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Former Brevard lawmaker, an ex-lawman, arrested for bribery

Thursday, August 15th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Mitch Needelman, a former Brevard County Clerk of the Courts and a longtime state legislator, was arrested Thursday on bribery charges, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Needelman, 60, is a former Florida Marine Patrol officer, who served a decade as a Republican in the state House, representing the Melbourne area. The FDLE said that while clerk, Needelman entered into a $8.53 million contract with a company, BlueWare with the agreement that a portion of that money would be funneled back into his reelection campaign.

BlueWare won the lucrative contract to digitize Brevard County court records even though the company didn’t have the equipment to scan the documents, FDLE said. Needelman’s one-time business partner, William Matthew Dupree, a lobbyist, also was charged in the scheme.

An arrest warrant has been issued for Rose Harr, BlueWare’s chief executive officer.

“The investigation shows Needelman, Dupree and Harr swindled Brevard County taxpayers  out of millions of dollars,” said FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.  “Although not the final chapter, today’s arrests should present a degree of satisfaction to Brevard County taxpayers.”

Needelman lost his re-election bid in last summer’s primary for court clerk. Before leaving office, Needelman obtained a $5.6 million loan through the clerk’s office that was steered to BlueWare — cash Brevard taxpayers are now obligated to repay, FDLE said.

While the alleged bribery was underway, BlueWare also was poised to rake in more cash from the state, according to the watchdog group Integrity Florida.

Enterprise Florida, the state’s development arm, offered BlueWare $760,000 tax refund last year and a separate $550,000 from the state’s Quick Action Closing Fund on the promise the company would create 190 new jobs.

Enterprise Florida, however, said Thursday that no state money has gone to BlueWare because the job-creating milestones had not been met.

FDLE clears Scott and team of wrongdoing for deleting emails

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott and his gubernatorial transition team were cleared Wednesday of any wrongdoing for deleting emails from the weeks leading up to his swearing-in as Florida’s chief executive.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded an investigation requested by Scott last August after media reports disclosed that the deletions may have violated state public records law.

FDLE said its review found the data “was deleted as a result of an oversight…and not as a result of any malicious or criminal intent to destroy public records.”

The Legislature earlier this year passed a measure which clarified the widely held understanding that transition emails by the governor and other statewide officials are public record under Florida law.  Scott supported the legislation.

Scott’s office praised the FDLE findings Wednesday.

“In all, more than 4.5 gigabytes of electronic data representing more than 33,000 pages of transition emails and documents were recovered and turned over to FDLE,” the administration said.  “In addition to securing the email messages of senior staff, the governor also directed the transition team and FDLE to use electronic forensic search methods to recover lost emails and further required every member of the transition team, including volunteers, to turn over all documents related to transition business.

 ”By casting the widest possible net and using cutting-edge technology, the transition team, in cooperation with FDLE investigators, ultimately produced the most comprehensive collection of gubernatorial transition documents in Florida history,” the administration said. 

The FDLE report shows that a former Scott adviser, Susie Wiles, and Amy Brown, an employee of Harris Media, a marketing company used by the governor, were the central figures in closing out the email accounts used by the transition team in January 2011.

FDLE found that Wiles told Brown to shut down the accounts, which were used by 71 transition team members. FDLE was subsequently able to identify 44 transition team members in its investigation and interview 42 of them.

Brown followed the shut-down order — but Wiles said she thought data from the emails would be preserved on a backup server.

Sixteen of the transition team members had retained their emails and were able to provide them to FDLE, the agency said. But the rest are gone, FDLE said.



Justices need a lesson in state elections law, a lawmaker says

Thursday, April 26th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Fallout continued Thursday from actions by three Supreme Court justices filing their candidacy papers last week, with a Republican state lawmaker calling for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to examine whether state law may have been broken.

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, said in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott that according to media reports, including a story in the Palm Beach Post, court employees assisted the justices in notarizing documents and filing their documents with the state’s Division of Election. The filings were completed just minutes before a noon Friday deadline.

Plakon pointed Scott to a section of state elections law that prohibits candidates from using the services of public employees during working hours in the “furtherance of his or her candidacy.” A violation is a first-degree misdemeanor.

“We have a responsibility to the people of Florida to see that our laws are followed by all, regardless of status or position,” Plakon wrote in his letter to Scott.

A Scott spokesman, Lane Wright, said the governor was traveling Thursday and had not seen Plakon’s letter. But Wright said the governor would look into the request.

Plakon was House sponsor of a proposed ballot measure in 2010 aimed at allowing Floridians to opt out of federal health care overhaul. In a 5-2 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the amendment’s ballot summary was misleading and unconstitutional. Two of the justices who were part of the majority, Jorge Labarga and James Perry, were subjects of an unsuccessful attempt to deny them merit retention that year.

An organization called Restore Justice 2012, whose leader, Jesse Phillips, is close to Plakon, is working to deny Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince another six-year term on the court in merit retention this year. The three justices joined in the majority decision in the health care ballot case.

Dan Stengle, legal council to Quince, Lewis and Pariente, has denied any wrongdoing by the justices in their haste to file papers last week. Although he acknowledges that several court employees assisted justices, Stengle said that the financial disclosure documents filed are similar to those filed every year by public employees. It’s not unusual for justices to ask a clerk or other employee to notarize the paperwork, he said.

In defense, Stengle released copies of disclosures filed two years ago by Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, who were unchallenged by critics in their merit retention contests. Supreme Court employees also notarized these documents, the records show. The only difference, Stengle implied, was that the latest filings were played out publicly — in a scramble that forced a delay in a court hearing, when justices learned their paperwork was not complete.

For his part, Plakon said he was not supporting Restore Justice 2012. But Plakon acknowledged that he disagreed with the majority ruling in the health care ballot case and that it helped “bring attention to the issue of judicial activism.”

Restore Justice put a statement on its website about Plakon’s letter, and also sent an email to potential supporters that carried a solicitation for contributions.

“This whole ordeal illustrates the problems that inherently arise when activist judges selectively uphold the law when it is convenient to their agenda, and ignore or rewrite it when it’s not,” the campaign wrote.

Phillips, who leads the campaign, told the Post, “I’m taking a wait and see attitude. But I agree with (Plakon’s) statement that no one is above the law.”

Gov. Scott orders investigation into deadly I-75 crashes

Monday, January 30th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott has ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate a string of car crashes along Interstate 75 near Gainesville that left 10 people dead this weekend.

Scott ordered the inquiry after Florida Highway Patrol officials announced this afternoon they are also investigating. Two FHP supervisors reopened the highway early Sunday morning, less than three hours after the highway had been shut down because of reduced visibility caused by smoke from fires in Paines Prairie.

Shortly after the highway was re-opened, a string of car crashes began, killing 10 people and injuring 21 others.

“Following this weekend’s tragic automobile accident on Interstate 75 in Alachua County, I have asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the circumstances leading up to this incident. I will make available any and all resources from the Executive Office of the Governor, as well as any agency under my supervision, as needed. We will also fully cooperate with any federal investigation which may occur. During this tragic time, our thoughts and prayers should be with the victims and their families,” Scott said in a statement late this afternoon.

UPDATE: Captured escapee on the lam for 30 years out on bond

Monday, December 21st, 2009 by Dara Kam

A fugitive who escaped from a Florida work release program more than 30 years ago and was captured this weekend in Missouri is out on bond.

Oscar Eugene Richardson is shown before his 1979 escape, left, and after his Saturday capture.

Oscar Eugene Richardson is shown before his 1979 escape, left, and after his Saturday capture.

Oscar Richardson, who officials say had been living under the assumed name ‘Eugene Ward’ in Missouri for years, was one of a dozen fugitives featured in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s “12 Days of Fugitives” holiday-themed campaign to close cold cases. (more…)

FDLE ’12 Days of Fugitives’ nabs escapee on the lam for 30 years

Monday, December 21st, 2009 by Dara Kam

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s holiday-themed fugitive project nabbed its first missing suspect this weekend, officials said.

But FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey’s cheer over the capture didn’t last long. The armed robber who escaped from a Florida work release program more than three decades ago was set free on bond.

Oscar Richardson, who officials say had been living under the assumed name ‘Eugene Ward’ in Missouri for years, was one of a dozen fugitives featured in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s “12 Days of Fugitives” holiday-themed campaign to close cold cases.

Richardson was arrested this weekend after a tip received through fugitive hotline, according to FDLE officials. He was convicted of armed robbery for holding up two stores in Tampa in 1977.

Bailey held a press conference in Tallahassee early Monday afternoon praising the success of the “12 Days of Fugitives” campaign blitz.

A few hours later, Bailey blasted Taney County Circuit Court Judge Tony Williams’ decision to let Richardson back on the loose.

“I am shocked and extremely disappointed by the irresponsible decision of Judge Tony Williams to allow Oscar Richardson to post bond. Richardson is a violent felony offender who was serving time in Florida for an armed robbery conviction when he fled after serving only a fraction of his sentence. Allowing this fugitive to walk out of a courtroom after hiding from authorities for 30 years diminishes the seriousness of his crimes and shows a lack of sensitivity for those he victimized and a disregard for the safety of the citizens of Taney County. We are working closely with Missouri authorities to aggressively pursue Richardson’s extradition to Florida. His debt to our state remains unpaid,” Bailey said in a statement.

Oscar Eugene Richardson is shown before his 1979 escape, left, and after his Saturday capture.

Oscar Eugene Richardson is shown before his 1979 escape, left, and after his Saturday capture.

Richardson, who’s been on the lam for more than three decades, was arrested in Missouri where he had been living under an assumed name, FDLE officials said today.

Richardson’s was the oldest of the dozen cold cases FDLE officials are hoping to close.

Richardson, now 61, escaped from a Kissimmee work release center in 1979 after serving less than two years of a 10-year sentence for armed robbery.

In 1977, Richardson held up a drug store and convenience store in Tampa.

Richardson was living under the name of “Eugene Ward” in Missouri when he was arrested on Saturday and is believed to have lived there for many years.

Richardson was arrested by a U.S. Marshals Task Force and was booked into the Taney County Jail on his outstanding warrant for escape, FDLE officials said.

Utility regulators cleared of wrongdoing…again

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009 by Dara Kam

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement found no evidence of wrongdoing in the exchange of BlackBerry messages between utility regulators or their staff and utility officials.

FDLE issued the three-page report today, long after Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs also found no laws had been broken.

The report was released as the Public Service Commission held a workshop to discuss a 17-year-old statewide grand jury report recommending changes to how information between the PSC and the utilities is exchanged to clear up the perception that there isn’t enough distance between the regulators and the utilities they regulate.

The PSC has operated under a cloud of suspicion since late this summer at the beginning of hearings on Florida Power & Light Co.’s proposed $1.2 billion rate hike.

On the opening day of the hearing, it was revealed that the agency’s lobbyist Ryder Rudd had attended a Kentucky Derby party at the Palm Beach Gardens home of FPL VP Ed Tancer. Rudd later quit.

Two commissioners suspended their aides for swapping BlackBerry messages with an FPL lawyer and another fired hers for giving his secret BlackBerry identification number (PIN) to an FPL lawyer.

UPDATE: FPL wants to move ahead with rate hearings

Friday, September 11th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Florida Power & Light Co. officials had this to say about a top GOP senator’s request to halt utility rate hearings until investigations into what could be too cozy connections between regulators and utilities.

“We believe it is in our customers’ best interest for the PSC to proceed with its evaluation of our request – on its merits and the facts – so that it can make a timely decision that will allow us to move forward with investments in the electrical infrastructure that benefit our customers and the communities we serve,” FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski said in an e-mail.

Sen. Mike Fasano asked Public Service Commission Chairman Matthew Carter to postpone rate hearings currently underway – including a $1.3 billion rate hike sought by FPL scheduled to resume Wednesday – indefinitely.

Fasano wants several current investigations wrapped up before the hearings continue. He also wants them suspended until the Senate confirms Gov. Charlie Crist’s two nominations for the panel. Crist received a list of six finalists – including two current commissioners – earlier this month and has until Oct. 2 to make his picks.


FDLE arrests 5 former ACORN workers

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 by Dara Kam

State law enforcement officials arrested five voter registration workers today for forging voter registration applications last year. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement issued arrest warrants for five others.

The ten worked for the Association of Communities for Reform Now (ACORN) in Miami-Dade County last spring.

ACORN quality control workers suspected that something was amiss with the applications turned in by the ten and reported them to law enforcement.

FDLE and FBI agents found that 197 of 260 applications contained personal identification information that did not match any living person.

The investigators believe that the workers made up the information and forged the signatures, according to an FDLE press release issued today.

Those charged range in age from 19 to 45.

PSC Chairman Carter denies he’s “too cozy” with FPL

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 by Dara Kam

matt_carterbioIn the latest installment of intrigue at the Public Service Commission, chairman Matthew Carter issued an indignant press release today saying he takes “great offense” at reports that utility regulators are too cozy with Florida Power & Light Co. executives.

The PSC is in the midst of a FPL rate hearing in which the company is seeking a $1.3 billion rate hike implemented over two years.

The opening of the hearing was delayed after it was revealed that a PSC lobbyist and government liaison attended a party at the Palm Beach Gardens home of FPL VP Ed Tancer. Ryder Rudd, director of the commission’s Office of Strategic Analysis and Governmental Affairs, oversees staff working on two pending FPL cases – the current rate hike and a proposed $1.5 billion natural gas pipeline from the Panhandle to Palm Beach County.

An internal investigation released yesterday found that Rudd may not have broken the law by attending the party but may have violated rules of conduct prohibiting PSC staff from accepting gifts from those whose cases are under review.

Commissioner Nathan Skop, who exposed Rudd’s attendance at the party, demanded that Rudd be fired immediately. Rudd has been taken off any dockets involving FPL.

Carter weighed in today with the press release denying that commissioners and their staff are “too cozy with regulated industries, FPL in particular.”


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