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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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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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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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Groveland Four Will Have to Wait for Pardon

December 5th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s Governor and Cabinet cancelled the last scheduled clemency hearing of their terms today due to the funeral of president George H.W. Bush.

The cancellation leaves an injustice uncorrected that dates back to 1949.

A legislative resolution leaves no doubt about what happened in 1949.

Four black men were accused of raping a white woman.

One fled and was shot by a mob 400 times as lawmakers described it during the 2018 legislative session.

Three others, including 16 year old Charles Greenlee were tried and convicted.

The US Supreme Court overturned their convictions and while the two adults were being taken back to Lake County for a new trial, they were shot on the side of the road by then Sheriff Willis McCall.

One survived.

Carol Greenlee’s father Charles was released from prison in 1962.

“He wanted forgiveness for everything that had happened to him. And today, a pardon is forgiveness,” said Carol in April of 2017 after the Florida Legislature issued a formal apology.

It’s now been over 19 months since lawmakers apologized and asked the Clemency Board expedite pardons for the four.

The last scheduled clemency meeting under Rick Scott’s administration was cancelled.

NAACP Chapter President Dalaitre Hollinger says the lack of action is only prolonging the injustice.

“Well I think it’s always important to right the wrong, no matter how long long ago it’s been,” said Hollinger.

Under the clemency board rules, any member can bring up any case at any time.
“The year’s not done and our term’s not done,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting. “There may yet be an opportunity, but that’s still in flux.”

In a statement, the Governor’s office says, “We continue to review all of our options.”

Under Clemency Board rules, only the Governor can initiate a pardon.

At least one other board member must agree.

The pardon process can take place without a formal hearing

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DeSantis Rumored to Have Eye on Richard Corcoran for Education Commissioner

December 5th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

In a surprise turn Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart has announced her resignation despite having a year left in her contract.

Published reports say charter school advocate and former House Speaker Richard Corcoran may be on the shortlist for the position.

When Corcoran ended his campaign for Governor in May he suggested his career in public office was coming to an end.

“I said all along, you know I was going to run for Governor or go home,” said Corcoran in May.

However, the political landscape has changed.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who had her contracted extended for a year when polling showed a Democrat leading in the Governors race, resigned this week.

Corcoran is now favored to become the state’s top education official.

“It’s no secret that the new Governor and the former Speaker Corcoran are both staunch advocates of school choice,” said Executive Director of the Florida School Boards Association Andrea Messina.

Corcoran is known for championing new voucher programs for private schools and diverting local tax money to charter schools.

“All of this legislation goes directly to what he says as his values, which are disrupting our education program,” said Martin Powell, Chief of Staff of the Florida Education Association.

FEA also points to the fact Corcoran lacks experience in public education, unlike Stewart who worked as a teacher, principal, and administrator for 40 years.

“He is a threat not only to traditional public school advocates and the teachers union, but to traditional schools,” said Powell.

In contrast, State Senator Bill Montford, who also heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, is optimistic about a Commissioner Corcoran.

“He’s very bright, he’s energetic and he knows how to get things done,” said Montford.

Stewart will officially step down on January 8th, the same day Governor Elect Ron DeSantis will be sworn into office.

Corcoran was in Washington DC Wednesday, attending a National Convention held by an education think tank established by Former Governor Jeb Bush, another staunch advocate of school choice.

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Cabinet Swan Song

December 4th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

The Governor and two members of Florida’s cabinet held their final meeting Tuesday morning.

The final goodbye was full of tears and the future for two of the departing members still remains to be seen.

The final cabinet meeting for Governor Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam was a sedimental affair for Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

He offered three resolutions honoring their hard work and dedication.

“You have been a friend when I’ve needed a friend and you have given selflessly to this state,” said Patronis.

The four hour long meeting was filled with time honored traditions including pet adoptions and seasonal celebrations.

Photo opportunities, not policies took up the majority of the meeting.

Keeping in line with what has largely defined the Governor’s eight years in office, Rick Scott abruptly left the meeting without taking questions.

Commissioner Putnam, who lost his bid for the Governor’s Mansion says his next move is still in the works.

“I’m focused every day on all the work yet to be done between now and January 8th and then we’ll figure it out after that,” said Putnam.

Beginning January 8th, these seats will be filled by Republicans Ron DeSantis, Ashley moody and returning Jimmy Patronis.

For the first time in eight years a democrat will join the ranks.

Niki Fried will take over as commissioner of agriculture.

Patronis says he’s looking forward to working with Fried, despite their political differences.

“We all serve and love the state of Florida so I’m sure that Commissioner Elect Fried is going to come here with that same type of passion,” said Patronis.

He offered this advice to the newly elected members, show up early and be prepared.

Attorney General Pam Bondi also didn’t take questions after the meeting.

Appearances on FOX News in recent months have lead to speculation Bondi may land a job with the network after she leaves office.

It’s also been suggested she might be a possible candidate for US Attorney General, replacing Jeff Sessions.

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State Transfers Dozier Property

December 4th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

The state has transferred more than 1200 acres including the main campuses at the infamous Dozier School for Boys to Jackson County, where the school was founded in 1901.

County officials say it is one more step to closure in the brutality that took place there.

Hundreds were beaten, some died in the so called White House, all at the hands of state officials during the Dozier Schools 100 years of operation.

In 2017, state ordered the sprawling campus turned over to local officials.

Jackson County Commission Chair Clint Pate acknowledged the schools dark history as he made his pitch for the property.

“We’d like to take the challenge of turning this into a positive impact to Jackson County instead of some of the negative stuff we’ve had with there,” said Pate.

With little debate, the Governor Rick Scott and the Cabinet agreed to turn over the schools 360 acres.

“This is long overdue,” said Attorney General Pam Bondi.

They also transferred another 919 acres for economic Development.

The legislation calls for a monument and the preservation of the White House and the Boot Hill cemetery.

The barbed wire that kept inmates from escaping is now gone.

Several buildings on the property are still usable.

“I’m really excited about urning it into a positive and we’re gonna be good caretakers of the property,” said Jackson County Sheriff, Lou Roberts.

A plan to reinter more than four dozen bodies taken from the campus has been delayed until sometime next year.

While the state has apologized, the question of reparations for dozens of men who survived the abuse remains open.

Seven bodies from children who died in a fire will go back to Boot Hill on the property.

More than 40 others will be reinterred in a Tallahassee Cemetery.

County officials could not put a timetable on how long it will take to turn the property into something positive.

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