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Feds weigh entering lawsuit over FIU bridge records

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for north Florida has told a Tallahassee judge it now “is considering participation” in a lawsuit by The Miami Herald seeking records on March’s bridge collapse at Florida International University that killed six people.

U.S. Attorney Christopher P. Canova sent a notice dated June 15 to Circuit Judge John Cooper saying federal law authorized him to “attend to the interests of the United States in (any state) lawsuit,” court records show.

The three-page document, filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew J. Grogan, says that the Herald “seek(s) to compel disclosure of certain records … (that) are the subject of a pending accident investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

“Thus, the United States may have an interest in setting forth for the court its views with respect to the pending motions and potential disclosure of information,” it says. “The United States, therefore, is actively considering whether to file a statement of interest” in the case.

Canova asked Cooper to “defer (any) rulings” until it determines whether to get involved. The feds said they would let Cooper know by next Wednesday whether they would enter the case or stay on the sidelines.

“The United States appreciates the court’s consideration of its potential interest in the information sought” by The Herald, the filing says.

The newspaper, Capital bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas, and Tallahassee correspondent Elizabeth Koh sued the state’s Department of Transportation in Leon County Circuit Civil court last month, seeking “emails, meeting minutes and other records relating to the bridge’s design and construction.”

The March 15 collapse of the recently-erected bridge, spanning Tamiami Trail and meant to connect the campus to student housing in Sweetwater, killed six midday motorists or passengers, and injured nine others. It happened “just days after cracks had been observed in the $14.3 million structure,” The Herald has reported.

In another letter reported last month, NTSB assistant general counsel Benjamin T. Allen explained to Cooper that his agency has “prohibited” FDOT from releasing certain investigative information “absent NTSB approval.”

At a hearing in the suit earlier this month, Cooper called the NTSB an “indispensable party” and declined to dismiss the lawsuit.

“He … ordered FDOT to send (a) letter asking NTSB to join the lawsuit as a party or file an amicus brief to defend its legal reasoning,” The Herald reported. If NTSB declines, Cooper added, the state will tell it “we’re going to continue the party without you.”

Canova, a former assistant prosecutor under then-State Attorney Willie Meggs in Tallahassee and a former Assistant Statewide Prosecutor in Orlando, was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida “on an interim basis in April 2016” under President Barack Obama, according to his official bio.

The Herald is represented by Sandy Bohrer, a partner in the Holland & Knight law firm in Miami and co-chair of the firm’s National Media Team.

As qualifying deadline nears, more candidates file for House races

Another handful of candidates put their names down Tuesday for Florida House seats, just three days ahead of the qualifying deadline for state legislative races.

Port St. Lucie Republican Teri Pinney opened filed for House District 84, setting up a GOP primary between her and Mark Gotz.

HD 84 is a swing seat currently held by Democratic Rep. Larry Lee, who is not running for re-election in the fall. Democrats Forest Blanton, Delores Hogan Johnson and Robert Joseph are also vying to succeed Lee in the St. Lucie County-based district.

While Blanton and Gotz are the only two candidates qualified for the ballot, Johnson and Joseph are the only ones who’ve been around long enough to turn in a campaign finance report. As of May 31, Johnson had about $4,100 banked; Joseph had about $875.

Over in the Panhandle, Pace Republican Rep. Jayer Williamson picked up a no-party challenger in his bid for a second term in House District 3.

Currently, Bobbi Sue Osborne is the only candidate challenging Williamson for the Republican stronghold seat, which covers parts of Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties.

Williamson had raised $100,750 for his campaign account through the end of May. He started the month with $64,130 in the bank.

Earlier Tuesday, Lithia Republican Sean McCoy announced he would run for House District 57. Like HD 84, the Hillsborough based seat is opening up in the fall due to the early exit of Republican Rep. Jake Raburn.

Qualifying for state races ends noon Friday.

John Stemberger, Florida Family Action to join Adam Putnam bid for Governor

John Stemberger and the political arm of his Florida Family Policy Council have called a news conference Wednesday with Adam Putnam — presumably to endorse the Republican’s run for governor.

Florida Family Action, the 501[c][4] supporting the political work of the Florida Family Policy Council, has set the event with Putnam at Stemberger’s Orlando law office in Orlando, for “an important announcement in the race for Florida’s next governor,” according to a news advisory.

Florida Family Policy Council is on the front lines of the ultraconservative Christian crusade fighting to outlaw abortion, oppose the gay rights movement as an agenda “to abolish the traditional, Judeo-Christian view of human sexuality, marriage and family,” and challenge the teaching of evolution as science in schools.

The group argues all those issues are both bad policy and in violation of Biblical teachings.

Florida Family Action also offers its takes on a variety of other matters, ranging from campaigning against gambling and human trafficking to opposing “hate crime” laws, which the organization believes has a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

At the Florida Family Policy Council’s annual dinner in May, both Putnam and his Republican primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, came to make presentations, the first time the pair had appeared together.

Donald Trump Jr. cancels fundraiser with George P. Bush

Former Gov. Jeb Bush’s statement against the Trump administration policy splitting up undocumented immigrant families crossing the U.S. border may have caused a rift between his son, George P. Bush, and Donald Trump Jr.

As reported by Axios, sources close to Trump Jr. say he plans to pull out of a New York City fundraiser he was set to headline for George P. next week. Bush is running for re-election as Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, an office he’s held since 2015.

The New York GOP has since deleted a web page listing for the June 25 fundraiser.

Don Jr.’s decision comes one day after Jeb Bush called on President Donald Trump to end the “heartless” migrant family separation policy that has resulted in at least two thousand children being separated from their parents in the last six weeks.

Those close to Don Jr. say the tweet was his “final straw” when it comes to the Bush family.

He had previously taken umbrage with a CNBC appearance by Jeb where the former governor criticized they way President Trump attacked his rivals in order to “make himself look strong.”

The sources that said Don Jr. is pulling out of the fundraiser added that the move “isn’t personal,” and that Don Jr. considers his relationship with George P. Bush “collateral damage.”

Poll shows Sean Shaw up, but can he be Attorney General?

State Rep. Sean Shaw, the likely Democratic nominee for Attorney General, is polling well against either Republican he will likely face in November.

As Florida Politics reported Monday, Shaw, the son of a former Supreme Court Justice, is leading former Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ashley Moody by five points, 41-36 percent, and Pensacola-area state Rep. Frank White by 4 points, 40-36 percent.

“These are very good numbers,” a “pleasantly surprised” Shaw recounted.

“Historically, these down-ballot Cabinet races are tough for Democrats, but it doesn’t surprise me in the sense we’ve been traveling around the state, and people want something different,” he added. “People want something that hasn’t been in that office for a little while. Someone who’s willing to stand up to anyone doing wrong to Floridians.”

Shaw, who represents the Tampa-area House District 61, concedes that it will be “tough” serving as Attorney General from a different party than majorities in the House and (likely) the Senate.

“It is going to be challenging,” Shaw said. “We’ve had one party in charge for so long that I don’t think we understand what it would mean to have another party serve as a check and balance.”

However, Shaw noted that the issues in the AG’s office ultimately are nonpartisan issues.

“Everybody wants to be protected from someone committing fraud. Everyone wants to protect the environment. On the education issue, we may have some partisan disagreements, but the law is what the law is,” Shaw said.

“These Constitutional Amendments that the people passed are black and white,” he added, passed with over 60 percent of the vote.

“That means Democrats and Republicans both believe these things,” Shaw noted.

Regarding medicinal cannabis: “It said the people are going to get it, and it should be smokable.”

And on Amendment 1: “We’re supposed to use doc stamp money to purchase environmentally sound land, and we’re not really doing it.”

If elected, Shaw said he is willing to wage “some battles with the Legislature” to get to the original intent of those amendments and related laws.

As for the money race, however, it’s a different story. The Tampa Democrat has just over $400,000 on hand. In comparison White has $3.4 million (much of it self-funded) to $2.1 million for Moody.

Either candidate would be able to outspend Shaw, yet that doesn’t particularly concern him.

“I don’t have to spend in the primary,” he said. “A lot of that money, they’re going to have to spend to beat each other. That’s going to be a vicious, expensive primary.”

And Shaw recognizes there will be an inevitable play to the base: “They’re going to have to take some positions on some issues. We’ll see if those positions are acceptable to a general electorate.”

“We’re just going to keep hoarding money,” Shaw said, as the GOP primary continues.

He fully expects money will be spent to oppose him when the time is right: “There will be a lot of money spent against me. I’m offering something that’s scary to people.”

Another hallmark of the campaign staffs on the GOP side — oppo dumps — don’t concern Shaw.

“I wouldn’t be running for Attorney General if I was worried about oppo in my background,” he said.

On the trail, Shaw is increasingly refining his message.

In Jacksonville Monday, he addressed Duval County Democrats, after a spate of media hits. On Tuesday, Shaw held a “meet and greet” at a local law office, giving a more polished crowd-pleaser of a stump speech.

Shaw is not writing off Northeast Florida, an area often ignored by statewide candidates.

“It’s the same as other areas of the state in terms of the energy Democrats have,” Shaw remarked. “That’s something that you shouldn’t write off.”

“Democrats are excited. They can’t wait until November,” he said, “and the Blue Wave.”

Material from Florida Politics’ Drew Wilson contributed to this post.

Gwen Graham seeks Rick Scott’s records on Florida’s federal family separation facilities

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham is going after state public records on what Gov. Rick Scott‘s office might have known about the immigrant child detention facility in Homestead and “any other facilities in the state.”

Her public records request submitted Tuesday declares that such detention facilities have created “a moral crisis.” Graham is demanding to know what Scott’s office knows about transfers of unaccompanied children to Homestead and when he and his office knew it.

In a news release, Graham also called for Scott to take a stand against the federal policy: challenging President Donald Trump in court and dispatching the state’s legal and child welfare advocates to assist the children in detention.

She charged that the children separated from their parents and sent to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children are “being held hostage by Trump for political purposes.

It a “sick game,” Graham added.

“Seeing photos of these children, listening to their screams, I think of my own children and how hard I would fight if anyone tried to separate us,” Graham stated in a news release. “Floridians deserve to know what Rick Scott knows about the Trump administration using our state in their political plot to separate families and what he’s doing to assist or stop Trump from bringing children to our state.”

Graham is requesting all records between the state of Florida and the federal government concerning the child detention facility in Homestead as well as any others in the state.

She’s seeking records relating to the federal policy begun in April of prosecuting almost all undocumented immigrants, a process that leads to the parents essentially being jailed while the children are sent off alone to live in harsh detention centers without their parents. The resulting stories, pictures, and videos of terrified and anguished children have horrified much of the world, resulting in widespread outrage and finger-pointing. Yet the process continues.

Scott issued a statement saying he does not favor the policy, but also pointing fingers and not calling for any immediate action to stop it.

Graham and almost all the Democrats have called for immediate actions to stop the policy. Her public records request also is a response to reports that the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children may be holding up to 1,000 children mostly brought from the southwest border under this policy. She’s also referencing unconfirmed reports that there may be other such facilities either in Florida or in the works for Florida.

Graham called on Scott to stop President Donald Trump‘s administration from using Florida in their plans to separate families and to immediately take action to assist the children reportedly being transported to Florida from the border.

“Floridians need more than just words — they need action. Governor Rick Scott should immediately challenge Donald Trump in court to stop him from using Florida as a pawn in this sick game of separating families and detaining children,” Graham stated in the news release. “If Scott won’t stand up to Trump, I will. Unless the Trump administration reverses this cruel and inhuman practice, one of my first acts on my first day as governor will be to take Trump to court.”

In addition to urging Scott to take legal action, Graham urged other actions:

— Immediately asking Attorney General Pam Bondi and his Scott’s general counsel to coordinate with all state attorneys, law firms engaged by the state of Florida, legal aid organizations, and Guardian Ad Litem programs to obtain volunteer advocates for each of the children transported to Florida.

— Immediately order the Florida Department of Children and Families, and all of its community contractors, to coordinate with the federal government in providing the best possible temporary living conditions for the kids transported to Florida and in quickly reuniting them with their families.

“These children are so strong — but we can’t expect them to carry this pain alone. They need someone to be their voice in court proceedings. They need someone to ensure they’re being cared for while separated from their families,” Graham added. “We know Trump won’t do it — so now is the time for our state’s leaders to step up and show compassion. These are children. Regardless of politics, we each have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to help them.”

AARP polls Florida on Donald Trump approval, U.S. Senate race

President Donald Trump‘s job approval rating is split 48-49 percent among Florida registered voters, “higher than how he performed nationally,” according to a new POLITICO/AARP poll released Tuesday.

That rating was 43 percent approving and 52 percent disapproving, said Tyler Sinclair, managing director of client services at Morning Consult, which conducted both polls. Sinclair and others discussed the poll results in a conference call.

And older Floridians, specifically voters age 50 and over, “are more likely to give Trump higher marks” — 51 percent approve the way he handles the presidency and 44 percent disapprove.

The poll “surveyed 1,199 Florida voters on May 29-30 and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus three percentage points,” a news release explained. “For voters 50 and older, the poll surveyed 676 Florida voters and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus four percentage points.”

In the U.S. Senate matchup between term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott and incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, they’re “virtually neck and neck,” with Scott polling at 40 percent and Nelson at 39 percent. Importantly, 21 percent said they “haven’t made up their mind yet.”

Older Floridians are more likely to vote for Scott, by 44 percent-35 percent, according to the poll.

In other topics, 76 percent overall said health care was their No. 1 issue in deciding on a candidate, with Social Security at 73 percent. National security was most important to 70 percent of interviewees, and the economy polled at 69 percent.

Unsurprisingly, older Florida voters said Social Security was their “top policy issue,” at 82 percent, with health care coming in at 78 percent.

The poll comes soon after AARP released its 7th Annual Legislative Voting Record for Florida, showing how lawmakers voted in the 2018 Session “on issues of interest to older Floridians.”

The voting record provides information about legislative votes based on broad topics, such as regulated utilities, the state budget, health care and supportive services, prescription drugs, consumer protections and livable communities.

The complete version of the 2018 voting record can be viewed and downloaded here

AARP is the “nation’s largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, with nearly 38 million members, dedicated to empowering people 50 and older to choose how they live as they age,” the group’s website says.

Frank White’s second TV spot pushes NRA rating, pro-life, support for Donald Trump

Republican attorney general candidate state Rep. Frank White has launched his second television commercial of the campaign season, this time pushing his conservative stances regarding pro-life and the NRA and his commitment to stand with President Donald Trump.

The new 30-second spot, “Tough. Effective. Conservative.” is part of a multi-million, state-wide TV buy running through the August 28 Republican attorney general primary, his campaign stated in a news release. Following his first commercial released two weeks ago, the new spot keeps White in position as the only attorney general candidate of either party to be campaigning in TV commercials.

The video features brief clips of White talking to people, being with his wife and three children, and working at his desk, interspersed with clips of Washington D.C. and Trump. The commercial makes the strongest statement of support for Trump that any of the candidates have released.

White, of Pensacola, faces former Circuit Judge Ashley Moody and state Rep. Jay Fant in the Republican primary. The Democrats are deciding between Sean Shaw and Ryan Torrens.

“Most people just talk the talk in campaign season, but not Frank White. He’s a constitutional conservative with the record to back it up. Frank White has the highest A+ rating from the NRA for defending the Second Amendment and is a husband and father who is 100 percent pro-life,” a narrator states in the new TV commercial.

“Frank White supports term limits and stood with President Trump, voting to outlaw sanctuary cities in Florida,” she adds.

WhereIsRon - Ron DeSantis

Email insights: ‘#WhereIsRon’ DeSantis?

Adam Putnam’s gubernatorial campaign sent an email Monday hitting Republican primary rival Ron DeSantis for spending time in Washington and questioning where he stands on the issues.

“Congressman Ron DeSantis prefers to spend most of his time in Washington, D.C. Not only is he rarely physically in the state, [but] he also refuses to take positions on issues that impact Floridians,” the email said.

“Apparently, the congressman has been so busy running his campaign from D.C. and seeking out of state donations that he hasn’t had time to weigh in.”

The email then highlights news coverage of a variety of issues, from DeSantis going “radio silent” on the two-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre to his campaign’s unwillingness to share specific details about his public safety policy plans.

Team Putnam’s email also coins the hashtag “#WhereIsRon?” which features a cartoon of the Northeast Florida Republican wearing the same threads as the eponymous character of “Where’s Waldo” fame.

Indeed, DeSantis has been a bit coy on policy positions, preferring instead to weigh in on a pair of scandals that have rocked Putnam in his day job as the state’s Agriculture Commissioner.

Putnam and DeSantis are the two major Republican candidates running to replace term-limited Gov. Rick Scott in the fall. According to a recent poll conducted by the Florida Chamber of Commerce (which has endorsed Putnam), the second-term Ag Commissioner is ahead 32 to 15 percent.

Putnam also leads DeSantis in fundraising raising more than $30 million compared to DeSantis’ $10.8 million, which includes $1.1 million raised for his congressional re-election campaign.

Judicial election fight remains in holding pattern

Jacksonville attorney David Trotti

An appeals court Monday kept in place a stay in a legal battle about whether a Northeast Florida circuit judge should be elected or appointed and refused to quickly send the case to the Florida Supreme Court.

Jacksonville attorney David Trotti filed the lawsuit this spring, contending that an upcoming vacancy created by the retirement of 4th Judicial Circuit Judge Robert Foster should be filled in the November election, rather than through an appointment by Gov. Rick Scott.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson agreed with Trotti, but the Scott administration appealed, triggering an automatic stay of Dodson’s ruling. Trotti then went back to Dodson, who ruled that the stay should be lifted.

But the 1st District Court of Appeal on Monday quashed Dodson’s order to lift the stay and said the case should remain on hold until the appellate court can rule on the underlying issues.

Also, Monday’s decision rejected a request by Trotti to send the case to the Supreme Court. Foster was expected to leave office Jan. 7, 2019, which would be the end of his term, because of a mandatory retirement age.

But on April 2, Foster sent a letter to Scott making the retirement effective Dec. 31, four business days ahead of schedule.

The Scott administration takes the position that the governor’s acceptance of a judicial resignation before the start of an election-qualifying period creates a vacancy that will be filled by appointment, rather than election.

The 4th Judicial Circuit is made up of Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. Trotti, who tried to qualify to run for the seat, contends it should be filled in the November election.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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