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Jeff Vasilinda becomes the Vasilinda Family’s first published author!

Feds Arrest Man Accused of Encouraging Violence Against Capitol Protesters

January 15th, 2021 by Jake Stofan
A man accused of planning violence at the State Capitol appeared before a federal magistrate Friday afternoon. 
 
The man arrested is accused of making violent threats online and encouraging his followers to take up arms against protesters next week.

Tallahassee resident Daniel Baker was arrested Friday.
Federal law enforcement alleges he encouraged violence against protesters expected to hold demonstrations at the Capitol starting Sunday.
US Attorney for Florida’s Northern District Lawrence Keefe told us earlier this week, law enforcement had been working to identify threats before they manifested.
“Trying to detect, disrupt and dismantle any coordinated efforts to attack any capitol,” said Keefe.
Baker, a former US Army infantryman, took part in a number of last summer’s protests against police brutality according to the affidavit.
Numerous social media posts attributed to Baker are cited, including a Facebook event he created entitled “Defend Tallahassee”.
While the affidavit contains screen shots of Baker’s online activity, it appears all of his social media accounts have been removed, except for his youtube page, which contains videos condemning police, President Trump and even President Elect Biden.
The affidavit also alleges he created a flier, encouraging followers to ‘encircle terrorists who attack the capitol’.
The flier also states an ‘armed coup’ can only be stopped by an ‘armed community’.
After his first appearance in federal court, Baker’s public defender Randy Murrell told us he’ll be held at least until his next court hearing scheduled for Thursday morning.
“Yes we are going to ask for his release on Thursday,” said Murrell.
In a statement, US Attorney Lawrence Keefe said the arrest serves as a message to anyone intending to commit violence. 
He added authorities will remain on high alert and that the public is safer now that Baker is in custody.
 
Tallahassee’s Mayor has requested the Governor activate the National Guard for the upcoming protests. 
 
Nearby Universities FAMU and FSU have also indicated they’ll be increasing police presence on campus next week.

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Lawmakers to Criminalize Vaccine Scams

January 14th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Floridians, especially seniors, are one step closer to being protected from scams relating to the COVID vaccine.

The first bill approved by a newly created legislative committee on the pandemic would make it a felony for someone to fraudulently charge someone for offering to put them at the front of the vaccine line.

Reports of vaccine scams are growing.

Jared Moskowitz is the Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management and is in charge of the vaccine distribution network.

“People are trying to set up fake calendars, fake appointments. You know, we have foreign actors trying to hack systems. I mean, it’s just the worst of society,” said Moskowitz.

Seniors are top targets and Zayne Smith with AARP said members are calling about offers to pay to get on a vaccination list.

“I mean, if you pay us now, you’ll have your vaccine tomorrow. Those are so egregious against people who are really vulnerable right now, and just wanting to get back to normal life,” said Zyne Smith.

Government publications are clear.

If someone wants you to pay them to get on a list to be vaccinated, go to the head of the list or if they want your social security number or credit card information, it’s likely a fraud.

The first bill to come out of the newly created State House Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee would make it a felony to offer to put someone at the front of the vaccine line.

“I think this bill sends a loud and clear message, that hey, if you engaged in this type of activity, we’re coming after you,” said bill sponsor Rep. Ardian Zika.

AARP calls the legislation a big step in the right direction.

“You know, this bill and the move by the legislature right now to really cut this off right now before it becomes a bigger issue is great and something we really appreciate,” said Smith.

The early movement of the legislation is designed to send the message to fraudsters to stop now, before major jail time is on the table.

A first offense would be punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

A second conviction could earn perpetrators up to 15 years behind bars.

In addition to criminal charges, the Attorney General can also file civil actions to recover damages.

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Lawmakers Face $2.1 Billion Budget Shortfall

January 14th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

State lawmakers are facing a $2.1 billion pandemic-induced budget shortfall for the budget starting in July, and that’s the best case scenario according to state economists.

The revenue shortfall means lawmakers will face tough decisions crafting next years state budget.

The word of the day at the first meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee was unprecedented.

“The work before us is unprecedented and there’s going to be a lot demanded on this committee to think innovatively, to think how we can do things efficiently,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Kelli Stargel.

While state economists project a $2.1 billion shortfall, the number is heavily dependent on how the economy recovers, something difficult to project in a once in a lifetime pandemic.

“If you just run your models, they don’t know how to deal with this event,” said Amy Baker, a state economist at the Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Most uncertain, is the recovery of the tourism sector.

State economists predict it could take between one and two years.

“We don’t expect it to come back whole cloth even in that slow recovery,” said Baker.

And the state is also facing higher expenditures on social programs like Medicaid, which is projected to increase by $700 million.

That means lawmakers will have to look for cuts anywhere they can.

“We’re going to have a conservative budget. I’m not going to build a budget this year on the high hopes of the future,” said Stargel.

Looking to add revenue, legislative leaders already have ideas in the works.

Among them, collecting state sales already owed tax on internet purchases.

That would increase revenues by at least $700 million a year.

“I don’t believe that it’s a tax increase. I think it’s a tax collection issue, not a tax increase issue. We’re not changing the tax at all,” said Stargel.

The latest budget projections are nearly $600 million better than in September.

Additional federal stimulus could paint an even more optimistic picture, at least in the short term.

State economists’ latest projections are largely based on data from November and September.

It’s not clear how those numbers may change as a result of the fall and winter COVID spike the state has experienced since then.

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Study Shows Women, Black Floridians Less Likely to Trust Vaccine

January 14th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A new study from the University of South Florida released today shows that men are more likely to get vaccinated at 64 percent, compared to just 53 percent of women.

African Americans are also less likely than others to get a vaccine.

The study found 60 percent of both whites and Hispanics said they will either “probably” or “definitely” get vaccinated, compared to only 49 percent of African Americans.

State Representative Fentrice Driskell said the distrust dates back to when Black share croppers infected with syphilis, were enrolled in the Tuskegee Experiment and intentionally not treated throughout the program’s 40-year run.

“There also can be concern about, in the African American community, mistrust just generally of doctors and people not going to get check ups as regularly as they should. So when that’s the baseline, it’s even much more difficult to get some members of that community to be willing to try something deemed as experimental as a new vaccine,” said Driskell.

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DEM Getting Short Notice of Vaccine Supply

January 14th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Jared Moskowitz, Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management said Thursday his second biggest problem, behind basic supply of vaccine, is that he only gets a six day notice on the number of new doses being sent to the state, creating problems in the distribution system.

“Well we’re building infrastructure, we’re expanding, we’re trying to bring more locations online and then we can’t feed them or locations that are open, close because we can’t re-feed them. So it is a gigantic issue,” said Moskowitz.

On Wednesday the state’s Surgeon General reported the federal government is supplying between 200,000 and 250,000 doses a week.

If that rate doesn’t increase, the state could be looking at more than a year before it’s able to vaccinate the general population.

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State Takes Hard Stance Against Vaccine Tourism

January 14th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Speaking to the first meeting of the newly created State House Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee, State Emergency Director Jared Moskowitz explained why it’s important for snowbirds spending time in Florida are eligible to get the vaccine.

But he also said the state in no way is encouraging Vaccine tourism.

“Vaccinating snowbirds, people who live here, rent, own a house, pay taxes, contribute to the economy, they are eligible. If they get sick while they’re here, they wind up in our hospitals. But that is very different than vaccine tourism. Vaccine tourism is not permitted. It is abhorrent. People should not be flying here to get a vaccine and flying out,” said Moskowitz.

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Vaccinations Would Take More Than a Year at Current Pace

January 13th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

It could take more than a year to vaccinate all Floridians based on the number of vaccine doses the state is currently receiving on a weekly basis.

The timetable came to light as the Florida Surgeon General fielded tough questions from state senators.

Testifying before the Senate Health Policy Committee, State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees said COVID vaccine supply isn’t meeting the demand.

“How you convey during a pandemic, it’s a very difficult conversation to have and frankly, it’s heartbreaking,” said Rivkees.

But Senators like Aaron Bean pushed for some sense of a timeline for their constituents.

“We have to be able to say, we don’t have any now, but it’s coming. When’s it coming?” said Bean.

After taking similar questions from other lawmakers, Rivkees laid out the current situation.

“We’re getting about 200,000 [to] 250,000 doses a week,” said Rivkees.

At that rate, it would take more than a year to vaccinate the general population, but Rivkees provided some hope for optimism.

“This is our path out of the pandemic and I don’t think there’s any question that we are going to see a substantial increase in terms of vaccine availability,” said Rivkees.

The state has received 1.6 million vaccine doses to date.

Of those, more than 600,000 have been administered, leaving about a million doses still in the freezer.

There’s also been difficulty interpreting the Governor’s executive order.

Some home health care works report being turned away for vaccinations.

Rivkees made it clear, any health care worker in direct contact with patients is eligible to be vaccinated.

Committee Chair Manny Diaz said the state needs to do a better job clarifying that intent.

“Usually I would expect that that’s being handled by the Department of Health because they’re in the front line on this,” said Diaz.

The Surgeon General also addressed issues with vaccine scheduling web sites crashing, saying the Department of Health is working on a state wide scheduling portal that will likely roll out in the next few weeks.

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Breaches at State Capitol Few and Far Between

January 13th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The State Capitol and surrounding community are bracing for potentially violent protests in the coming days leading up to next week’s inauguration.

Law enforcement has already instituted a 24/7 command post

Historically, security breaches at the State Capitol have been few and far between.

In 1979, death penalty protesters disrupted the Governors outer office during the states first execution in more than a decade.

Protestors tied up phone lines, potentially disrupting communication with the state prison.

“Stay it. Stay it. You goddamn beasts,” said Jimmy Lohman during the protest.

Lohman is now a lawyer representing death row inmates.

”I was rather emotionally worked up at the time,” said Lohman.

He tells us what happened in 1979 is a far cry from the take over of the nation’s Capitol last week.

“It was planned and permitted. I don’t think there’s much they have in common. There was no significant breach of security,” said Lohman.

In 1991, a college student high on mushrooms broke in and took over a senate office.

Police feared he was armed.

“He has indicated he does have hostages. Whether or not he does, we’ll know in the next little while,” said Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell during the incident.

A stand off lasted for hours.

In the end, Marshall Ledbetter surrendered.

He faced charges, underwent mental treatment and was released.

In 2013 the Dream Defenders refused to leave the hallway in front of the Governor’s Office for 31 days.

“I think it’s passion that keeps us going,” said one of the protesters we interviewed during the incident.

Rules at the time that let them stay have now been changed.

Most recently, in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings, some students refused to leave some legislative offices without a meeting.

No one was arrested.

And if protestors do come to the Capitol this weekend, they’ll find buildings empty except for law enforcement.

Security at the Capitol was significantly strengthened following the 9-11 attacks and is expected to involve federal state and local law enforcement this weekend and beyond.

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Judge Declines to Return Confiscated Property to Former State Data Scientist

January 13th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Former state data scientist Rebekah Jones appeared in a virtual court hearing Wednesday, seeking the return of her computer and other devices confiscated by FDLE in December.

FDLE raided Jones’ home searching for evidence to tie her to an unauthorized message sent on a Department of Health emergency alert system.

Jones’ attorney argued the property should be returned, alleging the evidence used to execute the warrant was insufficient.

Judge John Cooper disagreed, an indicated he did believe there was probable cause.

He declined to return the property for now, requesting input from the State Attorney who would be the one to make the decision of whether or not to press charges.

“I just don’t think the state can keep evidence when it has already made a decision it’s not going to use it. If it’s investigating that and can’t determine it, I think the state’s entitled under the separation of powers to have a reasonable amount of time to make that decision,” said Judge Cooper.

Judge Cooper added he’d likely rule to return Jones’ items if the State Attorney says he doesn’t intend to charge her with a crime.

On the other hand, he would rule against returning the property if charges are being considered.

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DCF Updates Lawmakers Ahead of 2021 Session

January 12th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

State lawmakers heard from the head of the Florida Department of Children and families Tuesday morning.

The agency provided updates on the pandemic, addressing sexual abuse allegations from foster children and the ongoing fight to return millions in tax payer dollars used for excessive salaries by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Domestic violence and child abuse calls have nearly returned to normal levels after dropping dramatically at the start of the pandemic.

DCF Secretary Chad Poppell said the agency is also seeing more over doses, mental health concerns and evictions.

“We’ve got 40,000 evictions filed around the state,” said Poppell.

There’s also 1.3 million new Floridians receiving benefits like food stamps and medicaid.

“We’re working on some strategies to try and work with that population to help them get back on their feet,” said Poppell.

The Secretary heard concerns from lawmakers regarding allegations of sexual abuse by foster parents.

Over the past four years, only ten percent of nearly 300 allegations were verified by the agency.

“These are pieces of information that they cannot make up unless they’ve had to live through or endure what those things are,” said State Senator Lauren Book.

Poppell indicated DCF will begin utilizing its critical response team to review cases and establish a special investigations unit to better address alleged sexual abuse by foster care parents.

The Secretary asked lawmakers to work on policy to make the changes permanent.

Poppell also updated lawmakers on the state’s effort to recover $7 million in tax payer dollars used to pay excessive executive salaries by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“I can have a briefing set up for you guys behind closed doors about the settlement and what not, discussions, if there is a settlement,” said Poppell.

The contract, once guaranteed to the coalition in statute, is now up for bid.

Lawmakers said more safeguards will need to be in place.

“Putting names into statute is dangerous. I think that then people think they are above the law. And they are not,” said Book.

And retaining child protective investigators remains a persistent issue at DCF.

The turnover rate sits at 43 percent.

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Capitol Security Tight Ahead of Potential Protests

January 12th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The US Attorney, the Florida Department of Law enforcement, Capitol Police and local officials are all on alert for potentially armed and violent protests beginning Sunday and lasting through inauguration Day at the State Capitol.

Legislative staff are are being told to work remotely if they must work on Sunday.

Flyers circulating the internet promise fifty state capitol protests beginning Sunday.

On Monday, state Senators spent an hour behind closed doors for a classified security briefing.

“And our Senate President was dead serious when he said they would keep us safe, and I felt very good walking out of that security briefing,” said State Senator Janet Cruz.

State Senator Linda Stewart said the security briefing included tips for when Senators were not in the Capitol as well.

“There’s a bunch of crazy people out there. We can’t tell what they are doing. I’ve already gotten several flyers that are promoting violence, and we must always be on our toes and be alert,” said Stewart.

The FBI sent an alert putting all 50 state Capitols on alert.

Lawrence Keefe, US Attorney for Northern Florida, said plans are in place to keep the peace.

“We are in a 24/7 command center posture. And I’m a great believer in transparency and if you want the public to trust assurances that we believe we have the situation in control here,” said Keefe.

In the past few decades security breaches have been few and far between.

None have ended violently.

State Senator Aaron Bean said the briefing dealt with multiple threats.

“We’re just looking at anybody who wants to do harm. And that’s where the briefing was designed to have safe blanket of security,” said Bean.

Lawmakers themselves won’t be at the Capitol over the weekend, nor next week, when the chances of violent protests are greatest.

Flags at the State Capitol are currently at half staff in honor of the two officers who died as a result of last week’s protest at the US Capitol.

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COVID Business Protection on Fast Track

January 11th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A new report from Florida TaxWatch estimates that the state could lose hundreds of thousands of existing jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity if lawmakers don’t act to protect businesses from COVID-related lawsuits.

Lawmakers are moving quickly to to enact safeguards.

St. Petersburg State Senator Jeff Brandes is leading the charge to protect businesses from COVID lawsuits.

“Any type of lawsuit would essentially drive them under, because many of them are teetering on the brink,” said Brandes.

The protections would be retroactive to March.

“We can’t have the threat of COVID liability suits hanging over the head of small businesses because it will destroy jobs and keep owners from opening their doors again,” said Brandes.

A new report released Monday by Florida TaxWatch shows Florida is third nationally in COVID lawsuits with 490 filed.

Only New York and California have more.

TaxWatch estimates that as many as a quarter of all small businesses wouldn’t survive without the protection.

Taxwatch estimates 356,000 fewer jobs and a $28 billion reduction in economic activity without protections.

“We need to make sure good actors are protected and bad actors are punished,” said TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro.

The legislation requires a case be plead with particularity.

That means the who, what, where and when of the case.

A physician also has to sign off on the suit.

“And we think this is a step. That your physician, or any physician looks at the evidence and says, yes, it’s most likely you got it at this restaurant and not that you got it from your sister, who also has COVID, and is staying with you at your house,” said Brandes.

The legislation requires a lawsuit to be filed within a year of being infected.

For existing cases the clock starts the day the bill becomes law.

The House sponsor is Rep. Lawrence McClure of Plant City.

The legislation is expected to pass in the first or second week of the legislative session, which begins March second.

 

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Florida Republicans Take Aim at Social Media Censorship

January 11th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

After the President’s removal from multiple social media platforms calls among Florida Republicans to take action against social media censorship are growing.

Multiple bills have been filed for the 2021 Legislative Session to prevent de-platforming on the basis of political speech.

Following Wednesday’s insurrection at the US Capitol, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter banned President Donald Trump from their platforms.

It’s a move applauded by Florida Democrats like State Senator Perry Thurston.

“We have never seen a President that would conduct himself in such a despicable way. So I think that his removal was justified,” said Thurston.

Google, Apple and Amazon also took action to de-platform the conservative-leaning social media app Parler.

Florida Republicans like State Senator Ray Rodrigues consider it an assault of free speech.

“It seems like big tech is using their resources to push their political agenda and to silence those who do not agree with them,” said Rodrigues.

Legislation filed in the Senate would require social media companies to inform users why they were banned within 30 days.

A bill in the House goes much further.

It would allow users to sue if they’re banned for political or religious speech for a minimum of $75,000 in damages.

“All we’re doing here is saying, hey there’s a new business regulation. If you’re ‘X’ amount of size you cannot discriminate based on political view point,” said State Representative Anthony Sabatini, who is sponsoring the House bill.

The House bill does allow social media companies to ban users for calls to violence, posting pornography, impersonation or if a court orders the account to be removed.

“The companies could still moderate, but they can’t use the moderation exception to Section 230 to basically publish what it is they like and don’t like,” said Sabatini.

And while the Senate version currently doesn’t go as far as the house’s, the sponsor pledged to make it stronger as it moves through the Legislature.

If the legislation ultimately passes, it could potentially be used by President Donald Trump, who is a Florida resident, to seek retribution for his bans from social media platforms.

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Democrats Push Back Against Anti-Rioting Bill

January 8th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida Democrats are crying foul after Governor Ron DeSantis pointed to the insurrection at the Nation’s Capitol as an example of why the state needs to pass tougher anti-rioting laws.

The Governor made the connection between the riots carried out by pro-Trump supporters and his effort at a press conference Thursday.

“The rioting and the disorder is wrong. We’re not going to tolerate it in Florida,” said DeSantis.

The Governor first pushed to increase penalties for crimes committed during a riot following the nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, seven percent of which turned violent according to a report by The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

“There were some people trying to say it wasn’t a big deal to have some of these things going on. You go back to the summer, some of the commentary. I disagreed with that, but I don’t care what banner you’re flying. If you’re engaging in that conduct, we’re going to hold you accountable,” said DeSantis.

But Florida Democrats like Representative Anna Eskamani are crying foul.

Eskamani said the Governor’s comments detract from the real motivation behind the effort.

“He led this policy agenda following protests for racial justice as a political attempt on the campaign trail,” said Eskamani.

Legislation filed for the 2021 session would raise penalties for a multitude of crimes committed during a riot and prevent rioters from being released from jail until after their first hearing.

Democrats question whether those penalties would be applied uniformly.

“Because it’s very clear that when black lives matter protesters were in DC compared to these pro-Trump protesters, they were treated very differently by law enforcement officers,” said Eskamani.

The legislation also allows for residents to petition the state if their local government reduces funding for law enforcement.

It also would remove qualified immunity for local governments that prevent or hinder law enforcement’s response to a riot, allowing businesses and citizens to sue for civil damages in excess of $200,000.

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Lawmakers File Bill to Provide COVID Liability Protections

January 7th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida businesses could be shielded from frivolous COVID lawsuits under legislation unveiled by both chambers of the legislature.

Florida Republicans say businesses in the state that have been operating through the pandemic deserve special protections, to prevent a second economic hit from lawsuits blaming businesses for COVID infections.

“If they’re following the guidelines they’re going to have a safe harbor from liability going forward,” said State Senator Jeff Brandes.

Senator Brandes is sponsoring the legislation.

Business would have to be shown with clear and convincing evidence they were the cause and acted with gross negligence.

“And that would extend to virtually any business in the state,” said Brandes.

Healthcare providers are excluded from the legislation, but Brandes said they’ll get their own bill protecting them other suits they may face.

“Elective surgeries being canceled at scale, that was clearly something. The inability to get in and see your doctor because the doctor’s office wasn’t open,” said Brandes.

Florida Democrats have questioned the need for liability protections, arguing businesses would rather lawmakers pass additional relief.

“To help them with commercial rent payments. To help them have the resources that they need to be able to hold on to their employees,” said State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith.

But Brandes said there are a multitude of business and health care groups who have pleaded for the legislation.

“Point me to a business that’s saying, ‘please don’t provide us COVID protections. Please lower the standard and allow people to sue us easier’,” said Brandes.

The Florida Chamber, the Associated Industries of Florida and the National Federation of Independent Businesses have all thrown their support behind liability protections.

As have the Florida Health Care Association and the Florida Hospital Association.

Florida TaxWatch, the state’s top fiscal watch dog will announce the findings of two reports Monday, giving an overview of the potential economic impacts to Florida businesses if liability protections are not passed.

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