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Florida investigating whether grad rates were manipulated

Florida is investigating whether or not school districts are moving students around in order to manipulate graduation rates.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart announced Wednesday that she has asked top officials in her department to look closer at students who were in their senior year but weren’t counted in final graduation rates.

Gary Chartrand, a member of the Florida Board of Education, said the state needed to look into what he called a “very serious allegation.”

News reports this year have detailed practices at schools, including those in Orlando, where students have been shifted from regular schools to alternative schools.

Florida leaders have continually touted the state’s rising graduation rate over the last few years. The state’s graduation rate was reported at 80.7 percent during the 2015-16 school year.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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With little debate, Senate advances Greg Steube’s courthouse carry gun bill

A proposal to allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to store firearms with security officers at courthouses advanced in the Florida Senate Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Greg Steube (SB 616), is one of 10 firearms-related pieces of legislation the Sarasota Republican has introduced in the current Session. Unlike many of those proposals, however, opposition to this bill isn’t as fevered in comparison.

Steube added an amendment to his bill that would define what a courthouse is. The current statute (790.06) explicitly refers to a “courthouse.”

“Would you agree that there are persons approaching a courthouse or going there on matters that might be emotional to them and that encouraging a person to bring with them such a weapon such as a knife or gun even to the front of a courthouse might be problematic?” St. Petersburg Democrat Darryl Rouson asked Steube.

Steube replied that under current Florida law, any citizen could walk up to the front of a courthouse with a license to carry. “I just can’t enter the courthouse, because 790.06 specifically says that’s a gun-free zone,” Steube said.

Like Rouson, Steube is an attorney, and he agreed with his Democratic colleague in the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee that there many people who go to court in a highly emotional state. But Steube added that attorneys are already sitting ducks for a disgruntled member of the public when they enter and leave a courthouse because they’re not allowed to carry a firearm while approaching or exiting a courthouse.

Broward County public official Edward G. Labrador said his county doesn’t want any guns in public buildings. He stated that courthouses are county facilities, not state facilities.

“Frankly, we should have a say in deciding whether or not guns can come into our facilities,” he said, adding that the proposed law requires court security officials to hold on to the firearms in a secure area.

“We just built a courthouse for $300 million, and it doesn’t have the capability of having storage facilities of all of the members who are going to bring their concealed weapons,” Labrador said, calling it an unfunded mandate.

Rouson said this would not even be an issue were it not for Steube being stopped by private security guards and a sheriff’s deputy on Valentine’s Day when he tried to enter a Manatee County courthouse.

Steube corrected him, saying that in fact he was stopped going into the clerk of the court’s office in Manatee County. 

The bill passed on a party-line vote, 4-3.

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Officials use Orlando man, attempted insurance fraud, as example of abuse

Orange County and state officials are making an example of a man who attempted to collect a bogus insurance claim on his car after reporting it stolen, accusing him of arson and insurance fraud.

Michael Abrams, 43, is now held on $50,000 bond in an Orange County detention facility, a statement said Wednesday.

Abrams is charged with arson, insurance fraud, filing a false insurance claim, false reports in the commission of a crime and grand theft by the Orange County state attorney’s office, Orange County records show. He stands accused of devising a plan to have his 2016 Toyota Camry stolen and destroyed so that he could collect an insurance payout totaling $10,000, the statement continues.

“More often than not, acts of arson are committed in order to collect insurance payouts or to cover up a larger crime,” said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. “To concoct the plan that he did is an elaborate act of fraud — one that undoubtedly drives up the cost of insurance for every Floridian. I’m proud of our investigative team for getting to the truth and putting this man behind bars where he belongs.”

In early December 2016, a crew from the Orange County Fire Rescue (OCFR) department responded to a vehicular fire. The car had previously reported stolen from New York state by Abrams.

Suspicious, a supervisor with OCFR reached out to the Florida State Fire Marshall’s Office to investigate the cause and origin of the fire and that’s when Abrams’ story didn’t add up.

After being questioned by investigators, he admitted paying another man $300 to destroy his car while he simultaneously reported it stolen.

Abrams admitted to also actively participating in the fire, which was interrupted when the fire and rescue crews were called to the scene of the crime.

“Upon confessing to an active role in the burning of his car and the filing of an unlawful insurance claim, Michael Abrams was arrested and charged with several felonies,” the statement said. “Abrams was booked into the Orange County Jail, bail was set at $50,000.”

He faces 20 years in prison if convicted.

Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater, a statewide elected official, oversees the Department of Financial Services, serves as Florida’s State Fire Marshal, and is a member of the Florida Cabinet.

Atwater’s priorities include fighting financial fraud, abuse and waste in government; reducing government spending and regulatory burdens that chase away businesses, and providing transparency and accountability in spending.

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White House distances Donald Trump from Paul Manafort after AP report

The White House is distancing itself from former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, saying his secret work for a Russian billionaire detailed in an Associated Press report happened during “the last decade.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer says nothing in Wednesday’s AP report references any action by the president, the White House or any Trump administration official.

Spicer says Trump was not aware of Manafort’s clients from the past decade and there are “no suggestions” Manafort did anything improper.

Spicer also says former presidential rival Hillary Clinton had her own Russia ties. He says Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta sat on the board of a Russian-based energy company and Hillary Clinton was “the face of a failed Russia reset policy.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Joe Henderson: Time to get rid of red-light cameras, but turn up heat on texting

Depending on your point of view, red-light cameras in Florida are either: A) Of great benefit to public safety by making drivers think twice when approaching a changing traffic light; or B) a cash grab by communities that amounts to a backdoor tax.

Just we’re clear, I’m on the side of Option B.

While several communities throughout the state have discontinued use of the cameras for reasons best explained by Option B, the Legislature has never mustered enough support for a complete ban on them.

Bless ‘em, though, House members keep trying. They are scheduled once again to take up a proposal (HB 6007) by Rep. Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, and Spring Hill Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, to repeal laws that permit the cameras.

Maybe they will succeed this time. I wish they wouldn’t stop there, though. I wish that for once, lawmakers could finally put their foot down on the practice of texting while driving. Currently, it is only a secondary offense, punishable by a fine only if officers can stop a violator on another charge.

The state transportation committee will consider whether to recommend toughening the law by making it a primary offense — meaning that if an officer sees someone obviously texting while driving, they can be pulled over for that.

Sadly, even something so obvious is complicated after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it takes a warrant to search a cellphone. It’s unlikely a motorist about to be hit with a big fine for texting would voluntarily turn over their phone. I appreciate the complication.

It’s worth the battle, though.

So why the battle against cameras but support for a texting ban?

Simple.

In 2015, the state reported nearly 46,000 accidents due to distracted driving. That’s more than 12 percent of all crashes in Florida, and we’ve all had the experience of watching drivers weave in and out of highway lanes while they’re focused on their phone instead of the road.

Red-light cameras, on the other hand, appear to contribute to crashes as well as being the aforementioned cash grab. The News Service of Florida reported in a four-year study of 148 intersections with cameras, across the state, crashes increased by more than 10 percent.

Rear-end collisions were the main culprit.

Add to that the fact that cameras are operated by an out-of-state firm and that appealing the fine can result in even heavier costs and points on your driver’s license. People usually give in and pay, and that’s not what a law like this should be doing.

Get rid of the cameras.

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Florida Health Department whistleblowers sue agency claiming retaliation

Two former Florida Department of Health employees are seeking damages against the agency for being fired after reporting violations, which a different state agency decided was likely retaliation.

Part of the FDOH, the Bureau of Public Health Laboratories provides “diagnostic screening, monitoring, reference, research and emergency public health laboratory services to county health departments and other official agencies, physicians, hospitals and private laboratories,” according to its website.

Based in Jacksonville, with locations in Tampa and Miami, the labs can “diagnose rabies, HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis,” find evidence of bioterrorism in clinical specimens and other public-health investigations.

Brandi Lee Wallace, 37, was listed as a licensed public health technician through August 2014. She had worked at the Bureau of Public Health Laboratories branch at 3602 Spectrum Blvd. in Tampa. State records show Wallace’s microbiology technician’s license was delinquent as of March 14, 2017. Her LinkedIn bio claims she has a master’s degree in public health/global communicable diseases from the University of South Florida.

Eva Cristina Quintero, 27, is a former Tampa resident who also worked at the Bureau of Public Health Laboratories branch in Tampa. Her Florida microbiology technician’s license shows as delinquent as of March 14. Quintero is now a veterinary specialist at Washington State University, according to her LinkedIn bio.

Wallace was a seven-year employee of the Bureau of Public Health Laboratories when Quintero began working there.

In a complaint filed March 7, 2017, shortly after her hire, Quintero began observing and reporting alleged violations of federal law, which included “inadequate documentation and training.”

Rejected by superiors, Wallace and Quintero took their concerns to the Florida Department of Health inspector general.

As a result, the two women claim to have suffered retaliation, which led to their termination Jan. 21, 2016.

After that, they complained to the Florida Commission on Human Relations, which they say found “reasonable cause” to believe both women had been subject to illegal retaliation.

Both Wallace and Quintero are seeking damages under Florida’s Whistleblower Act.

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Michelle Suskauer

Michelle Suskauer elected president-elect designate of The Florida Bar

West Palm Beach attorney Michelle Suskauer has been chosen as president-elect designate of The Florida Bar, according to a Wednesday press release.

Suskauer, 50, is a criminal defense attorney in a two-lawyer office in West Palm Beach. She’s married to Judge Scott Suskauer of the 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County.

She prevailed over Lansing “Lanse” Scriven, of Tampa, receiving 12,993 votes to Scriven’s 10,188 votes in the first contested election for Bar president since 2011.

Suskauer will be sworn in as president-elect at the Bar’s annual convention in Boca Raton on June 23, when current President-elect Michael J. Higer of Miami becomes president. Suskauer will begin her term as Bar president in June 2018.

Of interest to Capitol watchers, she has called the work of the Constitution Revision Commission a “major concern.”

“The issues to watch closely are term limits for judges, taking procedural rulemaking authority away from the courts, and the Supreme Court’s ability to regulate lawyers,” according to the release.

Suskauer received the Serving Justice Award from the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County; the Justice Barbara Pariente Award from the Palm Beach County Chapter of the Florida Association of Women Lawyers; and the Women in Power Award from the National Conference of Jewish Women.

Suskauer’s service with the Bar includes chair of the Disciplinary Review Committee, the Communications Committee and the Annual Convention Committee.

After graduating from Boston University in 1988 with a degree in communications, Suskauer received her law degree from The American University in 1991 and went to work that year at the Office of the 15th Circuit Public Defender.

Three years later, she joined Schuler, Wilkerson, Halvorson & Williams. In 1997, she launched her own firm, Suskauer Law Firm, P.A., now Suskauer Feuer LLC.

Suskauer is president of the Board of Directors of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and past-president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association and the Palm Beach County Chapter of FAWL.

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Joe Negron adds to committees’ strength during Dorothy Hukill’s recovery

While Sen. Dorothy Hukill recovers from cervical cancer, Senate President Joe Negron has named additional members to committees on which she serves.

In a memo dated Tuesday, Negron said Sen. Anitere Flores will help out in the Education Committee, which Hukill leads.

“Sen. Hukill will remain the chair of the Committee on Education,” Negron aide Katie Betta said. “Under the Senate rules, the chair designates a senator on the committee to serve in her absence on a week by week basis.”

Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala takes a seat on the budget Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto will serve on the Health Policy Committee. And Ben Galvano will sit on the Transportation Committee.

The appointments take effect immediately, Negron said.

“I appreciate your willingness to take on this additional responsibility on behalf of the Florida Senate,” he wrote.

“Sen, Hukill is still on all of these committees,” Betta said.

Hukill has been absent from Tallahassee during the Legislative Session, but has been following proceedings remotely.

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Ferry adds routes to shuttle Rays fans to St. Pete in April

With the Major League Baseball season poised to begin in St. Petersburg in 11 days, the Tampa Bay Rays, PSTA and the Cross-Bay Ferry are working together to make it easier for Tampa residents to attend Tampa Bay Rays baseball games.

The ferry will adjust its schedule and add special, later routes to connect from Tampa to St. Petersburg and back in April, the last scheduled month for the ferry pilot project. The announcement was made aboard the vessel at the ferry dock in downtown St. Petersburg on Wednesday.

“This is a fantastic way for Tampa fans to help kick off baseball season in Tampa Bay,” said project advisor Ed Turanchik. “The ferry has been a wonderful addition to this area, and we are thrilled to work with the Rays to support such a fun way for fans to get to games.”

Officials that after passengers arrive in St. Petersburg, PSTA  will pick up the tab in providing free rides between the ferry dock and Tropicana Field for every Rays home game in April (with one exception, on April 21).

The Tampa Streetcar is also getting into the act. They will reduce the daily cost of a pass on the streetcar for ferry riders from $5.00 to $2.50 in April.

Officials with the ferry announced earlier this month that they had sold more than 6,000 tickets in February, the best month yet since the pilot project began operating between Tampa and St. Petersburg in November.

There was a total of 6,070 tickets purchased last month, a 57-percent rise from January, when just 3,867 people bought tickets, the lowest monthly total to date.

The service is scheduled to run through the end of April. Then local officials in the four local governments that put up $350,000 each to help fund it — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties — will have discussions about maintaining it going forward. It’s being operated in concert with Seattle-based HMS Ferries.

The Rays open the MLB season by hosting the New York Yankees on Sunday, April 2 at 1:10 p.m.

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By two votes, House ‘whiskey & Wheaties’ bill cleared for floor

In another squeaker, the House version of a bill to allow retailers to sell liquor in their main stores cleared its last committee by just two votes.

The House Commerce Committee on Wednesday OK’d the legislation (HB 81) on a 15-13 vote. It’s now ready to be considered by the full House.

It previously cleared the Government Operations and Technology Appropriations Subcommittee by a 7-6 vote. And it hobbled out of the Careers and Competition Subcommittee on an 8-7 vote.

“Any time you have an issue that revolves around alcohol, you’re bound to expect it to be somewhat controversial for some of the members,” bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, told reporters after the hearing.

The proposal would repeal a Prohibition-era state law requiring retailers to sell distilled spirits in a separate shop. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

Avila amended the bill to make it nearly identical with the Senate version (SB 106), which goes to a final vote in that chamber Thursday. For example, it too requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and would be phased in over several years.

Lawmakers have been weighing the wishes of big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart, who want a repeal of the liquor “wall of separation,” and independently-owned liquor store operators, who say they will suffer.

If the proposal becomes law, “we are finished,” said Kiran Patel, who owns liquor stores in Melbourne and Palm Bay. “There’s no way we can even compete with” big box stores, which will “put pallets and pallets” of booze out in the open.

But state Rep. Tom Goodson questioned that; the Rockledge Republican noted that Patel and other small businesses already compete on selection and price with chains, just with their liquor offerings in a separate store.

Goodson also was skeptical of claims that mixing whiskey and Wheaties would lead to higher rates of theft or teen drinking, including right in the stores: “If you try to open a Jack Daniel’s bottle these days, you need two knives and a screwdriver.”

Target lobbyist Jason Unger of the GrayRobinson firm told lawmakers the bill meets “customers’—and your constituents’—demands” for more convenience, adding that “competition is good.”

Skylar Zander, deputy director for the pro-free market Americans for Prosperity-Florida, said the separation law needs to be “abolished.”

“This is about consumers, allowing businesses to innovate and to make the market more free,” Zander said in an email.

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