Miami-Dade Schools, union push costly private loan program for lowest paid workers

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Terry Haynes, senior vice president of Local 1184 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

A union representing the lowest-paid Miami-Dade Public Schools employees has endorsed a proposed private loan program for its members that would charge 24 percent interest with the school district collecting loan repayments by deducting them from employee paychecks.

The proposal, which did not go before the Miami-Dade School Board for public discussion and approval or review, has drawn criticism from an outspoken union official who will seek to become president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1184, in a May election.

“The interest rate is high” for the union employees and “puts them in harm’s way,” said controversial Local 1184 Senior Vice President Terry Haynes. Haynes was suspended by the loca’s executive board last month but reinstated March 28 by AFSCME’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. following an investigation.

Critical of the union and the school district for backing a contract change that allows for a private company to set up the loan program, Haynes said, “If they want to do something, why not something more manageable” than 24 percent interest? “If we have people going out for those loans,” he said, “it means they are not being paid enough.”

The loan program proposal arises from a modification to the labor contract that was agreed to by the school district and the union Jan. 31. The change allows for the union to have another payroll deduction slot for “other economic services” to be used by “entities or businesses” as designated, with the school district being held harmless under the plan.

Vicki Hall, Local 1184 president who signed the agreement on behalf of the union, Hall did not respond to requests for comment, including a question about what benefits the union might receive for backing the BMG loan program. Union draft documents about the program, however, state that BMG would provide financial literacy training to union workers; support union membership drives and make an unspecified contribution to the union.

But Tom McCormick, chief growth officer for BMG Money Inc., said in an email, “We do not plan on offering any incentives to AFSCME based on any milestones.”

Two school district officials — Vivian Santiesteban-Pardo, assistant superintendent in charge of Labor Relations and Compensation, and Jose Dotres, Chief Human Resources Officer, who signed the “Memorandum of Understanding” on behalf of the district – also failed to return calls for comment.

A new payroll slot

But in a district email response, Santiesteban-Pardo said that in September the union had requested the payroll department to “add a payroll slot for Loans at Work, a program offered through BMG Money… The Union has not presented the District with the agreement in order to begin the program. The terms and conditions of the program are subject to the agreement between BMG and AFSCME. At this time, no other union in M-DCPS has requested a payroll slot for BMG Money.”

A draft letter from AFSCME Local 1184 backing the BMG loan program states: “Sometimes when savings aren’t available and neither banks nor credit unions can help, these expenses can create true financial hardships in our lives…

“Though the interest rate is somewhat higher than what our more fortunate members might pay, 23.99%, it is definitely reasonable in comparison to payday loans that charge anywhere from 200%-400% APR… The availability of the [BMG] LoansAtWork program is in the best interest of our members – another tool in times of need.”

Haynes, however, said there is something wrong when only the lowest-paid employees are being offered the loan program at what he considers a high rate. The union should not be a party to this, he said, adding he told Hall it was not good for union employees.

The school district will, in effect, become a “collection agency” because loan repayments will be made through the district’s payroll deduction system, said Haynes.

BMG’s McCormick declined to comment on any talks with the district and Local 1184, but did discuss his company’s program.

“BMG Money’s LoansAtWork program is a fixed-rate, fixed-payment employee emergency loan program,” McCormick stated. “When facing an expected expense, too many good people with good jobs are left with few options except predatory payday lenders… Payday lenders in Florida offer short-term loans with absurdly high interest rates of 265% and repayment terms that make the loans exceedingly burdensome on borrowers.”

But a Tallahassee-based consumer group that strongly opposes predatory payday lending says BMG’s 23.99 percent interest, while considerably lower, is no bargain, either.

“I would say it is a pretty high interest rate,” said Alice Vickers, director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection. “I certainly would call it not very risky [for BMG] with an interest rate that high and guaranteed repayment through paycheck deduction…I advocate they lower the rate.”

BMG Money

BMG Money Inc., incorporated in September 2009 in Delaware, began operations in Florida in 2010 and has an office on Brickell Avenue. The company’s majority shareholder is an affiliate of Banco BMG S.A. of Sao Paulo, Brazil, according to bid documents it presented to Broward County government, where the company is under consideration for establishment of a loan program for county employees.

Banco BMG S.A., according to Bloomberg Private Business Information, “provides commercial and credit, financing, and investment products and services primarily in Brazil.” It also provides “salary account deductible loans … personal direct debit loan accounts for civil servants, retirees … and pensioners,” according to Bloomberg.

In its short time in Florida, BMG has been busy. In its documents to Broward County government, BMG stated it has 42 governmental or public entity clients, all in Florida, and has issued “over $107 million of loans to employees who otherwise would have fallen victim to predatory payday loans.”

Among the 42 clients are Broward County Public Schools and the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. The loan programs with these other government agencies were offered to all employees working for those agencies after being reviewed and or authorized by the governing bodies.

BMG’s bid documents to Broward County give a glimpse of how the loan program operates: Loans do not compound, do not require credit reports, do not require fees, will be “unsecured” (not require the backing of homes, cars or savings as collateral), will be in amounts from $500 to $5,000, will be repaid through payroll deductions over six to 24 months, and can be paid back early without penalty. BMG also provides financial literacy training for borrowers.

The controversy involving the loan program is another sharp difference between Haynes and Hall. Led by Hall, Local 1184’s executive board on March 7 suspended Haynes from his duties as Senior Vice President, but on March 28 he was reinstated by AFSCME’s headquarters after an investigation.

Haynes said he was told by Hall that he was suspended for talking to a reporter for the FloridaBulldog. In an article appearing one day before his March 7 suspension, Haynes questioned why Hall received a huge annual pay hike from the school district two months before the School Board began approval of two contracts totaling $1.8 million, over a five-year period, to outsource lawn service normally done by union employees. Haynes linked the pay boost to the two contracts that the union failed to challenge at the time of School Board approvals.

Hollywood targets hundreds arrested for domestic violence, public defender cries foul

APRIL 12 – UPDATE WITH RESPONSES FROM HOLLYWOOD POLICE CHIEF. SEE ITALICIZED PARAGRAPHS BELOW.

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez, right, presents an award to Sgt. Rhett Cady last October recognizing his work implementing the department’s anti-domestic violence program

Hollywood police have sent letters to hundreds of residents arrested for domestic violence threatening to target them for enhanced “scrutiny and/or penalties” and “unannounced police checks on your residence.”

The letter, signed by Sgt. Rhett Cady of Hollywood’s Domestic Violence Unit, explains that the city is “taking a new focused approach in preventing future acts of domestic violence” by adding names to a watch list for so-called “C list” offenders.

“Your status as a ‘C’ list offender brings you closer to a possible prison sentence,” Cady wrote. A copy of the watch list obtained by Florida Bulldog contains 574 names.

The letters, dated the day of a suspect’s arrest, began going out last year after Hollywood implemented its “Offender Focused Domestic Violence Initiative (OFDVI).” The city’s website says it is the first program of its kind in the state and is intended “to stop the repeat cycle of violence… This style of policing is often referred to as ‘Focused Deterrence.’

Today, however, the program is drawing fire from the Broward Public Defender’s Office, which says the police department’s letter to domestic violence arrestees is “an abuse of police power.”

“There is no legal authority for the letter, thus it is nothing more than an unlawful threat of retaliation directed at individuals who were merely accused of a crime and who are entitled to a presumption of innocence in a court of law,” says an April 6 letter by Public Defender Howard Finkelstein to Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez.

Howard Finkelstein

“The letter smacks of police intimidation and threatens the illegal and unconstitutional entry of the arrestee’s home. This overreaching is offensive to civil liberty and completely ignores the law with respect to law enforcement’s authority to enter a person’s home.”

A Sanchez spokeswoman said Monday evening the chief was formulating a response to Finkelstein. The response was not ready when this story was published.

[On Wednesday, April 12, Sanchez’s office released the chief’s response letter to Finkelstein dated April 10: “As for your concerns about the presumption of innocence of offenders, I am certain your office will protect that presumption in court. As for your concerns about offenders’ civil liberties, this Department safeguards all citizens’ civil liberties. This initiative does not allow for illegal or unconstitutional searches for police action in any way.”]

Public Defender Finkelstein’s letter notes that “it is very telling” that a Hollywood police officer arrested for domestic violence in December “was not placed on the watch list and not sent the target letter. This is either evidence of favoritism and a double standard, or it is a tacit acknowledgement that the letter threatens illegal police action that would be easily recognized by a trained law enforcement officer.’’

Lt. Michael McKinney, 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery on Dec. 28 after his wife told police he hit her twice on the head and kicked her in the rib after an argument turned physical. Officers observed swelling on the wife’s upper forehead and temple as well as redness and swelling on her upper right rib area.

Sgt. Cady arrested McKinney, a 23-year veteran, who spent a night in jail. A police report says McKinney’s wife did not “wish to pursue criminal charges.” Assistant State Attorney Stephanie Newman filed paperwork declining to prosecute on Jan. 24.

[Chief Sanchez’s letter thanks Public Defender Finkelstein “for your concern” for Lt. McKinney, who Sanchez says “was given notice of the Initiative face to face the night of the incident. He has also receive training on the Initiative in much greater depth than anyone else targeted by its focus. He has been held to a much higher standard than the average citizen even after the disposition of his case by the court system. Since the arrest the employee has been assigned to Administrative duties with no police powers as he still faces potential workplace discipline.”]

Hollywood began its “domestic violence initiative” in May 2015.

Lt. Michael McKinney

“The Hollywood Police Department has recognized a large amount of calls for police service have involved domestic related incidents,” says the city’s website. The department’s anti-domestic violence program “works to focus on repeat offenders” by “identifying the most repetitive and violent offenders and hold them accountable, while continuing to pursue justice through all of the investigative stages, including bond court, trial, sentencing and probation.”

The program classifies “domestic incident offenders” based on their “predisposition for violence. The initial domestic-related incident, along with the totality of the offender’s criminal history sets the classification in which offenders are ranked” on a list from A to D. There are 92 active offenders on the “A” list of those deemed the most violent, the website says.

“A provision of the OFDVI program is to take action BEFORE the offender re-offends by providing services and resources to offenders who receive the Hollywood Police Department’s OFDVI deterrence message,” the website says. Those resources include anger management classes, job placement, life coaching and treatment programs “available through a multitude of organizations.”

“The OFDVI deterrence message sets clear standards of expectation for City of Hollywood residents who have engaged in acts of domestic violence and is delivered by uniformed officers daily.’’ When those messages are violated, “the offender progresses into a higher category of the program gaining additional attention from officers and detectives,” the website says.

The city claims that since the program began police have seen a “26 percent (on average)” reduction in domestic-related incidents each month. Police attribute that reduction “to our police officers’ motivation in following up with offenders not initially arrested at the domestic incident – preventing further victimization of individuals, stripping the offenders of their anonymity and by making offenders accountable.”

Public Defender Finkelstein was skeptical of Hollywood’s claims, noting that crime is down across the board.

“When they say the reduction is in part because of their efforts, well maybe in part but I doubt it is statistically significant,” he said. “Checking in on victims is a good idea.  Showing care and concern.  But using threats intimidation and physical force and or presence directed toward the presumed innocent arrestee is wrong and illegal…The road to constitutional hell is always paved with good intentions.”

FBI boss Comey and ‘inexplicable’ delays in case of ‘highest national importance’

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI director James Comey
Photo: CNN

The FBI’s renewed push to dismiss a Miami Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking records of the enigmatic 9/11 Review Commission and FBI activities “of the highest national importance” should be denied, court papers contend.

The filings last week by attorneys for Florida Bulldog also say that facts obtained to date indicate that FBI Director James Comey personally played a role in the FBI’s drawn-out response to records requests filed two years ago. The 9/11 Review Commission also is known as the Meese Commission, after its most prominent member, ex-Attorney General Edwin Meese.

“The facts here create an appearance that the director of the FBI maintained the Meese Commission records in his office; that he did not provide those records to the FBI personnel responsible for processing FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests in a timely fashion; and that when he finally did start to produce them, he made numerous mistakes and omitted critical documents,” wrote Miami First Amendment attorney Thomas Julin who represents Florida Bulldog. “Many records still appear to be missing.”

Julin, of South Florida’s Gunster law firm, also said the FBI has violated FOIA by “repeatedly” imposing “unreasonable and inexplicable delays” and censoring information in its records “without statutory or sensible basis for doing so.” He asked Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga to hold a hearing on the matter.

Besides the missing and censored records, the government has said in court filings that the FBI withheld in full another 1,100 pages about the Meese Commission for a variety of reasons ranging from privacy to national security. Among the records withheld: draft copies of the Meese Commission’s final report.

The result: Many questions about the Meese Commission’s work and an apparent Florida support network for the 9/11 hijackers remain hidden behind a veil of official government secrecy.

“The Bulldog’s central concern: Whether the FBI is concealing evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 attacks on the United States but failed to conduct a proper investigation of it – either in a misguided effort to allow the Saudi government to get away with murder or due to negligence,” Julin wrote.

In a reply filed Tuesday afternoon in support of the government’s motion for summary judgment, a Miami federal prosecutor countered that the FBI’s document searches were reasonable and fair and its redactions records were lawful.

“Plaintiffs chief complaint is about the amount of time that it took the FBI to search for and produce records. However, delays in processing a FOIA request do not amount to a showing of agency bad faith,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell.

Lawsuit filed in June

Florida Bulldog’s parent company, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI in June 2016 – 14 months after its initial FOIA request for Meese Commission records produced no records. The commission, authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post 9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence, was chosen, paid and controlled by the FBI. It issued its final report in March 2015.

In early November, the FBI started releasing some records. Among other things, one FBI report showed that as late as October 2012 agents and prosecutors in New York were actively investigating a support network for 9/11 hijackers who crashed into the Pentagon. Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and Philadelphia attorney Sean Carter, who represents clients suing Saudi Arabia, said the disclosure was contrary to the FBI’s previous public statements about 9/11.

Since then, the bureau has continued trickling out records, the latest 20 partially redacted pages released last week. Another 282 pages of responsive documents were withheld in full. The release was made nearly a month after a trial scheduled to begin in early March was delayed at the FBI’s request.

Judge Altonaga has called the FBI’s delays in producing records “shocking.”

Some of the latest released records are about Saudis Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, former Sarasota-area residents who came under FBI scrutiny after neighbors reported they had moved suddenly out of their upscale home two weeks before 9/11. An April 2002 FBI report obtained by Florida Bulldog says the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to persons involved in 9/11. The FBI has said publicly that it found no such connections and has disavowed the 2002 report to the Meese Commission – albeit without explaining why.

One heavily redacted interview report showed that in April 2004 a source told the FBI that al-Hijji knew some of the 9/11 suicide hijackers who trained at an airport in nearby Venice, showed the source a website about Osama bin Laden and also spoke of going to fight in Afghanistan. Another document shows that as of Aug. 31, 2004 the FBI had not interviewed al-Hijji.

The FBI’s point in redacting so much of that interview report, including the name of its source Wissam Hammoud, is unclear. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement released to the Bulldog its own report on the matter – containing virtually identical language – without any redactions in 2011. Here are copies of the FBI report and the FDLE report for you to compare.

Hammoud, 51, is currently serving a 21-year prison term after pleading guilty in 2005 in federal court in Tampa to weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has classified him as an “international terrorist associate.”

Red flags

Julin’s court papers cite a number of “red flags” regarding how FBI’s search and review of records suggest “that someone within the FBI or some other governmental agency had stepped in front of the orderly process being carried out by the FBI’s FOIA professionals” – notably that FBI Director Comey kept the Meese Commission records in his office and out of the FBI’s Central Records System.

The FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section, or RIDS, “apparently elected to defer to, and rely exclusively on the FBI Director’s Office to respond to the Bulldog’s request. This raised a red flag.”

When records turned up in late January that should have been made public earlier, the head of RIDS, David M. Hardy, filed court papers pointing the finger at Comey, saying they “were not initially identified because the Director’s Office had inadvertently mistaken these records as duplicates.”

“This gave every indication that the Director’s Office, not the FOIA bureaucratic professionals, had taken charge of this case,” Julin wrote in his response to the government.

The plot thickened in mid-March when the government announced that Comey’s office had identified for the first time “certain hard copy records held in storage” that might hold relevant information.

“This red flag suggested that FBI Director James Comey intentionally concealed responsive records,” Julin wrote.

“The director’s actions appear, in fact, to have been designed either to punish the Bulldog for shining a light on the FBI’s work through its initial FOIA action, which exposed the FBI’s public statements concerning its Sarasota investigation as outright falsehoods, or to interfere with its continuing investigation, or both,” Julin wrote.

In government paperwork filed Tuesday, the FBI called the allegations against Comey “baseless” and “outrageous.”

Prodded by federal judge, FBI finally identifies Sarasota Saudis by name in court

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Six years after news broke that the FBI found ties between 9/11 hijackers and a Saudi family who’d moved abruptly out of their Sarasota home two weeks before the terrorist attacks – and didn’t tell Congress – the FBI has identified the family publicly.

The disclosure is in a partially declassified Memorandum for the Record that recounts a briefing about the family given by the FBI to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 30, 2014. “Briefing Title: Al-Hiijjii Family,” the document says.

The FBI reluctantly disclosed the family’s last name – which is correctly spelled al-Hijji – in the wake of a Miami federal judge’s Feb. 27 order that it had failed to show that disclosure would invade the al-Hijjis’ privacy. The original version of the memo, released in November, blanked out the al-Hijji name, claiming privacy exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, came to the FBI’s attention within hours of 9/11 when neighbors contacted them to say the couple abruptly had moved out of their upscale home in the Prestancia development, leaving behind their cars and numerous personal belongings. Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince, owned the home.

Among other things, agents later determined that vehicles driven by 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah – who trained at nearby Venice Municipal Airport – had visited the al-Hijji home at 4224 Escondito Circle.

The FBI kept its investigation secret for a decade, not informing Congress or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the attacks.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the investigation in September 2011. The FBI later confirmed the existence of the probe, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The FBI’s disclosure of the al-Hijji name is a small but noteworthy milestone in FOIA litigation brought by Florida Bulldog last June that seeks the release of records of the secretive 9/11 Review Commission. The commission, paid and controlled by the FBI, spent a year conducting an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and evaluating new evidence. It issued a 127-page report in March 2015.

Was al-Hijji a snitch?

The unwillingness of the FBI to publicly identify al-Hijji for so long, even though his name was widely reported, raises questions about why.

“It makes you wonder if they’re going through all this because there’s an arrangement with al-Hijji and Ghazzawi,” said Florida Bulldog’s Miami attorney Thomas Julin. “It smacks of a confidential source agreement.”

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012 Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

The FBI filed court papers this month seeking again to dismiss the lawsuit. In them, the FBI said it had reviewed about 900 pages of classified commission records and declassified and released 328 pages in whole or in part. While some records containing new information about 9/11 were disclosed, many of those records were copies of the FBI’s personal services contracts with commission members and staff.

The government’s filings seek to explain to the court why, despite several ostensibly thorough searches, the bureau continues to report finding new Review Commission documents, as recently as March 7 and again on March 13.

Government court papers said the records, like others previously processed, were under the direct control of FBI Director James Comey, who kept the 9/11 Review Commission’s records stored in his office and not in the FBI’s Central Records System.

The March 7 documents were said to include four additional Memoranda for the Record and “a number of transitory records” the FBI thought it had purged last year. The records were being reviewed for possible release.

“In addition, on March 13, 2017, the FBI Director’s Office identified certain hard copy records held in storage, which had not previously been identified or searched, and which it believes may include material responsive to plaintiffs’ requests,’’ said another government filing. “The Records and Information Dissemination Section is currently retrieving these additional records and will review the same.”

Releasing “in context”

The release of the al-Hijji name, while notable, was not complete. There are clear references to the al-Hijjis elsewhere in the April 30, 2014 Memorandum for the Record, but the names remain redacted.

Here’s how the FBI explains it: “The FBI concedes to releasing the Al-Hiijjiis in this context. This is the summary of information released in a public article.”

The disclosure marks the second time that judicial prodding has caused the FBI to make public names in the memorandum that it previously withheld citing privacy concerns.

In February, the bureau identified Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire as the briefer who told the Review Commission that an explosive April 2002 FBI report stating that agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001” was bogus.

The report flatly contradicted FBI public statements that agents had found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The report “was a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement,” Maguire said, according to the memorandum. The memo, however, contains nothing to explain the basis for Maguire’s assertions.

The agent who wrote the controversial report is Gregory Sheffield. Judge Cecilia Altonaga has ruled that FBI disclosure of his name would not invade his privacy. Nevertheless, the FBI has not acknowledged his name.

The FBI kept Sheffield’s report secret for more than a decade before releasing a partially declassified version to the Florida Bulldog in March 2013 amid separate FOIA litigation in Fort Lauderdale. The document, censored on grounds of national security, confirmed previous reporting.

Strange case: BSO looking to buy rights to embarrassing lawsuit to quash it

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

The Broward Sheriff’s Office is making a bizarre bid to squelch a disturbing lawsuit brought against it by a former employee – it wants to buy all rights to the lawsuit from a bankruptcy court trustee.

The lawsuit, filed in 2015 by former BSO Human Resources Information Manager Jennifer Bakowski, includes a host of allegations against BSO including false imprisonment, defamation and malicious prosecution.

In federal bankruptcy court Thursday, a lawyer for BSO asked the court to deny the trustee’s plan to allow Bakowski to buy back her own lawsuit at a cost of about $86,000. Instead, he said, the sheriff should be allowed to buy it for $161,000 in public dollars.

“If we can acquire the case, we can dismiss the case,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Thomas M. Messana.

“It was his client’s misdeeds that caused the bankruptcy,” countered the trustee’s lawyer, Jason S. Rigoli of Boca Raton. Rigoli argued BSO had no standing to object to the trustee’s proposal to sell the lawsuit back to Bakowski, noting her offer was sufficient to pay off all creditors and attorneys’ fees in full with interest.

“They’re trying to cover up and cap the amount of their liability,” Miami attorney Christian Olson told U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Raymond B. Ray on behalf of Bakowski.

Ray deferred a ruling, and asked both sides to submit final written arguments by March 31. It was unclear whether another hearing on the matter would be held.

Bankruptcy trustee Marc P. Barmat obtained opinions from independent trial attorneys that valued the case as being worth much as $1.2 million, according to attorneys for Bakowski.

Strange case

The strange case arose out of a reopened bankruptcy court case that Bakowski and her husband, Robert, originally filed in 2013 in the wake of her December 2012 firing by Sheriff Scott Israel.

Bakowski was a 13-year employee with an otherwise spotless record when two sheriffs – Al Lamberti and Israel, his successor – publicly accused her of embezzling approximately $1 million. A year later, however, BSO detectives and the State Attorney’s Office cleared Bakowski of wrongdoing after determining, among other things, that in fact no money was missing, court records say.

Jennifer Bakowski

While under investigation, Bakowski and her husband filed for bankruptcy in Fort Lauderdale as their debts piled up following the loss of what was said in court to be a “six-figure salary.” The court discharged the couple’s debts in August 2013.

More than a year later, on Jan. 31, 2015, Bakowski sued Sheriff Israel and several underlings in Broward Circuit Court alleging a variety of misconduct by BSO arising from her dismissal.

In June 2016, an attorney for BSO contacted the trustee to tell him about the lawsuit, alleging it should have been included in the bankruptcy estate because the claims arose well before the underlying damages case was filed in Broward Circuit Court. The trustee soon moved to reopen the Bakowskis’ bankruptcy case and, as required by law, gave notice to the couple’s debtors to refile any claims.

The trustee and the Bakowskis later agreed to avoid the costs of further litigating whether all the alleged causes of action in the state complaint against BSO are property of the estate. They agreed to give all rights and title to the suit to the trustee.

The trustee then proposed to sell to Jennifer Bakowski those bankruptcy rights. After Thursday’s hearing, Bakowski said she would fund the rights purchase with money she recently inherited from her late mother.

The sale would have gone through, but BSO objected. Specifically, BSO’s lawyers complained in court papers, “The sale ‘process’ was opaque, was not conducted at arms length, and favors the debtor over the estate and its creditors.”

“We’re not a disgruntled bidder,” BSO lawyer Messana told Judge Ray. “We’re saying the process was unfair.”

With help from investor-Gov. Scott, Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline looks to open in June

By Joseph A. Mann Jr., FloridaBulldog.org 

A protest in January against the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline in Suwanee River State Park, Live Oak. Photo: WCTV CBS Tallahassee

The Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline, a giant interstate project whose tail reaches over 268 miles into Florida, has generated fierce opposition as its construction moves through the state from Georgia to its end-point in Osceola County, where it is scheduled to link up to an existing gas pipeline in June.

Starting late last year, hundreds of protestors picketed construction sites in northern and central Florida. Some of them handcuffed themselves to machinery, confronted police, set up a camp and organized sit-ins and meetings along the route, which passes through 12 Florida counties. A lawsuit also was filed by a non-profit to halt the project, but the action was denied.

The $3.2-billion project, called Sabal Trail Transmission LLC, is a joint venture among Houston-based Spectra Energy Partners, a major owner of pipelines and storage facilities that is now part of Enbridge Inc., a Canadian energy firm; NextEra Energy (parent of Florida Power & Light) and Duke Energy. FPL and Duke plan to use Sabal Trail’s natural gas to generate electricity in their Florida power plants.

Construction on Florida’s third major gas pipeline, which will run about 516 miles through Alabama, Georgia and Florida when completed, began in September 2016. The line also has two gas compression plants, one at each end, and plans to build three more by 2021.

Opponents – including environmentalists, residents and landowners along the route – warn of environmental harm. For example, they say that drinking water sources and surface water bodies are being damaged by problems like leakage of diesel fuel on land and in water around construction sites, spills of drilling mud used when running the line under the Suwannee River, the appearance of sinkholes near building sites, which could foreshadow damage to karst limestone bedrock in the region, and damage to wetlands and other parts of the countryside as crews clear a 75- to 100-foot swath to lay the underground pipeline.

Complaints also come from landowners whose property was split to accommodate part the pipeline route and from people worried about the long-term safety of the line, which carries large volumes of flammable natural gas under extremely high pressure.

Moreover, some opponents question whether the utilities building this pipeline will actually need the new volumes of natural gas for Florida, and say they may be planning to liquefy and export gas at a later date.

Sabal Trail pipeline route

“The construction of a natural gas transportation corridor threatens the state’s vulnerable fresh water supply and will leave Florida citizens having to deal with this forever,” Merrilee Malwitz-Jipson, an organizer for the Sierra Club in northern Florida told the Florida Bulldog. Projects like this will make Floridians dependent on fossil fuel for many decades “when its citizens continually vote for solar energy and renewables,” she said. “We’re not alone. This is happening all over the country.”

Sierra Club volunteers watching construction work proceed have seen heavy equipment tipped over in wetlands, leaking fuel, a lack of appropriate fencing for wildlife and drainage of some bodies of water along the pipeline route, she added. “The pipeline is impacting 700 bodies of water between here and Alabama, and we don’t know if they are being restored.”

Broad media attention

While not receiving national attention like protests over the Dakota Access oil pipeline or the Keystone XL, Sabal Trail has become a cause célèbre, receiving broad media attention, particularly in northern Florida.

More than a dozen protesters have been arrested and later released at different locations. In an incident apparently unrelated to the peaceful protests, a 66-year-old man was shot and killed by police after he used a rifle to shoot at the pipeline and equipment in Marion County and then fled the scene, according to media reports. Police are still investigating the case, but pipeline opponents said that they rejected violent acts and that the individual was not part of their movement.

Gov. Rick Scott also is a factor in the Sabal Trail story. The governor actively supported the project, signing two bills in 2013 that helped speed up the extended approval process.

Gov. Rick Scott

In 2014, Florida Bulldog reported exclusively that the governor owned a stake in one of the pipeline partners, Spectra Energy, and that he apparently still owns shares in the company through a blind trust. Florida ethics rules generally ban government officials from owning stock in companies subject to their regulation, or in companies that do business with state agencies. Scott also has holdings in other pipeline companies that produce or transport natural gas, some with Florida operations, the Bulldog reported.

In subsequent reporting, the Bulldog asked the governor’s office about potential conflicts of interest, but was told there are no conflicts since Gov. Scott has no knowledge of the current investments held in the blind trust, which is administered by third parties.

“Florida is swarming with protests, like an antbed stirred up by a 600-mile pipeline stick,” John A. Quarterman, president of WWALS Watershed Coalition and a key pipeline opponent, said in a recent interview. The coalition is the WATERKEEPER affiliate for the Suwannee River and its tributaries.

“I was the first to call for protests against the pipeline in 2014, and we’ve seen a big swell of support since the middle of last year,” said Quarterman, whose non-profit organization works for water conservation.

Hoping to derail the pipeline, WWALS filed a petition against Sabal Trail and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, seeking an administrative hearing. WWALS said that the pipeline poses a threat to native wildlife and that drilling in karst limestone along the pipeline would cause sinkholes. It also said that Gov. Rick Scott has a conflict of interest, since he has investments in Spectra Energy, part of Sabal Trail joint venture. This legal challenge was turned down.

In an interview, Quarterman also said that Florida utilities will not need the new volumes of natural gas to be provided by Sabal Trail, and suggested that they instead plan to liquefy and export a major share of future gas deliveries.

Pipeline needed?

“There is no need for this pipeline, and the approximately $3 billion being used would provide a lot of solar power for the Sunshine State,” he said.

In defense of the natural gas transmission project, Andrea Grover, a spokeswoman at Spectra Energy, pointed out the following:

  • Before construction work began, she said, the company successfully went through an extensive permitting process, obtaining approval from a variety federal and state entities, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and others. The need for new natural gas supplies in Florida and an additional pipeline were demonstrated in the planning, permitting and approval process.
  • Karst conditions exist in south-central George and northern Florida, the company spokeswoman said, and much larger infrastructure projects – highways, railroads, urban development have been built in these areas already.
  • Sabal Trail uses best practices for its construction work, and its safety programs often exceed regulatory requirements.
  • After completion, the pipeline will be monitored around the clock according to state and federal safety regulations.
  • According to outside analysts, Sabal Trail is having a significant economic impact on Alabama, Georgia and Florida. This includes the creation of more than 5,600 construction jobs, over $207 million paid to construction workers and about $1 billion spent directly and indirectly on construction activities. Once completed, the pipeline and compression plants will have more than 500 permanent jobs and will provide new tax revenues for local governments. In Florida, the pipeline is expected to create more than 2,700 jobs during construction, and 288 permanent jobs after completion. Aside from construction wages, tens of millions of dollars are being spent in Florida for items like trucking, security, fuel, gravel, equipment rentals, meals and lodging, as well as other supplies and services.
  • Pipeline representatives held public outreach meeting with landowners, community members and public officials. “Some stakeholders did raise concerns,” Grover said. “These have been vetted and addressed by Sabal Trail or federal and state agencies. No one had to be required to permanently relocate during construction.”

Asked if protests had significantly delayed construction, Grover said that the current in-service date (June 2017) was changed from May 2017 due to normal internal decision-making, planning (which began around 2013) and permit applications.

However, one section of Sabal’s website said that original in-service date would be March 2017.

Construction is still underway in several of the Florida counties in the pipeline’s path, and over 81 percent of the pipe is in the ground. The pipeline is installed in a type of “assembly line” process. Construction crews first clear an area up to 100 feet wide, grade the land, dig a ditch for the pipeline, string pipe sections together, weld and then lower the pipe into the ditch, which is filled in. The work area is then cleaned up and vegetation is restored.

“Following pipeline installation,” Grover said, “all disturbed areas will be returned as close as possible to their original contours. Temporary [construction] workspace will be allowed to return to its original state. The entire work area will be restored in compliance with all applicable federal, state and local permits.

“As part of our commitment, we want to establish a positive footprint in the communities along the pipeline route where [permanent] Sabal Trail representatives will live and work.” This means donations and community efforts from pipeline employees over the long run.

“By bolstering community vitality, Sabal Trail is supporting the communities where we will be working and operating for many years to come,’’ Grover said. “Sabal Trail operators and their families are part of these communities too.”

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.”

President Trump on witness list in Palm Beach lawsuit involving billionaire pedophile

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

President Trump and Jeffrey Epstein

President Donald Trump is on a list of witnesses for trial in a Palm Beach lawsuit that pits billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein against a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents Epstein’s victims.

The case appears bound for trial this summer following a Feb. 9 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court in another case that has allowed Fort Lauderdale lawyer Bradley Edwards’ claim of malicious prosecution against Epstein to proceed.

President Trump “has been identified as an individual who may have information relating to these allegations,” said Edwards’ West Palm Beach attorney Jack Scarola, who placed Trump’s name on a witness list on Aug. 31. “But it’s unlikely that he would ever be called” to appear at trial, especially now that he’s assumed the presidency.

Scarola said Trump is one of a number of high-profile individuals whose testimony might be relevant because they “had a relationship with Epstein that would have at least exposed them potentially to what was going on inside Epstein’s Palm Beach home … during the relevant period of time” between 2001-2007.

What was going on in Epstein’s mansion, court papers say, was an ugly child molestation scheme involving sex with “substantially more” than 40 girls, some as young as 12. A “statement of undisputed facts” filed by Scarola says Epstein used his staff and his victims to recruit more victims, employing “a pyramid abuse scheme in which he paid underage victims $200-$300 cash for each other underage victim that she brought to him.”

“There is no evidence the President was involved in Epstein’s schemes,” Scarola said.

Secretary of Labor nominee Alex Acosta

Still, the spectacle of a U.S. president being drawn into sordid litigation involving a notorious politically connected sexual criminal who got an apparent sweetheart deal from then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, now Trump’s nominee to become U.S. Secretary of Labor, represents a potential political nightmare for the White House.

The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment.

Epstein’s attorney, Tonja Haddad Coleman, declined to comment.

An affidavit about Trump

A little-noticed affidavit by Edwards recounting his knowledge of Trump’s involvement with Epstein is recounted further below in this story.

Investment banker Epstein, represented by a team of high-powered lawyers, pleaded guilty June 30, 2008 in Palm Beach Circuit Court to two felonies: procuring a person under 18 for prostitution and offering to commit prostitution. He served 13 months of an 18-month sentence. The Palm Beach Daily News has reported Epstein served his time in “a vacant wing at the Palm Beach County Stockade with liberal work-release privileges.”

Today, Epstein, 64, is a registered sex offender.

In exchange for his plea, U.S. Attorney Acosta agreed not prosecute Epstein or his employees on federal charges contained in a 53-page indictment. A 2007 federal non-prosecution agreement with Epstein states, among other things, that he “knowingly and willfully” conspired with others to use interstate commerce to “persuade, induce, or entice minor females to engage in prostitution.”

If convicted of that charge, and others cited in the agreement, Epstein faced possible prison for life.

Republican Acosta, dean of Florida International University’s Law School and chairman of U.S. Century Bank, is expected to be asked about his treatment of Epstein at his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

In addition to the malicious prosecution claim against Epstein, attorney Edwards is also suing the government on behalf of “Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2” and others under the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA). The lawsuit, filed in 2008, alleges the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Acosta violated the rights of Epstein’s victims by, among other things, “conspiring” with Epstein to keep them “in the dark’’ so the plea arrangement could be done without the victims “raising any objection.”

Wifredo Ferrer, who stepped down as Miami U.S. Attorney earlier this month

In February 2016, Edwards and co-counsel Paul Cassell filed a still-pending motion for summary judgment that says Acosta’s successor, Wifredo Ferrer, “has continued to fight” victims’ efforts “to have the court declare that their rights were violated.” The motion asks U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra to rule that the government violated the victims’ rights and explore possible remedies. Ferrer stepped down March 3.

Addressing a “terrible injustice”

“Both Brad and Professor Cassell undertook and have continued to prosecute the CVRA claim to address what they perceive to be a terrible injustice,” said Scarola. “There is no claim for money damages and there is no prevailing party provision in the CVRA” that would allow them to collect legal fees for their work on the case.

Attorney Edwards began representing several of Epstein’s victims while maintaining a solo law practice in 2008, settling a number of claims for undisclosed amounts two years later.

For eight months in 2009, however, he worked for Rothstein, Rosenfeldt and Adler, the law firm that spectacularly imploded in scandal in November of that year when it was discovered that founder Scott Rothstein was running a giant Ponzi scheme. Rothstein, now in prison, enticed investors by falsely claiming that they could buy into lucrative pending settlements in whistleblower, sexual harassment and other cases.

Edwards’ court papers say he knew nothing of Rothstein’s schemes, and federal authorities later determined Edwards to have been one of Rothstein’s victims. In 2009, however, Epstein sued Rothstein, Edwards and one of Edwards’ clients alleging, among other things, civil racketeering. Edwards’ court response: the suit was filed “for the sole purpose of attempting to intimidate” him and his client.

Epstein later dropped all his allegations, and Edwards since has turned the case back against him with his counterclaim of malicious prosecution. The case was on hold for two years pending last month’s Florida Supreme Court ruling, which reversed a lower court decision that dismissed the accusation on technical grounds.

Edwards won’t discuss either case. But in a little-noticed 2010 affidavit, given a year after the case was filed, Edwards explained why he thought Trump and other notables involved with Epstein, including former President Bill Clinton, might have relevant information to provide.

“If you’ve read Brad’s affidavit then you know everything there is to know regarding Trump,” Scarola said.

Does Trump have knowledge of Epstein’s crimes?

In his affidavit, Edwards suggests Trump has personal knowledge of Epstein’s criminality.

“I learned through a source that Trump banned Epstein from his Maralago [Mar-A- Lago] Club in West Palm Beach because Epstein sexually assaulted an underage girl at the club,” Edwards stated.

The affidavit notes that Trump visited Epstein at Epstein’s West Palm Beach home – “the same home where Epstein abused minor girls daily.”

Fort Lauderdale attorney Bradley Edwards

A “review of message pads confiscated from Epstein’s home” showed “that Trump called Epstein’s West Palm Beach mansion on several occasions during the time period relevant to my client’s complaints,” the affidavit says. Likewise “Epstein’s phone directory from his computer contains 14 phone numbers for Donald Trump, including emergency numbers, car numbers, and numbers to Trump’s security guard and houseman.”

The affidavit goes on to say that one of Epstein’s victims “Jane Doe #102” has alleged that she was initially approached at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago by Ghislaine Maxwell and recruited to be Maxwell and Epstein’s “underage sex slave.”

Maxwell, daughter of the late British publishing baron Robert Maxwell, is named in the affidavit as an Epstein associate of interest. She is described in court papers as Epstein’s “longtime companion” who helped run his companies and “recruit underage children” for the pleasure of both Epstein and herself. The affidavit says she attended the wedding of Chelsea Clinton, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter, in July 2010.

The affidavit goes on to cite the 2009 deposition of Epstein’s brother, Mark Epstein, who “testified that Trump flew on Jeffrey Epstein’s plane with him (the same plane that Jane Doe 102 alleged was used to have sex with underage girls).”

Likewise, attorney Edwards cited in his affidavit a 2002 New York Magazine article about Epstein titled, “Jeffrey Epstein: International Moneyman of Mystery.”

“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,” said Trump, then a prominent, wealthy New York developer. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”

The subtitle of the article about Epstein: “He’s pals with a passel of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, CEOs like Leslie Wexner of the Limited, socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, even Donald Trump. But it wasn’t until he flew Bill Clinton, Kevin Spacey, and Chris Tucker to Africa on his private Boeing 727 that the world began to wonder who he is.”

A second U.S. president

While ex-President Clinton is not on the witness list for trial, Edwards listed a number of reasons in his affidavit to believe that Clinton might have relevant information about Epstein. They include:

·      Clinton’s “well known” friendship with Ghislaine Maxwell, an alleged enabler of Epstein’s sexual crimes with young girls.

·      Clinton’s highly publicized travel with Epstein and Maxwell aboard Epstein’s private plane to Africa. Flight logs for “the relevant years 2002-2005 showed Clinton traveling on Epstein’s plane on more than 10 occasions and his assistant, Doug Band, traveled on many more occasions.” The logs also showed Clinton traveled with other “employees and/or co-conspirators of Epstein’s that were closely connected to Epstein’s child exploitation and sexual abuse.”

·      “Jane Doe No. 102 stated generally that she was required by Epstein to be exploited not only by Epstein but also Epstein’s ‘adult male peers, including royalty, politicians, academicians, businessmen and/or other professional and personal acquaintances’ – categories Clinton and acquaintances of Clinton fall into.”

Ex-President Bill Clinton

·      “Clinton frequently flew with Epstein aboard his plane, then suddenly stopped – raising the suspicion that the friendship abruptly ended, perhaps because of events related to Epstein’s sexual abuse of children.”

·      Epstein’s computer contact list “contains e-mail addresses for Clinton along with 21 phone numbers for him.”

Attorney Scarola would not say why Clinton is not on the Aug. 31 witness list, stating he is “not at liberty to discuss our litigation strategy.”

Edwards initially sought to depose Trump and Clinton about Epstein, but never did. Scarola said there was no need to depose them after Epstein dropped his racketeering and other claims against Edwards.

While there are other notables on the witness list of those with knowledge of Epstein, including retired Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz and illusionist David Copperfield, there’s only one other politician. That’s ex-New Mexico Governor and Clinton Administration Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.

The affidavit says Epstein’s personal pilot, Larry Morrison, testified in a 2009 deposition about “Richardson joining Epstein at Epstein’s New Mexico ranch” and that “there was information that Epstein had young girls at his ranch which, given the circumstances of the case, raised the reasonable inference he was sexually abusing these girls since he had regularly and frequently abused girls in West Palm Beach and elsewhere.

“Richardson had also returned campaign donations that were given to him by Epstein, indicating that he believed that there was something about Epstein that he did not want to be associated with,” the affidavit says.

Union ousts top officer for talking to reporter about union president’s big pay hike

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

A top union official has been suspended by his union for speaking out to a Florida Bulldog reporter and raising questions about the Miami-Dade school administration giving a huge pay hike to the union’s president two months before the School Board began approval of two contracts that outsourced lawn maintenance usually done by union workers.

That was one of the new developments spawned by the controversy. Others include new information that Union President Vicki Hall’s combined district and union salary is nearing $100,000; the school district administration is seeking to distance itself from the matter; some union members are considering addressing their concerns to the School Board at a public hearing on Wednesday, March 15.

On March 7, Hall, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1184, persuaded the local’s executive board to back her move to suspend and remove Terry Haynes as the local’s senior vice president.

Members of the executive board, aside from Hall, who voted for the removal were Vannie Brown, Joan Jones, Charles Hepburn, Helen Huls, Michael Norman, Tanya Page, Sabrina Small, Theresa Storr and Bryon Houghtaling, according to Haynes.

The suspension came one day after Haynes, in story by the Florida Bulldog, questioned a district-approved $16,000 pay increase that raised Hall’s salary to $42,000 from $26,000; Haynes linked the hike to the two contracts that went unopposed by the union. The Miami-Dade County Public School Board approved the contracts on Nov. 18, 2015, and Feb. 3, 2016, totaling up to $1.8 million over five years for private firms to perform lawn service at district property.

Hall did not return calls for comment. Just before the meeting where Haynes was suspended, Hall called the Florida Bulldog to ask for an email address, saying she planned to respond to the article. She did not respond, nor did she respond to additional calls for comment on the last Tuesday’s suspension.

“She suspended me for talking to you about union matters without going through” her, Haynes said. Haynes maintained, however, that Hall had given him permission to speak to the media for a prior story about the controversy—and he continued to do so, questioning the pay increase and its relationship to the two contracts.

A testy meeting

The meeting at the union’s Miami Springs office got a little testy. Haynes said when he tried to remove his personal items, Hall insisted that he leave right away and then placed a call to Miami Springs police to make sure he left. Haynes said he left before any police officers arrived.

The suspension, Haynes said, requires him to refrain from involvement in his duties as a union official.

On the evening of the suspension, Haynes said he did not receive any written statements outlining the reasons for his removal. But on the following Friday he received certified mail at his Miami Gardens home. “As you were notified, you are no longer a Local 1184 Sr. Vice President and you can no longer handle any cases that involve AFSCME Local 1184.” Hall asked that Haynes return to the union all case documents he has in his possession by the end of Wednesday March 15. If not returned by then, the “property will be considered stolen” and the union will consider legal action to recover the material, Hall’s letter stated.

Hall also sent a letter notifying the school district that Haynes, who had been released from his district job duties as a custodian to perform full-time work on union business, should be returned to his district job responsibilities.

The suspension, however, might violate the union’s constitution, which requires the presentation of formal charges that specify recognized reasons for removal. Haynes said no such charges were presented. He also said the union’s constitution has a “bill of rights” that protects freedom of speech.

“I didn’t violate any rules,” Haynes said.  “I don’t think she has the authority [to suspend me].” Furthermore, he said he was planning to file an appeal to the national AFSCME union in Washington, D.C. and to reach union members to explain his actions.

Haynes said he will challenge Hall in May when the union presidency is up for grabs.

Meanwhile, it was learned that Hall’s salary from the union for 2016 was about $50,000. Her annual school district salary currently is $43,000 annually, which the union reimburses to the district, along with benefit costs. Union dues pay for her union salary.

Top district officials, including Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Human Resources Chief Officer Jose Dotres and Assistant Superintendent Vivian Santiesteban-Pardo, in charge of Labor Relations, did not  return calls from the Florida Bulldog requesting comment regarding the outsourcing stories.

Santiesteban-Pardo told The Miami Herald that Hall was promoted from a 10-month to a 12-month bus driver when elected “in order to provide parity with the 12-month position of the previous union president.”

‘Unheard’ of pay hike

“That’s nonsense,” Haynes said, adding that he never heard of that occurring before. The union-school district contract provides that Hall’s salary should have been hiked by only $1,700 upon going from a 10-month to a 12-month bus driver, he said.

After being assigned to head Labor Relations in July, 2016, Santiesteban-Pardo told The Herald she began working to resolve grievances related to the outsourcing, with a settlement being reached in January “to ensure contractual procedures for outsourcing would be followed by all district entities.”

The settlement, Haynes said, provides what is already in the contract – provisions that were observed for many years – that the district notify the union when considering outsourcing, outline the scope of the work and give the union time to respond.

The school district followed these contract provisions for many years, until it ignored them in the awarding of the two contracts, Haynes said. “That’s not a settlement at all,” Haynes added. Haynes’ suspension may prevent him from pursuing two grievances he filed in connection with the outsourcing contracts that he maintained were not covered by the recent settlement signed by Hall.

“The District’s action and resolutions are unrelated and this issue may reside more appropriately under the union’s domain,” Santiesteban-Pardo told The Herald.

After school district officials helped create the problem by outsourcing contracts without notice to the union as required, Haynes said, they are now trying to push back from the controversy. “They are trying to get the heat off the district,” Haynes said. “They can’t distance themselves from this. This came from top management, backed by Carvalho.”

There has been talk, Haynes said, that some union members may attend the school board meeting this Wednesday to speak on the controversy and related issues.

FBI censored documents to protect privacy of accused 9/11 mastermind, accomplice

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after his capture in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on March 1, 2003

Even as the FBI recently has made public more 9/11 records to satisfy the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act in advance of a possible trial, it continues to withhold untold documents that promise to cast new light on that terrible day in 2001.

Likewise, about 1,000 pages from the secretive 9/11 Review Commission that were declassified are shot through with blanked-out words, sentences, paragraphs, even entire pages – FBI deletions that undermine the act’s purpose as “a means for citizens to know ‘what their government is up to.’”

The FBI made public those pages in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed in June by the corporate parent of Florida Bulldog after the bureau did not properly respond to lawful record requests. The Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission after its best-known member former Attorney General Edwin Meese, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to examine new evidence. Its members were chosen and paid by the FBI. It issued its final report in March 2015.

National security and the need to protect informants were among the reasons the FBI cited to explain why certain information was kept hidden. In other cases, the reasons the FBI has asserted for redactions appeared arbitrary, even bizarre.

Take for example the 53-page FBI PowerPoint presentation titled “Overview of the 9:11 Investigation” that was shown to the commission during a briefing in April 2014. The PowerPoint included the “non-immigrant visa application” filled out by accused 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who for the last 10 years has been held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

The FBI withheld Mohammed’s entire visa application. Its reason: disclosure “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The FBI further asserted the privacy rights of Mohammed and fellow “high-value” Guantanamo detainee Mustafa al-Hawsawi in its decision to withhold PowerPoint slides about their credit card information. Specifically withheld: al-Hawsawi’s “credit card statement and supplemental card activity” and Mohammed’s “supplemental Visa card application” to the United Kingdom’s Standard Chartered Bank.

Al-Hawsawi, a Saudi charged with war crimes, is an alleged senior al Qaeda member and organizer and financier of 9/11.

Nine other pages from the 9/11 PowerPoint were deleted. Also redacted was all information about these titles: “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Additional Funding Early to Mid-2001”; “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “Early to Mid-2001: Non-Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “July-August 2001: Knife Purchases; August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets.”

The FBI withheld each of those records citing exemption b7E to the Freedom of Information Act, which shields from disclosure “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.”

In addition, four pages in the PowerPoint titled “Ongoing Investigation” were blanked out. A variety of reasons cited included privacy, inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums, and techniques and procedures – but not national security.

On the other hand, the bureau last month did release one tidbit that’s sure to fire up those who believe the destruction of the Twin Towers was an “inside job” or that the Pentagon was hit by a missile, not an American Airlines Boeing 757.

A partially declassified Memorandum for the Record (MFR) regarding an April 23, 2014 FBI briefing about its 9/11 investigation mentions a startling request for information to the FBI that day:

“The commissioners requested a list of evidence that shows it was actually a plane that crashed into the Pentagon,” the memo says.

Why did the Meese Commission make such a curious request? Did the FBI provide such a list?

The MFR’s declassified pages don’t answer those questions. Still, more than two pages of the six-page document were kept secret citing FOIA exemptions that prevent the disclosure of certain inter-agency or intra-agency memos and sensitive law enforcement techniques.

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