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Gov. Rick Scott, First Lady Ann in Bahamas to watch Attorney General Pam Bondi tie the knot

Saturday, May 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Just back from a trade mission to Spain, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is in the Bahamas today for Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s hush-hush wedding to her long-time beau, Tampa ophthalmologist Greg Henderson.

Scott and his wife, First Lady Ann Scott, are among the guests at Bondi’s Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman affair. Bondi, 45, Florida’s first female attorney general, is divorced.

While it was no secret that Bondi and Henderson, who is 15 years her senior and has four grown children, intended to marry this spring, the attorney general kept details about the wedding mum. Bondi’s press secretary did not respond to questions about it Saturday.

But Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, spilled the beans on her Facebook page Friday, posting a picture of Bondi captioned “The blushing bride serving punch to her friends on Cayman Air.” In a previous post, Dockery said: “The plane is filled with her wedding party.”

Bondi, a GOP darling who never ran for office before becoming attorney general in 2011, was a frequent contributor to FoxNews prior to her election and remains a regular guest giving updates about Florida’s lawsuit against President Obama’s administration over the health care law. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in the case in August.

Prison privatization pre-vote round-up: Scott, labor unions and selling state prisons

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: CCA spokesman Steve Owen confirmed Florida is one of the states approached by the Nashville-based private prison corporation regarding a “purchase-and-manage” plan to help federal, state and local governments in a tough economy by selling prisons to CCA in exchange for a 20-year contract. Jump to the bottom of the blog to read the letter from CCA exec Harley Lappin to 48 states’ corrections chiefs, including Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker, on Jan. 13

Here’s an update on some of the recent developments in the prison privatization plan scheduled for a Senate floor vote this afternoon. Opponents of the measure, including Lakeland Republican Paula Dockery, insist their 20-member coalition of Democrats and Republicans will hold together and kill the measure on a tie.

• Gov. Rick Scott said today that he wants the House and Senate to approve the privatization deal, which would outsource all Department of Corrections operations in an 18-county region in the southern portion of the state – including more than two dozen prisons and work camps. Scott a few weeks ago called a handful of GOP senators against the plan into his office, urging them to support be good Republicans and support the proposal. They refused.

“This is an opportunity for the taxpayers of the state to save money,” Scott said. “We’re at a four year low in our crime rate and the number of inmates we have is down from what we anticipated.”
Scott offered assurances that the state would not move forward with the privatization unless vendors promised their costs would be at least 7 percent less than what the state is now spending on the region – an estimated $16.5 million of about a $232.3 million budget.

“There is no way we’ll do this if we don’t save money,” Scott said. “The bill says if we don’t save at least 7 percent we don’t do prison privatization. Why wouldn’t we put ourselves in the position to save money to put into programs that we know we need to fund.”

Some lawmakers believe Scott already has the authority to order the privatization on his own, but the first-term governor would not say if he would take that route if the bill (SB 2038) dies this afternoon.

“The right thing is for both the house and Senate to pass the prison privatization bill,” he said.

• Sen. Maria Sachs and a coalition of labor union leaders fired up the troops this morning at a press conference where they pledged to keep on fighting the privatization until the session ends on March 9.

This afternoon’s vote will “define who we are as a people,” Sachs, a Delray Beach Democrat and former prosecutor, said.

“Are we a government composed of for-profit corporations?” Sachs asked, warning that the prison privatization is a “slippery slope” that could lead to privatization of other state functions.

• And The Huffington Post is reporting that Corrections Corporation of America, one of the two vendors interested in bidding for the lucrative South Florida contract, is pitching a different privatization plan to 48 states, including Florida.

CCA has set aside $250 million to buy prisons from the state – in exchange for 20-year contracts to operate the prisons.

Read the letter from CCA executive vice president and chief corrections officer Harley G. Lappin after the jump.
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Are private prisons cheaper?

Monday, February 13th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The state’s private prisons aren’t costing the state less than their state-run counterparts, according to Department of Corrections data released this morning by Sen. Paula Dockery, one of the leaders of a gang of GOP senators opposed to a prison privatization plan set for floor action this afternoon.

Dockery’s data reveal that the four of the private prisons cost less than similar public institutions, but one of those prisons – Gadsden Correctional Institution, which houses female prisoners – achieved its cheaper rate in part because it was compared to Lowell Correctional Institution which also includes a more expensive reception center and Death Row inmates. Read the data here and here.

The private prisons are supposed to save taxpayers a minimum of 7 percent of what it costs to run equivalent state-run facilities.

Among the more expensive private prisons is Palm Beach County’s South Bay, operated by Boca Raton-based GEO Group, with a $48.11 per diem rate for its 1,856 prisoners. That compares to a daily rate of $37.91 per inmate at nearby Okeechobee Correctional Institution which houses 1,619 prisoners. Both have minimum, medium and close custody adult male prisoners.

Overall, the private prisons average $46.73 per prisoner per day, compared to $42.36 per day for public prisons, Dockery found. Those on both sides of the issue say it is difficult to compare the costs for the prisons because of differences in the types of inmates they house. That’s one reason Senate budget chief JD Alexander wants to privatize an entire Department of Corrections region in the southern portion of the state. He says that will make it easier to compare costs with other state-run regions after the privatization is complete.

Senators will take up amendments this afternoon on a proposal (SB 2038) that would privatize all DOC operations – including more than two dozen prisons and work camps – in an 18-county region in the southern portion of the state. Backers of the plan, including Gov. Rick Scott, say it will save taxpayers money. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, estimates the savings at between $14.5 million to $44 million annually.

Dockery and Sen. Mike Fasano, whom Senate President Mike Haridopolos stripped of a budget committee chairmanship because of Fasano’s public opposition to the proposal, insist taxpayers will ultimately lose in the deal.

“In an effort to privatize our state’s prisons, Senate leaders are acting like politicians at their worst – twisting arms in backrooms and giving contracts to special interest donors,” Dockery, R-Lakeland, said in a statement. “They need to start acting like any business in the private sector would and stop using imaginary numbers.”

Meanwhile, the statewide chapter of the NAACP came out against the plan – also opposed by labor unions – this morning. Dale Landry, chairman of the organization’s criminal and civil justice committee, accused Scott and GOP lawmakers of being influenced by the private prison companies’ campaign donations

GEO and Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, have contributed at least $2 million to candidates or political parties since Scott’s election in 2010. GEO contributed at least $336,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in the past year. The two vendors would be the primary bidders on the plan, which would give contracts to at least two companies to participate.

“One only has to look at contributions by the two primary candidates for operating the private prisons in Florida, CCA and the GEO Group, and we can understand the power of these corporate masters over the Republican leadership,” Landry said. “As a result, they are calling for a redemption of their investments.”

Fla senators ask LaHood for more time on rail

Thursday, February 17th, 2011 by Dara Kam

A bipartisan coalition of Florida state senators asked U.S. Transportation Department Secretary Ray LaHood to give them more time to come up with a way to take advantage of the $2.4 billion in federal funds Gov. Rick Scott rejected yesterday.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, convinced 25 of her Republican and Democratic colleagues, including Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, and Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, sign her letter to LaHood.

They say the Florida Rail Enterprise or the Florida Statewide Passenger Rail Commission, both created by the legislature in 2009, are possible entities to draw down the money to go around Scott, who heads the state’s transportation agency that originally sought the funds under Gov. Charlie Crist. The commission is comprised of nine members – three each appointed by the governor, the House Speaker and the Senate President.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and other members of Florida’s Congressional delegation are meeting with LaHood in a last-ditch effort to keep the money set to be distributed to the states tomorrow.

Paula Dockery drops out of GOP primary for governor

Monday, May 24th, 2010 by Dara Kam

State Sen. Paula Dockery is out of the GOP primary for governor, her campaign announced this morning.

Dockery was a long-shot against Attorney General Bill McCollum, now in a primary battle against Naples multimillionaire Rick Scott.

Dockery said she’s quitting the race because of money.

“It is with mixed feelings that I end my campaign to be your next governor. People who know me know I’m a tenacious fighter unafraid of long odds, especially when the stakes are so high. But I’m also a realist and understand the costs of effectively competing statewide. At this point in the election cycle, I see no financial path to victory. And so today, with both resignation that the resources are not there and appreciation for the journey we shared, I am ending my campaign to be governor of the great state of Florida,” the Lakeland Republican said in a statement.

Scott, a former health-care executive, is expected to spend up to $5 million of his own money on TV ads, and recently launched his second ad before McCollum aired his first.

More Tea Party brew-ha-ha

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 by Dara Kam

The flame war between GOP operative Michael Caputo and Sen. Paula Dockery (and her campaign for governor) over a Tea Party schism got hotter last night.

Caputo, who’s involved in a federal lawsuit a bunch of Tea Party activists filed against Orlando political gadfly Doug Guetzloe and his brand of Tea Partiers, and Dockery exchanged a rash of e-mails yesterday peppered with questions about their links to Guetzloe in the spirit of “Will the real Tea Party people please stand up?”

Caputo says he is not being paid by Attorney General Bill McCollum, Dockery’s GOP primary opponent in the governor’s race.

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Dockery Tea Party battle brewing

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010 by Dara Kam

State senator and GOP governor hopeful Paula Dockery blasted Republican operative Michael Caputo for linking her with Orlando politico Doug Guetzloe, the center of a Tea Party turf battle playing out in federal court.

Guetzloe joined forces with Dockery in fighting the SunRail/CSX deal during the special legislative session and has supported her candidacy against Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary for governor.

Caputo, a Republican operative who has worked on campaigns in and out of the U.S. and who is closely linked with Roger Stone, and a variety of local Tea Party groups filed a lawsuit against Guetzloe and his cohorts accusing them of hijacking the “real” Tea Party and asking the court to order him to stop using the “Tea Party” moniker.

The flame war began when Caputo sent out an e-mail questioning whether Guetzloe is secretly backing Dockery’s campaign and calling the Lakeland Republican a “liberal.”

Dockery responded with an e-mail asking Caputo with some answers plus her own list of questions.

Guetzloe “is not and has not been paid by my campaign or on behalf of my campaign. I am asking you to refrain from making this claim as you have now been formally told there is no truth to your assertion. Please provide your rationale for making these false claims,” she writes.

The exchange also includes a “Who’s the better Republican?” line with Dockery saying she’s a life-long GOP’er who was first elected in 1996.

Caputo one-ups her there: He says he’s been a Republican since he first got into politics in the 1980s when he worked on President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign.

Dockery also tries to extricate herself from the Tea Party wars, writing: “I have absolutely nothing to do with the forming of another party and have, in fact, suggested that the formation of a “tea party” will actually harm reform-minded Republican candidates like me.”

Caputo’s snarky response to Dockery also challenges her to distance herself from Guetzloe.

“If you seek Tea Party support for your candidacy, your work with Doug Guetzloe does not endear you to thousands of authentic Florida Tea Party activists who are enflamed by his hijack attempt of their name and cause,” Caputo wrote.

“If what you say is true, it is not enough to stand silently. We ask you to denounce Guetzloe’s Tea Party political party. Please call upon him to disband it immediately and demand he end his personal threats
on true citizen activists in Florida’s Tea Party movement. Our plaintiffs – 34 Tea Party activists and organizations deeply concerned about the damage of Guetzloe’s third party – can help get your message out.”

Read the three messages after the jump.
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RGA slams Sink in first TV ad of 2010 campaign season

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Republican Governors Association hammered Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the state’s presumptive Democratic candidate for governor and former banker.

The ad is the RGA’s first TV campaign for the 2010 election season and shows that the Florida governor’s race will be one of the premier gubernatorial battles in the country.

Attorney General Bill McCollum is facing off against long-shot state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, in a GOP primary.

The ad charges that Sink did away with thousands of jobs while president of Florida’s NationsBank operations while earning $8 million in salary and bonuses, capitalizing on the current animosity toward bankers who took billions of dollars in federal bail-out money, spent much of it on executive bonuses and did little to ease the nation’s credit crunch.

The RGA also launched a new website – alexsinksflorida.com – featuring the video, which ends “Alex Sink. Not one of us. One of them.”

Sink was head of NationsBank in Florida when the financial institution acquired Barnett Bank, in 1998, for $62 billion. The merger resulted in the loss of 6,000 jobs, many of them in Florida, according to the ad.

Dems shut down McCollum anti-corruption hotline

Monday, February 15th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Attorney General Bill McCollum continues to defer to GOP party leaders instead of ordering an investigation into possible criminal conduct regarding credit card abuses at the Republican Party of Florida.

McCollum today said he may ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to look into the matter but that he would wait until the new chairman of the RPOF – expected to be Sen. John Thrasher – is elected this weekend.

Also today, Florida Democrats shut down McCollum’s anti-corruption hotline, filling up the 800 number’s voice mail in an effort to draw attention to McCollum’s refusal to investigate the credit card charges even after other top Republicans want the books opened.

McCollum said he won’t ask for inquiry until an audit of the RPOF is complete and he gets direction from the new party chairman to move although Gov. Charlie Crist last week said that party officials should open the books now.

“I’m waiting about what the new chairman might discover. I don’t see any evidence at this point of criminal behavior,” McCollum said today after a speech to the National Federation of Independent Business.

(more…)

Crist inspector general finds no meat in ‘Wafflegate’

Friday, February 5th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist’s inspector general found Transportation Department Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos did no wrong by using breakfast words as subject lines in e-mails dealing with the controversial SunRail project.

And IG Melinda Miguel also cleared the department of any wrongdoing by not providing e-mails on the SunRail deal to Sen. Paula Dockery until after Crist’s open government office was brought in.

“No evidence was found to suggest that any Department official intentionally withheld documents in violation of the law,” Miguel wrote in her 45-page report. “To the contrary, evidence shows that an unintentional, human error occurred during the initial public records request.”

Kopelousos and her aides insisted that they used the words “Pancakes” and “waffles” in subject lines to draw attention to the messages about the rail deal out of the thousands that the secretary receives daily.

Too many (tea) parties, not enough (any) amity

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Florida Tea Partiers accuse Orlando political activist Doug Guetzloe and his cohorts of hijacking the “Tea Party” brand in a lawsuit filed in federal court today.

Florida Tea Party Chairman Fred O’Neal, Guetzloe and Nicholos Egoroff registered the minor political party with the Department of State in August. Since then, the Tea Party and Guetzloe have backed state Sen. Paula Dockery in her GOP primary bid for governor.

But the suit, filed by activists throughout the state unassociated with O’Neal or Guetzloe, accuses the two of being johnny-come-lately’s to the Tea Party movement and now they want their name back.

“We believe the identity of the Florida Tea Party has been hijacked by cynical forces,” South Florida Tea Party chairman Everett Wilkinson said. “We are especially concerned the group is improperly leveraging
the tea party movement to support the gubernatorial campaign of Sen. Paula Dockery.”

(more…)

No equal time for Dockery at Palm Beach County GOP dinner, chairman says

Monday, January 4th, 2010 by George Bennett

Attorney Gen. and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill McCollum will keynote next month’s Palm Beach County Republican Party Lincoln Day dinner.

McCollum’s primary rival, state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, is also welcome — if she buys a $195 ticket.

Find out why in this week’s Politics column.

Correction: Gelber gets Buddy McKay backing, Aronberg gets sheriffs

Thursday, December 17th, 2009 by Dara Kam

State Sen. Dan Gelber and attorney general candidate nailed down another big-name Democratic endorsement, this time from Buddy McKay, who served as lieutenant governor under the late Gov. Lawton Chiles and briefly served as governor after Chiles’ death.

Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat and former House member, is trying to trade up for the Cabinet post just a year after he won election to the Senate.

He and colleague Dave Aronberg, a Democratic senator from Greenacres, are in a battle-of-the-endorsements.

Post On Politics had erroneously reported that the sheriffs were split on the candidates.

They are not.

Aronberg has the support of 10 Democratic sheriffs, including Palm Beach County’s own law enforcement rock star Ric Bradshaw.

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, former state education commissioner Betty Castor and former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis have all thrown their support behind Gelber.

Republicans have lined up Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and Holly Benson, a former House member who also served as secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, in a GOP primary race that’s been virtually silent compared to the Aronberg/Gelber contest.

They’re all vying to replace Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican who is running for governor in a primary against another senator – Paula Dockery.

Gelber’s latest political aspiration has opened up the door for yet another former senator, Gwen Margolis, to return to the chamber.

Margolis, a former Senate President, left office before being termed out to make room for Gelber. If she wins, it would be the Miami Beach-area Democrat’s second return trip to the Senate. After serving in the state House, she switched to the Senate from 1981-1992 before making a losing bid for Congress. Margolis was reelected to the Senate in 2002.

Flap over pancakes won’t stop Crist from signing rail bill

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist ordered an investigation into “Wafflegate” but his concerns about transportation officials’ possible violations of the state’s Sunshine laws aren’t keeping him from signing the bill they were writing about into law tomorrow.

Tomorrow, Crist will hold ceremonial signings in Tampa and Orlando of the sweeping rail bill passed during a special session last week.

Today, Crist acceded to Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink’s request for the inspector general investigation.

But he rejected Sen. Paula Dockery’s suggestion that he delay signing the bill that paves the way for SunRail.

Dockery’s fought for three years the deal in which the state will pay CSX at least $430 million for 61 miles of track in Central Florida for a commuter rail project. The state will share the rails with CSX, which will continue to operate freight on the line for less than $4 million a year.

The Palm Beach Post reported on Sunday that CSX played a major role in the crafting of the bill.

“For three years, the agency has been stonewalling citizens trying to examine this back-room deal. Given the secretive code words used to hide its communications, the agency has violated the public trust. Until the investigation is completed, I would encourage the governor to delay signing – or better yet, veto – the legislation we’ve now learned was authored by CSX,” Dockery, R-Lakeland, said in a statement.

Orlando Ax the Tax chairman Doug Guetzloe also asked Crist to hold off on signing the bill into law. Guetzloe and the state Tea Party Chairman Fred O’Neal have asked Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs to investigate the matter they coined “Wafflegate.” Guetzloe also said he will file an ethics complaint and ask Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office to look into it.
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Crist orders investigation into DOT ‘Wafflegate’

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist ordered his inspector general to investigate the state’s top transportation officials’ use of code words in e-mails.

Crist made the request after Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink asked Crist for an internal investigation to find out if Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos (whom Crist appointed in 2007) and her deputy Kevin Thibault tried to hide their e-mails from public records review by giving the subject line of “pancake,” “pancakes” and “French Toast.”

The e-mails sent in November contained information about a proposed rail bill later approved by lawmakers during the special session that ended last week.

“Given our state’s proud and comprehensive public records laws, I remain concerned that DOT employees may have deliberately used these code words in an attempt to disguise their actions from the people of Florida. We live in the Sunshine State, and this is not the way the people’s business should ever be done,” Sink, the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, wrote in a letter to Crist to Crist asking for the investigation.

Minutes after Sink’s office released her letter, Crist’s office sent out his response.

“I agree with the letter that was just received from Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. Accordingly, I have directed Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel to conduct an inquiry of the Department of Transportation,” Crist said in a statement.

Crist’s order for an investigation came after numerous demands for an inquiry from other sources.
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Grand jury sought on DOT ‘Wafflegate’

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Tea Partiers have asked Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs to convene a grand jury to investigate state transportation officials’ use of code words in e-mails.

Tea Party Chairman Fred O’Neal filed a request with Meggs yesterday asking for a grand jury to look into “deliberate evasion of Florida’s Public Records law” as well as “as an arrogant disregard” of the state constitution’s Sunshine Law guaranteeing access to public records and meetings.

Tea Party activists dubbed the messages “Wafflegate” after The Palm Beach Post reported that Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and her deputy Kevin Thibault exchanged three messages last month with the subject lines “pancake,” “pancakes” and “french toast.”

Doug Guetzloe, chairman of “Ax the Tax,” said he plans to file complaints with the ethics commission and Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office and another to Meggs.

“This is a direct violation of public trust,” Guetzloe said. (more…)

DOT Secretary says pancakes got her attention

Monday, December 14th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos said that the word “pancake” in the subject line of an e-mail from her deputy Kevin Thibault was just a way for the message to stand out from the hundreds she receives daily.

The code words were not a way to circumvent public records laws, Kopelousos insisted.

“I get hundreds of e-mails in a day and Kevin was trying to get me to look at something,” Kopelousos said. “There was nothing more, nothing less than just that. He wanted to get my attention so I would read the email he was forwarding.”

Kopelousos said her department e-mail searches include not only the subject line but the attachments as well.

(more…)

Federal agents question Senate President Jeff Atwater

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Federal agents investigating the corruption case against Broward County political kingmaker Alan Mendelsohn questioned Senate President Jeff Atwater this morning, Atwater’s spokeswoman confirmed.

Federal Bureau of Investigations agent Brian Szczepanski and four others met with Atwater this morning for about 45 minutes, Atwater’s spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said.

They asked questions about the “committee process and structure,” Emhof said.

“We cannot comment as to the specifics of the questions, as this is an ongoing investigation,” Emhof said.

The agents from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service have been poking around the Senate all week and have visited with at least five GOP senators, including Atwater.

Atwater’s spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof did not say what the agents asked the North Palm Beach banker about but others interviewed said that they were asked questions about former Sen. Mandy Dawson, Mendelsohn and other senators whom Mendelsohn had held fundraisers for at his Broward County home.

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, spoke with four federal agents briefly on Monday. Sen. Paula Dockery said she spoke with two agents yesterday for at least an hour. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he was questioned on Monday as well.

The agents asked questions about how committee chairmanships are assigned, Dockery and Jones said.

Former Senate President Ken Pruitt picked Dawson to chair a health care committee, an unusual move because she is a Democrat. She also became ill during the 2008 session and was frequently absent but Pruitt allowed her to remain on as chairman of the committee in the GOP-dominated Senate.

The investigators include a lawyer who works in the public integrity section of the Department of Justice in Washington.

They asked questions about how committee chairmanships are assigned and about Dawson’s relationship with Mendelsohn, who was indicted in October.

Mendelsohn was the chief fundraiser for the powerful Florida Medical Association and played a major role in channeling hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to political parties and candidates.

The federal indictment includes the claim that Mendelsohn used three political action committees to funnel $87,000 to a former public official.

The indictment doesn’t name the official. It says the money was passed through an intermediary — also unnamed in the charging document — and disguised as payments for consulting services. The indictment details 10 of the purported payments, totaling $72,000 between May 2004 and December 2005.

The largest alleged payment was $25,000 on June 21, 2004 from “PAC #1.”

O

Special session bill “not about SunRail” but talk about Sunrail just the same

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009 by Dara Kam

Senate President Jeff Atwater and his GOP lieutenants insist that the rail proposal now being considered in a special session that opened today has nothing to do with a controversial Central Florida commuter line known as “SunRail.”

That’s probably a wise maneuver since Senators twice failed to pass measures that would have allowed the state Department of Transportation to move forward with a deal paying CSX Inc. $641 million for 61 miles of track to start the commuter line and allow CSX to continue to run freight on the line for $1 a year.

Yet the first committee to take up the 49-page bill in a workshop this morning spent nearly the entire three hours discussing the SunRail project that the measure is supposedly not about.

And Tri-Rail got a fair amount of attention, too.

Sen. Paula Dockery, who’s hoping to ride a victory in the death of the SunRail deal earlier this year to the governor’s mansion, led the charge against SunRail with some simple questions about Tri-Rail.

The proposal will give up to a $15 million helping hand to Tri-Rail that, like every other public transit system in the country, loses money every year.

And it will bring thousands of jobs, said Sen. Jeremy Ring, the bill’s sponsor.

“How many jobs were created when Tri-Rail went into existence 20 years ago,” Dockery asked Ring.

Ring said that the 20-year-old commuter line has 330 employees.
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Green light for special rail session

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009 by Dara Kam

The Senate kicked off the special session this morning setting into motion a financial fix for Tri-Rail, a thumbs-up on a Central Florida commuter line and the possibility of bringing in billions of federal dollars for high-speed rail projects.

This is the third time around for the controversial Central Florida commuter project known as “SunRail.” The Senate killed the deal – already signed off on by the Department of Transportation – twice, most recently in May.

Critics in the Senate, led by Paula Dockery, objected to the deal in which the state will pay transportation giant CSX Inc. more than $500 million for 61 miles of track for the commuter line. CSX will still be operate its freight on the line in exchange for a payment to the state of $1 per year.

The SunRail deal died in the Senate during the regular legislative session by a 23-16 vote. Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, now apparently has 21 of the 40 senators on his side – just the amount he needs to get the bill passed.

Atwater said the legislation will bring thousands of jobs to the state and boost its flagging economy.

“This is indeed time for visionaries,” Atwater said during a brief opening session this morning. “A time when the people of florida are demanding action and are desperate for relief.”

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill on Tuesday.

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