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Voter Database Under Fire

May 31st, 2012 by Mike Vasilinda

New concerns are being raised tonight from elections supervisors across the state. The Supervisors are being asked to remove non-citizens from their rolls, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, doubts about the accuracy and legality of the push are being questioned.

Voters registration forms require would be voters to check whether they are a citizen. If not, they can’t register. The state now says thousands of names have slipped through the database that shouldn’t have. But, in Palm Beach County, Supervisor Susan Bucher has found that some of the questionable names are based on decade old information.

“We, in fact, need credible and reliable information, that’s what the law requires and I did not believe that this was credible information,” Bucher said.

Six groups have asked the state to stop the purge. They cite Federal law which says no names can be removed within 90 days of an election unless due to death, criminal conviction, or mental incapacity. The state concedes the list isn’t perfect but it’s moving forward anyway.

“We disagree with that interpretation of the law, and we’re going to continue our process to remove ineligible voters because we have an obligation and a duty to remove ineligible voters,” Florida Elections Spokesman Chris Cate said.

Ion Sancho, who overseas elections in the state capital, says he isn’t removing any names until he gets an okay from the U.S. Government.

“Before we can proceed further, I need to have clarification as to whether or not these actions by the state of Florida are legal,” Sancho said.

If a voter shows up on election day and has been removed from the rolls, but doesn’t know it, they will still be allowed to cast a provisional ballot.

The problem was highlighted when a 91-year-old World War Two veteran who has voted all his life was wrongly labeled a non citizen by the state.

The debate has become political. The Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida says the faulty list is the Obama administrations problem because it won’t share an accurate homeland security list with the state.

Posted in Civil Rights, Elections, State News | 12 Comments »

Correctional Officer Memorial

May 31st, 2012 by flanews

Three names are being added to the state’s list of correctional officers killed in the line of duty. As Whitney Ray tells us, officers mourning the loss of their coworkers are also bracing for massive state budget cuts.

Bag pipes played and family members of the fallen fought back tears, as hundreds of correctional officers mourned the loss of three of their own.

Colonel Greg Malloy, Sgt. Ruben Thomas, and behavioral specialist Kirk Cummings are being added to this monument honoring Florida correctional officers killed in the line of duty.

Colonel Malloy was mortally wounded on February 2nd, 2011, Sgt. Thomas was fatally injured after being stabbed by an inmate. Cummings died of an apparent heart attack while at work.

As the officers honor their fallen, they’re also bracing for more state budget cuts. Prisons are being closed and 1300 positions are being eliminated. The officers were given the option to take corrections jobs in others parts of the state. Many did. Others opted for early retirement.

Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker thanked the victims’ families for their sacrifice. After the ceremony I asked him if the budget cuts are making Florida prisons less safe.

“Ultimately, my number one priority as we look at the budget is officer safety,” said Tucker.

But danger comes with the territory. It’s a fact these officers face every day, knowing that the next 21 gun salute could be in their honor.

And just yesterday an officer at the Okeechobee Correction Institute had a close call while trying to disarm an inmate. The office was cut on his arm wrestling with an inmate armed with a shank.

So far this year eight DOC facilities have closed due to budget cuts and dwindling inmate populations. Three more will shut down by year’s end.

The eight that have closed:
Caryville Work Camp, Gainesville Correctional Institution, Hillsborough Correctional Institution, Indian River Correctional Institution, Levy Forestry Camp, New River Correctional Institution, New River O Unit, River Junction Work Camp

The three to close before July 1st:
Broward Correctional Institution, Demilly Correctional Institution, Hendry Work Camp

Posted in Charlie Crist, Children, State News | 2 Comments »

Copper Theft Law Loopholes Closing

May 30th, 2012 by flanews

To stop criminals from stealing copper, state lawmakers have targeted metal recyclers. As Whitney Ray tells us, law enforcement officers are praising a new law that will stop the buying of scrap metals before seven AM and after six PM during the week.

As the price of precious metals continues to rise so do the number of people willing to risk is all to steal copper. n Florida several people have been electrocuted trying to steal copper wire from power-lines. Others have been thrown in prison.

“It’s amazing. We’ve had copper stolen off of our radio towers in Hillsborough County. We had one night were two schools were hit,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Colonel Jim Previtera.

This was a movie theater (Miracle Five in Tallahassee) but I had to close down after thieves stole all the copper out of the air conditioner and the owners couldn’t afford to replace it.

State law requires metal recyclers to record the name and address of everyone selling copper. They share the information with police. But loopholes in the law allow sellers to easily use fake IDs. And when buyers pay cash, it’s harder to track the seller.

The governor singed a bill to close the loopholes in April. Wednesday he invited law enforcement officers to the capitol to celebrate the changes.

“The Secondary metals bill provides some real significant tools toward holding folks accountable,” said Walton County Sheriff Mike Atkinson.

The bill bans buyer from paying cash. They also have to take pictures of the items they’re buying and fingerprint the seller. And starting in July buying or selling copper will be banned before 7AM and after 6PM on weekdays.

The bill also cracks down on metal buyers at flea markets and who work out of their trucks. Now they too must follow state regulations and report their customers to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Posted in State News | 15 Comments »

Seminole Veteran Expo

May 30th, 2012 by flanews

In an effort to become the most veteran friendly campus in the nation FSU is asking student-soldiers for advice. The school held it’s first ever Veteran Benefits Expo today and took tips about how to make the transition from the battlefield to the classroom easier. Phil Lennon, a Marine who served in Iraq, says college was overwhelming at first and he grew out his hair and beard to isolate himself from other students.

“It was easy for me to kind of seclude myself even among a crowd because generally people though I looked like Jesus Christ or Charles Manson,” said Lennon.

Phil’s clean-shaven now and will graduate soon. He’s the secretary of the school’s Collegiate Veterans Association and has been working closely with FSU administrators on their goal of turning veterans into alumni. The school is planning another veteran film festival for November and has set up a veteran’s center on campus.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Ammons Speaks Out on Hazing

May 29th, 2012 by Mike Vasilinda

Evidence released last week in the cases of 11 people charged with the hazing death of a Florida A&M University Drum Major details just how ingrained hazing is among band members. Next week, as Mike Vasilinda tells us, a plan will be laid out to university trustees to stop the ritual once and for all.

Police interviews with band members who were hazed the same night that FAMU Drum major Robert Champion died from hazing, show how ingrained the practice is among band members.

“I’d be mad if they really didn’t let me cross,” band member Lisette Sanchez said.

Police also expressed surprise that some band members on the deadly trip weren’t even students.

“How’s that possible? How does that work?” Orange County Detective Vance Voyles asked.

“I loved the band so I kept marching,” band member Caleb Jackson replied.

Next week, FAMU Trustees will get a comprehensive recommendation from the school’s president, aimed at ending the hazing culture once and for all.

“We think that it’s important for us to have like a compliance officer to deal with some of the issues we have around non-students performing in the band to ensure that everyone is properly enrolled,” FAMU president, Dr. James Ammons, said. “That they are making sufficient academic progress.”

A web site and possibly a hot line will be recommended to make it easier to report hazing incidents.

“So we’ll have someone like a hazing czar, if you will, who will monitor the student organizations on the campus,” Ammons said.

The FAMU president wouldn’t discuss the evidence that’s come out so far in the criminal case, saying it could impact the lawsuit that’s expected to be filed by Robert Champion’s parents.

Ammons also would not speak to whether the University has reached out to the drum majors family about settling the yet-to-be-filed lawsuit.

Posted in FAMU, State News | 2 Comments »

FL Business, Political Leaders Support Restore Act

May 29th, 2012 by flanews

If congress doesn’t’ take action soon Florida could lose billions of dollars for restoring beaches and wetlands. The Restore Act would require most of the fines paid by BP for the 2010 oil disaster to go to states affected. As Whitney Ray tells us, it would mean 16 billions would be divided among Florida and the four other gulf coast states.

One year after Joey Costanzo bought this seafood restaurant, his business venture looked doomed. The 2010 BP oil a disaster, spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Joey’s sales fell by half.

“I had to lay off several people. If they weren’t laid off we had to cut hours back,” said Costanzo.

Fears over gulf seafood are residing, but prices remain high.

“We are still paying, 20, 30, 40 percent more than it was the month before the oil spill happened,” said Constanzo.

Because of the damage it caused, BP is being fined 20 billion dollars.

These business and political leaders want the money spent in Florida. They’re supporting the Restore Act, which requires 16 billion of the BP money be spent on beach restoration and sending the message that Florida’s is open for business.

“Many businesses, many different hotels did close down, so we haven’t made it back completely economically,” said Beth Oltman, with the Panama City Beach Chamber of Commerce.

The act comes as Florida’s tourism industry is making a come back. Tourism is up 2.4 percent and 19-thousand jobs were added in the industry in 2011.

But supporters of the act say things could be better, and the long term impact of the spill is still unknown.

“There are still studies that need to be done to determine what impact it’s had on sea life in the area,” said Pensacola Council Member Dr. P.C. Wu.

Congress is expected to take final action on the act before July. If it passes, the money would be divided among the five Gulf States impacted by the spill. Since the disaster, the Florida Department of Agriculture has been testing fish caught in the gulf. The tests show small traces of oil, but the Commissioner of Agriculture says it’s barely traceable and gulf seafood is safe to eat.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Construction Projects in Jeopardy

May 25th, 2012 by flanews

A stalemate in Washington could bring construction in Florida grinding to a halt. The state has already lost half of its construction jobs since the recession began. As Whitney Ray tell us, thousands more could be lost if Congress doesn’t act by July.

There was a time when dust from these cement trucks filled the air at this concrete plant in Tallahassee. Today, only half of the trucks have drivers, the other half sit empty, victims of the great recession.

“We’re down to only about 10 mixing truck drivers now,” said Sam Pickenpaugh, Vulcan Concrete Mix Plant General Manager.

And the job loss doesn’t stop there. This silo used to produce cinderblocks, but it hasn’t made one in two years and these blocks have all be imported, because the company had to lay off all its people making the blocks.”

“We laid those five people off and the last I heard most of them are still unemployed,” said Pickenpaugh.

The company’s job loss mirrors what’s happening statewide. In 2007, Florida had more than 660-thousand construction workers. Today there are just 310-thousand. That’s a decline of more than 50 percent and it could soon get worse.

Federal projects like construction on the I-4 corridor connecting Tampa to Orlando, are in jeopardy of losing their funding, if Congress doesn’t act by July.

The Associated General Contractors of America is calling for quick action on a 100 billion dollar transportation bill to save current jobs and encourage growth.

“Contractors aren’t hiring someone when they know they’ll have to lay them off in five weeks,” said Ken Simonson, chief Economist with the Associated General Contractors of America.

If no action is taken by the deadline, the impact would be immediate. Both chambers have passed a version of the transportation bill, but in order to send the legislation to the president lawmakers must negotiate a final version. There are disputes about how much to spend and how long the funding should last.

Posted in State News | 2 Comments »

Hazing Investigation Files Contain Window into Band Culture

May 24th, 2012 by Mike Vasilinda

Reams of investigative reports and hours of recorded conversations are shining new light on the practice of hazing at Florida A&M University. The death of Drum major Robert Champion has resulted in 11 people being charged with felonies. As Mike Vasilinda tells us the events that lead to the drum majors death were planned in the back of a limo.

Investigative reports show Robert Champion was one of three people who walked the gauntlet on Bus C the night he died. Percussionist Lissette Sanchez told investigators nat sot she was allowed to make the walk.

She also said the unwritten rules of hazing were known by everyone.

“I mean, they tell you,” Sanchez said. “It’s not a secret. It’s not a secret to anybody.”

Sanchez also implicated the bus driver.

“She goes bus C and then she makes a noise,” she said.

“She goes “Bus C, blah” and then she gets off the bus?” Detective Dave Phelan asks.

Band members called this sitting in the hot seat. They would kneel on the backseat of the bus, and cover up with a blanket to be pummeled by fists, just to earn the right to walk down the aisle of a bus and be hit again.

Drum Major Keon Hollis followed Sanchez that night.

“I think you do it for acceptance, to be accepted, and to gain the respect of your peers. It’s one of those types of things,” Drum Major Keon Hollis said.

And he described his hazing in detail.

“They were using hands, straps, I saw a cone,” Hollis said.

“A cone?” the detective asked.

“Yeah,” Hollis replied.

“Like a big orange cone?” the detective asked.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Slaps or punches?” the detective asked.

“Both,” Hollis replied.

Band members say hazing was voluntary. An autopsy report also shows he was free from drugs and alcohol that night.

Few of those interviewed voluntarily identified others the first time they were asked by investigators.

Posted in FAMU, State News | 2 Comments »

FCAT Changes Frustrate Teachers, Principals

May 24th, 2012 by flanews

The FCAT continues to be a moving target for school administrators trying to adjust to all the changes. FCAT 2.0 isn’t the final change, not even close. In 2015, the state is adopting a national standardized test called PARCC. Capital Correspondent Whitney Ray asks the Florida Department of Education why?

Every spring High School Principal Rocky Hanna’s five computer labs get more crowded. Changes to the FCAT requiring more online testing are causing headaches for Florida schools. Hanna says the FCAT has been changing so much his teachers and students have to spend most of the school year adjusting.

“Since FCAT, the beginning of April, this school has been a train wreck,” said Hanna.

It’s like trying to hit a moving target, at least that’s what school administrators say. They say once their teachers and students have set their sites, the state changes the test and then they have to take aim at a new target.

And the target isn’t stopping any time soon. Florida is beginning its transition into a national standardized test. PARCC, or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is still being developed. Principal Hanna is skeptical.

“We can’t get to point were we can analyze data that isn’t apples to oranges. We can’t compare apples to apples because we can’t sit still long enough to do it,” said Hanna.

Florida and 23 other states will begin taking the PARCC test in 2015, until then the FCAT will continue to change.

Reporter: Why have we seen so many changes in FCAT in recent years?

Pam Stewart, Chancellor of the Florida Division of Public Schools: There has been a lot change hasn’t there. I think it’s because Florida leads the nation in reform.”

Outrage, over the FCAT isn’t new, but what has changed is the state’s response. A call center has been set up to explain the changes to upset parents.

The US Department of Education is giving Florida 150 million Race to the Top dollars to make the switch to the PARCC test. The Department says teachers will play a bigger role in the development and scoring.

Posted in State News | 158 Comments »

FCAT Reading and Math

May 24th, 2012 by flanews

The FCAT 2.0 continues to raise more questions than answers.

The third grade reading and math scores were released this morning. They show 56 percent of third graders in Florida read at a proficient level and 58 percent are up to par in Math. But how do they compare to last year’s results? The new standards make it hard to tell. Division of Public Schools Chancellor Pam Stewart says the state is in a transition period.

“In Florida when we have raised standards, or raised expectations there has been an initial dip. Then over time everyone makes the adjustments that are necessary and our students improve and continue to do better,” said Stewart.

The results put about one in five, or 34-thousand third graders, at risk of being held back.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

RNC Cancelled in Hurricane Drill

May 23rd, 2012 by flanews

A worst case scenario training exercise left emergency workers no choice but to cancel The Republican National Convention. The path of the fictional hurricane made landfall just north of Tampa on the second day of the RNC. As Whitney Ray tells us, the convention is still on, but if the scenario plays out Governor Rick Scott will have his hands full.

It’s May, but for training purposes here at the Florida Emergency Operation Center it’s late August, the height of Hurricane Season.

On what should be the second day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Mock Hurricane Gispert has made landfall just north of the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

It’s a category three and emergency responders are scrambling to access the damage and get supplies to people caught in the aftermath. Politics is put on hold.

Reporter: For sake of this drill, the convention is cancelled?
Carroll: For the sake of the drill, yes, and public safety, primary.

Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll says if this scenario were real, safety comes first and the governor, not RNC organizers, makes the call.

“This is his state and public safety is primary,” said Carroll.

Carroll is filling in for Governor Rick Scott during this four day hurricane drill. Scott’s in Spain on a trade mission.

The governor traditionally oversees the response and addresses the public from the Emergency Operation Center here in Tallahassee, but there are plans in place to allow him to lead by remote from Tampa Bay.

Which would allow Scott to continue as head of the Florida delegation and possibly speak at the convention if a hurricane makes land fall in another part of the state.

“We could operate remotely via video teleconference and we could also use Hillsborough County EOC, or Pinellas County EOC, or even our own mobile command vehicle,” said Bryan Koon, the Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

But if a storm makes landfall away from Tampa during the convention, the governor is promising to visit the area as soon as it’s safe.

The good news is hurricanes are more predictable than other disasters, so if a storm is heading toward the convention, there will be plenty of warning. In this week’s drill, the call to cancel was made over the weekend. We called RNC organizers to see how they would respond to the scenario and when and where they might reschedule the convention. They never returned our call.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Files from FAMU Hazing Death Released

May 23rd, 2012 by Mike Vasilinda

There is new insight tonight into the hazing incident that killed a drum major at Florida A&M University last November. Prosecutors released thousands of pages of testimony and audio tapes. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the tapes point out the difficulty investigating a case with so many participants.

Percussionist Caleb Jackson was the first of 13 people arrested in the death of FAMU drum Major Robert Champion. Thousands of pages of documents put Jackson on the bus, restraining Champion. But, when first questioned, Jackson denied even being there.

“They said you were on the bus,” a detective said.

“That’s a lie,” Jackson replied.

“That’s a lie?” the detective asked.

“Yeah, and I have confirmation that’s a lie,” he said.

Twenty minutes later, he admits to being on the bus for the first of three hazings that night.

“Halfway through, you know I’ll tell you, halfway through I left because it was kind of boring,” Jackson said.

But he continues to deny being involved in Robert Champion’s hazing. He does admit to being hazed himself, saying he chose FAMU over Bethune Cookman to spite his father. He learned about hazing at FAMU while in high school.”

“Well, I heard about it in high school,” Jackson said.

“You heard about it in high school?” the detective asked.

“Yeah,” Jackson replied.

“Where did you go to high school?” the detective asks.

“Palm Beach Lakes,” he said.

Police asked if Robert was singled out because he was new to the band and was rapidly advancing.

“They’re making it look like, well, oh, people didn’t like him; the guy came up too fast, blah, blah, blah, and they started doing more than they needed to do,” Orange County Sheriff’s Detective Rolf said.

Forty minutes into the interview, Jackson does a complete 180, admitting to restraining Champion.

“If he gonna push at you, you’re gonna push at him,” Jackson said.

Jackson told detectives that Champion was fine when he left the bus.

“To my knowledge, he was fine,” he said.

Jackson remains the only one charged with the hazing death still in Jail. He is being held without bond on a probation violation.

In an interview the day the band was suspended for next year, retired band director Julian White says he lamented never telling Robert Champion he would be the lead drum major the coming year.

Posted in Crime, Criminal Justice, FAMU, State News | No Comments »

Get a Plan

May 23rd, 2012 by flanews

Meteorologists are predicting a slower than usual hurricane season, but emergency managers say that doesn’t mean people should get complacent. Florida has escaped six seasons without a hurricane making landfall. Meteorologists are prediction 10 named storms this year, about half as many as years past, but Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll says its just takes one storm to create a disaster.

“I want to remind Floridians that 20 years ago the same predication was made and in August 1992, Florida was forever altered,” said Jennifer Carroll.

Carroll is calling on all Floridians to create a hurricane kit and prepare an evacuation plan. The state has a website with tips; Floridadisaster.org

Posted in State News | No Comments »

FCAT 2.0 Hotline

May 22nd, 2012 by Mike Vasilinda

Seven hundred parents contacted the Department of Education on the first day of a new hotline and web site for FCAT information. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the outreach was prompted by a disastrous drop in writing scores that forced the state to lower its grading standard.

The calls keep coming.

“Thank you for calling the Florida Department of Education’s FCAT 2.0 call center.”

Two hundred fifty people called on the first day of a first ever FCAT hot line for parents.

“Everybody is just a little concerned,” Hotline operator Jasmine Hopkins said. “Everybody wants to know where the scores are. They have questions regarding why the FCAT is important. You know, just typical parent questions. Some are friendly, and some are not so friendly.”

The hotline was created after the state realized it wasn’t doing a good job of communicating changes in FCAT scores.

“We discovered that there was a large gap between what we were putting out and what our parents knew,” Hotline Supervisor Kelly Seay said.

In addition to the calls, another 400 parents visited a first ever web site for questions and answers.

What they saw was a feel good video.

“Classes will be tougher and tests will be harder, but I know our students will meet the challenge.”

But another video, titled “Standardized Tests Epic Fail” has gotten almost a quarter million hits.

“It’s standardized! You can’t keep changing the standard.”

Back at the hot line, many of the callers wanted information on FCAT reading scores, which haven’t yet been released.

“At this time we don’t know exactly how third grade has done,” Seay said.

The reading scores will determine pass or fail for some students. They are expected to be out late this week or early next.

The hotline is operating from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and will be operational until at least the end of June. The number is 1.866.507.1109

Posted in Education, State News | No Comments »

Insurance Discounts Scrutinized, Reexamined

May 22nd, 2012 by flanews

Thousands of Florida home owners are seeing their insurance discounts vanish. As Whitney Ray tells us, insurance companies are reinspecting homes to see if their customers deserve the yearly discounts they receive for home improvements.

The inspections are at random. Citizens will complete more than 300-thousand before years end. Private insurance companies are also reinspecting homes. All the inspections are being paid for by the insurance companies.

Kevin Roth is a folk singer. He’s also a Citizens Property Insurance customer. So when Citizens dropped coverage for his porch and carport Roth wrote a song.

“Oh, Citizen Insurance is the catastrophic wind. They should spell their name C-i-t-i-S-I-N,” the song goes.

Now the state run insurer may want to reinspect Roth’s home to see if he should keep the discounts he receives for home improvements.

State law requires insurance companies to slash prices for people who strengthen their windows, doors and roofs. But first home owners must fill out this four page form and send in picture proof that the improvements have been made.

But that’s still not enough for Citizens and other insurance companies that feel the discounts are too high. This year Citizens has reinspected 150-thousand homes and six out of 10 have lost at least part of their discount.

Florida Insurance Council Spokesman Sam Miller says private insurers are also doing reviews, because many of the original inspections were done hastily or not at all.

“An inspector would change a cover letter on the form but everything else would be the same form, just copied,” said Miller.

But for Kevin Roth it’s the same song, second verse. He believes insurance companies will keep asking for more money until people speak out.

“They don’t want to write. They don’t want to call. They don’t want to protest,” said Roth.

So for now Roth will continue his one man protest using his guitar and catchy lyrics.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

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