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Ethics Commission clears Pam Bondi over Donald Trump contribution

Florida’s ethics commission is throwing out complaints filed against Attorney General Pam Bondi over her decision to ask Donald Trump for a contribution to help her re-election campaign.

The Florida Commission on Ethics on Friday voted to reject several complaints filed against Bondi by a Massachusetts trial attorney.

One of the complaints questioned Bondi receiving a contribution around the same time her office was being asked about a New York investigation of alleged fraud at Trump University.

Bondi asked for money from Trump in 2013 and got a $25,000 check for her political organization on Sept. 23 of that year. Emails from the same time period show that her office was being asked about the New York allegation.

Bondi has said repeatedly that she did nothing wrong.

As Frank Artiles departs, Dwight Bullard contemplates return to Senate

Dwight Bullard, the Senate Democrat unseated by Frank Artiles last year, may be looking to return.

Jessica Bakeman of POLITICO Florida reports that former Sen. Bullard is “seriously considering” a run after Artiles resigned Friday morning after the fallout from a racist and sexist tirade he made Monday at Tallahassee’s Governors Club.

“I’d be lying if I said interest wasn’t there,” Bullard said, “but I still need time to process it all and make a final decision.”

In 2016, Bullard had lost re-election in Senate District 40, a district that went 57-40 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Although Bullard had support from the Florida Education Association, which gave $825,000 to his campaign, Artiles won 50-41 percent.

Bullard said his loss to Artiles came after the Cuban-American Republican catered to the Latino majority in the newly redrawn (and Democratic-leaning) district, while “patently ignoring” black voters.

It was “ironic” that pressure from black Senate colleagues caused Artiles to step down for using a slang form of the “N-word” about white GOP senators, he added.

“That same community that he chose to ignore are the ones who led to his demise,” Bullard told POLITICO. “That should resonate with anyone thinking about running for the seat, whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

If Bullard, a Miami public school teacher, should run again, he hopes the Republican Party doesn’t spend “almost a million dollars … to tell everyone that I was a terrorist sympathizer, since that was the approach they took in that campaign.”

“They painted me out to be the boogeyman to a group of people who didn’t know who I was, to begin with,” he explained. “And so that was the narrative that won.”

Ethics commission bucks legislative leaders’ assertion of authority

The Florida Commission on Ethics voted unanimously Friday to resist efforts by House and Senate leaders to exert control over its hiring, firing, travel, and other business, citing fears for its independence.

The panel agreed to back Chairman Matthew Carlucci in rejecting a “delegation of authority” issued on March 21 by House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

Carlucci was sure the leaders’ intentions were “noble,” and that “these are good people,” he said.

Still, “as long as the Legislature stays involved with any kind of delegation or perception of a delegation that they can deliver to us, there will always, in my opinion, be a conflict of interest inherently. And particularly on our investigators and their support teams,” Carlucci said.

“Because when we have to occasionally investigate members of the House or the Senate, and there’s a perception that they have some control, that is a conflict of interest.”

Some commissioners appeared more eager for a fight than others, and the final language reflects that caution.

The resolution recognizes “that it is the honorable intention of the Legislature to maintain accountability for all agencies of government,” and says the commission shares that commitment.

But it also notes that the Florida Constitution established the commission as an independent entity, and that the leaders’ move threatens perceptions of that independence.

It concludes:

“The Commission on Ethics respectfully suggests that, although it is unable to accept the delegations of authority, the commission remains committed to operating strictly within the bounds of the law as set forth by the Legislature, and the financial parameters appropriated by the Legislature, and will continue to honor the Legislature’s authority as clearly articulated in Florida Statutes and in the Florida Constitution.”

Carlucci said he would have favored stronger language, but that the document “conveys the message that we are unable to accept it (the delegation). That’s the key that get me over the line.”

“I don’t think we need to have a dog fight over language that would be considered as inflammatory,” Commissioner David Berger said. “Just by having this long hearing, the message is getting out there about how we fell about our independence.”

The commission has tussled with the Legislature before. In 1987, it sued to assert its independence. The Legislature settled after a circuit judge refused to throw out the commission’s case, according to former commission chairman Mark Herron.

“The power to hire and fire, the power to pay, is the power to control,” Herron told the commission.

Legislative leaders began issuing the delegations in 1998. The March document asserts authority to approve hiring, firing, increases pay or bonuses to commission staff; out-of-state travel; expenses or more than $1,000; leases or changes in office space; spending money left over from a previous year; or any personal leave of more than one week.

“I do not believe the speaker and president have standing to issue these delegations in the first place, because of the commission’s independence, as spelled out in the Constitution,” Carlucci said.

“This has been going on since 1998, and it shouldn’t have been,” Commissioner Kimberly Rezanka said.

The directives don’t appear onerous, but could prevent staff travel necessary to investigate cases, she said.

“To me this is a notice issue, that we should not be subjected to delegation of authority whatsoever as an independent commission,” she said. “I don’t believe these should be issued to us at all.”

“This is not the commission throwing their thumb in the Legislature’s face. We’re not doing that. What we’re doing is only expressing what the Constitution requires, independence,” Commissioner Stanley Weston said.

“By no means is it meant as disrespect. By all means, it is respect for the people of Florida and respect for the Constitution.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidates call Frank Artiles’ resignation ‘right thing’

Democratic gubernatorial candidates and potential candidates are declaring Friday that Frank Artiles did the right thing and one is wondering why Gov. Rick Scott stayed out, after Artiles resigned his seat in the Florida Senate because of his vulgar comments to comments earlier in the week.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, an announced candidate, called Artiles’ resignation the “right move for Florida.”

“The kind of hurtful rhetoric that Senator Artiles used, while still far too common, only serves to divide us against each other,” Gillum said. “From every corner of our state, we know that there is a lot more that we share in common than what separates us. Now we must refocus our attention on the issues that can help the most people: creating good paying jobs, reinvesting in public education, and ensuring access to health care for all.”

Orlando businessman Chris King, an announced candidate, questioned the silence of Scott on the Artiles matter, after the senator accosted two black, Democratic colleagues in a private club Monday night with a tirade of vulgar and racist comments.

“While it’s gratifying so many Floridians across the state came together to demand accountability, there was one conspicuous absence — Rick Scott,” King said in a release. “The Governor of our great state should be the first voice to demand racism is never normalized, not duck and hide from leadership. Governor Scott’s refusal to stand with the well-meaning people of Florida is a result of the arrogance that comes with decades of one-party rule, and an important reminder of the need for change.”

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who is exploring a candidacy, declared, “After doing all the wrong things, Sen. Artiles finally did the right thing by resigning.”

Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, who is exploring a candidacy, tweeted her reaction:

“I’m proud of @SenAudrey2eet & @SenatorThurston for standing up to a bully. Their strength is why Artiles’ hate is leaving the Senate.”

Perry Thurston

Perry Thurston: Frank Artiles’ resignation was ‘right action’

Sen. Perry Thurston “welcome(d) the news of Senator Frank Artiles’ resignation today from the Florida Senate,” he said in a Friday statement.

“On behalf of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, …we regret that this action was necessary, but we believe it was the right action to take,” said Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat.

“It was surely a difficult decision for the Senator to make, but we believe he followed his conscience and made the right choice,” he added. “The actions of this Senate, and those of the multitude of Floridians who stood up in objection to the events of this week are to be lauded. They underscored the critical lesson that words can be painful, they can be hurtful, and they can have consequences.”

Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County, made national news after he accosted Thurston and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b****h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Thurston subsequently filed a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. He said earlier Friday he was withdrawing the complaint.

Frank Artiles resigns from Senate

Frank Artiles has resigned his Senate seat rather than face a hearing that could result in his expulsion, according to a letter he sent to Senate President Joe Negron Friday.

Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County, made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b****h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night. Thurston and Gibson are black.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Thurston subsequently filed a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. Artiles, elected to the Senate last year after six years in the House, had initially called efforts to remove him politically motivated.

Gibson, in a brief statement released by the Senate Democratic Office, “thank(ed) everyone for their outpouring of support.”

“This has been an ordeal that no one should have to endure,” said Gibson, who kept her back turned to Artiles when he delivered his apology. “I wish him well in all of his endeavors.”

In the resignation letter mentioning his Marine service and crediting his family’s support, he said it was “clear to me my recent actions and words that I spoke fell far short of what I expect for myself, and for this, I am very sorry.

“I apologize to my family and friends, and I apologize to all of my fellow Senators and lawmakers. To the people of my district and all of Miami-Dade, I am sorry I have let you down and ask for your forgiveness.

“My actions and my presence in government is now a distraction to my colleagues, the legislative process, and the citizens of our great State. I am responsible, and I am accountable, and effective immediately, I am resigning from the Florida State Senate.

“It’s clear there are consequences to every action, and in this area, I will need time for personal reflection and growth. I leave this office knowing that despite my shortcomings, I have fought hard to change the status quo while remaining true to myself. I’m grateful for those that have stood by my side, including my family, friends, and supporters.

“Serving my community in the Florida Legislature has been the honor of a lifetime, and I do not leave this process lightly. I will discover ways to continue to serve my community in the future.

“God bless the great state of Florida and our great country,” he concluded, signing off, “Sincerely, Senator Frank Artiles.”

In a separate statement, Negron said Artiles “made the right decision.”

“As Senator Artiles has noted, he holds himself responsible and accountable for his actions and comments,” Negron, a Stuart Republican. “Despite the events of the last week, Senator Artiles has a long and proud record of public service. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for serving our country in the United States Marine Corps, where he fought for our freedom in the Global War on Terror.

“Additionally, his years of service in the Florida House and Senate demonstrate a commitment to helping others that will not end with his departure from the Senate. My Senate colleagues and I wish Senator Artiles and his family well.”

Negron added that Thurston will withdraw his complaint and he “directed the (Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts) to close her investigation. No further action by the Senate will be taken in regard to this matter.”

On Thursday, Gibson had told reporters Artiles’ tirade was “horrific.”

“No one has ever addressed me in such a manner in my entire life,” she said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “I’ve never heard such nasty comments about leadership in my entire life and really denigrating the entire Senate as far as I’m concerned and the constituencies around the state.”

In an interview with The Florida Channel, she added, “I need to feel, and I have the right to feel, as comfortable as he does in that body, to which I was elected. And I don’t know that I could do that with him there.”

Artiles could not be reached. A message was left with his attorney, Steve Andrews of Tallahassee, on Friday morning. Artiles reportedly told colleagues he feared he wouldn’t have the support he needed to avoid a vote of expulsion from the Senate, to which he was elected last year after serving six years in the House.

In a statement, Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon II “welcomed” Artiles’ decision to leave the Senate.

“It was not only the right decision, but the honorable one, for himself and the people of Florida,” said Braynon, of Miami Gardens. 

“I take no pleasure in these unfortunate events. But I urge that we learn from them. In our communities, our state, and our country, there should be a message of hope, of tolerance, of unity. We cannot afford the high cost (that) words of divisiveness and cruelty leave in their wake. 

“I wish Senator Artiles the best, and I hope that, upon reflection, he finds consolation in knowing that his actions, today, show the contrition demanded, and the Senate was owed.”

The full resignation is below:

Eric Draper: Florida making smart progress on solar

Eric Draper

On a sunny day in Florida, I watched the American flag rise and fly over hundreds of acres of solar cells. It was an amazing experience to think the million panels I was looking at in Manatee County were replacing energy from conventional fuel combustion plants. Yet this solar field feeding directly into the power grid was not using any water nor emitting pollution. I could not have been more excited.

In recent years, Florida has increasingly lived up to its name as the Sunshine State, with more and more solar panels dotting our landscape. Solar energy makes so much sense for Florida’s natural environment because every watt of solar electricity reduces energy produced by traditional generation.

Growth in Florida’s solar capacity is accelerating largely as a result of large solar power plants Florida Power & Light is building, just like the one I visited in February. On that day alone, six FPL solar plants generated 335 megawatts of electricity — the same capacity as a coal-fired power plant.

Along with saving water and reducing air pollution, solar plants have an additional benefit. The land used to build fields of solar panels can be used to enhance habitats for birds and other wildlife. Fallow land repurposed for solar can recharge groundwater by allowing rainfall to soak into the earth. With so much of natural Florida being gobbled up by development and agricultural uses, I’m for using every acre we can to restore some lost wildlife habitat.

Audubon Florida has long been a proponent of solar power. We were there nearly a decade ago promoting the policy that led FPL to build the state’s first solar plant in DeSoto County, the largest in the country at that time.

On the day I watched our flag fly over the new solar plant, FPL announced one of the largest expansions of solar power ever in the southeastern United States — eight new solar power plants with 2.5 million solar panels that will generate enough electricity to power 120,000 homes by early 2018. Shortly thereafter, FPL furthered its commitment with plans for an additional 1,500 megawatts of new solar under development across its Florida service area.

Each will feed electricity directly into the grid to serve all FPL customers at no net cost.

In support of our clean energy and water conservation goals, and in keeping with Audubon Florida’s commitment to community-based conservation, we are partnering with FPL to advance solar energy while improving the environmental values of the land where the solar plants are sited.

By recommending bird and pollinator-friendly vegetation for the solar plants, Audubon and its local chapters will make these facilities home to wildlife and nature. Audubon already has provided recommendations of native trees, shrubs, grasses and vines.

FPL’s solar energy advancement already aligns with Audubon’s goals. But it is the potential of partnership with local communities to protect and enhance wildlife that says more about FPL’s motivation. They are investing in making these sites friendly for butterflies, bees and birds.

Working together, we can harness solar energy and the power of Audubon’s grassroots community. We can ensure solar power plants not only advance zero-emissions and zero-water-use energy but also benefit the local communities where they are built.

That’s a partnership worth celebrating for Earth Day in the Sunshine State.

___

Eric Draper is executive director of Audubon Florida.

FPL Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center, a 74.5-megawatt solar power plant in Charlotte County, Fla., is one of three massive new solar farms built by Florida Power & Light in 2016. FPL is currently building eight more new solar power plants and plans to add a total of 2,100 new megawatts of new solar over the next few years.
The American flag flies over the FPL Manatee Solar Energy Center in Parrish, Fla. The 74.5-megawatt solar power plant is one of three massive new solar farms built by Florida Power & Light in 2016. FPL is currently building eight more new solar power plants and plans to add a total of 2,100 new megawatts of new solar over the next few years..

 

Audrey Gibson responds to Frank Artiles’ ‘horrific’ tirade

Sen. Audrey Gibson on Thursday publicly responded to fellow Sen. Frank Artiles‘ racially-charged invective aimed at her earlier this week, saying she’s unsure she can be “comfortable” continuing to serve with Artiles in the Senate.

Gibson appeared at a press conference with Sen. Perry Thurston and a group of Tallahassee-area pastors at the city’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

“It was horrific,” Gibson said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “No one has ever addressed me in such a manner in my entire life. I’ve never heard such nasty comments about leadership in my entire life and really denigrating the entire Senate as far as I’m concerned and the constituencies around the state.”

Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County, made national news after he accosted Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night. Thurston and Gibson are black.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to her and to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Thurston subsequently filed a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. Artiles, who is represented by Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews, has called efforts to remove him politically motivated.

Gibson, 61, recalled an incident for the Democrat “when she was a young girl at a department store where African-Americans were allowed to shop.”

“There was a young girl with her mom and we were playing together and her mom yanked her away and said ‘you don’t play with those people,’ ” she said. “Such is life. Back then. But this is today and there is no earthly reason for using any N-words whether you’re referring to Perry and I or your own colleagues. There’s no place for that word.”

In an interview with The Florida Channel, she added, “I need to feel, and I have the right to feel, as comfortable as he does in that body, to which I was elected. And I don’t know that I could do that with him there.”

Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts is investigating Thurston’s complaint and is scheduled to issue a report to the chamber’s Rules Committee next Tuesday.

Wexford responds to DOC’s cancellation of health care contract

Wexford Health Sources is striking back at the Department of Corrections for canceling its contract to provide health care services at the state’s prisons.

In a lengthy press release, the Pittsburgh-based private health care provider took issue with the department’s criticism of its performance:

Wexford Health Sources disagrees with the assessment of the Correctional Medical Authority regarding the treatment provided to a small number of inmates at the South Florida Reception Center. More significantly, we take strong exception to the idea that this limited number of cases—involving patients who were already experiencing significant psychiatric challenges before they ever entered our care—should serve as the basis for termination of our contract with the State of Florida.

Privacy regulations limit how much Wexford Health can say to refute the CMA allegations without risking disclosure of the patients’ identities. However, there was nothing in the treatment of these inmates that should, or could, justify contract termination.

It is extremely disappointing that the Department of Corrections acted without consulting our psychiatric providers regarding the affected inmates. Had the DOC done so, it would have learned why our clinical personnel, relying on their professional judgment, pursued the chosen courses of treatment. Instead, the Department relied on the opinions of CMA’s non-psychiatric auditors, who—without being licensed psychiatrists—told the Department how they thought the patients should have been treated. These allegations led to the declaration of an emergency situation.

Wexford Health President CEO Dan Conn summed up the situation: “Wexford Health’s culture is one of transparency. We have always been open and direct with the Department about our performance. In fact, the Department has consistently complemented us on our performance and partnership.

“Our responsiveness; and our ownership of issues as they arise; have been exemplary. Again, the Department has acknowledged this. This could not be more apparent, since the Department recently asked us to extend our current contract for another year.

“But in this case, we were not even given the opportunity to respond to the Department’s allegations. Upon hearing them, Wexford Health’s psychiatric providers immediately responded to the situation and evaluated the patients’ cases. These psychiatric experts’ findings are considerably different than the ones given by CMA’s non-psychiatric personnel.”

The unfortunate reality is that prison inmates represent a particularly challenging patient population. This is especially so in the area of mental health. Wexford Health treats every patient under our care with respect and dignity, with the full hope that we can help restore their health. Isolated cases, involving inmates with long histories of mental problems, would not appear to be a sound basis for termination of an entire contract.

Out of tremendous concern for the safety and well-being of the inmates in our care, Wexford Health acted immediately to assess and evaluate the patients involved in the CMA report. We can now state that for each of the affected patients, psychiatric medications were discontinued after a clinical evaluation by a psychiatric provider; and the patients were observed in an inpatient unit after their medications were discontinued.

The patients were not at risk; and no life-threatening situations existed. The patients were being adequately and regularly monitored, supervised, and treated by psychiatric providers at clinically appropriate intervals. Please note that Wexford Health is not financially responsible for the cost of psychiatric medications and therefore has no financial incentive to withhold or discontinue them.

It is equally disappointing that the Department chose to terminate our contract rather than to exercise its option to offer Wexford Health an opportunity to cure the alleged issues (as allowed by the contract). In the past, if there was an issue, the Department and Wexford Health always sat down and worked it out. However, for some reason, in this situation the Department suddenly decided to terminate us with no warning.

The motivations that led to the Department’s decision are questionable—especially since within the past several weeks, the DOC and Wexford Health were looking for ways to fund Wexford Health’s ongoing contract.

Wexford Health has been an excellent partner for the Department since 2013, as reflected in the dramatic improvements in audit reports from the time we took over responsibility for providing services, until our current fourth year of service. This week’s actions by the Department have been as surprising as they are unnecessary. It is regrettable that we were not given a chance to provide the Department with crucial information that would clearly have refuted the CMA allegations.

Updated 1:55 p.m. — In response to Wexford, Ashley Cook, press secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections, released this statement:

“Secretary Julie Jones sent a letter to Wexford Health Sources, notifying it that the Department is exercising its contractual authority to terminate the contract with Wexford at will.

“Secretary Jones is absolutely outraged at Wexford’s lack of performance and delivery of services as detailed in the Correctional Medical Authority’s notification issued April 18, 2017. The Department has been committed to meaningful health care reforms and takes the issues detailed in the CMA’s notification extremely seriously.

“Following this medical emergency notification, the Department immediately deployed a Mental Health Ombudsman and Behavioral Health Risk Management Team to review all inmate mental health needs handled by Wexford at South Florida Reception Center.

“In regards to an extension of their contract, this was prior to the CMA’s emergency notification and under the pretense that their contracted services were improving after previously being placed on direct notice by the Department. Since their performance did not improve, the Department terminated the contract.

“Please also note, mental health services has been an ongoing issue with Wexford, and the Secretary has had extensive discussions regarding their performance. These discussions were never complimentary of their mental health services.”

 

Lawyer: Frank Artiles racial slurs offensive, but they’re also free speech

A lawyer representing a state senator who could be punished for using a racial slur and other vulgarities says he’ll present evidence that other senators have used similar language.

The Senate is reviewing a complaint that Republican Sen. Frank Artiles used the “n-word” and other obscenities in a conversation with two African-American senators at a private club near the Capitol.

Lawyer Steven Andrews wrote to the Senate lawyer reviewing the case and said the complaint shouldn’t be pursued because Artiles’ statements — as offensive as they were — are protected under his constitutional rights to free speech.

He also said the Senate lawyer, Dawn Roberts, shouldn’t handle the case because she’s also represented Artiles and witnesses who would be called to testify.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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