Secret U.S. Marshals’ report ID’d security weaknesses at Broward courthouse before escape

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward County Courthouse

Broward County Courthouse

A confidential U.S. Marshals’ security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse exposed numerous weaknesses in the building’s security system four years before last week’s scandalous escape of a 21-year-old murder suspect.

The assessment included several recommendations that, if implemented, may well have prevented Dayonte Resiles’ desperate dash out of Judge Raag Singhal’s courtroom, down four flights of stairs and out a fire emergency door to short-lived freedom.

Resiles, who escaped one week ago, was captured Wednesday without incident at a West Palm Beach motel and returned to Broward. Seven people have been charged with aiding in the escape of Resiles, who is accused of stabbing to death Jill Halliburton Su in her Davie home in 2014.

Resiles’ arrest, however, did little to ease anxiety about courthouse security.

“Here’s the bottom line, and it’s something we’ve been talking about for years and clearly predates Sheriff [Scott] Israel. We do not have sufficient staffing from the sheriff’s department in this courthouse,” Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein said Thursday.

“We constantly hear from the county, ‘We give the sheriff sufficient funding to run the department.’ The sheriff says, ‘I don’t have enough manpower.’ And we’re the people in the middle,” said Weinstein.

The first page of the U.S. Marshals Service security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse.

The first page of the U.S. Marshals Service security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse.

The U.S. Marshals’ assessment, a copy of which was obtained by the Florida Bulldog,  similarly noted the need for more law enforcement personnel in both the lobby screening station and courtrooms.

“There is not an armed security officer assigned to each courtroom, instead, there are civilian court deputies. Very few of the courtrooms have armed security officers,” says the assessment. “On an average day, the central courthouse has approximately 14 law enforcement officers working in the building. This building has 54 judges and 11 magistrates. In-custody defendants are ‘dropped-off’ in courtrooms with no law enforcement personnel present.”

The recommendation: “one court deputy for every judge. Court deputies should be armed and trained by BSO and should have access to a duress alarm. Two law enforcement officers for in-custody defendants,” with an additional officer for each additional defendant.

Israel tweaks courthouse security

On Monday, Sheriff Israel moved the Broward Sheriff’s Office part-way toward the Marshals’ recommendations. From now on, he said, maximum-security inmates appearing in court would have a sworn deputy with them at all times, not just a civilian bailiff. A detention deputy who escorts the prisoner to court “will only release custody once an armed deputy is present,” the sheriff said in a statement.

Israel did not address the report’s call for shielding judges with bulletproof glass or improving the knee wall and gate that now partially separates the courtroom gallery areas from public seating area and does not extend the width of the courtroom.

WPLG Local 10 reported Monday that Israel did not accept $2.6 million offered by the county last year to beef up courthouse security. The offer, said to be in writing, would have doubled the number of armed courthouse deputies from 29 to 58 and also allowed the sheriff to “guarantee that every high-risk inmate like Resiles could be accompanied by at least one armed deputy in addition to a bailiff,” the television station reported.

BSO spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright responded Thursday: “We support having an armed deputy (plus additional BSO personnel) in every critical courtroom in the courthouse, but the county has not approved additional staffing or funding to provide this level of coverage.”

Coleman-Wright also provided a Wednesday memo written to the County Commission by BSO General Counsel Ron Gunzburger. It accuses county administrators of holding the $2.6 million “hostage until the sheriff signs a global memo of understanding (MOU)” for the entire judicial complex that would build on existing staffing levels that are “woefully inadequate,” locking in future personnel shortfalls.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

“If the sheriff would sign the proffered MOU, he would be agreeing to continue inadequate and unsafe staffing for the greatly expanded size of the entire complex…The sheriff is unwilling to sign this deeply flawed agreement,” the memo says.

Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson disputed that account. He said the MOU would ensure that dollars allocated by the county specifically for courthouse security would actually be spent by the sheriff on courthouse security, and not be diverted to the sheriff’s other priorities.

“Essentially, we want to make sure the money is earmarked for courthouse security,” said Jefferson. “You don’t want to be back with the same issue down the road.”

BSO and Broward’s judiciary asked the Marshals’ Office to evaluate security because of their expertise in arranging security for federal courthouses. The evaluation, completed in July 2012, was done after several fleeing defendants had highlighted courthouse security deficiencies.

“What report?”

According to Jefferson, however, the security assessment was done without the county’s knowledge. He said county officials didn’t learn about it until November 2013. “It was at a meeting with BSO and the judiciary when we heard about the report. We said, ‘What report?’”

The county soon put together a task force of all the players, including the court administrator’s office. He said that as a result, the county has been spending $1.8 million to address a number of recommendations – for example, installing security cameras and improving security at entry screening areas in the East Wing and the North Tower that houses felony courtrooms

The Marshal’s security review looked at a wide variety of areas from outside perimeter security to courtrooms and chambers, public area and access control and law enforcement staffing and technology.

“Security is of fundamental importance to every court because the impartial and independent application of the law may be threatened by intrusion, disruption, intimidation, force, theft, malicious and environmental disaster,” says the assessment. “If a court cannot operate with a high degree of security, its legitimacy has the potential to be undermined.”

Other recommendations included the installation of numerous closed circuit television cameras inside and outside the courthouse, door and window alarms, additional barriers to prevent vehicle intrusion, better external lighting and better monitoring of nighttime cleaning crews.

The marshals’ assessment team, while acknowledging that implementing its recommendations would be costly, emphasized “that an acceptable level of security will only be reached when all of the measures at the best practice level are incorporated… Care should be taken to prioritize and implement as many of the recommendations as quickly as possible.”

The review did not estimate costs, but some were simple and relatively inexpensive. For example, report notes that in many courtrooms the door leading to a judge’s chambers had the lock on the courtroom side of the door.

“This means that if someone was chasing the judge and the judge runs into chambers, the judge has no way of locking the door. This also means that prior to court commencing, anyone could turn the lock and have access to chambers,” says the report, which recommended reversing the locks, with the deadbolt on the chambers’ side.

Many of the reports’ recommendations have not been adopted. Chief Judge Weinstein said, however, that many would be incorporated into the new, $250-million high-rise courthouse building that remains unfinished. The new courthouse was supposed to open last year, but is now expected to open in October, said Weinstein.

After the new courthouse opens, the old 10-story courthouse will be demolished and a plaza and new parking facility will be installed. The more modern felony wing on the east side of the courthouse will remain, and be connected by walkways to the new 20-story courthouse.

28 pages connect Saudi prince to al Qaeda leader, supporters of 9/11 hijackers

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

The Saudi ambassador who met with President George W. Bush at the White House two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 had connections to a major al-Qaeda figure and other Saudis suspected of helping two of the suicide hijackers while they were in the United States.

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s contacts are contained in FBI and CIA reports cited in the 28 pages from Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11 that were ordered declassified by President Obama after 13 years and made public Friday.

The “28 pages,” which are actually 29 pages, assert that 9/11 hijackers were helped by individuals “who may be connected with the Saudi government.’’ They do not, however, address the apparent ties of Mohamed Atta and other hijackers to Saudis living in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

FBI reports say agents found “many connections” between the September 11 plotters and the Sarasota Saudis, but neither Congress nor the subsequent 9/11 Commission were informed. The matter did not become public until 2011 when the Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported it.

The 28 pages, however, do contain a new Florida angle.

“FBI documents also indicate that several Saudi Naval officers were in contact with the September 11 hijackers,” the 28 pages say. One of those officers, Saleh Ahmed Bedaiwi, was posted to the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola.

The FBI’s Jacksonville Field Office investigated Bedaiwi at the time, but what else the 28 pages had to say about the matter was blacked out by the government before their public release.

Government officials, including House Intelligence Committee members Devin Nunes, R-CA, and Adam Schiff, D-CA, said the 9/11 Commission and the nation’s intelligence community investigated, but could not substantiate the 28 pages’ leads about possible Saudi involvement. However, there is little information in the public record to back up those assertions.

For example, while the names of Bedaiwi and fellow Saudi Naval officers Osama Nooh and Lafi al-Harbi are included in a declassified June 2003 9/11 Commission work plan as “interview candidates,” none is identified on a list of 1,200 persons interviewed by commission investigators.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who coordinated the declassification review of the 28 pages, said in a statement Friday that the final chapter of the Joint Inquiry’s 2002 report was kept secret so long because it “contained still-sensitive national security and law enforcement information.”

Secrecy ‘outweighed by the public interest’ in transparency

The declassification review, however, “determined that the harm to national security” by releasing the 28 pages “is outweighed by the public interest in additional transparency… Some information has been redacted because the document includes discussion of properly classified matters the disclosure of which would still cause significant harm to national security.”

Clapper’s statement was accompanied by the less-noticed release of a one-page “executive summary” of a September 2005 “joint FBI-CIA intelligence report assessing the nature and extent of Saudi government support of terrorism.”

Congress required the previously unknown joint assessment in a classified annex of the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2004. Several sentences of the report’s transmittal letter to Congress by FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director Porter Goss were blanked out, as were several sentences in the summary. The full report remains classified.

The assessment’s key finding marked the latest government statements in defense of the Saudis: “There is no evidence that either the Saudi government or members of the Saudi royal family knowingly provided support for the attacks of 11 September 2001 or that they had foreknowledge of terrorist operations in the Kingdom or elsewhere.”

President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan at the Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2002. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan at the Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2002. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The assessment, however, also noted, “There is evidence that official Saudi entities, [redacted] and associated nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), provide financial and logistical support to individuals in the United States and around the world, some of whom are associated with terrorism-related activity.” Further, the assessment said, “The Saudi government and many of its agencies have been infiltrated and exploited by individuals associated with or sympathetic to Al-Qa’ida.”

While the 28 pages reference the sometimes bitter testimony of FBI agents and CIA officers who complained “about a lack of Saudi cooperation on terrorism investigations both before and after the September 11 attacks,’’ the 2005 joint FBI-CIA report observed that the Saudis began cooperating with the U.S. following several bombings inside Saudi Arabia starting in May 2003.

Imprisoned al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah

Imprisoned al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah

The 28 pages include a variety of new information about figures in the 9/11 drama. Among the most intriguing is a previously unreported connection between Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s longtime ambassador to the U.S. whose nickname was Bandar-Bush because of his close ties to President George W. Bush, and Abu Zubaydah, the “high-value” Guantanamo detainee who before his March 2002 capture in Pakistan was among al Qaeda’s highest ranking members and a confidant of Osama bin Laden.

U.S. and coalition forces recovered Zubaydah’s phone book. “According to an FBI document, ‘a review of toll records has linked several of the numbers found in Zubaida’s [sic] phonebook with U.S. phone numbers.’ One of the numbers is unlisted and subscribed to by ASPCOL Corporation in Aspen, Colorado,” the 28 pages say.

An FBI investigation stayed pending ‘guidance’ from headquarters

In July 2002, FBI headquarters asked its Denver office to investigate “this connection.”

Two months later, the 28 pages say, agents in Denver reported that ASPCOL “is the umbrella corporation that manages the affairs of the Colorado residence of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The facility is protected by Scimitar Security. Agents of the Denver Field Office noted that neither ASPCOL nor Scimitar Security is listed in the phone book or is easily locatable. In addition, the Colorado Secretary of State’s office has no record of ASPCOL.”

The 28 pages say the FBI reported that “CIA traces have revealed no direct (emphasis added) links between numbers found in Zubayadah’s phone book and numbers in the U.S.”

Hala Ranch, the former Aspen, Co. home of Saudi Prince Bandar and his wife, Princess Haifa. The home was sold in 2012 for $49 million to hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson, according to The Aspen Times.

Hala Ranch, the former Aspen, Co. home of Saudi Prince Bandar and his wife, Princess Haifa. The home was sold in 2012 for $49 million to hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson, according to The Aspen Times.

“The Denver office did not attempt to make any local inquiries about ASPCOL as they believed that any inquiries regarding ASPCOL would be quickly known by Prince Bandar’s employees,” the 28 pages say. “Due to the sensitivity of this matter, they decided to hold their investigation of ASPCOL in abeyance until they received additional guidance from FBI headquarters.”

Asked about the matter via email, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Matthew Bertron said Tuesday, “The FBI has no comment on your specific questions.”

The 28 pages contain additional new information involving other individuals who worked at Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy. One was an embassy bodyguard whose phone number was also in Zubaydah’s possession. The paragraph about the matter includes a number of redactions, including the name of the bodyguard, that make it difficult to understand what’s being said.

Bin Laden’s half-brother, Abdullah Bin Laden, also surfaces in the 28 pages under a section titled, “Connections between Saudi government officials in the U.S., and other possible terrorist operatives.”

“For example, according to FBI documents there is evidence that hijackers Marwan al-Shehhi and Mohammed Atta [who piloted the jets that struck the Twin Towers] were in contact with Mohammed Rafique Quadir Harunani, the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation since 1999 and a close associate of Abdullah Bin Laden… He claims to work for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, D.C. as an administrative officer. Abdullah Bin Laden has financed Quadir’s company and is listed by Quadir as the emergency contact for Quadir’s children. They are in frequent email and phone contact as well.”

Osama Bin Laden half-brother’s terrorist connections

The chapter goes on to discuss Abdullah Bin Laden’s connections to “terrorist organizations.”

“He is the president and director of the World Arab Muslim Youth Association (WAMY) and the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America. Both organizations are local branches of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. According to the FBI, there is reason to believe that WAMY is ‘closely associated with the funding and financing of international terrorist activities and in the past has provide logistical support to individuals wishing to fight in the Afghan war.’”

The 28 pages also provide new information about a known episode that raised questions about Prince Bandar’s possible ties to some of the hijackers more than a decade ago.

Back then, it was reported that Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa, had for some time sent a monthly stipend to $2,000 the wife of Osama Bassnan, a suspected Saudi agent, alleged al Qaeda sympathizer and “close associate” of Omar al-Bayoumi, another apparent Saudi agent who provided financial and other support to two 9/11 hijackers in San Diego in 2000.

The 28 pages say “in a recent search of Bassnan’s residence the FBI located copies of 31 cashiers checks totaling $74,000 during the period February 22, 1999 to May 30, 2002. These checks were payable to Bassnan’s wife and were drawn on the Riggs Bank account of Prince Bandar’s wife.” The money was supposed to be for “ ‘nursing’ services, but according to the [blank] document, there is no evidence that Bassnan’s wife provided nursing services.”

The pages say Prince Bandar himself also sent checks directly to Bassnan and his wife. Those checks, cashed in 1998, were for $15,000 and $10,000.

On Oct. 9, 2002, FBI Executive Assistant Director Pasquale D’Amuro told the Joint Inquiry, “What the money was for is what we don’t know.”

One year later, on Oct. 7, 2003, investigators with the 9/11 Commission interviewed Bandar. What he was asked and his replies are not known. A “memorandum for the record” about his interview, and the interview itself, are classified. The reason, according to the National Archives, is national security.

Broward medical examiner’s evidence policy worries prosecutors, defense lawyers

 

By Eric Barton, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak

Broward Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak

The Broward County medical examiner has been destroying some tissue and blood samples after they are a year old, a policy defense attorneys and prosecutors say could affect untold numbers of criminal cases.

Dr. Craig Mallak told the Florida Bulldog he instituted the policy shortly after taking Broward’s chief medical examiner position in 2012. He says the rule helps ease his office’s overcrowded evidence storage and also conforms to the norms of his industry.

The change was never publicly announced. Instead, Fort Lauderdale defense attorney J. David Bogenschutz discovered it during depositions in a murder case. The Medical Examiner’s Office destroyed a year-old blood sample in that case, and now Bogenschutz believes charges against his client should be dropped.

Attorneys on both sides of criminal prosecutions say other cases could be affected by the destroyed-evidence policy. After learning of the change in 2013, Broward Assistant State Attorney Brian Cavanagh sent an email to fellow prosecutors warning that it “presents a significant destruction of evidence problem.”

So far, no cases have been thrown out or lost at trial because of the policy. But Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said the change will likely lead to requests for dismissals and mistrials in criminal cases where the evidence has been destroyed. In others, the destroyed evidence might simply be something that defense attorneys use to cast a reasonable doubt.

“There are plenty of ways you can increase storage capacity, but you can’t reclaim evidence once it’s destroyed,” Finkelstein said. “There will be a cloud over this kind of evidence for as long as this policy continues.”

The medical examiner’s practice of destroying year-old toxicology samples came to light as Bogenschutz developed his defense for Ronald Melnik on a second-degree murder charge.

According to prosecutors, Melnik shot Reza Payan shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011. Bogenschutz said Melnik claims that Payan, a heavily trained Brazilian ju-jitsu fighter, attacked him for no reason and that he shot his longtime friend five times to defend himself.

Bogenschutz was going over the evidence with his client about a year after the shooting when Melnik honed in on a crime scene photo. On the ground near Payan’s body was a small vial, attached to Payan’s keychain.

The vial contained ecstasy, or MDMA, a psychoactive drug, Bogenschutz said. That night, Payan had also been drinking and smoking pot heavily. Mixed with ecstasy, that could lead to inexplicable aggression.

Police had taken a sample of Payan’s blood, so Bogenschutz sought to have it tested for ecstasy by an independent lab.

Blood sample destroyed

In April 2015, Bogenschutz learned from Dr. Gary Kunsman, the chief toxicologist at the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office, that the sample had been destroyed under the new policy.

In response, Bogenschutz filed a 180-page motion to dismiss the charges against Melnik. At issue is a legal term called spoliation, which typically comes up when police or prosecutors have deliberately hidden evidence.

Fort Lauderdale defense lawyer J. David Bogenschutz

Fort Lauderdale defense lawyer J. David Bogenschutz

“The question for the judge is, can this destruction of evidence affect the outcome? And we believe that it clearly does,” Bogenschutz said.

The bigger issue, Bogenschutz said, is how this might affect other cases, especially those filed months after a crime. The defense in those cases may have no chance to conduct its own analysis of evidence that has been destroyed.

“I’ve had cases when eight, 10 or 12 months pass before charges are even filed. That would mean the defense has no chance to conduct its own examination of what might be key evidence,” said Bogenschutz, who has practiced in Florida since 1971.

During depositions in Melnik’s case, the medical examiner and his employees revealed that they had begun a new policy in late 2012 of destroying toxicology samples that were a year old.

Bogenschutz then filed a records request with the State Attorney’s Office and found a series of emails with Mallak, urging him to change the policy. The State Attorney’s Office offered compromises, including storing samples longer for ongoing criminal trials or notifying attorneys before samples are destroyed. In the end, Mallak agreed to one change: keeping blood samples in DUI cases for two years but destroying all others after a year.

Mallak said he was surprised that his policy caused “a shock to the system around here.” He said defense attorneys and prosecutors need to understand that the old policy was flawed, and that blood and tissue samples kept for months begin to deteriorate and cannot be accurately tested. Bacteria and mold can corrode the tissue, making samples meaningless.

‘I can’t change the laws of nature’

“I personally don’t keep things in my refrigerator for years, so you can’t expect me to keep evidence that way,” Mallak said. “I can’t change the laws of nature. I can’t stop these samples from breaking down.”

Mallak came to Broward after serving as the U.S. Armed Forces medical examiner. He oversaw 250 employees in a crime lab with a $50-million budget. He worked on high-profile cases that include the space shuttle Columbia explosion and identifying the body of Saddam Hussein after the Iraqis hanged him.

In Broward he inherited a 38-person department that had been under scrutiny for poor case management and slow turnaround rates. Shortly after he arrived, Mallak shut down his lab after discovering that employees had improperly validated drug samples, which forced a review of toxicology results in pending criminal cases. He said he has since reduced his office’s turnaround from 90 days to 10 and overhauled testing methodology to conform with industry standards.

Mallak said he also discovered there was no policy governing when evidence was destroyed. Some blood and tissue samples stored by his office dated back decades. Mold and bacteria covered a few vials.

“These samples are not like a bullet that can just sit on a shelf indefinitely,” Mallak said. “They have no evidentiary value after a long time passes.”

The rule he established covers only those toxicology samples like blood and human tissue that can erode over time. DNA and other samples that can be stored without refrigeration are kept indefinitely, Mallak said.

The policy Mallak instituted follows minimum requirements set by Florida administrative rules. It also conforms to minimum industry standards, said Dr. David Fowler, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Blood and tissue samples can be kept for years if preserved in sodium fluoride. Medical examiners will often keep samples for years in ongoing cases, or when an attorney requests it, Fowler said. In Maryland, where Fowler is the state’s chief medical examiner, samples are typically kept for three years unless defense attorneys or prosecutors ask for them to be retained longer.

Broward Assistant State Attorney Brian Cavanagh

Broward Assistant State Attorney Brian Cavanagh

In Miami-Dade, the medical examiner’s office keeps such samples for five years, according to a memo on the department’s policy.

The destroyed evidence in Broward has become an issue in several criminal cases since the change, Cavanaugh said. But so far, no cases have been thrown out or lost at trial because of the policy.

When Cavanaugh learned of the change, he did an accounting of which cases might be affected. Among the destroyed evidence was blood taken from the 2012 crime scene where an 8-week-old baby died in the trunk of a car in Coral Springs. Luckily, Cavanaugh said, that evidence wasn’t pertinent. A jury in October returned a guilty verdict for the boy’s father, Janus Saintil, who is now serving a life sentence.

While the destroyed evidence wasn’t relevant in that case, Finkelstein worries that it could be in other cases. “This is not supposed to happen. People aren’t supposed to be acquitted because evidence has been destroyed,” Finkelstein said. “Even as a defense attorney, this is not what we want. We want the system to work correctly.”

In most cases, the destroyed evidence shouldn’t lead to charges being dropped or dismissed, explained Cavanaugh. But it’s an issue that could become a problem for prosecutors as defense attorneys use it to cast doubt. “It’s significant only in that it allows the defense to create an issue,” Cavanaugh said. “The question is, ultimately, is it going to be insurmountable?”

In the Melnik case, Circuit Judge Andrew Siegel has scheduled oral arguments for Aug. 5 to consider Bogenschutz’s motion to dismiss. The judge’s decision could be an indication of how the medical examiner’s policy can affect other cases.

U.S. Rep. Graham asks Gov. Scott to call special session on Lake O crisis

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Republican Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee

Republican Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee

In a sharply worded rebuke of Rick Scott, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham (D-FL) urged the governor to call a special legislative session to deal with the toxic algae bloom discharges from Lake Okeechobee threatening the state’s ecosystem as well as the tourism and fishing industries.

In a July 13 letter to the state’s chief executive, Graham said a special session focusing on short-term and long-term solutions that prevent future algae blooms should be his top priority. She added Floridians are “hungry” for the Republican governor to show leadership on the issue.

“Your administration has ignored sea-level rise, weakened water-quality standards and dismantled environmental protections,” Graham wrote. “If you continue on your current course, your legacy will not be cutting taxes or creating jobs — it will be as the first governor in modern times, Republican or Democrat, who actively worked to harm Florida’s environment.”

Despite Graham’s criticisms, a Scott spokeswoman told Florida Bulldog there are no plans to call a special session. The North Florida congresswoman was responding to Scott’s written plea to Florida’s congressional delegation seeking support for a federal emergency declaration and funds to repair Lake Okeechobee’s Herbert Hoover Dike.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been opening the dike in recent weeks, releasing large amounts of harmful freshwater into nearby canals, lakes and rivers. The discharges are necessary to prevent the dike from rupturing and flooding populated areas in Martin, St. Lucie, Lee and Palm Beach counties.

In an email response to a reporter’s inquiry, Lauren Schenone, Scott’s press secretary, said the governor’s office is looking at all options at the state level to address the effects caused by the frequent discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee.

“Governor Scott’s number one priority is ensuring the safety of our families, visitors and Florida’s natural treasures,” Schenone said. “That is why he has called upon President Obama to declare a federal emergency… Although the President has failed to do what is needed to address this growing issue, the State of Florida will devote every available resource to find solutions for the families and businesses in this area.”

In a written statement, Graham told Florida Bulldog that Scott is wasting valuable time playing the blame game. “Republicans and Democrats across the state are heartbroken and angry seeing our waters covered in algae,” Graham said. “The time to act to solve this problem is now. We can’t afford to kick the can down the road until the next crisis hits.”

In her letter to Scott, Graham — who dropped her reelection bid and is considering a 2018 gubernatorial run — suggested he “use the bipartisan outrage over today’s crisis to work with the legislature, controlled by your own party, to pass real solutions to protect us from future environmental and economic disasters.”

Graham also called on the governor to fulfill the 2014 will of the voters to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee and restore the Everglades natural water flow; and replace his political appointees on the South Florida Water Management District with scientists, engineers and conservationists.

The release of the 28 pages isn’t the last word in the search for who was behind 9/11

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The 28 pages originally were censored from the 2003 report of Congress's Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

The 28 pages originally were censored from the 2003 report of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

It took 13 1/2 years and enormous public and political pressure to force President Obama to order today’s release of the suppressed chapter from Congress’s Joint Inquiry report about apparent Saudi support for the 9/11 suicide hijackers.

The pages, however, were not released in full. Nearly every page is speckled with black marks where information was redacted. In some cases, those deletions are of entire paragraphs, almost certainly meaning that controversy about the 28 pages will continue.

Those 28 pages, however, aren’t nearly the last word about the people and events behind 9/11. Tens of thousands, likely hundreds of thousands, of additional U.S. government investigative documents about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks remain classified.

“I hope the 28 pages are the cork in the bottle and that all that other material will now be released,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. Graham co-chaired the Joint Inquiry and has long advocated for the public release of the chapter that was withheld from publication at the direction of President George W. Bush.

The declassification process that led to today’s release of the 28 pages was first sought three years ago by the Florida Bulldog and 9/11 authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, represented by Miami attorney Thomas Julin. The Joint Inquiry’s 838-page report described the hidden chapter as being about “specific sources of foreign sources of support” for the hijackers while they were in the U.S.

In September 2014, in response to criticism that President Obama had failed to keep his promise to 9/11 family members that he would release the 28 pages, the White House announced that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was “coordinating the required interagency review” of the 28 pages for possible declassification.

The declassification review, however, did not include a review of numerous other secret government documents about 9/11 generated by the FBI, CIA, Treasury and State departments and the National Security Agency – or even the 9/11 Commission itself.

The FBI alone has acknowledged that a single field office in Tampa holds 80,000 classified pages about 9/11. Those records are being reviewed for possible public release by the presiding federal judge in a Fort Lauderdale Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog’s corporate parent in 2012.

The suit seeks the release of FBI files about its investigation of a Sarasota Saudi family with apparent ties to the hijackers who abruptly moved out of their home and returned to Saudi Arabia two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other possessions.

Last month, 19 survivors and relatives of those who died on Sept. 11th sent a letter to President Obama asking him to designate for “prompt declassification” nine categories of documents “relevant to responsibility for the events of 9/11.”

“We hope and trust that you regard the release of the 28 pages as only a first step in responding to the public calls for transparency and accountability,” the letter says.

The records requested for declassification are:

  • Documents about the involvement of government-sponsored Saudi religious institutions in supporting al Qaeda. The letter identified 10 organizations that should be subject to declassification review, including the Muslim World League, Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Saudi Red Crescent Society and Al Haramain Islamic Foundation.
  • Documents concerning further investigations of the transactions, relationships and issues discussed in the 28 pages.
  • Unreleased records of the 9/11 Commission. In 2004, the Commission had urged that all of its records, to the greatest extent possible, be made publicly available by January 2009. “More than seven years after that target date, the bulk of the Commission’s records have not been processed for declassification at all, and the limited records that have been released are in many cases so heavily-redacted as to be of little use to the American public,” the letter says.
  • Documents relating to the activities, interactions, relationships, contacts and financial transactions of the 9/11 hijackers in Florida and other areas of the United States.
  • Documents about al Qaeda’s wealthy Gulf donors and support by Islamic banks and financial institutions. Those listed are: Al Rajhi Bank, National Commercial Banks, Saudi American Bank, Dubai Islamic Bank, al Shamal Islamic Bank, Faisal Finance and al Baraka.
  • Records relating to Saudi Arabia’s “efforts to promote Wahhabi Islam” and the “relationship between those efforts and terrorist activity, fundraising and recruitment.” Those records are “especially pertinent” because employees of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in the Saudi Embassy and in consulates “were implicated as possibly having provided support to the 9/11 hijackers.” Also, records about “as many as 70” Saudi diplomats associated with Islamic Affairs whose credentials were revoked in the aftermath of 9/11.
  • Records about other investigations of al Qaeda attacks and operations. The letter seeks the “long overdue” release of records involving the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, the attack on the USS Cole, the 1998 African embassy bombings, the Bojinka plot and numerous other incidents.

The victims and relatives, who for years have attempted to sue Saudi Arabia for damages, expressed concern in their letter that the Obama Administration’s public response to calls for transparency “have focused narrowly on the 28 pages alone.”

“Any meaningful effort to provide the American public with the truth concerning Saudi Arabia’s role in the emergence of al Qaeda and the events of 9/11 must encompass the full spectrum of evidence bearing on questions of Saudi culpability, not merely the 28 pages,” the letter says.

saudiarabiamap“By all public accounts, the 28 pages focus on a very discrete set of relationships and transactions relating to Saudi support for two of the 9/11 hijackers once they were already in the United States,” the letter goes on. “While this evidence is critically important, the broader issue, and the one principally raised by our lawsuit against the Kingdom, is the extent of Saudi Arabia’s funding and patronage of al Qaeda, and role in spreading the jihadist ideology that gave rise to bin Laden’s organization during the decade leading up to the attacks.”

Efforts to obtain access to other, still-secret 9/11 information are underway. For example, the Florida Bulldog has a number of outstanding Freedom of Information requests that seek FBI and terrorism task force records about the activities of the suicide hijackers in South Florida, northern Virginia and northern New Jersey.

More recent federal documents that may shed light on 9/11 are also being sought for public disclosure.

On June 16, Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI and the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act seeking records by and about the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission.

The Review Commission was established a decade after the 9/11 Commission to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the original commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. It held no public hearings and released no transcripts or documents to explain the conclusions in its March 2015 report. The commission’s members and executive director were paid by the FBI in still-secret personal services contracts.

The lawsuit seeks to obtain those records to assess the basis for reliability of the Review Commission’s findings and recommendations, notably its conclusions about a remarkable April 16, 2002 FBI report. That report, released by the FBI after the initial lawsuit was filed, reported that agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The FBI report corroborated witness statements that were the basis for a Sept. 8, 2011 story in the Florida Bulldog that first reported the story of the Sarasota Saudis, including the existence of the FBI’s investigation and the fact that the FBI never disclosed it to Congress. It was also a major embarrassment for the Bureau, flatly contradicting the FBI’s public statements that agents had found no connections between the family and the 9/11 plot.

The Review Commission concluded that the FBI report was “unsubstantiated” based on statements by unidentified FBI officials calling the report “poorly written and inaccurate.” The Commission, however, interviewed none of the independent witnesses whose accounts were corroborated by the FBI report, and did not examine why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade.

The Miami fight over right to sue to block controversial development

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

A rendering of planned development on Watson Island

A rendering of planned development on Watson Island

A proposed amendment to Miami’s charter that would help a series of lawsuits aimed at stopping controversial mega-projects on public waterfront land has drawn fierce opposition from City Attorney Victoria Mendez.

Amendment supporters, on the other hand, accuse Mendez of running interference because she fears the lawsuits — if allowed to move forward — would expose her office’s role in violating the city charter, breaking Florida’s public records law and feeding misinformation to city commissioners before they voted on the mega-projects.

“The city attorney has been conducting a vigorous campaign against this provision because if it passes, multiple cases will be brought back to court,” said Stephen Herbits, a Venetian Islands homeowner suing to stop a mega-project on Watson Island. “When the merits of these cases are finally heard by a neutral court with witnesses under oath, the city attorney will find it difficult to explain her own role in them.”

City Attorney Mendez did not return two phone messages from a reporter seeking comment.

On Wednesday, the Miami City Commission will decide whether to place on the November ballot 17 revisions to the charter, including the amendment that would grant residents legal standing to sue the city over the Watson Island mega-project, as well as others in Coconut Grove, Bayside Marketplace and Virginia Key.

Herbits, Miami-Dade School Board member and county mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado and prominent Miami businessman Steven Kneapler are among a dozen city activists who have filed separate lawsuits in the past two years accusing Miami officials of misleading voters, concealing and withholding public records from citizens and city commissioners and ignoring the city’s own charter to help developers secure deals to build lucrative projects on public land.

However, none of the lawsuits have had the opportunity to be judged in court on the merits because the city’s lawyers have successfully argued the plaintiffs don’t have legal standing to sue. Local judges and appeals courts have sided with the city in at least three complaints that sought to overturn the redevelopment of city-owned land at Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, invalidate a referendum approving the SkyRise Miami observation tower behind Bayside and the Herbits lawsuit challenging the Watson Island project, where the first phase — a mega-yacht marina — opened for business in February.

Hoping for a vote authorization

The plaintiffs are hoping the city commission authorizes the “standing” charter amendment so voters can have the final say regarding who can sue the city. Kneapler, a charter review committee member and the plaintiff in the Dinner Key lawsuit, told FloridaBulldog.org he believes Mendez is fighting the amendment because it would force her to provide neutral advice to the city commission instead of yielding to political pressure.

“It is not the legal department’s position to play politics,” Kneapler said. “I hope it passes.”

If his complaint were heard on the merits, Kneapler said, he would be able to show how the city violated the charter by failing to obtain two separate property appraisals for the Dinner Key seven-acre site, where Grove Bay Investment Group LLC is proposing a new marina, public baywalk, restaurants and a parking garage.

“The city always hides behind the standing issue and no one gets an opportunity to get to hear their cases upon the merits,” Kneapler said. “It is very frustrating.”

According to a four-page memo Mendez prepared for the charter review committee’s May 2 meeting, the city attorney argues the “standing” charter amendment would be “opening the floodgates” to frivolous lawsuits filed out of “spite” by opponents of projects that are approved by a majority of Miami voters.

She noted the Florida Supreme Court last year voted not to review Kneapler’s lawsuit and Regalado’s complaint after an appeals court sided with the city.

“This committee should not allow the charter review process to be used by anyone to force the city to squander time and resources defending meritless claims by disgruntled citizens,” Mendez wrote.

Roger Craver, another Venetian Islands resident who is also a plaintiff in the Herbits lawsuit, claims the city attorney’s office hides behind the “standing’’ issue to mask what he says are their unlawful actions.

“Their defense strategy has prevented all the facts from being laid on the table, Craver said. “As a result, a stable of reputable citizens are getting blocked from publicly exposing the city’s misbehavior.”

Miami-Dade Commission to vote on multi-million dollar Liberty Square redevelopment

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

A rendering from Miami's proposed Liberty Square redevelopment project

A rendering from Miami’s proposed Liberty Square redevelopment project

Three years after taking over the affordable-housing division of a scandalous company that defrauded $26 million from the federal government, Atlantic Pacific Communities is still dealing with the fallout.

On July 6, Miami-Dade commissioners will vote on whether to award a multimillion-dollar contract to redevelop the county’s oldest public housing project to a competitor.

Last month, the Florida Housing Finance Corporation (FHFC) ruled Atlantic Pacific was not eligible for a combined $4.6 million in tax-credit financing for the renovation of three elderly apartment complexes in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The reason: Now-defunct Carlisle Development Corp. — which in 2013 sold Atlantic Pacific its low-income apartment development business – owed $1,000 in fines and failed to submit audited financials in 2014 and 2015 for the construction of four affordable housing complexes Carlisle built with low-income housing tax credits worth $70 million.

Cecka Green, spokeswoman for FHFC, told FloridaBulldog.org she could comment only broadly about developers that fail to meet the corporation’s requirements.

“Principals that have not complied with the rules that govern the various funding programs for which Florida Housing awards funding can be deemed ineligible for future funding, per the rules that govern the application process,” Green said in an email. “Keep in mind that the decision of the board is subject to challenge in an administrative hearing proceeding.”

In an email response to questions, Atlantic Pacific spokeswoman Jennifer Wade Pfeffer claimed one of her company’s executives, former Carlisle vice president Liz Wong, was mistakenly listed as a Carlisle principal in a May 11 FHFC report identifying delinquent developers. Those on the list would not be eligible for funding in the 2016-17 fiscal year under guidelines set by the FHFC.

Pfeffer said Atlantic Pacific has notified the finance corporation that it is appealing the denial through an administrative hearing for rejected applicants. “The FHFC erred,” Pfeffer said. “We are confident this error will be corrected through the protest process.”

Last summer, Carlisle chief executive Matthew Greer, company co-founder Lloyd Boggio and three other builders were indicted by a federal grand jury as part of a conspiracy to submit inflated construction contracts to FHFC in order to obtain excessive federal tax credits.

A scheme costly for taxpayers

 Affordable-housing developers sell the tax credits to investors — usually banks or hedge funds — in order to build equity capital for construction of their projects.

In addition to receiving kickbacks from other individuals involved in the scheme, Greer and Boggio lined their pockets with the excess funds instead of paying for construction costs, according to the criminal complaint against the two men. Boggio is the only defendant who is going to trial. The others, including Greer, pleaded guilty. Greer’s parents are Bruce Greer, a prominent Miami lawyer and one-time federal judge nominee who founded Carlisle with Boggio, and Evelyn Greer, a former Miami-Dade School Board member and former Pinecrest mayor.

Pfeffer said the four Carlisle projects flagged by FHFC are not owned or managed by Atlantic Pacific. “We did not acquire those developments,” she said.

The FHFC rejection of tax-credit eligibility comes at crucial time for Atlantic Pacific. The company is making a final push to reclaim its front-runner status in the politically contentious battle to redevelop Liberty Square, Miami-Dade’s oldest public housing project. Miami-Dade commissioners are to vote Wednesday on Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s recommendation to negotiate a contract with Related Urban Development Group, which knocked Atlantic Pacific out of the top spot in February.

If approved, Related will receive $48 million in county funds for its $287-million development proposal that includes 1,527 residential units, a 40,000-square-foot supermarket and a 20,000-square-foot community center.

Both firms have funneled large amounts of campaign cash to Gimenez’s 2016 re-election campaign and his political action committee, Miami-Dade Residents First. Related and entities with the same address as the developer have kicked in $52,000, while Atlantic Pacific and its entities have pumped in $29,000, according to campaign finance reports.

Atlantic Pacific’s Pfeffer denied the contributions were tied to winning Gimenz’s support. “We are long-standing supporters of Mayor Gimenez, as are many of the larger developers in Miami-Dade County,” she said.

However, Atlantic Pacific appears to have won over County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes Liberty Square and a mixed-used development that entails a 76-unit apartment building, a bus station and a community theater on Northwest Seventh Avenue between 61st and 62nd streets. At the Seventh Avenue project’s April 29 grand opening, Atlantic Pacific announced the development would be named the Audrey Edmonson Transit Village.

Pfeffer said the gesture was done “in honor of [Edmonson’s] demonstrated dedication to revitalizing Liberty City.”

Nonetheless, Edmonson has on multiple occasions publicly criticized Gimenez for convening a second evaluation committee in January to rank final proposals by Related and Atlantic Pacific after an initial committee had recommended that Atlantic Pacific get the Liberty Square contract.

Edmonson has received $1,750 from Atlantic Pacific for her current re-election campaign and collected $15,000 in bundled donations from Carlisle in 2012. The development rights to the transit village were included in Atlantic Pacific’s purchase of Carlisle’s assets.

At a May 12 county commission committee hearing, Edmonson failed to get a vote on her request to force Gimenez to also negotiate with Atlantic Pacific and allow the company to counter Related’s offer.

According to archived video of the meeting, Edmonson said: “I’m not throwing Related out. I just want the best deal for this community.” She did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

Push to block Sabal Trail gas pipeline looks to enlist U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

By Jake Galvin and Dan Christensen, Florida Bulldog.org 

Sabal Trail pipeline opponents handed out signs and leaflets in Live Oak on April 21. Photo: John S. Quarterman

Sabal Trail pipeline opponents handed out signs and leaflets in Live Oak on April 21. Photo: John S. Quarterman

In an escalating effort to block the controversial Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline, opponents are asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine allegations that information about potential environmental hazards was overlooked during the regulatory process.

“There is significant evidence … of sinkholes, springs and the underground transmission of water for many miles that were not included in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Final Environmental Impact Statement,” said U.S. Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., in a May 27 letter to the Corps.

FERC is the lead agency to review the $3 billion Sabal Trail project. In February, it approved construction through north Florida’s underlying Karst terrain – areas characterized by sinkholes, caverns, underground streams, springs and similar features – after determining it “would not result in a significant impact on the environment” or “significantly affect public safety.”

“We have found no evidence that Karst hazards such as sinkhole development pose a safety or integrity risk to interstate transmission of pipeline facilities,” says FERC’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Bishop’s letter, citing substantial local opposition to Sabal Trail, urged The Corps to “perform a site inspection to determine the actual proximity of active sinkholes and other features of the aquifer and cave systems to the proposed pipeline route, as well as underground transmissivity for greater distances.”

Bishop expressed additional concern about possible wrongdoing by FERC itself – including a violation of the Clean Water Act by approving the project prior to the issuance of state water quality certifications.

The Army Corps has not responded yet, Bishop’s office said last week.

Sabal Trail filed a 130-page reply to Bishop with the FERC on June 6. The reply contends that Sabal Trail’s examination of environmental risks was thorough, and that “no new information” has been presented that would require an additional site inspection.

“Based on both applicable regulations and the fact that the issues raised in the letter have already been comprehensively addressed, Sabal Trail believes that a supplemental EIS is not required,” says the reply.

Sabal Trail Transmission LLC is a joint venture of Spectra Energy, NextEra Energy, parent of Florida Power & Light, and Duke Energy. It wants to build and operate a nearly 500 mile natural gas pipeline to run from from Alabama through southwest Georgia then south to near Orlando. Sabal Trail would create thousands of jobs as well as a new supply route to supply steady flow of fuel for a new generation of natural gas-fired power plants.

Gov. Scott owned stock in Sabal Trail builder

FloridaBulldog.org previously has reported that Florida Gov. Rick Scott has been both a key Sabal Trail backer and a stockholder in the project’s majority owner, Spectra Energy.

In 2013, Scott signed into law a pair of bills designed to speed up permitting for the project. Later that same year, the Scott-appointed Florida Public Service Commission unanimously approved construction of Sabal Trail as the state’s third major natural gas pipeline.

The Suwannee River in Live Oak. Photo: Jake Galvin

The Suwannee River in Live Oak. Photo: Jake Galvin

In 2015, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which reports to Scott, decided that Sabal Trail had provided “reasonable assurance” that construction would comply with state law, that state water quality standards would not be violated and that the project was “clearly in the public interest.”

In Georgia, however, Sabal Trail has met resistance.

In March, the Georgia House quashed a measure to grant Sabal Trail necessary easements to drill underneath state rivers, effectively stopping any construction of the pipeline until after the Legislature reconvenes in January. At the local level, several counties and cities where the pipeline is to run have passed resolutions against Sabal Trail.

Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC aims to provide an estimated 1.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to Florida markets that it says will lower energy costs to consumers. Yet pipeline opponents say they fear potential damage should construction damage fragile geologic structures that facilitate the movement of groundwater or a ruptured pipeline due to new sinkhole formation.

The WWALS Watershed Coalition, whose name is an acronym for the watersheds of the Withlachoochee, Willacooche, Alapaha, Little and Upper Suwannee rivers, has spearheaded environmental opposition to Sabal Trail.

Geologist and WWALS member Dennis Price said that during the permitting process he submitted a report on FERC that flatly contradicted Sabal Trail’s assertion that there are no sinkholes within 750 ft. of their proposed pipeline.

According to Price, however, there are literally thousands of sinkholes all along Sabal Trail’s proposed route through north Florida.

“Many, many sinkholes occur in retention basins throughout the karst regions of Florida. These occur in shallow excavations as well as deep excavations,” Price said in an interview. “Our worry is that excavation for pipe lying across the Falmouth cave system and the boring depth under US (Route) 90 will result in collapse into the cave system. ”

WWALS President John S. Quarterman said sinkholes could be devastating to a pipeline during construction or long after. “The sinkholes may form when they’re constructing it or maybe after a month, or two, or maybe a year. It’s just a matter of time.”

Rep. Yoho says Sabal Trail is safe

Sabal Trail is proposed to run through five counties that Congressman Bishop represents. It would also run through an adjacent district to the south represented by U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville.

While a trio of north Florida counties – Hamilton, Suwannee, and Marion – sent letters to the Army Corps requesting a site visit and a supplemental environmental impact statement, Yoho believes Sabal Trail is safe and should move forward.

“Once completed, this project will help fulfill the future requirements of Florida’s growing energy needs for years to come while protecting our sensitive environment,” he said in a prepared statement written after he took part last month in a WWALs hosted hike.

Yoho, however, did not respond to requests for additional comment.

Another hiker, farm owner David Shields, lives about a quarter of a mile from a proposed pipeline compressor station. Such stations pressurize natural gas at intervals along the route to keep it flowing through the pipeline. Shields said he was concerned about what he’s read about compressor station safety and sinkholes in Sabal Trail’s report to the FERC.

“I wish someone would care more about my bottom line as a homeowner and a business owner, rather than this company that’s not from Florida,” he said.

Recent safety problems at Spectra Energy properties elsewhere have given Shields and others cause for concern.

On April 29, a Spectra Energy pipeline exploded in Salem Township, Pennsylvania, incinerating a house and sending a man to the hospital with third-degree burns. The explosion forced a rerouting of natural gas deliveries in the eastern United States and raised natural gas prices.

One year earlier, Spectra’s Texas Eastern Transmission pipeline exploded spectacularly under the Arkansas River in Little Rock.

“Its all been eye opening.,” said Shields. “You see movies and documentaries but now, for me, its real. Just the other day my children were playing in the field… within minutes I could lose everything.”

Florida DEP sought little public input about plan to allow more toxins in state waters

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org

everglades

everglades

With minimum public input, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been working for four years on a proposal that could let more cancer-causing toxins be released into the state’s surface waters. Most Floridians have been kept in the dark regarding the plan that will cause great harm to the state’s aquatic environment, residents and visitors, according to activists and some elected officials.

Critics told FloridaBulldog.org that DEP officials hope the lack of public scrutiny will allow them to push through changes to increase the amount of hazardous chemicals that can be allowed in the discharging of industrial waste into the state’s rivers, streams, canals, lakes and coastal waters. The proposed rules would go into effect in September if approved by the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is deliberately being cloaked in secrecy,” said Joanne Oyen, a Pembroke Pines Democratic Party activist. “They are trying to push through something that is wrong and corrupt. There should be a public outcry about this.”

The DEP is recalculating the parts-per-billion limits for 43 chemicals designated as health hazards, as well as adding 39 toxins that are not currently regulated. For example, the cap on benzene, a carcinogen that can cause vomiting, convulsions and loss of consciousness to people exposed to high levels, would increase from 1.18 parts per billion to 3 parts per billion under the new criteria. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits benzene at 1.14 parts per billion.

Department spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller insisted the new rules would protect Florida’s waterways. “DEP’s nationally recognized scientists have worked diligently since 2012 to develop the proposed Florida-specific human health criteria,” Miller said. “They have been calculated based on the best science available, guidance from EPA and a scientific peer review panel and input from the public.”

Yet, DEP has conducted very little public outreach. Between May 2012 and February 2013, the department held eight public workshops and presented its proposal at two public hearings, including one in front of the Environmental Regulation Commission. The only workshop in South Florida — home to two national parks and a preserve in large bodies of water — took place in West Palm Beach on May 15, 2012. None took place in 2014 and 2015. Last  month, about three weeks before the deadline for public comments, DEP held workshops in three cities in a 72-hour span. 

But none took place in 2014 and 2015. In May of 2012, about three weeks before the deadline for public comments, DEP held workshops in three cities in a 72-hour span. The only workshop in South Florida — home to two national parks and a preserve in large bodies of water — took place in West Palm Beach on May 15, 2012.

Moreover, Miller said the public workshops and hearings were advertised only in the Florida Administrative Register and DEP websites, as required by state law. Aside from the online public service announcements, the department sent emails to more than 1,000 individuals and organizations that had signed up for updates and notifications, Miller added.

The department did not engage in any radio, television, or newspaper advertising. And there was no social media campaign. Not surprisingly, the department has received comments about its proposed new rules from only 115 people.

Considering the new rules will impact Florida’s 19 million residents and the state’s 100-million-plus visitors, DEP should have held more hearings and taken more measures to inform the public, Oyen said. When the department held three workshops last month, the closest location to South Florida was in Stuart, an hour-and-a-half drive from Pembroke Pines.

‘A very serious public health issue’

“This is a very serious public health issue,” Oyen said. “Eleven workshops since 2012 equates to less than three workshops per year in our huge state. Is anyone starting to get the picture that the DEP does not want anyone to know of their toxic intentions?”

Oyen took her complaints to U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and State Sens. Kristin Jacobs and Eleanor Sobel, all of whom recently wrote letters to DEP officials expressing their concerns about the lack of public involvement and increasing the caps on toxic chemicals.

“FDEP should maximize the opportunity to maintain higher levels of protection through more stringent regulations of chemical compounds released into our environment,” Jacobs wrote DEP Manager Eric Shaw on June 6. “I urge the Department to select the method which will offer the most protection for both Florida residents and our precious resources.”

Three days later, Graham weighed in. “Contamination of our waters threatens the health of our communities, our economy and our environment,” the congresswoman wrote DEP Secretary Jon Stevenson. “I urge you to give these concerns your full and timely consideration and to reconsider any proposal that would weaken Florida’s water quality standards.”

On June 13, Sobel suggested to Shaw that the DEP should hold more public workshops. “While we can debate the issue of the water quality standards themselves, I am also concerned about the process through which the public was notified regarding the workshops,” Sobel said. “I am aware of only three workshops held across the state this year addressing this issue with the nearest location being Martin County … This is completely unacceptable.”

However, Miller was noncommittal about allowing for more public discussion. “DEP is now considering all comments and will update its proposed rules as necessary,” Miller said. “If substantial changes occur, another round of public workshops will be held.”

Report: ChildNet Broward is failing, ‘urgent’ need to fix county’s child welfare system

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org childnet

Burdened with high caseloads and mired in millions of dollars in debt, the lead agency in Broward’s child welfare system is failing.

That’s the gist of a 15-page state task force report obtained by FloridaBulldog.org about ChildNet Broward, the nonprofit that received $67 million from Florida’s Department of Children & Families (DCF) this year to provide community-based child welfare services.

Underscoring what the report called the “urgent” need for corrective action, about 80 leaders from various agencies and other community stakeholders met on June 7 to review the current system of care and begin to figure out how to fix it. The meeting and the report, however, were not publicly announced.

The state’s 11-member “Risk Pool Review Committee” began its review of ChildNet after it sought additional state funds last winter to cover a $7.6-million deficit. ChildNet’s deficit grew to $8.2 million by the time the report was submitted to DCF Secretary Mike Carroll on March 28.

“The analysis identified several factors that are placing considerable strain on Broward County’s child welfare agencies which must be addressed quickly,” Carroll said in an email announcing the June 7 meeting at the department’s Broward office at 1400 West Commercial Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale. The meeting’s goal: to “reach agreement on a comprehensive action plan,” Carroll wrote.

Carroll declined to be interviewed, but State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said Monday that no comprehensive action plan was adopted at the meeting.

“They’re reviewing everything,” said Sobel, who chairs the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. “The real problem that came into focus at this meeting was the judiciary. They don’t have enough judges to go through these cases in an expeditious and efficient manner.”

ChildNet President and CEO Emilio Benitez

ChildNet President and CEO Emilio Benitez

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, however, announced at the meeting that he would add two child dependency judges in the coming weeks, Sobel said.

Judge Hope Tieman Bristol, chair of the juvenile dependency division, did not response to repeated requests for comment.

The task force recommended ChildNet be given the extra funds, “contingent on their agreement to develop a corrective action plan,” including making sure abuse cases are appropriately entered into the Florida Safe Families Network database to improve state oversight.

Report ‘absolutely accurate’

ChildNet President/CEO Emilio Benitez, who called the task force report “absolutely accurate,” said Tuesday that Secretary Carroll approved $6.1 million, but the money has yet to be disbursed.

“It reduces the deficit significantly,” Benitez said.

The grant funds are to come from a $13 million state Risk Pool established by the Legislature to mitigate the financial risk to eligible “lead” child welfare agencies in communities around the state.

ChildNet Broward operates under a five-year contract with DCF. In its application for Risk Pool funding, ChildNet cited “staggering increases” in the number of at-risk children entering the county’s child welfare system. There were 3,601 dependent children in the system on Jan. 10, 2016 – the most since 2004 – and 1,287 more than on January 2014, ChildNet said.

“A major contributor has clearly been similarly record-setting increases in the number of children removed (from at-risk homes) by the Broward Sheriff’s Office Child Protective Investigators,” the application says. Nearly 1,400 children were removed in 2015.

Curiously, the task force reported that the removal rate in Broward, a county where the rate of child poverty is below the state average, was 7.8 per 100 children investigated last summer, compared to the statewide rate of 6.4 per 100 children investigated.

The committee, comprised of 11 child welfare experts from around the state, concluded that ChildNet’s ballooning caseloads are the result of both increased removals and fewer discharges from care, “leading to a significant increase in the number of children in out-of-home care.”

The background to those trends has been a decline in core services funds between 2010 and 2015. The result: “higher costs and declining quality,” the task force report said.

The report cited a “robust array of both governmental and private organizations” exist to address child welfare, including the Children Services Council that spends millions in tax dollars on prevention and diversion services targeted to children in the system. “But ChildNet needs to develop in-home services for unsafe children and for safety management to help alleviate some of the removals,” the report says.

Broward’s splintered child welfare system

The report was also critical of the splintered structure of Broward’s child welfare system.

“The responsibility for essential components of the system of care is spread among several different entities including the Broward Sheriff’s Office for the Child Protective Investigation function, the Office of the Attorney General for the Children’s Legal Services function and the Lead Agency (ChildNet) for child welfare functions,” the report says. “Unless there is a strong sense of community ownership of the child welfare system of care, different organizations may be accountable for part of the system but effective management of the overall system can suffer.”

Current trends “indicate that ChildNet is not on a path of longer term sustainability,” the report says. Risk Pool funding will avoid service disruptions this year, but without a “significant infusion of resources” ChildNet “is likely to experience a significant deficit next fiscal year.”

Still, Benitez was optimistic about ChildNet’s future.

“We have made a tremendous impact since the report and I think we are now heading in the right direction,” he said. “All the partners are now working together to find a solution.”

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