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Students sexually abused at school face lengthy legal fights

When children sexually assault other children at school, sometimes the only measure of justice comes through the courts.

The barriers are formidable, and can lead to long, grueling fights: Public schools in many states enjoy powerful shields, including caps on damages if they lose a lawsuit and high legal hurdles to prove misconduct. And a handful of states offer schools complete immunity from lawsuits in state court.

But the incentives for families are powerful, too — protecting their children, winning reforms and sparing others the nightmare of sexual assault.

In Miami, the mother of a second-grade boy filed suit in 2012 after she said she pleaded in vain for months for administrators to protect her son from sexual abuse by an older boy at his charter school. Eventually, the 7-year-old tried to kill himself by walking into traffic with his eyes closed, according to the family’s lawsuit. Two years later, the boy testified, he still had nightmares his tormenter would crawl in through his bedroom window and kill his mother.

His mother said she came to believe the school was more worried about its reputation than her son.

“You can’t protect the institution and forget about the students,” said the mom, whom The Associated Press is not naming to protect her son’s identity.

Ultimately, the family prevailed, but only after a legal battle that lasted more than three years.

An AP investigation has detailed how K-12 schools in the United States can fail to protect students in their care from sexual assault, sometimes minimizing or even covering up incidents.

Holding those schools accountable takes both fortitude and patience, according to lawyers who bring court cases against school systems.

Families can face judicial politics in non-jury trials and, outside the courtroom, community pressure to drop their cases. Even when schools agree to settlements, they often insist on confidentiality, which shields them from public accountability.

The fight is so tough that Nashville, Tennessee-based attorney Eddie Schmidt said he often tries to talk families out of suing.

“A lawsuit is very expensive, very uncertain and it takes a long time,” Schmidt said.

Only in rare cases do victims of student-on-student sexual assault win large verdicts. Most lawsuits never make it to trial. Many get thrown out on legal grounds, while others are settled pre-trial.

Even fewer are criminally prosecuted because the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, which is difficult to meet in cases involving children, said Jeffrey Herman, the Florida lawyer who represented the Miami boy.

For many aggrieved families, the fight is particularly worth it if it prompts policy changes that can make schools safer for their children and others.

“Why do people go to court? Because no one’s helping, nothing’s moving,” said Richard Vacca, a senior fellow at Virginia’s Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute. “Court decisions have a major impact in how schools are run.”

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STATE AND FEDERAL HURDLES

The Miami case resulted in one of the largest verdicts in student-on-student sexual abuse. Although it was a public charter school, Herman successfully argued that Florida’s $200,000 cap on damages in lawsuits against schools did not apply because the institution was managed by a private company.

A jury awarded the family $5.25 million in 2014. The school appealed and, in 2015, reached a confidential settlement for an undisclosed amount.

Not all states have such caps. In California, for example, there are no liability damage limits on cases brought against a public school.

But other restrictions abound, depending on the state. Virginia and Georgia give school districts absolute immunity from lawsuits in state court. In Illinois, the families of students must show there was willful and wanton misconduct, not just negligence, on the school’s part.

Adele Kimmel, a senior litigator who specializes in student abuse cases for the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Public Justice, said any family would have to overcome a variety of obstacles in filing lawsuits under state law.

“They include whether you can even sue a school district, what the liability standard is, how high a hurdle it is, whether you can sue school officials and if so, for what types of decisions,” she said.

In Tennessee, for example, someone suing a government entity such as a school has no right to a jury trial, Schmidt said. Instead, any case filed in state court would have to be heard by an elected judge, who would decide whether a fellow government employee, such as a school superintendent or principal, was negligent.

“The odds of that happening are extraordinarily slim,” Schmidt said.

So when Schmidt agreed to represent two seventh-grade boys who said they were sexually assaulted in the locker room of their rural Tennessee school after repeated harassment, he filed the lawsuit in federal court and claimed their civil rights were violated under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded programs.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that public school districts, regardless of the state, could be held liable for monetary damages under Title IX if students sexually assaulted or harassed by classmates could clear certain legal hurdles.

Victims must show that school officials with the power to act were deliberately indifferent to known sexual harassment, and also prove the harassment was “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it effectively barred their access to an education.

While that means victims can sometimes seek justice in federal courts when a state lawsuit is not feasible, it’s not an easy road. Law professor Catherine MacKinnon, who pioneered the use of Title IX in school sexual harassment actions while at Yale University, analyzed federal courts’ treatment of the deliberate indifference doctrine over many years and found that about 6 in 10 such cases never made it past pretrial motions.

Still, Kimmel noted, “there are many students that have very good cases that can satisfy the threshold.”

Schmidt’s Title IX action in Tennessee took years to resolve, and required dozens of depositions and expert witnesses as it wound its way through district and appellate courts. Ultimately, the two families won a $200,000 verdict, upheld by an appeals panel, which turned down the school’s argument that it was not deliberately indifferent but acted reasonably when it learned of the harassment. The director of schools in the Tennessee district declined to comment on the matter or say whether any changes had been made since the 2011 verdict.

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THE TOLL OF LITIGATION

One advantage to filing in federal court is that it often removes a case from the community where victims may be under pressure to stay silent.

Attorney Terry Heiss spent more than four years representing a boy from rural Michigan who said his abuse began with name-calling and bullying in sixth grade and then escalated. In ninth grade, according to evidence introduced at trial, he was assaulted in the high-school locker room after one student blocked the door and another, a star athlete, climbed on top of him while naked and rubbed his genitals in the boy’s face.

The boy’s parents filed a complaint with police and a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. And although court records show the student eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, the community blowback was fierce.

“The community turned against the (family) for a season,” Heiss said, adding that the family received phone threats and had to temporarily relocate. “So, not only do children face harassment, the parents have a level of harassment trying to do the right thing.”

Heiss’ client pressed on, testified at trial and — even though he broke down crying on the witness stand — said he felt it was worth it in the end.

“One of the things that kept him going, he didn’t want it to happen to someone else,” Heiss said.

Jurors returned an $800,000 verdict — more than the $500,000 Heiss had requested. Both sides then reached a confidential settlement for an undisclosed sum. A judge later overturned the verdict, citing a lack of evidence that the school acted with deliberate indifference to severe, sex-based harassment, but the settlement stands.

The AP is not naming the boy because it does not identify victims of sexual assault. The district’s superintendent did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Geography also plays a role in whether families prevail. A jury pool in a rural area may be less likely to return a big verdict than a pool in New York City, for example. In areas where there are racial biases, or biases against same-sex relationships, it can be more difficult to find a jury willing to rule against a school.

“You might find that a jury would be very sympathetic to a sexual assault where a very big boy attacks a very small girl,” Kimmel said. “But what about cases where it’s same-sex abuse, where it’s boy-on-boy?”

More than money, forcing change is often the main motivator in such cases.

Some settlement agreements can require anti-bullying training for school staff, teachers and students, in addition to money — or sometimes instead of it.

Vacca has followed such cases in his work at Virginia Commonwealth University advising Virginia schools and lawmakers about sound educational policies. He said schools need to be “pro-active,” with policies and procedures that are updated, enforced and communicated to parents and the wider school community.

Schools must investigate if an assault is reported, he said, and can help avert such situations by training students on peer intervention and mediation.

“It’s an education process,” Vacca said. “We have to be very forward about it, be public about it, communicate with parents.”

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THE EMPOWERMENT OF TELLING

In the Florida case involving the second-grader, the mother said she hired a lawyer only after reaching an impasse with Downtown Miami Charter School.

According to the family’s lawsuit, an 11-year-old boy had forced her son to perform oral sex in the backseat of a transport van on the way home after school. The mother said she reported it to the school, which promised to monitor the older boy. Later, he cornered the second-grader twice in a school bathroom and again forced him to perform oral sex, the lawsuit said.

In his video deposition testimony played at the 2014 trial, the boy described his agony after the second bathroom attack, sure the abuse “would happen again and again.” He said the smell of a school bathroom would trigger painful memories, making him feel “shell-shocked,” a feeling he described as “very nervous, very upset, very scared.”

After his suicide attempt, the mother said, “I felt like I needed to go ahead and see what my options were, because the school was not doing enough.”

In its response to the lawsuit, the school said it took prompt, reasonable measures to prevent the boys from interacting and was not notified of any inappropriate interactions on school property. It also argued that administrators could not have foreseen what happened, and therefore the school was not liable, and cited the doctrine of sovereign immunity. During the trial, the school’s lawyer argued a lack of evidence.

The boy’s mother remembers the challenging moments, and the moments of hesitation. She had to turn over medical records and open herself and her son up to invasive questioning. But ultimately, she said, the little boy’s testimony gave him a sense of empowerment, being able to say in his own words what happened and how he felt about it.

“It seemed like he was vindicated simply by saying, ‘This happened. It hurt me. I’m still here.’”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Baker hosting first major fundraiser in mayoral bid

Former two-time St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker is hosting the first official fundraiser kicking off his bid for a third term against incumbent Rick Kriseman.

The reception is tonight (May 23) beginning 5:30 p.m. at the Morean Center for Clay St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District.

Baker, who served two terms as mayor from 2001-2010, officially filed paperwork for his campaign May 8, making the formal announcement on the steps of City Hall the next day.

On April 11, Baker supporters registered Seamless Florida, the political committee tied to Baker’s campaign. The committee’s name is a take on one of Baker’s books on governing.

RSVPs for the event are at bakerstpete.com, by contacting Rick Porter at (407) 849-1112, rick@politicalcapitalflorida.com or with Gretchen Picotte at (407) 849-1112, gp@politicalcapitalflorida.com.

Morean Center for Clay is located at 420 22nd St. S. in St. Petersburg.

USF seeks to knock off regular season champ UCF in AAC baseball tourney

The American Athletic Conference Baseball Tournament begins today in Clearwater. Spectrum Field will host the 8-team event featuring the Central Florida Knights and the South Florida Bulls.

Top-seeded UCF, who took two of three from USF to take the regular season title, will take on the number 8 seed East Carolina Pirates beginning at 7:00 p.m. The fourth-seeded Bulls will face the fifth seed, the Tulane Green Wave, beginning at 3:30 p.m.

The tournament runs through Sunday with the championship game slated for noon.

Both USF and UCF are in good position to receive invitations to the NCAA Tournament no matter how they fare over the next few days. The Knights carry a 38-18 record into the tournament and have a current national ranking of 21st, according to the Ratings Percentage Index. The Bulls are 40-15 with an RPI rating of 18.

UCF earned the regular season title and top seed the hard way last weekend. After dropping the opener of the season’s final series against USF on Thursday, the Knights stormed back to win the final two games to earn a share of the title with Houston. UCF beat the Cougars two out of three earlier in the season to earn the tie breaker.

Following Saturday’s season finale, Knights’ first-year coach Greg Lovelady was understandably emotional.

“It’s been an awesome day. I’ll never forget it,” said Lovelady, the AAC Coach of the Year. “I’m proud of these kids.”

Just one year ago, UCF finished at the bottom of the AAC standings.

The Bulls, under Coach Mark Kingston, may be the fourth seed, but have more than enough to take the tournament crown.  They won 6 of the 9 games they played against UCF and Houston.

They lost 2 of 3 to the third-seeded Connecticut Huskies. All four teams could earn a bid to the tournament.

Houston has an RPI ranking of 24 and UConn is number 39. A total of 64 teams will be chosen with the tournament winner receiving an automatic bid.

If both the Bulls and Knights win on Tuesday, they will meet for the seventh time this season on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. They would also play each other should both lose their games on Tuesday.

Both of today’s games featuring the Knights and the Bulls will be televised over the CBS Sports Network (not the regular CBS).

Sunburn for 5.23.17 – #PrayersforManchester; To veto or not veto; Trouble in Adam Putnam world; Josh Cooper is a world champ!

Sunburn – The morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics.

By Peter Schorsch, Phil Ammann, Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster, Mitch Perry and Jim Rosica.

A somber good morning from the decks of the Disney Magic, which is sailing into the Isle of Portland and, as we learned late last night, a nation rocked by the deadliest terrorism episode to strike Britain since the 2005 London transit bombings. That the attack took place at a concert performed by Ariana Grande, who grew up before our eyes as a member of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, has only served to further shake-up some of my fellow passengers.

At least 22 are dead, some adolescents, and more than 50 are injured.

Armed police stand guard at Manchester Arena after an explosion Monday. Police says there are “a number of fatalities” after reports of an explosion at an Ariana Grande concert in northern England.

And, yet, as we cross the English Channel into this place (Dover) and at this time (days away from the 77th anniversary of the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’), there is no doubt that our English brothers and sisters will, as they always have, endure and prevail.

On some days, it’s just a slogan on a mouse pad or T-shirt, but today, we will all do our best to ‘keep calm and carry on.’

— NO WIN SITUATION —

Could Attorney General Pam Bondi soon be drawn into the never-goes-away issue of what is (or isn’t) illegal gambling?

According to FlaglerLive, the Bunnell City Commission in Flagler County could soon ask for an opinion from her office on the legality of electronic instant bingo machines.

Shamrock Bingo, as was the non-profit Flagler Cats before it, have been fighting being labeled as a gambling hall, specifically “operating slot machines in violation of state law,” as the website says.

The bingo parlor at the heart of the issue is located in the Atlantis center in Bunnell.

In 2013, lawmakers generally outlawed Internet cafes, a sort of strip mall casino. Florida now prohibits any “device or system or network of devices” that plays like a slot machine.

The question is how close are instant bingo machines to slot machines.

Legislation filed this year would have allowed certain veterans’ organizations to “conduct instant bingo” using Class II gambling bingo-style slot machines. It died before Session’s end.

The bingo hall’s lawyer, “conceding the complexity in state law, … suggested either to have the city write an ordinance … or ask for an attorney general’s opinion on the matter,” the site reported.

“Even if the attorney general finds the machines legal, the city would not necessarily be under obligation to allow the machines,” it added.

The city commission voted to “seek out” an attorney general’s office opinion, pending a memo from the bingo hall’s attorney “of a more detailed rationale for electronic bingo’s legality.”

Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray said the office had not yet received a request as of Monday.

***Today’s SUNBURN is brought to you by Spectrum Reach, the marketing platform of choice, connecting you to your target audience on TV, digital and mobile. With access to our powerful data and insights, solutions for every screen, and the best programming content on the top 50+ networks, we’ll help you reach the right customers for your business. SpectrumReach.com #NeverStopReaching***

— TO VETO OR NOT VETO —

If Rick Scott vetoes public school budget, here’s what happens” via Steve Bousquet of the Tampa Bay Times – A Scott veto would make him the toast of Florida educators — for the moment, anyway — and how could Democratic politicians or the teachers’ union fault him for demanding more money for schools? But Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the two main architects of this budget, won’t like being portrayed by Scott as secretly plotting to punish innocent children, so it’s a safe bet that tensions in Tallahassee would get worse. Maybe a lot worse … if Scott is willing to go that far, why not go all the way and veto the whole thing?

His sweeping veto would remind people who’s in charge, and if Republicans try to override his veto by two-thirds votes (likely in the House, less likely in the Senate), Scott has a new reason to campaign against “those politicians in Tallahassee,” one of his favorite sound bites. Words matter in politics. Scott has spent weeks traveling the state on a “Fighting for Florida’s Future” tour, criticizing every aspect of the Legislature’s budget. How can he now possibly sign a budget he has spent so much time condemning? For the governor, it will soon be put-up-or-shut-up time. If Scott doesn’t veto the budget, what’s he been fighting for?

Op-ed – “Vetoing HB 7069 would hurt special needs children” via Lee Anne McGee for the Lakeland Ledger – Our youngest daughter, Emily, is 13 and in fifth grade. She has autism. She struggles with reading and speaking, and like many kids with autism, needs to work on social skills. We found a small, private school that specializes in reading. We applied and qualified for the new Gardiner Scholarship, which is already helping 7,500 students with special needs. We thought we were set. But suddenly, everything’s in limbo. State lawmakers included an additional $30 million for the Gardiner Scholarship this year, enough to help Emily and more than 2,000 other newly qualified students. But House Bill 7069, the bill that includes the bump in funding, is at risk of being vetoed. Some groups want Gov. Scott to kill the bill because of other provisions they claim will hurt students. But if they succeed, there’s no doubt students like my daughter will be hurt. Maybe Emily would do fine in a big, public middle school. Maybe she’d toughen up. Maybe she’d be forced to progress faster on her social skills. But the opposite is also possible: that she’d be teased and bullied for being a little bit different. We don’t want to take that chance. The school we’ve picked out aims to help its students socially as well as academically. Building confidence is part of its mission.

LIBRE Initiative urges Scott to sign education bill — The national, conservative organization, kicked off a bilingual direct mail campaign Monday. The campaign targets voters living in 18 districts, including those living in districts represented by Speaker Corcoran, Rep. Manny Diaz, and Rep. Michael Bileca, President Negron, Sen. Bill Galvano, and Majority Leader Wilton Simpson

Mailers paid for by the Koch brothers-aligned LIBRE Initiative thank lawmakers for voting in favor of the wide-sweeping education bill and encourage Floridians to call Gov. Scott to sign the bill into law.

“A better education has the power to change the trajectory of a student’s life and build stronger communities across the Sunshine State,” said Cesar Grajales, the LIBRE Initiative’s coalitions director, in a statement. “We urge Gov. Scott to quickly sign this bill and remove unnecessary barriers to new charter schools so our students don’t have to remain stuck in schools that are failing to provide a quality education.”

Assignment editors – Miami-Dade public schools host town halls on the Legislature’s K-12 spending plan at 6 p.m. at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, 7460 SW 118th St. in Pinecrest and at 7:30 p.m. at John A. Ferguson Senior High School 15900 SW 56th St. in Miami.

Sorta related Facebook status of the day:

— MORE CAPITOL INSIGHT —

Bill watch – Gov. Scott was sent all 31 of the local bills that passed this Legislative Session. He has until Tuesday, June 6 to act on these. They include HB 647, which would dissolve the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. Eighty-six bills are now on his desk.

Cabinet meets today – The Governor and Cabinet meet to hear reports from state departments at 9 a.m. in the Cabinet Meeting Room. Among the issues to be decided include the selection of a new Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. Noah Valenstein, currently the executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, is the only candidate slated to be interviewed for the position.

Eric Eisnaugle makes departure official – The Republican from Windermere announced his resignation would come on the last day of the 2017 Legislative Session to accept an appointment to Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeals, but delayed the actual departure until late last week. With his now official resignation — spelled out in a letter last Thursday to Speaker Corcoran — Eisnaugle officially opens the way for the Florida Division of Elections and Gov. Scott to set dates for special elections in House District 44, covering western Orange County.

— POT, INC. — 

Was it actually John Morgan who had financial conflicts in marijuana implementation?” via Florida Politics – Morgan was at his Trumpiest earlier this month when he took to social media to savage his longtime aide-de-camp, Ben Pollara, over the failure of legislation implementing medical marijuana this Session … The ugly, public split … has left many observers asking what the real story was behind the breakup.

When asked directly, John acknowledged a business plan to acquire an existing grower, but when FloridaPolitics.com asked for more details he demurred, with a cryptic, barely-denial denial. The ownership structure of existing medical marijuana license holders is shrouded in secrecy — so public records won’t answer the question.

But here’s what we do know about Morgan’s connections to Florida’s authorized marijuana distributors: The Morgan-Pollara rift began on the last week of session, when Morgan called Pollara on three-way with Jake Bergmann, CEO of Surterra, one of the seven license holders. Representing Surterra is Michael Corcoran, the Speaker’s brother, who Morgan has described as a friend. Their other lobbyist is Billy Rubin, someone who Morgan has known since college.

The Morgan-Bergmann-Pollara call concerned the very issue that doomed medical marijuana this Session: retail caps. This issue divided medical marijuana interests into two camps: the “cartels,” i.e., existing licensees; and the “Have Not’s,” those that wanted access to the Florida market.

John hinted to FloridaPolitics.com — but stopped short of outright saying — that he was looking at potentially investing in or purchasing one of the current license holders.

Now all the above is highly circumstantial … but certainly suggestive.

Consider this final point: John is a capitalist. His bread and butter might be the law business, but this guy owns an advertising firm, billboards, hotels, amusement parks and has all sorts of other entrepreneurial ventures. Think about the pitches that come across his desk daily … consider how many of those over the past few years must have been marijuana related.

Meanwhile… “Drug Free America Foundation wants marijuana Special Session via Florida Politics – The Drug Free America Foundation is adding its voice to those calling for a Special Session on Medical Marijuana Implementation, according to a press release. “It is critical that our leaders call a special session to complete the unfinished business of implementing Amendment 2,” said Calvina Fay, executive director of the Foundation. “Moreover, it is short-sighted to think that the lack of legislation to implement Amendment 2 will stop the marijuana industry from operating.”

— NOTES FROM THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL —

Florida Democratic Party announces staff changes – Stephen Bittel, the chairman of the state party, announced several key staffing changes, including the promotions of Roosevelt Holmes and Johanna Cervone, Monday.

Bittel Holmes has been promoted to the state party’s political director, while Cervone has been promoted to the organization’s director.

Other staff changes announced Monday:

— Georgette Brammer will serve as deputy finance director.

— Amir Ahmadiavin will serve as a communications specialist.

— Erika Ann Grohoski Peralta will serve as a field specialist.

Adam Putnam’s campaign endures first shake-up” via Marc Caputo of POLITICO Florida – In an unexplained campaign shakeup, Putnam’s gubernatorial campaign parted ways with its newly named campaign manager and political director. The departure of campaign manager Kristin Davison and political director Jared Small came as a surprise following Putnam’s well-covered and expertly staged 10-day, 22-stop bus tour through Florida.

— Throughout Monday, Republicans began buzzing with word of internal divisions between Davison and Bevis, who worked for Putnam before the campaign, that led to the shakeup.

— Davison has a hard-charging style that didn’t mesh with the more feel-good nature of Putnam’s longtime circle of advisers and supporters, according to Republicans familiar with the dispute.

>>>Bottom-line question: Why did Putnam — who has built a genuine brand as ‘fresh from Florida’ — hire an out-of-state political operative to manage his campaign in the first place?

More than 600 backers joined Putnam for Suwannee Valley BBQ — Putnam wrapped up his 10-day, 22-city bus tour the same way he started it: with a barbecue. More than 600 people attended grassroots BBQ at the Gaylard Family Farm in O’Brien on Saturday, according to the Putnam campaign. “This is the heart and soul of the state of Florida,” said Putnam in a statement. “Hardworking families who have a lot going on this Saturday came out and brought their children out here to join our movement. This is what this campaign is all about. It’s a grassroots, conservative movement.” 

Supporters from all over Florida came to welcome Adam Putnam off the bus after 10 days traveling through the state. On the menu was BBQ chicken, green beans, potatoes, rolls, and ice cream.

Julian Castro backs Andrew Gillum for Governor — Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro has endorsed Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in the race to replace Gov. Scott in 2018. Castro, who served as the Housing and Urban Development from 2014 to 2017 under President Barack Obama, said Gillum has “worked hard to achieve his own dreams — and he’s worked just as hard to ensure that Floridians from every walk of life can achieve theirs.” In a statement provided by the Gillum campaign, Castro, who served as the mayor of San Antonio before becoming HUD Secretary, continued: “When Andrew is Governor, he will fight so that every child in Florida has the opportunity to grow and succeed in the Sunshine State. He is the candidate Democrats can best trust to stand with the courage of conviction, even when it’s not politically convenient.” Castro and Gillum will host a fundraiser in South Florida on June 3, according to Gillum’s campaign.

Republican Liberty Caucus Chairman Bob White jumps into gubernatorial race” via Kevin Derby of the Sunshine State News – White, who also leads Republican Liberty Caucus of Central East Florida (RLCCEF) and the founder of the Liberty Catalyst Fund (LCF) which works “to educate voters on issues of liberty, freedom, constitutional integrity and limited government” and “promote candidates that demonstrate a commitment to these principles and oppose candidates that do not,” has been active in recent months, opposing Scott’s call for more funding for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. “I’m running for Governor because I love Florida. I’ve been a Floridian since the day I was born. I can’t imagine living anywhere else,”

White wrote in an open letter to Floridians announcing his candidacy. “I grew up in Polk County, in the heart of the Florida citrus industry …  the reality is that times have changed. Florida is now the third largest state in the nation and is experiencing every advantage and disadvantage that kind of population growth inevitably brings. Growth presents opportunities and challenges. We need a government in Tallahassee that embraces the opportunities and rises to the challenges! Sadly, that’s not what we’ve been getting. I aim to change that.”

Best story of the day –Veteran Tallahassee shoe shiner files for gubernatorial run” via Troy Kinsey of Bay News 9 – Running up the middle … is an unassuming entrant who’s been walking the Capitol’s halls of power longer than any of his opponents: Tony Knox, a veteran shoeshiner about to mark his 30th year servicing the footwear of governors, legislative leaders and lobbyists. Knox filed to run for governor as a no party affiliation candidate last week. With no party, no political experience and no campaign funds – not yet, anyway – he would appear to be an underdog, multiple times over. However, over the course of thousands of shoe shines, he argues he’s learned more about state government than anyone else in the race, and he has a campaign platform he predicts will resonate with voters. “As Governor Knox (would) say, ‘I’m going to roll up my sleeves and teach you how to work,'” Knox said, in a riff on Scott’s ‘let’s get to work’ slogan. “I have a vision for the state that, No. 1, you’ve got to go to work. And the way you go to work is you shut down anything free for able-bodied people.”

Jose Felix Diaz to resign from House as part of SD 40 bid” via Florida Politics — The Miami Republican sent a letter to the Division of Elections on May 17 resigning from the Florida House effective Sept. 26. Diaz, who is running in the special election to replace Frank Artiles in Senate District 40, sent similar letters to Gov. Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner. Scott announced earlier this month the dates for the special election to replace Artiles, who resigned in April after he made national news after he accosted two black colleagues at a private club in Tallahassee. The special primary election is July 25, with a special general election on Sept. 26.

— Gov. Scott on Monday signed an executive order calling for a special election to fill the House District 116 seat being vacated by Rep. Jose Felix Diaz. The special primary is scheduled for July 25, with the special general on Sept. 26 — the same days as the special Senate District 40 primary and general elections.

“Fourth Republican enters HD 44 race” via Scott Powers of Orlando Rising — Republican businessman Bruno Portigliatti announced his candidacy for what will be a special election this summer for House District 44 in the Orlando area. The 29-year-old Orlando resident is chief executive officer of Excellence Senior Living, a developer of luxury assisted living facilities for seniors, and executive vice president of Florida Christian University, a global online university. He also helps manage real estate enterprises for his family’s Portigliatti Group LLC. He enters a race that already features Republicans Bobby Olszewski of Winter Garden, John Newstreet of Orlando and Dr. Usha Jain of Orlando. The Democrats are running Paul Chandler of Orlando.

— STATEWIDE —

Justices reject Florida appeal over death penalty” via the Associated Press – The Supreme Court has left in place a lower court ruling that said imposing a death sentence in Florida requires a unanimous jury. The justices on Monday turned away an appeal from Florida officials seeking to overturn the ruling last year from the state’s highest court. The Florida Supreme Court had struck down a newly enacted law allowing a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 out of 12 jurors recommend it. That ruling concluded that Timothy Lee Hurst — convicted of a 1998 murder at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant— deserves a new sentencing hearing.

“Hackers may have names of thousands of Florida gun owners” via the Associated Press – The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announced Monday they had discovered a data breach of the online payment system that processes payments for applications and permits. Agriculture Commissioner Putnam has ordered a review of the department’s cybersecurity measures. State law enforcement is investigating the breach, which authorities suspect originated from overseas. The agency stated that no financial information was obtained.

— The department also warned that the breach may have revealed the social security numbers of 469 customers. The agency plans on offering free credit protection for one year to these individuals.

KPMG breaks ground on global training center: Announces new jobs” via Terry Roen of Orlando Rising – Gov. Scott came to town to welcome the $400 million KPMG global training center, which will join other corporate giants in one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. KPMG CEO Lynne Doughtie announced that the firm is bringing in an additional 250 jobs during the next three years to Florida in an expansion of their global tax and audit business. That’s in addition to the 80 new jobs that will be needed to run KPMG’s Learning, Development and Innovation Facility in Lake Nona. “It’s a big day in our state,” said Scott, who gave Doughtie an award for bringing more jobs to Florida. “Every job is important to a person, and these 330 jobs will change lives.”

Rick Scott makes like he knows how to use a shovel at the groundbreaking of KPMG’s new 55-acre facility in Orlando.

I-395 signature bridge standoff is political palanca at its best” via Elaine deValle of Political Cortadito – Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his pals on the County Commission are trying to sell us a bridge. Not just any bridge. His buddy’s bridge. Recent hand-wringing over the selection of a firm to design and build an iconic, new signature bridge over Biscayne Boulevard along I-395 has cast a spotlight on just how Gimenez uses the office of county mayor to benefit his friends and family members. The beneficiary this time (again) is Pedro Munilla, who is cousins (or something) with the mayor’s wife and CEO of Munilla Construction Management … MCM was one of five firms that bid on the $800 million “signature bridge” project, in partnership with Fluor Enterprises. But it was ranked second by a Florida Department of Transportation selection committee after a process that has taken, on and off, about 25 years. Archer Western/De Moya was ranked first. One week later, Gimenez wrote a letter asking the FDOT, which is providing $600,000 and overseeing the project, to delay the contract so that the county could weigh in (read: so that Munilla can get a second chance). And he’s using some of his pocket commissioners, like Sally Heyman — well, to be honest, the Munillas write a lot of checks — to try slow the process down.

— MOVEMENTS —

The latest on Ballard Inc. via Marc Caputo of POLITICO Florida– Trump’s longtime Florida lobbyist, Ballard, has expanded his practice globally and just signed a $1.5 million contract with the government of Turkey, which will be represented by the firm’s new big hire, former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler. Ballard Partner’s Turkey contract comes on the heels of two other international clients signed by the firm: A March 6 $900,000 contract with the Dominican Republic and an April 1 $240,000 contract with the Socialist Party of Albania, the ruling party in the Balkan nation. “I’m excited about the firms growing international practice and look forward to working with this important US and NATO ally,” Ballard, who still speaks to Trump on occasion after representing the Trump Organization for years in Tallahassee, said in a brief written statement. The contract with Turkey is the firm’s highest profile foreign client and could be its most controversial amid unrest in the nation under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Josh Cooper, the Swinos big winners at World Champion Barbecue Cooking Contest — Cooper, the founding partner of Strategic Information Consultants and a competitive barbecue chef, and his competition BBQ team The Swinos took home first place in the “exotic” division for their Oscar-style, bacon wrapped bison center cut filet at the World Champion Barbecue Cooking Contest during Memphis in May. The team also took home sixth place in the seafood division, 13th in the chicken division, and 19th in the mustard sauce division, said Cooper in a message. Cooper, who is set to compete on MasterChef when it premieres May 31, was joined by David Lee, a partner at Fabrizio, Lee & Associates and a few others.

Josh Cooper celebrates his win for his entry in the “exotic division” of the World Champion Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Personnel note: Jerry Parrish joins FloridaMakes board – The industry-led nonprofit “aimed at strengthening the state’s manufacturing sector” announced the addition. Parrish is the chief economist and director of research for the Florida Chamber Foundation. In that role, he is the lead on TheFloridaScorecard. org, an online database that provides Florida leaders and local stakeholders with the data needed to measure progress. He is also responsible for conducting in-depth analyses on economic trends, Florida’s industry clusters and on solutions to help secure Florida’s future. He has many years of experience in management roles at international manufacturing companies.

On this week’s edition of The Rotunda —  On Trimmel Gomes’ latest episode of The Rotunda, both Gov. Scott and former Lieutenant Gov. Jennifer Carroll share a strong support for President Trump. Despite their connection, Carroll tells Gomes she has still not heard a word from Scott following her first resignation, but she would accept Scott’s apology when or if he decides to give one. Carroll also talks with Gomes about Trump’s first official trip abroad as president, and she compares her missteps with the press to Trump’s battle with “fake news.” Gomes also talks Greenberg Traurig Government Law & Policy Director, Leslie Dughi about how the insurance industry fared during Florida’s 2017 Legislative Session.

Happy birthday to our friend, Rob Johnson, of The Mayernick Group and Kevin Reilly.

Tampa restaurants tussle over tagline ‘fresh, healthy, authentic’

B.T. Nguyen

A prolific Tampa restaurateur is accusing a nearby rival of piggybacking off her reputation by using the same tagline of “fresh, healthy, authentic.”

B.T. Nguyen, also known as Bach Tuyet Nguyen, is one of the successful restaurateurs in the Tampa Bay area. In 2015, the 53-year-old native of Vietnam, through her company BTZ LLC, opened “BT to Go,” her seventh restaurant concept.

BT to Go is at 3215 S. MacDill Ave., Suite L in Tampa.

According to a Tampa Bay Times restaurant review, BT to Go’s tagline “fresh, healthy, authentic …  is all those things. A stickler about ingredients: organic tofu, ground grass-fed local beef, Alaskan wild pink salmon. Finished dishes, many of which can be eaten at room temperature or with a quick zap in the microwave, have a wholesome, homemade quality, bright with fresh herbs and nuoc cham.”

Gengiz Khan Turkish Grill is a restaurant that also opened in 2015, moving to its current Tampa location — 3114 Bay to Bay Boulevard — in January 2017. Ergin Tek is its chef and owner.

In 2017, Gengiz Khan’s new location was “approximately two blocks away from BT To Go,” according to a lawsuit filed May 10 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court. In addition, Gengiz Kahn  “erected a sign advertising its restaurant as ‘Fresh. Healthy. Authentic.’”

The suit claims that BT to Go has used the “Fresh. Healthy. Authentic” tagline since its opening in November 2015, and is accusing Gengiz Khan of trying to “trick” consumers into thinking the two eateries are affiliated, thereby boosting sales by way of BT’s reputation.

“On information and belief, GK chose to use the mark, ‘Fresh. Healthy. Authentic,” the suit says, “for its restaurant in anticipation that customers of BT To Go would believe that its restaurant is affiliated with BTZ’s restaurant.”

“Fresh. Healthy. Authentic.” has been adopted as the trade name and mark for Nguyen’s business, the complaint continues, and is “recognized as such by consumers” and is “famous” as defined by Florida Statute.

The suit says Gengiz Kahn has refused BT’s demands to stop using the phrase.

BT is asking the court for exclusive use of the tagline.

 

Small sinkhole opens outside Donald Trump’s Florida getaway club

A small sinkhole has opened on the road just outside President Donald Trump‘s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

The Palm Beach Post reports that the 4-foot-by-4-foot hole was discovered Monday in Palm Beach County just west of one the resort’s entrances. It is near a new water main and isn’t a threat to the president’s property in Palm Beach.

The president has spent seven weekends at Mar-a-Lago since taking office, but it is now closed for the summer. Trump is on a nine-day trip that began in the Middle East and will end in Italy.

Trump bought the club for $10 million in 1985 and has spent tens of millions on improvements. Each of the 500 members pays $14,000 annually in dues. The initiation fee was recently doubled to $200,000.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Eric Eisnaugle makes House departure official

Call him former state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle now.

The Republican from Windermere announced his resignation would come on the last day of Florida’s Legislative Session to accept an appointment to Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeals, but delayed the actual departure until late last week.

With his now official resignation — spelled out in a letter last Thursday to Speaker Richard Corcoran — Eisnaugle officially opens the way for the Florida Division of Elections and Rick Scott to set dates for special elections in Florida’s House District 44, covering western Orange County.

Already that race has drawn five candidates: Republicans Dr. Usha Jain, John Newstreet, Bobby Olszewski, and Bruno Portigliatti; and Democrat Paul Chandler.

Eisnaugle asked Corcoran to leave the district office open so that the staff may continue to serve the district.

Bob Buckhorn apologies for military conference joke

Over the course of six years as mayor, Bob Buckhorn has said things that have offended some people, but he has rarely (if ever) been forced to apologize.

Until now.

Unless you’ve been avoiding local (now national) press over the past couple of days, you know the mayor has been (metaphorically) under fire since the Tampa Bay Times’ Howard Altman reported Friday afternoon on a number of reporters who took offense with a crack Buckhorn made at a military conference last week at the Tampa Convention Center.

As Altman originally reported, Buckhorn told the crowd about his experience as a hostage during a demonstration of special operation rescue tactics:

The highlight, he said, was when he was aboard a Navy special warfare boat, firing blanks from 50-caliber machine guns. “And so, the first place I point that gun is at the media,” he told the crowd.

“I’ve never seen grown men cry like little girls, for when that gun goes off those media folks just hit the deck like no one’s business. It’s great payback. I love it.”

Altman reported that the audience — approximately 1,000 people — mostly laughed at the remark. But some in attendance, specifically military reporters who have had live guns pointed at them for real, found nothing humorous about the comment.

Initially, Buckhorn blew off the furor.

It was “a silly reaction,” he told the Times.

But after the story got legs in the national media over the weekend, Buckhorn spokesperson Ashley Bauman responded Monday afternoon.

“This was a story that he had told for three consecutive years,” she said in a statement to FloridaPolitics.com, “and at no time was it ever construed to be serious or an accurate portrayal of what occurred.”

“It was merely a humorous tongue-in-cheek description. Clearly, that does not translate on Twitter and in light of the current rhetoric at the national level aimed at the media, inadvertently served to reinforce some of those sentiments. That was not his intention, in fact, as the son of a former wire service reporter he has nothing but the highest regard for the work of journalists and their profession and he apologizes to those he offended.”

The mayor also offended the sensibilities of some local residents when he typed, “whatever” on Twitter over the weekend in reaction to a tweet by Tampa Heights activist Rick Fernandez on his concerns with the Tampa Bay Express project.

Twitter leader says he’s ‘sorry’ for social media role in Donald Trump’s election

A co-founder of Twitter says he’s sorry if the popular social media platform helped put Donald Trump in the White House, as the president has suggested.

In an interview with The New York Times, Evan Williams says Twitter’s role in Trump’s populist rise is “a very bad thing.”

The president has credited Twitter with his election to the highest office in the land.

When confronted with that notion, Williams said: “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”

The 45-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur also said the internet is obviously broken because it rewards extremes.

Williams also says he was wrong thinking that the world would be a better place if there was a platform for everyone to freely speak and exchange ideas.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Justices rejects Florida appeal over death penalty

The Supreme Court has left in place a lower court ruling that said imposing a death sentence in Florida requires a unanimous jury.

The justices on Monday turned away an appeal from Florida officials seeking to overturn the ruling last year from the state’s highest court.

The Florida Supreme Court had struck down a newly enacted law allowing a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 out of 12 jurors recommend it. That ruling concluded that Timothy Lee Hurst — convicted of a 1998 murder at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant— deserves a new sentencing hearing.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional. State legislators responded by overhauling the law.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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