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From Fireworks to Fire Hazards

June 30th, 2014 by flanews

As millions of Floridians get ready to set off some fireworks this weekend, the state has a word of warning. As Matt Galka tells us, 4th of July fun can turn into something much worse if people aren’t careful.

Fireworks that light up the sky are synonymous with the red white and blue’s birthday, but each year, the exploding entertainment sends about 5,000 people to the hospital. Customer Destin Benson says he keeps the stat in mind every July 4th.

“I’ve got children so I’m usually the one who lights them so we get back pretty far away and make sure nobody gets hurt, I make sure everything’s cleared, doesn’t hit my neighbors houses and stuff,” said Benson just after he purchased a large amount of fireworks.

Florida law bans fireworks that fly through the air or explode but a loophole allows customers to still buy them. Rockets can be purchased for “agricultural purposes.”

Fireworks vendor Victoria Osborne said because she can sell the items that explode, she needs to take the time to teach safety.

“It’s a really big deal for us, you know, it’s not that hard to just take those few minutes, I always ask somebody if they’ve ever done mortars, if they’ve done firecrackers, if they’ve ever done anything that they’re getting. I’ll do a demonstration,” said Osborne.

The department of agriculture says that along with keeping yourself safe, fireworks can cause plants and houses to catch fire in an instant.

“Fireworks, obviously, are firepower. When you shoot a firework off it can land on your roof of your house, it can land in the brush of your yard, so we really encourage people to watch out for that when they’re using fireworks,” said Department of Agriculture Press Secretary Erin Gillespie.

The State Fire Marshal’s office says to keep a fire extinguisher and water bucket handy when lighting off fireworks this weekend. They also recommend dousing all used and “dud” fireworks in water after use and only lighting one off at a time.

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Restaurant Inspection Changes

June 27th, 2014 by flanews

The way health inspectors look over restaurants in the state is changing.  As Matt Galka tells us, the agency in charge of inspections says it’s all about efficiency.

The 48,000 licensed restaurants in the state will be inspected a little differently starting next week. The risk based inspection system will take into account menus and past violations. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association says it didn’t make sense to inspect a street vendor and a 5 star eatery the same amount of times.

“There’s very little that can go wrong with a hot dog cart, not a lot of people served that day, very limited menu, very limited preparation. Contrast that with what you’d consider for food service in a medical setting,” says FRLA V.P. Geoff Luebkemann

The state says the changes will save time and money.

“The new risk based system actually makes good business sense for our licensees but also for Florida taxpayers. It allows the department to hone their efforts on those, those establishments that may need a little more assistance,” says Beth Frady with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Restaurants with a confirmed food born illness in the last year will be inspected at least 4 times.  Most others will be at least two or one.

Backwoods Bistro owner Jesse Rice says random check ins come with the territory.

“Sure it makes sense, there’s a lot more that comes out of this restaurant than a hot dog stand and should be inspected more often I’d say,” he said.

The state says that only 20 restaurants out of 48,000 had food born illness problems this past year. Along with the new guidelines, the department of business and professional regulation said a restaurant will be inspected every time a consumer complaint is received.

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Bar Dues Question Plagues Bar Convention

June 27th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

When interest rates fell during the recession, the money earned by lawyers holding other people’s money dropped sharply, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the drop has created a crisis in legal aid for the poor.

Two thousand lawyers spent the last of the week in Orlando at their annual convention. One of the most talked about topics: How to stop the bleeding in legal help for the poor. Robin Rosenblatt from the Tampa office of Florida CHildren’s First says funding for legal aid for children has all but dried up. “Six legal aid programs that directly provide legal aid to children lost all of their funding this year” says the attorney.

At least 500 lawyers have signed a petition asking the Florida Supreme Court to raise bar dues by a hundred dollars a year. The hike would raise ten million. Incoming Bar President Greg Coleman is instead calling for a statewide summit.

“A hundred dollars per person, number one, is not going to solve the problem. And number two, it’s laying it at the feet of the lawyers once again, when this is a societal problem” says the newly sworn in President.

But some, including Bob Butterworth, Florida’s former Attorney General, say it is a crisis that can’t wait.

“Somebody has to do it. Let’s start it, and the rest..and I believe the rest of the public will follow” says Butterworth, the recipient of the Bar Foundations highest award this year.

Adding fuel to the fire, Governor Rick Scott has vetoed four years running, a two million dollar appropriation that would help provide legal aid to the poor.”

And the new Bar President said he is already talking to the Governor about next year.

“We will continue to keep an open dialog with the Governor and his office” said Greg Coleman

And most here believe it will be 2015 before any steps are taken in solving the crisis.

In the meantime, foster children, people in foreclosure and victims of domestic abuse are the most likely to be hurt by the lack of help from a legal aid lawyer. Bar dues are currently $265 dollars a year. The increase would cost each of the state’s 100,000 lawyers about two dollars a week.

 

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Hospitals Feeling the Squeeze

June 26th, 2014 by flanews

Preventable patient injuries and infections are going to start costing hospitals. As Matt Galka tells us, Florida will have its share of medical centers on the hook for penalties under the affordable care act.

Even though the Affordable Care Act has been strongly opposed by the Governor since its inception, and strongly supported by Medicaid expansion advocates. Obamacare isn’t going anywhere for now.  This fall new, a new patient safety penalty sanction will be laid down on hospitals across the country – and, potentially, more than 30 in Florida.

“The differences between these hospitals and those that are not named, you know, can be very insignificant,” said Bill Bell, General Counsel for the Florida Hospital Association.

The Hospital Acquired Condition Reduction program will reduce Medicare payments for hospitals with the worst patient injury rates.  The injuries being measured include infections, falls, and blood clots.

“We would say that the hospitals basic mission is to improve patient care. They’ve already been working on that and this is one of the best times to be a patient in healthcare today,” said Bell.

The federal program will penalize the hospitals in the country that scored in the bottom 25% for patient safety.

A report from the federal Department of Health and Human services says that patients have about a one in four chance of suffering a preventable injury at a hospital. The sanctions begin in October.

Hospitals are expected to be on the hook for more than 330 million dollars because of safety issues.

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DCF Trying to Rebuild Trust

June 25th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

A South Florida Grand Jury is calling the under reporting of child deaths “misleading”   So as of today, as Mike Vasilinda tells us, DCF will begin reporting all child death information on its website.

A Grand Jury Report issued Tuesday says the failure to  publicly report 30 deaths was “misleading” and that it erodes the  public trust. Interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, who took office just two months ago,  is also praised by the Grand Jury for a quick response.

“We have taken very quick, very decisive steps to fix the system in question” says Carroll. A previous grand jury report found the child protection investigators just were’t skeptical enough of a caregivers story and it found they had a persistent insidious bias of trust.

State lawmaker also weighed in and sent a clear message to DCF this spring….investigators must shift their focus from keeping families together, to keeping a child safe. Kurt Kelly runs an association of private foster care agencies.

“You wouldn’t think you’d have to actually mention that. But they have gone in and redefined the methodology they are going to utilize” says Kelly.

Lawmakers also provided money for 270 additional child protection investigators. Kelly says more up front intervention will save everyone in the long run.

Question: ”You know who has drug abuse problems right away?”

“Yeah…you can go in and see that they have drug paraphernalia. You understand they’ve got problems. You have to deal with that.

And a legislatively mandated web site tracking child deaths and a families involvement with DCF launched Wednesday…a week early. Carrol says it will get better with time.  “If we have a child’s death that’s reported in the state, the general public will get information on that right away.”

A full report on 10 years of child deaths is expected to be up for viewing by the end of the year. DCF is now sending in two investigators in suspicious cases, just to have a second set of eyes making decisions about a child’s future.

 

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One in the Same?

June 25th, 2014 by flanews

A mysterious third party group is bashing both the Governor and his expected Democratic opponent. As Matt Galka tells us, another Dem can benefit, but some suspect it’s a Republican backed front.

Mailers like this are going out across the state. But instead of being Pro-Rick Scott or Pro-Charlie Crist … the flyers call both candidates “one in the same.”

Sent out by a mystery group known as Progressive Choice Florida, the ads say Crist and Scott both oppose healthcare reform, favor voucher expansion, and restrict women’s access to healthcare.

The group is also paying for racially charged radio ads in central Florida railing against Crist. The former Republican turned Democrat’s advisors say Scott’s office is behind the whole thing

“These are disgusting attacks from Rick Scott, it’s everything that’s wrong with politics, and the people of Florida don’t deserve to be hearing it on their radios or on their t.v.’s,” said Crist adviser Kevin Cate.

The Republican Party of Florida gave us a video from Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart when we asked them about the mailers.

“He’s gone from ‘chain gang’ Charlie to ‘change his mind’ Charlie,” the video says.

The mailers going out across the state are calling for a Progressive Leader. The gubernatorial candidate who bills herself as a progressive democrat said she isn’t behind them, but she’ll take the help.

“I don’t know who these people are, I don’t have anything to do with their message, the only thing I can say is ‘I love their message,'” said candidate Nan Rich.

The group’s funding will remain a mystery for now. They don’t need to reveal their donors until one month before the election. Progressive Choice’s leader is a Baltimore area political consultant. She told political website “Talking Points Memo” earlier this year that they are the real deal and not a front.

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Inmate Reentry

June 24th, 2014 by flanews

Nobody is watching Florida’s inmates when they’re released according to a new study. As Matt Galka explains, Florida leads the country in unsupervised reentry, and experts say that puts some on a fast track back behind bars.

Nearly 65% of Florida’s prisoners are coming back into society without supervision.  A study from Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that with no one watching, former inmates are more likely to become criminals again

Mark Schlakman runs FloridaState’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. He says it only makes sense that offenders who are thrown back into society wind up back behind bars.

“If there isn’t at least some level of transitional support or oversight, it is less likely that the person reentering society would have a successful reentry into society,” said Schlakman.

The study argues that “smart justice” options, like a halfway house, could be better for the end of a prison sentence rather than just letting a prisoner walk away on their own.

When an ex offender ends up back in prison – something known as recidivism – the money it takes to keep them locked up adds up.  Florida TaxWatch’s  center for Smart Justice says repeat criminals hurts the taxpayer.

“We have to re-arrest them, re-try them, and re-sentence them to prison. Lots of public dollars in that, but more importantly, there was a crime that was committed, there is now a victim in Florida,” said Robert Weissert with TaxWatch.

Florida prisoners are required to serve 85% of their sentences.  The legislature passed a bill this past session helping inmates get ID cards upon release – hoping to ease their transition back to society.

The study says that unsupervised inmate releases are up more than 100 percent nationwide since 1990. The state’s department of corrections says about one of every three inmates released returns to jail within three years.

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Threatened Use of Force Now the Law in Florida

June 23rd, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

People who feel threatened can now use non lethal force to scare away potential attackers without the fear of prison time. The so called “Warning Shot” legislation was inspired by a mother sent who was sent to jail.

It took a jury less than 15 minutes to find Marissa Alexander guilty of aggregated assault after she fired a shot in the direction of her estranged husband. She got 20 years but she’s now out, awaiting a new trial.  But it was her case that first  inspired the so called warning shot legislation championed by Marion Hammer and the  NRA.

“Self defense is not a crime. Self defense is a right guaranteed by the Constitution” says Hammer, who admits she doesn’t like the bill being labeled warning shot. “This bill is not really about warning shots. This bill is about stopping abuse and protecting your right of self defense.”

At a pawn shop a block from the Governor’s mansion, the signing of the legislation was hailed by owner Mark Folmar as common sense.

“You shouldn’t shoot somebody unless you have no other choice. Given this as one last choice, it may prevent some people from being shot” says Folmar.

The legislation encourages anyone convicted under the statute to apply for Executive Clemency. Hammer says the message is clear:  “It absolutely is a message to the Clemency Board. The Clemency Board can make right the wrongs committed by prosecutors.”

A number of cases could qualify for clemency under the legislation, but how many is unknown until they start making applications.

And anyone who is initially charged and later has the charges dropped can apply to have their arrest record expunged.

Marissa Alexander was originally offered a plea deal which included 3 years in prison. She turned it down. Her retrial is scheduled for December. She would only need to apply for clemency if she is re convicted.

 

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Blow the Whistle

June 23rd, 2014 by flanews

The Rick Scott and Charlie Crist campaigns are throwing out he said she said’s after a whistleblower held a press conference organized by a Crist consultant. As Matt Galka tells us, the woman has some serious claims about a high profile state department.

Dianne Parcell worked for the Department of Economic Opportunity for 30 years. She claims that when she found wrongdoing, they fired her.

“There really is no place for state workers to go when they have concerns about wrongdoing, they’re pretty much on their own,” said Parcell.

Parcell says she was told by her supervisors to stop investigating nearly 100 fraudulent claims from the DEO to collection agencies for unemployment overpayments. She was placed on administrative leave after filing her whistleblower letter and then later let go. Her lawyers say there are 19,000 other cases, and the Governor isn’t helping.

“They didn’t reach out to make sure that the 19,000 cases were resolved,” said attorney Keisha Rice.

The Governor’s re-election campaign responded by pointing out the political ties to the organizers of the press conference.

“Florida’s government has over 150,000 employees – and, in a system that large, there are always bound to be employee conflicts. But in typical trial lawyer fashion, Charlie Crist and his campaign are doing what they’re good at – using lawsuits for partisan political purposes. Charlie Crist is also good at losing jobs – and today’s stunt can’t distract from the fact that he lost 832,000 of them while he was governor,” said Greg Blair, Rick Scott for Florida spokesman in an emailed statement.

Parcell says it has nothing to do with the Governor’s race.

“I do feel that his office was not helpful or receptive, that they kind of shrugged it off, but I don’t have a vendetta. As I said, I’m a Republican.”

We reached out to the Department of Economic Opportunity. They responded in a statement calling Parcell’s claims “meritless.” But a jury didn’t find the claims meritless. Parcell was awarded $50,000 in court in April. Nearly $200,000 more was awarded in a settlement.

The organizers of the whistleblower press conference released a response to the Governor’s office statement.

Statement from Keisha Rice, attorney for Whistleblower Diane Parcell:
It’s not shocking that the Rick Scott administration cover up would continue, despite an independent agency and a jury siding with the whistleblower. However, it seems very inappropriate for the Rick Scott administration to be directing state whistleblower lawsuit questions to his political campaign. Doing so only reinforces that this is a top down corporate coverup culture built by Rick Scott.
And if he wants to be the only one to answer for it, let’s hear directly from him. Does he agree that when a whistleblower wins a lawsuit that the claim is “meritless,” as his political campaign is claiming? Does he believe that the jury was in on the “stunt” to protect someone trying to save taxpayers from a potential $1.9 billion liability?
Rick Scott was the one that pushed hard for more collections during the recession, which ended up harming struggling Floridians. It was his administration that pushed 19,000 people the wrong way off of a cliff. It was his administration that ignored repeated pleas from the whistleblower to do what’s right. It was his administration that then attempted to assassinate the character of the whistleblower.
Taxpayers and state employees deserve better from Rick Scott. They deserve action. And two years later, all they are getting is more cover ups.

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7 Candidates, 6 Write Ins Seek Governorship

June 20th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Qualifying for State Office ended today with 13 people putting their hat into the ring, and 7 of them were serious enough to put their money where their mouth is.

It was a chaotic end to candidate qualifying…last minute candidates rushing in to beat a noon deadline.

“eight minutes to qualifying” chimed a Department alwyer.

One of the last to file paperwork was Monroe Lee.

“I’m running for Governor” say Lee.

Lee and five  others are running as write in candidates for Governor…you’ll likely never hear from any of them. But seven others will be on the ballot for the top job. Two are front runners..Rick Scott and Charlie Crist…and then there’s former State Senator Nan Rich has been campaigning for two years. “and I believe this state is ready to elect a progressive Democrat and to have the first woman Governor of the State of Florida” says the dark horse Democrat.

One the Republican side, two unknown candidates ponied up the seventy eight hundred dollar qualifying fee….One…Yinka Adeshina claims to have almost two hundred thousand dollars in the bank….but many of the names are suspicious.

“Hello”

We knocked on the door of her Tallahassee home. A woman on the other side said she wasn’t there.

A neighbor across the street describes the family as … They seem nice”.

The Secretary of State Ken Detzner says he is looking into claims the filings are suspicious. “and if there’s some allegation that’s made public to us, we’ll look into that.”

Even with questions being raised about one Republican, Rick Scott and Charlie Crist are both guaranteed to have opponents, and that means that voters of both parties will have their say on their candidate.

Also running for Governor are a Libertarian Candidate and one with no party

“Qualifying has ended” rang out at noon, signaling the beginning of campaign season.

That Guarantees voters four at least four choices this November.

 

Filing false candidate forms or contribution reports is a misdemeanor under Florida law.

 

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Democrats Field Ag Commish Candidate

June 20th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

A Ft. Lauderdale man who spent 36 years traveling the country for the U-S Department of Agriculture was a last minute addition to the race for state Agriculture Commissioner today. Thad Hamilton says he is running because state government needs more diversity.

HAMILTON PIC

“I’ve worked across this nation in Agriculture and the Environment. I’m also a retired colonel from the United States Army. It’s time for us to unite the state of Florida. We must take the Agriculture, the Environment and the people. Bring them together because we must develop a sustainable state. Right now we don’t have a sustainable state we have division” says the newly minted candidate Hamilton.

Current Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is reporting one point nine million in his reelection bid. A write in candidate has also filed for the race.

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Candidate Qualifying Ends

June 20th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

When the clock struck noon today, candidate qualifying for state and local offices officially ended. In Tallahassee, there was a rush of last minute legislative candidates, but Secretary of State Ken Detzner says it was an orderly five days of qualifying.

“I’m trying to encourage people to turn out. You know its an off year election. I just finished an 18 county tour of Supervisors to refresh there awareness of the new laws. See how they’re applying the laws that passed regarding early voting sites and times and I’m pleased to report that I think we’re moving forward” says the appointed Secretary of State.

The primary election is just two months and five days from today.

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Rick Scott May Set Execution Record for Modern Governors

June 19th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

John R Henry was executed by the state last night. He is the 18th inmate to die under Rick Scott’s Governorship, but when the sun rose this morning at Florida State Prison, there were still 397 people on death row.

It took Rick Scott almost 10 months after taking office to carry out his first execution.

“The sentence of the state of Florida vs John Henry was carried out at 7:43 PM” is how prison spokesperson Jessica Cary announced the first Florida execution since a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma in May.

Wednesday’s execution of John R. Henry was Scott’s 18th.

At 18, Rick Scott has executed more people than any other Governor in his first term. Surprising in some ways because it’s a duty he says he never thought about when he was seeking the office. “You know, look, executions are a solemn duty of the Governor. It’s not something I thought about when I was going to run, but I uphold the laws of the land” Scott told reporters this week.

Only Jeb Bush sent more to their maker…21…but it took him 8 years.At the prison Wednesday night, the niece and cousin of the victims said it was about time. “I just want to thank the state for finally taking care of this…it’s been a long time coming”  said Selena Geiger, who waited 25 years from her aunt’s killing to execution.

Since 2010 there have been 19 executions, but  65 more arrived on death row.

executions 2010-14

At the State Capitol, Protestors gathered to remember the victims and the killer. One reason for the increased pace of executions may be because many cases have exhausted their appeals. Death Penalty Opponent Sheila Meehan was asked her thoughts on why there are more executions. “Do you think its this Governor or do you think its finally these cases have been brewing for 25 years.”

“No, I think it’s this Governor and his General Counsel Pete Antonacci” responded Meehan.

217 of the current death row residents arrived there before the year 2000.It was 29 years from John R Henry’s crime to his execution. Eddy Wayne Davis, who raped and murdered an 11 year old girl is set to die July 10th. (Use some of the stats I sent for your counties sending people to death row).

 

 

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Hurricane Tax Going Away

June 19th, 2014 by flanews

A lack of hurricanes for the past 8 years will soon start saving you some money. As Matt Galka explains, dropping the hurricane tax comes 18 months early.

The 2004 and 2005 Hurricane seasons battered Florida. 8 storms, highlighted by 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, cost the state’s Hurricane Catastrophe Fund more than $9 billion dollars.

“We paid the claims but we’re still paying off the bonds that were necessary so the claims could quickly be paid off 8 years ago,” said Sam Miller with the Florida Insurance Council.

That state charged insurance customers assessments to help foot the bill. The so-called hurricane tax collected between $350 and $500 million dollars a year for the CAT fund since 2007.  A 1.3 percent charge on home and auto policies will be ending this January.

The Florida Insurance Council says putting money back in people’s pockets doesn’t hurt.

“It’s a very good thing that CAT Fund assessments are ending. It means a 1.3 percent reduction in insurance rates,” said Miller.

Just because the assessment is going away for now doesn’t mean it will be gone forever.

The CAT fund has about $17 billion in reserves. But Florida TaxWatch Chief Economist Jerry Parrish says a bad year could wipe that money away.

“Just because we’ve paid for this last series of storms and we have some cash, doesn’t mean that there’s no probability of assessments. We still could have assessments if there is a large enough storm or series of storms,” said Parrish.

The assessment was scheduled to end in July of 2016 which means the 1.3 percent savings is coming 18 months early.

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Clemency Contrasts

June 18th, 2014 by flanews

Nearly 100 felons in Florida asked for clemency Wednesday seeking civil rights restoration. As Matt Galka explains, a heavy backlog in the system has protestors crying foul and calling for the state to go back to the old system.

Robert Mallan’s appeal to the executive clemency board didn’t go the way he wanted. Mallan was convicted of kidnapping a 10 year old boy in Tampa.  He’s been out of jail since 1991 but his civil rights haven’t been restored.

“It looms over you and sometimes your past, you have to explain certain situations,” said Mallan.

Former Governor Charlie Crist established the automatic restoration of civil rights for former felons. Governor Rick Scott and the cabinet pulled the plug on the program immediately after taking office.

Human Rights advocate Mark Schlackman says the difference in numbers is startling.

“Charlie Crist’s administration granted more than 150,000 civil rights restoration for ex-felons, during the current administration, that number is closer to 1,200,” said Shlackman.

While many at the meeting were looking to get their voting rights back, protesters say the state’s clemency policy is a form of voter suppression.

Ex-offender and voting rights advocate Lashanna Tyson traveled with a group from Orlando to speak out against the policy and backlog of people looking for restoration.

“This is voter suppression in the worst way, this is voter suppression in the absolute worst way. You are disenfranchising two million people to control the vote,” said Tyson.

We asked the Governor about automatic restoration after the meeting.

“What I think about when you hear these cases today, is I think about the victims. I think about what happened to them,” said Gov. Rick Scott (R-Florida).

Florida’s prison population demographics suggest that many of the people in the backlog are minorities. The ACLU of Florida is sending out questionnaire to state cabinet candidates asking their thoughts on the automatic restoration of civil rights. The group says it will publish the responses and non-responses.

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