Headlines Archives - Florida Politics

Senate spends $25K on outside attorneys for Jack Latvala probe

The Senate has spent nearly $25,000 in taxpayer money on outside attorneys in connection to the sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala, according to Senate records.

In mid-November, Senate President Joe Negron hired a trio of attorneys from the GrayRobinson law firm to help him navigate the investigation into sexual harassment and groping allegations against Latvala, one of the chamber’s most powerful senators.

Negron sought the help from the Orlando-based firm after the Senate general counsel, Dawn Roberts, recused herself from any involvement in the case, citing a potential conflict of interest because of her close association with Latvala over the years.

Since the contract was signed on Nov. 9, George Meros, who has represented embattled high-profile Republicans in the past, attorney Brian Bieber and attorney Allison Mawhinney have worked a total of 46.8 hours.

The attorneys charge an hourly fee, and according to the contract, their rates are $600 for Bieber, $550 for Meros and $345 for Mawhinney.

The contract with GrayRobinson states the attorneys will provide “legal and consulting services to the Senate” until Negron or his designee decides the services are no longer needed.

In recent weeks, one of the six women who accused Latvala of sexual harassment accused him publicly, intensifying the strategy behind his legal defense, which has led Sen. Lauren Book to file a formal complaint with the Senate Rules Committee, where she accuses him of interfering with the investigation.

Legal battles are also starting to appear even as some senators speculate the Senate investigation may be coming to an end.

Rachel Perrin Rogers, who publicly accused Latvala of sexual assault and harassment, has not ruled out the possibility of suing Latvala, according to her attorney Tiffany Cruz.

Cruz said the lawsuit would not be dependent on whether a special master finds probable cause in the Senate investigation, and the Tallahassee-based attorney may also be eyeing a potential lawsuit against the Senate.

“My client had hoped for a fair and impartial process in the Senate, but due to recent actions, we have serious concerns,” Cruz said.

Last week, Cruz asked the Senate to preserve all records related to the case, including emails, text messages, spreadsheets and documents.

Two days after that request was made, Lily Tysinger, a former Senate Majority Office colleague of Perrin Rogers who has helped Latvala mount his defense with sworn statements that take aim at Perrin Rogers’ credibility, filed a defamation suit against Perrin Rogers.

Cruz said she is “absolutely” filing a counterclaim against Tysinger.

Tysinger’s attorney, Marie Mattox, who has been behind several sexual harassment cases settled with the state, said the case is related to the “unsafe working environment” Rogers created for her at the Senate Majority Office.

Opponents strike back on Ashton Hayward’s Airbnb commercial

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward was the star of a television commercial that began in Tallahassee last week in which he extolled the virtues of vacation rental homes in Pensacola and Airbnb for marketing them – but opponents of that company’s legislative agenda are striking back this week, with a new video starring Hayward.

Hayward didn’t explicitly discuss that legislative agenda in the commercial, “Airbnb citizen,” instead talking about visitors wanting “that authentic experience, and this is what Airbnb offers them.”

AirbnbWATCH, a group tied to the hotel industry that opposes much of Airbnb’s legislative agenda, has launched an internet video featuring a brief interview with Hayward in which he acknowledges that local communities should have some say in how to regulate vacation rental homes.

And that’s the crux of the legislative fight: Airbnb and other vacation rental home companies, such as rival marketing firm HomeAway, have been pushing for legislation to prevent cities, towns and counties from regulating vacation rental homes, arguing that such local regulation gets out of hand and thwarts competition in the lodging industry.

An AirbnbWATCH crew caught up with Hayward at the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s convention in Miami Beach in June and asked him, on camera, if he would prefer that mayors have the ability to regulate vacation rental homes, rather than have the state dictate what cities and counties may do.

In the video posted by AirbnbWATCH, Hayward replies, “For me, when it comes to your location, your local community, sometimes there are issues you need to regulate that are different than across the state. If you think about the great state of Florida, it’s the third largest state in the union. And so those are issues that are sometimes different say in Tampa, or in Miami, or Miami Beach, for that matter, or Boca, or Orlando. It’s a big state, so it’s difficult sometimes to have this broad brush of regulation.”

Hayward’s office did not respond Tuesday to a request from Florida Politics to discuss the apparently conflicting messages being offered by the mayor for both sides of the vacation rental debate.

AirbnbWATCH said in a news release that it has recorded numerous similar interviews with mayors, and looks forward to releasing them as well.

Email insights: Gwen Graham’s bold claim — more supporters than any Gov. candidate

In the race for Florida Governor, if anything, Gwen Graham is audacious.

As well as announcing a “strong fundraising streak” through November, a new email from the Democratic hopeful makes a bold declaration — her campaign “has more supporters” than any other candidate in the race, either Democratic or Republican.

That’s quite a statement for a Democrat in a state controlled by Republicans for the past 20 years.

“While [Republicans] Adam Putnam and Richard Corcoran continue to fill their campaigns with special interests’ donations, we are taking on Tallahassee’s self-serving politicians and building a grassroots campaign to put real Floridians back in charge of our state,” Graham said.

Graham is backing up her self-assurance with some solid numbers — more than $300,000 raised for eight consecutive months, bringing in more than $240,000 in her campaign account, as well as more than $100,000 for her political committee “Our Florida” — totaling more than $350,000 in November.

In her bid for Governor, the former North Florida congresswoman now has raised more than $4.36 million dollars, as with about $2.78 million on hand.

While those numbers are impressive, what about the statement of “more supporters than anyone else?”

Good question; Graham added more than 1,400 new grassroots donors in just the last month, meaning she now has more than 11,500 unique supporters — more people than any other candidate in the race.

According to Matt Harringer, Graham’s communications director, the numbers of supporters are solid — using state records —  and speak for themselves. Among Democrats, Philip Levine has 604; Andrew Gillum, 8,451 and Chris King, 1674. As for Republicans, Jack Latvala has 2681; Putnam, 10,133 and Corcoran, 569.

It is this metric that Graham’s campaign says will become the strong foundation to take the ultimate challenge in Florida — facing a Republican in the general election.

Graham takes a parting shot at “Tallahassee Republicans” who are preparing for the upcoming 2018 Legislative Session the same way they have for more than two decades — holding committee week fundraisers with lobbyists.

“While they’re partying in Tallahassee,” Graham says her campaign “traveling the state building support from real Floridians and talking about the issues that matter to them.’

This leads to her boldest statement of all — that she “will take back the governor’s office and set Florida on a brighter path forward.”

While it’s too early to tell how the Governor’s race will ultimately pan out, there’s little doubt Graham has an abundance of confidence in both herself and her campaign.

We’ll see if that’s enough.

November fundraising boosts Adam Putnam to $15.35M on hand

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has more than $15 million on hand for his gubernatorial bid after bringing in nearly $1 million last month between his campaign and committee accounts.

Putnam brought in $267,070 through his campaign account and another $704,550 through his committee, Florida Grown, for a total of $971,620 raised in November.

The Republican’s largest single donor last month was from “Floridian’s United for Our Children’s Future.” The committee, chaired by Ryan Tyson, cut a $100,000 check. Following that were five checks for $50,000, including one from Publix and another from University of Florida trustee and businessman James Heavener.

Florida Jobs PAC, Herzog Contracting and PepsiCo chipped in at the $25,000 level, with a host of additional donors chipping in between $5,000 and $15,000.

Putnam’s campaign money came in through more than 1,000 contributions, including 18 for the election maximum of $3,000.

Publix and Heavener chipped in with max checks to the campaign in addition to their committee contributions. The supermarket chain’s chairman, Howard Jenkins, and his wife Patricia Jenkins also chipped into the campaign account, as did lobbyist Mark Anderson and Tampa entrepreneur Chris Sullivan.

The biggest bills last month came from Forward Strategies, which received $43,430 fo fundraising consulting via Florida Grown, The Tarrance Group which took in $20,704 for surveys, Lockton Affinity, which received a $13,397 payment for insurance, and Direct Mail Systems, which received $11,040 for mailers.

In all, Florida Grown spent $204,714 last month and has $12.83 million on hand, while the campaign account spent $83,730 and has about $2.52 million on hand. Combined, the two accounts add up to $15.35 million on hand.

That total puts Putnam far ahead of all other candidates running for governor, with former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine in a distant second place with about $7 million in total fundraising between his campaign and committee accounts.

Putnam’s only major primary challenger so far, Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, has not yet filed his campaign finance report for November, though his committee account saw contributions slow to a halt last month.

Latvala’s fundraising arm, Florida Leadership Committee, finished November with $5,347 in contributions and just under $4 million in the bank. His campaign account had $872,374 on hand at the end of October.

Supreme Court to rule on judge, Facebook friend

With potential ramifications in courthouses across the state, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday said it will take up a dispute about whether a judge should be disqualified from a case because she is a Facebook friend with a lawyer.

Justices issued an order saying they will consider an appeal of an August ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal that rejected a request to disqualify Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko. The dispute stems from Butchko being a Facebook friend of attorney Israel Reyes, who was hired to represent an insurance-company executive in a case before her.

The Herssein Law Group, which had sued a former client, United Services Automobile Association, for alleged breach of contract and fraud, is seeking the disqualification. In a Supreme Court brief filed in October, the Herssein Law Group said the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruling conflicted with an earlier decision of the 4th District Court of Appeal that said a judge should be disqualified from a criminal case because of being Facebook friends with a prosecutor.

“The Third District Court of Appeal’s opinion, therefore, creates completely different standards for judges in Florida, depending on which district the judge sits in, to determine when and whether they are violating the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct,” the brief said. “This is untenable for both judges and the public perception of the judiciary. The application and interpretation of the Code of Judicial Conduct must be uniform for all judges in the state of Florida.”

Attorneys for the insurance company, however, filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to turn down the case. They argued, in part, that the Herssein case has different circumstances from the earlier case involving a prosecutor.

“Further, petitioners (the Herssein Law Group) are sophisticated litigators who have practiced in Miami-Dade County for many years,” the insurance-company brief said. “It is highly questionable whether any reasonably prudent person in petitioners’ situation would have a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial simply because the trial judge and Reyes are Facebook `friends.’ “

The Supreme Court, as is standard, did not explain its reasons for deciding to take up the case. It said it would schedule oral arguments in a separate order.

In its ruling in August, the 3rd District Court of Appeal concluded that “a `friend’ on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word.”

“To be sure, some of a member’s Facebook `friends’ are undoubtedly friends in the classic sense of person for whom the member feels particular affection and loyalty,” the decision said. “The point is, however, many are not. A random name drawn from a list of Facebook `friends’ probably belongs to casual friend; an acquaintance; an old classmate; a person with whom the member shares a common hobby; a `friend of a friend;’ or even a local celebrity like a coach. An assumption that all Facebook `friends’ rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.”

American Bridge takes aim at Adam Putnam

A Democrat-aligned super PAC is taking aim at Adam Putnam with a new website called ProblemPutnam.com.

American Bridge, launched by David Brock in 2010, says it intends on informing Floridians over the next year about what it contends has been Putnam’s priorities in public office since first being elected more than 20 years ago:

“Sweet deals for big business and his own bank accounts, while squarely ignoring the needs and concerns of Florida families.”

Putnam is considered a leading contender to become the next Republican nominee for Governor in 2018. In addition to his prodigious fundraising totals (he has over $15 million cash-on-hand), the only other establishment Republican considered to have any shot at him – Clearwater state Senator Jack Latvala – has had his campaign upended by allegations of sexual harassment that could lead to his expulsion from the Legislature.

Two other men considered to be contenders, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, have yet to enter the race.

“Adam Putnam is truly the problem child for Florida Republicans—he’s been cozying up to and making sweet deals on behalf of the lobbyists and donors that keep him in office for decades, all at the expense of Florida families,” American Bridge spokesperson Lizzy Price says.

“Putnam is right in line with Republicans in Congress under the leadership of Donald Trump who give handouts to the rich at the expense of the middle class,” Price adds.

“This will be a long, difficult campaign for Problem Putnam and in the end, Floridians will know that his problems aren’t endearing. They’re dangerous and wrong for Florida.”

The Putnam campaign slammed the site, and American Bridge.

“No surprise to see a super PAC funded by Hollywood liberals George Soros and Michael Moore is terrified to see a strong conservative with a positive vision for our state in the race for Governor,” said Putnam campaign spokeswoman Amanda Bevis. “This website is a poor-quality, Hollywood production that aims to fool voters into reversing the progress our state has made.”

Soros, the billionaire hedge fund manager, has been a major contributor to American Bridge over the years, including $80,000 earlier this year, according to Open Secrets.

Governor’s office weighs how to replace Public Service Commission seat

Gov. Rick Scott‘s staff has not determined how to fill a Public Service Commission seat after the withdrawal of an appointee who was accused by an influential senator of sexually inappropriate behavior.

Scott said Monday it remains unclear if the Public Service Commission Nominating Council will have to restart the search process or if a name can be selected from among other finalists proposed by the council in August.

“I’ve been talking to our general counsel’s office to understand exactly how it’s going to work,” Scott said after a meeting with community leaders in Gadsden County.

Ritch Workman, a former state House member who was supposed to join the Public Service Commission on Jan. 2, walked away this month from the appointment, which would have required Senate confirmation.

His decision came after Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, said she would not put Workman’s appointment on her committee’s agenda because of his “abhorrent” behavior to her last year.

Workman, a Melbourne Republican, had been selected by Scott in September to replace Commissioner Ronald Brise on the five-member commission. Members are paid $131,000-a-year. Brise, who was on the short list of candidates from the nominating council, has been on the utility-regulatory board since 2010.

Richard Corcoran’s political committee tops $750K in November

House Speaker and likely gubernatorial candidate Richard Corcoran’s political committee had a healthy stint in November, raising $753,700 – the fourth-highest monthly total since the committee’s inception last June.

From law firms and attorneys alone, Watchdog raised $208,000 last month. The Land O’ Lakes Republican’s committee also received a combined $35,000 from Swisher International and Dosal tobacco companies.

Also dumped into the Speaker’s committee: $100,000 from Voice of Florida Business PAC, $95,000 from Citizens Alliance for Florida and $20,000 from Missouri-based Isle of Capri Casinos.

While Corcoran hasn’t announced a bid for the governor’s mansion, his committee’s expenditures reflect spending indicative of a campaign ahead.

Watchdog spent $106,320 in November, nearly $25,000 of which going to Rapid Loop Consulting and almost $15,000 to Jacksonville-based fundraising consultants Political Capital. The committee also paid out more than $30,000 to Go Big Media, which advertises on its site that it delivers “big wins.”

To date, Watchdog has raised $5.4 million and has $4.6 million banked. November spending saw a dip from the two preceding months.

Corcoran’s fundraising numbers are good enough to put him in the fourth-place spot among declared candidates if he throws his name in the mix for governor.

Far out in front is fellow Republican and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who added nearly $1 million in contributions between his campaign and committee accounts in November and has about $15.35 million on hand.

Next in line is former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democrat, who also raised $1 million in November, putting his total fundraising at around the $7 million mark.

Embroiled Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, the only other major Republican who has declared, has seen his contributions slow to a halt since six women accused of sexual harassment in early November, but he still about $4.8 million on hand between his campaign and committee account.

Poll: Gwen Graham leads Democratic gubernatorial primary

Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham is improving her standing in the early stages of the 2018 gubernatorial race, leading the three other Democratic candidates, according to a new poll out Monday.

She holds a seven-point lead over second place over Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

The poll, released by Associated Industries of Florida, a GOP-leaning business lobby, shows Graham with 24 percent, while Gillum is at 17 percent.

While the poll points to a Graham-Gillum race at the moment, the money does not favor the Gillum team, which has struggled to raise cash. By the end of October, he had raised $1.6 million total for his campaign.

“Always would like to have more, but it’s far from the whole story,” Geoff Burgan, a spokesperson for the campaign, said. “Florida history has borne that out.”

In that same time period, Graham’s raised $4 million and Chris King, a newcomer in Florida politics, pulled in $2.7 million for his campaign. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, though, has raised the most: somewhere in the ballpark of $7 million.

King and Levine each have 4 percent of the vote in the four-way race, according to the poll. Both trailing rumored Democratic gubernatorial candidate, prosecutor Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who has 6 percent of Floridians’ support in the poll.

Levine’s deep pockets are not to be underestimated, though. Money could soon boost Levine’s statewide name recognition in the race, and he is already working to do so by paying for bilingual TV advertisements.

To keep the momentum, Gillum is betting on the vote of African-Americans, a demographic with which he is leading, according to the new numbers. But as the 38-year-old runs on an “unapologetic progressive” platform, very liberal voters are narrowly favoring Graham (25-23) — not him.

“Name ID is higher for her, for now. Gillum is building real momentum on issues and clearly growing in his race,” Burgan said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King wants to reform committee week meetings

If Chris King becomes governor, he wants committee weeks to be held throughout the state — and not exclusively at the Capitol.

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate says he will champion legislation that would mandate committee weeks be held in “as many regions as possible” across the state to give constituents better access to state government.

“The location of our legislative process benefits individuals and organizations with the financial means and time to travel,” King said in a statement.

Historically, committee weeks have always been held at the Capitol, making this change a departure from the norm. But King said the “remoteness” of the Legislature is one of the reasons unethical behavior continues to occur in state government.

King envisions committee weeks being hosted at Florida public schools or universities ahead of Session, and once they are done, lawmakers will once again flock to the state Capitol to begin Session.

The Orlando entrepreneur also wants to push policies that support and protect victims of sexual misconduct. He wants to make sure any settlement made in a sexual misconduct case against an elected official is subject to a public record request, but the names of victims are confidential.

He also wants to have an eight-year lobbying ban for former members.

King is trailing former Congresswoman Gwen Graham and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in the four-way 2018 Democratic primary. His campaign said Friday it raised $100,000 in November and that it has more than $1.6 million on hand.

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