Sunday, February 10, 2013

Our digest of, and commentary on today's Florida political news and punditry.

Rubio embarrasses himself again, this time about climate change

Now that Marco Rubio is strutting the national stage, the rest of the country is beginning to see what Floridians have always known: Marco Rubio is not ready for prime time, and probably never will be.

Astronomer Phil Plait writes in Slate that "Picking out one United States legislator for antiscientific thinking is quite a chore since the field is so crowded."

But Marco Rubio (R-Fla) deserves a bit of extra attention; for one thing he sits on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. For another, he appears to be one of the Republican White House hopefuls for at least the next election cycle. For a third, I’m still not terribly happy about his comments on the age of the Earth.

So, given all that, when he casts doubt on the human influence on global warming, and even the existence of global warming itself, I take notice.

"Marco Rubio: Another Senator Who Doubts Global Warming".

More: "Marco Rubio questions human impact on global warming". See also "Marco Rubio Not Convinced Climate Change An Actual Problem (VIDEO)" ("Rubio said that climate change was not a proven fact, and that even if it was, it would not be cost-effective for the U.S. to take action.").

Crist credibility an issue in Greer's criminal trial

Lucy Morgan's story today about the Florida Republican all-male outing with the "golf cart [allegedly] filled with prostitutes" also touches upon an issue that could come back to haunt Mr. Crist: back in 2009, then Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer signed a

fundraising agreement between Victory Strategies and the GOP as chairman of the party, and [Florida GOP Executive Director] Johnson signed for the newly created company.

Greer has insisted that Crist and others knew about the corporation and knew he was collecting extra money to handle fundraising after longtime fundraiser Meredith O'Rourke[*] was terminated in January 2009.

[However] Crist, in a written affidavit on May 10, 2010, said he was not aware of Victory Strategies, did not authorize the creation of the company and did not know Greer was receiving additional money for his fundraising efforts.

Had he known of Greer's plans, Crist said he would have insisted that Greer fully disclose his involvement to the GOP's executive board.

Crist has also suggested that Greer and his lawyer, Damon Chase, were attempting to tamper with witnesses in May 2012 when Chase contacted John Morgan, the senior partner at the law firm where Crist now works.

Chase, in telephone calls and emails, pushed Morgan to get Crist to change his testimony and sign a new affidavit saying he knew Greer was getting paid extra for fundraising or face embarrassing personal questions. Chase even furnished a new version of the affidavit for Crist to sign. Chase contends he was merely trying to get Crist to tell the truth.

Morgan and Crist refused to cooperate and reported the encounter to authorities as possible witness tampering. A short time later prosecutors re-interviewed Johnson and asked about the Bahamas trip. Chase's new affidavit is now part of the evidence against Greer.

The substitute affidavit would have put Crist's testimony more in line with statements given by Sargeant, Ballard and Jay Burmer, a GOP consultant with close ties to Crist.

Sargeant and Burmer, in separate affidavits, say they were aware that Greer and Johnson had taken over fundraising and would be paid additional money. Ballard, asked about it by prosecutors in November 2011 said Crist knew Greer and Johnson had taken over fundraising duties to save money.

"He (Crist) said it would be cheaper to have, to do it this way, that whatever Delmar and Jim Greer would cost, would be compensated for, would be less money than they were currently paying out,'' Ballard testified. At the time the party was paying O'Rourke $30,000 a month for fundraising.

"I was surprised when Greer was charged with a crime relating to setting up a company to do fundraising for RPOF, as Greer and Mr. Johnson were acting with the knowledge and approval of Gov. Crist,'' Sargeant said.

There are clear contradictions between the sworn statements of Crist on one hand, and Sargeant, Ballard and Burmer on the other.

In that connection, Florida's Attorney General just last week

released a deposition that contradicts a sworn statement by former Gov. Charlie Crist, who said that he did not know that then-Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer would be paid extra to raise funds for the party.

That disclosure comes four days before Greer stands trial in Orlando, charged with six crimes: fraud, money laundering and four counts of grand theft. He’s accused of funneling $125,000 in state party funds into his personal bank account.

During the lunch hour Florida’s attorney general’s released the deposition of powerful Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, a confidante of Crist and one of the major fund-raisers in Crist’s 2006 campaign for governor.

When Ballard was questioned under oath nearly two years ago, he told Greer’s attorney that he and Crist discussed revamping how the party did fund-raising and that the change would involve paying Greer extra.

“So, it was clear then in his conversation with you that he was quite aware of and approved of an arrangement for fund-raising wherein Greer … would be compensated?” asked attorney Don Lykkebak.

“That was my understanding,” said Ballard.

"Ballard: Crist knew about Greer’s deal". See also "Witness Disputes Gov. Crist's Account in Deposition Released For Trial of Jim Greer" ("lobbyist says Crist told him he was OK with the arrangement.")

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*The O’Rourke matter a story in itself, and was the subject of an FDLE Investigative Report: "Men-only meetings and Greer’s thirst for power".

Weekly Roundup

"Weekly Roundup: Hello Managed Long-Term Care, Goodbye Crystal River Nuke Plant".

"The intergalactic capital of Medicare fraud"

"New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez is at the apex of his career, the highest-ranking Hispanic in congressional history as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the “Gang of Eight” senators leading the charge for immigration reforms."

Not bad for the son of pre-Castro Cuban migrants — his mother a seamstress, his father an odd-jobs carpenter — who grew up in a Union City tenement and was the first member of his family to go to college.

Menendez, 58 and a Democrat, today faces several serious allegations for his links to Salomon Melgen, a West Palm Beach eye doctor and wealthy donor under investigation by the FBI.

"Senator Menendez, target of allegations, is ‘one tough hombre’".

Carl Hiaasen provides some details: "Living in the intergalactic capital of Medicare fraud, South Floridians are accustomed to the sight of blue-jacketed federal agents swarming a doctor’s office and marching out with boxes of files."

Normally this is unpleasant news for the doctor, and so it is for Salomon E. Melgen, a prolific eye surgeon whose medical facilities in Palm Beach County were raided Jan. 29.

But it’s even worse news for Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who is friends with Melgen. The doctor has donated a fortune to Menendez’s political campaigns, and brought the senator on vacation jaunts aboard his jet. . . .

U.S. healthcare officials have been scrutinizing the doctor’s practice for years. Of particular attention to the government was his billing methods for eye injections, laser treatments and other surgery.

For example, auditors found that Melgen was billing Medicare $6,000 to $8,000 for a vial of eye medicine for which he should have been reimbursed $2,000.

The doctor’s attorneys said he was using the same vial to treat more than one patient; therefore, multiplying the charges was proper. That explanation might have made sense to, say, a kindergarten class, but the auditors didn’t go for it.

Melgen was ordered to repay $8.9 million to the agency in charge of Medicare and Medicaid. He did.

Not many ophthalmologists can write a check that large, but not many ophthalmologists have their own jet, either.

Now Melgen is appealing the case and wants that money back. Twice during his tribulations, Sen. Menendez has reached out on his friend’s behalf to key federal officials.

Initially Menendez complained that the Medicare rules for billing eye injections were too ambiguous, and in a meeting last year he suggested that Melgen was being treated unfairly.

The senator’s office told the Post that Menendez didn’t do anything wrong, and was unaware that his buddy was the subject of an active fraud investigation until the FBI raid in January.

"The eye doctor and the The eye doctor and the ‘I’ pol".

"Are you bleepin' kidding me?!"

Scott Maxwell turns "Florida's morass of shady ethics and finance laws into a game called 'Are you bleepin' kidding me?!'" "Questions on politicians, gifts and cash".

Pigs at the trough

Mary Ellen Klas: "In the last two years, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has agreed to let the state lose $48 million. That's the amount of taxpayer money Atwater spent to settle dozens of bad contracts and grants that he said could have been avoided had the state done a better job cutting the deals." "State's flawed contracting process comes under fire".

"Even by Tallahassee standards, the scene was notable: lobbyist Brian Ballard dining with a nursing home executive, Gov. Rick Scott and a top aide at a pricey restaurant just blocks from the Capitol."

That Ballard's clout could command a private dinner with the governor for a client speaks to the influential lobbyist's fundraising finesse. Equally important is Ballard's talent for helping his clients land lucrative state contracts: $938 million this year alone, according to a Times/Herald analysis of contracts in the $70 billion state budget.

"Is that all?'' joked Ballard, who said he had never added it up. "A big part of my business is protecting contracts, and outsourcing. Outsourcing saves (the state) money."

Ballard is not alone. The lobbying offices that line the moss-covered streets of Tallahassee have grown exponentially larger in the past two decades as governors and legislators have steered a greater share of the state's budget to outside vendors.

"Cashing in on state of Florida contracts is growth industry".

$150 million in public money and country club memberships aren't enough

Beth Kassab: "Welcome to Florida, where state dollars are as plentiful as sunshine when it comes to padding private-sector budgets."

That was the message received by biotech outfits such as the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, lured here in 2006 with more than $300 million in state and local dollars.

Now, just seven years later, Sanford-Burnham is tapping Florida's incentive spigot again.

Apparently the lavish package that included more than $150 million in public money from the state plus money from the city and county and private donations such as memberships at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club simply wasn't enough.

Beginning this year, and for the next eight years, the state will cut an annual check to Sanford-Burnham for up to $3 million out of the state's cigarette-tax collections. Combine that with the $3 million grant the state gave the institute last year and that adds up to at least $27 million — on top of the original handout that set a local record for size and generosity.

Take a moment to pick your jaw up off the ground, and I'll try to answer why taxpayers are still being asked to prop up these biotech institutes, which were heralded as Florida's path to new wealth and prosperity.

"Incentives for biomed don't guarantee success".

Rumor has it the rescuers actually have pensions

"Two people were rescued from the second floor of a house by firefighters". "Two rescued as fire engulfs house in Pompano Beach".

Closing unfair loophole

The Palm Beach Post editors: "The Florida Senate’s Commerce and Tourism Committee on Tuesday advanced a measure (Senate Bill 316) that would close the unfair loophole that has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars — if not billions — in taxes on Internet and mail-order sales. It’s about time. The trade-off was a somewhat wobbly promise of revenue neutrality. If that’s what it took to get around the phony claim that this is a 'new tax,' fine." "Make Amazon and others stop freeloading in Florida".

Privatization follies

Florida has allowed crooked tutoring companies to continue earning tax dollars year after year.

After nearly a decade, Florida last year won a waiver from the federal law that requires private tutoring. The state was set to shut down the program when lobbyists for the tutoring industry stepped in. They convinced state lawmakers to keep the money flowing.

Florida has spent $192 million on private tutoring firms in the past two years.

The companies are paid at a dramatically higher rate than conventional public schools. In the 2009-10 school year, the most recent period for which numbers are available, the state spent $9,981 per student — about $11 an hour. Florida spent $58 an hour, more than five times as much, on private tutoring.

Florida schools officials say the money could have paid for extended school days or extra instruction in high-poverty schools.

Tutoring companies, many of which meet high standards and offer quality instruction, say they provide a needed service.

But researchers disagree over whether government-funded tutoring is worth the money. Studies are inconclusive or contradictory.

The debate often takes on political undertones, with Republicans in favor of subsidized tutoring — known in education jargon as supplemental educational services — and Democrats against it.

"Tutoring a mandated cash cow".

Kids arrested for behavior that once warranted a mere trip to the office

"Thousands of Florida students are arrested in school each year and taken to jail for behavior that once warranted a trip to the principal's office — a trend that troubles juvenile-justice and civil-rights leaders who say children are being traumatized for noncriminal acts." "Thousands of student arrests alarm Florida justice leaders".

Trial may reveal sordid details of Florida GOP trip

Lucy Morgan: "They headed for Marsh Harbour Airport in the Bahamas, most of them on private planes owned by billionaire Harry Sargeant III, then the finance chairman of the Florida Republican Party."

Those who attended have differing memories of how many were there or what occurred, and no one is very anxious to talk to a reporter about the gathering.
"Perhaps it's the accusation of a golf cart filled with prostitutes that scares them away."
The five-year-old gathering has gained a life of its own in the criminal case against former Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer, who has been charged with money laundering and grand theft for allegedly diverting about $200,000 in party funds to a corporation he created. The trip itself isn't tied to Greer's legal problems, but details of the weekend could surface in testimony at his trial, which begins with jury selection Monday in Orlando, or remain secret, depending on which lawyers win out.

The Bahamas trip included an impressive outdoor seafood dinner with then-Gov. Charlie Crist, Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas Ned Siegel, Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer and a handful of Tallahassee lobbyists and big campaign donors.

"Trial may reveal sordid details of Bahamas trip".