Tampa Bay Archives - Florida Politics

Lakeland mayor backs Ben Albritton’s state Senate bid

Republican Rep. Ben Albritton added an endorsement from Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs for his campaign to take over for exiting Sen. Denise Grimsley, who is running for Agriculture Commissioner.

“Ben Albritton has proven himself as a leader in the Legislature,” Wiggs said. “Without hesitation, I believe he will continue to represent our area effectively in the Senate.”

Wiggs has served more than 20 years as a Lakeland elected official, beginning with his 1992 election to the City Commission. The Polk County city is one of few population centers in SD 26, which sprawls across the whole of DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Okeechobee counties, as well as southern Polk and eastern Charlotte counties.

Albritton said he was “honored” to have Wiggs’ backing, and that he is looking “forward to working with him to make sure our region’s concerns are a priority in Tallahassee.”

The Wauchula Republican would have faced term limits in the Florida House in the 2018 cycle, which makes Grimsley’s planned early exit from the Senate quite fortuitous for the Wauchula citrus grower. So far, he is the only candidate to declare for 2018.

At the end of July, Albritton had about $37,000 on hand in his campaign account and another $150,000 stashed away for his committee, “Advancing Florida Agriculture.”

There are about 27,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district and much like the pre-redistricting SD 21 seat it succeeds, Republicans dominate at the polls.

Conviction upheld in Tampa Bay terror plot

A federal appeals court Friday upheld the conviction and 40-year prison sentence of a man convicted in a plot to carry out terror attacks in the Tampa Bay area as “payback” for the death of Osama bin Laden.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments by a lawyer for Sami Osmakac, who was arrested in January 2012 in a hotel parking lot after loading a car bomb — non-functional because it was supplied by an undercover FBI agent — into the trunk of a vehicle. Before the arrest, Osmakac also had made a “martyrdom” video in a hotel room.

“Osmakac said (in the video) that the attack was `payback’ for killing Osama bin Laden,” said Friday’s 44-page main opinion, written by appeals-court Judge Frank Hull and joined fully by Judge Stanley Marcus. “Osmakac also said that he was coming for American blood, that he had led a life of terrorizing non-Muslims, and that other Muslims needed to `wake up.’ “

Judge Beverly Martin wrote a brief concurring opinion.

Osmakac, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in what is now Kosovo, began drawing attention from the FBI as early as 2010 because of what Friday’s ruling described as a “commitment to Islamic extremism.” The FBI recorded numerous conversations involving Osmakac from November 2011 to January 2012 and used a confidential source, along with the undercover agent.

During the investigation, Osmakac discussed potential targets such as a gay nightclub, Tampa Bay bridges and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, according to the ruling. Along with supplying the car bomb, the undercover agent also provided non-functional grenades, an AK-47 automatic rifle and a suicide vest.

A jury in June 2014 found Osmakac guilty of committing one count of attempting to use weapons of mass destruction and one count of possessing an unregistered firearm. A U.S. District Court judge later sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

The appeal focused, in part, on whether Osmakac had been improperly denied access to materials related to the FBI surveillance. Authorities received approval for the surveillance under a law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

Under the law, authorities submit applications to a FISA court to receive approval for conducting surveillance or searches. Prosecutors did not provide some FISA materials to Osmakac’s attorney because the documents contained classified information, Friday’s ruling said.

The appeals court said it reviewed the materials and concluded that the issue was handled properly.

“After that careful and thorough review, we readily find that all of the FISA statutory requirements are satisfied, that the FISA-derived evidence in this case was legally acquired, and that the FISA surveillance and searches were made in conformity with the FISA court’s order of authorization and approval,” the ruling said. “The FISA materials are very clear and well-organized, and disclosing them to Osmakac is not `necessary’ to assess the legality of the searches or surveillance.”

Advocates push for restoration of voting rights for ex-felons at Tampa Tiger Bay Forum

This summer, the Tampa Tiger Bay Club has bypassed its normal practice of asking politicians to come into its den. Instead, the civic-minded organization has invited speakers to discuss some of the pressing issues facing Florida.

This has often led to advocates and critics of an issue dueling it out during Tiger Bay forums. Not on this Friday, when the only disagreement among the panelists was the application of a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights for ex-felons.

Desmond Meade is the face of this movement.He is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the statewide organization attempting to collect approximately 800,000 signatures by next February to put the issue on the 2018 ballot. He’s transcended a rocky start to his life (which included getting booted out of the Army for stealing liquor, then being convicted of drug charges before ultimately sentenced to 15 years in prison for possession of a firearm as a felon) to becoming a redemption story. After his release from prison, he enrolled in a drug treatment program, and graduated summa cum laude in paralegal studies from Miami-Dade Community College. He went on to earn a law degree from Florida International University.

But Mease still can’t vote or practice law in Florida.

“I sit here today as an example of why Floridians deserve a second chance,” he said at the beginning the program, earning a standing ovation from the sympathetic audience meeting at the Ferguson Law Center.

There are 1.68 million disenfranchised ex-felons in Florida, the most of any state in the union. Florida is one of only four states that doesn’t restore the voting rights automatically of citizens automatically after serving one’s time in prison (the others are Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia, even though the governor there, Terry McAuliffe, restored those rights to more than 156,000 Virginians).

“Executive clemency is the governor’s constitutional power to grant mercy,” said Reggie Garcia, a clemency attorney and lobbyist based in Tallahassee, explaining why the only way to change the law is to change the state’s constitution.

The current law banning ex-felons from automatically having their voting rights restored goes back nearly 50 years, to the Constitution Revision Commission of 1968. That law was challenged in 2000 in the Bush vs. Johnson case. As Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren noted on Friday, while the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida concluded that the state’s felony disenfranchisement law was not intentionally discriminatory, and thus did not violate the U.S. Constitution, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit disagreed.

That panel ruled that the law continued to have a disparate impact on African Americans and concluded that “an original discriminatory purpose behind Florida’s felon disenfranchisement provision establishes an equal protection violation that persists . . . unless it is subsequently reenacted on the basis of an independent, non-discriminatory purpose.” The state appealed the panel’s decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals sitting en banc court, which vacated the panel’s decision and affirmed the District Court’s opinion.

“The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals twice has found (the law) was motivated by racial bias,” Warren said. “And it’s still on the books today. What are we going to do to change it is the question.”

Meade said that the perception that the issue is exclusively an African-American issue has made it political, because the perception is that to change the current law will favor Democrats. “But the reality is that African-Americans only account for a third of the people who are disenfranchised,” he said, “so while over 600,00 (ex-felons in Florida) may look like me, there are more than a million people that look like most of you all here.”

Felons in the state lose all their civil rights –  including the right to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury. To regain those rights, a felon must petition the governor and Cabinet for clemency, a cumbersome process that has roven to take 10 years or longer.

Under the proposed amendment, automatic restoration would not apply to people convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.

Warren says that sounds right to him, saying “we want to put reasonable limitations on people’s ability to get certain rights back.”

But others on the panel disagreed.

“There’s a time when they’re back in society, you oughta get your rights back,” said Democratic state Represenative Sean Shaw. “You shouldn’t be sitting at your house, not in jail, not able to vote, even if you’ve committed a capital offense.”  Shaw said he knew that there were some “heinous crimes” that people commit, but maintained that once a citizen is done with the criminal justice system, “that ought to be it.”

Meade said he stood by how the proposed amendment is worded, but admitted that “if these people are coming back into our community, we must give them every opportunity to successfully reintegrate, because it’s to our benefit that they do.”

Though there was hardly a dissenting voice opposing restoring the rights of ex-felons in Florida, that sentiment is out there.

Speaking to the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee last Tuesday, attorney general hopeful Ashley Moody said she thinks the current system in Florida works just fine.

“I would like to study it more before I give it a definitive answer, but I think there are historical reasons that we haven’t let felons vote, and I think that there are reasons for that,” she told the audience of fellow Republicans. “Now we have a process that they can obtain their rights after they’ve been convicted, and certainly I would invite that if they are eligible … so there’s a process for restoring rights and I think that the process that we have is fine

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has until February 1 to turn in the estimated 800,000 signatures needed to get the measure on the 2018 ballot next November. The Constitution Revision Commission could also vote to put the measure on the ballot.

Christopher Licata switches to running in House District 69

After initially planning to run in 2018 to try to replace House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, Republican Christopher Licata this week switched races to run for an open Pinellas County House seat.

Licata filed paperwork with the state Division of Elections to run in House District 69, which will be open next year because Rep. Kathleen Peters has decided to seek a seat on the Pinellas County Commission. In a letter to the Division of Elections, Licata said he had been living temporarily in Cruz’s House District 62 but grew up in House District 69.

The change sends a ripple through the races in both districts. It left only four Democrats — Michael Alvarez, Carlos Frontela, John Rodriguez and Jose Vazquez Figueroa — running to replace Cruz in her Hillsborough County district.

It also led to a GOP primary opponent for Madeira Beach Republican Raymond Blacklidge, who had been the only candidate running to replace Peters in District 69.

Save Southern Heritage to file lawsuit blocking Confederate monument move

While advocates supporting the removal of a Confederate monument in Tampa were celebrating on Thursday afternoon after meeting a fundraising goal required to move the statue. proponents of keeping the monument where it is say the issue isn’t over yet.

Save Southern Heritage Florida, the activist group that has been leading the charge to keep the monument as is, says it will file suit in federal court in Tampa on Friday to prevent the statue from being moved.

The group also says that their effort an recall Commissioner Sandy Murman has reached the point where the 200-word requirement for the petition has been completed. A group calling themselves “Conservative Response Team” told FloridaPolitics.com last month after Murman reversed her vote to support moving the monument that they would undertake an effort to have her recalled from the board.

“We consider today’s activity to be another battle in the war to keep the monument where it is and we will not give up,” says spokesman Doug Guetzloe, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment further.

Hillsborough Commissioners voted last month to remove the 106-year-old statue called “Memoria in Astern,” but only if the private sector paid for it within 60 days.

They then reversed themselves for the second time this summer on Wednesday, voting to give that private fundraising effort 30 more days to raise $140,000, or the statue would remain in front of the Hillsborough County Courthouse annex on Pierce St. in downtown Tampa.

Led by a $70,000 contribution from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and an additional $50,000 from Tampa businessman Bob Gries, that goal was met and exceeded by early Thursday afternoon.

Whether the potential lawsuit will derail efforts to move the statue by next month remain to be seen.

Hillsborough Confederate monument to move after donations reach threshold in 24 hours

Led by two huge contributions, the private sector has raised well in excess of the $140,000 required by the Hillsborough County Commission to move a controversial Confederate monument in Tampa.

Bob Gries, the founder and managing partner of Gries Investment Funds in Tampa was watching CNN Wednesday night when he learned the Board of County Commissioners had reversed their position yet again on their decision regarding moving the monument.

The report said that unless the private sector came up with half the estimated $280,000 needed to move the statue, it would remain in front of the Hillsborough County Courthouse annex on Pierce St. in downtown Tampa.

“I was just really concerned, and I was embarrassed that Tampa Bay would be cast in a negative spotlight, and I just really thought what could I do to help change this and do the right thing,” said Gries at a press conference held at Tampa’s City Hall Thursday afternoon.

So Gries called up Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn first thing Thursday, saying he would kick in $50,000 that would not only hugely boost the effort to raise $140,000, but inspire others in the community to chip in as well.

On Thursday, the community did that big time, raising more than $40,000 in the 24 hours after the commissioners’ vote. Included in that effort was $5,000 from former Tampa Bay Buccaneer coach (now NBC football analyst) Tony Dungy and $1,000 contributions from Buckhorn and former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce chipped in the other huge check of $70,000.

Though some will consider this a shining moment for the Tampa Bay area rising to the occasion to come together on what is an incredibly emotional and divisive issue, Buckhorn is having none of that.

“It was unprecedented, it was disheartening, it was not who we are and what this community believes in and what we stand for,” the mayor said of the board’s vote to outsource the decision to the community.

The decision to delay the vote had put an additional burden on the business community, Buckhorn added, and it was a “blatant attempt not to do the right thing,” which was to move the statue.

Wednesday was the third time the board had weighed in what to do with the 106-year-old monument, called “Memoria in Aeterna.”

In late June, the Commission stunningly voted 4-3 to keep the memorial in place, unlike other southern communities that have decided that such monuments were a relic of the Jim Crow past, and are no longer appropriate in 2017.

After the vote received local and national outrage, the board came back in late July, voting 4-2 to move the monument with Commissioner Sandy Murman changing her vote, but only if the money to move the statue was raised privately.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said that such an effort could not be guaranteed, and stated that the county would be responsible for raising the balance of the needed funds if the private sector could not come up with more than $200,000 required to move it.

Private fundraising had gone slow, with the man leading that campaign, attorney Tom Scarritt, saying he only had 60 days to raise the money or the issue would return to the board.

Commissioner Victor Crist brought the issue up again Wednesday, leading the move for the board to vote 4-3 for a 30-day timeline on Scarritt to raise $140,000.

If he could not, the statue would remain in place.

Buckhorn said he was disgusted by the board’s flip-flops.

“I’m not happy that they choose to throw roadblocks in the way of our progress,” he told reporters. “This was a decision that had been made, the outcome was secure, and at the last minute they changed the rules of the game, and that’s what I find unfortunate because some of them didn’t have the political courage to do what is morally the right thing to do.”

The monument will be moved to the Brandon Family Cemetery, a blow to Confederate advocates who have been determined to stop the county from moving the memorial.

“Isn’t it so sad that people are willing to pay money to disrespect American Veterans and destroy history,” said David McCallister with Save Southern Heritage Florida. “Too bad leaders of this movement aren’t putting this energy into making sure children go to safe schools, are taught to respect each other, or fixing stormwater runoff in our community.”

“If Tony Dungy and the Chamber used this effort to address real problems, imagine how great our community would be!” he added.

Later on Thursday, Save Southern Heritage Florida said they would go to court on Friday to attempt to block the removal of the monument.

Preliminary work on preparing for the statue to move has already been underway for a few weeks, with the county already expending $20,000 on the effort. That work was stopped Wednesday, and there is no word yet on when it will resume (County Administrator Mike Merrill was not immediately available for comment).

Earlier Thursday, President Donald Trump weighed in on the moving of such monuments, denouncing their removal as “sad” and “so foolish,” just days after white supremacists and neo-Nazis took to Charlottesville, Virginia, to violently protest the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. 

Buckhorn wasn’t impressed.

“We have a president who today doubled down on his remarks of two days ago,” Buckhorn said. “He chose a side. That side was not the better angels of America. That side was the hate groups and the Klan and neo-Nazi’s and the bigots in bed sheets that ran through this country in the South in the 40’s and 50’s. That was the side that he chose, and those code words and those dog whistles that he used in these comments send a signal to those who would engage in these kinds of behaviors that it’s OK. It’s not OK. Hate has no place in America, and it damn sure has no place in Tampa, Florida.”

WUSF’s Carol Gentry retiring from Health News Florida

Culminating a multi-decade career covering the complex topic of health care, Carol Gentry is retiring from WUSF Public Media’s Health News Florida.

Gentry single-handedly created Health News Florida in 2006 as an independent nonprofit health journalism publication, and in 2012, Gentry joined the WUSF family when she brought Health News Florida into the fold of WUSF Public Media.

Since the publication’s beginning, Gentry has asked the tough questions and informed consumers about the health care systems that impact people’s lives.

Her most recent story was an analysis of Florida doctors whose insurance companies have paid out multiple times on malpractice claims and exemplifies the kind of watchdog journalism she has conducted her entire career.

“It’s been a privilege to have Carol as part of the WUSF family,” said WUSF General Manager JoAnn Urofsky. “For years, she has been a trailblazer in the realm of non-profit health journalism. She not only helped shed light on the exceptionally complex topic of health care, she was able to untangle and explain how this important subject affected the lives of our audience. We will miss her wealth of knowledge and passion for investigative reporting, and we wish Carol only the best in her next chapter. Congratulations on a truly wonderful career.”

Gentry has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy. She has worked for a number of newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, the Tampa Bay Times, the Tampa Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel.

Dick Greco Jr. still considering a Tampa mayoral run in 2019

Retired judge Dick Greco Jr. says he is still considering running for Tampa mayor in 2019.

“I’ve been talking to some friends and family, and quite flattered, was very flattered that some people were asking me if I would be interested, so I’m just looking at all my options and that type of thing now,” Greco Jr. said Friday.

Greco is, of course, the son of Dick Greco, who served as mayor for parts of four different terms in four different decades. He came up 384 votes in 2011 of making the runoff to win a fifth term.

Greco Jr. first discussed his mayoral ambitions in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times’ Sue Carlton last month. He says he’s thought about running for “years and years,” but says he never felt it was the right time to leave the bench, where he served as a county and circuit court judge before stepping down in January,

He graduated from Auburn University and the South Texas College of Law. Greco was a prosecutor in Hillsborough for two years in the 1980s. He later worked in private practice and as an assistant county attorney. In 1990, Greco won election to the county court bench, where he stayed until returning to private practice in 2002. Greco served as a senior judge in 2008 before Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to the county bench in 2009.

One thing that Greco Jr. would have to do if he were to actually get into the race is move back to Tampa. He purchased a retirement home in Homosassa several years ago, and after leaving the bench earlier this year, he sold his Tampa home. But he says he is definitely moving back to Tampa.

“I think Tampa is a dynamic town,” he says.

Former police chief Jane Castor, former state Representative Ed Narain, businessman David Straz and Council members Mike Suarez and Harry Cohen have all had their names floated as potential candidates when Bob Buckhorn’s second term expires.

“There’s some really great individuals who are thinking about doing it,” he says. “I think Tampa would do well with any of the names that I’ve heard.”

Greco Jr. does acknowledge that since he stepped down from the bench in January, life has been pretty good.

“I’ve really been enjoying retirement, and I’ve been able to travel some, and have my own schedule, and come and go like I wanted to,” he says, acknowledging that “it would be a great commitment.”

“But it’s a great thing to do should I decide to run and if I was to win it’d be a great way to serve,” he surmises.

Greco Jr. says he will make the first decision about a potential candidacy probably at the beginning of 2018.

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