About Francisco Alvarado


Website: http://www.floridabulldog.org
Francisco Alvarado has written 53 articles so far, you can find them below.


In Hialeah, money meant to feed poor kids pays for Las Vegas trip for city officials

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez Photo: CBSMiami

Two years ago, Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez signed off on spending $7,621 from a $10,000 corporate grant for feeding poor children. Instead, the money went to pay for airline tickets and posh hotel accommodations for himself, his chief of staff, a police detective and four  other city employees to attend a parks and recreation conference in Las Vegas.

News of Mayor Hernandez’s curious city spending surfaced in documents filed in a recently closed joint public corruption investigation by Miami-Dade’s State Attorney’s Office and Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

Another strange finding: Hernandez never traveled to Las Vegas to attend the annual conference of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) from Sept. 13-17, 2015, and his whereabouts for seven days remain a mystery.

Hernandez was the investigation’s focus, but he won’t face criminal charges. A close-out memo written by Assistant State Attorney Trent Reichling and obtained by Florida Bulldog concluded that the Sept. 13-19 trip – ending two days after the conference closed – was official city business authorized by a trio of high-ranking Hialeah bureaucrats. Further, authorities found no documentation that the grant provider, the National Recreation and Park Association, had prohibited the use of its corporate grants on travel expenses.

“The evidence contradicts any allegation that Mayor Hernandez intended to misappropriate NRPA funds for his personal benefit,” Reichling wrote. “Therefore, there is no evidence of criminal conduct that would substantiate the filing of charges.”

The June 26 close-out memo wasn’t made public until Aug. 31, along with an investigative report by the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission, which worked in conjunction with the state attorney’s public corruption task force.

Allies rewarded?

For Hernandez critics like former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, the report and the memo indicate Hernandez rewarded two of his closest allies, chief of staff Arnaldo Alonso and Det. Felix Delgado with an all-expenses paid vacation while he disappeared from his official duties for seven days.

Arnaldo Alonso, the Hialeah mayor’s chief of staff

“In the 24 years I ran the city, if I would have just imagined doing something like this, I would have been indicted,” said Martinez. “Now, you can get away with anything.” Martinez was convicted federally in 1991 for extortion and racketeering, but after a new trial in 1996 was acquitted of extortion. The jury deadlocked on five other counts, and prosecutors subsequently dropped the case.

Martinez lambasted the ethics commission and the state attorney’s office for conducting what he said was a poor investigation. “The state attorney and local investigative agencies have decided that Hialeah is like Chinatown,” Martinez said, referencing the 1974 film about a corrupt scheme involving the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “They go in, but don’t really investigate anything.”

Specifically, Martinez pointed to witness statements, including testimony by Alonso and Delgado, that he contends shows they were less than forthcoming about where the mayor was during the week of the Las Vegas conference. “It is shameful of the ethics commission and the state attorney for allowing people to lie and doing nothing,” Martinez said, also noting that investigators apparently made no attempt to interview Mayor Hernandez.

Alonso did not respond to three phone messages requesting an interview. Messages left for Hernandez and Delgado, who works as a liaison between the mayor’s office and the police department, were not returned.

Ed Griffith, spokesman for Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, declined to specifically address Martinez’s criticisms, but noted that a prosecutor cannot ethically file criminal charges unless there is sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“This matter was reviewed in great detail,” Griffith said. “The conclusion of our close-out memo best indicates the reasoning involved in determining that a criminal charge could not be filed.”

Perjury prosecutions ‘very rare’

Miami-Dade Ethics Commission executive director Joe Centorino, a former chief of the state attorney’s public corruption unit, defended his agency’s work.

“I think the inconsistent statements by the chief of staff are pretty well laid out in our report,” Centorino said. “Yet prosecutions for perjury are very rare because it is difficult to prove. Of course, the decision to pursue it as a criminal matter is made by the state attorney.”

Joe Centorino

The inquiry into the Las Vegas trip began March 1, 2016 when NRPA chief financial officer Anna Amselle told an ethics investigator that the conference concluded on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, and could not account for why the Hialeah delegation stayed an extra two days. She also said “nobody on the internal staff actually saw the mayor” and that the city’s NRPA grants, which are funded by corporate sponsors like Walmart, were intended solely for feeding children at Hialeah parks.

Moreover, Amselle said travel expenses to the annual conference would be an “inconsistent use” of grant funds, the investigative report states. “We would have never agreed that this is an allowable use of these funds,” she added. The Hialeah contingent stayed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where the room rate was $219.52 per night.

On May 11, 2016, Hialeah parks and recreation director Joseph Dziedzic, one of the four other employees who went to Las Vegas, told investigators that Hernandez was expected to attend the NRPA conference because the department was “up for a big award,” but that the mayor canceled his participation in the trip prior to leaving. Dziedzic did not know why and that he was also unaware of any prohibition against using NRPA funds for travel expenses to the annual conferences, according to the investigative report.

Misspent money

Indeed, investigators discovered the city had misspent an additional $11,114 in NRPA funds to cover employees’ travel expenses for the organization’s conferences in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Another $3,541 in grant money for hungry kids was spent on two desktop scanners, an L-shaped workstation, three desks, six folding carts and a healthy-eating presentation at Milander Park.

A month after speaking to Dziedzic, investigators questioned Glenn Rice, an ex-Hialeah cop who was one of Hernandez’s most trusted political operatives until they had a falling out shortly after the Las Vegas trip. Rice said he drove Alonso to Fort Lauderdale International Airport on Sept. 13, 2015, according to the investigative report. “He said [Alonso] told him the mayor was going, but was vague as to any particulars of the trip,” the report states.

According to an Oct. 25, 2016 sworn statement, Delgado — whom Dziedzic described as the mayor’s bodyguard — said he only found out Hernandez was staying behind when he boarded their JetBlue flight. “He said Alonso told him that the mayor would not be going to Las Vegas but did not say why,” the report states. “Delgado said he normally speaks to the mayor on a daily basis at work. Delgado said the mayor did not call him during the week he was in Las Vegas and that he did not call the mayor.”

Delgado also explained that Hernandez had requested he go to Las Vegas in order to “keep everybody out of trouble” and that the mayor was particularly concerned that Alonso “might have too much to drink and do something to embarrass the city.” He noted that the chief of staff “did have a couple of drinks, vodka,” the report states.

Lissette Franco, Hernandez’s administrative assistant at the time of the Las Vegas trip, told investigators on March 30 that Alonso and the mayor are “extremely close” and that he “would be privy” to the Hernandez’s whereabouts when he was scheduled to be at the 2015 NRPA conference.

“I like to party”

On June 12, after being subpoenaed by the state attorney’s office and with his lawyer present for his sworn statement, Alonso said he had no direct knowledge of Hernandez’s whereabouts after the mayor decided not to go to Las Vegas. The chief of staff also said he could not recall any communication with Hernandez during those seven days. As far as Delgado’s claim about Hernandez’s concerns that Alonso had a drinking problem, the chief of staff said: “Listen, I like to party. I’m 38 and single.”

Investigators subsequently obtained text messages from Alonso’s city-issued phone which appeared to show him covering for Hernandez when City Attorney Lorena Bravo asked to have the mayor call her. “Okay, I will let him know,” Alonso wrote back. “Remember we are both out of town.”

In an Aug. 22 email to Reichling, ethics commission investigator Karl Ross broaches the possibility of subpoenaing cell tower data for the mayor’s phone during the week he was supposed to be in Las Vegas based on Alonso’s text messages. “I don’t know whether this rises to the level of possible perjury,” Ross wrote. “But it seems to suggest Alonso was not being truthful or forthcoming or whatever you want to call it while he was under oath.”

In his response to Ross, Reichling didn’t think there was enough to proceed with a perjury investigation against Alonso. “He certainly was not specific or forthcoming with his responses, but that is not a crime that I am aware of,” Reichling wrote, adding that the mayor’s cell phone location data would also not help proving a crime had been committed.

“With regards to an order for historic cell site data, our office’s policy is that there be probable cause to believe the cell site data would lead to evidence of a crime,” Reichling wrote. “Unless I am missing something, I do not believe I could proceed with charging Alonso with a crime, or applying for a cellular site order on the Mayor’s phone.’’

State Sen. Lauren Book seeks restraining order to silence protester

By Francisco Alvarado,FloridaBulldog.org 

Derek Logue protesting in Tallahassee during Lauren Book’s rally for the charity Lauren’s Kids on April 22, 2015

As Broward State Sen. Lauren Book prepares for her annual walk to raise awareness about child sex abuse, she wants to make sure one of her harshest critics is nowhere near her.

On July 26, Sen. Book filed a petition in Broward Circuit Court seeking a restraining order against Derek Logue, a 40-year-old Ohio man convicted of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl in 2001. Logue today is an advocate for registered sex offenders.

You won’t find Sen. Book’s petition at the county courthouse. A clerk in the Broward court’s domestic violence division told a reporter it is confidential. The reason: Florida Statute 119 says that any documents that reveal the identity, address or phone numbers of a potential crime victim are exempt from Florida’s liberal public records law.

Florida Bulldog obtained a copy of her petition from Logue.

Sen. Book claims she fears for her and her family’s safety following physical threats Logue allegedly made against her online and in person during two public events in 2015 and 2016. In addition to seeking to bar Logue from showing up at her annual walk events, she wants to keep him from coming within 500 feet of her home and her offices.

But Broward Circuit Court Judge Michael G. Kaplan rejected Sen. Book’s request for a temporary restraining order on Aug. 9, noting there was insufficient evidence showing she was in immediate danger. A hearing on her request for a permanent restraining order is scheduled for Sept. 1.

Sen. Book declined comment, but her father, prominent Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book, told Florida Bulldog Logue has been harassing him and his daughter for roughly four years. “We had ignored his harassment because we don’t believe he is terribly relevant,” Book said. “He has little credibility.”

However, Book said the last straw occurred on July 8, when Logue tweeted “I think I found the official Laura Ahearn/ Lauren Book theme song” next to a link to a YouTube video for a song titled, “You Are A C—,” by Australian singer and comedian Kat McSnatch. Ahearn is executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, a New York-based advocacy group for victims of sex crimes.

Ugly lyrics

Among its provocative lyrics is this ugly line: “Why don’t you shut that scabby c— mouth before I f— up your face.” The crude video also features an image of a tombstone that reads, “R.I.P. Annoying C—.”

According to Ron Book and Sen. Book’s petition, officials from several New York law enforcement agencies advised that Logue’s tweet was a credible death threat. “We were advised to contact local law enforcement and take steps to make sure that the encounters we’ve had with Mr. Logue don’t happen again. When you cross the line and threaten to f—k up someone’s face followed by ‘R.I.P.,’ that is a credible threat,” said Ron Book.

Lauren and Ron Book in Times Square in March 2015 promoting her child sex abuse education book. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Logue dismissed the Books’ accusations as “a load of hogwash.” He claims the petition is an attempt to stop him from exercising his First Amendment right to speak out against their lifelong campaign against registered sex offenders.

“It is easy to make me look like the bad guy because I am a registered citizen,” Logue told Florida Bulldog. “You may not like my choice of words. I do cuss and I do call people the C word. She is offended by it, but I don’t care. It’s protected free speech.”

He added, “She is simply trying to prevent me from raining on her little parade.”

Sen. Book is the founder and $135,000-a-year chief executive officer of Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit agency that has collected more than $10 million in grants from the Florida Legislature to fund an array of educational programs to convince victims and children advocates to report child sex crimes. However, the effectiveness of the programs have come under fire as Sen. Book has used Lauren’s Kids to elevate her public profile.

The Plantation Democrat, who was sexually abused as a teen by her former nanny, also makes an annual trek on foot from Key West to Tallahassee to raise awareness for child sex victims. This year’s walk is scheduled to begin on Sept. 9.

In her petition, Sen. Book claims that in 2015 Logue traveled to Tallahassee and organized a group of sex offenders in an attempt to disrupt the final mile of her annual walk. “The workers were warned in advance and they were able to keep the walk peaceful with the help of the Capitol Police, the Tallahassee Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement,” the petition says.

A year later, Logue traveled to New York City to attend a screening of the documentary Untouchable at the Tribeca Film Festival to harass Sen. Book during a question and answer session, the petition alleges. The Books are prominently featured in the movie about the impact of sex offender laws on individuals convicted of sex crimes.

“During the question and answer segment, he became unruly enough that his microphone was cut off and petitioner was surrounded by New York Police Department officers to protect her,” the petition states. Sen. Book claims she learned of Logue’s July 8 tweet after being contacted by an advocate for Parents of Megan’s Law who saw it and who filed a report with the New York field office of the FBI.

A rally planned for Miami

The petition also noted that Logue’s website OnceFallen.com and a Facebook page he is affiliated with is promoting a rally planned for Miami in September: “The coincidence is palpable.”

In his response to the petition and during an interview with Florida Bulldog, Logue said he has participated in and helped organize demonstrations across the country against sex offender registry laws and other legislation he believes discriminate against sex offenders who have done their time. He has also been interviewed on the topic by CNN, HLN and Russia Today, as well as local and regional news outlets, Logue said.

He said the 2015 demonstration in Tallahassee was peaceful even though Lauren’s Kids officials tried to report him for not registering with the state of Florida for the event. “I am free to travel anywhere in the United States of America,” Logue’s response states. “In fact, I made it a point to contact the Leon County Sheriff’s office to confirm that I would not need to register as a sex offender to visit for less than 48 hours to engage in a peaceful demonstration.”

Logue said he attended the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival because he had been interviewed for Untouchable, but the footage did not make into the documentary. He did make a brief appearance halfway through the film during scenes of the demonstration in Tallahassee. He said he only learned the Books were also in attendance when he arrived for the screening.

Logue said the documentary’s director David Feige asked him not to be too nasty to the Book family and he obliged. He denies disrupting the question and answer session. “I asked her why she preaches that sex offenders don’t deserve second chances when her father is also a convicted criminal that got second and third chances,” Logue said. “She made a snarky remark, I laughed and sat back down.”

On Sept. 21, 1995, Ron Book pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges and was fined $2,000 following a criminal investigation that found he violated state law by funneling more than $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions to at least a dozen county and state politicians.

Logue, who isn’t shy about owning up to his sex crime conviction, claims when he went to register in his home state in July, his registration officer told him someone claiming to be a state senator called to complain that he called her a c— and that she was offended by it. “I call a lot of people c—s,” Logue said. “I understand not everyone appreciates crude language. Yet, we elected a president that uses crude language and what not.”

Logue’s lawyer, Jamie Benjamin, did not respond to a phone message seeking comment. Sen. Book’s lawyer, Fort Lauderdale’s David Bogenschutz, said her role as a public official makes her a vulnerable target to threats of a violent nature.

“She and several law enforcement agencies believe [Logue’s behavior] crosses the line between what is protected by the First Amendment and threats that cause individuals to have legitimate concerns for themselves and their family members,” Bogenschutz said. “If it continues, and it has continued, we need the court’s intervention to draw the line for us.”

Overlooked class action against Democratic Party and Wasserman Schultz turns nasty

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hillary Clinton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Bernie Sanders

An ongoing legal battle playing out in Fort Lauderdale federal court over the Democratic National Committee’s presidential nominating process has devolved into accusations of harassment and intimidation conducted by unknown political operatives.

Last month, an attorney representing 150 Democratic voters in a little-noticed class action lawsuit against the DNC and its former chairwoman, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, sought court-ordered security guards for himself, his clients, and his co-counsels and their employees following a string of bizarre incidents in June, including strange phone calls and emails by individuals disguising their voices and a mysterious break-in at the home of one of the plaintiffs.

On June 15, Senior U.S. District Judge William Zloch denied Fort Lauderdale lawyer Cullin O’Brien’s motion after determining that his request would overburden the U.S. Marshals Service because the plaintiffs reside in 45 states and Washington, D.C. The judge also noted that O’Brien had not provided any evidence directly linking the incidents to the DNC and Weston-based Wasserman Schultz.

“The undertaking would in all likelihood require the entire U.S. Marshals Service to direct all of its efforts and attention to this specific case,” Zloch wrote in his order.  “The Court notes that plaintiffs’ motion contains absolutely no factual nexus between Defendants and the conduct set forth in the motion.”

O’Brien did not respond to two phone messages and an email request for comment. Mark Caramanica, an attorney for Wasserman Schultz, referred questions to DNC lawyers Bruce Spiva and Marc Elias, who also did not return two phone messages and emails requesting comment.

DNC attorneys Bruce Spiva, left, and Marc Elias.

Elizabeth Beck, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Florida Bulldog that it was not her legal team’s intent to show that the DNC and Wasserman Schultz were involved in the incidents. “We are not saying the DNC or the congresswoman ordered the harassment against us, the plaintiffs and our staff,” Beck said. “We don’t know who is doing it, but it did happen.”

The stakes are high for the DNC and Wasserman Schultz. The complaint accuses both of fraud, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty and negligence by rigging Democratic primaries to favor former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. More than half of the plaintiffs are Sanders supporters who donated money to his campaign. The lawsuit claims the 150 Democrats are entitled to punitive damages in addition to refunds for their political donations.

Despite the explosive accusations in the lawsuit and the subsequent motion seeking court-ordered protection, there has been no coverage of the case in mainstream media outlets, including South Florida’s newspapers, since it was filed in June 2016.

‘Funny Business’

Beck and her husband, Jared Beck, are Miami-based personal injury lawyers who decided to support Sanders in early 2016. “I was phone banking and also hosted phone banks to teach other people,” Elizabeth Beck said. “I joined a lot of Facebook groups where I was sharing information and political memes. That’s when I started hearing about all this funny business happening during the primaries in various states.”

Attorneys Elizabeth and Jared Beck

She said her suspicions that the DNC was in the tank for Hillary Clinton were confirmed when Russian hackers publicly released internal documents from the committee on the Internet. “The lawsuit was filed based on that information,” Beck said. “Everyone, including the people who hired us, reached the same conclusion that the process was rigged.”

Beck also launched a Facebook page that has grown to more than 57,000 followers and started the political action committee JamPAC. She uses the JamPAC’s website to post updates and documents related to the lawsuit.

According to the 39-page complaint, the DNC and Wasserman Schultz violated DNC’s charter and bylaws that say the party chair “shall exercise impartiality and evenhandedness” and “shall be responsible for ensuring that the officers and staff of the DNC maintain impartiality and evenhandedness.” Further, that while Wasserman repeatedly made public statements between September 2015 and May 2016 that she was committed to running a neutral primary, the congresswoman and the DNC was on team Clinton from the beginning of the 2016 presidential election cycle, the lawsuit claims.

To support their claims, the plaintiffs cited internal DNC documents obtained by Russian hackers and published on the Internet by purported hacker Guccifer 2.0. For example, on May 26, 2015 the DNC issued a memo outlining the party’s goals in providing a contrast between the “GOP field and HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton].” The memo also added the DNC would use “specific hits to muddy the waters around ethics, transparency and campaign finance attacks on HRC.”

The DNC has confirmed that the emails are legitimate.

During an April 25 motion hearing, DNC lawyer Spiva argued the plaintiffs don’t have standing to bring the lawsuit because the courts don’t have jurisdiction over how political parties decide to pick their candidates. “The Supreme Court and other courts have affirmed the party’s right to make that determination,” Spiva said. “Those are internal issues that the party gets to decide basically without interference from the courts.”

DNC ‘not obligated’ to follow own rules

The DNC is not obligated to follow its charter and its bylaws, Spiva added. “We could have voluntarily decided that we’re gonna go into back rooms like they used to do and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way,” he said. “That’s not the way it was done. But they could have. And that would also have been their right.”

Beck told Florida Bulldog she was taken aback by Spiva’s legal argument since Wasserman Schultz had always denied the DNC was playing favorites. “It’s a pretty outrageous position to take,” she said. “It was very different from what the congresswoman had been saying on national TV during the primaries.”

A little over a month later, things got even more strange. On June 1, Beck sent an email to DNC attorneys to inform them that her secretary had received a phone call from an unknown individual seeking information about the case. “The caller refused to identify himself/herself,” Beck wrote. “My secretary stated that it sounded like the caller was using a voice changer because the voice sounded robotic and genderless.”

Fort Lauderdale Attorney Cullin O’Brien

Beck also noted that the phone number that showed up on the caller ID was the same one for Wasserman Schultz’s Aventura district office. According to a June 1 reply filed in court by the congresswoman’s lawyers, Wasserman Schultz had no knowledge of the call being made and did not authorize it.

“Further, it is highly unlikely that the call did in fact originate with that office, as no one is currently working in the office associated with the subject number — or has anyone been working there for several months — due to ongoing repairs,” the reply states. “Given that the matter involves congressional phone lines, the incident has been reported to Capitol Police.”

The following day, Fort Lauderdale attorney O’Brien received three phone calls from an unknown number from a person who identified himself only as “Chris” inquiring about the lawsuit, according to the motion requesting protection. During the second phone call, “Chris” allegedly said, “This is bigger than you and your family and your law partners” and made a reference to news about the mysterious death of Assistant U.S. Attorney Beranton Whisenant in Fort Lauderdale. O’Brien also submitted under seal 11 emails allegedly sent by “Chris.”

Whisenant’s body was spotted floating just off Hollywood beach shortly before dawn on May 24. The cause of death has not been released, but the Miami Herald has reported that Hollywood police have said Whisenant suffered some trauma to his head.

On June 3, plaintiff Angela Monson from Dassel, Minn., said she woke up around 5:45 a.m. to use her laptop computer only to find it in a different spot from where she had last left it, which she thought was odd, according to an affidavit she filed as part of the motion for protection. “When I plugged in my laptop, it made a snapping noise and did not turn on,” Monson said. “When I turned it over, the bottom cover of the laptop fell off.  I then noticed that the bottom cover, which is attached to the laptop with 10 screws, had all the screws missing.”

After noticing that two patio doors she had locked the night before were unlocked, Monson called local police to file a report about a possible break-in, her affidavit states. The same day, O’Brien claims he received a call from the far-right militia group Oath Keepers offering him and his clients protection.

Lauren’s Kids funnels $3.1 million to politically connected public relations firm

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Tallahassee’s Sachs Media Group produced this billboard in 2014.

A nonprofit run by Broward State Sen. Lauren Book and lavished with millions of dollars in state handouts by lawmakers paid a Tallahassee public relations firm with considerable political clout $3.1 million between 2012 and 2015.

The payments by Lauren’s Kids to Sachs Media Group accounted for 28 percent of the charity’s $10.8 million in expenses, according to Lauren’s Kids most recent available tax returns. In the same period, the Florida Legislature awarded Lauren’s Kids – which employs Sen. Book as its $135,000-a-year chief executive and counts powerful lobbyist Ron Book, her father, as its chairman – $9.6 million in grants.

The nonprofit’s payouts to Sachs Media for 2016 are not publicly available. A spokeswoman for Lauren’s Kids did not respond to requests to view that information.

Florida Bulldog reported last week that Sen. Book, using a loophole in state conflict-of-interest rules, voted last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids.

Millions of taxpayer dollars flowed through the nonprofit to Sachs Media as it both promoted Lauren’s Kids and cultivated Sen. Book’s public persona as a survivor of child sex abuse. Critics say the domination of Lauren’s Kids by the senator and her lobbyist-father raises concerns that the work Sachs Media does is more about making her look good, not raising awareness about unreported cases of child sex abuse.

“There is nothing wrong with an individual promoting that they have done good work,” said Daniel Borochoff, founder of Chicago-based CharityWatch. “However, it would appear the father can pull some weight to push the organization in a direction that would be beneficial for the daughter. It is more likely for that to happen more so than helping kids.”

If that’s the case, then the Books and Sachs Media are abusing the public’s trust, Borochoff added. “Nonprofit money is supposed to be used for a public benefit and not to enhance the aspirations of the charity’s officers,” Borochoff said. “But sometimes there is an overlap and it can become a side effect for someone running a charity.”

‘Proud of our work’

Sachs Media founder and chief executive Ron Sachs did not return two phone messages seeking response to a list of detailed questions emailed to him on June 12. Instead, Sachs Media president Michelle Ubben provided Florida Bulldog with a written statement noting that the firm is “not currently engaged by Lauren’s Kids.”

“We are particularly proud of our work to help the Lauren’s Kids foundation develop sexual abuse prevention curricula for grades K-12, and to raise awareness of the signs of child abuse and public reporting requirements,” Ubben’s statement read. She referred specific questions about the firm’s work with Lauren’s Kids to the nonprofit’s spokeswoman and former Sachs Media account executive Claire VanSusteren.

Ron Sachs

“We have worked with Sachs in the past to raise awareness about child sexual abuse,” VanSusteren said in an emailed statement. “[Sachs] has, over the course of several years, completed communications work and engaged a variety of subcontractors related to deliverables for state contracts.”

A former news reporter and editor who did stints as spokesman for Florida governors Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles, Ron Sachs founded his company in 1996, specializing in corporate branding, marketing and crisis management. His early victories included a 1998 campaign to inform voters on amendments proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission and helping repeal an automatic 20 percent phone rate hike tacked onto a bill in 2003.

Six years later, Sachs landed more than $130,000 worth of work from the Associated Industries of Florida, according to a 2011 Florida Trend article. The same year, Sachs Media was retained by an anonymous group of oil and gas producers called Florida Energy Associates to do a campaign promoting the removal of the prohibition on drilling in the state’s offshore waters.

Sachs Media has also counted the Florida Chamber of Commerce among its clients, producing a web-based public affairs program called “The Bottom Line.”  Another program, “Florida Newsmakers,” features one-on-one interviews with top state bureaucrats answering softball questions. According to an online database of state contracts, Sachs Media has also been awarded small and large media jobs by various state agencies.

For instance, the Florida Lottery paid Sachs Media $150,000 in February 2013 for an educational multimedia campaign. A year later, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs paid Sachs Media $3,720 for table throws stamped with the department’s emblem. The Department of Environmental Protection awarded the firm a $316,250 contract in 2014 to produce a public awareness campaign about the importance of sea turtle nesting beaches in Florida’s Panhandle.

Sachs media faced criticism

Sachs Media has faced criticism over its business practices in recent years. In 2014, the firm dropped a lawsuit it had filed against the family of a paralyzed Broward County man after a public outcry over Sachs Media’s heavy-handed tactics against its former client, who was left brain damaged by the car of a speeding Broward County sheriff’s deputy. Sachs had claimed Eric Brody’s relatives owed the firm $375,000 for four years of public relations and media outreach services.

A year later, a state audit of a $296,105 Sachs Media contract with the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs found that the agreement did not clearly establish the tasks to be performed by the firm, did not contain documentation requirements, did not sufficiently identify the activities or services to be provided and included three amendments for an additional $135,421.

“In general, the agreement had no scope of work or deliverable issues,” the audit states. “The amendments did not fall within the original scope of work and did not clearly establish the tasks the provider was required to perform.” (Ubben did not comment on the dropping of the lawsuit and on the audit’s findings.)

According to Sachs Media’s website, the firm was retained by Lauren’s Kids in 2007, the year the nonprofit was founded. “Lauren’s Kids engaged our firm to conceptualize and bring to life a breakthrough strategy that would get people aware, educated, and mobilized to prevent this dark, societal secret – child sexual abuse,” a statement on the website reads. “We branded the Lauren’s Kids Foundation and generated extensive, multi-year media coverage – including the cover of Newsweek – around an annual 1,500-mile walk for awareness throughout Florida.”

In addition, Sen. Book and her cause have been featured by Nancy Grace, USA Today, Lisa Ling, Jane Velez-Mitchell and various local media outlets due to Sachs Media’s public relations work, the website states.

Sachs Media was also involved in helping Sen. Book market and promote her autobiography “It’s OK to Tell” and her annual walk from Key West to Tallahassee, as well as producing billboards, public service announcements and a curriculum for grades K-12 about child sex abuse prevention. The curriculum features web-based video lessons starring Sen. Book and reading materials that recount how she was sexually abused by her nanny during her teen years.

In 2015, Sachs Media conducted an online survey for Lauren’s Kids that found more than one-third of female respondents and one-fifth of male respondents had admitted to being sexually abused as children. However, the accuracy of the online survey, which national polling experts dismiss as being unreliable and inaccurate, could not be verified because Sachs Media declined to provide its methodology and backup data to Florida Bulldog.

The payments

Here’s the breakdown of Lauren’s Kids payments to Sachs Media as detailed in the nonprofits tax returns:

  • $670,032 for “public relations.” That accounted or 33 percent of Lauren’s Kids’ $2 million in expenses that year.
  • $957,977 for “program support,” or 63 percent of Lauren’s Kids $1.5 million in expenses.
  • $579,772, or 20 percent of expenses.
  • $966,100 for programming support. Sachs subcontractor, The POD Advertising, was paid $349,800, with both accounting for 28 percent of Lauren’s Kids expenses that year.

The owner of a Miami-based public relations firm who requested anonymity said the amount of money Lauren’s Kids has paid Sachs Media is shocking. “It’s pretty outrageous that a PR firm is billing that much to a nonprofit,” the owner said. “Usually, you are taking on charities on a pro-bono basis or providing them with a significant discount.”

Claire VanSusteren

Sen. Book, a Plantation Democrat, and Ron Book did not respond to requests for comment. However, Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman VanSusteren defended the work performed by Sachs Media, noting the campaigns have taught Floridians the importance of openly discussing child sex crimes.

“We have received countless calls and messages from parents, educators and law enforcement officers sharing stories of children coming forward and disclosing abuse thanks to our curriculum program,” she said. “At the end of the day, nothing is more important than protecting childhood. That’s what it’s all about.”

For example, she said, Sachs managed content production and communications related to a Lauren’s Kids public awareness campaign called “Don’t Miss the Signs” developed in partnership with the Florida Department of Children and Families.

She claimed that reports of abuse to the DCF hotline rose by 30 percent during the campaign and that Lauren’s Kids has received positive feedback from numerous teachers and police officers about the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum Sachs Media produced. In her statement to Florida Bulldog, VanSusteren included testimonials from unidentified teachers and guidance counselors.

One was from a self-described educator at James M. Marlowe Elementary School in New Port Richey who said, “I love the fact that it’s simple and easy to implement. I love the fact that there isn’t a lot of prep time needed for the lessons.”

Yet, the testimonial said nothing about the curriculum’s effectiveness in preventing child sex abuse.

Using ethics loophole, Sen. Lauren Book votes to give her nonprofit $1.5 million

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Lauren Book’s page on Florida Senate web site.

Broward State Sen. Lauren Book voted “yes” last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit she founded and leads as its $135,000-a-year chief executive officer.

A gaping loophole in Florida Senate ethics rules allowed Book to cast her vote despite her apparent conflict of interest. The same loophole also meant she didn’t have to disclose her conflict publicly.

Senators are forbidden by ethics rules from voting “on any matter” in which they or an immediate family member would privately gain – except when it comes to votes on the annual General Appropriations Act. Abstaining senators must also disclose the nature of their interest in the matter, according to the 335-page Florida Senate Rules and Manual.

“Legislators are allowed to vote on issues that may benefit their profession,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan watchdog Integrity Florida. “But it becomes questionable when it is a direct appropriation to an entity that a legislator controls and that would directly benefit that legislator.”

Lauren’s Kids, whose chairman is prominent lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, has in a just few years become one of the Florida Legislature’s most favored private charities. Since 2012, Lauren’s Kids has bagged more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded handouts.

Gov. Rick Scott went along with the latest $1.5 million appropriation for Lauren’s Kids while approving Florida’s $83 billion 2017-18 budget earlier this month.

How that appropriation came to be is a story itself. Lauren’s Kids only asked for $1 million.

Where did extra $500,000 come from?

But more than six weeks after the Florida legislative session ended, nobody is answering questions about how Lauren’s Kids snagged that additional $500,000. Not Sen. Book. Not Ron Book. Not Sen. Bill Montford, the Tallahassee Democrat who sits on the education appropriations subcommittee and sponsored a funding request for $1 million on the nonprofit’s behalf on Feb. 22. And not Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Kendall, who sponsored the bill in the House. Each did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and Rep. Jeannette Nunez sponsored funding requests for Lauren’s Kids in the state Senate and House

Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren, however, provided a written statement on June 12 summarizing how Lauren’s Kids intends to use the funds and defending the organization’s mission to increase reporting of child sexabuse incidents.

“There is no investment greater than in our children’s safety, and research shows that school-based education is an extremely effective vehicle for prevention and early intervention,” the statement read. “Lauren’s Kids is proud to partner with Florida educators to help arm students with knowledge about personal safety and accessing help.”

VanSusteren did not respond to a follow-up list of questions emailed on June 15 that again requested an explanation of how Lauren’s Kids’ funding request got bumped up from $1 million to $1.5 million between April 27 and May 8. That’s when House and Senate members went into conference committees to hash out the final budget bill. Sen. Book was a conferee for the appropriations conference committee on health care and human services. Montford was a conferee on the committee for education.

Wilcox said Sen. Book should be forthcoming about the additional $500,000 Lauren’s Kids received. “At the very least, she should be as transparent as possible on how that funding was decided,” he said. “It already doesn’t look good to the public given it is a dicey relationship for her in the first place as a sitting legislator who is also a recipient of taxpayer dollars.”

Lauren Book, 32, is a freshman legislator from Plantation. She assumed office just seven months ago after running unopposed and has quickly ascended the state’s political ranks. She is the Democratic Leader Pro Tempore and chairwoman of the Senate environmental preservation and conservation committee. She also sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees. Her father’s clients contributed significantly to her campaign and political action committee.

In March, Sen. Book told Florida Bulldog she was advised by Senate counsel “that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not.” Sen. Book, who was sexually abused by her nanny in her early teens, said she resigned from the board of directors of the foundation that raises money for Lauren’s Kids and that her salary was restructured to “ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work.”

At the time, Sen. Book said the Florida Department of Education requested that the Legislature provide $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids to continue its “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, a program that teaches students, teachers and parents how to spot signs of child sex abuse and the importance of reporting sex crimes against children.

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

The curriculum is made available to children at all grade levels in public and charter schools in all 67 Florida counties, but school districts are not required to teach it. For instance, Indian River County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools do not use the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, according to spokespersons for both districts. Miami-Dade Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, uses “Safer, Smarter” at only 80 out of 392 schools, said spokesman John Schuster.

“The curriculum is implemented as classroom guidance lessons facilitated by the school counselor or school social worker,” Schuster said. “The counseling professionals choose the classes where the students will receive the curriculum.”

Data lacking on curriculum results

Schuster said Miami-Dade Public Schools does not track or have any data confirming that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum has resulted in the reporting of child sex-abuse incidents that would otherwise go undetected. “These reports are made directly to the Department of Children and Families and are anonymous,” he said. “We have no access to this reporting information.”

In VanSusteren’s June 12 statement, she defended Lauren’s Kids work by citing an unverified and questionable  2015 poll the organization commissioned that concluded one in three girls and one in five boys will be victims of sexual abuse by the time they graduate 12th grade. By applying those statistics to the overall public schools student population in Florida, there are “at least 540,000 child victims currently enrolled Florida’s K-12 schools,” the statement read.

VanSusteren insisted 95 percent of child sex abuse is preventable through education and awareness, and that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum works. “Students who receive education about personal safety and accessing help in unsafe situations are three times more likely to speak up if they are being harmed,” VanSusteren said. “The funds allocated to Lauren’s Kids during fiscal year 2017-2018 will be used to continue our work to bring life-saving resources to Florida classrooms – as recommended in the Department of Education budget, as well as the Governor’s budget.”

However, the Florida Department of Education did not make the funding request for the curriculum, said department press secretary Audrey Walden. She explained the Legislature and the governor must first approve the funding and the department then disperses the funds to Lauren’s Kids and other nonprofit groups that get state money. Organizations must apply to the department and provide a breakdown on how the funds will be spent.

In its March 31 application, Lauren’s Kids stated it would spend $800,000 to print and distribute educational materials and maintain two websites associated with the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum; $100,000 to produce a digital conference; and two separate $50,000 expenditures for an evaluation survey, online training modules for teachers and principals and an educational fair.

“Please note that the department does not require schools to use the curriculum referenced,” Walden said. “It is implemented in schools at the discretion of each school district.”

According to an online legislative database used to track the Lauren’s Kids appropriation, Sen. Montford sponsored a $1 million funding request the same day that Kelly Mallette, governmental affairs director for Ronald L. Book P.A., lobbied the subcommittee on behalf of Lauren’s Kids and three other nonprofits the firm represents.

Montford, who is also the chief executive of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, has sponsored previous funding requests for Lauren’s Kids. He sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees alongside Sen. Book.

According to Montford’s 2016 campaign finance reports, Ron Book, his wife Patricia and his law firm each gave $1,000 to the senator’s re-election effort. Ronald L. Book P.A. also contributed $2,500 in 2014 to a now-defunct political action committee chaired by Montford.

On the House side, the re-election campaign of Rep. Nunez, who sponsored a $1 million funding bill on behalf of Lauren’s Kids, also got $1,000 contributions from Ron Book, his wife and his law firm. Montford and Nunez did not respond to four messages left with their legislative assistants the week of the June 5-9 special session.

Hialeah’s mayor, a former crony, an off-the-books city gig and an ethics investigation

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, left, and retired Hialeah police officer Glenn Rice Photo: NBC6

Being a political operative for Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez comes with city perks.

Glenn Rice — a former city cop who worked on the mayor’s 2011 and 2013 campaigns — collected roughly $12,000 during a three-year period acting as an off-the-books employee monitoring the company Hialeah hired to collect trash from private homes, as well as investigating potential hires and vendors, according to an April 25 Miami-Dade ethics commission close-out memo.

Ethics commission officials began probing Rice’s work for the city between 2013 and 2016 while investigating separate criminal allegations that Hernandez was shaking down local businesses, and that Rice was collecting bribes on the mayor’s behalf. At the time, Rice was also working as a $2,000-a-month consultant for three city vendors, including two garbage-collection firms.

While ethics investigator Karl Ross didn’t find enough evidence to recommend the filing of ethics or criminal charges against Hernandez, his findings suggest the mayor attempted to conceal his involvement in the city retaining Rice’s services. Hernandez did not return a message left with his secretary Thursday afternoon and his defense lawyer, Tom Cobitz, declined comment.

Ross began looking into the relationship between Hernandez and Rice on Aug.13, 2015, according to ethics commission records. The ethics investigator, along with a detective and a prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, interviewed Hialeah Police Lt. Rick Fernandez and Hialeah firefighters union representative Eric Johnson. Both men accused Hernandez of “extorting” two local businessmen and claimed that Rice was the mayor’s bagman.

When Hernandez, who was a high-ranking Hialeah police officer before becoming a councilman, ran for mayor in 2011 and re-election two years later, Rice often engaged his political godfather’s opponents in public confrontations. Among the Hernandez detractors Rice accosted include former Mayor Raul Martinez and blogger ex-Miami Herald reporter Elaine de Valle, who first wrote about the ethics investigation on her blog, Political Cortadito.

Hernandez and Rice have since apparently had a falling out. “Lt. Fernandez stated Rice is no longer on good terms with Mayor Hernandez,” a March 30 ethics investigative report said. “[Fernandez] stated he knows Rice well, and that [Rice] might be willing to cooperate if issued immunity via subpoena.”

In a sworn statement last fall, Hernandez said Rice volunteered to be his campaign’s “ally,” “political informant” and “snitch.” But the mayor — despite being Hialeah’s top bureaucrat — said he did not know how Rice ended up overseeing the rollout of trash-collection services by Progressive Waste Solutions. “I think he volunteered,” Hernandez told investigators on Sept. 26. He then referred them to Armando Vidal, the city’s public works director, for more specifics. “I think he can better answer the question,” Hernandez said.

Mayor denies wrongdoing

The mayor also vehemently denied directing any vendors or local business owners to make payments to him via Rice. “He said he felt Rice ‘took a lot of liberties’ and ‘used the perception of influence’ to make money,” the close-out memo states.

On Feb. 3, Vidal gave a sworn statement contradicting the mayor. “Mr. Vidal advised that several of the jobs originated with Mayor Hernandez and that Rice’s involvement was expressly requested,” the close-out memo states. “He said the mayor wanted Rice to assist the public works department in monitoring issues relating to solid waste, and also to assist the city attorney in vetting a consulting firm.”

Additionally, Vidal said he believed Hernandez was aware that Rice was being paid through a legal services contract the city had with the law firm of Miami Lakes Councilman Ceasar Mestre, who told ethics investigators he has been friends with the Hialeah mayor since 1983. Rice was subcontracted to handle “relevant investigative duties.”

“[Vidal] said the mayor trusted Rice to provide an independent look at matters relating to City of Hialeah affairs,” the close-out memo said. The public works director also showed ethics investigator Ross invoices totaling $18,056 the city paid Mestre’s law practice. Two-thirds of the money was paid to Rice, according to ethics investigators. Vidal could not be reached for comment because he is on vacation this week.

On April 4, Mestre met with Ross and told him it was either Vidal or Rice who approached him about providing legal services and that the arrangement would include the former Hialeah police officer. (Mestre was also a city cop from 1983 to 1987.) “Mestre said he never considered that his law firm was being used as a way to conceal payments to Rice from public view,” the close- out memo states. “He said, ‘that was never discussed… Mayor Hernandez and I never talked about this until after the fact.’”

Mestre did not return a message left with his secretary or an email requesting comment.

When Ross contacted Rice, the ex-cop said Hernandez “was aware of these payments” through Mestre’s law firm. In an email response to Florida Bulldog, Rice did not comment on what is written about him in the close-out memo and other investigative reports. But he said Vidal told the truth.

“Armando Vidal may be considered to be brash and an a-hole by many,” Rice said. “But he is one of the most honorable men I’ve ever come to know and he DOES NOT and will not lie for anyone.”

Lauren’s Kids racks up six-figure donations via auto tag registration renewals

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

State Sen. Lauren Book

In January, Broward County car owners who received their auto tag renewal notices also got a special message from Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing child sex abuse and founded by freshman State Sen. Lauren Book.

Inside the envelopes, colorful flyers bearing Lauren’s Kids logo wished vehicle registrants a happy birthday while segueing into an ominous stat: “Yet shockingly, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.”

That bit of data was followed by a sales pitch. “But there is hope — 95 percent of abuse is preventable through awareness and education. Celebrate your birthday by donating to the Lauren’s Kids foundation and honor the kids in your life.”

Of course, the advertisement includes a disclaimer in small italicized words that the Broward County tax collector’s office, which sends out the notices, is not endorsing Lauren’s Kids.

Drivers with February birthdates weren’t the only ones to find the Lauren’s Kids flyer in their motor vehicle registration renewal envelopes. Broward residents who received renewal notices in March and April also got the insert. Those automobile registrants whose notices are mailed this month are going to get the flyer too, says Paul Rowe, operations manager for the Broward tax collector’s office.

In fact, more than 6 million vehicle owners across Florida likely will have received the flyer stuffed in their auto tag renewal notices by year’s end. For the past seven years, Lauren’s Kids has been part of an exclusive club of charitable organizations approved by the Legislature that are allowed to hit up Florida drivers and vehicle owners for donations via auto tag and driver’s license renewal notices. But none of the other 43 nonprofits on the list has come close to Lauren’s Kids’ haul during a four-year period from 2013 through 2016 — $572,850, according to figures provided by the Florida Division of Motor Vehicles.

The department also contributes to Lauren’s Kids via the sale of specialty license plates approved by the Legislature in 2013. According to its most recent tax records, Lauren’s Kids received $294,653 from the DMV in 2015.

Lauren’s Kids’ success has been made possible by the organization’s aggressive marketing strategy to stuff as many auto tag renewal and driver’s license renewal envelopes with flyers requesting contributions and urging people to buy its specialty tag. The practice raises concerns among ethics watchdogs that government resources are being used to help a private organization raise funds without a public benefit. While the motor vehicle department administers annual auto tag renewals, individual county tax collector offices are responsible for mailing out the notices to vehicle owners.

Conflict of interest?

And now that Book is a state legislator, her nonprofit’s participation in the auto tag renewal raises the possibility of a conflict of interest. “In a perfect world, she would not do it,” said Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor who teaches government ethics. “It’s an accountability issue that raises questions in constituents’ minds. It leads people not to trust government.”

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog organization Integrity Florida, echoed Rosenson. “It may be technically correct,” Wilcox said. “But I don’t think it will look good to the public.”

A Lauren’s Kids insert in a Florida Department of Motor Vehicles registration renewal.

In an email response to questions about the inserts, Book dismissed the criticisms. “First of all, none of what we do markets the foundation and you seem to miss the purpose of our messaging,” Book said. “Awareness and education is our focus. Redundancy of message is a part of that.”

She also sees no conflict, Book added. “I have been advised that the work of the foundation may continue as it has for years educating the public and raising awareness about childhood sexual abuse,” she said. “Furthermore, the program is approved by Florida law.”

The Plantation Democrat, whose father Ronald Book is a powerful lobbyist and president of Lauren’s Kids, said she resigned from the board of directors of her nonprofit’s fundraising arm to “add an additional (but entirely unnecessary) layer between myself and the foundation.”

“I derive no personal benefit from public tax dollars except knowing that these monies are being used to save lives, raise awareness and prevent childhood sexual abuse,” she said.

In 2010, the Florida Legislature approved a bill adding Lauren’s Kids to a list of charitable organizations eligible for donations through auto tag registration applications and renewals, as well as driver’s license applications and renewals. The charities are listed on a form with a box next to each organization that the recipient can check off to receive a voluntary contribution. The legislation also allows Lauren’s Kids and the 43 other authorized nonprofits to include inserts promoting their cause in the renewal notices.

According to a 2010 legislative bill analysis and fiscal impact statement, the legislation authorizing Lauren’s Kids placement on the list was sponsored by then-state Rep. Marcelo Llorente from Miami and current Senate President Joe Negron. In order to qualify, Lauren’s Kids was required to submit an application to the motor vehicles department, along with a $20,000 check to “defray the costs of reviewing the application and developing the check-off.”

In addition, Lauren’s Kids had to submit a financial analysis and a marketing strategy outlining the anticipated revenues and planned expenditures to be derived from the voluntary contributions.

DMV passes the buck

However, after nearly four weeks of repeatedly requesting documentation about Lauren’s Kids participation in the program, motor vehicles spokesperson Alexis Bakofsky told Florida Bulldog there was none. “The department does not place Lauren’s Kids educational materials in driver license renewal mailings or have information regarding Lauren’s Kids educational materials being placed in auto tag renewal mailings from tax collector offices,” Bakofsky said. “You may want to contact a Tax Collector office for any additional information.”

Bakofsky did provide Florida Bulldog with a spreadsheet detailing how much money each of the 44 organizations received in fiscal years 2013-2014, 2015 and 2016. In those years, Lauren’s Kids received $161,936, $213,517 and $197,397, respectively. Only one other group has been able to raise a six-figure sum. Support Our Troops collected $108,791 in fiscal year 2013-2014.

The money raised through the renewal notice program is in addition to other funding Lauren’s Kids receives, including $8.5 million in state grants since 2012.

Sen. Book referred specific questions about the program to Lauren’s Kids communications director Claire VanSusteren, who did not respond to a list of 11 questions about the inserts despite four requests for comment via email and voicemail during a two-week period in March.

VanSusteren provided Florida Bulldog only with a copy of Lauren’s Kids 2015 tax return, which states Lauren’s Kids spent $449,785 to “develop an educational piece regarding protecting children against sex abuse that is included with all vehicle registration renewals… the goal is to reach as many individuals with direct messaging as possible.”

The tax return also states “that over 6 million individuals will read the material this year.”

In addition, Lauren’s Kids reaches another 50,000 individuals in December of each year through a “targeted program [that] occurs in driver’s license renewal offices” that provides “educational materials on how to better protect our children from predators and pedophiles.”

Broward County’s Rowe told Florida Bulldog that Lauren’s Kids was added administratively in 2011. “We don’t advertise it to participating charities,” Rowe said. “It’s up to the organizations to submit a request for the inserts to be included.” Only two other nonprofit organizations have asked to include inserts in renewal notices besides Lauren’s Kids, he added.

“Outside of those three, no one else has done it,” Rowe said.

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney mum about fat fees paid to White House Counsel’s ex-law firm

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples

From last July to March, the campaign committee for freshman Florida Congressman Francis Rooney paid roughly $117,000 to the former law firm of White House Counsel Donald McGahn II. However, neither Rooney nor McGahn are answering questions about the payments to Jones Day, a global firm based in Cleveland where McGahn was a partner for nearly three years before joining President Donald Trump’s administration in January.

So far, the only information McGahn, a former commissioner for the Federal Election  Commission, has released is that he provided “legal services” exceeding $5,000 to the Rooney for Congress campaign committee, according to his public financial disclosure report. Campaign finance reports filed by Rooney for Congress show nine disbursements to Jones Day between last July and March. Jones Day received five of those payments totaling $72,328 after the Nov. 8 election, including $17,505 on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Jan. 19

Efforts by Florida Bulldog to get answers about the type of “legal services” McGahn and Jones Day provided Rooney for Congress were unsuccessful. Over the course of four days, White House media affairs director and former Miami political television host Helen Ferre did not respond to three email requests to interview McGahn. Likewise, Rooney press secretary Chris Berardi did not respond to three emails and three voicemails requesting comment from the Naples-area U.S. representative, a rising star in the Capitol’s GOP power circle. A spokesman for Jones Day declined comment.

McGahn and Rooney may not want to talk, but a government watchdog group and two campaign finance lawyers who spoke to Florida Bulldog believe the costly legal services may be for defending the congressman or his committee in a civil investigation for either ethics or campaign violations.

“You can never really know without them telling you,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “But that pattern of spending is consistent with people who are under investigation by the Federal Election Commission.”

He added: “It certainly raised a flag when we started looking at Donald McGahn’s financial disclosure statement.”

The attorneys, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, concurred that the expenditures seem to indicate that a probe by the commission, also known as the FEC, is taking place. “There could be a civil investigation by the FEC inquiring about donations and expenditures within the campaign,” said one lawyer, who has represented clients accused of federal civil and criminal campaign violations. “Once the FEC starts an inquiry, you got to get a lawyer.”

The other lawyer, who primarily represents city, county and state candidates, said it could also be that Rooney is under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics. “That would entitle him to the use of his campaign funds to defend against a complaint,” the attorney said. “I can’t see anything else these payments are for but an investigation.”

Riding the Trump train

Rooney, one of the first prominent Florida Republicans to climb aboard the Trump train, has become a leading conservative voice. The former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Rooney owns a construction company that built the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium and the presidential libraries honoring the two Bush presidents. Before jumping into the race to represent Florida’s 19th Congressional District, Rooney was one of the top Republican rainmakers in the country.

In February, Rooney participated in two panels about national security and political correctness at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. In a press statement at the time, CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp hailed Rooney as a “much needed and welcomed” addition to Congress. “He will stand up for you and for conservative policies,” Schlapp said. “We are proud to welcome him to our stage next week.”

While filings for Rooney for Congress don’t show any warning letters from the FEC regarding impermissible donations and expenditures, McGahn seems to be the ideal counselor to hire when campaigns run into trouble with the commission.

A January Jones Day press release touted McGahn’s commission credentials from 2008 to 2013 when Trump selected him as White House Counsel. “He led what has been called a ‘revolution’ in campaign finance,” the statement says. “He rewrote virtually all of the FEC’s procedures for audits, enforcement matters, and advisory opinions, which provide for an unprecedented amount of due process.”

However, press reports paint a much more controversial tenure. Campaign finance reform groups clashed with McGahn over his efforts to deregulate the FEC. He voted to loosen restrictions that prohibited parties from using campaign money for recounts and litigation. In 2013 before he resigned, he unsuccessfully pushed a rule that would have barred FEC lawyers from sharing information with federal prosecutors without commission approval. But McGahn was instrumental in passing a new rule allowing campaigns and party committees to present their cases in open session instead of behind closed doors.

McGahn joined the Trump team early on in the billionaire developer’s astonishing run to win the White House. He served as the campaign’s general counsel and lists several Trump political committees as clients on his financial disclosure form. When Trump appointed him as the commander-in-chief’s top lawyer, 13 attorneys from Jones Day joined McGahn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since Trump took office, McGahn has been at the center of some of the biggest controversies to hit the new administration. For instance, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned McGahn’s office in January that Michael Flynn, Trump’s first pick as National Security Adviser, had misled officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his conversations with Russia’s U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

When Flynn was subsequently forced to resign after his compromised position was leaked to national media outlets, questions arose about McGahn’s handling of the information he received. During a February press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended McGahn, saying he “informed the President immediately” and that he concluded Flynn did not violate any laws after conducting “exhaustive and extensive questioning of Flynn.”

Ms. Book goes to Tallahassee, sees no conflict voting $ for Lauren’s Kids or dad’s clients

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Lauren and Ron Book in Times Square in March 2015 promoting her child sex abuse education book. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Freshman Broward State Sen. Lauren Book says she won’t abstain from voting on matters involving clients of her father, powerful lobbyist Ron Book. Similarly, she sees no conflict of interest in voting on measures to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to benefit her non-profit charity and political launching pad, Lauren’s Kids.

Book, a Plantation Democrat, offered her thoughts on the issue of personal voting conflicts in an email exchange last week with Florida Bulldog.

“No,” she said when asked if she plans to abstain from voting on any matters involving Ron Book’s clients. “In ALL matters, I will vote my conscience and in what I believe is best for my district, for Broward County, and for the people of the State of Florida.”

Sen. Book also said that Lauren’s Kids would again seek significant state funding during this year’s legislative session that began March 7. Does that mean she will abstain from voting on bills to authorize funding for her organization?

“No. I have met with the Counsel of the Senate and have been advised that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not,” Sen. Book said.

Lauren’s Kids, however, pays Sen. Book a six-figure annual salary for serving as its chief executive. In 2015, her salary was $135,000 – a $20,000 increase from 2014, according to the charity’s federal income tax returns.

“My salary is not paid for with any state funds,” said Sen. Book. “I derive no personal benefit from public tax dollars except knowing that these monies are being used to save lives, raise awareness and prevent childhood sexual abuse.”

Sen. Book said that to make certain her salary includes no state dollars, she “restructured my employment to ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work” once she declared her candidacy. She declined to elaborate on how she accomplished that restructuring and that separation.

Ron and Lauren Book at a Tallahassee rally promoting Lauren’s Kids in April 2015. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Sen. Book did say, however, that she resigned from the board of directors of the Lauren’s Kids Foundation “to add an additional (but entirely unnecessary) layer between myself and the Foundation.”

Lauren’s Kid’s tax return for 2015 – the latest available – shows the charity received more than 83 percent of its $4.5 million in total revenue that year from the state. Since 2012, records show, the state has contributed more than $10 million to Lauren’s Kids.

The Florida Department of Education has requested another $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids for Fiscal Year 2017-18 “so we can continue to educate children and families to prevent abuse and help survivors,” said Sen. Book. “I might add, the DOE would only recommend funding if as experts they believed the curriculum was of significant benefit to our children.’’

Ron Book as landlord

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, is the unpaid president of Lauren’s Kids. Yet he also makes money from Lauren’s Kids. According to the 501(c) (3) organization’s 2015 tax return, he paid himself $61,651 for renting space to Lauren’s Kids in his Aventura office.

Ron Book, who is also on the charity’s board, collected $63,175 in rent from Lauren’s Kids in 2014, according to that year’s tax return.

Ron Book declined to comment.

On Wednesday, March 22, Sen. Book will face one of the first ethical tests of her nascent political career. As a member of the Florida Senate’s health policy committee, she will be evaluating five bills to establish the rules and regulations for the state’s medical marijuana industry.

While some patient and industry advocates argue the state should open up the market to competition, four of the bills discourage participation by more cannabis providers beyond the seven companies already licensed to manufacture a non-psychoactive, non-smokable form of the drug under a restrictive medical marijuana program set up by the Legislature in 2014.

Among the Florida licensed providers is a joint venture between Homestead-based nursery Alpha Foliage and Surterra, an Atlanta-based medical marijuana company that employs the senator’s father Ron Book as its Tallahassee lobbyist.

While government watchdogs said Sen. Book should abstain from voting on any matters involving her father, she told Florida Bulldog she has no intention of doing so because Florida law and Senate rules do not prohibit it.

“As I stated above, I will follow the letter and spirit of the law in how I vote and how I conduct my business,” she said.

Conflict questions loom

Still, questions about Sen. Book’s potential vote conflicts involving both her father’s 100-plus clients and Lauren’s Kids loom large.

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog organization Integrity Florida, noted that because Florida has a citizen legislature that allows members to have outside employment, the bar is set low when it comes to ethical requirements.

Florida’s weak Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees says that state officers “may not vote on any matter that the officer knows would inure to his or her special gain or loss.” It does not prohibit such votes. Rather, the code says vaguely that officers who vote to benefit themselves or a relative “shall make every reasonable effort to disclose the nature of his or her interest in a public memorandum” that can be filed up to 15 days after the vote.

Integrity Florida Research Director Ben Wilcox

Sen. Book, nevertheless, could face questions when it comes time to vote on an appropriations bill that would include Lauren’s Kids, which advocates against child sex abuse.

“You are not supposed to vote on something that has a direct benefit to you personally,” said Wilcox. “That is where she may get into some trouble if her organization is getting an appropriation from the Legislature.”

Wilcox said Book should also be mindful about voting on matters favorable to her father’s clients. “She should be sensitive to the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Wilcox said. “Even if it technically is not a conflict, it raises questions in the public’s mind and causes the public to lose confidence in government.”

Since founding Lauren’s Kids 10 years ago, Book has seemed on a trajectory for public office. In addition to appearing before the Legislature to lobby in favor of laws that crack down on sexual predators and child abusers, Book has led an annual walk from Key West to Tallahassee to raise awareness for child sex victims that receives statewide media coverage. She’s also written two books, including one for children, about her own experience being sexually abused by her former nanny. Book and her father had a starring role in the recently released documentary about Florida’s sex offender laws called Untouchable.

Book, 32, decided to run for the Senate seat previously held by Eleanor Sobel, who left the Legislature in 2016 due to term limits. After raising more than $1.5 million through her campaign and her political action committee, Leadership for Broward, Book automatically won the seat when no one filed to run against her. A Bulldog analysis of her 2015 and 2016 campaign finance reports and her father’s client list show she received $35,000 from 15 entities that employ Ron Book.

Clients and contributions

Of that amount, her campaign received $1,000 apiece from two of Surterra’s owners, Michael Havenick and Alexander Havenick, who is also vice president and general counsel for Southwest Florida Enterprises, a company that owns several pari-mutuels in the state, including Magic City Casino in Miami. Southwest, four affiliated companies and four other Havenicks also each gave the $1,000 maximum to Sen. Book’s campaign.

According to 2016 lobbyist compensation reports filed with the state, Ron Book’s law firm was paid between $40,000 and $80,000 by Surterra to lobby the Legislature. Ron L. Book P.A. also received approximately $30,000 from Surterra to lobby the executive branch.

Lauren’s Kids has also been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in state funding. According to the organization’s 2014 tax return, Lauren’s Kids received $2.7 million in state grants. Its 2015 tax return shows the nonprofit got $3.4 million that year from Florida’s Department of Education. In 2016, records show, the Legislature awarded Lauren’s Kids $1 million.

A Lauren’s Kids insert in a Florida Department of Motor Vehicles registration renewal.

Florida’s Department of Motor Vehicles also contributes to Lauren’s Kids via the sale of specialty license plates approved by the Legislature. Lauren’s Kids, which got its specialty tag in 2013, received $294,653 from the DMV in 2015, tax records show.

Further, the DMV allows Lauren’s Kids to insert a brochure asking for donations in every auto tag renewal notice mailed to Florida residents. Lauren’s Kids is one of several nonprofits eligible to insert their brochures under the specialty tag program.

Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor who teaches a course on ethics in U.S. politics, said in an interview that Book might derive a benefit from her father’s earnings as a lobbyist. “Parents always help out their kids,” Rosenson said. “Let’s say she had a medical emergency or something in which she needed money so her father’s financial situation is not something that is totally separate from hers.”

Rosenson said Sen. Book’s potential for conflict is analogous to President Donald Trump and his sons, who have taken over the Republican billionaire’s companies while he’s in the White House. “In a perfect world, she would realize that her relationship with her father raises questions of conflict of interest,” Rosenson said. “So ideally, yes she should recuse herself.”

When it comes to Lauren’s Kids, Integrity Florida’s Wilcox said even if Book’s salary is not being paid with state funds, she should still abstain from voting on matters involving her nonprofit. “In an abundance of caution, that is something she may want to reconsider,” Wilcox said. “While technically it may be correct, I don’t think it will look good to the public.”

Miami-Dade judge sent Shelborne Hotel case to judge with similar conflict

By Francisco Alvarado, Florida Bulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Circuit judges Beatrice Butchko, left, and Jennifer Bailey

The Miami-Dade Circuit judge who chose to quit presiding over the high-profile Shelborne Hotel case due to an apparent conflict of interest, funneled the case directly to a second judge with a similar conflict in a way that avoided the case being randomly reassigned.

Typically, judges recuse themselves from cases in which they have a disqualifying conflict or the appearance of a conflict. But in the Shelborne case, Judge Jennifer Bailey chose another path after disclosing that she briefly had attended a meeting with Chief Judge Bertila Soto at which prominent Miami Beach developer Russell Galbut presented preliminary plans to build a new civil courthouse on nearby property partially owned by one of his companies. Two other of Galbut’s companies were defendants in the Shelborne case.

“If I am a plaintiff and I read in the newspaper in a month that Russell Galbut is going to build a new courthouse, I might not be incredibly comfortable with Judge Bailey hearing my case,” Bailey said in open court during a Dec. 14 hearing.

But five days later, using her authority as administrative judge of the civil division, Bailey transferred the case to her associate administrative judge, Beatrice Butchko, who also actively campaigned in 2014 to convince voters to approve a bond referendum to pay for a new $350 million courthouse to replace downtown’s landmark courthouse built in 1928. The referendum did not pass.

Within weeks, Butchko tossed out the entire case that Bailey had set for trial in early January.

“Cases are randomly reassigned upon recusal,” said court spokeswoman Eunice Sigler. “This was not a recusal. This was a transfer.”  Transfers fall under the jurisdiction of the administrative judge, per 11th Judicial Circuit administrative orders adopted in 1979 and 2016.

For more than two years, Bailey had presided over the lawsuit filed by 40 investors who purchased rooms at the historic art deco Shelborne South Beach against the property’s condo association, condo board members, and companies tied to developer Galbut. The plaintiffs, who sued in 2012, alleged the condo association illegally assessed them $30 million in unnecessary repairs and renovations at the Shelborne, damaged their rooms and have tried to force them into foreclosure so the Galbut entities can acquire their units at a huge discount.

Butchko, however, made quick work of the investors’ case after she took over. She dismissed key parts in early January, days before jury selection was to begin.  She tossed the rest the following week. She did so while brushing aside a plaintiffs’ request that she recuse herself from the case and for a change of venue.

‘Dirty work’

“Obviously we were going to ask Bailey to remove herself once we found out about her involvement with Galbut,” Gia Hutt, one of the 40 investors, told Florida Bulldog. “But before any of that happened, she handed off the dirty work to Butchko, who destroyed our case.”

Hutt said the investors’ plan an appeal, but none was filed as of Tuesday.

Miami-Dade court spokeswoman Sigler said Bailey and Butchko would not comment on their rulings. She explained, however, that Bailey assigned the case to Butchko, who are both in the complex business litigation section, because Butchko was the only judge available to handle what was expected to be a 7-week trial for the Shelborne case that was set to start Jan. 9.

“The parties expressed their satisfaction with the transfer at the time, in the interest of keeping their specially-set trial date,” Sigler added.

But the case never got to jury selection. On Jan. 20, Butchko issued a summary judgment in favor of the Shelborne Beach Hotel Condominium Association and its board, as well as Shelborne Property Associates and Shelborne Operating Associates, two companies partially owned by Galbut. Butchko ruled that the plaintiffs had not presented any material facts disputing the defendants’ assertions that the repairs were necessary to address life safety issues.

Alice K. Sum, an attorney at the Fowler White Burnett law firm who represented the condo association, refuted Hutt’s claims that Bailey and Butchko were both compromised because of their public advocacy for a new courthouse and Galbut’s offer to build one.

“On the first day we appeared before Butchko, she said she didn’t know who Russell Galbut is and that her involvement in anything related to a new courthouse dated back to the prior initiative that was voted down in 2014,” Sum explained. “There’s no doubt lawyers and judges would like a new courthouse. But to imply no judge can be impartial because of that is to taint public servants unnecessarily.”

Kevin Malek, lead attorney for Hutt and the other 39 investors, declined comment.

Motions denied

Hutt, however, said that before Bailey disclosed her meeting with Galbut and transferred the case to Butchko, she had denied motions by the defendants to dismiss 8 of the 12 counts in their lawsuit, including civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and other wrongdoing. According to a Dec. 29 motion filed by the defendants, Bailey’s rulings were contrary to state law that required her to disclose her conflict before making a decision.

On Jan. 6, 19 days after she took over the case, Butchko granted the defendants’ request to reverse Bailey’s denials and dismissed the eight counts, according to court documents. By doing so, Hutt contends, Butchko crippled their case.

“You have a judge who is on the case for less than a [month] and throws out most of our lawsuit,” she said. “She took our rights away to go before a jury.”

Condo association attorney Sum said Butchko had sufficient time to process evidence presented by the defense that the repairs and renovations were not only necessary, but mandated by the City of Miami Beach. She claimed the plaintiffs’ counsel offered nothing to refute that.

“Judge Butchko explained she has been brought in again and again to take over cases,” Sum said. “So she had a lot of experience getting up to speed on cases dumped on her last minute. Butchko is well regarded among her peers and lawyers as a hard worker.”

Lenny Walder, another the 40 investors, doesn’t buy it.

“The same element of ‘eureka’ and awareness Bailey had on the new courthouse issue should have applied to Butchko, since she too is a courthouse advocate,” Walder said. “What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Butchko should have recused herself.”

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