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Atwater’s FAU candidacy gets dominoes tilting

Monday, January 6th, 2014 by John Kennedy

With Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater named Monday to the list of 10 finalists for the presidency of Florida Atlantic University, talk swirled about who might be positioned to replace the Republican Cabinet member.

“Premature.” “Too early to speculate.” And “if” were the key words used by some of Atwater’s more prominent possible replacements, who include House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House budget chief Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, who has already talked openly about running for CFO in 2018.

“If it were to happen, I think everyone knows that I ran for CFO before and clearly have a passion for the job,” added Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who lost in 2006 to Democrat Alex Sink.

“But CFO is not really a place for a politician. You really want an effective manager there,” Lee said.

Lee has already been approached as a possible lieutenant governor candidate by Gov. Rick Scott. If Atwater were to be chosen for the FAU post, Scott would appoint his replacement — who presumably would immediately vault to frontrunner status in the November election.

FAU’s Board of Trustees will interview the finalists Jan. 17 and could make its selection then.

“A lot of things still have to happen,” Lee cautioned. “And certainly sitting down and talking with my family about this would be one of them.”

Weatherford and Gaetz both said it was too early to talk. But neither attempted to take themselves out of the conversation.

Gaetz said “there are a lot of links in the chain,” before getting around to a CFO vacancy. Ryan Duffy, a Weatherford spokesman, said the speaker hasn’t given thought to his next step beyond preparing for the spring legislative session.



Kenzo, Palm Beach County “hero” dog, has his day at Capitol

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Kenzo, a black German shepherd who took two bullets and saved the lives of two Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies, was honored Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet, who recognized the dog as a “hero.”

Kenzo, 10 1/2 years old, is now retired from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department. Deputy Rich Klaysmat, who cares for Kenzo, accompanied him to Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

“He has a peaceful life now, I take him to the park,” Klaysmat

Kenzo, named "hero" by Gov. Scott and Cabinet

said. “He could still do the job. But he just doesn’t have the stamina.”

Kenzo in June 2012 saved his handler and a lieutenant when authorities were dispatched to a chaotic scene at a mobile home park near Greenacres. A man with a gun had killed his girlfriend and, when confronted by deputies, fired 40 rounds at them and Kenzo.

One bullet went through Kenzo, another struck his chest.  Sheriff’s Lt. Richard Burdick was treated and recovered for a gunshot wound to the thigh.

Kenzo also bounced back from his injuries, Klaysmat said.

“He’s a good dog,” Klaysmat said. “He certainly deserves this honor.”


Search for bodies at Dozier School to continue

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet unanimously agreed Tuesday to allow University of South Florida scientists to continue working on the site of a closed reform school in Florida’s Panhandle, where many former students say the bodies of dozens of dead children may lie buried.

The move by Scott and the Cabinet cleared a hurdle created earlier in the year, when Secretary of State Ken Detzner said his office didn’t have the authority to approve the exhumation of human remains at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

USF researchers have identified 50 possible graves at the school in an area dubbed Boot Hill. The rudimentary cemetary is in the black section of what had been a segregated reform school through most of the 1960s. Researchers also want to locate another graveyard where white boys were supposedly buried.

“There is no shame in searching for the truth,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, an early advocate for continuing the work at Dozier.

Several former students were in the audience Tuesday, including one man Leo Collier, 84, who is believed to be the oldest former resident of the school, which closed in 2011 after more than a century marked by tales of beatings, sexual abuse and neglect by staff.

Collier said he was sent to Dozier at age 12 for skipping school. “All I did was farm work” at Dozier, Collier said.

Another man, 68-year-old Don Stratton, a former truck driver from Gibsonton, said he ran away from home and was “dragged out of the woods and put in Sarasota County jail.”

After six months in county jail, the 13-year-old Stratton was sent to Dozier for three years. Beatings were administered at a shed called the White House.

“The boys they murdered were put in the ground, not even in boxes,” Stratton said. “You wouldn’t even bury your dog like that.”


State’s debt level declines for first time in at least 20 years

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Florida’s debt level dropped this year for the first time in at least 20 years — helped along by Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of some $135 million in university construction borrowing and a two-year halt on environmental land buys, the governor and Cabinet were told Tuesday.

Florida’s debt level slid to $27.7 billion this year — down $500 million from last year’s record high. That’s a sharp contrast from a year earlier, when $2 billion in additional borrowing pushed state debt to double what it was in 2000, according to the state’s Division of Bond Finance.

Ben Watkins, head of the division, said the state still will have to spend $2.2 billion in next year’s budget just to cover payments on the IOUs. That’s actually up $100 million from last year because of timing of the state’s bond issues. But refinancing of existing debt has saved the state millions this year, Watkins told Scott and the Cabinet.

Fifty-seven percent of what the state owes stems from school, college and university construction. Scott last year, took steps to rein-in that spending with his veto of university building projects, including $3.2 million for new roofing and other work at Florida Atlantic University.

 The only significant university construction work Scott allowed to become law was $35 million for work at the University of South Florida Polytechnic’s Lakeland campus, which was advanced by Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Scott, who was elected with strong tea party support, has been outspoken in his push to stem Florida’s rising tide of red ink. 

Since former Gov. Jeb Bush took office in 1999, ushering in a dozen years of Republican leadership, Florida’s borrowing has climbed by $12 billion. Roughly $10 billion more debt is expected to be issued through 2019, to cover currently authorized programs, the bond finance division said.

Public school and university construction projects, roadwork and environmental land purchases have driven much of the borrowing, records show. Major tax cuts enacted during Bush’s two terms and recession-forced budget reductions also helped steer lawmakers away from a pay-as-you-go approach in many spending areas.

The economy, however, has helped change the state’s spending policies. The Florida Forever land-buying program, which formerly used to borrow $300 million annually to preserve environmentally sensitive lands, has been mostly on hold the past two years.

The state’s gross receipts tax, which supports school construction projects, also has been declining. The tax is built on levies imposed on utilities — but the economic downturn and societal shift away from land-line telephones has dramatically reduced the dollars available for campus construction.

ACLU asks Justice Department to investigate Florida clemency changes

Monday, April 25th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The ACLU has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to find out whether Florida’s new clemency process negatively impacts minority voting rights.

The new rules, pushed by Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi and adopted by the all-GOP Florida Cabinet on March 9, require felons to wait at least five years before they can ask to have their civil rights, including the right to vote, restored.

The change will affect more than a million Floridians, many of whom are minorities, who make up half of the state’s prison population, according to The Sentencing Project.

The ACLU wants DOJ to review the new rules the Voting Rights Act.

“The changes were nothing more than a highly targeted effort to prevent a group of people – mostly minorities – from gaining access to the ballot box,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “The changes, including the secretive and rushed process by which the rules were created, smack of raw politics and intentional, racially focused election manipulation – and it requires review by the Justice Department.”

State’s culinary ambassador wows ‘em in Panhandle

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 by Dara Kam

After 200 million gallons of oil and 1.5 million gallons of dispersants flooded into the Gulf of Mexico last year, tourism and agriculture officials are struggling to get the word out that Florida’s coast is as beautiful – and safe – as ever.

Enter Justin Timineri, the state chef and “culinary ambassador,” who showed off his craft at Bayou Joe’s after the panel returned from their angling adventures.

Timineri, who works for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam as the state’s certified executive chef, is a former governor’s mansion chef who in 2006 beat out Bobbie Flay in a Food Channel competition.

Timineri’s winning recipe would make any diner salivate. He nailed the best domestic seafood dish in the country for his crispy pan-seared Florida snapper over a citrus and shaved fennel salad with a passion fruit and coconut milk sauce garnished with green mango jam and Florida Gulf shrimp.

The Cabinet’s fare was a tad less refined last night – they supped on fried fish – until dessert time.

Timineri concocted a trio of Sunshine State-style sweets: Chocolate mousse with an orange cookie, a martini glass with Florida berries and a vanilla and orange-scented custard, and Florida melon salsa-scented with lemon and lavender.

It’s enough to make even a Cabinet member salivate.

Scott, Cabinet in Panhandle get their game (fish) on

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott with his new fishing license in Panama City

Gov. Rick Scott, in the Panhandle as the state’s cheerleader-in-chief, and the Florida Cabinet threw down the gauntlet – at each other – in advance of a “friendly” fishing tournament this afternoon.

In Panama City on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blast that sent 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam held their first out-of-town Cabinet meeting at the Bay County Government Center in Panama City.

Some good news for Florida anglers other than the Cabinet – Putnam’s staff announced the state would hold two free fishing weekends at the open of the red snapper season on June 4 and again for Father’s Day on June 19. And they’ve extended the scallop season for three extra weeks. The season will begin a week before its previously scheduled July 1 kick off and last two weeks longer than the slated Sept. 10 close.

The Cabinet fishing competition began almost as soon as the panel – all clad in Columbia fishing shirts embroidered with the new “Gulf Safe” seafood marketing logo – reached the podium.

“It’s great to be here,” said Scott, who purchased his $17.50 fishing license at C and G Sporting Goods in downtown Panama City earlier in the day. “We’re going to have a fishing tournament. And we all know that I’m going to win.”

Bondi stepped up to Scott’s challenge.


Cabinet fishing tournament tomorrow in Panama City

Monday, April 18th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet will be angling for some positive PR in the Panhandle tomorrow – literally.

Scott has set up a fishing tournament in Panama City after the Cabinet’s meeting there ends tomorrow afternoon, according to his spokeswoman Amy Graham.

Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater will go out on the water in charter fishing boats late tomorrow afternoon and have a weigh-in back at the docks to see who’s the best with a rod and reel.

They’ll be competing for a $5,000 grand prize sponsored by the Northwest Florida Tourism Council, one of the seven counties that just received $20 million from BP to market the region. The money will go to the winner’s choice of a charity related to the oil spill, Graham said.

Scott, clemency board do away with automatic restoration of rights for felons

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Convicted felons who have served their sentences and paid restitution must now wait a minimum of five years before applying to have their rights restored, under changes approved by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet acting as the board of executive clemency today.

The new rules impose a five-year wait period for those convicted of non-violent crimes. Those convicted of violent crimes, including murder or DUI manslaughter, must wait seven years and require a hearing to request to have their civil rights, including the right to vote, restored.

Florida will now join two other states with such severe restrictions limiting former felons from voting.

The board did not release the proposed rule changes to the public until moments before the meeting began and limited public testimony to two-minutes per person for a total of 30 minutes before unanimously approving the changes.

“Felons seeking restoration of civil rights demonstrate they desire and deserve clemency only after they show they’re willing to abide by the law,” Scott said.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, a former prosecutor, first suggested the rule change two weeks ago. But it was Scott’s staff who explained the rules when questioned by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam Wednesday morning.

“I think they’re fair. I believe that there should be a waiting period and I believe that someone should have to ask to have their rights restored. I believe, as a 20-year prosecutor, any felony is a serious crime,” Bondi said.

Civil rights advocates, including five black lawmakers, objected to the rule changes, saying there is no evidence the current process – approved by Gov. Charlie Crist and the former Cabinet in 2007 – is not working.


No delay in clemency vote

Monday, March 7th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Attorney General Pam Bondi wants a vote on changes to the state’s limited automatic restoration of rights for felons although her proposed rules won’t be available until the day of the vote.

Bondi and the Florida Cabinet, acting as the board of executive clemency, are slated to vote on her proposed rule changes Wednesday at a special meeting of the board.

Bondi, elected in November, wants to do away with the current automatic restoration of rights, including the right to vote, for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes, impose a three-to-five year waiting period before they can apply to have their rights restored and add more crimes to the list barring felons from regaining their civil rights.

Bondi met with ACLU executive director Howard Simon and NAACP Florida VP Dale Landry last week. The civil rights advocates asked Bondi to hold off on the vote until the public could scrutinize her proposed rules and give their input.

Bondi’s staff said last week she plans to ask for a vote Wednesday and that the rules won’t be available until then.

ACLU asks clemency board to slow down on changes to restoration of rights

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Civil rights advocates are asking the clemency board to hold off on changes to the state’s restoration of rights for felons scheduled for a vote Wednesday.

Attorney General Pam Bondi announced last week she was drafting a proposed rule change eliminating Florida’s limited automatic restoration of rights for felons convicted of non-violent crimes, approved by the executive clemency board under former Gov. Charlie Crist’s urging nearly four years ago.

But the sweeping changes proposed by Bondi, including a wait period of three to five years before felons can apply to have their rights – including the right to vote – restored have not yet been released just two work days before the scheduled vote.

In a letter to board members Bondi, Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, ACLU of Florida executive director Howard Simon asked the clemency board to delay the vote until the public has time to scrutinize them.

“The combination of suddenness, speed and lack of details have created an environment in which needed input is locked out or sitting on the side waiting to review, analyze and offer suggestions and counsel,” Simon wrote to each of the board members. “There is no emergency that requires action at your meeting next week. Rule changes can be made at any time.”

Simon, who met with Bondi earlier this week, wants the board to get public input before doing away with the current system.

“Any changes will impact Florida families and public safety for years to come. It’s more important to get the process and policy right than to get it done quickly,” he wrote.

Senate prez officially launches bid for U.S. Senate

Friday, January 14th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate President Mike Haridopolos started organizing his U.S. Senate bid with a campaign committee to raise money for the 2012 race.

Haridopolos’ committee – “Friends of Mike H” – launched a Website to accept contributions for the Merritt Island Republican.

Haridopolos is inviting big Republican donors to a “private strategy meeting” in Orlando next month and asking them to bring $10,000 checks, according to an e-mail a GOP fundraiser sent out yesterday.

Haridopolos and what is expected to be a host of others have targeted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the state’s statewide-elected Democratic holdout. Others who’ve expressed an interest in running against Nelson include former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, an attorney with the West Palm Beach-based Gunster law firm and former aide to Gov. Charlie Crist.

Republicans swept the governor’s seat and the Florida Cabinet and nailed down veto-proof majorities in the state House and Senate in the November elections.

AG wars: Bondi camp calls Gelber a liar

Friday, October 8th, 2010 by Dara Kam

GOP attorney general candidate Pam Bondi’s campaign consultant called out her Democrat opponent Dan Gelber for “a distortion of the truth” in his new television ad.

In the ad, Gelber accuses Bondi of promising to “side with corporate interests” if she is elected.

“Dan Gelber’s first television ad is a disappointing distortion of the truth and in keeping with a career politician’s ‘win at all costs’ attitude. He talks about corruption but has no problem corrupting the truth. He made an allegation that wasn’t true and offered no evidence, because there is none,” Bondi campaign consultant Brett Doster said in a statement.

The ad refers to remarks Bondi’s made on the campaign trail pledging to side with the Florida Chamber of Commerce in fighting the union-backed card check issue and statements she’s made saying that “the last thing we need is an Eliott Spitzer-type” AG.

Gelber interpreted that to mean she won’t go after white-collar criminals as Spitzer, known as the “Sheriff of Wall Street,” did before he went down in flames after being caught with prostitutes.


CFO debate debacle

Friday, October 8th, 2010 by Dara Kam

There either will or won’t be a debate between chief financial officer candidates Jeff Atwater and his Democrat opponent Loranne Ausley.

Ausley, a former state representative from Tallahassee, has made much of Atwater, the outgoing Senate president, avoiding a debate in the statewide race.

She held a press conference in Tallahassee this morning Florida demanding that Atwater agree to a debate before the Nov. 2 election.

“I’m running to clean up the mess in Tallahassee, not to hide from problems, duck debates, and refuse to be held accountable,” she said.

Hold on, Atwater’s campaign insists. The North Palm Beach banker’s campaign spokesman Brian Hughes said they had agreed to an Oct. 21 debate at Univision but Ausley backed out.

“As for the issue of a debate, the facts are as I laid them out to you. She needs to tell you guys why she said no the the 21st. We accepted one date Oct 21) that they’ve said no to because of schedule. (Univision) They accepted one that we couldn’t do because of schedule (Leadership FL/UofF). Now, they’ve accepted an alternate date at Univision and we’re seeing if it will work,” Hughes said in an e-mail.

The upshot is that the duo may take part in a verbal duel on Oct. 28 sponsored by Univision.

UPDATE: Sink calls Scott deceptive, irresponsible for ‘scaring our retirees’

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: A spokesman for Rick Scott’s campaign responded to Alex Sink’s rant about her GOP opponent Scott’s attack ads, paid for by the Republican Party of Florida.

“As the St Petersburg Times reported, CFO Sink never declared a potential conflict and supported a no-bid contract to her former employer. Instead of looking for a correction from the St Petersburg Times, Sink is trying to draw attention from valid questions over her integrity and competence,” Scott campaign spokesman Joe Kildea said in an e-mail.

As far as her accusation that Scott is scaring pensioners, Kildea wrote: “She is trying to draw attention away from the facts (as reported in the St Pete. Times)”

Chief Financial Officer and Democrat governor hopeful Alex Sink went on a rant in response to questions about her GOP opponent Rick Scott’s attack ads accusing her of benefiting from a no-bid contract that went to her former employer and being responsible for the state pension fund’s $23 billion loss three years ago.

“You know that’s ridiculous,” Sink, a trustee along with Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum of Florida’s State Board of Administration, which handles pension funds for state and municipal workers.

“The whole market almost collapsed. Everybody’s 401K took a dive. And the good news is that independent authorities call the Florida pension fund one of the strongest investment pension funds in the country.
We are one of the strongest public pension funds in the country. He is out there scaring our retirees into thinking that their pensions are at risk. He’s irresponsible and shouldn’t be doing it.”

Sink was even more incensed over an ad accusing her of voting to give former employer Bank of America a no-bid contract when she may have held stock in the company. The Republican Party of Florida paid for both of the television ads.


Sink (and Crist) bold move over languishing oil spill claims: Write a letter!

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010 by Dara Kam

After hearing that not a single business on Pensacola Beach has received a dime from BP claims czar Ken Feinberg in nearly a month, Chief Financial Officer proposed sending (another) letter to Feinberg urging him to get on it.

“This is just not right,” Sink, the Democrat running for governor against Republican Rick Scott, said before the Cabinet heard an update on the oil spill at this morning’s Cabinet meeting.

Sink suggested ordering Feinberg to show up at the next Cabinet meeting to explain why he hasn’t followed through on his earlier pledge to quickly process claims to help out Panhandle residents whose businesses have floundered since the April 20th Deepwater Horizon disaster. Or, she said, the Cabinet could write a letter to Feinberg urging him to take action. Sink has made repeated requests in writing to Feinberg, BP officials and others demanding they speed up payments to floundering businesses in the Panhandle threatening to shut down because of the spill.

Gov. Charlie Crist agreed to sign on to Sink’s letter to try to get some help to Floridians, especially those in the Panhandle.

“It’s become increasingly difficult for them to be able to hang on,” Crist, the independent candidate in the three-way race for U.S. Senate said.

Attorney General Bill McCollum, whose office has been out front dealing with Feinberg and BP throughout response to the disaster, is supposed to meet with Feinberg this week. McCollum was in Pensacola attending the federal hearing on his lawsuit against President Barack Obama’s administration over health care reforms.

Full pardon for sex offender who has been married to victim for a decade

Friday, July 31st, 2009 by Dara Kam

Correction: Because of reporting errors, a previous version of this story indicated that Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink had approved a pardon for Gerald McCranie, who had been listed as a sex offender. Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson approved the pardon. According to a spokesman, Sink did not sign the pardon.

virgil-mcVirgil McCranie is ecstatic. After more than a decade of marriage to his “Romeo and Juliet” sweetheart, the stigma of being branded a sex molester has finally been lifted.

The Board of Executive Clemency, comprised of Florida Cabinet members Gov. Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, granted McCranie a full pardon this week after leaving the Panama City Beach resident in limbo after the last clemency meeting in June.

“It sat there for two hours before I opened it,” McCranie said in a telephone interview today.

McCranie, now 34, and his wife Misty, now 28, fell in love when was he was 19 and she was 14. Since then, they’ve raised four children while struggling to make ends meet.
But their story is no fairy tale.

Misty and her father pressed charges against Virgil, accusing him of raping the minor. The rape charge was dropped but he was charged with lewd and lascivious acts against a minor and was sentenced to two years of probation.

That’s when the father of four’s nightmare began, McCranie told the clemency board in June.

He was placed on the state’s sex offender web site and has been unable to hold down a job or attend his daughter’s dance recitals, he said as he and his wife pleaded with the board to grant him a pardon.

The board took his case “under consideration,” leaving the couple in limbo.

The fact that three of the four clemency board members are running for statewide office – Crist for U.S. Senate and Sink and McCollum for governor – added to the pair’s worries.

That changed when they finally opened the letter containing the governor’s executive order and a copy of the certificate of clemency.

“I hadn’t felt that good since I was 19. I felt clean,” McCranie said.

McCranie said he hasn’t been able to hold down a job because of his sex offender status. Now he won’t have to wonder “if it was me not being good enough to do something or just me getting a bad shake from what I did,” he said. “I’m happy.”

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