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Who’s Spying on Lawmakers?

October 31st, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Someone has been spying on Florida lawmakers. A surveillance camera was found earlier this year in a condo building just blocks from the state capitol where many lawmakers stay. But as Mike Vasilinda tells us, an investigation by the Department of Law Enforcement sheds little light on the who or why.

A hidden camera was found by the State Senate’s Democratic leader on the sixth floor of the Tennyson Condominium, just four blocks from the Capitol, back in May. The Condo is a home away from home for multiple lawmakers and at least one statewide elected official.

“I’m hoping to talk to a manager” we asked. They were not on site.

An investigation by  the Department of Law Enforcement traced the camera back to a Gainesville private investigator.

Reached by phone, Derek Uman said he had no comment.

State Senator Jack Latvala was one potential subject of the investigation. He received grainy photos interacting with a lobbyist.

“ There have been no inappropriate activity between me and my 20 year Friend.”

He spoke with us by phone.

“There’s a lot of rumors floating around about different Senators , different folks there’re gonna try to target, and a, make out lives difficult” says Latvala. He doesn’t discount that he also might be targeted because he is running for Governor.

Law enforcement says Uman was acting within the full scope of the law as a licensed private investigator.

”There is speculation, but not proof that the private investigation was being conducted at the behest of a state Senator who was forced to resign earlier this year.”

State Senator Frank Artiles resigned last April after making racist remarks and being linked to questionable political spending. We asked if Latvala thought he was at the center of the investigation.

“I don’t know” he told us.

The FDLE report also says there was no recording media in the camera, begging the question of whether it was sending video wirelessly to another receiver.

After the private investigator told us he had no comment, we  received a call from his attorney asking for specific questions. We have yet to hear back with answers as to the breath or length of the investigation.

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Florida Insurers and EMS Workers Looking to Reduce EMS Costs

October 31st, 2017 by Jake Stofan
There’s a battle brewing between insurers and EMS providers over the cost of EMS transportation services, while patients are stuck paying the price.
The two sides came together Tuesday morning, to discuss possible compromises to help take some of the financial burden off patients.
A ride to the hospital in an ambulance can costs between 800 and $1,000.
Insurers don’t always cover everything.
The remaining cost is passed along to the patient.
At a special meeting between insurers and EMS providers, Insurance Consumer Advocate Sha’Ron James searched for common ground.
Each blames the other for cases where patients get stuck with outlandish charges.
“If nothing else comes out of this that there are greater consumer protections so that consumers don’t receive large unexpected bills from providers because insurance carriers aren’t covering those valued services,” said Jones.
Insurers say transportation bills have been excessively high, especially with air transport.
Wences Troncoso with Florida Association of Health Plans says he’s seen examples where an emergency transport in a fixed-wing airplane came back with a $500,000 bill.
The fix insurers favor is a ban on balance billing.
“You know this is not a situation of egregious billing, we believe it’s price gouging,” said Troncoso.
It would prevent patients from picking up extra costs, requiring insurers and EMS providers to compromise on a price.
Plant City Fire Chief Dan Azzariti says the insurers’ proposal would cut critical revenue from Florida’s mostly public EMS providers.
He also worries about Florida’s large visitor population.
“They don’t pay taxes. So any offset in cost is shifted to those who do pay taxes,” said Azzariti.
The Insurance Consumer Advocate will make recommendations for both insurers and EMS providers.
If the two can’t come to a resolution, she may be forced to recommend legislative fixes.
The report will consist of best practice recommendations and contract negotiation recommendations between insures and EMS providers.

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Senator Resigns over Affair with Lobbyist

October 30th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

A State Senator has resigned after published reports linked him to an affair gone bad with a registered lobbyist. The affair was consensual, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, there are now new guidelines for reporting sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers.

State Senator Jeff Clemons abruptly resigned after Politico reported an affair  between Clemons and a lobbyist had went bad at the end of the 2017 session.

As a legislator, Clemons had sway over legislation being pushed by the lobbyist. The resignation came after House Speaker Richard Corcoran released a statement saying  “The facts raise a very real question of sexual harassment,”

Consensual sex at the Capitol is nothing new.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, highly respected Clerk of the House, Alan Morris used to give a lecture to new female hires. He concluded it by saying there was something they didn’t want to hear: “I love you honey, but the session is over.

In the mid 1980’s the House even published a fact book for new employees with a chapter called Romance in the Legislature.

Instances of sexual harassment have been more rare.

“He pulled it out. Threw the ice down and then went like that” Jennings explained to a select committee, describing a former member throwing ice down her shirt and patting it with his hand.

In 1987 the House secretly paid 47 thousand dollars to staffer Kathy Jennings. When the settlement became public three years later, a week long hearing ended in a reprimand for Rep. Fred Lippman. He went on to serve three more terms.

“I said, come on Fred, Don’t mess my hair. He said I don’t want to mess your hair, I want to XXXX you!”

In 1980, Rep. Gene Flinn was reprimanded for a hostile work environment.

“And whereas, the select committee strongly condemns improper sexual advances by the member directed toward the members legislative aid, or any prospective legislative employee” toned the reading clerk before the reprimand was adopted.

Flinn lost his reelection bid.

On the same day Clemons resigned, the Senate published new guidelines for reporting sexual harassment, saying it has zero tolerance. The guidelines removed the legislatures Human resources office as one of four places to file a report.

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Nursing Home Advocates Hope Ruling Will Allow for Negotiation

October 30th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
A ruling by an administrative law judge has blocked Governor Rick Scott’s emergency rule, requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to install generators by November 15th.
The Governor plans to appeal the decision, but nursing home advocates are hoping the ruling will open the door for negotiations.
The emergency rule would have required nursing homes and assisted living facilities to install generates capable of powering air conditioning.
It also required four days of fuel on site. Nursing homes challenged the rule, saying the deadline was impossible to meet.
“The installations of those, where we’re going to put the tanks, site plan based on variances and setbacks. There’s so many moving pieces to this. There’s so many moving pieces to this,” said Florida Argentum Association Chairperson, Gwen Thibault.
Following two days of hearings in mid-October, the administrative law judge ruled no emergency existed, especially since Hurricane season ends in a month.
The Florida Healthcare Association hopes the ruling will open the doors for negotiations.
“What we need to do is, we need to bring in the long-term care providers, the generator providers, the fuel providers. Put us around a table and we can figure out a way to make it so every nursing home can keep their residents cool and safe during a hurricane,” said FHCA Lobbyist, Bob Asztalos.
The Governor’s Office says it plans to appeal the decision.
In a statement his Deputy Communications  Director McKinley Lewis said, “It’s disappointing that DOAH issued a shortsighted ruling against protecting lives and elderly Floridians. This ruling is in stark contrast with the favorable ruling the First District Court of Appeal issued last week that affirmed these rules were justified by the emergency circumstances. We will file an immediate appeal to the First DCA. AHCA will continue the public rule making process, and we will also continue our work with the Florida Legislature to make these critical rules permanent. We will not let special interests get in the way of these life-saving measures.”
The Florida Healthcare Association says the Governor’s desire to expedite the installation of the generators could actually be putting residents at more risk.
“You can’t just back up a truck with a generator to a nursing home and plug it in. We want to make sure it’s done safely. If you do it wrong then now you’ve got fire hazards, you’ve got carbon monoxide hazards for the residents,” said Asztalos.
The nursing homes have repeatedly said they don’t oppose generators, just the timeline.
While the ruling is being appealed, the November deadline is still in place, meaning nursing homes and ALFs still may face daily fines if they fail to come in to compliance.

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Will Death Row History Repeat Itself?

October 27th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida requires unanimous juries in death cases, and judges can no longer change sentences voted upon by juries, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, Florida is on a path to continue executing people who had less than unanimous jury verdicts because of when they were sentenced.

In 2002, in a historic decision known as Ring, the US Supreme Court said juries, not judges must impose death sentences. Over the next 14 years, Florida executed 40 men and women, all sentenced by judges. All argued their sentences were illegal. Then in 2016, the nations high court ruled Florida got it wrong. Mark Schlakman is a human rights attorney.

“The Florida Supreme Court did not apply Ring, after it was issued by the US Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court said in effect, Ring does apply.”

Now history may repeat itself. More than 170 death row inmates, all sentenced before 2002, most by non unanimous juries, still face death. But those convicted after Ring in 2002 can’t be executed without a new, unanimous sentencing hearing.

The practice, known as partial retroactivity was challenged at the highest levels in the two most recent executions, with no relief.

 

Both Mark Assay, executed in August, and Michael Lambrix, executed October 5th argued they weren’t being treated fairly.

“These legal distinctions, while accepted, and appropriate, are from a fundamental fairness perspective, spurious” says Schlakman.

 

Partial retroactivity won’t be an issue of Patrick Hannon. The state is preparing for another execution. He’s set to die on November 6th. In 1991, his Tampa jury found his crimes so heinous, it recommended death twice. Both by unanimous verdicts.

The Florida Supreme Court began recommending a unanimous jury verdict to state lawmakers in 2005. The legislature failed to heed their warning until after the US Supreme Court declared the sentencing scheme unconstitutional early last year.

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New Legislation Would Make it Easier to Get Confiscated Guns Back From Law Enforcement

October 27th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Law enforcement has the right to confiscate a person’s firearm if they witness a breach of the peace, an offense which could range from a heated argument to domestic violence. If the person is found innocent, a court order is necessary for the confiscated gun to be returned to its owner.
“Which incurs court costs it incurs legal fees for property which is lawfully owned and for which the person is legally entitled to retain,” said bill sponsor Representative Cord Byrd.
New legislation would remove the court order requirement for individuals who had their weapons confiscated, but aren’t charged with a crime.
Law enforcement and women’s advocates fear the change could have unintended consequences… especially in domestic violence situations.
The League of Women Voters of Florida say women are five times more likely to be shot when there is a gun in the home.
“Why make it easier for someone who’s potentially likely to commit violence to get the firearm back? It’s too easy now,” said the League’s First Vice President, Patti Brigham. “We see too many instances of, for example domestic violence, and so there should be protections in place to prevent these types of shootings from happening.”
But the bill’s sponsor says current law unfairly targets gun owners.
“We don’t apply this to automobiles or money or any other type of property other than firearms, which is constitutionally protected both at the state and federal level,” said Representative Byrd.
The NRA says it supports the measure, but declined our request for interview on this story.
The change would still allow law enforcement to deny the return of a person’s firearm if they have legal cause for doing so.

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State Lawmakers Look Back at Hurricane Irma Response

October 26th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Lawmakers are looking back on response efforts during hurricane Irma.
The goal is to identify what went wrong and what worked so the state will be better prepared for future hurricanes.
Motorists spent hours stuck in traffic, and often couldn’t find gas as 6. 5 million Floridians tried to evacuate ahead of Irma. Still,  the DOT told a Select House committee that the evacuation was a success, based on the fact there were no traffic fatalities.
New polling suggests many won’t evacuate the next time because of the delays they faced this time.
The committee also heard concerns about the flow of traffic back into the state after the storm.
“Getting the fuel trucks to come in, getting the responders and the utility companies to come in that mix really created some challenges,” said Sumter County Department of Emergency Management Director, David Casto.
The mass evacuations also caused fuel shortages throughout the state.
Coming up with solutions to better distribute fuel around the state during future storms is a top priority for lawmakers.
“Preplanning by Floridians in their evacuations would help that as well as determining whether we need to evacuate,” said Florida Petroleum Council Director, David Mica.
“I think it’s obvious that we’re going to need to improve our access to fuel and ways to get it around the state,” said Representative Elizabeth Porter.
Lawmakers like Representative Bob Cortes say the state wont only be looking at lessons learned from Irma. He says much can also be learned from Hurricane Harvey and Maria.
“We understand that any break in the chain on fuel delivery before during or after a storm can be catastrophic to the end user,” said Cortes.
Thursday’s meeting had one purpose: gathering facts.
Proposed solutions will come later.
Lawmakers say lessons learned from Irma can be shared with other hurricane prone states, to help them better prepare for storms.

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Law Enforcement and State Lawmakers Celebrate New Ban on Credit Card Skimmers

October 26th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Law enforcement officials and state lawmakers are celebrating a new law banning the possession of credit card skimmers.
Before October 1st, someone could legally own the devices used to steal credit card information, making it difficult for law enforcement to catch scammers.
 Now, law enforcement can charge a person with a 3rd degree felony for possession of a skimmer and then collect the data stored on the device to further prosecute the scammer for fraud.
“Skimmers have no purpose other than to record and steal fraudulently credit card information. Which then is uploaded or used to create false credit cards and steal peoples identities and we the tax payers ultimately pay dearly,” said Representative Robert Asencio.
Sponsors say Florida is the first state to ban the devices.

 

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Puerto Rican Response Questioned

October 25th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida has already spent millions on Puerto Ricans fleeing the island territory and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the Senate Budget Committee in the State Capitol was told hundreds of millions more is likely going to be needed.

State Senator Victor Torres made an impassioned plea to the states budget writers: Set money aside for the thousands of Puerto Ricans who have already come or will come to Florida in the near future.

“I ask you for appropriate action as if it were your family members who are suffering in the same circumstances.” Torres teared up at the end of his presentation.

 

State Education Commissioner Pam Steward told the budget committee that students are already impacting Florida schools.

“We have a count of 3,066 statewide from Puerto rico, and 4,074 from the Virgin Islands” said Stewart.

While lawmakers say they support the influx of Puerto Ricans, they are unhappy the Governor is spending money without consulting them.

An aide to Governor Rick Scott got an earful over the offices spending of more than seven hundred thousand dollars on three centers to help Puerto Ricans come to Florida. Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala raised the question of the legality of the spending.

“There seems to be a question of whether the pure reading of the governor’s power on the emergency order gives that authority.”

An estimated 60 thousand Puerto Ricans are already here. Many are starting to wear out their welcome with relatives.

Rep. Rene Plasencia (R-Orlando) says there is a pending crisis for affordable housing.

“There is a law that limits the amount of people, the occupancy limit for a dwelling. And some people are being threatened with evection. Some have already been evicted” Plasencia told reporters.

And after pressure from lawmakers Nurses and other professionals will find it easier to work in Florida as the state adopts expedited licensing requirements.

The state is waiving licensing fees for professionals for thirty days to give the a chance to work and get back on their feet before paying for their licenses.

 

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Bill to Make Online Threats Illegal Passes First Committee

October 25th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Legislation that cleared a committee in the state Capitol Wednesday would make broad threats on social media a felony.
In the age of social media, violent threats made online have become all too common.
One out of ten internet users report being victim to online threats and more than a third of threats against public schools are made over the internet.
“I mean we’ve seen instances where people have posted things and then they’ve gone and actually did a bad act,” said Representative Stan McClain.
But unless a threat is directly sent to a person, law enforcement can’t investigate.


Legislation approved by a committee here in the Capitol would make it a felony to post threats of physical violence on social media, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The legislation is aimed at credible threats, but there are concerns including the possibility for people to become felons for a post made in a moment of poor judgement.
“We want to make sure that we protect the rights of individuals so that they don’t have to get into an incredibly long and perhaps protracted and difficult situation just because they engaged in an activity although ill-advised shouldn’t rise to the level of even being suspected of being criminal,” said Representative Julio Gonzalez.
Law enforcement says threats will be investigated, and it’s up to investigators to determine if charges are appropriate.
“We’re going to look at all the factors, who it was, what kind of history has there been, what kind of a threat was made, what’s the ability of that person to carry those threats out,” said Casselberry Police Chief Larry Krantz.
Even if a person is charged, prosecutors will have the final say if a felony conviction is the appropriate punishment for the specific crime.
If signed into law the changes would take affect on July 1st of next year.

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Breakthrough in Anti Texting Legislation

October 24th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

There is new hope for anti texting legislation tonight. Legislation allowing police to ticket someone they see texting and driving has cleared it’s first committee in the state Capitol by a 6 to 2 vote.  And as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the man who has single handily blocked texting law changes is offering a compromise.

If a police officer pulled along side this texting driver, as we did, the officer still could not ticket her without finding another violation with which to pull her over. Advocates who have lost loved ones say the law makes no sense. Jennifer Smith is with StopDistractions,org

“We’re here to share our stories and the lives of the one’s you love” Smith said to open a news conference.

Families who have lost a loved one to texting and driving say it has got to stop.

Jodi Dominguez lost her son, a nuclear engineer in the Navy. while he was on his way home in Tampa to visit.

“It could save another mother to have to go through what I am going through” Dominguez told us.

Patricia Viccaro lost her son Michael while he was fishing from a bridge on his 25th birthday. She described the call from police.

“I said is my son dead. And he said, I’m sorry to say. That was my call. 4:30 in the morning” says Vaccaro.

Steve Augello lost his high school senior on her way home from rehersing a school play.

“She wanted to be a journalist. She was accepted at St. Leo’s College, and she was getting all ready to go to college” Steve told us with tears in his eyes.

Their persistence is paying off.

The man who has successfully blocked tougher texting laws because he doesn’t want pope looking in your phone, now says he’ll support tough penalties for all distracted driving.

Rep. Jose Oliva is set to be the next Speaker of the House. He wants more than just tickets for people texting and driving.

“So I’m fully supporting a driving while distracted law. I think that’s a good thing and it’s necessary. Isolating it to one of many apps on a phone, I think is short sited” says the next House Speaker.

Oliva’s support is a major break through for families who’ve lost a loved one, and for drivers everywhere.

Traffic deaths are up over 20 percent between 2013 and 15. Insurance rates are up 16 percent, in part, say insurers, because of the increase in traffic accidents.

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Bill to Ban Child Marriage in Florida Passes First Committee

October 24th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Florida has one of the loosest child Marriage laws in the nation.
Each year 1,000 people under the age of 18 are married in the state.
After abuses, lawmakers are looking to put an end to the practice once and for all.
Over the last 15 years 200,000 Americans under the age of 18 have been wed… 1,000 more are married in state of Florida each year.
Florida’s lax marriage laws are to blame, allowing children of any age to be wed if a pregnancy is involved.
It’s how Sherry Johnson Ended up being forced to marry her rapist at the young age of 11.
“To live that life was catastrophically a turmoil for me and it’s been a turmoil for a long time,” said Johnson.
Jeanne Smoot with the Tahirih Justice Center says in a six year period more than 400 children were married to a spouse who’s age difference would make sexual relations between the two statutory rape.
The age differences often lead to sexual abuse and domestic violence.
“Early marriage compounds a girl’s dependency and vulnerability and can make her insecure through the rest of her life,” said Smoot.
After a failed attempt at changing the law in 2013 the idea of tightening that state’s marriage  law is once again on the table.
New legislation seeks to outlaw any marriage for an individual younger than 18.
“Because there has been such abuse of young men and women to force them into marital situations that are not in their best interest, it is a protective measure for those children who can’t speak up for themselves,” said bill sponsor State Senate Lizbeth Benacquisto.
The proposal would make Florida’s marriage laws the strictest in the nation.
Sherry says if the law passes it would protect young girls like her, allowing them to live out the childhood she never was allowed to have.

“Being married at 11 caused me to repeat the same cycle over and over again until I  understood what was actually happening in my life,” said Johnson.

Between 2010 and 2016, 12 children in Florida under the age of 18 were married to men more than twice their age.
The bill passed its first committee stop Tuesday afternoon.

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Lawmakers Grill DOH Over Medical Marijuana Implementation

October 24th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
The Department of Health is taking flack from Legislators over its implementation of medical marijuana in the state.
In a Senate health committee legislators took the Department of Health to task over wait times for Maijuana ID cards and the departments failure to meet its October third deadline to approve five new licenses.
“We’re fed up with it. We’re not buying the excuses. We’re tired of the excuses and we need answers on why this agency is ignoring a statutory directive to get these licenses and these cards out there,” said State Senator Dana Young.
The Department blames the licensing delays on pending lawsuits.
It says wait times for cards to be issued should be reduced once a company is chosen to outsource the manufacturing of the cards.

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Public Meetings Legislation Clears First Senate Committee

October 24th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Public officials may soon have fewer restrictions when it comes to talking with colleagues.
A Senate Committee gave unanimous approval to a bill that would exempt public officials from informing the public every time they are with another local official.
Case law backs up the exemptions for not notifying when elected officials meet socially, as long as they don’t discuss official business.
Now, Senator Dennis Baxley says it’s time for the law to reflect the court decisions.
“It becomes a cumbersome thing if they’re both at some kind of conference or meeting. They can’t travel there together or they’re afraid to be seen even eating lunch together for fear of being accused of violating the Sunshine Law,” said Baxley. “I think this will bring a level of practical commonsense to how we conduct that without violating the public meeting requirements.”
The First Amendment Foundation hasn’t endorsed the Legislation as of yet,  saying the exemptions are to vague.

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Florida Lawmakers Seek End to Gender Pay Gap

October 24th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Female State Lawmakers are back with legislation to close the pay gap between men and women in the state.
On average, women doing the same job make about 80 cents on the dollar compared to male coworkers.
The legislation puts harsh penalties on employers found to be practicing wage discrimination.
The bill also allows employees to sue for lost wages on the basis of wage discrimination.
“It is an issue of fairness. It is an issue of basic decency. When we steal from half of our workforce every hour of their working lives it impacts all of us. Our families and our ability to have a livelihood that we deserve,” said State Senator Linda Stewart.
Last year, the bill was never heard by a committee.

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