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Florida firm pushing sales of its American-made AK-47

 Just down the road from a Krispy Krunchy fried chicken store, in a nondescript east coast business park in Florida, a 60,000-square-foot factory produces about 2,500 AK-47 rifles a month.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that Ulrich “Uli” Wiegand, a German immigrant who started the company called Inter Ordinance Inc., sees a bright future for the American-made version of the Kalashnikov, the classic Soviet-bloc weapon with the iconic banana-shaped ammo magazine. It is the world’s most popular weapon. There were as many as 150 million Kalashnikovs as of 2012, according to Aaron Karp, senior consultant to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research institute.

But Wiegand wants to put Florida on the map as the place where the best AKs are made, combining modern American manufacturing prowess with the original design by Russian Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov. With the help of a Tampa-registered company called Purple Shovel, he wants to double his capacity and his workforce, and switch the bulk of his business from consumers to governments.

“We are taking the best features of American manufacturing and infusing them into an AK-47, with 100 percent American-made parts,” said Wiegand, who moved the company to Florida from North Carolina in 2013.

Purple Shovel is the exclusive government distributor of the company’s AK-47s.

To reach his goal, Wiegand has invested about $5 million in the plant and estimates he needs to invest another $3 million to $5 million for new equipment and work stations.

The investments have garnered the attention of the Florida Space Coast Economic Development Commission.

“Their investment further enhances our manufacturing base and provides a positive impact for the region,” said Lynda Weatherman, the commission’s president and CEO.

It’s a move that has some local gun manufacturers scratching their heads.

“I don’t see that as a wise investment,” said Greg Frazee, owner of the Tampa-based Trident Arms.

Frazee said he prefers to stick with the American-designed civilian line of rifles known as the AR-15 platform, arguing that the AK-47 “is too much of a niche product.”

Wiegand and Benjamin Worrell, owner of Purple Shovel, see things differently.

Purple Shovel, named for a child’s beach toy, already has more than $110 million dollars’ worth of contracts with U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, for “small arms, ordnance and ordnance accessories manufacturing,” according to federal procurement documents.

Worrell and Wiegand are prohibited by law from talking about those contracts. SOCom, citing “operational sensitivities,” declined to comment on what types of weapons Purple Shovel is providing.

But SOCom has a strong interest in American-made Soviet-bloc weapons.

A year ago, the command sent out a market research request regarding what it calls “non-standard weapons.” This includes Russian-designed guns like the AK-47 and other similar assault rifles, as well as sniper rifles like the Dragunov, light machine guns like the PKM, and heavy machine guns like the DShK and the KPV. They are weapons preferred by U.S. allies and foes alike for their relatively low cost and simplicity of operation.

SOCom, tasked with training and equipping commandos and synchronizing the war on terror, provides weapons to allies at the behest of commands like U.S. Central Command. CentCom, also based at MacDill, has overall control of U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

As with the existing contracts, Worrell and Wiegand can’t talk about whether they submitted proposals to SOCom to sell it American-made AK-47s.

“It is still an ongoing effort,” said SOCom spokesman Ken McGraw. “No manufacturers have been identified.”

Inter Ordnance is not the only Florida company in the market. About 140 miles to the south, in Pompano Beach, Kalashnikov USA has plans to make the AK-47s as well. The company, not connected to the Russian firm prohibited from U.S. sales by sanctions, is making Kalashnikov shotguns but plans to roll out AK-47s later this year, said Laura Burgess, a company spokeswoman.

Like Wiegand, she said there is a strong market for the weapons.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Uber’s final frontier: Upstate New York

Brian Cook‘s trip to Buffalo to cheer on Princeton’s basketball team in the NCAA Tournament was, for him, a journey back to a simpler time, when hailing a ride meant standing on a corner and waving your hands to flag down a taxi.

“For a 19-year-old, that’s unknown,” said Cook, who flew in from Chicago to see his brother play in Princeton’s first-round game against Notre Dame. “I take Uber everywhere, always.”

Upstate New York, essentially everything outside of the metropolitan New York City area, is Uber’s final frontier: the largest area in the continental U.S. where app-based ride-hailing companies remain banned.

Many in such upstate cities as Buffalo, Rochester, Albany and Syracuse are hoping this is the year that distinction ends, but they will have to persuade the state’s legislature first. Previous efforts have repeatedly foundered, under pressure from the taxi industry and lawmakers who say they want more stringent regulations.

“I can go to New York City, Philadelphia, D.C. and I can utilize the app, but I can’t utilize it in my own city,” said Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, one of nine upstate mayors to recently write to state leaders urging them to approve the expansion.

Currently, Uber and Lyft are banned outside of the New York City area. Every state except Alaska and New York now has statewide ride-hailing regulations — though the service remains unavailable in many rural areas. Austin, Texas, is the nation’s largest city without Uber. The company pulled out after local leaders required drivers to be fingerprinted.

New York’s decision on whether to allow ride-hailing statewide could come within weeks. Supporters and upstate mayors back proposals from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Republican-led Senate but have concerns about legislation in the Democrat-controlled Assembly. That bill would authorize local communities to pass their own regulations on ride-hailing, and impose higher taxes and insurance costs.

But Uber has faced a spate of recent controversies, including allegations that it routinely ignores sexual harassment, video footage of its CEO profanely berating a driver and most recently, accusations that it used data on its users to evade and deceive authorities.

“The headlines about Uber are indicative of a company that does not understand its responsibility,” said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, a Democrat and the sponsor of the Assembly bill, which he said is fair to the company while ensuring protections for riders. “Uber has a lot of answering to do. And we need to be certain that we’re writing legislation for an industry and not one company.”

Taxi cab owners say lawmakers should delay ride-hailing regulations because of the allegations against Uber. They’ve long argued that Uber and Lyft should be held to the same standards and regulations as taxi cabs — and drivers should be fingerprinted and subjected to an independent background check.

“This shouldn’t be a matter of just saying, ‘Hey, come on in,'” said John Tomassi, president of the Upstate Transportation Association.

Uber is betting that March Madness might help tip the debate in its favor. Buffalo is hosting early round tournament games this year, the latest attempt by local leaders to showcase a city working to improve its image and reverse decades of population loss and economic stagnation.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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During traffic stop, Florida woman tossed needles into backseat near toddler

It looked suspiciously like a drug deal at a gas station.

A woman got out of the passenger seat of a parked car when another pulled up next to the car she was in. A plastic baggie exchanged hands, according to a Boca Raton Police report.

When the female suspect got back into her car and left the Marathon gas station, turning onto Glades Rd. with another male suspect driving, a patrolman followed.

Noticing the car she was traveling in east of downtown Boca Raton had a taillight out — plus, she didn’t come to a full stop at a stop sign, so the patrolman pulled her over, the report stated.

That’s when Christine Nancy Maier, 31, “panicked” and flung three hypodermic needles into the backseat, next to a toddler on Tuesday. The child wasn’t in a car seat, a violation in itself. The policeman noticed movement in the car by Maier as he stopped them

The child also had a cut on its face, which the woman later said happened when the child had fallen the day before.

It’s unclear if Maier is the mother, as the portion of the report indicating the relationship was blocked out, a redaction out of privacy concerns due to the child’s age.

After inspecting the driver’s license of the man behind the steering wheel, who was not married to Maier, the patrolman explained to the pair he had observed Maier conducting what appeared to be a drug transaction back at the Marathon station. He asked to search the vehicle and the driver consented.

Upon the search, the officer found the needles next to the child. In the front passenger seat lay a sunglasses case with two more needles and a baggie containing a “crystal white” substance, likely cocaine or methamphetamine.

But Maier had another excuse, the needles were for a friend, so he could shoot “methamphetamines.” The driver, the report said, became angry, telling officer he didn’t know about the drugs or needles. He had driven her to Boca Raton from rural Okeechobee, Fla. because it had “been a while since” he’d been with a woman.

The man was not arrested, according to the report. The toddler is now in the custody of the state of Florida’s Dept. of Children and Families.

Maier was booked at 7:45 p.m. into the Palm Beach County Jail by sheriff’s deputies. She was charged with felony drug possession, child neglect without bodily harm and possession of drug paraphernalia.

She is being held on $3,000 bond and is currently still in jail. She has five previous arrests, according to the Palm Beach County Clerk of Court public records, with one prior felony conviction.

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Prosecutors: No crime in Florida inmate’s hot-shower death

Prosecutors in Florida have found no evidence of a crime in the death of a prison inmate left for nearly two hours in a hot shower, concluding that he died accidentally in part because of undiagnosed heart disease and suffered no burn injuries.

The memo released Friday by the office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle ends a lengthy criminal probe into the 2012 death of 50-year-old Darren Rainey, a mentally troubled man serving a two-year sentence on a cocaine charge.

An attorney for Rainey’s family, Milton Grimes of Los Angeles, said in a statement that the family is “disappointed and heartbroken” no charges will be brought.

“This is not justice for Darren, for his family, nor for the mentally ill who have been subject to similar abuse and mistreatment,” Grimes said.

The investigation found no evidence that officers at the Dade Correctional Institution regularly used the hot shower to punish or torture inmates, as some of them claimed after Rainey’s death. Assistant State Attorneys Kathleen Hoague and Johnette Hardiman said in the 72-page memo that one inmate’s assertions that Rainey was screaming for help and had been scalded to death were unfounded.

“The evidence fails to show that any correctional officer acted in reckless disregard of Rainey’s life,” they wrote.

Rainey was taken to the shower on June 23, 2012, after he had smeared feces on himself, the walls of his cell and his bedsheets. The shower, which was operated from an adjoining room by a corrections officer to prevent inmates from turning it off, was activated but Rainey refused to stand under the water, according to the memo.

Officer Roland Clarke told Rainey he couldn’t go back to his cell until he washed off. Finally, Rainey said he would comply and asked for soap, which he was given, the memo says.

After starting to wash, Rainey said, “No, I don’t want to do this,” and leaned on a wall away from the water, Clarke told investigators. Officers continued to check on him, and finally after about two hours the decision was made to take Rainey out of the shower, but he was found lying face up in about 3 inches (8 centimeters) of water with no pulse and not breathing.

One inmate, Harold Hempstead, said he heard Rainey yelling and kicking at the shower door, saying, “I’m sorry. I won’t do it any more” and “I can’t take it no more.” The prosecutors found Hempstead’s claims, which he repeated to several news outlets, were not supported by other evidence, including video footage from inside the prison.

“Hempstead’s testimony is inherently unreliable and therefore not credible,” Hoague and Hardiman wrote.

Several witnesses said Rainey’s skin appeared to be peeled back or reddish in some spots — one inmate claimed he looked like a “boiled lobster” — but an autopsy found this “slippage” was most likely caused by friction or pressure on his moist and warm skin. This could have happened during efforts to revive him, such as chest compressions, or when officers carried him out of the shower initially, the memo said.

The medical examiner, Emma Lew, attributed Rainey’s death to a combination of his schizophrenia, heart disease and confinement in the small shower space. She said schizophrenic people can have nervous system reactions that trigger a heart attack if they have an underlying condition.

“It is not substantiated that the temperatures inside the shower room were excessively high,” Lew wrote.

The prosecutors determined that corrections officers did not commit murder or manslaughter in Rainey’s death and that taking him to the shower was appropriate under the circumstances.

“Placing an inmate who has defecated upon himself in a shower to decontaminate himself is not conduct that is criminally reckless,” they wrote. “There was no evidence of any intent to harm Rainey.”

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Boot, wheelbarrow, thimble ousted from Monopoly board game

The boot has been booted, the wheelbarrow has been wheeled out, and the thimble got the thumbs down in the latest version of the board game Monopoly. In their place will be a Tyrannosaurus rex, a penguin and a rubber ducky.

More than 4.3 million voters from 146 countries weighed in on which tokens they wanted to see in future versions of the property-acquisition game, which is based on the real-life streets of Atlantic City. Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based Hasbro announced the winners Friday morning.

Jonathan Berkowitz, Hasbro’s senior vice president of marketing, grew up playing the game with his family.

“While I’m sad to see the iconic thimble, boot, and wheelbarrow tokens go, it will be fun to have some new, fan-sourced tokens in the mix,” he said. “Personally, I’ve always especially liked the boot token, but I’m excited to move onto the T. rex.”

There were 64 contenders, including a winking emoji, a hashtag, a clunky ’80s-style cellphone and a pair of bunny slippers.

The existing Scottish Terrier, battleship, racecar, top hat and cat tokens will carry on.

The Scottie was top dog in the competition, leading all contenders with 212,476 votes. The T. rex was second with 207,954, and the hat was third with 167,582. The car was fourth with 165,083; the ducky was fifth with 160,485; the cat was sixth with 154,165; the penguin waddled into seventh place with 146,661; and the battleship made the final cut with 134,704 votes.

The closest unsuccessful candidate was the tortoise, which fell nearly 5,700 votes short.

A rain boot got the least support, with 7,239 votes.

The next version of the game will go on sale with the new tokens in the fall.

The board game was “born” on March 19, 1935, when Parker Brothers acquired the rights to it. In the decades since, an estimated 1 billion people have weighed the merits of buying up utilities and railroads or trying to hit it big with Boardwalk hotels.

The original 10 tokens were an iron, purse, lantern, racecar, thimble, shoe, top hat, battleship, cannon and a rocking horse.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Records released by DCF portray different picture of mother in teen’s Facebook Live suicide

The mother of a teen who committed suicide was in her car when she began receiving a trickle of text messages,

Then a barrage of texts began streaming in.

“Where’s your daughter,” one read.

“Please please please check on your daughter,” read another.

Gina Alexis, the mother of Naika Venant, the 14-year-old girl who hung herself with a scarf in January as hundreds watched, began to frantically make phone calls — first to Naika’s case worker. But no one picked up.

According to a cache of documents released on Wednesday by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) on the order of a judge in a suit brought by The Miami Herald, Alexis tried to scan the dozens of messages popping up on Naika’s Facebook page.

Her heart sank, she told The Miami Herald in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.

FloridaPolitics.com acquired the same trove of documents from DCF, which number in the hundreds of pages and give a full, detailed history from the first time the two came in contact with the agency — when Naika’s baby sitter left her home alone for more than an hour to the rapid response report recently issued following Naika’s death.

It was revealed Alexis might have been taunted Naika in a comment on the Facebook Live thread, but it wasn’t true, she said.

“Alexis said she has been wrongly cast as a villain, as someone who watched online as her daughter planned and executed a chilling suicide while live-streaming on Facebook,” the Herald reported. “Critics of her behavior have cited a post Alexis made on social media in which she referred to Naika as ‘a sad little DCF custody jit,’ and warned that the girl ‘will get buried’ if she continued down a path of abhorrent behavior.”

The post still exists online here and there, but it was never proven Alexis wrote it and several fake accounts had been set up impersonating Naika during the three hours she built up the nerve to hang herself.

“And Alexis insists she made the comments at around 1:15 a.m. the night Naika died — but when friends were telling her that news of a Facebook Live hanging were a hoax,” according to the Herald. “Indeed, Alexis said, friends of her daughter were creating fake social media accounts under Naika’s name, reporting that the spectacle was a stunt.”

Naika had endured sexual abuse from a young age and had become inappropriately hyper-sexualized at an inappropriate age, records reflect.

It no doubt played a confusing role in her mind, along with the 14 foster homes she was placed in during nine months time, according to a DCF report.

“I didn’t bring from Haiti for this result … I lost my #1 friend my baby my #1 reason to live it’s so hard without you … I love you to the moon and back princess,” Alexis wrote in kind of goodbye text.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a statement: “There has been much work done in the child welfare system throughout the state, and in Miami-Dade County in recent years, but our work will never be done. The findings outlined in the critical incident rapid response team) report present specific opportunities to make systemic improvements that will inform us and our partner agencies on how to better reach troubled kids.”

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Retail Federation expects record-breaking St. Patrick’s Day spending in 2017

St. Patrick’s Day revelers won’t be the only one’s seeing green this year according to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation.

The retail trade group estimates those celebrating the Irish holiday will spend $37.92 a piece this year, with total spending expected to top $5.3 billion — a significant jump from last year’s $4.4 billion and good enough for a record.

“We continue to see spending on holidays and celebrations reaching or exceeding record highs, which reinforces the strength of our economy and the confidence that consumers feel,” said Florida Retail Federation President & CEO Scott Shalley. “Even though St. Patrick’s Day isn’t one of the bigger spending holidays, we still expect Florida retailers to see a nice bump in sales, particularly those who offer additional discounts and sales to attract customers.”

The survey, conducted by Proper Insights & Analytics, predicts more than 139 million Americans will celebrate the holiday this year and that most spending will head toward food, followed by beverages, apparel, decorations and candy.

While the holiday is most popular among the green-beer-drinking 18- to 24-year-old crowd, 25- to 34-year-olds will be the biggest spenders, with the average person in that age range expected to drop $46.55.

Though St. Patrick is revered for driving all the snakes out of Ireland, his holiday is better known for bringing lots of people to bars. According to NRF, 27 percent of those polled will head to watering hole or restaurant, while 15 percent will head to a private party.

The most popular way to celebrate the occasion, however, is wearing green. More than four-fifths of those polled said they plan to dress accordingly, while 31 percent said they would make a special dinner, such as corned beef and cabbage.

The survey also found 15 percent of people plan to attend a parade, with that number buoyed by Northeasterners, 21 percent of whom said they would head to a parade.

The NRF survey contacted 7,609 consumers between Feb. 1 and Feb. 8. It has a margin of error of 1.1 percentage points.

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Spotted at the Governors Club: The last troubadour of Real Florida

Jeff Klinkenberg is not the kind of guy who does “luncheons,” but there he was at the Governors Club Tuesday, entertaining Friends of the First Amendment — some real, some fake — at the First Amendment Foundation’s annual fundraiser.

He looked a lot more comfortable later that day at Sally Bradshaw’s bookstore, telling true tales about things that “make Florida unique” to an appreciative audience of people who like to choose their reading material in a venue that does not sell toilet paper and tampons.

Klinkenberg coined the term Real Florida and cornered the knowledge market on everything worth knowing about people who do not need Disney to fire their imaginations or casinos to pump their adrenaline. To people genuinely committed to Florida, Klinkenberg is the Scheherazade of storytelling, revered by regular folks and by fellow A-list writers.

One of them, FSU professor and National Book Award winner Bob Shacochis showed up at Klinkenberg’s book signing to pay his respects. It was like watching Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page trade licks.

“Did you ever skinny dip with Jane Wood Reno?” Sachochis asked Klinkenberg. It was a question that could have come only from an author and journalist who knew and loved Florida long before the state became an international punchline.

Skinny dipping with Jane Wood Reno is one of the few Real Florida experiences Klinkenberg has not had. But she and her famous offspring have been in his database since 1966, when Klinkenberg was a 16-year-old stringer for The Miami News, where Reno was an esteemed reporter in an era when newspapers didn’t even have to pretend to take women seriously.

As a kid in Miami, Klinkenberg developed a passion for fishing, playing with snakes, and reading the inspired “About Florida” columns of the Miami Herald’s Al Burt. “I wanted to grow up to be Al Burt,” Klinkenberg said. “Back then, every paper had a person who wrote about Florida” so it seemed like a reasonable career goal, and a pretty good way to pay for the bait and tackle.

Great editors like the late Gene Patterson and Mike Wilson, now with The Dallas Morning News, saw the Al Burt potential in the young Jeff Klinkenberg, and turned him loose to travel the state in search of stories to inform, inspire, delight and dazzle readers of the St. Petersburg Times. Klinkenberg faithfully delivered for 37 years.

Telling real stories of real people was never just a job to Klinkenberg. It’s a calling, and he’ll be pursuing it until his last breath, or until they pave over the last square inch of Real Florida, whichever comes first.

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Disney refuses to cut ‘gay moment’ from Beauty and the Beast

Walt Disney World Company has refused to remove a scene involving a “gay moment” from its “Beauty and the Beast” release in Malaysia, a country that has laws against homosexuality.

Instead, Disney has decided to withdraw the film from the Malaysian market, rather than censor the scene.

Malaysia’s Film Censorship Board approved “Beauty and the Beast” for a “P13” rating after requesting cuts of about 4 1/2 minutes from the subplot with a “gay moment,” according to Film Board Chairman Abdul Halim Abdul Hamid, Variety reported on Monday. A “P13” rating requires those below 13 years of age to be accompanied by a guardian.

Golden Screen Cinemas, Malaysia’s largest theater chain, posted on its website that patrons who purchased advance tickets will receive refunds.

“The film has not been and will not be cut for Malaysia,” according to an email statement from Disney.

This is not the first time the gay scene has met with controversy.

The Russian government initially considered banning the film, but instead decided that no one under the age of 16 would be admitted to see it in theaters without accompanying adults. Additionally, a theater in Henagar, Ala. will not screen the film because of the gay character.

“Beauty and the Beast,” is a remake of the 1991 animated musical classic. The new movie includes a scene with character LeFou, who makes references to his affection for Gaston in the film and later dances with a man at a ball. LeFou is the first and only openly homosexual character in a Disney film.

The movie will be released in Central Florida Thursday.

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Despite lawsuit, Florida Lottery sees record sales; tops $100M for 2nd week

For a second consecutive week, the Florida Lottery broke its own record, with total sales of more than $141 million, the game’s chief announced Tuesday.

This record for the Sunshine State’s 29-year-old lottery comes despite a nasty lawsuit that pitted Florida Gov. Rick Scott against the state’s headstrong House Speaker, Rep. Richard Corcoran.

For the second successive week, the Florida Lottery’s contributions to the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund (EETF) exceeded $19 million from scratch-off sales alone.

Total scratch-off sales for the week reached $103.23 million, with overall sales hitting $141.28 million.

Additionally, this marks the second consecutive week in Florida Lottery history that scratch-off sales exceeded $100 million in a single week.

“The consistent scratch-off sales demonstrated by the Florida Lottery over the past two weeks are integral to our mission to generate as much revenue as possible towards public education,” said Lottery Secretary Tom Delacenserie. “The lottery remains committed to providing Florida’s students with the opportunities they need to be successful in school and in life.”

Over the past 29 years, the Florida Lottery has established itself as a dependable funding source for public education.

For 15 consecutive years, the Lottery has transferred more than $1 billion to education throughout the state while remaining one of the most efficient lotteries in the nation. Additionally, the Lottery has contributed more than $5 billion to the Bright Futures Scholarship Program to send over 750,000 students to college.

Florida Lottery contributions are approximately 6 percent of the state’s total education budget. Lottery funds are appropriated by the Florida Legislature and are administered by the Florida Department of Education.

The Florida Lottery reinvests 98 percent of its revenue back into Florida’s economy through prize payouts, commissions to more than 13,000 Florida retailers and transfers to education. Since 1988, Florida Lottery games have paid more than $52.4 billion in prizes and made more than 1,900 people millionaires.

On March 7, a Leon County Judge Karen Gievers invalidated the Florida Lottery’s $700-million contract for new equipment, agreeing with Corcoran that the agency went on an unauthorized spending bonanza when it made the deal in 2016.

The multiple-year contract involved new equipment for draw and scratch-off tickets. The lottery sold more than $6.2 billion in tickets in 2016, according to records.

“The Florida Lottery continues to make record contributions to our public schools and today’s ruling jeopardizes billions of dollars for Florida students,” Gov. Scott said in a statement March 7. “I strongly disagree with today’s decision, and we will appeal.”

Corcoran, in a statement joined by House Rules Committee Chair Jose Oliva and Judiciary Committee Chair Chris Sprowls, called the decision “a victory for the taxpayer and the rule of law.”

He continued, basking in the much-publicized showdown with the governor: “It reinforces the idea that respecting the separation of powers is not an arcane idea or an out-of-date philosophy,” they said. “In truth, it is one of the bedrock principles of our Republican government and is essential to protecting the liberties and livelihoods of Floridians.

“No branch of government is above the law, and the people’s House will use every power within our means – from the committee room to the courtroom – to ensure those liberties and livelihoods are protected.”

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