News Service Of Florida – Florida Politics

News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

Judge slated to hear House qualifying dispute

A Leon County circuit judge will hear arguments July 30 in a dispute about whether a candidate for a Central Florida House seat properly qualified to run.

Judge John Cooper on Wednesday issued an order scheduling the hearing in the lawsuit filed July 6 by Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat running in state House District 47. Eskamani contends that her Democratic primary opponent, Lou Forges, did not properly qualify because his wife notarized paperwork submitted to the state Division of Elections. She argues that state law bars such notarization by spouses and that Forges should be decertified as a candidate — arguments that Forges disputes.

Democrats are seeking to capture the seat, which is open because state Rep. Mike Miller, a Winter Park Republican, is running for Congress.

Rick Scott signs death warrant in 1992 murder

Nearly 26 years after a woman was beaten and stabbed to death in her Miami-Dade County home, Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday said her murderer should die by lethal injection on Aug. 14.

Scott signed a death warrant for inmate Jose Antonio Jimenez, who was convicted in the October 1992 killing of 63-year-old Phyllis Minas, whose neighbors heard her shout, “Oh God! Oh my God!” during the attack, according to court documents.

Jimenez, now 54, would be the first inmate put to death by lethal injection in Florida since Feb. 22, when Eric Branch was executed in the 1993 murder and sexual assault of University of West Florida student Susan Morris. Jimenez also would be the 28th inmate executed since Scott took office in 2011 — the most of any Florida governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, a state Department of Corrections list shows.

Scott signed the death warrant after the Florida Supreme Court on June 28 rejected an appeal by Jimenez, who was convicted of the murder in 1994.

The appeal was rooted, at least in part, in a January 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hurst v. Florida and subsequent Florida Supreme Court decisions. The 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries. The Florida Supreme Court subsequently said juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty.

In Jimenez’s case, a jury unanimously recommended to the trial judge that he should be sentenced to death. But Jimenez’s attorney argued in a May brief that the jury was not required to make critical findings “beyond a reasonable doubt” and that, as a result, the death sentence was invalid.

The Supreme Court, however, has rejected numerous similar arguments from longtime Death Row inmates. Justices have said the new sentencing requirements that resulted from the Hurst decision apply to cases since June 2002 — and not to earlier cases. The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2002 issued a ruling known as Ring v. Arizona that was a premise for striking down Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system in 2016.

“Jimenez was sentenced to death following a jury’s unanimous recommendation for death,” the Florida Supreme Court wrote in the June 28 decision. “His sentence of death became final in 1998 (after an earlier appeal). Thus, Hurst does not apply retroactively to Jimenez’s sentence of death.”

Jimenez was accused of killing Minas during a burglary. Neighbors tried to enter the home through an unlocked front door after hearing Minas’ cries, but Jimenez slammed the door shut, locked it and fled by going onto a bedroom balcony, according to court documents.

Jeff Greene sinks millions into campaign

After getting a late start in the race, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Greene put $9.6 million of his money into the campaign in less than a month, according to a finance report posted on the state Division of Elections website.

Greene, a billionaire businessman from Palm Beach County, loaned $2.5 million to his campaign July 6 after making contributions totaling $7.1 million between June 8 and June 26. He opened a campaign account June 1, long after his Democratic primary opponents entered the race.

Greene, who did not report any outside contributions, had spent about $9.15 million of the money as of July 6, with much of it going to advertising-related expenses.

Greene and the other candidates for governor face a Friday deadline for filing updated finance reports that will show activity through July 13.

Former lawmaker Dwayne Taylor loses appeal in wire fraud case

A federal appeals court Tuesday rejected an appeal by former state Rep. Dwayne Taylor, a Daytona Beach Democrat who was convicted last year on wire-fraud charges.

Taylor was sentenced to 13 months in prison after being convicted on nine counts of wire fraud related to the personal use of campaign funds. It is illegal in Florida to use campaign contributions for normal living expenses.

In the appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Taylor’s attorney contended that the issue of “willfulness” had been improperly left out of instructions to the jury about the crime of wire fraud.

“The omission of willfulness from the jury instruction prevented the jury from considering all the elements necessary (to) reach a valid verdict,” Taylor’s appellate attorney, Tom Dale, wrote in a March brief. But in a two-page ruling Monday, a panel of the appeals court said the two sides in the trial submitted “joint proposed jury instructions to the district court that — consistent with the pattern instruction for wire fraud — did not include the word ‘willfully.’ ”

The appeals court said it would not review what it described as “invited error.” Taylor, 50, who served in the state House from 2008 to 2016, is in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta and is slated for release in December, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.

More candidates emerge for OFR post

Twenty more applications have come in from candidates seeking to replace former top financial regulator Drew Breakspear, after Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet deferred selection of a replacement last month.

Scott and the Cabinet agreed June 27 to name Pam Epting, the deputy commissioner of the state Office of Financial Regulation, as interim commissioner. They also agreed to continued accepting applications for commissioner, a job that has paid $135,158 a year. The latest deadline to apply was Sunday. Epting has not applied for the job.

Breakspear announced his resignation as commissioner this spring under pressure from state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. A more-permanent replacement is now expected to be named at the Aug. 14 Cabinet meeting.

Scott and the Cabinet interviewed five applicants — from 38 who initially applied — at the June meeting. Those interviewed were state Rep. Jay Fant, a Jacksonville Republican; banking lobbyist Scott Jenkins, who most recently was with Wells Fargo in Tallahassee; Linda Charity, a former official with the Office of Financial Regulation who twice served as the interim commissioner; William Jannace, a Bayside, N.Y., resident who has held positions at the American and New York stock exchanges and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is a private, self-regulatory organization; and Kevin Rosen, a partner with Shutts & Bowen in West Palm Beach.

None of those interviewed was publicly dropped from consideration.

Among the recent applicants was Steve Petty, a former chief economist for Florida TaxWatch. Also applying recently was Monica Rutkowski, who is a principal with Mer/Risk & Regulatory Compliance Solutions in Tallahassee. She served as director of life and health product review for the Office of Insurance Regulation from 2005 to 2008 and before that was a legislative liaison for the Florida Department of Health.

Not all of the recent applicants may understand the position, which oversees a regulatory agency that employs about 360 people. One applicant from Tallahassee noted a high-school education and professional experience of a job at Steak ‘n Shake.

Lawsuit challenges Marsy’s Law amendment

A lawsuit has been filed challenging a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that seeks to provide additional protections for victims of crime.

Lee Hollander, a criminal defense lawyer from Southwest Florida, filed the lawsuit late last week in Leon County circuit court challenging Amendment 6, which was placed on the general-election ballot by the state Constitution Revision Commission.

The ballot summary is “misleading” because “it fails to inform voters that it will result in the loss of current constitutional rights of criminal defendants, purports to ‘create’ constitutional rights for victims of crime even though rights for crime victims already exist in the Constitution (and) fails to inform voters that it curtails time allowed for criminal appeals,” the lawsuit said.

Supporters of the amendment, which has become commonly known as “Marsy’s Law,” argue it would establish a series of rights for crime victims, including the right to be notified of major developments in criminal cases and the right to be heard in the legal proceedings. The amendment also would increase the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75. And it would provide that judges should not necessarily defer to the interpretation of laws and rules by governmental agencies in legal proceedings.

Hollander’s lawsuit means four of the eight ballot measures approved by the Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years, are now being challenged in court. Lawsuits have been filed against Amendment 8, which would impose term limits on school board members and expand the use of charter schools, and Amendment 13, which would ban greyhound racing. Several county governments have filed lawsuits against Amendment 10, which would require charter counties to elect all constitutional officers, including sheriffs.

The eight Constitution Revision Commission amendments are among 13 proposed constitutional changes on the November ballot. Each measure must win support from 60 percent of voters to be enacted.

Rick Scott fights financial disclosure lawsuit

A lawyer for Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday asked a state appellate court to block a lawsuit seeking to force the governor to disclose more of his financial assets.

A Leon County circuit judge in February rejected Scott’s request to dismiss the case, which was filed by a Tallahassee attorney seeking to require Scott to provide more disclosure, including details of a blind trust. Scott is the richest governor in state history and had a December 2017 net worth of $232 million, with $215 million in the blind trust.

Scott asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to overturn the circuit judge’s decision and issue a “writ of prohibition,” blocking the lawsuit filed by Donald Hinkle, a lawyer and Democratic fundraiser.

Daniel Nordby, a lawyer for Scott, said compliance with the state’s financial-disclosure laws should be decided by the Florida Commission on Ethics and not by the circuit court. Hinkle has filed complaints with the ethics panel alleging Scott is not making a full disclosure of his financial assets, but the complaints have been dismissed.

“This court should issue a writ of prohibition because the circuit court is attempting to exercise jurisdiction that the law assigns to the Commission on Ethics,” Nordby told a three-member panel of the appellate court.

But Hinkle said there needs to be “mechanism” to appeal financial-disclosure decisions by the ethics commission.

“It was dismissed. We cannot appeal. That’s the end of the road,” Hinkle said. “Is there to be no opportunity to review the disclosures of any elected official, every constitutional officer in this state?”

Hinkle has alleged that Scott should be disclosing more of his blind-trust assets and assets in a revocable trust under First Lady Ann Scott, because the governor has knowledge or control over some of those assets. Under state law, public officials do not have to disclose assets owned by their spouses in annual financial-disclosure filings.

financial-disclosure report filed late last month showed Scott’s net worth rose $83 million in 2017, but the disclosure provided few details. The disclosure showed his blind trust rose from $130.5 million in 2016 to $215 million and produced $120 million in income last year.

The joint Tallahassee bureau of the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times reported the rise was related to an $825 million sale in 2017 of a Michigan-based plastics components company in which the Scott family had a major ownership interest.

Hinkle said more of those details need to be disclosed to the public under the state’s “Sunshine Amendment,” which was passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1976.

“I urge the court not to allow the Commission on Ethics to say we’re not considering this and that be the end of the road,” Hinkle said.

Nordby said the ethics commission reviewed Hinkle’s allegations “and concluded that the disclosures filed by the governor reflected, quote, compliance by the governor with the financial disclosure requirements of the Constitution and related statutes.”

“So the suggestion the ethics commission said we’re not going to look at it is simply belied by the record in this case,” he said.

The appellate court did not rule Tuesday. But regardless of its decision, the debate over Scott’s financial disclosures will continue later this month when he must file another report as part of his campaign for the U.S. Senate. Federal disclosure laws are broader than the Florida requirements, meaning Scott will have to provide more details on his finances.

Appellate Judge Ross Bilbrey asked whether the fact that Scott would be making those federal disclosures would cause a decision in the state litigation to be “moot.”

“I don’t think it’s moot at all,” Hinkle said. “This applies to every office-holder, not just the governor.”

Judge dismisses class action on red light cameras

Following the lead of the Florida Supreme Court, a federal judge has dismissed a class-action lawsuit that challenged the way red-light camera programs have been operated throughout the state.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno last week issued a two-page order dismissing the case, which was filed in 2014. In the decision, Moreno cited a May 3 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that rejected a motorist’s challenge to the red-light camera program in the city of Aventura.

The federal and state cases focused heavily on questions about whether local governments had violated state law by giving too much authority to private red-light camera companies in operating the programs.

But the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the “Legislature has permitted a local government’s agent to review information from red light cameras for any purpose short of making the probable cause determination as to whether a traffic infraction was committed. We thus hold that (a section of state law) authorizes a local government to contract with a private third-party vendor to review and sort information from red light cameras, in accordance with written guidelines provided by the local government, before sending that information to a trained traffic enforcement officer, who determines whether probable cause exists and a citation should be issued.”

Red-light cameras have long been a controversial issue in Florida, with critics arguing that they have become a way for local governments and red-light camera companies to make money.

Supporters, however, contend the cameras improve traffic safety and dissuade motorists from running red lights.

Three state university leaders top $1 million

Three state university presidents in Florida earned more than $1 million in pay and other compensation during the 2016-2017 academic year, a new national survey showed.

University of Central Florida President John Hitt, who retired last month, earned $1.28 million, according to the survey published Sunday by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft earned $1.18 million, and University of Florida President Kent Fuchs earned $1.1 million, the survey showed.

In its annual survey of some 250 public college and university presidents, The Chronicle said the three Florida university leaders were among a dozen public school presidents who earned more than $1 million in 2016-2017. Compensation packages averaged $560,000 for all public university presidents.

The pay packages included base pay but also other compensation such as performance bonuses, housing allowances, vehicles and deferred compensation plans.

Other Florida university presidents in the top 100 of the survey included John Thrasher of Florida State University at $634,437, Mark Rosenberg of Florida International University at $619,739 and John Kelly of Florida Atlantic University at $608,573.

The survey included partial-year salaries for presidents at Florida A&M University and the University of West Florida. But a more complete Florida presidential-pay survey was produced during UCF’s search for its new president this year.

Based on 2016-2017 data, University of North Florida President John Delaney, who has retired, earned $766,121, according to Sibson Consulting. Florida Gulf Coast University President Wilson Bradshaw, who has also retired, earned $686,525.

Florida Polytechnic University President Randy Avent earned $538,517. Florida A&M President Larry Robinson earned $443,907. University of West Florida President Martha Saunders earned $432,915. And New College of Florida President Donal O’Shea earned $357,250, according to the Sibson survey.

The Chronicle also surveyed compensation packages for 570 presidents of private colleges and universities.

Among the Florida presidents in the top 250 in the private-school survey was University of Miami president Donna Shalala, who has retired and is running for Congress, at $1.47 million.

George Hanbury of Nova Southeastern University earned $1.69 million. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University President John P. Johnson, who has retired, earned $879,358.

Florida Institute of Technology president Anthony Catanese, who has retired, earned over $1 million, according to the survey. Larry Thompson of the Ringling College of Art and Design earned $629,640, and Wendy Libby of Stetson University earned $573,015.

William Fleming of Palm Beach Atlantic University earned $474,693 and William Abare, who has retired as president of Flagler College, earned $473,822, the survey showed.

FDOT takes aim at contractor amid SunPass problems

Florida is halting payments to a company upgrading the SunPass toll-collection system until all the changes in the $287 million project are deemed “fully operational.”

The Florida Department of Transportation announced Monday it is withholding payments to Maryland-based Conduent State & Local Solutions as work continues on the SunPass Centralized Customer Service System, which was expected to be completed June 11.

“The contract with our vendor includes a number of robust provisions related to performance and failure to meet obligations,” the department said in a statement that did not indicate how much money the state still owes Conduent or the number of payments remaining.

Department spokesman Ed Seifert said Conduent has not submitted invoices for reimbursement since June 11. The contract to incorporate all back-office operations into a single operation was awarded in November 2015.

Conduent’s 1,575-page contract outlines that $5,000 a day in “liquid damages” may be imposed for each day from the “go-live” date that work fails to be considered completed.

Transportation Secretary Mike Dew called the delays “completely unacceptable.”

“The department anticipates and expects that Conduent will continue to improve the operations of the SunPass call center, the website interface, the functionality of the mobile application interface and the availability and reliability of SunPass Plus, so that SunPass customers are provided the premium level of service they are entitled to expect,” Dew wrote in a letter Monday to Conduent President David Amoriell.

Amoriell advised the state last week that the company had already made “substantial improvements in recent weeks and will continue to strive for your complete satisfaction.”

The issues remaining from the upgrade include the effectiveness of the SunPass website and mobile application; issues related to multiple charges being applied through the payment processing system; and problems with the expanded SunPass Plus application at airports, which was slow or unavailable in responding to airport gate systems when customers entered or exited parking facilities.

As part of the conversion, SunPass Plus parking has been expanded from Orlando International Airport to include Miami International Airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Palm Beach International Airport and Tampa International Airport.

Amoriell said double charges against customers are being reversed, with letters prepared to notify customers.

“We will commit that customers will not be overcharged,” Amoriell wrote.

As for the website, Amoriell wrote that an independent third-party vendor has been hired to identify ways to further improve the system.

Despite the assertions to complete the work, no completion date has been set.

The state continues to catch up on the backload of toll transactions — at least 100 million — that occurred after work on the upgrades began on June 5.

As of Monday, more than 46 million transactions had been processed, starting with the oldest.

The state is trying to process about 8 million transactions a day, double the daily average of toll transactions.

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