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3,000 Pounds of Plastic on the Capitol Steps Sends Message to Lawmakers

July 29th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

3,000 pounds of plastic showed up on the steps of the old state Capitol building Monday morning.

The plastic trash was collected by two activists, who embarked on a four month 1,200 mile journey around Florida’s coastline.

Bryan Galvin with Plastic Symptoms said they brought the plastic waste to the Capitol steps to encourage lawmakers to consider regulating or banning some single use plastics.

“We can definitely be leading by example of the type of waterway we want our tourists to enjoy. It might not happen overnight, that 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.

Galvin said the plastic at the Capitol will be gone by Tuesday, but added the plastic on Florida’s coasts won’t go away on its own.

The group is encouraging Floridians to contact their lawmakers ahead of the 2020 session that begins in January.

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How Florida is Preparing for Threat of Russian Hacking in 2020 Election

July 26th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Following the release of a US Senate Intelligence report looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and a grave warning from Special Counsel Robert Mueller that the Russians are still attempting to interfere, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has called on the President to take action to beef up election security.

However, the state of Florida is taking action to prevent attacks into its own hands.

Mueller’s warning was blunt.

“It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here,” said Mueller.

Two Florida counties were hacked during the 2016 election, although no votes were changed.

In response, Governor Ron DeSantis ordered a comprehensive review of the state’s election systems.

State Laurel Lee introduced a group of Department of State employees to a training seminar on cybersecurity Thursday.

“All it takes is one person or one click of an e-mail to make us more vulnerable,” said Lee.

The Secretary said the training is part of the comprehensive approach the state is taking to prevent any breaches in the 2020 election.

“It is essential that all of our employees understand how to recognize suspicious e-mails or suspicious persons in and around our building and defend against those threats,” said Lee.

The Governor also emphasized the important role local Election Supervisors have to play in beefing up security.

“We don’t run the elections in Florida at the state level. The Secretary of State has a role, but that is going to be done at the ground,” said DeSantis. “So part of the reason we wanted the review is just to help people identify some problems, if any, and then we wanted to offer some support to be able to resolve it.”

Supervisors are receiving financial assistance from the state and federal government.

A total of $5.1 million has so far been made available for the 2020 election.

The $5.1 million distributed comes after $19.2 million was made available for election security upgrades in 2018.

More funds are expected to be allocated in the upcoming Legislative session, which begins in January.

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Federal Government Resumes Death Penalty One Day After the 40th Anniversary of Ted Bundy’s Sentencing

July 26th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

As the federal government announced Thursday a plan to resume executions starting in December of this year.

Just one day prior was the 40th anniversary of a judge imposing the death penalty for serial killer Ted Bundy.

The name of the recent movie about Bundy comes right from the judge who imposed the death sentence Edward Cowart.

“You are extremely wicked, shocking evil and vile,” said Cowart in the 1979 sentencing hearing.

The 2019 film however, is more about trust than violence.

“Bundy proves to us that often those who do evil are the people we least expect,” said Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile Director Joe Berlinger.

Berlinger said he believes the trial of the serial killer began America’s fascination with true crime dramas.

“It’s never been more popular, the genre, and I trace that back to Bundy,” said Berlinger. “The Bundy trial was the first nationally televised trial, and it was the first time that you know, basically Americans had a serial murderer, a courtroom drama as live entertainment.”

But it almost didn’t happen.

Bundy originally tried to keep the cameras out of the courtroom.

“We’re conducting the public’s business, gentleman, and we’re going to conduct it in the sunshine,” said Judge Cowart, ruling against Bundy’s objection during the trial.

While the sorority killings took place in the state’s capital city across the street from the FSU campus, the trial was moved to Miami over concerns of pretrial publicity.

The death sentence was widely supported at FSU.

“I can remember exactly when it happened and the fright that was around the town,” said one FSU student in July 1979.

“It has to be the death penalty,” said another FSU student interview around the time of the verdict.

While sentenced to death in the sorority killings, Bundy actually went to his death for killing of an 12 year old Lake City girl.

Kimberly Leach of Lake City was Bundy’s final victim.

He went on to confess to 30 murders in the days leading up to his 1989 execution.

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TECO Coal to Natural Gas Conversion Approved

July 25th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

To the dismay of environmental groups the Governor and cabinet have approved a power plant project for the Tampa region.

Tampa Electric Company wants to reduce its carbon emissions by closing a coal unit at its Big Bend power station and converting another to more efficiently burning natural gas.

“It’s a step toward moving away from coal,” said TECO attorney Larry Curtin while making the case for the project before the Governor and Cabinet Thursday.

Environmental groups including the Sierra Club oppose the plan, arguing natural gas is often collected through fracking.

“TECO also wants public money, billions of dollars for its power plants to burn coal and fracked gas when there is no need to burn dirty fossil fuels,” said Sierra Club attorney Diana Csank.

With only one no vote from Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat on the cabinet, the plan was approved.

Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Hillsborough County native, said the decision wasn’t easy.

“This will significantly reduce the harmful effects to the environment,” said Moody.

Governor Ron DeSantis said he believes the move towards natural gas is ultimately an improvement over coal.

“If you approve this you have lower emissions. I mean that’s just the fact,” said DeSantis.

But some, like Brain Lee with Rethink Energy Florida argue methane, the primary fuel source for natural gas plants, is equally problematic.

“There are leaks at every point in the process… that are equivalent to the CO2 emissions of all coal that is burned in the country,” said Lee.

While TECO representatives said the company has long term plans to increase its use of solar to generate energy, it also said the plans aren’t finalized.

The power plant conversion is set to be complete in 2023, but members of the Sierra club we spoke with said they’re considering appealing the ruling in state court.

The projected cost of the project comes in at $853 million.

Estimates suggest the change will increase Tampa Electric’s energy output from natural gas from 67 percent to 75 percent.

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Ronald Rubin Gets the Pink Slip, But Controversy Lingers

July 25th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s financial regulator is out of a job after serving less than five months, but unanswered questions remain over accusations of sexual harassment and pay to play allegations in state politics.

Hired in February, Ronald Rubin was suspended in May after a co-worker filed a sexual harassment complaint.

Rubin’s attorney, Michael Tein, pled for his job at a Thursday’s meeting before the Governor and Cabinet.

“We will think that you removed him because he refused to bend to the will of powerful people and big money donors,” said Tein.

An Inspector General’s report found ten instances of questionable conduct.

“Number nine. Asking a subordinate employee if their dog watches the employee and their spouse have sex. And number ten. Using the C word as a reference to a female,” said Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, reading the accusations out loud during the meeting.

The vote was 3-0 in favor of firing Rubin.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried left the meeting over Sunshine law concerns, but said she supported the outcome, just not the way it was done.

“I believe it violates the Weidner agreement,” said Fried.

Afterwards the Governor Ron DeSantis downplayed those concerns.
“There was clearly poor conduct and I think it was below the standards we should expect,” said DeSantis.

The Department of Law Enforcement says it is investigating CFO Patronis for releasing the original sexual harassment complaint just hours after it was filed.

Tein said the fired financial regulator’s whistleblower lawsuit will go forward.

Rubin has blamed politics for the dismissal.

“What about the fact that a lobbyist and a big donor had influence over this decision,” said Tein.

Rubin has accused the CFO of trying to force him to hire the wife of a lobbyist.

He’s also accused agents for the CFO of trying to extort a million dollar contribution from his father.

The man who held the job previously has also said Patronis tried to interfere with how the office did its job.

A nationwide search for a replacement will begin next month.

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JSO Deputies Receive Attorney General’s ‘Back the Blue’ Award

July 25th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Two Jacksonville Sheriff’s deputies, Kathleen James and Kelsey McCullum were honored by receiving the the Attorney General’s ‘Back the Blue’ Award during Thursday’s cabinet meeting.

The two saved a woman in a burning car just seconds before it exploded.

They were both on duty when they heard the accident and rushed to help.

“They broke the window, they pulled the woman to safety, en feet away they got her before the entire car exploded. Not only does that demonstrate their bravery, they covered her up with their own bodies to protect her from the shrapnel from the exploding vehicle,” said Attorney General Ashley Moody.

The woman pulled to safety received burns on forty percent of her body, but has since recovered.

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Secretary of State Hopes Dozier Excavation Will Bring Closure

July 25th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

While no human remains were uncovered in the initial investigation into 27 anomalies on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys in Mariana the work for researchers is far from over.

The next step will include using LIDAR, a laser technology, to map the layout of the entire 1,400 acre campus to ensure no possible graves are missed.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee said she’s proud of the work researchers have done so far and hopes when the investigation is complete it will bring closure to the boys who suffered abuse at the school.

“We hope that all of the affected stakeholders can have confidence in the team that we have assembled to conduct this important work and that by completing it our hope is that this will help to bring closure to all who were affected by this tragedy,” said Lee.

In 2013, 55 remains of former students and school staff were found at Dozier.

A group of former reform students known at the White House Boys said they still believe more remain on the grounds.

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No Remains Found at Site of 27 Anomalies on Dozier Campus, Search Continues

July 24th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The first phase of the investigation into 27 suspected graves at the Dozier School for Boys is complete.
The researchers found no evidence of burials at the dig site, but the investigation is not over yet.
Almost immediately after 27 anomalies described as possible graves were discovered at the former dozier school for boys Governor Ron DeSantis ordered the investigation.
“You know we should have the facts and put them out for the public. So I’ve told them to proceed as quickly as possible. I have no idea how long it’s going to take,” said DeSantis in June.
After less than two weeks, USF researchers completed the initial investigation into the anomalies.
Instead of bodies the team found mostly tree roots.
“When something is not a burial right? You know if it’s a ball of tree roots, a stump, that’s immediately obvious and we can ultimately document that and move on,” said Dr. Erin Kimmerle, the University of South Florida forensic anthropologist leading the investigation.
Researchers will now conduct laser surveying of the entire 1,400 acre school property to rule out the possibility of any additional graves.
The effort will be aided by historical analysis of the property.
“In terms of looking fo other burials in different parts of the campus, you can really use probability theory to say how likely is it someone was ever buried here, because if there used to be a structure there they’re most likely not burried underneath that structure,” said Kimmerle.
The White House Boys, a group of former Dozier students, told us the latest findings don’t change their long held belief more bodies are still somewhere on the school grounds.
“We know that there’s 183 on the books that came in, but they’re not on the books going out. So what happened to them?” said White House Boy James ‘Halrey’ DeNyke when we spoke with him after the investigation was officially announced in June.
55 remains were unearthed at the school in 2013 and members of the White House Boys have their suspicions where other graves maybe located.
The second phase of the investigation set to begin in the Fall should put the issue to rest once and for all.
The Department of State has said a meeting will be held to discuss the latest findings, but the date hasn’t been set yet.

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State Capitol’s Confederate Monument Under Fire Once Again

July 23rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

There are renewed calls for the removal of a confederate monument on the grounds of the State Capitol.

An African American state representative has said she will push for the relocation of the monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers.

The obelisk-style monument was dedicated in 1882 and moved onto the grounds of what is now the Old State Capitol in 1923.

The words etched into the stone dedicate the monument to preserving the memory of men of who fought for Florida in the Civil War.

“Floridians served all across the theaters of war,” said David McCallister with the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

McCallister has ties to soldiers on both sides of the war.

“These monuments represent the men who served their state and defended their families,” said McCallister.

But for social justice advocate Lakey Love, who often holds protests on the steps of the Old Capitol steps, the monument has a different meaning.

“Inequality, inequity and violence against black and brown people in this country,” said Love.

State Representative Geraldine Thompson said she plans to work with the Governor’s Office and possibly file legislation to relocate the statue.

She said she’d support moving it inside of the Old Capitol, which is now a museum, or to a Confederate cemetery.

Thompson said a plaque explaining the context of Florida’s involvement int he Civil War would take the monument’s place.

Florida has shied away from Confederate symbols at the Capitol in recent years.

The Confederate flag was removed from the Senate seal and the Confederate flag that once flew in front of the Capitol was taken down nearly two decades ago.

But McCallister condemned the call for relocating the monument.

“It’s hateful. It’s representative of a far radical left-wing agenda,” said McCallister.

Before the monument could be moved it still needs to be concluded who actually owns it.

When called to move the statue after Charlottesville, then-Governor Rick Scott said it was the Legislature that would need to act, but that was disputed by then-Senate President Joe Negron.

A bill filed to protect Confederate monuments didn’t get a hearing this past legislative session, but in 2018 lawmakers did approve construction of a memorial to enslaved Floridians on the Capitol grounds.

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Concealed Carry Application Time Drastically Reduced

July 22nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Department of Agriculture says wait times for concealed carry permit applications have been drastically reduced since Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried took office in January. 
The Division of Licensing says there’s been a culture change under the new administration that’s resulted in the increased speed, but some gun rights activists are skeptical.
The printer that’s used to create concealed carry licenses is a behemoth of a machine, taking up a quarter of a room.
It prints off about 2,000 each day, but Division of Licensing Director Stephen Hurm said it’s people, not the machine, that have made drastic reductions to application wait times.
“They just do a great job,” said Hurm.
Hurm said streamlining the process and changing the culture in the Division helped make it possible.
Part of that included abolishing a rule that used to require employees who made more than two mistakes to be automatically terminated.
“We celebrate them doing it well and we want them to work together and enjoy what they’re doing,” said Hurm.
There are more than two million people approved to cary concealed by the State of Florida. 
Applications increased 76% in 2019, with nearly 20,000 per month.
Even with the greater workload, wait times for applicants with no issues on their records have been reduced from 50 days to just one day since the start of the year.
For applicants with issues, its been reduced from three months to 25 days.
Despite the decrease in wait times and increase in application Commissioner Nikki Fried said the Division of Licensing has reduced overtime costs by 87%.
However, some like JD Johnson, who has helped train more than 10,000 people to carry concealed are skeptical of the new numbers touted by the Division.
“Time will tell. I mean that’s my take on it,” said Johnson, who owns Talon Range in Midway Florida.
Despite the hesitation, Johnson said he has seen some positive signs.
“A couple weeks ago I went and renewed mine and I was in and out in about 15 minutes, but that was a renewal,” said Johnson. “I’ve had the permit for seven years and I went in and it was just really a smooth easy process.”
The Division said by the end of the year it will have filled 25 new positions approved by the Legislature during the 2019 session. 
It hopes the new employees will ensure the turnaround time for applications stays low.

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Mariana Residents Ready for Dozier Saga to Come to a Close

July 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Researchers with the University of South Florida are nearly a week into their investigation of 27 possible graves identified in April at the former Dozier School for Boys in Mariana. 
The team is headed by Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at the university.
“The only way to really know is to excavate so that’s what we’re doing and we’ll see what it is,” said Kimmerle.
The excavation is the latest chapter in the 111-year Dozier saga.
Reports of child abuse and the discovery of 55 human remains on the school grounds cast a shadow of controversy over the town of Mariana during the first dig in 2013.
“You’re being branded as if this is a concentration camp city and the entire community felt under attack,” said Art Kimbrough, the Former CEO of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce who has been intently involved in the Dozier saga.
Kimbrough said the community reaction to the new excavation is nothing like what was seen in six years ago.
“It’s much more of an intellectual exercise this time than it is an emotional exercise,” said Kimbrough. “Let’s just do the things needed to bring proper and permanent closure to this matter.”
Survivors of abuse at the reform school believe more bodies will be found. 
Even if the 27 anomalies don’t end up being human remains, ground penetrating radar will map the entire campus, to end the speculation once and for all.
“And that’s why the community leaders have been so for getting the answers and doing it right this time, because it does bring closure when you have truth and the answers,” said Kimbrough.
When the school closed its doors in 2011, it also put more than 200 employees out of work. 
Community leaders hope the Dozier property can eventually be repurposed for new industries to move to the area.

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Mental Health Education Will Now Be Required in Florida Schools

July 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The State Board of Education voted to make the Mental health education mandatory in Florida schools Wednesday.
The move comes almost a year and a half after the Parkland shooting sparked a push for greater access to mental health services for students.
Melanie Brown-Woofter with the Florida Council on Community Mental Health said it’s common for adolescents to struggle with mental health problems.
“Adolescents with all the hormones is a time when emotions are awry,” aid Brown-Woofter.
The new plan aims to teach students how to identify and report mental health issues they or their peers may be experiencing.
“And then also give them an idea of where resources are and how they can get help,” said Brown-Woofter.
Starting in 6th grade Florida schools will be required to provide five hours of mental health education to students each year.
Florida’s First Lady is credited with proposing the idea.
She and other state officials have spent the last three months holding listening session on mental health across the state.
Fedrick Ingram with the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, said the new plan is a step in the right direction.
“Mental health services are important. Important for students, important to our schools, our teachers and important to stop some of the things and some of the atrocities that we’ve seen,” said Ingram.
While Ingram applauds the new focus on mental health, he pointed out there are still many open ended questions surrounding how the new program will be implemented.
“What the courses are going to look like, who are going to be the actual teachers,” said Ingram.
Brown-Woofter said she hopes schools will make use of mental health resources and professionals already available.
“We have individuals who are trained who can easily go out and be able to be in the classroom with these kids and also can be the referral to help the children seek the services they need,” said Brown-Woofter.
The program is supposed to be in place for the upcoming school year, which is only about a month away.

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USF Researchers Give Glimpse into Investigation of 27 Possible Graves at Dozier

July 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
USF researchers investigating 27 possible graves at the former Dozier School for Boys in Mariana are giving the public the first look at the dig since beginning their work earlier this week.
The investigation was ordered by the Department of State following a routine environmental cleanup on the former school grounds that accidentally identified the anomalies while using ground penetrating radar.
USF forensic anthropologist, Dr. Erin Kimmerle is heading the investigation.
She said the length of the dig will depend on what they find.
“We take the soil off in very small layers in order to expose it, you know very controlled methodology, and document what’s there. So if something turns out to be a human burial then obviously that stops and the process becomes very slow,” said Kimmerle. “If it’s not a human burial, if it’s something like tree roots or buried trash or other things the process can go a little bit quicker because ewe still document it, but move on.”
More than 40 remains of former students were uncovered in 2013, but a group of surviving Dozier students known as the White House Boys have insisted more boys still remain on the grounds.

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FDLE Reviewing Whether CFO Violated the Law

July 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has confirmed it is reviewing a complaint that alleges Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis violated the law by releasing a harassment complaint to the public while the case was still open.

The complaint was filed against Florida’s now suspended top financial regulator Ronald Rubin.

Patronis released a redacted version of the complaint, despite the form guaranteeing confidentiality.

Attorney Tiffany Cruz said her client was able to be identified despite the redactions.

“It’s no service to the employees filing these complaints. It gives very little confidence to future victims of sexual harassment, male or female, that when they report and expect their reports to be confidential that is what will happen,” said Cruz.

Cruz called on the state’s Attorney General Ashley Moody to investigate the possible violation.

Instead Moody referred the complaint to the Inspector General overseeing the case against Rubin.

After making no determination on whether or not Patronis violated the law, the Inspector General for the Department of Financial Services referred the case to FDLE.

Feeling the heat, the CFO’s Office finally issued a statement Wednesday.

In the three-part legalize explanation the Department of Financial Services’ General Council Peter Penrod asserted the release of the sexual harassment complaint was proper because the identity of the victim was redacted.

But this isn’t the first time Patronis has come under fire for potentially violating the privacy of a sexual harassment complainant.

In 2018, Patronis released a report on another complaint, in which the victim’s name was initially unredacted.

Cruz also represented the victim in that case.

She said the report was used to pressure Rubin’s predecessor, Drew Breakspear to resign.

“That is very similar to what is now happening. We have two valid complaints of sexual harassment being utilized by an Executive member to further whatever agenda that he may have,” said Cruz.

Patronis has called for the firing of Rubin to be discussed at the next meeting of the Governor and cabinet, which is scheduled for July 25th.

Both Rubin and his predecessor Breakspear have made their own allegations against Patronis.

Rubin alleges he was ousted for not hiring someone Patronis had recommended.

FDLE confirmed last week that it had received information regarding Rubin’s complaint.

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Immigration Groups File Suit to Block Sanctuary City Ban

July 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups have asked a federal court to block the state’s new sanctuary city ban in a lawsuit filed this Tuesday
The suit comes less than three weeks after the state’s ban on sanctuary cities became law.
Attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) are leading the challenge.
Scott McCoy with the SPLC said the law is fundamentally unconstitutional.
“It’s unconstitutional because it is preempted and foreclosed and conflicts with federal immigration law, which is where immigration law rests,” said McCoy.
The suit asks for the law to be temporarily blocked while the case makes its way through the court system, arguing immigrant communities face an immediate harm.
“People who are not documented are going to be in the shadows even more,” said McCoy. “They’re going to be distrustful of law enforcement and that’s not going to serve public safety.”
Supporters of the legislation have challenged critics’ concerns, asserting undocumented immigrants only need to worry if they’ve committed a crime.
Senate sponsor Joe Gruters told us in May the goal of the law is to ensure compliance with federal immigration detainers.
“To make sure that these bad criminals are held up and are detained when required,” said Gruters.
But the lawsuit alleges the law goes further.
It specifically points to a line that directs law enforcement to, ‘Use best efforts to support the enforcement of federal immigration law’.
McCoy said the vague language could lead to racial profiling because police won’t know exactly what is expected of them.
A similar law passed in Texas was challenged and upheld by a Federal Appellate court.
However, McCoy said Florida’s sanctuary city ban lacks certain protections to mitigate racial profiling that were present in the Texas law.
“If a local law enforcement officer sees a brown person… there’s an increased likelihood that under this kind of a law, they’re going to approach that person not necessarily because they were doing something wrong, but because they’re being racially profiled,” said McCoy.
The law partially went into effect on July first, but the enforcement side of the ban doesn’t take effect until October.

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