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Florida Senate Holds Closed Door Security Briefing

December 13th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida Senators held a rare closed door meeting today to discuss their own security.

They were briefed by the Director of Capitol Police and their own Sargent at Arms.

Senate President Bill Galvano called the session useful.

“You know I feel like we have a lot of people who come here who deserve to have access to the Florida Senate,” said Galvano. “We have people who are staffers and senators themselves and we need to conduct ourselves in a mono that is prepared and ready for a situation should a risk evolve.”

Galvano sited recent violent instances for scheduling the meeting saying its always good to be prepared.

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MSD Commission Recommends Arming Teachers

December 13th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission, tasked with investigating the Parkland shooting and recommending policy changes to the Legislature, is asking lawmakers to allow districts to arm teachers.

The move is opposed by teachers unions and some family members of victims.

Commissioners approved a recommendation to allow schools to arm classroom teachers in their meeting Wednesday in a 13-1 vote.

“These guardians must be trained and trained appropriately,” said State Senator and MSD Commissioner Lauren Book when discussing the move during Thursday’s meeting.

Arming teachers was considered earlier this year as lawmakers crafted a comprehensive school safety package.

It was opposed by Governor Rick Scott.

“My focus is on providing more law enforcement officers not on arming the teachers,” said Scott during a February press conference.

A compromise was reached, allowing staff members to be armed, but not classroom teachers.

Commission Chair and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, opposed arming teachers at the start of the year, but now supports the idea.

“You’ve got to have somebody there that can swiftly and effectively neutralize the threat and that means killing the killer,” said Gualtieri. “And the only way you’re going to do that is that you have a good buy with a gun that can take that action.”

School teacher Debbi Hixon, who lost her husband in the Parkland shooting says arming teachers isn’t the answer.

“Even if a teacher thinks their up to that task, I just think it’s unfair to have that expectation for them,” said Hixon.

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has been one of the most vocal opponents of arming teachers.

It argues guns in the classroom would put students in harms way.

“The line in the sand is this. Teachers want to teach,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram. “They don’t want to carry guns. That is the responsibility of trained professionals. “

Moms Demand Action Against Gun Violence and the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence also oppose arming teachers.

The Commission must submit its final report to the Legislature by January 1st.

It’ will then be up to lawmakers to debate whether any of the commission’s recommendations become law.

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School Safety Commission to Schools: Follow the Law

December 12th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

The state Legislature created the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission as part of school safety legislation following the Parkland Shooting.

The commission made up of law enforcement, educators and state agency heads is tasked with investigating what went wrong and recommending policy changes.

“Change is hard, in many cases it’s controversial and in some cases it’s resisted,” said Commission Chair and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “But it’s necessary if we’re going to do better and ensure that every kid who goes to school in the morning comes home at night.”

In a more than 400 page draft report the commission recommends mandatory code red plans be in place in schools and the locking and staffing of entrances.

However, Gualtieri says compliance with existing law has been a struggle.

“There is a culture problem in the Florida schools and the culture problem is is that they have viewed security as a thorn in their side,” said Gualtieri.

Members of the group, Stand With Parkland attended Wednesday’s meeting.

It’s made up of family members of victims like Tom Hoyer, who’s son Luke was killed in the shooting.

He too is frustrated with the reluctance of some schools to comply with the law.

“Certainly disappoints, hurts that people don’t seem to take it seriously enough,” said Hoyer.

The commission says it wants lawmakers to enact stiff penalties for schools that ignore the law.

Tony Montalto, who lost his daughter Gina in the Parkland Shooting, says he hopes the report will motivate schools to begin taking school safety more seriously.

“To readjust and examine the plans they have in place and make sure they fit today’s environment,” said Montalto.

Sheriff Gualtieri says one way of forcing compliance would be for the Legislature to give the Department of Education more oversight authority, to ensure schools are held accountable.

The commission must submit its final report by January first.

To learn more about Stand With Parkland, you can visit their website by following this link.

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Feds Indict Two, More Expected

December 12th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

A Tallahassee city commissioner and close political ally have been indicted on 44 counts of bank fraud, racketeering conspiracy, extortion and honest services fraud, and making false statements on a tax return.

The investigation figured heavily in the race for Governor.

From the day Andrew Gillum became the Democratic nominee for Governor, his campaign was plagued with questions about an ongoing investigation into Tallahassee’s City Hall.

“This investigation seems to be centered around an individual,” said Gillum.

News broke of the indictment of Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox and associate Paige Carter Smith Wednesday morning.

The indictment came as no surprise to Tallahassee landlord Erwin Jackson, who has frequently criticized the city government.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen Scott Maddox throw a thousand dollar bribe on the floor,” Jackson said in a city commission meeting last September after placing bundles of cash on commissioners’ desks.

Jackson has been credited by many with starting the fire that lead to the indictments.

“There’s going to be several more indictments coming,” said Jackson. “People that we haven’t even heard of, I believe will be indicted. There will be other politicians, businessmen.”

The indictment says the company owned by Maddox and then Carter Smith, “Was part of a racketeering enterprise that extorted money and accepted bribes from clients under the color of Maddox’s office.”

Jackson, who owns hundreds of student apartments, spent tens of thousands of dollars in his fight against city hall.

“Jackson Properties pays a lot of local property taxes and I pay that, and I expect the recipients of that to do what’s good for the citizens of our community,” said Jackson. “Not to spend that money for their own personal financial gain.”

Maddox and Carter-Smith had their first appearance in Federal Court Wednesday afternoon.

At the hearing, the US Attorney told the judge the probe was on-going.

Governor Rick Scott has suspended indicted City Commissioner Scott Maddox.

The suspension starts a 20 day window for the city commission to agree on a replacement until the next election.

If they fail to agree, the Governor would make the appointment.

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Sex Lies and Deceit: Denise Williams Murder Trial Begins

December 11th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Sex lies and deceit for 21 years is how prosecutors summed up their opening argument in a nationally watch trial in Tallahassee.

48-year-old Denise Williams faces life in prison for her former husbands murder and an 18 year-long coverup.

Her defense says nothing but the confession of a convicted felon ties her to the crime.

Denise Williams and her husband’s best friend, Brian Winchester, started sleeping together three years before the then 31-year-old Mike Williams disappeared on a duck hunting trip in December 2000.

His body was presumed eaten by alligators.

Fast forward 16 years.

Winchester and Denise have married and separated.

He kidnapped her at gun point, fearing she will pin the murder on him.

She talked him down, then went to police.

On the day he was sentenced for kidnapping, she asked for the maximum.

“It comes down to it’s my life or his,” said Williams.

Unknown to Denise, Brian had already spilled his guts to investigators.

“And I ended up shooting him,” Winchester told police.

He also claimed Denise helped plan everything.

The motive, was $1.75 million in life insurance that she collected.

After interviewing 100 jurors, the trial began with prosecutors telling them it was time to end 21 years of sex lies and deceit.

Denise’s lawyer, Philip Padovano told the jury they would have plenty of reasonable doubts before the trial was over.

“He felt as though Mrs. Williams threw him under the bus by turning him in for kidnaping and that he should now throw her under the bus,” said Padovano.

The state has taken the death penalty off the table, but Denise Williams could face life in prison on any of the three charges.

Conspiracy, murder, and being an accessory after the fact.

Brian Williams received immunity for his testimony against Denise Williams.

He is serving a 20 year sentence for kidnapping her.

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Florida House Kicks Off Committees With Ethics Refresher

December 11th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

Lawmakers in the Florida House of Representatives got a crash course on ethics Tuesday morning as they gear up for the first round of committees ahead of the 2019 Legislative Session.

Topics ranged from the lobbyist gift ban, voting conflicts and compensation restrictions.

Speaker of the House Jose Oliva told House members there are unseen dangers ahead.

“To begin with what we should know is what are the things challenging Florida. What are our issues? And once you know that and once you know how to navigate this process you can make the very most of it,” said Oliva. “So that’s the goal here today. To make sure that all of you understand this process, understand what you can get done and what you can’t. And also give some attention to some of the dangers that come with this position.”

The ethics discussion didn’t include new restrictions passed bu voters in a constitutional amendment in November It includes a six year ban on lobbying after leaving office.

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Family Remembers Late Governor Lawton Chiles 20 Years After

December 11th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of former Florida Governor Lawton Chiles’ passing.

Chiles died just three weeks short of finishing his second term as Governor.

Chiles died in the Governor’s mansion after a pacemaker malfunctioned.

His family and some staff met with reporters, Tuesday.

Chiles is best know for his work protecting children and initiating the first successful major lawsuit against big tobacco.

Then Legislative Director Jon Moyle says Chiles was never afraid of a fight.

“When he became governor, he look at I think it was four hundred million a year that was being spent to treat tobacco related illnesses and he said we’ve got to do something about this, and through a series of conversations with a lot of different people, this idea was hatched about passing legislation that would help,” said Moyle.

Florida continues to receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the settlement with big tobacco.

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Late Senator’s Legacy Carried On By Colleagues

December 11th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Senate paid its respect to the late Senator Dorthy Hukill Tuesday, with a memorial service held in the Senate Chamber.

Hukill passed away after battling cancer in October.

A bill Senator Hukill pushed during her final years in office has been filed by two of her closest colleagues and renamed the Dorothy L. Hukill Financial Literacy Act in her honor.

First filed by Hukill in 2014, the bill would require high school students pass a half credit financial literacy course in order to graduate.

She told us that year, it would better prepare students for the road ahead.

“They’re going to be faced with these issues immediately,” said Hukill. “You know how do I sign a lease, what does it mean? What does that debit card mean?”

The Legislation didn’t pass, but Hukill continued fighting for the cause until she passed away.

Senate President Bill Galvano says Hukill’s relentless dedication defined her career in the Florida Senate.

“She was a very determined person and when she’d put her mind to something she would pursue it and she felt like this should be a mandatory part of curriculum,” said Galvano.

Next door to the office Hukill used to occupy the Legislation has been given new life.

Senator Travis Hutson, a close friend and colleague of Hukill is sponsoring the Legislation for the 2019 session, renaming it, “The Dorothy L. Hukill Financial Literacy Act” in her honor.

“It will be a very emotional day, much like today honoring her will be,” said Hutson. “It will be a very emotional day should we be able to get this through.”

Last year, after returning to the legislature following a bout with cancer, the Senate passed Hukill’s financial literacy bill unanimously, but as in previous years a compromise couldn’t be reached with the House.

It was Hukill herself who was unwilling to compromise, refusing the House’s amendment, which would have only offered the course as an elective.

“Senator Hukill wasn’t about compromising and would always say, I’ll do it next year,” said Hutson.

This year, the House sponsor is newly elected Representative Elizabeth Fetterhoff, a former aid to Senator Hukill.

Senator Hutson says if the bill passes this year, it will be the version Hukill fought for untill the end.

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Governor-Elect Makes First Public Appearance in State Capitol

December 10th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Fresh off a victory lap to central Florida over the weekend, Governor-Elect Ron DeSantis made his first public appearance in the Capital City this morning.

The event, Wreaths Across America is held to remember and honor veterans, and educate students.

“Today many homes there is an empty chair for one who was serving who has already made the ultimate sacrifice for our country,” said Amvets Chaplain Mikey Kane at the ceremony.

Speaking without notes, DeSantis evoked memories of flying to Washington DC as a congressman and while others watched the White House and other monuments.

“Everyone looking out that left side of the plane,” said DeSantis.

DeSantis was captivated by Arlington Nation Cemetary on the other side.

“That is out best monument, because those people are what helped make America what it is today,” said DeSantis.

DeSantis says his choice of venue indicates his dedication to keep Florida veteran friendly.

“We’re going to look for ways to make it more veteran friendly,” said DeSantis. “I think we got a lot of opportunities.”

While the Governor-elect has spent weeks here in the State Capitol, it’s all been behind closed doors.

The Governor Elect says his days have been filled with interviewing job applicants.

“I mean, we’ve got a lot of spots to fill. I’ll be doing interviews all day like I have been for the last couple weeks,” said DeSantis.

So far, the Governor has chosen just one agency head.

He’s got 24 more to go, as well as dozens, if not hundreds of other jobs to fill.

We also learned The Governor Elect and his wife, and two children will live in the Governor’s mansion.

Rick Scott has maintained his residence in Naples.

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Wreaths Across America Ceremony Held at State Capitol

December 10th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

For the 10th year in a row, the courtyard at the state Capitol was the site of one of 1,400 Wreaths Across America celebrations Monday.

The annual event aims to remember, honor, and teach people about the sacrifices made by those who have died serving our country.

Master of Ceremonies Scott McPherson says the 50 state event is designed to make it easier for those who can’t visit a national cemetery.

“The 50 state initiative that Wreaths Across America does was designed to augment what they do at all the national cemeteries and what they do at Arlington National Cemetary,” said McPherson. “There are people who can’t make it to a wrath laying ceremony, but they can come to the state capitol and watch the wreath laying ceremony here. And it helps to reinforce the message that those that we lost must always be remembered.”

The event was sponsored by the Leon County School system.

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Jury Selection Begins for Murder Trial of Denise Williams

December 10th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Jury selection began Monday in a nationally watched trial in the State Capitol.

48-year-old Denise Williams is accused of conspiring to murder her husband, first degree murder, and being an accessory after the fact.

Her husband Mike Williams was murdered 18 years ago this month by his best friend who later married his widow.

100 jurors were called Monday.

Judge James Hankinson told them each would have to be interviewed individually.

“It is a case that I know has garnered some publicity, so I’m sure that some of you have heard about it,” said Hankinson. “What we need to do is talk to each of you individually about what you know, that’s going to take a little time for us to work through that, so I’m going to ask that you be patient with us.”

The victims best friend was offered immunity for admitting to the crime, implicating the ex wife, and telling authorities where to find the body.

The widow’s attorney claims his client is not guilty. The trial is expected to last four to five days.

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Lawmakers Seek to extend Statute of Limitations for Sexual Battery

December 10th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

The number of reported rapes jumped 3.8% in the first six months of this year.

Currently, rapists can be prosecuted within 8 years of the crime, but new legislation would nearly double the statute of limitations for future cases to 15 years.

Meg Baldwin runs Refuge House, a rape crisis center.

She estimates 20% of the calls she receives are about cases 10 years or older.

“Those survivors will have a wider window to come to terms with what happened to them, to appreciate the impact of the attack on themselves as individuals and to make that big decision to come forward,” said Baldwin.

Representative Evan Jenne says the extension makes sense, given the capability of modern technology.

“With the advancements that we’ve had in DNA techniques it doesn’t make sense not to, for me at least personally, not to push back the statue of limitations. Especially on an act as heinous and vile as a sexual assault,” said Jenne.

Lawmakers allocated more than $2 million to help reduce a backlog of more than 8,600 rape kits in 2016.

1316 rape kits remain untested, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has a goal of processing all of them by June of 2019.

To prevent future backlogs, the new legislation would require FDLE to track the status of rape kits.

“That’s a great next chapter to this story,” said Baldwin.

If the bill passes, FDLE would have until 2020 to implement the new tracking requirements.

A second bill filed in the Senate would abolish any statute of limitations for sexual battery on persons under the age of 18.

Currently those protections are only guaranteed to victims under the age of 16.

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“I may not make it home” thought Trooper of the Year

December 7th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

A five year veteran of the Florida Highway Patrol is this year’s Trooper of the Year in part because of his heroism caught on dash cam video.

Trooper Nickolas Dolan smiled as the Governor presented him with the Trooper of the Year award, but last February Dolan was in fear of his life. Marion County Deputies were chasing an active shooter, and asked for help, says FHP director Col. Gene Spaulding.

“Gentleman was shooting a .50 calibre rifle at construction equipment at a known protest location at one of the pipelines” Spaulding told the Governor. 

The suspect crossed into citrus county where deputies there picked up the chase continued the FHP Director.

“This was an active shooter situation. He hears the Lieutenant with the Sheriff’s office tell the deputies to pull over and put on their ballistic rifle vests before they engage the subject.”

Dolan was driving toward the fleeing suspect. 

“February 26th last year changed my life forever” says the Trooper.

As the suspect passed, the report says he pointed a hand gun at Dolan, but didn’t fire.

In hot pursuit, Dolan is about to execute what is call a pursuit termination maneuver, or PIT, then momentarily backs off. Director Spaulding explained why.

“These two motorcycles coming in the opposite direction. He has the presence of mind to hold off until they get in a safe location. He immediately engages the suspect in a PIT maneuver.”

The car slides into the ditch, the police cruiser running into it.

The suspect then slides out of the truck holding a handgun and wearing bullet proof equipment. He refuses to drop it.” Shots are fired.

“I may not have made it home, but I wanted to make sure everybody else is okay” Dolan told the Governor.

But go home he did.  Trooper Dolan says he regrets having to take a life that day, but says he would do it again. 

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New Bill Would Make Not Buckling Up Your Kids Child Abuse

December 6th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

Newly filed legislation would impose stronger penalties for adults who don’t properly restrain their children in a car.

The Senate bill would allow incidents where unrestrained children are killed or injured to be investigated as child abuse.

In Florida if your child isn’t wearing a seat belt you face a minimum $60 fine.

Even still, Corporal Patricia Johnson Shaw with the Florida Highway Patrol says unrestrained children in vehicles remains a major problem.

“You’ll have a lot of it actually when they’re picked up from the schools and they’re just jumping in the cars and the parents are taking off,” said Shaw.

Nationwide, In 2016, 723 children age 12 years and younger died in motor vehicle crashes.

Of those, 35% weren’t restrained.

“When you see that it’s a child it takes it to heart,” said Shaw. “And knowing that, that child was not properly restrained, it makes it even worse.”

A new bill filed for the 2019 session would allow the Department of Children and Families to investigate adults for child abuse if a child passenger is injured or killed because they weren’t properly restrained.

A recent study found that in a single year more than 600,000 children in the US rode in a car at least once without a seat belt or car seat.

Corporal Shaw says kids are much more likely to ride unrestrained if their parents don’t set a good example.

“The example that you set as a parent, that’s the example the kids see,” said Shaw.”If a kid doesn’t see you strapped up, it’s more likely that they wont strap up.”

Currently in Florida children five and under are required to be restrained in a car or booster seat.

A House companion bill has not been filed yet, but is expected to come soon.

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Uber Drive Takes Plea in Kidnapping Case

December 6th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

The former Uber driver accused of false imprisonment after she refused to stop and let a passenger out of her car has entered a plea.

31-year-old Destiny Green will spend four years on mental health probation and pay the costs of her prosecution.

Judge James Hankinson ordered Green to stay away from the victim and to not drive for a ride sharing company.

“Place you on four years mental health probation,” said Judge Hankinson. “The mental health probation will be consistent with the addendum that you signed. There be special conditions, 77 days in jail. Credit for 77 days served. Have no contact with Brooke Adkins. You may not work as a driver for a ride sharing company.”

Green spent 77 days in jail without bond.

A mental evaluation found she was fit to enter her plea of no contest.

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