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Joe Henderson: Betsy DeVos sends clear signal that student loan borrowers won’t get a break

If you are struggling with student loan debt and thought you might get a break, think again.

This week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos quietly issued a decree reversing actions by President Obama to ease the burden of people struggling to pay off those loans. It focused on the servicing companies that collect loan payments for the U.S. Department of Education. Her action might have gotten lost in the bigger debate of the deteriorating bromance between President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and viral videos about United Airlines, but it is certain to affect more people directly.

Basically, loan contracts had gone to companies that could prove they were better at making borrowers pay up.

When thousands of borrowers began defaulting on their loans, Obama changed the guidelines to favor companies that would work with people struggling with mountains of debt after college while they were still trying to establish a career.

Loan officials griped that the new requirements were expensive and took up too much time. DeVos’ action signals a return to a more aggressive style of collection.

In a letter to James Runcie, who heads the Federal Student Aid office, DeVos said: “We must create a student loan servicing environment that provides the highest quality customer service and increases accountability and transparency for all borrowers, while also limiting the cost to taxpayers. We have a duty to do right by both borrowers and taxpayers … to acquire new federal student loan capabilities that will provide borrowers with the tools necessary to efficiently repay their debt.”

According to the Institute for College Access & Success, Florida ranks low among states with an average student loan debt of about $23,000 for the Class of 2015. But with more than 2 million outstanding loans, government statistics from 2014 showed student borrowers in the Sunshine State were on the hook for more than $61 billion.

More than 14 percent of the loans were in default, according to DOE statistics.

Student loan debt nationwide is estimated at $1.4 trillion, more than credit cards and auto loans, and second only to home mortgages. According to MarketWatch.com, the debt increases by $2,726 per second.

It’s clearly a significant problem, and with a new administration (and attitude) in Washington, it means more aggressive steps to collect on those loans.

DeVos’ action was the first step.

The next?

You can probably guess.

Donald Trump boasts of hiring only the best, but picks haunt him

President Donald Trump likes to boast that he hires only the best people. But his personnel choices keep coming back to haunt him.

One of the people Trump hired for the White House was working as a foreign agent while advising him during the election. His campaign chairman caught the Justice Department’s attention for similarly surreptitious work. And a third campaign adviser was reportedly surveilled by the FBI as part of an investigation into whether or not he was a Russian spy.

The tales of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Carter Page — none of whom still work for Trump — have created a steady drip of allegations that have clouded Trump’s early presidency and raised persistent questions about his judgment.

At worst, Trump’s personnel picks appear to have left his campaign — and perhaps his White House — vulnerable to the influence of foreign powers. At best, they expose the long-term implications of his understaffed and inexperienced campaign organization and undermine his promises to surround himself with top-notch talent.

“Vetting new hires is standard procedure for presidential campaigns for exactly this reason,” said Alex Conant, who advised Sen. Marco Rubio‘s 2016 presidential campaign. “Every employee is also a potential liability on a presidential campaign.”

During the campaign, Trump said he hired “top, top people” and would fill his administration “with only the best and most serious people.”

Yet Manafort, Flynn and Page have indeed become political liabilities for Trump that he can’t shake in the White House. All three are being scrutinized as part of the FBI and congressional investigations into whether Trump associates helped Russia meddle in the 2016 election. The president has denied any nefarious ties to Russia and says he has no knowledge that his advisers were working with Moscow during the election.

The president’s culpability appears greatest with Flynn, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who traveled with Trump frequently during the campaign and was tapped as national security adviser after the election. Flynn had been lobbying for a company with ties to Turkey during the 2016 election and even wrote an editorial on behalf of his client that was published on Election Day.

“No one expects them to do the equivalent of an FBI background check, but a simple Google search could have solved a lot of these problems,” Dan Pfeiffer, who served as senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said of Trump’s team.

After Trump’s victory, Flynn’s lawyers alerted the transition team that he may have to register as a lobbying for a foreign entity, according to a person with knowledge of those discussions. The White House hired him anyway. After the inauguration, Flynn’s lawyers told the White House counsel’s office that the national security adviser would indeed have to move forward with that filing.

Flynn was fired in February after the White House said he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Lobbying for foreign interests is legal and lucrative. Both Republican and Democratic operatives offer their services to overseas clients. But the Justice Department requires Americans working on behalf of foreign interests to register, disclosing the nature of their work, the foreigners they dealt with and the amount of money they made.

Willful failure to register for foreign lobbying work can carry up to a five-year prison sentence, but the Justice Department rarely brings criminal charges and instead urges violators to register.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for former Trump campaign chairman Manafort said that he, too, under pressure from the Justice Department, would formally file for prior foreign lobbying. Manafort’s work for political interests in Ukraine occurred before he was hired as Trump’s campaign chairman, spokesman Jason Maloni said, though the U.S. government raised questions about his activities after he was hired by Trump.

Manafort was pushed out of Trump’s campaign in August after The Associated Press reported that his consulting firm had orchestrated a covert Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine’s ruling political party without disclosing that work to the U.S. government.

The White House did not respond to questions Wednesday about when Trump learned about Manafort’s foreign lobbying work and his discussions with the U.S. government about registering as a foreign agent.

The questions surrounding Page are perhaps the most serious. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department obtained a highly secretive warrant to monitor his communications because there was reason to believe he was working as a Russian spy.

In March, Trump personally announced Page as part of a newly minted foreign policy advisory team. But as questions began swirling about Page’s ties to Russia, the campaign started moving away from the little-known investment banker. Trump has since said he has no relationship with him.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Justice Department only obtained the warrant after the campaign distanced itself from Page.

In an interview Thursday with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Page described his affiliation with the Trump campaign as having served as “an informal member of a committee which was put together — a team of individuals who were looking at various foreign policy issues.”

Chris Ashby, a Republican elections lawyer, said that while it’s easy to blame Trump for missing red flags about his campaign advisers, it’s not always possible to dig up details that potential hires aren’t willing to disclose on their own.

“In the ideal world, you could rely on paid background checks, but you’d have to have the money and the time,” Ashby said. “The farther down the ranks you go and certainly when you reach the ranks of unpaid advisers, that becomes impractical.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Scott, feds agree to $1.5B commitment for low income pool in Florida

On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, M.D. as well as Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma, and Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) Secretary Justin Senior announced the federal government’s commitment to continuing funding for the Low Income Pool (LIP) in Florida.

The amount will be over $1.5 billion annually, nearly a billion dollars more than what the Barack Obama administration provided to Florida.

The LIP program is a federal matching program that provides federal funds to Florida hospitals to cover costs for the state’s most vulnerable patients. State officials and the Donald Trump administration have had ongoing discussions regarding the LIP funding since early this year.

In a statement, Scott said: “Working with the Trump Administration to secure a commitment of $1.5 billion in LIP funding for our state will truly improve the quality and access to health care for our most vulnerable populations. I appreciate their quick turnaround and commitment to working with Florida to provide additional flexibility for how these funds can be used more efficiently, including allowing money to follow each patient. This will provide better health care for the individuals intended to be served with this funding.

“It is great to have a partner in Washington who is willing to work with us to help our state. Florida was on the front-line of fighting against federal overreach under President Obama and it is refreshing to now have a federal government that treats us fairly and does not attempt to coerce us into expanding Medicaid.”

Price added: “From day one, we have been committed to working with our state partners to ensure they have the flexibility they need to make decisions that best reflect the unique needs of their populations. Today’s announcement reflects that commitment on the part of the Trump Administration. We look forward to continuing to work with Governor Scott as well as governors across the country to make sure Americans have access to quality health care.”

Verma said: “Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is working toward a new era of state flexibility and leadership. For too long states have been sharing in the cost but have not been allowed to have a meaningful role in decision-making. We want to provide states the flexibility to make health care decisions that best meet their citizens’ unique needs, and support states covering access to health care services.”

And Senior concluded: “The $1.5 billion in LIP funding that the Trump Administration has committed to Florida will help to support Florida’s low-income families. Our Agency has had open and direct conversations with Secretary Price and his staff and we look forward to continuing this partnership. We truly feel like our federal partners are listening to our state and our needs and we know that Florida will have the flexibility we need to run our Medicaid program as efficiently as possible while providing the highest level of care in our state’s history.”

Paul Manafort registering with U.S. as foreign agent

The Latest on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his firm’s work (all times local):

3:05 p.m.

President Donald Trump‘s former campaign chairman is registering as a foreign agent.

Paul Manafort’s spokesman says he was in talks with the government about registering before the 2016 election and is now “taking appropriate steps” in response to “formal guidance” from the government.

The spokesman says Manafort’s lobbying work was not conducted on behalf of the Russian government and began before Manafort started working with the Trump campaign.

It’s unclear whether Trump was aware that Manafort was in talks with the government about registering before he hired him.

Michael Flynn, who was fired as White House national security adviser in February, has also had to register as a foreign agent for lobbying work he did with ties to Turkey.

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12:49 p.m.

A Washington lobbying firm that worked under the direction of two former Trump campaign advisers has registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. The firm said its work could have benefited the Ukrainian government.

The Podesta Group’s cited details of lobbying it performed from 2012 through 2014 on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. The firm reported being paid more than $1.2 million for the effort.

The disclosure follows reporting by the AP in August that the firm of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, who served in a senior role in the Trump campaign, had overseen the lobbying effort. The effort sought to promote a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party’s interests in Washington.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florence Snyder: Florida’s opioid crisis, Part 4 – Showtime at the Kabuki Theater

When Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi finally got around to talking about Florida’s opioid crisis, the hot air was suffocating.

In parts of Florida, opioids have overtaken homicides and DUIs as a cause of very premature and utterly unnecessary death. That is not breaking news to anyone who has been paying even a little attention. In a time when reporters are in short supply, almost every newspaper in Florida has made a noble, front-page attempt to assess the grievous impact of the opioid epidemic on their local communities.

The truth is out there, along with plenty of supporting data. Much of it comes from Palm Beach County, where “sober homes,” operated by insurance fraudsters and human traffickers, have proliferated like pythons in the Everglades. A relentless newsroom at The Palm Beach Post prodded the community to confront the mounting death toll, and to come up with evidence-based strategies and solutions.

And that’s exactly what the community did.

There’s a grand jury report full of strategies and solutions courtesy of Bondi’s hand-picked pill mill czar Dave Aronberg. There’s a Sober Homes Task Force Report. There’s a Heroin Task Force trying hard to get a second vote for a good plan of action that starts with joining states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Virginia in acknowledging opioid addiction as a public health emergency that can be significantly ameliorated by public health professionals.

But who cares what an army of experts and affected citizens and taxpayers think?

Not Scott, whose brother’s unspecified addiction “taught” him that “In the end, it’s always going to come down to that individual and that family is going to have to deal with this issue.”

Not Bondi, who brings to President Donald Trump‘s Opioid Task Force insights such as “No short-term fix is going to help this problem,” as if anybody on earth had suggested a “short-term fix.”

Scott and Bondi will be sending a multiagency Kabuki Theater Touring Company around the state to hold “workshops” and “generate ideas.”  That news did not go down well in Palm Beach County, where beleaguered taxpayers, addicts struggling to recover, and grieving families of the dead are stocking up on torches, pitchforks and rotten tomatoes.

Excellent ideas are all over the place. It’s leadership that’s in short supply.

Joe Henderson: Rick Scott’s approval rating climbs because the economy trumps everything

The steady increase in Gov. Rick Scott’s approval rating has reinforced the notion that if voters have a job and the economy seems to be humming along, other things don’t matter much.

The latest poll, released this week by Morning Consult, put Scott’s approval number at 57 percent. Considering that he stood at 26 percent in 2012 according to Public Policy Polling, that’s downright miraculous.

That same PPP poll five years ago included a forecast that Scott would lose a then-theoretical matchup with Charlie Crist by 55-32 percent. Scott was declared to be the most unpopular governor in the country.

What changed?

The economy. Duh!

Scott still has the singular focus he brought to Tallahassee as an outsider in 2011. We all remember what the economy was like then as the nation tried to recover from the Great Recession.

Scott’s game plan of offering business incentives to attract jobs has been unrelenting. He has targeted regulations that he says strangle job growth.

While his disregard for environmental laws proved disastrous last summer when guacamole-like runoff from Lake Okeechobee became national news, voters appear inclined to overlook that as long as they have a steady paycheck. That’s how Scott got out of controversies that included the messy dismissal in 2014 of Florida Department of Law Enforcement chief Gerald Bailey. That was handled so poorly that even Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a member of Scott’s cabinet, claimed he was “misled” by the governor’s staff.

Scott also had to spend more than $1 million in taxpayer money to settle seven public records lawsuits because of his penchant for operating in the shadows.

Even the ongoing battle with Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran over two of Scott’s major programs for business development and tourism promotion — Enterprise Florida and VISIT FLORIDA — hasn’t hurt the governor. If anything, it seems to have enhanced his standing with voters.

All of this would seem to bode well for his expected challenge for Bill Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat in 2018. Scott’s approval number has inched above Nelson’s, which is significant (maybe).

A lot can happen before that Senate race; remember the poll that said Crist would easily beat Scott for governor. Scott is closely aligned with President Donald Trump, and there is no way to tell how that will impact the race.

And while the economy is doing well and Scott is reaping the benefit now, everyone would be advised to remember another campaign from the dusty past as an example of how quickly things can change.

Republicans circulated a flier saying their candidate for president would ensure “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”

That was in 1928. The candidate was Herbert Hoover. He won with 444 electoral votes. A year later, the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression changed everything. Just four years after his landslide, Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose electoral college total was 472.

Translation: Things look good now, but don’t get cocky.

Paul Manafort firm received Ukraine ledger payout

Last August, a handwritten ledger surfaced in Ukraine with dollar amounts and dates next to the name of Paul Manafort, who was then Donald Trump‘s campaign chairman.

Ukrainian investigators called it evidence of off-the-books payments from a pro-Russian political party — and part of a larger pattern of corruption under the country’s former president. Manafort, who worked for the party as an international political consultant, has publicly questioned the ledger’s authenticity.

Now, financial records newly obtained by The Associated Press confirm that at least $1.2 million in payments listed in the ledger next to Manafort’s name were actually received by his consulting firm in the United States. They include payments in 2007 and 2009, providing the first evidence that Manafort’s firm received at least some money listed in the so-called Black Ledger.

The two payments came years before Manafort became involved in Trump’s campaign, but for the first time bolster the credibility of the ledger. They also put the ledger in a new light, as federal prosecutors in the U.S. have been investigating Manafort’s work in Eastern Europe as part of a larger anti-corruption probe.

FILE — In this July 21, 2016, file photo, then-Trump Campaign manager Paul Manafort stands between the then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump during a walk through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Last August, a handwritten ledger surfaced in Ukraine with dollar amounts and dates next to the name of Paul Manafort, who was then Donald Trump’s campaign chairman. Ukrainian investigators called it evidence of off-the-books payments from a pro-Russian political party, and part of a larger pattern of corruption under the country’s former president. Manafort, who worked for the party as an international political consultant, has publicly questioned the ledger’s authenticity. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Separately, Manafort is also under scrutiny as part of congressional and FBI investigations into possible contacts between Trump associates and Russia’s government under President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. The payments detailed in the ledger and confirmed by the documents obtained by the AP are unrelated to the 2016 presidential campaign and came years before Manafort worked as Trump’s unpaid campaign chairman.

In a statement to the AP, Manafort did not deny that his firm received the money but said “any wire transactions received by my company are legitimate payments for political consulting work that was provided. I invoiced my clients and they paid via wire transfer, which I received through a U.S. bank.”

Manafort noted that he agreed to be paid according to his “clients’ preferred financial institutions and instructions.”

Previously, Manafort and his spokesman, Jason Maloni, have maintained the ledger was fabricated and said no public evidence existed that Manafort or others received payments recorded in it.

The AP, however, identified in the records two payments received by Manafort that aligned with the ledger: one for $750,000 that a Ukrainian lawmaker said last month was part of a money-laundering effort that should be investigated by U.S. authorities. The other was $455,249 and also matched a ledger entry.

The newly obtained records also expand the global scope of Manafort’s financial activities related to his Ukrainian political consulting, because both payments came from companies once registered in the Central American country of Belize. Last month, the AP reported that the U.S. government has examined Manafort’s financial transactions in the Mediterranean country of Cyprus as part of its probe.

Federal prosecutors have been looking into Manafort’s work for years as part of an effort to recover Ukrainian assets stolen after the 2014 ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. No charges have been filed as part of the investigation.

Manafort, a longtime Republican political operative, led the presidential campaign from March until August last year when Trump asked him to resign. The resignation came after a tumultuous week in which The New York Times revealed that Manafort’s name appeared in the Ukraine ledger — although the newspaper said at the time that officials were unsure whether Manafort actually received the money — and after the AP separately reported that he had orchestrated a covert Washington lobbying operation until 2014 on behalf of Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions.

Officials with the Ukrainian National Anti-Corruption Bureau, which is investigating corruption under Yanukovych, have said they believe the ledger is genuine. But they have previously noted that they have no way of knowing whether Manafort received the money listed next to his name. The bureau said it is not investigating Manafort because he is not a Ukrainian citizen.

Still, Manafort’s work continues to draw attention in Ukrainian politics.

Last month, Ukrainian lawmaker Serhiy Leshchenko revealed an invoice bearing the letterhead of Manafort’s namesake company, Davis Manafort, that Leshchenko said was crafted to conceal a payment to Manafort as a purchase of 501 computers.

FILE — In this Aug. 19, 2016, file photo, Serhiy Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist turned lawmaker shows a copy one of the once-secret accounting documents of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin party that were released and purport to show payments earmarked for then-Donald Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort, during a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine. A firm headed by Manafort received more than $1.2 million in payments that correspond to entries in the handwritten ledger tied to a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, according to financial records obtained by The Associated Press. The payments between 2007 and 2009 are the first evidence that Manafort’s consulting firm received funds listed in the so-called Black Ledger, Ukrainian investigators have been investigating as evidence of off-the-books payments from the Ukrainian Party of Regions. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

The AP provided to Manafort the amounts of the payments, dates and number of the bank account where they were received. Manafort told the AP that he was unable to review his own banking records showing receipt of the payments because his bank destroyed the records after a standard 7-year retention period. He said Tuesday the “computer sales contract is a fraud.”

“The signature is not mine, and I didn’t sell computers,” he said in a statement. “What is clear, however, is individuals with political motivations are taking disparate pieces of information and distorting their significance through a campaign of smear and innuendo.”

Leshchenko said last month the 2009 invoice was one of about 50 pages of documents, including private paperwork and copies of employee-issued debit cards, that were found in Manafort’s former Kiev office by a new tenant.

The amount of the invoice — $750,000 — and the payment date of Oct. 14, 2009, matches one entry on the ledger indicating payments to Manafort from the Party of Regions. The invoice was addressed to Neocom Systems Ltd., a company formerly registered in Belize, and included the account and routing numbers and postal address for Manafort’s account at a branch of Wachovia National Bank in Alexandria, Virginia.

The AP had previously been unable to independently verify the $750,000 payment went to a Manafort company, but the newly obtained financial records reflect Manafort’s receipt of that payment. The records show that Davis Manafort received the amount from Neocom Systems the day after the date of the invoice.

Leshchenko contended to AP that Yanukovych, as Ukraine’s leader, paid Manafort money that came from his government’s budget and was “stolen from Ukrainian citizens.” He said: “Money received by Manafort has to be returned to the Ukrainian people.”

Leshchenko said U.S. authorities should investigate what he described as corrupt deals between Manafort and Yanukovych. “It’s about a U.S. citizen and money was transferred to a U.S. bank account,” he said.

A $455,249 payment in November 2007 also matches the amount in the ledger. It came from Graten Alliance Ltd., a company that had also been registered in Belize. It is now inactive.

The AP reported last month that federal prosecutors are looking into Manafort’s financial transactions in Cyprus, an island nation once known as a favored locale for money laundering.

Among those transactions was a $1 million payment in October 2009 routed through the Bank of Cyprus. The money was deposited into an account controlled by a Manafort-linked company, then left the account on the same day, broken into two disbursements of $500,000, according to documents obtained by the AP.

The records of Manafort’s Cypriot transactions were requested by the U.S. Treasury Department Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, which works internationally with agencies to track money laundering and the movement of illicit funds around the globe.

Dozens of Ukrainian political figures mentioned in the Black Ledger are under investigation in Ukraine. The anti-corruption bureau, which has been looking into the Black Ledger, publicly confirmed the authenticity of the signature of one top official mentioned there. In December, the bureau accused Mykhaylo Okhendovsky of receiving more than $160,000 from Party of Regions officials in 2012, when he was Ukraine’s main election official.

The bureau said it would identify more suspects in the coming months.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump taps lawyer involved with Trump U case for federal job

As a top aide to Florida’s attorney general, Carlos G. Muniz helped defend the office’s decision to sit out legal action against Trump University. Now the president is naming him to be the top lawyer in the U.S. Education Department.

President Donald Trump has announced his intent to nominate Muniz to serve as general counsel to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The Senate would then consider the nomination of the Republican lawyer.

Emails reviewed by The Associated Press show that in 2013 Muniz, who served as Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s chief of staff for three years, was included in discussions about student complaints alleging fraud with Trump’s namesake real-estate seminars.

Muniz, now in private practice, has also been the lead attorney defending Florida State University in a lawsuit by a former student who said the school failed to investigate after she said she was sexually assaulted by the star quarterback of the Seminoles’ 2013 national championship football team. The player was never charged with a crime by police in Tallahassee, and the state attorney’s office declined to pursue a criminal case against him.

An investigation by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is still underway, presenting a potential conflict of interest if Muniz is confirmed.

Both Muniz and the White House declined to comment Tuesday, referring all questions to the Education Department.

That department did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment about the Trump University review or whether Muniz would recuse himself from involvement in the Florida State probe.

AP reported last year that Bondi personally solicited a $25,000 political contribution from Trump as her office was weighing how to respond to questions from the Orlando Sentinel newspaper about whether she would join New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in suing the billionaire businessman.

Though both Trump University and the Florida-based Trump Institute had stopped offering classes by the time Bondi took office in 2011, more than 20 consumer complaints had been filed by former students who said they were swindled.

Emails from August 2013 obtained under Florida’s public records law showed that Muniz was copied on discussions about how to respond to the newspaper’s request for comment, though he did not actively weigh in.

Emails show Muniz did help direct Bondi’s public defense on the issue, including rewriting an October 2013 fact sheet distributed to reporters.

Days after Bondi’s office said it was reviewing the Trump U case, a political committee supporting her re-election received a $25,000 check from Trump’s charitable foundation. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, also added $500 more to support Bondi.

Bondi, who endorsed Trump’s bid for president right before the Florida Republican primary, said she was unaware her staff had been asked about the New York lawsuit until a Florida newspaper columnist highlighted the 2013 donation from Trump.

Bondi has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and defended her decision to accept the contribution, saying her office never seriously considered suing Trump.

Trump’s 2013 check, drawn on an account in the name of the Donald J. Trump Foundation, violated a federal prohibition against charities giving money to political groups. The issue garnered national media coverage last year during Trump’s presidential campaign, and his foundation paid a $2,500 fine to the IRS.

The illegal donation prompted a Massachusetts attorney last year to file a state bribery complaint against Bondi and Trump. A Florida prosecutor assigned to review the case informed Republican Gov. Rick Scott last week of his office’s conclusion that there was not enough evidence to move forward.

A memo about the complaint against Bondi said it was “insufficient on its face to conduct a criminal investigation” and was based almost entirely on media coverage. The assistant state attorney who wrote the memo said the complaint was based on insinuation and there was no evidence Bondi asked for the money in exchange for any official act. There was no indication she interviewed Trump or Bondi before reaching her decision.

Though Bondi’s office took no action against Trump, the president later agreed to settle the class-action case filed by New York and private lawyers, paying his former students $25 million in damages.

After leaving Bondi’s office, Muniz became a partner at the Jacksonville, Florida, office of a large law and lobbying firm. He defended Florida State University in a Title IX lawsuit filed by Erica Kinsman, a former student who said she was raped by quarterback Jameis Winston in 2012.

Kinsman sued Winston in April 2015 in federal civil court, alleging sexual battery and assault, and Winston countersued her one month later, alleging her accusations were false and defamatory. Both civil cases were settled in December under confidential terms. Winston, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Title IX is a federal law that bans discrimination at schools that receive federal funding. The Education Department warned schools in 2011 of their legal responsibilities to immediately investigate allegations of sexual assault, even if a criminal investigation has not been concluded.

Last year, FSU agreed to pay Kinsman $950,000, the largest settlement ever for claims regarding a university’s indifference to a student’s reported sexual assault.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Bill Nelson talks offshore oil drilling ban during Southwest Florida stop

Sen. Bill Nelson vowed to fight off threats to drill in the waters off Florida’s west coast, telling Southwest Florida officials he’ll do whatever he can to protect the coastal communities.

“Increasingly we have threats to drill in the Gulf of Mexico off the west coast of Florida, and it’s getting to the point that I have to keep beating back these attempts,” said Nelson during a meeting in Fort Myers on Tuesday.

In 2006, Nelson and then-Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, passed legislation to ban oil drilling off much of the Sunshine State’s Gulf Coast through 2022. The no-drilling zone, according to Nelson’s office, extends 125 miles off much of the Florida Gulf Coast, and as far as 235 miles at some points, to protect military training areas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Nelson filed legislation in January that would extend the ban another five years, from 2022 to 2027.

While President Donald Trump’s administration has announced they were implementing the same five-year oil and gas leasing plan as President Barack Obama’s administration, Nelson said there are concerns the 2006 law could be overturned.

“What I find is one of the newer senators from Louisiana keeps filing bills that do all kinds of things, very subtle like the proverbial camel getting its nose under the tent.” said Nelson. “That’s what we’ve had to fight off over and over. The good news is almost all, in a bipartisan way, of the congressional delegation wants to keep oil drilling off of the coast of Florida. The Atlantic is another matter … but we have that kind of unity, in the Atlantic as well.”

In March, Nelson and several members of the Florida congressional delegation — including Republicans Vern Buchanan, Francis Rooney, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Democrats Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, and Darren Soto — sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging him to keep the eastern Gulf off limits for oil drilling.

“Drilling in this area threatens Florida’s multi-billion-dollar, tourism-driven economy and is incompatible with the military training and weapons testing that occurs there,” read the letter.

Sanibel Island Mayor Kevin Ruane said his community could be negatively impacted if drilling were to occur off the coast, noting that it’s part of a trickle-down effect.

“No one I’m aware of is in favor of drilling,” he said.

Nelson said he plans to have a similar meeting with members of Florida’s east coast delegation in the coming weeks about off-shore drilling.

Carlos Frontela chastened by 2016 mistakes, is fired up for House District 62 bid

In declaring his candidacy early for the Tampa-based House District 62 seat, Carlos Frontela already demonstrates he’s learned from rookie mistakes made last year in his bid for the Hillsborough County School Board.

“I jumped in really late, two months before the primary,” he says, reminiscing about his ill-fated run for the District 7 seat ultimately captured by Lynn Gray last November.

“No time to really organize, no time to really gain any campaign contributions,” he says which is why he’s working on qualifying by petition to get on the ballot next year in the seat that will be vacated by a term-limited Janet Cruz.

The 42-year-old Frontela was born in Cuba and grew up in New Jersey before moving to Tampa in 2004. He owns his own small business, a document preparation service based in an office located near Raymond James Stadium in West Tampa.

“I think the Legislature could use somebody like me with business experience,” he said Tuesday. “I’m not necessarily a career politician. I can bring some sense of normalcy where I can reach across the aisle and do things a bipartisan process.”

Frontela looks forward to campaigning next year in earnest, acknowledging that with a full-time business and five children, it won’t be easy.

Frontela often speaks about working to find common ground with Republicans in Tallahassee to pass bills helping his constituents.

“That’s very important,” he says. “If you’re going to just go up there and play partisan politics, it’s not going to work.”

The subject prompts a riff on what Frontela calls a mistake by Senate Democrats in Washington opposing Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump‘s first nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Gorsuch was sworn onto the court Monday.

“Neil Gorsuch was confirmed unanimously via voice vote to the 10th Judicial Circuit (of Appeals),” he recounts about that 2006 vote in which Chuck Schumer, Diane Feinstein and other Senate Democrats — those who opposed him last week — supported him 11 years beforehand.

“People can see clearly that was a show. It was partisan politics,” he says, criticizing his own party. The Democratic wall of opposition in the Senate led Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to break out the “nuclear option,” allowing just a bare minimum approval of 51 senators to confirm Gorsuch, versus the filibuster-proof 60 votes previously required to confirm Supreme Court no.

“Next time when a real, right-leaning conservative judge gets appointed, you’d have faith with the general public,” he says. “Now you don’t. You got the nuclear option. God knows a way right-wing justice will get through (next time) with just 51 votes.”

Regarding the battle between Republican Richard Corcoran and Rick Scott over Enterprise Florida, Frontela takes Scott’s side in believing tax incentives help businesses and communities.

He not only supports medical marijuana (though not the way the GOP-led Legislature is debating how to implement the matter) but the legalization of recreational marijuana as well. “We have two other drugs on the market that are completely legal and completely taxes, and they kill countless individuals every year,” says Frontela. “And those are alcohol and tobacco.”

“We have two other drugs on the market that are completely legal and completely taxes, and they kill countless individuals every year,” says Frontela. “And those are alcohol and tobacco.”

He considers raising the state’s minimum wage to at least $10 an hour his top issue, as well as restoring the civil and voting rights of ex-felons.

About last year’s presidential contest, Frontela is of the opinion that the Democratic National Committee “rigged” the primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Clinton’s favor.

“That turned off a lot of people,” he says of fellow Democrats, “and a lot of people didn’t turn out.”

Frontera had a lifelong interest in politics, going back to when he was 13 and volunteered for the campaign of New Jersey Democratic Albio Sires, who in 1986 was running for Congress for the first time.

As a Cuban-American, Frontela supports the diplomatic breakthrough with the communist island led by Barack Obama in 2014.

Learn more about Frontela’s platform by going to his website: CharlieFor62.com.

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