Convicted thief sets up South Florida super PAC with Federal Election Commission’s OK

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org unum

Four years after being convicted of stealing $35,000 worth of textbooks from Ohio State University’s law school library, Christopher Brian Valdes set up a super PAC this month in South Florida with the blessing of the Federal Election Commission.

Valdes, 28, of West Palm Beach, filed a “statement of organization” for Rescue Our Future with the FEC on Aug. 9 and listed himself as treasurer. The 28-year-old felon says he wants to use the political committee to raise unlimited amounts of money to help elect Jeb Bush president in 2016.

While convicted criminals may legally start and operate a super PAC, there’s no way for the public or prospective donors to know it if they do. The FEC, which regulates campaign finance, does not require PAC officials to disclose their criminal history.

Last month, FEC Chairwoman Ann M. Ravel issued an unusual public warning about the rise of what she called “scam PACs” – fundraising groups run by con artists who prey on small donors unhappy with their elected officials.

“It is assumed the money raised will go to help elect or defeat a candidate. In reality, the money raised largely gets funneled into the pockets of the political operatives who set up these organizations,” she wrote in in a July 13 commentary published by Roll Call.

Valdes did not want to discuss his crime in detail with FloridaBulldog.org. “It was bad decision that is in the past,” he said. “I have moved forward.”

He said in an interview, however, that he wants to raise money to pay for mailers and radio ads touting the former Florida governor.

“Even if Bush gets on the Republican ticket, it is not a sure fire thing that he will win Florida in 2016 just because he is a former governor,” Valdes said. “The state has voted for a Democrat in the last two presidential elections. I believe Rescue Our Future can do a lot to help him.”

Valdes said he is not affiliated with the Bush campaign and is going to campaign for Bush on his own. Whether the campaign wants a convicted thief trolling for dollars on Bush’s behalf remains unclear. Bush’s press office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

According to a Sept. 6, 2011 story in the Columbus Dispatch, authorities accused Valdes of pilfering more than 200 books that he then advertised for sale online between November 2009 and October 2010. At the time, Valdes was a student of the Moritz College of Law.

Campus police initiated an investigation after receiving an e-mail from a Brazilian lawyer who had bought a volume online and found a crossed-out Ohio State University ink stamp on its inside front cover, according to court documents. Investigators arrested Valdes after setting up a sting involving a hidden camera and a marked book.

To avoid prison, Valdes agreed to plead guilty to a felony. He was placed on five years probation and ordered to pay $34,600 in restitution for books he sold online. Valdes also agreed that he “will not have or pursue employment or education in the field of law,” according to the details of his guilty plea in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

Valdes claims he has completed his probation and that his voting rights were recently restored. “I have not gotten into any trouble since then,” he said. “And there is nothing on my record before that. It was an unfortunate incident that I’ve put behind me.”

FEC Commissioner Ravel could not be reached for comment. But in her commentary last month she said her agency is powerless to stop “scam artists” intent on ripping off donors.

“The FEC has, for many years, unanimously approved recommendations to Congress that would have taken small steps toward addressing scam PAC activity,” Ravel wrote. “After all, a role of the FEC is to protect consumers, the American voting public, from those who don’t use money contributed to campaigns for proper purposes.

She added: “Unless Congress takes action and gives the FEC the tools to regulate scam PACS, we can expect this problem to grow.”

Powerful medicine: Broward Health offers nearly $70 million to settle federal fraud probe

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org bhpowerful

Taxpayer-supported Broward Health offered Thursday to pay $69.5 million to settle a four-year-old federal investigation into allegations of massive Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

The proposed payout is on top of more than $10.2 million the North Broward Hospital District – Broward Health’s legal name – already has paid an out-of-state law firm for legal advice about how to deal with the probe.

Broward Health’s executive boardroom was packed with as many lawyers as commissioners when the unanimous vote was made to approve the offer. The vote followed a two-hour non-public meeting about the case between the seven-member commission and defense counsel.

Commissioners offered no public explanation for their decision or how, if the government accepts the offer, it might impact Broward Health’s operations.  The enormous offer, however, signaled a collective belief that federal agents and prosecutors have turned up substantial evidence of wrongdoing that could prove much more costly if the matter is not settled soon.

Official silence followed an announcement, as the 7-0 vote was taken, that Justice Department attorneys had instructed Broward Health to make no public comments until the case is concluded. Citing the government’s muzzle, Broward Health president and chief executive Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, hired in December, and new in-house general counsel Lynn Barrett, hired last month, declined to comment.

The investigation surfaced in May 2011 when U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agents subpoenaed Broward Health records about the public healthcare system’s connections to more than two dozen doctors, including medical directors at Broward Health’s lucrative orthopedic, sports medicine and cardiology practices.

Millions of documents were ultimately turned over.

Details of the government’s case against Broward Health, the county’s largest provider of healthcare services, remain largely secret.

A WHISTLEBLOWER IN THE BACKGROUND

But the investigation and subpoena are known to stem from a complaint brought by an unidentified whistleblower. Private individuals with knowledge of fraud against the government can blow the whistle, and seek a reward of up to 25 percent of whatever the government recovers, by filing a lawsuit under the federal False Claims Act.

The person who filed the suit is called a relator. If the government accepts Broward Health’s settlement, the relator could collect a reward of up to $17 million.

Such lawsuits are initially kept sealed to allow the Department of Justice time to investigate and decide whether to help prosecute the lawsuit. If the settlement offer is accepted, and a judge approves it, the case is unsealed and further details become public.

Leading Broward Health’s defense are False Claims Act specialists Linda Baumann and D. Jacques Smith, of the Washington, D.C. office of the Arent Fox law firm. Baumann attended Thurday’s meeting. Smith participated by phone.

Baumann is also an expert regarding a pair of other laws that records show figure prominently in the Broward Health case: the federal Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback Statute.

The Stark Law generally prohibits doctors from referring Medicare or Medicaid patients to hospitals with which they have a financial relationship. Likewise, it forbids hospitals from submitting claims from prohibited referrals. Violators face stiff civil penalties.

The Anti-Kickback statute forbids offering, paying or soliciting or receiving anything of value to induce or reward referrals or generate federal healthcare program business. Criminal violators face up to five years in prison and a $25,000 fine for each violation.

If its settlement offer is accepted, Broward Health would become the second large hospital system in Florida in recent years to pay big for having improper financial relationships with its physicians. Last year, the Halifax Hospital Medical Center and Halifax Staffing in Daytona Beach agreed to pay $85 million to resolve allegations they submitted Medicare claims that violated the Stark Law’s self-referral rules.

On Thursday, Broward Health’s commissioners also authorized El Sanadi to enter into any integrity agreement that might be required by the government to close the deal.

Whether or not the government accepts the settlement offer, however, the investigation has already had a substantial impact on the district’s business practices.

For example, last year the governing board approved a new compensation scheme that seeks to make its physician compensation practices “commercially reasonable.”

More than a dozen Broward Health doctors have signed agreements under the new rules intended to assure compensation based on “fair market value.” One of those doctors who took a substantial pay cut was Michael A. Chizner, chief medical director of Broward Health’s Heart Center of Excellence.

The district, whose flagship facility is Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Health Medical Center, is the medical safety net providing services regardless of the ability to pay for the northern two-thirds of the county.

You don’t need X-ray vision to see through Gov. Rick Scott’s blind trust

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott, right, and blind trust executive Alan Bazaar

Gov. Rick Scott, right, and blind trust executive Alan Bazaar

Governor Rick Scott keeps his $127.8 million stock portfolio in a blind trust intended, by law, to prevent him from having knowledge or control of his investments and to eliminate conflicts between the governor’s public responsibilities and his private interests.

But Florida’s qualified blind trust statute, a little-noticed part of the large 2013 ethics reform bill signed into law by Scott himself, isn’t doing its job. While veiling the governor’s assets from the public, the blind trust fails to keep him blind to his investments.

There are at least two reasons why: disclosure requirements in federal securities law that can undercut blind trust secrecy, and weak conflict-of-interest rules in Florida that don’t require public officers like the governor to disclose assets they own or control when held in their spouse’s name.

For example, on June 25 Scott and the trustees of his blind trust told the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that Scott had sold 122,653 shares of Argan (NYSE:AGX) earlier that month for $4.87 million. Argan is a publicly traded holding company whose Gemma Power Systems subsidiary builds and operates power plants in Florida and elsewhere.

The report filed by Scott and his trustees at New York-based Hollow Brook Wealth Management also disclosed that the governor continued to own 4.2 percent of Argan – or 606,124 shares – worth nearly $23.7 million at Tuesday’s closing stock price of $39.06.

The public report says, “No other person is known to have the right to receive or the power to direct the receipt of dividends from, or the proceeds from the sale of, the shares of common stock that are the subject of this filing.”

This wasn’t the first time Scott made millions on a private stock deal while in office.

In March 2014, FloridaBulldog.org reported that the governor and First Lady Ann Scott recently had collected $17 million selling hundreds of thousands of shares of Argan held by the blind trust and other entities. The story also reported about other large transactions involving several other companies whose stock Scott owned.

Scott’s Argan stock sales included at least 140,000 shares held by the blind trust – then worth $2.5 million – which also retained 523,000 shares. The two other selling entities: the F. Annette Scott Revocable Trust and the Richard L. and F. Annette Scott Family Partnership, in which Scott has acknowledged he was a beneficial owner.

Scott’s June filing does not break down the number of Argan shares sold then by each entity in five trades made June 15-19. But on more than one occasion the blind trust, the first lady’s trust and the family partnership have coordinated transactions – buying or selling large numbers of shares on the same day, at the same price or in similar proportions.

SCOTT ‘HAS NO KNOWLEDGE OR CONTROL’ OF BLIND TRUST

Scott’s office would not elaborate. Spokeswoman Jackie Schutz released a statement Tuesday saying the blind trust is “under the control of an independent financial professional” and that the governor “has no knowledge or control of anything that is bought, sold or changed in the trust.”

Nevertheless, trustee Hollow Brook Wealth Management’s chief executive is Alan Bazaar who worked for Scott from July 1999 to January 2010 as managing director and portfolio manager at Richard L. Scott Investments. Hollow Brook is also an “investment adviser” to the Scott family partnership and the revocable trust in Mrs. Scott’s name.

Further, Scott and Bazaar were partners in a company that in 1999 invested in Cyberguard, a Deerfield Beach computer security firm. The company’s board of directors included then-Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, who later went to prison for corruption, and Fort Lauderdale lobbyist and Scott confidant William D. Rubin.

To date, Gov. Scott is the only public officer in Florida to use a state qualified blind trust to shield his assets and obtain the safe harbor it provides from prohibited conflicts of interest, according to the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Keeping his securities portfolio in the blind trust means Scott does not have to identify his individual securities on his annual financial disclosure form. Instead, his form describes his biggest single asset as simply “Governor Richard L. Scott 2014 Qualified Blind Trust.”

While the state form does not detail his blind trust holdings, mandatory reports he must make to the SEC about his large stock transactions do. But they aren’t the only way information about Scott’s stock holdings have gone public.

Companies must file reports identifying their biggest shareholders. For example, Argan’s May 16, 2015 report to the SEC in advance of its annual meeting listed Richard L. Scott as a principal stockholder who then owned 965,255 shares, or 6.6 percent of the company.

pipelineGov. Scott also has made public information about the contents of his blind trust.

In June 2014, while qualifying to run for re-election, Scott closed his original blind trust, made public a list of his blind trust assets, then immediately put those assets back into a new blind trust.

The maneuver presented a snapshot of Scott’s stock holdings as of Dec. 31, 2013. Among other things, it revealed Scott was heavily invested in energy companies, including those that control the two existing natural gas pipelines serving Florida.

Also disclosed was Scott’s $108,000 investment in Spectra Energy and its affiliate DCP Midstream Partners.

Spectra is currently seeking regulatory approval to build the $3 billion Sabal Trail Transmission, an approximately 500-mile pipeline to run from Alabama and Georgia into North Florida and south to Orange County. The underground pipeline would supply fuel to the state’s new gas-fired power plants.

The Florida Public Service Commission, whose five members were appointed by Scott, unanimously approved Sabal Trail in the fall of 2013, before Scott’s stake in Spectra was publicly known.

Last month, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it intended to award a key environmental permit and easement for the controversial Sabal Trail project that’s majority-owned by Spectra Energy.

FP&L and Duke Energy, also partners in the project, have contributed $1.4 million to Let’s Get to Work, the political committee branded with Scott’s campaign slogan, according to federal records. They also gave a combined $5.8 million to the Republican Governors Association in 2013-14, which in turn contributed $18.3 million to Let’s Get to Work last year.

Pipeline company with tie to Gov. Scott, and state backing, has history of accidents

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

Spectra Energy, the company that state environmental regulators say should be allowed to construct a 267-mile-long natural gas pipeline in North Florida, has a checkered history of accidents and violations of federal safety rules in the U.S. and Canada dating back decades.

FloridaBulldog.org reported last week that Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is backing the award of a key environmental permit for the controversial $3-billion Sabal Trail pipeline to a joint venture majority-owned by Houston-based Spectra Energy.

Spectra Energy’s investors have included Gov. Rick Scott. On last year’s financial disclosure form, Scott reported owning a $108,000 stake in Spectra and its affiliate, DCP Midstream Partners. His latest disclosure form, filed in June, no longer details Scott’s securities holdings because he put those assets into a blind trust.

The underground Sabal Trail Transmission is proposed as a nearly 500-mile interstate natural gas pipeline to run from Alabama, through Georgia south to Orange County, south of Orlando. Spectra owns 59.5 percent; Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy owns 33 percent; and Duke Energy, which spun off its natural gas business to form Spectra in 2007, recently paid $225 million for a 7.5 percent stake.

Federal and state election records show that FP&L, Duke Energy and their affiliates together have contributed $1.4 million to Let’s Get to Work, the political committee branded with Scott’s campaign slogan. They also gave a total of $5.8 million to the Republican Governors Association in 2013-14, which in turn contributed $18.3 million to Let’s Get to Work last year.

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Spectra Energy operates approximately 22,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in North America. U.S. and Canadian agency files detail the company’s problematic safety record.

From 2006 to date, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recorded 25 incidents that caused more than $12 million in property damage along Spectra’s main line – the 9,000-mile Texas Eastern Transmission that connects Texas and the Gulf Coast with big urban markets in the Northeast. The causes ranged from equipment failure and incorrect operations to pipe corrosion.

The agency found numerous federal rules violations during the same period and slapped Spectra with a total of $400,000 in fines – not counting another $59,000 proposed penalty for failing to construct a pipeline in Pennsylvania in accordance with written specifications.

Spectra’s press office did not respond to detailed requests for comment made over two days.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection issued its July 10 notice of intent to issue the permit and easement for Sabal Trail without a public hearing. The WWALS Watershed Coalition, a Georgia based nonprofit and environmental advocate, filed an objection to the permit last week and the department is considering its response.

Was Spectra’s safety record considered in DEP’s decision?

“The department assesses a permit application based on Florida statutes and rules to ensure that all aspects of the proposed operation follow Florida law and are protective of the environment and human health and safety,” DEP spokeswoman Lori Elliott said in a Wednesday statement.

A DRAMATIC RUPTURE

Spectra’s most recent pipeline accident was the dramatic rupture of an auxiliary pipe along its Texas Eastern Pipeline in Little Rock, Ark. on May 31. The buried line, which crossed the Arkansas River near the Clinton Presidential Center, was not in use at the time, but contained four million cubic feet of natural gas that exploded with such force that churning water boiled up high into the air across the span of the river. Eyewitness Tony Cassady, who lives nearby, said the gushing waters had settled back somewhat by the time he managed to snap the photo above.

While no one was injured, the blow out resulted in more than $1 million in damages, according to federal records. The cause has not been determined, but an incident report filed by Spectra in June noted that high rains had caused flooding that had washed away soil that once covered the pipeline on the river’s bank.

Aerial view of the explosion site of Spectra Energy's Nig Creek Pipeline in 2012. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Aerial view of the explosion site of Spectra Energy’s Nig Creek Pipeline in 2012. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Another vivid example of the power of out-of-control natural gas occurred June 28, 2012 at the Nig Creek pipeline in British Columbia, operated by Spectra’s wholly owned subsidiary Westcoast Energy. The 16-inch pipeline, which had been shut down that night, was filled with pressurized “sour gas” that exploded when the line ruptured, causing a fire and creating a large crater in a remote forest area in British Columbia. Sour gas contains significant amounts of hydrogen sulfide and is highly toxic.

No one was injured in the blast – the nearest town, population 58, was 25 miles away. The cause was later determined to be a crack in a pipe.

So far in 2015, Canada’s National Energy Board has fined Spectra Energy three times for a total of $122,300 – including $88,000 imposed in January after inspectors found violations with “the potential to significantly impact worker safety and infrastructure” at Spectra’s Dawson Creek Gas Plant, also in British Columbia.

Just last month, the board also ordered Spectra to fix “management system failures” at its Westcoast Energy gas processing plants and facilities in western Canada after inspectors uncovered 27 safety issues between April 1, 2014 and June 26, 2015.

“The board expects Westcoast to address safety concerns on a systemic basis,” says the July 14 safety order. “Based on recent violations described below, the board is not confident safety concerns are being addressed in this manner.”

Back in the U.S., Spectra owns or co-owns eight natural gas pipelines, including the 745-mile Gulfstream Natural Gas, which runs beneath the Gulf of Mexico from lower Mississippi and Alabama to Tampa Bay. All but two of those pipelines – Gulfstream and the 67-mile Big Sandy pipeline in eastern Kentucky – have reported at least one incident since 2006.

Spectra Energy's pipelines

Spectra Energy’s pipelines

In 2014, the U.S. pipeline administration investigated a frightening episode in Searsmont, Maine involving the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline, a joint venture of Spectra, Emera and ExxonMobil. The 684-mile pipeline transports natural gas from offshore Nova Scotia to markets in the northeast U.S.

The event happened at a pipeline compressor station, which helps move gas through a pipeline by keeping it under sufficient pressure, shortly before midnight on Dec. 31, 2013. Neighbors told a Bangor Daily News reporter they heard a roaring noise that was so loud it caused nearby homes to shake and some residents to flee.

“TERRIFYING EXPERIENCE”

“It was absolutely the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had,” Susan Totman told the newspaper.

Federal pipeline regulators said the noise, which lasted more than a half-hour, was caused by the release of gas jetting from a valve in an emergency shutdown system that was unintentionally opened. About 70 million cubic yards of gas were released, says an agency report on the incident.

The pipeline operator was later found to have violated federal regulations by failing to timely inform them of the accident. Last month, on July 24, regulators imposed a $34,500 fine that company officials did not contest.

Other Spectra pipelines have had problems, too.

Agency records list three incidents in 2010 involving equipment failure and excavation damage along Spectra’s East Tennessee pipeline that caused $238,000 in property damage. In 2013, the company received a warning letter after inspectors found four probable safety violations.

Spectra’s Southeast Supply Header is a 286-mile pipeline that funnels natural gas through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to the Gulfstream pipeline and on to Florida. Records show that a construction-related equipment failure near Hazlehurst, Miss. in January 2010 caused $562,000 in property damage and led to $200,000 in safety violation fines.

But Spectra’s longest and most troubled pipeline is the Texas Eastern Transmission.

In 1989, Spectra and its Texas Eastern limited partnership paid a $15 million fine and entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination at numerous cites along the pipeline in 14 states.

Texas Eastern had used the banned substance and suspected carcinogen in its compressors as a fire retardant, and over time it had leaked into the pipeline system. The $500 million PCB cleanup cost included the assessment of 462 sites for contamination, installing 707 groundwater monitoring wells and removing and disposing of 600,000 tons of contaminated soil, the EPA said in a 2002 announcement that the cleanup had been completed.

Texas Eastern also paid Pennsylvania $218.6 million in penalties and costs to clean up 19 sites in that state where PCBs were dumped.

In 1994, a buried Texas Eastern pipeline in Edison, N.J. ruptured and ignited “sending flames several hundred feet in the air,” according to a National Transportation Safety Board report. Heat from the burning gas set fire to an apartment complex more than 100 yards away, destroying several buildings.

Dozens of people were injured and more than 100 families were left homeless, but there were no fatalities. Damage was estimated at $25 million. The probable cause of the rupture: mechanical damage to the pipe that created a crack that metal fatigue caused to grow to critical size.

Trump, Gimenez let off easy after breaking lobbying laws, critics say

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Donald Trump, right, and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

Donald Trump, right, and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

Donald Trump’s efforts to take over management of a public golf course is at the center of a recently concluded Miami-Dade ethics commission probe that has come under fire for not admonishing the billionaire developer and county Mayor Carlos Gimenez for breaking local lobbying laws.

Critics accuse Michael Muraswski, advocate for the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, of giving a free pass to rich, powerful, and politically connected individuals who break the rules. Murawski’s role is to prosecute persons who break the county’s conflict of interest and ethics laws.

In Trump’s case, Murawski failed to present evidence to the ethics commission board at a June 17 meeting in which the advocate recommended a finding of no probable cause against the billionaire candidate for president and the mayor, said Eston “Dusty” Melton, a prominent county hall lobbyist.

Murawski also recommended the board dismiss a complaint against Trump’s environmental consultant Edward Russo despite concluding he did not register as a lobbyist for his client until Feb. 24, seven days after the ethics investigation was initiated.

Melton said Murawski similarly let celebrity soccer star David Beckham off the hook in an unrelated 2014 ethics case accusing him of illegally lobbying Gimenez and county commissioners to give him public waterfront land for a Major League Soccer stadium.

“I think it is clear that in certain cases, particularly complaints against high profile individuals, the findings and materials given to board members of the ethics commission are deeply and remarkably flawed,” Melton told Florida Bulldog. “As a consequence, some of the decisions made by the ethics commission are seriously embarrassing for those who care a lot about the rule of law.”

Miami-Dade’s lobbyist registration requirements are designed to allow the public to know who is trying to influence government decision makers. Principals and their representatives – consultants and lobbyists included – who seek to do business with local government must register with the county clerk prior to any interactions with public officials. Failure to do so is punishable by a fine of up to $500 or a temporary ban from county hall, a penalty that is rarely enforced.

BLOGGER’S COMPLAINTS OPEN PROBE

The ethics commission opened a probe on Trump, Gimenez, and Russo based on complaints filed in February by Miami watchdog blogger Al Crespo. Crespo accused the Republican presidential contender and his consultant of not registering as lobbyists, and Gimenez of failing to inform them that they had to register.

Al Crespo

Al Crespo

Crespo, who operates the Crespogram Report,  alleged Murawski has purposely misrepresented portions of ethics complaints he and others have filed against public officials in an attempt to minimize their wrongdoing.

“Murawski has set himself up as the chief manipulator of the facts to reach the conclusion that he wants,” Crespo said.

Trump, who leads the Republican presidential field in some polls, owns the Trump National Doral golf club. He first broached the subject of taking over the county-owned Crandon Park Golf Course while playing there with Gimenez and Russo in October 2013.

In a June 2 interview, Russo told ethics investigators Trump was not keen on letting anyone know he was interested in taking over Crandon. He also stated that Trump and he began their full court press on Gimenez during and immediately following their golf game at the public golf course on Key Biscayne.

“Russo said that they were giving the mayor a gift,” says a summary of the interview. “They are lobbying him when they are the guys who should be lobbied. [Russo] and Trump wanted to do this anonymously.”

According to the investigative file, Gimenez, his then-chief-of-staff Lisa Martinez, and Miami-Dade Parks Department Director Jack Kardys met with Russo on Jan. 28, 2014 to continue discussions on what Trump had to do to submit a proposal.

Using Trump National Doral letterhead, Trump sent a signed pitch letter to Gimenez about a month later. The proposal: Trump would spend $10 million of his own money to renovate Crandon in exchange for allowing his company to lease the golf course for $1 a year.

Over the next two months, emails from Kardys to his subordinates indicate that Gimenez was anxious to send Trump a reply. On March 31, the parks director informed his deputy, George Navarrete, that the “mayor wants Trump letter today – see me first thing.”

But no reply was drafted by April 12, 2014 when Kardys emailed Navarrete again to express his concern. “I hope this is moving because the mayor will be furious if Trump calls him for a lack of response – please advise,” Kardys wrote.

GIMENEZ ADVISES TRUMP

Three days later, Gimenez signed an official letter to Trump explaining how he could submit an unsolicited proposal and that Kardys would be his point of contact.

Trump’s formal proposal arrived in August, along with deposit check for $25,000 from Trump Golf Acquisitions LLC.

Ten months had elapsed since the day Trump and Russo met Gimenez on the golf course, but neither Trump nor Russo registered to lobby the mayor, records show. Nor did Gimenez ever instruct Trump or Russo to register, Crepo’s complaint alleged.

Nevertheless, in his June 5, 2015 memo Murawski recommended the ethics commission find no probable cause against the mayor or Trump. He also recommended Russo be given a letter of instruction because Trump’s consultant insisted he was unaware of the county’s lobbyist registration requirements.

The ethics commission considered the matter at a closed-door session on June 18. Audio of that meeting shows Murawski told commissioners Trump’s only dialogue with the mayor was their informal talk at Crandon in October 2013, and that Gimenez quickly stopped being involved. He also argued that no formal bidding process was ever initiated that would have required Trump to register, or required Gimenez to tell him he had to register.

“The conclusion is that [Trump] wasn’t a lobbyist,” Murawski told the board. “We covered this in the David Beckham case when Mr. Beckham met with the mayor and some commissioners initially to discuss his proposal of having a soccer stadium here in Miami-Dade County. We concluded in that case that there is a certain ‘meet and greet’ period where you can generally discuss ideas but there is nothing concrete in the pipeline; nothing to be voted on.”

Lobbyist Melton, a former Miami Herald reporter, said he was so stunned by Murawski’s actions after hearing the audio that he felt compelled to address the advocate’s “botched analysis” at the July 8 ethics commission meeting.

Melton told commissioners that Murawski had failed to inform them how Trump and Gimenez had exchanged official correspondence in March and April about how to draft an unsolicited proposal, action that Melton said constitutes lobbying.

“Mr. Murawski framed his entire recommendation regarding Trump around the golf game only,” Melton told the board. “Mr. Murawski entirely ignored Trump’s personal, ongoing, formal, written lobbying activities that followed, many months after the golf game.”

In a brief phone interview with the Florida Bulldog, Murawski dismissed Melton’s criticisms. “He cherry-picked one or two lines and took what I said out of context,” he said. “I give very little credit to what he said.”

Murawski declined further comment, saying he will address Melton’s accusations at next month’s ethics commission meeting.

Marcia Narine is a law professor at St. Thomas University who has served on the ethics commission board for about a year. She said she does not believe Murawski hid information, and says the ethics commission did not go easy on Gimenez and Trump.
“It can appear that this was glossed over because the person is a presidential candidate,” Narine said. “That is not the case at all. I think the commission acts in good faith to do the job the public expects us to do.”

Miami attorney and ethics commission chairman Nelson Bellido also denied the board is making bad decisions, noting its members will take a “second look” at the Trump-Gimenez case at its Wednesday, Aug. 12 meeting.

“We are absolutely not a rubber stamp,” Bellido said. “We are there to listen to all sides. I don’t come in with any bias or political bent. I take the job very seriously.”

Gov. Scott’s pipeline investment gets a boost from Florida environmental regulators

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

State regulators are quietly backing the award of a crucial environmental permit to a company that wants to build a controversial $3-billion natural gas pipeline in North Florida. The company’s investors have included Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), overseen by the governor, published a notice of its intent to issue an Environmental Resources Permit to Sabal Trail Transmission LLC, a joint venture of Houston-based Spectra Energy and Florida Power & Light parent, NextEra Energy.

The July 10 notice also says the DEP intends to grant an easement that would allow Sabal Trail to use “submerged state lands” to help construct the pipeline. Some of those lands are beneath the Suwannee, Santa Fe and Withlacoochee rivers, where the 36-inch pipeline would be buried.

The Board of Trustees of Florida’s Internal Improvement Trust Fund owns the submerged lands, according to DEP’s notice. The board is comprised of the governor and Cabinet – Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state chief financial officer Jeff Atwater.

FPL selected Spectra Energy to build and operate Sabal Trail in July 2013.

FloridaBulldog.org reported in July 2014 that Gov. Scott owned a $53,000 stake in Spectra Energy, and a $55,000 stake in DCP Midstream Partners, a natural gas limited partnership 50 percent owned by Spectra Energy. As detailed in a state financial disclosure form, the governor’s portfolio included several million dollars invested in the securities of more than two-dozen entities that produce and/or transport natural gas, including several, like Spectra, with substantial Florida operations.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST PROHIBITIONS

The governor and other public officials in Florida are generally prohibited by state ethics laws from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation or that do business with state agencies. The law also prohibits them from having an interest in companies that would “create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict” between their private interests and the “full and faithful discharge” of their public duties.

Sabal Trail pipeline project map

Sabal Trail pipeline project map

As described in paperwork released by the department, issuance of the environmental permit would constitute certification that the pipeline project is in compliance with state water quality standards and consistent with Florida’s Coastal Zone Management Program.

DEP says it will issue the permit and easement unless an affected party files a petition seeking an administrative hearing by Friday, August 7. A spokesman for one environmental group, the Georgia-based WWALS Watershed Coalition, said it intends to file a petition by the deadline.

The Sabal Trail Transmission is proposed as a 474-mile natural gas pipeline to run from Alabama and Georgia to a hub in Central Florida, south of Orlando. The Florida leg, 257 miles long, will traverse a dozen counties in north Florida.

Florida Power & Light intends to use the pipeline as a dedicated supply of fracked natural gas to fuel a new generation of gas-fired power plants in locations that include Port Everglades.

According to the DEP, the project will affect 408 acres of wetlands and other surface waters. The notice says some wetland vegetation should re-establish fairly quickly, but “forested areas may take 2-50+ years to re-establish to pre-construction conditions.”

Sabal Trail applied for the permit, water quality certification and authorization to use the sovereign submerged lands on July 31, 2014.

PIPELINE ‘CLEARLY IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST’

“The department has determined…the applicant has provided reasonable assurance that the construction, including the direct, secondary and cumulative impacts, will comply with” state laws and rules, says the notice signed by Jeff Prather, director of the DEP’s central district. “The applicant has also demonstrated that the construction…is clearly in the public interest.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead federal agency responsible for reviewing the project and preparing an environmental impact statement. FERC has accepted public comments in its ongoing review of the project. A decision could come as early as November.

Gov. Scott was heavily involved in the state’s early backing of the Sabal Trail pipeline project. In May and June 2013, he signed into law a pair of bills intended to speed up permitting. Later that year, his appointees on the Florida Public Service Commission approved construction of Sabal Trail as the state’s third major natural gas pipeline.

At the time, however, Scott’s ownership interest in Spectra Energy was not publicly known. Like tens of millions of dollars of the governor’s other assets, his Spectra shares were placed in a Florida blind trust.

Blind trusts are supposed to eliminate conflicts of interest by “blinding” public officials and the public to their specific assets. And a spokesman for Scott said the governor “had no knowledge of his Spectra investment because his decision to invest was made by a trustee of the blind trust.”

But Scott’s trustee wasn’t a disinterested manager. It was Hollow Brook Wealth Management and chief executive Alan Bazaar, a trusted former employee of the governor’s private investment firm, Richard L. Scott Investments.

Scott lifted the veil on his assets briefly in June 2014 after he closed his original blind trust and immediately opened a new one and placed all of his assets back into it. The maneuver served to insulate the governor from criticism about financial transparency in advance of last year’s election, but it also revealed the governor’s large personal bet on natural gas firms like Spectra and Energy Transfer Equity LP, entities with significant pipeline interests in Florida.

Energy Transfer’s subsidiaries include a joint venture that owns Florida Gas Transmission, the state’s largest natural gas pipeline and a major state vendor. Scott also has a financial interest in Florida’s other major natural gas pipeline Gulfstream, through his investments in Spectra and the large pipeline operator Williams Cos.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Energy Transfer Equity LP, run by Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren, is pursuing a multi-billion dollar deal to acquire Williams.

In his most recent financial disclosure, Scott valued his units of Energy Transfer as worth $311,000 on Dec. 31 2013. He also reported a $400,000 stake in a pair of entities owned by Energy Transfer, Regency Energy Partners LP and PVR Partners LP.

Energy Transfer boss Warren has been a big political supporter or Gov. Scott. In Nov. 2013, two days after former Gov. Charlie Crist filed to run against Scott, Warren contributed $50,000 to Let’s Get to Work, a political committee backing Scott. In March 2012, an Energy Transfer subsidiary gave $25,000 to Let’s Get to Work.

On Sunday, The New York Times ranked Warren third among those who have given the most money in the 2016 presidential race. Warren’s $6 million in contributions all supported former Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry.

Billionaire car dealer Braman also gives big to Lopez-Cantera’s Senate run

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Norman Braman, left and Carlos Lopez-Cantera

Norman Braman, left and Carlos Lopez-Cantera

Having raised $5 million for Marco Rubio’s presidential aspirations, billionaire automobile dealer Norman Braman is also betting big money on another Miami Republican who is seeking to succeed Rubio in the U.S. Senate in 2016.

In mid-May, Braman gave $100,000 to a super political action committee set up for Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who officially announced his federal campaign last month. The six-figure sum was the largest single donation to Reform Washington, which raised a total of $744,642 during the first six months of 2015, according to a recent campaign finance report. Super Pacs are allowed to raise unlimited funds from corporations, labor unions and the rich.

Another Lopez-Cantera affiliated PAC, Reform Washington Leadership, has collected $143,049, but none from Braman.

Lopez-Cantera, who is also close friends with Rubio, will go up against U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach and first-time candidate and defense contractor Todd Wilcox of Orlando, in the 2016 Republican primary.

Braman did not return a phone message or an email seeking comment, but the politically influential civic activist has long counted on Lopez-Cantera as an ally.

In 2010, Lopez-Cantera — at the time a state representative who ascended to house majority leader — co-chaired a recall committee against then-Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez organized and funded by Braman.

In March 2011, after the Braman-led ouster of Alvarez was successful, Lopez-Cantera co-sponsored a bill that would have allowed Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation to place referendum questions directly on the county ballot, without receiving commission approval or collecting petition signatures as is now required. Braman told the Miami Herald he supported the measure, citing the high cost of gathering petition signatures and getting out the vote. The legislation ultimately failed to reach the House floor.

As Lopez-Cantera’s profile grew, so did Braman’s political contributions to him. In 2008, Braman, his wife, and six of his corporations gave a combined $4,000 to Lopez-Cantera’s reelection campaign for state house. Two years later, the Bramans bundled $6,500 for another campaign to re-elect Lopez-Cantera. Both times, he ran unopposed.

In 2012, Braman, his companies and his wife poured $35,000 into Lopez-Cantera’s successful campaign for Miami-Dade Property Appraiser, including $30,000 to Citizens for Lower Property Taxes, a PAC chaired by the Cuban-American politico’s sister, Monica Cantera-Serralta.

In 2010, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office investigated allegations that Lopez-Cantera’s campaign paid $37,500 to a bogus political consulting firm owned by Cantera-Serralta and her husband Gadyace Serralta during two of his re-election efforts. According to a close out memo issued a year later, prosecutors determined no crime was committed.

“While it may not look good to campaign contributors or to the general public that a company wholly held by the candidate’s sister and brother-in-law made a profit on the campaign,” wrote assistant state attorney Howard Rosen. “Actual work was done by them, and there is nothing to preclude them from profiting from their work.”

Last February, after serving nearly two years as Miami-Dade property appraiser, Lopez-Cantera was selected by Gov. Rick Scott as his lieutenant governor, replacing the scandal plagued Jennifer Carroll. Braman was among the invited guests at Lopez-Cantera’s swearing-in ceremony in Tallahassee.

Hollywood neighbors beset by traffic fear further expansion by Ben Gamla school

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Work on the new Ben Gamla school in Hollywood nears completion. Photo: William Gjebre

Work on the new Ben Gamla school in Hollywood nears completion. Photo: William Gjebre

Representatives of a traffic-congested Hollywood neighborhood are expressing new fears regarding the Ben Gamla middle-high public charter school complex, now under construction, after discovering that ex-congressman Peter Deutsch, a top school official, is linked to the acquisition of additional nearby properties which they say could be for future expansion.

The residents say they have also learned that while the city and the Broward School Board have limited the school’s opening to about 600 students, the school board previously approved a plan that would have more than tripled enrollment.

“They have bought other properties,” said Nancy Fowler, secretary of the North Central Hollywood Civic Association. “They are planning to bring in more kids,” she added. “There is a huge discrepancy between 600 students and 2,150 students.”

“It’s going to happen,” said Helen Chervin, President of the United Neighbors of South/Central Hollywood, who accused the city and the school from doing little to protect the neighborhood. “We are damaged; this is a forgotten neighborhood.”

DEUTSCH ISN’T TALKING

Deutsch, the driving force behind the Ben Gamla public charter schools, did not return calls seeking comment. Neither did Alan Koslow, attorney for Ben Gamla.

Expected to open next month, the new school complex is one block south of Hollywood Boulevard, with limited access onto two-lane Van Buren Street from 26th and 28th avenues. During the school year, nearby streets are choked with morning and afternoon traffic as area workers and residents jockey with parents dropping off students at the existing 600-student Ben Gamla elementary school that fronts Hollywood Boulevard at the City Hall circle.

Hollywood Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the neighborhood and has opposed Ben Gamla’s expansion plans from the start two years ago, remains concerned.

“It looks like they are amassing property for future expansion,” he said. An expansion to more than 2,000 students would bring “too much traffic. “It’s going to be overwhelming for the neighborhood….It will ruin the quality of life.”

Fowler’s civic association is part of a coalition of local homeowner groups and beleaguered residents opposed to Ben Gamla’s new three-story, 34,000 square foot school on property it acquired at 2648 Van Buren Street. The property, according to county records, lists title under “Van Buren Facility III LLC,” with Deutsch with the contact person.

Fowler said the various neighborhood and civic groups have heightened concerns after discovering that Ben Gamla has acquired or may be linked to other nearby properties along Van Buren Street.

The Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office website shows that three contiguous properties at 2718, 2726 and 2734 Van Buren Street, totaling 56,000 square feet, were acquired by various limited liability companies – Jackson Street Facility and 28th Ave Facility — all listing Deutsch as the contact person. The properties sold for a total of $975,000, nearly double their assigned “just market value,” in April, June and November of 2014.

The only property separating the Ben Gamla school construction site and the Deutsch-linked Van Buren Street properties is a 20,500 square-foot parcel at 2710 Van Buren Street that currently houses the Discovery Kids learning center. It was sold two months ago to DY&Z Investments LLC for $1.2 million, or double the parcel’s just market value. The registered agent for DY&Z, Yoram Ben Amram, could not be reached for comment.

There has been speculation that Ben Gamla may also be eyeing acquisition of a 29,013 square-foot property at 2750 Van Buren Street that’s owned by and housing the Unity Church of Hollywood. The property, with a just market value of about $1 million, is next to the three contiguous Van Buren Street properties that list Deutsch as a contact person.

‘OPEN’ TO A SALE

“We would be open to it [sale]…if they came in with a fair assessment value,” said Michael Rhodes, president of the board of Hollywood Unity, a non-denominational church, operating at its current location since 1965.

If Ben Gamla sought to purchase the church it would not be a surprise. “Before the school built, they approached us about sale of the church,” Rhodes said. “But they never came back, never approached us since then.”

The property transactions listing Deutsch as the contact occurred after December 2013, when the Hollywood Planning and Development Board approved Ben Gamla’s request for a zoning exception that allowed the school to build in the residential neighborhood. The city board limited the complex to 600 students, based on the size of the property and the proposed structure.

Public records show the land purchases also happened after the Broward School Board, in November 2013, approved Ben Gamla’s charter school applications for a maximum of 1050 middle school students (grades 6-8) and a maximum 1,100 high school students (grades 9-12) at the 2648 Van Buren Street location. The middle school was to open with 600 students and the high school with up to 550, according to the approved applications.

The school board authorized the Ben Gamla complex to open for the 2014-2015 school year. But at Ben Gamla’s request, the board later approved delaying the opening for one year until the upcoming 2015-2016 school year. Ben Gamla obtained a building permit last November, city officials said.

Last April, the School Board approved operating contracts with Ben Gamla stating that enrollment had to match the 600 students – 200 in the middle school and 400 in the high school – previously approved by the city of Hollywood. The contracts specify those numbers are the “minimum enrollment that will support the school’s operations at an adequate level under its approved budget.”

Broward Schools spokeswoman Nadine Drew said that should Ben Gamla want to expand beyond that it would have to seek fresh approval because the original application the board approved for as many as 2,150 students no longer applies. She said the school can come back to the board to seek an enrollment increases if it obtains more space.

Fowler, however, contends the earlier approvals have not been rescinded and that it appears as if Ben Gamla has plans to increase enrollment. She also accused the district of not being transparent regarding Ben Gamla’s Van Buren school project, noting difficulty in obtaining information regarding Ben Gamla’s applications for the new complex.

“You can’t trust that they will not go over the maximum; there is nothing binding them to 600,” Fowler said. “They have other property; they can come back at anytime. They are planning to bring in more kids.”

Trump money too hot to handle, but tainted donors back Miami-Dade mayor, opponent

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and School Board Member Raquel Regalado

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and School Board Member Raquel Regalado

As Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez gears up for a tough 2016 re-election battle against Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado, the political organizations supporting the two candidates are taking money from donors with scandalous histories.

Miami-Dade Residents First, the political action committee backing Gimenez, received $20,000 from a New York company owned by two brothers convicted in the 1980s of ripping off and terrorizing low-income renters. The PAC also took in $10,000 from a Miami Beach real estate developer who presided over a local nursing home chain that allegedly submitted $130 million in false claims to Medicaid and Medicare.

Not to be outdone, Serving Miamians — the electioneering communications organization supporting Regalado — collected $20,000 from family members of two fugitives from Ecuador accused of stealing nearly half-a-billion dollars from that country’s government.

Contributions from questionable sources show how the campaign finance system has become corrupted as candidates race to out raise opponents, according to government watchdogs interviewed by the Florida Bulldog.

The pro-Gimenez group Miami Dade Residents First has raised $1.2 million since it was formed in January. Serving Miamians has raised $710,185 since it was established in 2013 to further the political careers of Regaldo and her father, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado.

‘WHAT YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH’

“Andy Warhol once said, ‘art is what you can get away with,’” noted Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center in Washington D.C. “Political contributions are the same.”

Ben Wilcox, executive director of Integrity Florida, said committees end up doing the dirty work on behalf of the candidates.

“What we want is accountability for how candidates raise and spend money,” Wilcox said. “In this case, the candidates can use the committees to distance themselves from questionable contributions.”

According to its most recent monthly report, pro-Gimenez Miami-Dade First received $20,000 on June 29 from Amsterdam Hospitality, a Manhattan-based real estate firm owned by Jay and Stuart Podolsky. In 1986, the siblings, along with their father Zenek, pleaded guilty to 37 felonies, including grand larceny and coercion, in connection to dilapidated flophouses they operated in New York City.

Jay and Stuart Podolsky, who received probation for their alleged crimes, did not return two phone messages from the Florida Bulldog.

According to reports in multiple New York media outlets, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office accused the Podolskys of engaging “in a routine of terror to drive tenants out of a single-room-occupancy hotel” by moving “in thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes, who would then rob tenants, start floods and fires, and do drug and sex deals in the hallway.”

By 2010, the Podolskys began converting many of their flophouses into homeless shelters subsidized by New York City taxpayers, according to a 2013 investigative story by New York Magazine.

Housing Solutions USA, a non-profit company the Podolskys control, leases 40 facilities in New York City that are owned by family members and business associates through various holding companies. Those shelters generated rents in the range of $90 million between 2010 and 2013, according to city records analyzed by New York Magazine.

The Podolskys are not the only land barons with baggage giving to help Gimenez via Miami-Dade Residents First.

Russell Galbut, managing principal of Crescent Heights, a national real estate company that owns several prominent Miami Beach hotels, and six corporations he controls gave a combined $10,000 to Miami-Dade Residents First between January and April. From the mid-Nineties until last November Galbut was chairman of the board of directors for Plaza Health Network, a chain of nursing homes founded by his family in 1950 formerly known as Hebrew Homes for the Aged.

PLAZA HEALTH NETWORK’S BIG SETTLEMENT

A 2012 federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by Plaza’s ex-chief financial officer, Steven Beaujon alleged the non-profit scammed Medicaid and Medicare for $130 million during a 10-year period through the submission of false claims for physical therapy provided to patients referred by dozens of doctors who were paid kickbacks. Beaujon’s complaint, which alleges Galbut encouraged staff to implement the kickback scheme and ignored attempts to stop the illegal practice, spawned an investigation into Plaza by the FBI, the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office and attorneys with the civil division the Department of Justice.

Last month, seven months after Galbut resigned from the board, Plaza agreed to pay the U.S. government $17 million and Beaujon $4.5 million to settle the lawsuit and the civil investigation. According to the settlement agreement, the feds could still bring criminal charges against current and former Plaza Health officials allegedly involved in the scam.

In an emailed response to questions, Galbut denied any wrongdoing during his time on Plaza’s board. He said the nonprofit’s executive staff kept the board of directors in the dark about the Medicaid and Medicare issues.

“I absolutely would not approve or participate in any improper behavior,” Galbut said. “As voluntary chairman of the unpaid board of directors, I did the best I could do.”

Galbut said he gave money to Miami-Dade Residents First to promote good government. “I expect Mayor Gimenez to give his 100 percent effort and commitment to promoting a better quality of life for all of Miami-Dade County’s residents,” he added.

A Gimenez spokesman forwarded requests for comment to Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a spokesman for Miami-Dade Residents First, which returned $15,000 from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump following his recent controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants.

Manzano-Plaza said there is nothing illegal or improper about the donations given by the Podolskys and Galbut. “We have received over 300 contributions from groups that believe in and support the good government policies and experienced leadership of Mayor Carlos Gimenez,” Manzano-Plaza said.

Likewise, Regalado told Florida Bulldog that there was nothing wrong with Serving Miamians accepting a combined $20,000 from relatives of Roberto and William Isaias, who have showered hundreds of thousands of dollars on Barack Obama and other national Democratic candidates as part of their efforts to fight the brothers’ extradition to Ecuador.

In 2012, the two were sentenced in Ecuador in absentia to eight years in prison. The Ecuadorian government accuses the Isaias brothers of running a bank into the ground by making loans to businesses they controlled and then presenting false balance sheets to get bailout funds. Ecuador claims it lost more than $400 million, and Interpol issued a “red notice,” or international alert, for the Isaias brothers.

Amid their legal troubles, Roberto’s wife, children, daughter-in-law, nephews and employees have donated at least $320,000 to American political campaigns since 2010, according to a New York Times analysis of campaign finance records.

“There are a lot of people who have had issues with the law,” Regalado said. “It is what it is. But what is going on with them is not something that would be an issue for the county mayor.”

Regalado also claimed that only $5,000 of the $20,000 from the Isaias family is helping her mayoral campaign. The remaining $15,000 was given to Serving Miamians when her father, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, was running for reelection in 2013.

The National Legal Center’s Boehm said political committees should decline or return contributions from donors whose funds may come from tainted sources like the Isaias case.

“In our view, the ethical thing to do is not to keep the money if it was stolen or swindled,” Boehm said. “We can sit here all day and exchange notes on people involved in outright fraud who give to political campaigns.”

Better late than never: Online access to court files arrives in South Florida

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org clerkpage

Nearly two decades after the federal courts did it, state courts in South Florida and across the Sunshine State have begun to allow the public online access to documents contained in case files.

Unlike the federal courts, however, local court clerks in South Florida and other areas aren’t charging any fees to view, print or download millions of available pages of public records.

The Broward Court Clerk’s office was among the first to go fully online last month with free public access to electronic felony, misdemeanor, traffic, and civil court records not sealed, expunged or otherwise deemed confidential by law or court order.

“They’re available for free except for dependency, juvenile, adoptions – you know, family cases,” said Clerk Howard Forman. There is also no remote access to document images in cases governed by Florida probate rules.

For now, all users must register and log in to view the docket and document images during a 90-day pilot project. Once the state courts sign off on Broward’s system users won’t have to register and may view court records anonymously.

Miami-Dade Clerk Harvey Ruvin put civil cases only online last month. He did not respond to requests for comment.

In Miami-Dade, the county commission, not the clerk, runs the criminal record system and criminal cases are not online. “The county commission is supposed to finance their felony operation and they haven’t done it yet,” said Forman.

Palm Beach County Court Clerk Sharon Bock announced last week that a $2.6 million budget shortfall would indefinitely delay the implementation of online remote access to court records there.

What’s happening is the culmination of an effort that began in 2004 to develop technology and policies the Florida Supreme Court determined were necessary to shield sensitive personal information – like Social Security and charge card numbers – from anonymous, yet prying online eyes.

Court dockets have appeared online for more than a decade. More recently, attorneys have been required to file court documents electronically instead of on paper. New rules were adopted to require lawyers and pro se filers to identify and protect confidential information in their pleadings. A list of 20 exemptions subject to automatic redaction by the court clerk was also adopted.

A TIERED ACCESS SYSTEM

Years of study also led to the establishment of a tiered system of access to court records “to facilitate appropriate, differentiated levels” for judges, court and clerks’ office staff, “user groups with specialized credentials” like law enforcement and attorneys and the general public.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court opened the door to posting court pleadings online in an administrative order that adopted the new “access security matrix” and established the pilot program that allows clerks in Florida’s 20 judicial circuits to apply for approval of their local access systems.

Court documents in Broward undergo a thorough redaction process before they’re put online, officials said. It begins with an automatic redaction done by a special software filtering that locates, and blacks out, forbidden information like Social Security numbers. There’s also a manual review by clerks and submission to an audit that looks for statistical anomalies that might signal that exempt information wasn’t caught.

“It’s working very well,” said Ernie Nardo, the Broward clerk’s chief information officer.

The Broward clerk’s case management system, Odyssey, is provided by Texas-based Tyler Technologies. It cost more than $1 million to implement and another $435,000 in annual licensing fees, Nardo said. Another $230,000 a year goes to license redaction software from Apoka-based Computing System Innovations.

The court’s sensitive case files are not on the cloud, but remain stored locally on servers owned by the Broward clerk’s office, Nardo said.

While all new filings are coming in electronically, Broward clerks are today “back-scanning” older paper felony case files. “Those cases linger longer so we are going back to convert entire cases to electronic,” Nardo said. He said 2012 felony cases are in the process of being scanned, meaning that every case from 2013 going forward is now electronic.

There are no plans to go back and scan in other old, closed cases because the cost is prohibitive. However, the Broward clerk is thinking about providing on-demand back-scanning of cases for those willing to pay for it. Any files scanned that way would also be added to the online record.

Another project under consideration would allow individuals, for a fee, to track activity in cases by registering to receive alerts.

In Broward, the clerk’s office is also working on making its website mobile friendly.

“We are developing our website to be compliant with any phone out there. So it won’t matter what our phone is when you hit our site it would resize itself to that device,” Nardo said

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