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Lawsuit: Pam Bondi forcing contributions to unregistered charities

Attorney General Pam Bondi is forcing businesses who settle unfair trade actions with her office to pony up millions of dollars to unregistered charities, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

She also is directing contributions to her Office’s own nonprofit, Seniors vs. Crime, which is a “conflict of interest,” the suit says. Two of its directors work for Bondi.

Orlando entrepreneur John D. Smith filed a petition for a “writ of quo warranto” against Bondi in Leon County Circuit Civil court. Such actions are filed against government officials to demand they prove their authority to perform a certain action.

The petition says Bondi “exceeded (her) authority” under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA), aimed at protecting consumers and businesses from abuse.

“Our office has not been served at this point; however, after a preliminary review of the information you provided us, we believe these claims to be without merit,” Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray said in an email.

Specifically, between 2011 and 2016, Bondi’s office settled enforcement actions with 14 businesses in which they wound up paying more than $5.5 million to 35 unregistered charities, the petition says. Bondi was first elected in 2010.

That’s out of 55 businesses who paid $20.2 million “in forced contributions to charitable organizations” to settle cases in the same timeframe. An exhibit that included the names of the charities in question was marked “confidential” and unavailable for public view Monday.

One of the settlement conditions was contributing to a charity “as part of a resolution to end the (Attorney General’s office) investigation,” it says. Overall, there were 278 “Assurance of Voluntary Compliance” agreements.

In Florida, charities have to register with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Ironically, a charity failing to register is deemed to have violated the FDUTPA,” the petition says.

Bondi’s office had taken action against Smith, who invented Storm Stoppers plastic panels as a “plywood alternative” to protect windows during storms, said attorney Scott Siverson of Orlando.

Smith filed a verified petition, meaning he declared under penalty of perjury that the allegations in his complaint are true. He wants a judge to prohibit Bondi from ordering payments to any more unregistered charities and to Seniors vs. Crime.

Siverson said his client was in Hawaii on business and unavailable.

Seniors vs. Crime, which is registered as a charity, is a “non-profit organization that operates as a Special Project of the Attorney General’s Office.” It aims to “reduce the victimization of senior citizens who are often targeted for specific crimes or scams based on their age,” according to its website.

Between 2011 and 2015, the organization received $485,500 in contributions resulting from settlements, the petition says. In the same time, “no other Florida charity received an amount close to (that).”

Pam Bondi declines to file writ for Armamis Ayala

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is declining to file a challenge supporting Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala against Gov. Rick Scott and may intervene to oppose anything Ayala files.

That sets the stage for Ayala to likely present her challenge early next week, seeking to get a judge to declare that, short of a finding a state attorney violated the law, Scott has no constitutional right to reassign cases from one state attorney to another, as he has done over the past month.

Ayala announced in March that she has concluded the death penalty to be unjust for all, and won’t pursue it in first-degree murder cases. So Scott, who was highly critical of her conclusion, stripped 23 first-degree murder cases from her 9th Judicial Circuit and reassigned them to State Attorney Brad King in the 5th Judicial Circuit.

Ayala intends to challenge Scott’s authority to do so, and earlier Friday her lawyer, Roy L. Austin, asked Bondi to initiate that challenge on her behalf. Specifically, they asked her to petition a court for a writ of quo warranto.

Bondi has sided with Scott all along, arguing that what Ayala did violates Florida law, and what Scott did is supported by statute.

And so, writing in response to that formal request to Bondi, Associate Deputy Attorney General Chesterfield Smith Jr. advised Austin late Friday that the attorney general’s office would not do as he asked on Ayala’s behalf.

That is essentially a formality out of the way for Ayala, allowing her and Austin to now pursue the writ without having to go through the attorney general’s office. Earlier Friday Austin said he expects they will do so early next week, seeking

Smith indicated the attorney general is prepared to oppose anything Ayala pursues in court against Scott.

“This office declines to commence such a proceeding and may seek to appear in any such proceeding to ensure that the laws of this State are properly interpreted and faithfully enforced,” Smith wrote.

 

Aramis Ayala asks Pam Bondi to initiate challenge of Rick Scott’s murder case orders

An attorney representing embattled Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala has initiated the process to challenge Gov. Rick Scott‘s murder case reassignment orders by asking State Attorney General Pam Bondi to petition the court on Ayala’s behalf.

Ayala intends to challenge the legality of Scott’s now 23 and counting executive orders stripping 9th Judicial Circuit first-degree murder cases from Ayala’s jurisdiction and reassigning them to be prosecuted by 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King.

The governor did so after Ayala announced she had concluded that death sentences were unjust for all involved and that she would not pursue them. That angered Scott — and Bondi — leading Scott to reassign all of Ayala’s first-degree murder cases.

Bondi has supported Scott. But in this request, she may have no choice but to comply, as a perfunctory obligation, said Ayala’s attorney, Roy L. Austin Jr., of the Washington law firm of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis.

Specifically, the letter asks Bondi to petition a court for a writ quo warranto against Scott and King.

Florida law requires state attorneys to go through the attorney general for such actions, Austin said.

“We have to ask her,” Austin said of Bondi. “But what it’s meant to signal is that Ms. Ayala is definitely going to be responding to the governor, making it clear that his actions were unconstitutional.”

“We’re going to do so next week, early next week,” Austin added.

Austin asked Bondi to notify him no later than 5 p.m. Monday on whether she would file for the writ. “If you do not intend to file such an action, state Attorney Ayala will file a petition for a writ quote warrant soon thereafter,” Austin wrote.

In the letter, he summarized Ayala’s position this way: “As the duly elected state attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, state Attorney Ayala cannot be forcibly removed as the prosecuting officer for trial courts in the Ninth Judicial Circuit absent a finding that she has violated the law. By unconstitutional and unlawful executive orders issued by Gov. Rick Scott, State Attorney Brad King is wrongfully purporting to exercise the right of state Attorney Ayala to prosecute a number of cases in the Ninth Judicial Circuit.”

 

Pam Bondi’s office to Emily Slosberg: Local government can’t outlaw texting while driving

The Legislature can’t create an exception for Palm Beach County to make texting while driving in a school zone a primary offense there, Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s office said in a recent letter.

Slosberg headshot
E. Slosberg

The answer came in response to a question from state Rep. Emily Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat elected last year. The informal legal opinion letter, dated Feb. 3, was part of an Attorney General’s Opinions Digest released Monday.

Slosberg wanted to know “whether the Legislature may provide express authority for the Palm Beach County Commission to pass an ordinance making ‘texting while driving’ in a school zone in Palm Beach County a primary offense.”

Nope, said Lagran Saunders, director of Bondi’s Opinions Division. It’s now a secondary offense, meaning a driver has to be pulled over for something else first.

“To enact legislation granting authority to Palm Beach County to solely enact an ordinance making texting while driving in a school zone a primary offense would be contrary to this express legislative intent of a uniform system of traffic regulation and would violate the Florida Constitution,” the letter said.

A December letter from the Palm Beach County Attorney’s Office gave the same opinion.

“It’s all subject to interpretation,” Slosberg said in a phone interview. “I understand the need for uniformity but the danger of putting a phone in the hands of an inexperienced driver is still a deadly combination.”

Emily Slosberg’s twin sister, Dori, died i

State law now makes it a secondary offense to view or send text messages while driving. That means a driver first needs to be pulled over for a different traffic infraction, like speeding or not wearing a seat belt, before law enforcement can issue a texting and driving ticket.

Slosberg filed a bill this year (HB 47) to remove the secondary offense language and increase penalties for someone caught using their device in a school zone. But the legislation has not yet had a hearing.

Her persistence in pushing the measure has earned her the enmity of some in the Palm Beach Legislative Delegation.

State Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat whom the elder Slosberg unsuccessfully challenged in last year’s primary, in December said it wasn’t “a legal local bill, and there shouldn’t ever be any vote held on it.”

“She’s effectively killed her ability to work with anyone in the Legislature,” he added.

As Saunders said at the end of his letter, “You may wish to work with your colleagues in crafting legislation which will allow your concerns to be addressed throughout the state.”

Pam Bondi to host White House ‘women’s empowerment panel’ Wednesday

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is D.C. bound this week, once again increasing speculation that she might be eyeing a job in the White House before her term ends in 2019.

Bondi is scheduled to moderate a “women’s empowerment panel” Wednesday, featuring some of the top women in President Donald Trump’s administration.

Panelists include Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, SBA Administrator Linda McMahon, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Verma has played a role in the Trump administration’s early messaging in the Sunshine State.

Last weekend, she was part of the Jacksonville pitch of the Affordable Health Care Act, a pitch that proved ill-fated as Republican support for the Obamacare reform didn’t even make it to a floor vote before the Trump Administration had the bill pulled.

The panel comes on the heels of a trip to Washington, D.C. on Monday, where Bondi met with Trump and two Cabinet secretaries on children’s issues.

According to POLITICO Florida, Bondi brought former Tony Dungy, the former Tampa Bay Buccanneers football coach who has become a children’s rights advocate; Derrick Brooks, the former Florida State University and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Hall of Fame linebacker who co-founded a charter school; and Mark Merrrill, an activist with All Pro Dads with her to talk with DeVos and HUD Secretary Ben Carson about children’s issues.

Bondi said she was happy with her work in Florida, and told POLITICO Florida she was working on “some special projects with the White House.”

An early supporter of Trump, Bondi has often been mentioned as a someone who might join the Trump administration. Bondi has long dismissed rumors, saying she was happy with her current job.

Powerful Florida panel that could bring big changes gears up

A powerful panel that has the power to alter the Florida Constitution is getting down to work.

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission is holding its first meeting on Monday.

The 37-member panel meets every 20 years and is allowed to propose changes to the state constitution. The commission’s amendments will go before voters during the 2018 election.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Carlos Beruff, a Manatee County homebuilder as chairman. Beruff unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in last year’s election.

The members of the commission are appointed by the governor, the president of the state Senate, the speaker of the Florida House and the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Attorney General Pam Bondi is automatically a member of the panel.

Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press

Pam Bondi touts $165 million recovered by state’s Medicaid fraud unit

Florida has proved to be one of the most effective states in the nation last year for recovering Medicaid fraud money.

A report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed Florida recovered more than $165 million in otherwise lost funds through fraudulent Medicaid cases during fiscal year 2015-2016, the state’s attorney general said in a statement Thursday.

The report shows Attorney General Pam Bondi’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU) is working, according to the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services.

“My Medicaid Fraud Control Unit investigators work tirelessly to stop Medicaid fraud and recover stolen funds for taxpayers,” Bondi said in the statement. “This report sends the strong message that we will continue to aggressively pursue anyone trying to defraud Florida’s Medicaid program.”

According to the report, Florida ranked only second in the nation in total funds recovered for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, with New York raking in the most at nearly $229,000,000.

Since taking office in 2011, Bondi’s MFCU has obtained more than half a billion dollars in settlements and judgments in total.

The unit investigates and prosecutes providers that intentionally defraud the state’s Medicaid program through fraudulent billing practices. In addition, the MFCU investigates allegations of patient abuse, neglect and exploitation in facilities receiving payments under the Medicaid program.

Each year OIG of the HHS publishes a report of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit statistical data from the preceding federal fiscal year.

California and Texas ranked third and fourth, respectively, with California saving more than $136,000,000 and Texas saving more than $128,000,000.

To view HHS OIG’s report, click here.

Scott, Corcoran, Negron play Rochambeau with picks to the Constitution Revision Commission

Rock breaks scissors, but scissors cut paper, which, of course, covers rock.

Neither Rick Scott, Richard Corcoran nor Joe Negron knew they were playing a game of Rochambeau when making their appointments to the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC).

But the way final picks played out, they may well have.

The CRC meets every 20 years to review and suggest changes to the state’s governing document. It has convened twice before, in 1977-78 and 1997-98, but this is the first to be selected by a majority of Republicans, virtually ensuring it will propose more conservative changes than previous panels.

Scott’s selections — just by the sheer fact that he had 6 more picks than either of the two legislative leaders — could trump Corcoran’s and Negron’s choices.

But if ideological allies join forces, they could overwhelm the Governor’s slate. That is unless some of Scott’s appointees create a bloc with some of Corcoran’s or Negron’s commissioners.

Rock breaks scissors. Scissors cuts paper. Paper covers rock.

Also certain to play roles are automatic appointee Pam Bondi (because she holds the office of Attorney General), and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga‘s three accomplished choices.

Of the three state leaders, it was, not surprisingly, Corcoran who made the boldest selections (although one pick is all but unjustifiable except for political reasons).

Corcoran understands the enormous potential the CRC has to shape the direction of the state for two decades, and his picks reflect that.

Of Negron’s nine picks, former Senate President Don Gaetz and former Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith are the most notable. Undoubtedly, the great orator Gaetz will be one of the most listened-to voices on the CRC.

Yet, for the most part, most of the capital crowd greeted Negron’s selections with shrugged shoulders. As the names were read, ‘Who?’ was asked more than once.

Scott, as his nature, tapped mostly loyalists for the Commission. He also made a disastrous decision by selecting Carlos Beruff as chair. Unless Scott’s not really interested in having the Commission accomplish much, that is.

So now that all 37 Commissioners have been identified, and Jeff Woodburn has been tapped as Executive Director, here are a few things I think about these selections.

— Again, Beruff chairing the Commission will likely end in disaster. Yes, he is a capable man with an extensive CV marked by selection to numerous blue ribbon panels. But all of that came before he decided to run for U.S. Senate. Now, he’s seen as the guy who was hoodwinked by political consultants into spending millions of dollars of his own money so he could finish just ahead of the margin of error. He’s also been exposed as a far-right ideologue who makes Marie Le Pen look soft on immigration. Even if he builds consensus and can get a majority of the alphas on the Commission to propose amendments to the Constitution, Beruff is one of the last people you’d want campaigning for passing initiatives. Sandy D’Alemberte or Dexter Douglass he ain’t.

— With Beruff as Chair and other Scott loyalists, including Tim Cerio and Brecht Heuchan, on board, the unnamed 38th member of the Commission is Scott’s former Chief of Staff, Melissa Sellers.

— If you are Joanne McCall, the president of the Florida Education Association, and you see this list, you should be panicking. A near supermajority of these Commissioners, from The Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Patricia Levesque to Democrat state Sen. Darryl Rouson, are school choice advocates. And they’d like nothing more than to see the repeal of the 132-year-old Blaine Amendment, which says state funds may not go to support religious institutions. Of course, an initiative to do just that was rejected by Florida voters in 2012. Still, with Marva JohnsonPam StewartErika DonaldsSherry Plymale, and so many other proponents of greater choice for students, you can expect the CRC to spend considerable time on education issues.

— In addition to education, expect the CRC to focus on overhauling the redistricting process created by the Fair Districts amendments, adding a (tiebreaking) member to the Florida Cabinet and strengthening private property rights.

— Back to the boldness of Corcoran’s selections; the ultimate power play was rewarding Tom Lee with a spot on the CRC. With that pick, he’s not playing checkers. He’s not playing chess. He’s playing three-dimensional chess. The move makes it clear that he has a powerful ally in Negron’s own house, even if he’s not in leadership. Clearly, all the Cabernet the two men enjoyed while serving as their respective chamber’s appropriations chairs led to a strong relationship.

— If there’s a downside to Lee being picked by Corcoran to sit on the CRC, it’s that he probably just took him out of the running to be appointed by Scott as chief financial officer. With tensions running as high as they are between Scott and Corcoran, there’s no way the Governor puts somebody now perceived as one of the Speaker’s allies on the Cabinet.

— Arthenia Joyner probably won’t win many important votes while serving on the CRC, but she gets a microphone and a soapbox to talk about the liberal issues she cares most about. Same goes for Sen. Smith. As for the other Democratic state Senator on the panel — Rouson — that guy is the Swiss Army Knife of appointees because he does so much: He’s African-American (check!) He’s a Democrat (check!) He’s from Tampa Bay (check!) But – and this certainly did not escape Corcoran – Rouson is an outspoken proponent of school choice and charter schools. During his Senate campaign, Rouson benefited from the support of the Florida Children’s Federation, the political arm of the Florida movement for private school tuition vouchers.

— Legislators know how to build coalitions. That’s why you should expect Jose Felix Diaz and Jeanette Nunez to star while on the CRC. For Diaz, it’s also a chance to audition before a statewide audience in the event he wants to run for Attorney General in 2018.

— It should not be overlooked that some really smart, good folks are on this Commission. Heuchan, Rich Newsome (one of the Speaker’s best friends and one of the best trial lawyers in the state), Jimmy Patronis … each have the potential to be consensus builders on this board.

— If there is one pick from any of the leaders that is meeting with derision, it’s Corcoran’s selection of John Stemberger, the self-appointed leader of Florida’s religious right. It’s not just progressives like Equality Florida and state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith who have a problem with Stemberger on the CRC, but also a rash of Republicans and conservatives who, albeit privately, think poorly of Stemberger. His selection by Corcoran is being described as a sop to the right wing of the GOP, particularly if Corcoran runs for Governor in 2018.

— Won’t it be interesting to see what Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco does on a statewide stage? I know many people who are hoping he does another news conference like this:

Proposals approved by the CRC will move forward as ballot issues in the November 2018 general election. Amendments need 60 percent of the vote to become part of the state Constitution.

In 1998, eight of the nine ballot proposals advanced by the Commission were approved by voters, although they only required a majority vote at that time.

State lawmakers applaud Florida TaxWatch during annual State of Taxpayer dinner

State lawmakers applauded Florida TaxWatch this week, hailing the organization for its role in the legislative process.

“The folks that formed Florida TaxWatch had a good focus in mind,” said Sen. Jack Latvala. “And as a result of Florida TaxWatch’s efforts, we’ve turned things around.”

The taxpayer advocacy group hosted its State of the Taxpayer dinner Wednesday. The annual event is meant to highlight issues affecting the average taxpayer, and features speeches from Latvala, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Rep. Jim Boyd and Rep. Manny Diaz. House Speaker Richard Corcoran was scheduled to attend, but was unable to make it, according to a spokesman for the organization.

While speakers used the event as a chance to promote the work they’re doing, some took a few moments to show their support for Enterprise Florida, one of Gov. Rick Scott’s top priorities.

Latvala, who serves as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said at some point the state needs to start thinking about how it can balance its desire to keep taxes low, while still meeting the needs of the state.

“I believe the way we do that, just like the governor believes, is by growing the economy organically,” said Latvala. “We need to bring in high paid employees and get them in to the Florida economy, get them buying homes. And that’s been a function that’s been performed admirably by Enterprise Florida.”

While the program has come under fire in recent years, Latvala told attendees the program was the “creation of Republican leaders.” And before Enterprise Florida, there was a “zero match” when it came to companies putting in dollars to recruit businesses.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “If we get rid of our (economic incentive) programs, we’re going into the world in a competition situation naked as a jaybird. And I don’t want to do that.”

Florida TaxWatch has opposed legislation by the Florida House that would eliminate Enterprise Florida and a slew of other economic incentive programs. The bill cleared the House Appropriations Committee last week, and is scheduled to get its first hearing in the full House on Thursday.

“The session has gotten off to a slow start, with not much happening in the next couple of days,” joked Lopez-Cantera.

Boyd, the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, discussed what his committee was doing, and said the House wants what is best for Florida.

“I do believe with all of my heart, and I know leadership of the House does as well, that we’re all out for the same thing. At the end of the day we want a vibrant economy, we want jobs, we want good education,” he said. “I know that as we move through this process … we share the same goal. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We’re getting closer every day.”

Florida Supreme Court considers voting rights amendment

The Florida Supreme Court is being asked to approve the wording of a proposed amendment that could allow convicted criminals to vote.

Backers of the amendment went before the high court on Monday. Justices must decide whether the amendment is misleading.

Florida’s constitution bars people convicted of felonies from being able to vote after they have left prison. Convicted felons must ask to have their voting rights restored.

The amendment would allow most convicts to have their rights automatically restored after they have completed their prison sentence. Felons convicted of murder or a sexual offense would not be eligible.

Amendment supporters still must gather more than 700,000 signatures to place the amendment on the 2018 ballot.

An attorney for Attorney General Pam Bondi said she is not taking a stance on the amendment wording.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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