florida is incarcerating an “extraordinary number of people” for nonviolent drug offenses, in part through mandatory minimum sentencing.

“Our prison population has exploded,” he said. “We are spending millions of dollars to incarcerate people under our mandatory minimum sentencing laws.”

The laws are not actually deterring the use or sale of drugs, or making our communities safer, he added. “It’s time we take a different approach to these problems.”

State Sen. Jeff Brandes filed similar legislation in the Senate. The St. Petersburg Republican serves as Chair of the State Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.

“I want to thank Senator Brandes for his leadership and support,” Diamond said.  “I am proud to take a lead on this bipartisan effort to bring meaningful criminal justice reform to Florida.”

Several conservative groups say they support the Diamond/Brandes bill.

“One-size-fits-all punishments do not reduce crime, and every dollar spent locking up low-level drug offenders is a dollar that can’t be used to punish dangerous criminals,” said Greg Newburn, Floridian’s Against Mandatory Minimums state policy director. “We thank Senator Brandes and Representative Diamond for supporting a judicial safety valve – a commonsense solution to a problem long overdue for reform.”

“With the State of Florida housing nearly 100,000 inmates and costing taxpayers nearly $2.4 billion every year, the legislature must address the problematic prison population, and one way to do that is reforming mandatory minimum sentences for  low-level drug offenses,” said Chelsea Murphy, Right on Crime’s Florida state director. “These minimum sentences are often unnecessarily severe, even for those with no prior criminal record.”

“There’s nothing conservative about throwing money away incarcerating nonviolent offenders longer than necessary,” said Sal Nuzzo, vice president of Policy at The James Madison Institute. “A judicial safety valve doesn’t abolish mandatory minimums; it simply provides flexibility for the courts to punish low-level offenders appropriately. That’s a conservative solution.”

“By allowing our judges to have the discretion to impose an appropriate sentence for each case, we can save money and make our communities safer,” said Diamond.

Orange you mad? Citrus language leads to marijuana lawsuit

A Florida nursery is suing the state over its preference in granting medical marijuana licenses to companies with underused or shuttered citrus factories.

Tropiflora LLC of Sarasota filed suit against the Department of Health‘s Office of Compassionate Use—now the Office of Medical Marijuana Use—in Leon County Circuit Civil court on Friday, court records show.

The lawsuit is the latest in a long line against the state over its medical marijuana licensing scheme.

Tropiflora, which previously filed an administrative protest over the award of medical marijuana licenses, already “has two judicial challenges pending,” its complaint says. One is still in circuit court and another is on appeal.

The latest is over the citrus provision.

For up to two licenses, “the department shall give preference to applicants that demonstrate in their applications that they own one or more facilities that are, or were, used for the canning, concentrating, or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or citrus molasses and will use or convert the facility or facilities for the processing of marijuana,” state law says.

Tropiflora calls that an “unconstitutional special advantage” that “adversely impacts” the company, putting it at a “disadvantage” in competing for 10 available licenses to be a “medical marijuana treatment center.”

It further says there is no “rational basis for granting a special privilege” to concerns that own facilities once used for processing citrus.  

The complaint asks the court to declare that portion of statute an “impermissible special law (that) grants a special privilege.”

Lawmakers claimed ignorance about that language’s origins when it was added to this year’s bill that implemented the 2016 constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana in the state.

Nonetheless, Sen. Rob Bradley—the Fleming Island Republican who sponsored the Senate’s legislation—called it “good public policy” during the 2017 Special Session. He mentioned the shellacking the industry took in recent years from the citrus greening malady. 

“If you travel parts of the state, it breaks your heart to see these old orange juice factories, jobs lost,” he said. “Transitioning some of those facilities to something new is good.”

But Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who tried unsuccessfully to remove the citrus language, said it was “a carve-in for a special interest … It doesn’t look right; it doesn’t feel right.”

Tallahassee attorneys Steve Andrews, Ryan Andrews and Brian Finnerty of the Andrews Law Firm are representing Tropiflora. The case is currently assigned to Circuit Judge Jim Shelfer.

Florida Corrections head: ‘We’re working staff to death’

Florida Department of Corrections’s troubled security operations were big talkers Wednesday in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.

DOC Secretary Julie L. Jones addressed staffing patterns, contraband reduction efforts and use-of-force incidents.

Major issues faced by the DOC are familiar to longtime observers, including continued staff attrition, overcrowding, increases in contraband, and a secretary confronting the unique paradox of running a 20th-century prison sector with 21st-century challenges.

“We’re working staff to death, and there’s too much overtime,” Jones said, referencing complaints registered via an internal survey of wardens during her Wednesday afternoon presentation.

Over 96,000 inmates are currently in the system, a $2.4 billion budget without a lot of “flexibility.”

Jones bemoaned budget cuts, noting that “over the past fifteen years, we’ve taken a loss … of $550 million,” caused by a “loss of inmate population” and “consolidations.”

There may be one positive augury, Jones said, referencing employee retention. A base salary increase kicked in October 13, and there are “hiring bonuses” at 15 “high-vacancy locations.”

“We have not made any strides in vacancies,” Jones said, adding that they “actually increased since the last report I gave to the Legislature.”

One reason: officers have been “very wary” regarding the pay raises showing up on paychecks, Jones said.

Staffing numbers, staff retention and overall safety, according to Jones, are among other issues.

One region — a historic crucible of the corrections industry in Florida — is especially shorthanded regarding staff. There are, Jones said, “unacceptably high rates of vacancies … especially in North Florida.”

Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, noted that “one of the number one priorities of this committee” was to fix these issues last Session.

“Has it just not worked? We gave the money,” Bean said, “and vacancies are up.”

“It’s too soon to tell,” Jones said, repeating that “once employees see [the raise] in the paycheck, it will make a difference.”

That difference will need to kick in soon. Many officers are lost in their first year, and many more after year two, Jones said.

“Some major facilities,” Jones said, have a “majority of officers with tenures less than one year.” And — also reflecting a short-timer mentality — the number of staff is “insufficient.”

Some facilities have supervisor-inmate ratios as high as 86 to 1, Jones said, a factor of a “lack of adequate workforce.”

Combine those ratios with twelve-hour shifts — a move made for the sake of efficiency — and the existential pressures created are obvious.

Turnover, Jones said, is up 109 percent since FY 08-09, and the cost of overtime is “staggering.”

“The financial impact to the state,” regarding retention issues, is “significant,” Jones said.

In FY 16-17, the cost was over $61 million, reflecting a “turnover rate of almost 25 percent.”

“They’re leaving the industry, and especially in our Region 2, which is Northeast Florida — the Iron Triangle area,” Jones lamented. “We put prisons in the 90s in the northern part of the state because that’s where the hiring was needed, and there are all kinds of options that are safer jobs — and better paying, frankly.

Staff is leaving, but prisons are full. Right now, system-wide capacity is “96.7 percent.” Some facilities exceed 100 percent capacity.

“We shift inmates around [to other facilities, which is allowed] … I’m not putting people on the floor … we’re hovering at the margins to house inmates correctly,” Jones said.

Staffing challenges have led to injuries to staff and inmates, and an increase in contraband, Jones said.

“Despite our best efforts to control these issues, they continue to grow,” Jones said.

Tobacco, K2, heroin, weapons and cellphones — these are the major issues, with throw overs and even drones handling delivery. The aforementioned staff shortages prevent searches happening as regularly as Jones would like.

Bill requiring police to read rights before a search stalls

South Florida Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer is resurrecting the debate over whether police should be required to let people know their rights when it comes to searches without a warrant.

SB 262 would prohibit police officers from searching a person or their property without telling them they have a right to decline the search. State Rep. Shevrin Jones is sponsoring an identical bill in the House.

When Farmer’s bill went before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, as reported by WFSU, he detailed how police are already allowed to perform warrantless searches for a variety of reasons.

“For example, where an officer is in fear for his safety, if he believes there may be a weapon present that could harm him, if he’s in imminent harm him, if he or she feels there may be evidence that could be destroyed, if the search is not conducted immediately,” he said.

Farmer also cited a Department of Justice study that found 78 percent of the people who agreed to a warrantless search wasn’t aware they could have declined.

“And, so, that shows that we have a problem, where citizens aren’t sure what the law is,” he said.

The Oct. 9 meeting ended with committee members voting to temporarily postpone the bill, but not before it brought a variety of opinions from Republican lawmakers on the panel, including committee chair and Northwest Florida Sen. Rob Bradley, Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Dennis Baxley of Ocala.

Baxley said the law is anti-law enforcement and just piles onto the list of things police are “constantly being reviewed and questioned” over.

“You can’t follow your instincts anymore as law enforcement. You sense that something’s wrong and you investigate it. And, this goes with that sentiment, that says, ‘it’s your duty that they don’t have to cooperate with you.’ Why should I have to tell anybody that they can’t cooperate with me? I don’t get that,” he said.

Bradley disagreed with that sentiment, though he said he believes the core of Farmer’s bill is already covered by the “exclusionary rule” which makes improperly collected evidence inadmissible in court. That rule likely wouldn’t apply in most cases of such searches, since they are authorized by law.

Brandes thought the bill, which clocks in at just 22 lines, needed to be longer to prove a decent solution.

“Standardize the language, just like we have with Miranda rights — to remain silent — to make sure that there are some standardized language as to what officers must say or should say in regards to search of papers, effects, and property,” he said.

Jason Fischer, Jeff Brandes introduce self-driving cars bill

Self-driving cars would be able to legally cruise Sunshine State highways under a bill filed by Jacksonville House Republican Jason Fischer.

His legislation (HB 353) would allow for the safe and legal operation of “autonomous vehicles.” The bill also calls for updating sections of Florida’s motor vehicle laws that “require or presume” there’s a human behind the wheel.

In a statement, Fischer stressed the safety that autonomous vehicles will bring to Florida.

“Every year in the United States, tens of thousands of people are killed in motor vehicle-related crashes, and more than 90 percent of those crashes are caused by human error,” he said. “Because autonomous vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce or even eliminate this error, I plan to do everything in my power to bring these life-saving technologies to the Sunshine State.”

The bill is being sponsored in the Senate by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, who has been a champion for AV technology.

“Transportation technology is poised to radically reshape our lives,” Brandes said. “Florida has been a leader in exploring this technology, and with this bill, we continue our commitment to providing Floridians the best options to increase safety, spur redevelopment in our cities and lower costs.”

The American Council of the Blind is supporting the bill.

“At the American Council of the Blind, the foundation of our work is our belief that it is the right of every blind person in this country to be included in society and it is the responsibility of government at all levels to provide the infrastructure of services and equipment that will allow us to fully participate in our communities,” said Anthony Stephens, Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs with the American Council of the Blind.

The U.S. House of Representatives has begin moving legislation that could accelerate the rollout of self-driving technology.

The Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act, or “SELF DRIVE” Act, quickly cleared the House with unanimous support, and now moves to the Senate. If it passes there, it could become the first national law for self-driving cars in the United States.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has expressed concern about the SELF DRIVE Act, writing a letter to congressional leaders asking for clarification between the federal government and the states when it comes to regulating vehicle safety and operations standards.

Fireworks bill clears first Senate panel

The latest attempt to end a decades-old prohibition on fireworks sales in Florida received its first hearing in the state Senate Wednesday, and it was a bit bumpy.

The bill cleared the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on a 8-2 vote, but bill sponsor Greg Steube admits it still needs some work.

For more than half a century, Florida law on fireworks has been banned, but there is a loophole that allows fireworks to be used “solely and exclusively in frightening birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries.”

What that means is that Floridians who purchase fireworks from roadside stands are usually asked to sign a form acknowledging that they fall under one of the exemptions, which gives legal cover for fireworks vendors that buyers will actually use them for the purposes that they describe in the form.

Like scaring birds.

Lawmakers in recent sessions, including former state Rep. and now U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, have tried to change the law to no avail. This time around, it’s Steube, a Sarasota Republican. He filed a bill (SB 198) to legalize consumer fireworks.

St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes asked Steube how many people he thought committed fraud when they filed the forms. Steube replied that he thought it was around 99.9 percent.

“We’ve created this unique situation where we all allow people to commit fraud every day and the government turns a blind eye to it,” said Brandes, who said perhaps the simpler rule would be to change the form instead of jettisoning it.

Lobbyist Ron Book, representing American Promotional Events, said his client strongly objected to eliminating the forms, saying it indemnifies the seller. “The industry is happy the way things are here,” he said.

He did add that the form could be enhanced to include “general use” in addition to the provision on agriculture, as is now the case.

In addition to removing the ban, Steube’s bill also will prohibit those under the age of 18 from purchasing fireworks.

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon II said if the bill encourages people in his district to shoot off fireworks—and not guns—on the 4th of July and on New Year’s Eve, he’s good with it.

With two more stops before the bill would go to the Senate floor, Steube said he’d be happy to work with any senator in improving the measure.

Berny Jacques fundraising slows as Nick DiCeglie enters race

Nick DiCeglie has been in the race for House District 66 for a month and his first campaign finance report, released Tuesday, signals a momentum shift in the GOP primary between him and Berny Jacques.

Jacques filed March 3 and was the first-in candidate for the Pinellas County-based seat. Since showing $30,000 raised in his initial report, his contributions have slowed.

April brought him about $11,000 in campaign cash, and after the dog days of summer, he posted another five-figure report in August. His September report, though, brought about a new low: just $1,875 in new money came in, while about $5,500 went out the door.

His lone $1,000 check for the month came in from Sarasota attorney Patrick McCardle, while the remainder came from a smattering of small-dollar donors most of whom gave $50 or less.

In all, Jacques has raised $67,344 over the past six months and has about $52,000 in the bank.

DiCeglie, who entered the race at the start of last month, raised $30,751 in 30 days. All of that money that came in before his official campaign kickoff event, too. That event is set for Thursday evening in Bellair and features more than 50 names on the host committee that no other first-time candidate could dream of getting in the same room anywhere outside the Governor’s Club.

The abbreviated list: St. Pete Sen. Jeff Brandes, Clearwater Sen. Jack Latvala and his son Rep. Chris Latvala, and Pinellas County Commissioners Dave Eggers, John Morroni and Karen Seel, as well as Commission candidate and current HD 69 Rep. Kathleen Peters.

His pull with local Republican rock stars isn’t a surprise. In addition to owning and operating the lauded waste management company Solar Sanitation, Inc., for over decade, he spent two terms chairing the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce and earned a gubernatorial appointment to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

Being the current chair of the Pinellas County Republican Party certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

Among his September donors were renowned attorney Brian Aungst Jr., Clearwater City Council Member Doreen Caudell, former Pinellas GOP Chair Jay Beyrouti, and lobbyist Alan Suskey.

Spencer, Chris

Personnel note: Chris Spencer heads to GrayRobinson

Chris Spencer, longtime aide to Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, is leaving the Legislature to become a lobbyist at the Tampa office of GrayRobinson, the law firm announced Monday.

“Spencer has nearly a decade of experience working with Florida’s legislative and executive branches,” a press release said. “Prior to joining GrayRobinson, he managed successful campaigns for multiple legislators, including Brandes and Sen. Dana Young,” a Tampa Republican.

“We are thrilled for Chris to join our Tampa office,” Tampa managing shareholder David L. Smith said. “He will be an asset to our Tampa-area clients in addition to supporting the Firm’s statewide lobbying practice.”

As chief legislative assistant to Brandes, he “directed all legislative priorities and focused on a wide range of policy and appropriations issues, including transportation, economic development, energy, insurance and financial regulation,” the release said.

Spencer, 29, also served as legislative assistant to state Rep. Clay Ingram, a Pensacola Republican.

“Chris comes to us with invaluable relationships inside the Capitol and around the state,” said GrayRobinson executive vice president and statewide chair of government affairs Dean Cannon, a former House Speaker. “His experience working with legislators, staff, campaign offices and grassroots organizations will be a great resource for our clients.”

Spencer will focus his lobbying efforts in policy and appropriations matters throughout the Tampa and Tallahassee markets. He received bachelor’s degrees in economics, political science and international affairs from Florida State University.

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