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World-Renowned Fashion Designer Eyeing Florida Hemp

August 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Top-tier fashion designer Naeem Khan has his eye on Florida hemp.

His work sells for thousands of dollars and has been worn by high-profile figures including Michelle Obama.

“Fashion is one of the largest polluters in the world,” said Khan.

We caught up with Khan in-between meetings with state officials.

He’s hoping to cultivate hemp in Florida for its fiber, which he plans to use as a greener alternative to other clothing materials.

“Hemp can save the planet. You don’t need pesticides, you don’t need fertilizer. It takes the least amount of water,” said Khan.

But it’s not entirely clear what problems hemp might face or cause in Florida.

Success in hemp for entrepreneurs like Khan relies in part on research being conducted by Florida Universities.

Florida A&M University just planted its first hemp crop.

“This is pretty big for us to actually get something in the ground,” said Dr. Charles Weatherford.

Dr. Weatherford is in charge of FMAU’s hemp research project.

“When you bring a new plant in like this and you grow it in a major way there’s all sorts of possible problems,” said Weatherford. “We want to try to study those possibilities and eliminate them if possible.”

While research is just gearing up, Khan already has high hopes for hemp’s impact on the sunshine state.

“There is a huge opportunity of Florida being the forefront for fashion manufacturing and fashion designers to be here,” said Khan. “Now with hemp we could also build a new industry.”

Dr. Weatherford said the university hopes to have hemp growing in six to eight locations around the state by the end of October.

FAMU is also teaming up with small farmers who will help cultivate the hemp crop.

The university plans to allow the farmers to sell the crop for profit so it can study the market demand for hemp.

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Former Tallahassee Mayor and Lobbyist Face 45 Years in Prison in Corruption Case

August 6th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A former Tallahassee Mayor and city lobbyist are facing a maximum of 45 years in a Federal prison after pleading guilty to three counts in a case stemming from an FBI probe into City Hall that had implications in last year’s Governor’s race.

Three-time statewide candidate, former Tallahassee Mayor and City Commissioner Scott Maddox and lobbyist Paige Carter Smith were silent as they entered the federal courthouse.

The two faced 47 counts stemming from an FBI probe that began in 2015.

They emerged after pleading guilty to mail, wire, and tax fraud in a pay to play scheme, where at least two companies, including an unnamed ride share company, paid for Maddox’s vote during his time on the city commission.

Maddox declined to comment, but his attorney Stephen Dobson said his client was ready to accept responsibility.

“He wants to move on for his life, his family’s life and Tallahassee and he hopes Tallahassee heals,” said Dobson.

The two face a maximum of 45 years in prison and $750,000 in fines, but they could receive a lighter sentence if they cooperate with the Federal Government.

“We hope that these defendants will now come forward, fully accept their responsibility and cooperate,” said US Attorney of Florida’s Norther District Lawrence Keefe.

For local property owner Erwin Jackson, who has long sought to expose corruption in the capital city, the prospect of a lighter sentence is upsetting.

“So far what we’ve heard is that crime does pay, white collar crime does pay,” said Jackson.

Federal prosecutors declined to say if more indictments may be on the way for other city officials or companies that may have offered bribes for votes.

The probe into City Hall was used as political fodder against former Tallahassee Mayor and Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.

Earlier this year the FBI subpoenaed records from Gillum’s Gubernatorial campaign, although Gillum hasn’t been directly named in the Maddox case.

There’s also a third defendant facing nine counts, JT Burnett, a local Tallahassee businessman who is set to go to trial in November.

Maddox and Carter Smith are scheduled to be sentenced on November 19th.

While the other charges in the case were dropped, the judge said facts relating to those charges could influence the sentence he imposes.

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Legislation Would Require 50 Percent Women Representation to Pass Abortion Restrictions

August 5th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Should a Legislature mostly made up of men be allowed to restrict access to abortion? 
A Democratic state lawmaker doesn’t think so and has filed legislation for the upcoming session would put the question before voters.
Seven states passed laws banning nearly all abortion procedures in just 2019 alone.
Kimberly Scott with Planned parenthood said it’s oftentimes men who make the decision to restrict abortion access.
“We see overwhelmingly men file legislation that would impact women’s’ health,” said Scott.
The bill filed by State Senator Lauren Book proposes a controversial safeguard to prevent new abortion restrictions in Florida. 
It would put a constitutional amendment before voters that would prohibit either chamber of the Legislature from passing any new restrictions on abortion access, unless women make up at least half of the members.
“Making sure that there is true representation for those that are voting on this legislation that will be the most impacted is so critical,” said Scott.
Women make up only 30 percent of the Florida Legislature. 
To get to 50 percent, eight female senators and 24 female representatives would have to be elected.
Ingrid Delgado with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops said while abortion disproportionately affects women, it doesn’t only affect women.
“Abortion affects society including the fathers, the grandparents and the siblings of aborted children,” said Delgado.
Delgado said the proposed amendment would impose a standard on abortion legislation that doesn’t exist for any other issue.
“We don’t require similar legislation for the majority of Gun owners or veterans or the elderly or children or racial minorities before passing legislation that affects those communities,” said Delgado.
The legislation faces an uphill battle in the Republican-held Legislature, which in recent years has seen momentum grow in favor of harsher abortion restrictions not fewer.
But Scott said while the Legislature may be in favor of tougher abortion restrictions, Florida voters have rejected them. 
In 2012 a proposed constitutional amendment that would have prohibited tax dollars from being spent on abortions failed when put before voters.

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Sales Tax Holiday Expected to Save Floridians $50 Million

August 2nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan
Florida families are expected to save upwards of $50 million over the next five days during this year’s back to school sales tax holiday.
The projected savings are nearly $20 million over last year.
Families buying supplies for children in grade school are expected to save $700 on average this year and families shopping for college students are anticipated to save $1,000.
James Miller with the Florida Retail Federation says the increased savings are primarily due to the inclusion of bigger budget items like technology products up to $1,000.
Also because this year’s holiday is five days, instead of three like in years past.
“Both numbers are very encouraging and shows once again how strong Florida’s economy is. It’ shows that people have a lot of money in their pocket to spend,” said Miller. “They’re feeling good about their job, feeling good about their financial situation and I think it means good things for retailers this year.”
The sales tax holiday ends Tuesday, August 6th.

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American Cancer Society Ranks Florida Among the Worst in the Nation for Prevention

August 2nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida is among the worst in the nation when it comes to preventing cancer, receiving subpar scores in all eight categories measured in a new report by the American Cancer Society (ACS).
“130,000 people this year in Florida alone are going to be diagnosed with cancer,” said Matt Jordan with the ACS.
Jordan said tobacco policy hurt Florida the worst in the report.
“It’s the main cause of cancer,” said Jordan. “We want to make sure that we’re preventing people from using it and those that are using it we want to help them quit.”
Low taxes on cigarettes and subpar funding for tobacco prevention both earned the state poor grades.
“We gave around, 70 or $71 million this year. The CDC recommends that we spend about twice what we’re spending right now,” said Jordan.
Poor tobacco policy may be a reflection of the old adage ‘money talks’.
Tobacco companies contributed about $3 million to Florida politicians during the 2018 election cycle alone.
However, Laura Corbin, Bureau Chief for Tobacco Free Florida said the agency has achieved success despite the low funding, helping more than 212,000 Floridians kick the habit since its creation.
“And we’ve reduced youth rates by 75 percent since 2006,” said Corbin.
Florida’s rejection of Medicaid expansion, which could have provided health insurance to 850,000 also hurt the state’s score.
Jordan said expanding the program would go a long way to improve cancer treatment and prevention.
“Sometimes a lot of people that don’t have insurance many not always have the incentive to go get screened,” said Jordan.
Another area Florida received poor score on the American Center Society’ report was tanning bed policy.
The state currently sets no restriction on how old you must be to use a tanning bed.
There are some signs of hope for Florida though.
Legislative pushes to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21 have gained traction in recent years.
There’s also proposed constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid, which has collected nearly 80,000 signatures.

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New Deal for State Plane Raises Old Concerns

August 2nd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is about to spend just over $15 million on a new jet for the Governor.
Former Governor Rick Scott, who left for the US Senate, sold the state’s planes shortly after he was sworn in.
The new purchase is raising old fears.

The miss-use of state airplanes helped Scott get elected.

As a candidate Scott repeatedly ran ads against his opponents, criticizing their use of the fleet for campaign purposes and personal matters.
Scott ordered two state planes sold days after he was sworn in.
“It’s a campaign promise I made and I’m going to live up to them,” said Scott in 2011.
Since taking office in January, Governor Ron DeSantis has been traveling on a refurbished King Air, similar to the one the state sold.
It’s had to make at least one emergency landing.
“Air things dropped from the ceiling,” said DeSantis, recalling the event at a press conference in January.
Now the state has awarded a $15.5 million bid to Textron Aviation.
The Cessna Latitude is being purchased by the Department of Law Enforcement.
DeSantis’ communications director Helen Ferre said FDLE has strict guidelines for protecting and transporting the Governor.
However, Ben Wilcox with Integrity Florida said he worries old habits could return without a strict new policy.
“I think they should establish strict rules that delineate how the plane will be used. So, not for personal business, not for campaign business, but for public business, legitimate public business,” said Wilcox.
In addition to an initial payment of $1.3 million for the plane, the state has also budgeted $3.8 million to operate it.
Negotiations with the planes maker are still underway.
Bid specifications call for the new jet to seat nine, come with WIFI, and even a seat belt in the lavatory.
Once final, the plane has to be delivered within 60 days.
A reminder: Rick Scott was a multimillionaire with his own jet.
Ron DeSantis has a net-worth of $283,000 and no plane.

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Feds Will Consider Allowing Canadian Drug Imports to Florida

August 1st, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

For the first time in history, the US government is looking allow states to import lower cost prescription drugs.

The federal law allowing drug imports has been around since 2003, but Florida could be one of the first to see the benefits.

Importing cheaper prescription drugs to Florida was one of the most hotly contested fights of the 2019 legislative session.

Drug companies and their associations spent more than $6 million dollars on television trying to defeat the state legislation allowing the imports this past Spring.

The Governor pushed back against claims that importing drugs from Canadian would have a higher chance of being counterfeit.

“The safety is going to be there, and if not there, then we wouldn’t want to do it,” said DeSantis.

Cheaper imports require federal approval, which has never been given before, but Florida’s Governor had the ear of the President.

“I talked to the President personally about this. He believes you can save a lot of money with Canada drugs,” said DeSantis.

The Federal Government said Wednesday it would begin the process, with the President tweeting the plan would make the Governor happy.

“It is very encouraging news,” said retiree Charlie Benz, who advocated for the legislation. “And my friends. I’m seeing the high cost of drugs impact their qualities of life. They used to visit their grand kids three or four times a year. Now they can only visit them once or twice.”

Even though Florida pharmacies would be able to apply to import foreign drugs to sell to customers, the association that represents the industry said it still has concerns.

“We are not convinced that all of the safety, the safety factors are in place,” said Michael Jackson with the Florida Pharmacy Association.

While cheaper prices may be on their way it could take months to develop rules, then fight legal challenges.

Still this is the first time since 2003 the Federal Government has said it would put an importation plan in motion.

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Florida’s 24-Hour Abortion Wait Period Headed to Trial

August 1st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The case against Florida’s 24-hour waiting period to receive an abortion is headed back to a lower court after an appeals court decided a lower court erred declaring it unconstitutional.

Despite passing in 2015, Florida’s law mandating a 24-hour waiting period before woman can get an abortion was only enforced briefly in 2016.

The ACLU argued the law was negatively impacting women, and successfully got the State Supreme Court to block the waiting period again in 2017.

“Women suffered. Women missed work and wages they would not have otherwise had to lose. Women experienced sickness that could have been avoided,” said ACLU Attorney Julia Kaye in 2016.

Last year a circuit court judge ruled the waiting period unconstitutional based on the privacy clause in the state constitution, but now an appellate court has ordered the case return to the lower court for a full trial.

Ingrid Delgado with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops said it will allow the state to strengthen its argument.

“To bring forward some new women who regret their abortions when they didn’t have a reflection period,” said Delgado.

27 states currently have waiting periods in effect.

Many have been up held by either their own state supreme courts or the US Supreme Court, however those states don’t have the same constitutional privacy rights as Florida.

But the state Supreme Court has a new Conservative leaning.

The ideological shift is another positive sign for pro-life groups.

“Especially when we know that we can bring forward evidence that wasn’t considered in the past. Again, with physicians for example testifying to the fact that this is already the accepted standard of care,” said Delgado.

Benjamin Stevenson a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida said in a statement, “We are disappointed that the court failed to recognize what we all know—a 24-hour delay was designed to and plainly does unnecessarily restrict access to safe and legal reproductive health care. We look forward to proving these facts at trial.”

The ACLU, while disappointed in the decision to send the case back to a lower court, said it’s happy the 2017 Supreme Court injunction will still prevent the law from taking effect for the time being.

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Second Florida Officer Charged With Planting Drugs

July 31st, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

For the second time in only a month, a Florida Sheriff’s deputy was arrested, accused of making bogus drug arrests.

Former Martin County Deputy Stephen O’Leary was charged with 52 counts stemming from planting drugs or fake drugs on unsuspecting motorists on Monday.

He was stopped riding in a car 400 miles from his home not far from the state Capitol.

It’s believed his was fleeing the state.

Zachery Wester was arrested on July 10th and faces 9 counts of false imprisonment plus other charges.

The false arrests have been costly for those wrongly accused.

Theresa Odom was adamant when a deputy told her drugs were found in her car.

“That is not mine!” Odom can be heard saying in a body cam video of the incident.

A diligent prosecutor scrutinizing body cam tape of the Odom search found Deputy ZachWester clearly manipulating a white packet.

18 moths after her arrest, Theresa Odom is still struggling to recover.

She declined speaking with us directly.

She told us she was afraid of tainting the jury pool.

So she put us in touch with her ex-husband Steve Odom.

“Right now, she is suffering. She doesn’t hardly sleep. She doesn’t hardly eat,” said Steve. “This thing is consuming her.”

Steve said Theresa’s home has been broken into twice where nothing was taken.

He believes the break-ins have been efforts to intimidate her.

“Something like this is going to taint her and follow her for the rest of her life. There was a period of time she could not see her grand-baby and she lives for her grand-baby,” said Steve.

Deputies in Jackson County, who couldn’t go on camera for obvious reasons, told us everyday they feel they have gotten a black eye.

119 cases were dismissed involving Zach Wester in Jackson County.

The arrest of former Martin County Deputy Steven O’Leary Monday has tainted at least 14 cases.

Steve asked an important question.

“What price do you put on a life that is ruined?”

The courts may be the one to answer.

The two deputies and their agencies are facing more than 50 lawsuits.

Both Deputies face decades in prison.

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Environmentalists Optimistic About First Chief Resilience Officer

July 31st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The state is about to have its first Chief Resilience Officer.

The new position will be tasked with preparing Florida for the impacts of climate change.

Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to announce his pick in the coming days.

Florida is facing a climate crisis and Governor Ron DeSantis recognized it from the moment he took office, announcing he’d appoint the state’s first-ever Chief Resilience Officer just two days into his term.

“You know if you have water in the streets you have to find a way to combat that,” said DeSantis in January.

The new position comes as a welcome opportunity for environmental groups like Audubon Florida.

“We really need somebody who has substantial policy acumen, who knows how to move things through politics. Climate is a huge threat to Florida. We need action now and there’s great opportunity. So someone who can take advantage of that opportunity is the most important thing I believe,” said Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell.

The job qualifications call for 5 years experience in resilience and sustainability and a Master’s Degree in an Environmental Science related field.

26 candidates applied for the position.

The likely pick, Julia Nesheiwat, lacks an extensive background in resilience, but she has filled leadership roles in intelligence, foreign relations and energy policy.

Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters said energy should be a key focus for the new position.

“This person absolutely can’t close their eyes to the potential that we have in Florida to fuel our economy and light our homes with clean renewable energy,” said Moncrief.

It’s not entirely clear what the scope of the Chief Resilience Officer’s responsibilities will be.

Environmentalists hope the job will not only involve responding to climate change, but also working to prevent it.

We reached out to the Governor’s Office asking for more specifics on what the Chief Resilience Officer will be tasked with, but did not receive a response in time for this story.

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3,000 Pounds of Plastic at Historic State Capitol Sends Strong Message to Lawmakers

July 30th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A bold statement from two environmental activists appeared at the state Capitol this week.

3,000 pounds of plastic waste collected along Florida’s coastlines was left for a full day on the steps of the historic state Capitol to send a message to lawmakers.

The display was the result of the hard work of two environmental activists who founded the group Plastic Symptoms.

The team, consisting of Bryan Galvin and Heather Bolint, walked the entire coast of Florida over four months.

All along the way the two collected plastics they found throughout the 1,200 mile trek.

“Knowing that we have a lot of tourists from all over the world that want to partake in our amazing beaches and our waterways,” said Galvin. “We need to protect it.”

Plastic Symptoms hopes to show lawmakers the scope of the litter problem plaguing Florida’s beaches, but the plastic alone doesn’t show the impact to wildlife the activists witnessed.

“A skull of a bird that was wrapped up in monofilament fishing line,” said Bolint. “So unfortunately the bird perished.”

Plastic Symptoms said all of the plastic brought to the Capitol only represents about a tenth of the plastic they encountered on their journey.

The group wants lawmakers to consider banning or regulating single use plastic items.

“We’re not going to take all the plastic out of the ocean and off the beaches by simply passing these laws, but this will show tourists that come to our state that we are doing all that we can and that this is not a problem that we want to be remembered by,” said Galvin.

And while the trash is now gone from the Capitol, Plastic Symptoms said it intends to bring the display back to the state Capitol when lawmakers return to the city for the 2020 session.

The Governor vetoed a bill this year that would have blocked local governments from banning single use plastic straws.

Florida Fish and Wildlife is also two programs aimed at tackling plastic pollution, Stash the Trash and Reel Remove Recycle.

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State Economists Begin Calculating Cost of Assault Weapons Ban

July 30th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

State economists started the process of calculating how much a proposed ban on assault weapons would cost the state and local governments Tuesday morning.

The proposed constitutional amendment would prohibit possession of semi automatic rifles or shot guns capable of carrying more than ten rounds of ammunition at once.

It would also require FDLE to develop a registry for current owners who could be exempt from the ban if they register their weapons within a year of the amendment’s passage.

However, economists struggled to understand exactly what types and how many types of guns would be affected by the ban.

“I think we need to sort of come to a consensus on how we’re going to, what we’re going to agree on what these words mean before we can go further,” said Katie Cunningham who represented the Governor’s Office at the Revenue Estimating Impact Conference.

The ballot measure has almost 100,000 signatures and is ready to be reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

Attorney General Ashley Moody has urged the court to strike down the amendment, arguing the ballot language is misleading and confusing.

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Florida Counties Looking for High Flying Photos of Florida

July 30th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Attention drone pilots and those who live or work high above the ground, the Florida Association of Counties is asking for your photographs for their seventh annual calendar photo contest.

Last year’s theme was Old Florida.

Jenny Laxner with the association said this year the association is looking for 14 interesting shots from high above, depicting life around the state.

“We’re inviting all amateur, professional and even smart phone photographers to come our and take aerial photos of Florida. The theme this year is aerial Florida. We’d like to have participation from all the counties. It’s a great opportunity to showcase you local beauty and the pride you have for where you live,” said Laxner.

The deadline to submit a photo is September 6th.

To enter, visit flcounties.net.

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Hemp Legalization Poses Legal Conundrum for Florida Police

July 29th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Did the Legislature inadvertently legalize marijuana when it made hemp legal earlier this year?

Not technically, but State Attorneys and law enforcement agencies throughout the state are facing a difficult question… how do you tell the difference between the two?

When lawmakers legalized hemp they distinguished the plant from its illicit cousin by specifying it must contain less that 0.3% THC.

But take a simple gummy bear for example.

Is it a piece of candy, a legal hemp product infused with CBD or an illegal high-THC marijuana edible?

The State Attorney of Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit Jack Campbell said old methods of identifying marijuana like smell or appearance can’t distinguish marijuana from hemp.

“It’s the same thing as if somebody looked at a glass of alcohol. You might be able to smell and tell that there’s alcohol, but you couldn’t look or smell and say what the proof of it is,” said Campbell.

There’s also no field test that can make the distinction.

Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried is in charge of the state hemp program.

Her office told us a third-party company is currently developing a test that would distinguish between illegal marijuana and hemp.

However, if and when a test is created, Campbell said its effectiveness will have to be proven in court, which can be a lengthy and expensive process.

“I have to be able to show that this test works. That it is scientifically validated,” said Campbell.

Until a test is available, Campbell predicts the legal conundrum will likely be handled differently throughout the state.

“I think you’re going to have some agencies that are going to continue to arrest and seize. I think you are going to have some that are going to be concerned about possible wrongful arrest,” said Campbell.

Ultimately, Campbell said he believes a solution will be worked out, but the question of when and how people can protect themselves in the meantime is not clear for the time being.

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Court Strikes Down Penalties for Local Officials Who Pass Tougher Gun Restrictions

July 29th, 2019 by Jake Stofan


A judge in the state Capitol has ruled local government officials can’t be held personally liable for voting for stricter gun laws, even though the state has preempted most gun regulations to the state.

The NRA is crying foul.

30 municipalities and three counties sued the state over the 2011 law.

It allowed local officials who voted for gun restrictions tougher than those allowed by the state to be sued, fined and potentially removed from office.

“It’s a great win for local governments and their ability to control some of the things in regards to firearms and a step toward enforcing home rule,” said Deputy Leon County Attorney LaShawn Riggans.

In a 15-page ruling, Judge Charles Dobson foud local governments were like little Legislatures, and immune from court interference.

In an alert to more than half a million members, the NRA said the judge’s ruling amouts to a get out of jail free card for local officials.
“By removing penalties for willfully and knowingly violating the law, its tacit approval to go ahead an violate state law,” said Marion Hammer, with the Unified Sportsmen of Florida.

However, the underlying law remains intact.

Only the state can enact gun regulations, but now there are no penalties for local governments violating the law.

The law will still allow a private citizen to sue a local government if they feel like their rights have been taken away, but the NRA said that could prove costly.

“Taxpayers have to be wealthy to defend their rights and bring a suit against a bottomless pit of taxpayer dollars,” said Hammer.

Both the Governor’s Office and the Attorney General had asked the court to uphold the law.

The Attorney General’s office said it is evaluating whether or not to appeal the ruling.

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