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

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org



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.”

FOIA lawsuit disputes 9-11 Review Commission effort to discredit sensational FBI report

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left. Photo: FBI

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left. Photo: FBI

Two blue ribbon government panels on 9/11, two approaches to public accountability.

The 9/11 Commission held a dozen public hearings before issuing its 567-page report to the nation in 2004. While many of its records remain classified, the commission also made public additional staff studies with detailed information about terrorist financing, terrorist travel and immigration and border security.

The lesser-known FBI 9/11 Review Commission was established a decade later to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. It held no public hearings, released no transcripts of its proceedings and provided no supplementary documentation to explain the conclusions in its March 2015 final report.

For more than a year, the FBI has declined to make public any additional information about the 9/11 Review Commission. On Wednesday, for the second time in four years, the FloridaBulldog.org’s nonprofit corporate parent sued the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice – this time using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to seek records about the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission.

Broward Bulldog Inc. sued in 2012 for access to FBI records about its once- secret investigation of a Saudi family living in Sarasota with apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers. Since 2014, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale has been reviewing more than 80,000 pages of 9/11 documents produced by the FBI for possible public release.

Wednesday’s complaint seeks to discover the basis for and the reliability of the 9/11 Review Commission’s findings and recommendations.

Specifically, the lawsuit focuses on the Review Commission’s conclusions about a sensational April 16, 2002 FBI report that investigators found contained “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The report also said a Saudi family member had attended a flight training school attended by the terrorists.

The Review Commission, after reviewing unspecified FBI records and being briefed by the FBI, found that allegations the Saudi family was connected the 9/11 plot were “unsubstantiated” and called the FBI report “poorly written and inaccurate.” The Review 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 “9/11 Review Commission’s finding is false, unsupported by credible evidence, and intended to discredit truthful facts that were accurately reported in the April 16, 2002 FBI report,” says the new FOIA complaint prepared by Miami attorney Thomas Julin.

FBI investigation made public after a decade

The Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the FBI’s Sarasota probe days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks in September 2011. Neighbors of Abdulaziz and Anoud al Hijji called authorities after the couple moved abruptly out of their home about two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal items.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, said the FBI did not disclose the Sarasota probe to Congress. The matter was also not addressed by the 9/11 Commission.

Inside the former home of Abulaziz and Anoud al Hijji at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota

Inside the former home of Abulaziz and Anoud al Hijji at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota

The FBI later acknowledged its investigation, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot. The FBI also claimed it disclosed its Sarasota investigation to Congress.

In response to the Bulldog’s repeated FOIA requests, the FBI offered no responsive records. Six months after the first lawsuit was filed, however, the FBI released a copy of its April 2002 report, heavily censored for reasons of national security. The report contradicted FBI public statements downplaying the significance of its Sarasota investigation and corroborated the accounts of a counterterrorism officer and others that were the basis for the original news story.

The new FOIA suit comes 14 months after the Bulldog’s initial FOIA request for access to 9/11 Review Commission’s records, including an April 30, 2014 “Memorandum for the Record” about the FBI’s disputed 2002 report.

The FBI has produced no documents in response to those requests nor cited any reason to justify the lack of disclosure. Federal law requires government agencies to determine whether to comply with a FOIA request in 20 working days.

The 9/11 Review Commission was originally proposed by Rep. Peter King, R-NY, as an independent body under Congress with the authority to hold public hearings, compel testimony and retain experts and consultants. After that idea died, a plan for a 9/11 Review Commission under the auspices of the FBI was inserted into a large appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law in March 2013. All mention of public hearings, subpoena power and legislative control had been removed.

FBI Director James Comey later appointed the commission’s three members – Reagan Administration Attorney General Ed Meese, former 9/11 Commission member and Ambassador Tim Roemer and Georgetown University security studies professor Bruce Hoffman.

How much did FBI pay commissioners?

The FBI paid the commissioners and commission executive director John C. Gannon, a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, under personal services contracts that made them de facto FBI employees. Those contracts are among numerous documents sought in the new FOIA suit.

Meese, Hoffman, Roemer and Gannon each declined to be interviewed about the Review Commission.

Congress appropriated a total of $2.5 million to the FBI for the review process. Commissioners were guided by the FBI and, their report makes clear, relied heavily for information on the Bureau and interviews with other government intelligence sources, including CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Transcripts of those interviews are also among the documents the FOIA lawsuit seeks to make public.

The title page of the 9/11 Review Commission's 2015 report.

The title page of the 9/11 Review Commission’s 2015 report.


The 9/11 Review Commission released the unclassified portion of its 127-page report in March 2015.

The report devotes three pages to its review of the Sarasota probe whose disclosure Sen. Graham has said “opens a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11.” The review was confined to its analysis of the April 2002 FBI report, which stated that the FBI said the special agent who wrote it was “unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.”

The FBI did not identify the agent or explain how he could have made such a serious error. Nevertheless, the agent’s “unsubstantiated” information was repeated in other FBI reports the Bureau subsequently made public.

The FOIA suit seeks a variety of records about the 9/11 Review Commission, including its transcripts, memoranda for the records, personal services contracts with commissioners and staff, draft copies of the final report, FBI briefings titled “Sarasota Family” and “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation” and an FBI summary report regarding Fahad al Thumairy.

Thumairy was a diplomat with the Los Angeles Saudi Consulate’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs from 1996-2003. Thumairy, who was also a prayer leader at the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, CA, was expelled from the U.S. due to suspected ties to terrorists.

The Bulldog’s complaint asks the court to hear the case quickly and order the defendants to release the requested documents or be required to submit them to the court for review. If the documents are not released, the complaint asks the court to require the government to provide what’s known as a Vaughn index, showing the author, recipients, date and subject of each document.

Finally, the judge was asked to determine if any FBI or DOJ personnel acted “arbitrarily or capriciously” in withholding records. If so, attorney fees and costs can be assessed against the government and those responsible could be punished for contempt and face disciplinary actions.

Broward’s Inspector General probes Hallandale Beach CRA – again

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper is flanked on the left by Commissioners Keith London and Michele Lazarow and on the right by Commissioners Bill Julian and Anthony Sanders. The commission also sits at the city CRA's board of directors

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper is flanked on the left by Commissioners Keith London and Michele Lazarow and on the right by Commissioners Bill Julian and Anthony Sanders. The commission also sits at the city CRA’s board of directors

The Broward County Inspector General’s Office has launched another inquiry into Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency, three years after finding the city “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds.

The first probe led to reform and a grand theft charge against the director of a local cultural program for misspending CRA grant money. What triggered the new probe, however, isn’t known.

“I cannot comment,” said Inspector General John W. Scott, who leads the independent watchdog agency that investigates allegations of fraud, corruption and gross mismanagement at the county and Broward’s 31 municipalities. He’s asked the city and the CRA to submit the requested information by July 1.

A key focus of the inquiry, however, is the city’s Community Benefit Program (CBP). The program seeks to encourage private development and city-funded projects to recruit, train and hire city residents and local vendors.

Tuesday’s letter to the city from the Inspector General’s Office requested a variety of CRA documents from Jan. 1, 2013 to the present. They include: all voting conflict memos submitted by city commissioners, who also serve for directors of the CRA; the minutes of all city commission and CRA meetings; a list of all bid solicitations with a Community Benefit Program component as well as documentation from vendors identifying specific partners to be engaged in the program.

In addition, Inspector General Scott’s office requested documents related to two groups that received grants from the city and the CRA: the Palms Community Action Coalition and the South Florida Educational Development Center.

The latest inquiry set off another disagreement among city officials.

“While the CBP has good intentions,’’ said City Commissioner Keith London, “it is my belief the program has been hijacked and abused by insiders who have used their power and influence to steer contracts and jobs to unqualified persons and companies for no other reason than their political connections.”

London said residents should “review the voting record of each commissioner who has blindly supported the CBP policy, every CBP expenditure and bid sheet awarding millions of taxpayer dollars to firms whose major qualification was their connection to city hall.”

But Mayor Joy Cooper, who has differed bitterly with London in the past, played down the significance of the IG’s records request.

We have been in compliance”

Cooper cited the city’s Hallandale Opportunity Program that monitors grants and contracts. She said the program’s monthly reports have indicated compliance with city provisions, including by the Community Benefit Program. “We have tightened up” controls over grants and contracts, Cooper said. “We have been in compliance.”

City Manager Daniel Rosemond added the same internal group has monitored city funds going to South Florida Educational Development Center and there have been “no performance issues.”

Rosemond likewise sought to downplay the significance of the Inspector General’s inquiry, observing that he merely asked for some records.

“This is not an investigation,” Rosemond said in an interview, adding “I don’t believe there is anything substantive” to the inquiry, but rather that the IG has received some information and “has a fiduciary responsibility to look at it.”

In an email to commissioners, Rosemond said, “The nature of the [IG] request appears to center around the city’s Community Benefit Program, its administration and recipients.”

Palms Community Action Coalition members could not be reached; South Florida Educational Development Center members did not return calls for comment.

Palms Community Action Coalition (PCAC) is a group attempting to prevent and reduce crime, drug abuse and gang activity. The coalition came under scrutiny during the Broward Inspector General’s previous probe – although there was no finding of wrongdoing. Under a three-year agreement with the city, PCAC has received a total of $306,000.

According to state documents, the South Florida Educational Development Center, established six years ago, is a non-profit group that provides educational job training for youth and adults in underserved areas. It received $45,000 last year and again this year, and will receive the same amount next year under a three-year agreement ending Sept. 30, 2017.

City Commissioner Michele Lazarow said she and Commissioner London have questioned the effectiveness of the Community Benefits Program. In some instances, she said, city funds appeared to be going to only a few groups. There is also concern that some firms receiving city contracts may be having trouble fulfilling promised job slots because there are not enough qualified workers in the city.

A city ‘investigated twice’

“I wonder how many other Broward County cities have been investigated twice,” said Lazarow.

Commissioner Anthony Sanders could not be reached for comment. Vice Mayor Bill Julian said he could not comment because he hadn’t seen the IG’s letter.

In March 2013, after a 14-month investigation, the Inspector General’s Office found $2.2 million in questionable expenditures by the Hallandale Beach CRA between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.

The city, the report stated, improperly spent $416,000 in CRA money for parks outside the CRA boundaries. The spending, which was not always documented, was often done at what amounted to the whim of former City Managers Mike Good and Mark Antonio, the report said.

The Hallandale Beach CRA, like other similar agencies in other municipalities, was established under a state law that allows the agency to raise and spend a large portion of increased property tax dollars collected within the CRA’s boundaries on projects aimed at eliminating slum and blight. Nearly 50 percent of those funds come from Broward County, which approved establishment of the agency.

While city officials contended that all expenditures were permissible under state law, the Broward IG cited in its report a 2010 opinion by Florida’s Attorney General that CRA expenditures must be connected to “brick and mortar” capital projects.

At the conclusion of the last investigation, Hallandale Beach officials denied wrongdoing and challenged the authority of the Inspector General to oversee the city’s CRA.

Nevertheless, the city ultimately made changes as a result of the probe that included updating its CRA development plans and adopting procedures for awarding grants. The city also announced plans to repay the CRA for funds used for parks outside the CRA boundaries.

The IG’s finding also led Broward prosecutors to charge Palm Center for the Arts (PCA) director Deborah Brown with grand theft in May 2014. The IG reported finding probable cause to believe that Brown spent nearly $5,000 in CRA funds on herself and her family. The funds were designated by the city in 2010 to send children on a trip to Washington, D.C.

The criminal case remains pending in Broward Circuit Court, with the next hearing set for Sept. 22.

Broward County’s $18.9 million airport flip-flop and a new, secret whistleblower case

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Broward County Commission before Tuesday's vote to pay $18.9 million to settle a dispute with airport contractor Tutor Prerini.

The Broward County Commission before Tuesday’s vote to pay $18.9 million to settle a dispute with airport contractor Tutor Prerini.

With little public discussion, the Broward County Commission has overwhelmingly approved an $18.9-million payout to airport contractor Tutor Perini to settle a bitter dispute about who was to blame for costly construction delays.

Paperwork filed in support of the deal, including the settlement itself, revealed that an unidentified whistleblower recently sued Tutor Perini in circuit court using the Broward County False Claims Ordinance. The whistleblower’s claims are not known, but sources said an unhappy subcontractor filed the complaint. Whistleblowers who help the county recover money lost to fraud or other schemes can recover a reward of up to 25 percent of the proceeds.

Tuesday’s settlement deal, approved in a 6-1 vote, marks an expensive flip-flop by the county from assertions earlier this year by then-Broward aviation department boss Kent George that, in fact, Tutor Perini owed the county more than $34 million for those delays.

George stepped down as aviation director in March, but remains on the county’s payroll until the end of the year. He negotiated the settlement approved Tuesday.

In January, FloridaBulldog.org reported that on New Year’s Eve George had a letter sent to Tutor Perini demanding those damages cover the costs of a dozen “significant … deficiencies and unresolved issues” that seriously delayed completion of the $800-million expanded south runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“You owe us millions of dollars and now I’m paying you millions of dollars in a settlement?” Commissioner Lois Wexler said Tuesday. “Unless there’s a real explanation as to how it morphed into something else, I’ll be a no vote today.”

County Attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey, who recommended approval of the settlement, offered a brief discussion about that. Coffey indicated the county was responsible for the delays because change orders expanding the scope of Tutor Perini’s work were approved without an appropriate expansion of work days in which to complete it.

A dissatisfied Wexler voted a lonely no.

Tutor Perini, (NYSE: TPC) has contended that the county was to blame for the construction delays. In fact, the county aviation department lost more than a dozen claims adjudicated before a “dispute avoidance panel” established at the project’s outset to resolve disagreements between the county and its runway contractors.

In recommending approval, Coffey warned the county could have as much as $80 million in liability without a settlement.

County ‘probably could win’

Nevertheless, Commissioner Dale Holness said that in private discussions with “our staff and attorneys” he’s been assured the county “probably could win” a lawsuit against the company.

“But they weren’t sure a hundred percent because we had some issues on both sides,” Holness said.

Wexler went further. She said her “lengthy briefings” with staff bore little resemblance to Tuesday’s outcome.

“When Ms. Coffey and Mr. [Michael] Kerr [deputy county attorney] came to my office, they said, ‘Don’t worry, commissioner, we’re going to recoup, we’re going to recoup,’ ” Wexler said. “Now all of a sudden something else comes forward.”

The settlement includes $6.1 million that was approved but never paid to Tutor Perini, plus an additional $12.8 million. No commissioners asked how that figure was arrived at, and county staff did not explain.

The settlement raises the “final” contract amount to $239 million. The original contract award to Tutor Perini for design-build services was $179.9 million. Change orders approved by the county raised that figure to $226.2 million.

The settlement is with the Tutor Perini Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Joint Venture.

California-based Tutor Perini is the prime consultant for the tunnel structures that carry the expanded and elevated south runway and taxiway over U.S. 1, the Florida East Coast railroad tracks and East Perimeter Road. The venture was also responsible for related construction, including the new southbound airport exit ramp to U.S. 1.

The original contract completion date for the runway project was Feb. 22, 2014. In fact, the runway opened for air traffic in September 2014, and the project was declared “substantially complete” in January 2015.

Still, work at the airport goes on. Today, Tutor Perini is adding decorative and architectural features to the U.S. 1 tunnels – finishing work worth several million dollars. The settlement requires Tutor Perini to finish all remaining work by Aug. 31.

Friction between Tutor Perini and the county isn’t limited to the airport project.

The company is the prime contractor on the new downtown county courthouse, a project that’s a year behind schedule, but is expected to open this summer. The Sun-Sentinel reported last month that a county public works official said Tutor Perini contends the county owes it $11.3 million for extra work.

The airport and courthouse disputes also figure in the selection of a contractor to build a long-sought expansion of the Broward County Convention Center and a next-door hotel on port property. Texas-based developer Matthews Southwest Holdings was accepted for the job in April, but Matthews’ team includes Tutor Perini – a fact that did not go over well at County Hall.

Environmentalists blow whistle on state proposal to allow more toxins in state waters

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Florida’s rivers, streams, lakes and coastal waters face a dramatic increase in the level of toxic chemicals that cause cancer and other serious illnesses under a proposal by the pro-business administration of Gov. Rick Scott to water down state environmental protections.

That’s the warning from a coalition of activists and scientists about a proposal by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] to allow corporations to dump higher levels of dangerous contaminants into public waterways than state rules now allow.

“The department is taking us backward,” Florida Clean Water Network founder Linda Young told FloridaBulldog,org. “[The new rules] will make our waters more polluted. It is really bad policy that is of no benefit to the taxpayers and the public.”

The proposal would recalculate the parts per billion limits for 82 toxic chemicals designated as human health hazards. State law allows industrial waste to include these chemicals as long as they are under the limits set by DEP.

State officials, however, flatly reject the environmentalists’ concerns that those higher limits pose a threat to all Floridians.

“Depictions that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is weakening water quality protection and endangering Floridians is false,” said agency spokeswoman Lori Elliott. “The proposed criteria were based solely on scientifically sound and verifiable information and variables, and are protective of human health even in the most extreme cases.”

The impasse illuminates a long-running battle that environmentalists and preservationists have waged against the administration of Gov. Scott, which recently came under fire over the state’s handling of Lake Okeechobee discharges that sent billions of gallons of toxic polluted rainwater into the Atlantic earlier this year.

Michelle Gale, a former psychologist who lives in Coconut Creek, is an activist for the national anti-fracking organization Food and Water Watch, said Scott has effectively neutered DEP’s enforcement powers. “Since Gov. Scott got into office, he has really gutted DEP,” Gale said. “He has put in people who do his bidding. We have to keep fighting and fighting them.”

Lauren Schenone, Scott’s deputy press secretary, declined comment.

‘DEP stalling’

The state’s environmental protection department last updated the list of regulated toxic chemicals in 1992. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] has been doing it more frequently, most recently a year ago,” Young said. “Florida DEP had been stalling.”

Out of 120 toxic chemicals the federal agency recommended regulations for, Florida only has restrictions on 43. Under the new plan, DEP would add 39 more toxic chemicals to the list. The DEP’s Elliott insisted Florida has some of the most stringent regulations in the nation.

“In fact, we are increasing protection by proposing to nearly double the number of regulated chemicals to better protect Floridians and visitors from exposure to contaminants,” Elliott said. “In addition to adding criteria for 39 chemicals that currently have no regulations, DEP is also updating 43 existing criteria to incorporate the latest national science for the protection of public health.”

However, draft language of DEP’s updated Human Health-Based Water Quality Criteria shows the department is raising the caps on a majority of the regulated toxic chemicals that can be released into surface waters. Young said DEP has ignored concerns raised by scientists and activists at three public workshops held in May. The department has until September to finalize the new criteria.

For instance, the current limit for the chemical benzene, a carcinogen that can cause vomiting, convulsions and loss of consciousness to people exposed to high levels, is 1.18 parts per billion. Under DEP’s updated criteria, the cap would be three parts per billion. The federal standard is 1.14 parts per billion.

Some chemicals, like arsenic, would remain at a current level of 10 parts per billion. But that’s still 1,000 times higher than what the federal government recommends as an allowable limit, Young said.

She also noted that DEP’s new rules don’t address several dozen unregulated toxic compounds, including dioxin, a byproduct of pulp and paper mills that has contaminated such places as the Fenholloway River in Taylor County. Short-term exposure to dioxin may result in skin lesions and a breakdown in liver function, while long-term exposure can impair the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions, environmentalists say.

“DEP’s approach allows us to take into consideration the characteristics of all Floridians,” Elliott said. “This is a much more sophisticated and comprehensive analytical method that allows us to generate criteria to protect all Floridians including small children and people who eat more seafood than average.”

Young disagreed. “It is not going to protect us,” she said. “They want to justify having the weakest standards as possible.”

Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office, FBI accused of spying on defense in Medicare fraud case

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Judge Cooke has set a June 8 hearing to consider alleged wrongdoing by federal prosecutors and agents.

Judge Cooke has set a June 8 hearing to consider alleged wrongdoing by federal prosecutors and agents.

In a stunning twist in a long-running Medicare fraud case, both the Miami U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI stand accused of spying on a defendant’s lawyer by illegally and secretly obtaining copies of confidential defense documents.

Court papers filed last week by attorneys for Dr. Salo Schapiro contend the secret practice was not the action of “just one rogue agent or prosecutor.” Rather, it was apparently an “office-wide policy” of both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI that’s gone on for “at least 10 years.”

The unwritten policy involves “surreptitiously copying defense counsel’s work product through the government-contracted copy service that the government requires defense counsel to use to obtain the discovery documents’’ needed to properly prepare for trial, according to court papers that seek either the dismissal of Schapiro’s indictment or the disqualification of the entire prosecution team.

Miami attorneys Howard Srebnick and Rossana Arteaga-Gomez represent Schapiro and filed the motion, which asserts that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has for several weeks been investigating itself in the matter.

Miami U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke held an initial hearing Tuesday that was continued until June 8 at 1:30 p.m. The judge, in an order, has asked both parties to respond to this extraordinary question: “What remedies, if any, are available to the court were the court to find that the described conduct in defendant Schapiro’s motion is a systemic, consistent and/or pervasive practice of or on behalf of the United States Attorney’s Office?”

A spokeswoman for Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer would not be interviewed. However, late Thursday night prosecutors filed court papers confirming that an internal probe is underway and asserting that defense arguments are “based on erroneous accusations and insinuations.”

Howard Srebnick, left, and James V. Hayes

Howard Srebnick, left, and James V. Hayes

“Despite the charged language this is not a case about intrusion into the attorney-client relationship, eavesdropping or sneaking into the defense camp,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney James V. Hayes and Justice Department fraud attorney Lisa H. Miller.

Defense attorney Srebnick did not return a phone call seeking comment.

 Specifically, the court papers allege that Fort Lauderdale-based copying service Imaging Universe and president Ignacio E. Montero provided the government with CDs containing duplicates of documents Schapiro’s defense team culled from 220 boxes of evidentiary records in preparation for trial. Federal agents had seized those records from the mental-health clinic Biscayne Milieu, where Schapiro worked.

“Covertly cloning defense counsel’s work-product to obtain a tactical advantage is nothing short of ‘shocking to the universal sense of justice’ mandated by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment,” Srebnick and Arteaga-Gomez wrote. “To the extent that the prosecution team can infer from Dr. Schapiro’s selection of discovery documents his thought process, the government has violated his Fifth Amendment right not to be compelled to be a witness against himself. This intrusion into the attorney-client relationship has also violated Dr. Schapiro’s Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel.”

The government responds

The government’s Thursday night response acknowledged that Imaging Universe did supply the FBI with duplicate CDs of what the company had copied for Schapiro’s defense team, but said the discs “were never requested by any agent, prosecutor or anyone else on the government’s behalf.”

Prosecutors Hayes and Miller also stated that they were unaware of the duplicate CDs until an FBI agent disclosed their existence in late April. They said that when they found out they immediately told “Montero to stop and began an internal inquiry.”

“To date it has found that there was simply no pervasive practice of receiving or recording defense discovery, and that it was not a widespread or institutionalized practice,” says the government’s response.

Nova Southeastern University constitutional law professor Robert Jarvis was skeptical of the defense’s sensational claims, but said that if the allegations prove true it could upend hundreds of criminal cases, free untold defendants and potentially result in criminal charges against government officials responsible for violating defendants’ rights.

“This opens a huge can of worms,” Jarvis said. “It’s potentially catastrophic for the government and I would think that the [U.S.] Attorney General would be swooping in on this. There are 95 judicial districts. If it happened in this office, you have to wonder if it’s happening in any others.”

Schapiro, 70, Sonia Gallimore, 74, both Broward residents, and Marlene Cesar, 64, of Allentown, PA., were indicted on charges of health care fraud and conspiracy and making false statements in September 2014. According to the indictment, they and other alleged co-conspirators submitted more than $55 million in phony Medicare claims through the Miami clinic, Biscayne Milieu, collecting more than $11 million. Previously, about 25 other owners and employees of the clinic pleaded guilty or were convicted of healthcare fraud.

On Tuesday, attorneys for Gallimore and Cesar filed paperwork seeking dismissal of their charges, claiming their clients’ rights were similarly violated by the alleged scheme.

The defense motion says that between late 2014 and last month, Schapiro’s lawyers repeatedly visited an FBI warehouse in Miramar where discovery documents are kept for review. During Arteaga-Gomez’s first visit to the warehouse federal agents told her that if she wanted to copy any documents she would have to use Imaging Universe, the motion says.

Since the indictment, Imaging Universe has charged Schapiro $8,200 to produce nine sets of discovery documents to his defense team. The motion identifies those records to include a dozen CDs containing approximately 1,140 PDF files, many with multiple pages.

The motion contends that company president Montero “lied” to Arteaga-Gomez about the copying process, and instead of making sure the government did not see the defense’s hand-selected files, provided FBI case agent Deanne Lindsey with duplicate copies.

Montero did not respond to a detailed voicemail message seeking comment.

Prosecutor discloses FBI received defense CDs

Hayes, the federal prosecutor on Schapiro’s case, first informed Srebnick and his associate that agent Lindsey “had been surreptitiously receiving the CDs” on April 22, according to the defense motion.

“Hayes proposed to immediately destroy the CDs,” but the lawyers asked instead that he give them to the defense, “which he did,” the motion says.

Hayes declined to be interviewed about the matter.

Arteaga-Gomez phoned Montero on April 25 to ask who had told him to provide copies of the CDs to the government. Montero, the motion says, answered that an “agent” told his office manager to do it. “Mr. Montero then stated that he had been providing to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the past 10 years duplicate copies of the discovery documents selected by defense counsel in other cases.”

Montero also forwarded to Schapiro’s defense an April 21 email he sent to a healthcare-fraud paralegal in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, stating that he’d provided the Justice Department with duplicates of defense records “since 2006.” Montero added that both his old company, Xpediacopy, and Imaging Universe had done it.

If so, the alleged government misconduct spanned the administrations of three Miami U.S. Attorneys – Alex Acosta, who served from 2005-2009, Jeffrey Sloman acting U.S. Attorney from 2009-2010 and Wifredo Ferrer, who took over in May 2010.

Srebnick and Arteaga-Gomez wrote that they’ve recently had “multiple conversations” about the matter with Miami federal prosecutors and their supervisors.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office has admitted that Agent Deanne Lindsey had been receiving copies of the CDs and had been keeping the duplicate CDs in a folder as she received them,” the motion says. Lindsey also “confessed to opening four of those duplicate CDs” looking for files, copying and pasting files onto her own CDs and providing “those new CDs to the government’s expert witness for trial preparation,” the motion says.

The prosecutors’ response sought to cast Lindsey’s contact with the records in less threatening way.

Prosecutors notified the defense last week that Montero had “confessed to lying to Rossana Arteaga-Gomez about the discovery process” in order to hide what was happening, the defense lawyers wrote.

“That the government-contracted copy service misled Ms. Arteaga-Gomez in order to cover-up the office-wide policy makes this case especially egregious,” the motion says.

Details about the size, terms and duration of Imaging Universe’s contract were not immediately available. The prosecutors’ response, however, said the contract is between Imaging Universe and the Government Publishing office.

28 pages and 80,000 pages: The hunt for a Saudi support network for 9-11 hijackers

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org worldtradecenter

Lawyers for the Florida Bulldog have asked a federal judge to award substantial attorney fees for years of efforts to obtain secret reports about the FBI’s post-9/11 investigation of Saudis in Sarasota with apparent ties to the suicide hijackers.

The court papers filed Tuesday seek a court hearing and also show how the Fort Lauderdale Freedom of Information (FOI) case ties into a better-known push to declassify 28 pages that were cut out of a 2002 report by Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks. Those censored pages involved “specific sources of foreign support” for the hijackers while they were in the U.S.

In the Fort Lauderdale case, a federal judge is reviewing for possible public release 80,000 classified pages about 9/11 located in the FBI’s Tampa field office. Judge William J. Zloch ordered the Bureau to produce those records for his private inspection two years ago.

“In essence, the 28 pages are expected to reveal what the Joint Inquiry discovered about Saudi government support of terrorism and the Sarasota documents are expected to reveal what the Joint Inquiry failed to discover about Saudi government support for terrorism,” wrote attorney Thomas Julin, of Miami’s Hunton & Williams.

“Together, both sets of documents may reflect whether a Saudi government network throughout the United States was used to support the terrorist attacks on 9/11. They also may help the American public to judge how the defendants [Department of Justice and the FBI] reacted to the terrorist attacks on the United States and whether additional steps should have been taken to prevent the attacks and to prosecute those who may have aided the attacks,” Julin’s motion said.

The Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI and the Justice Department in September 2012 after the FBI claimed to have no records about its Sarasota investigation. The Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers and his wife, Robbyn Swan, broke the story on Sept. 8, 2011 – nearly 10 years to the day after the terrorist attacks.

A fast exit from Sarasota

The story disclosed the existence of the FBI’s probe of events surrounding Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a young Saudi couple who abruptly moved out of their upscale home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings – and how agents found evidence that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers, who’d trained at nearby flight schools in Venice, had visited the al-Hijjis’ home.

Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince, owned the home.

Likewise, the story reported that former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of the Joint Inquiry, said the FBI had kept Congress in the dark about its Sarasota investigation.

The Bulldog is a tax-exempt public charity with what Julin described as “extremely limited resources.” Its lawsuit, however, is nearly four years old, an unusually long time for a Freedom of Information Act complaint.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin

Miami attorney Thomas Julin

As a result, the news organization’s law firm, Hunton & Williams, has borne the financial burden of the case. Julin and four colleagues told the court they have spent more than 615 hours on the case and are asking for $409,000 in fees.

The fee award being sought is in large part attributable to the FBI’s aggressiveness resistance to disclosing its records about the Sarasota investigation. For example, in addition to repeatedly denying that it had any responsive documents, Bureau representatives have said the Sarasota probe found no connection to the 9/11 plot. Still, a handful of FBI documents made public during the pending litigation said the opposite: that the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to persons associated with the terrorist attacks.

In addition to representing the Bulldog in court, attorney Julin has spent numerous hours in an effort to declassify the 28 pages from the Joint Inquiry’s report. The Bulldog, Summers and Swan began the process in June 2013. Today, the case is pending before the Interagency Security Classification Appeals panel is Washington. A decision is expected this month.

The quest to unlock the 28 pages got a huge boost in an April 60 Minutes TV report that focused on current efforts by Sen. Graham and others to obtain their release.

Numerous members of Congress, 9/11 victims and their relatives and current and former government officials as well as leading presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have called for the release of the 28 pages.

Developments in the case continue. On May 17, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Justice Against Supporters of Terrorism Act (JASTA), a bill that would allow 9/11 victims and their families to sue Saudi Arabia. The House is expected to consider the bill shortly.

“It underscores the public importance of the records that are at the heart of this litigation,” Julin wrote in his fee motion.

Click here and scroll down to FOIA Lawsuit Documents to read the new filings.

Broward Health will start lobbyist registration in June, according to CEO

By Dan Christensen and Karla Bowsher, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Health's board of commissioners at a meeting last month.

Broward Health’s board of commissioners at a meeting last month.

As Broward Health’s board of commissioners dithered last week about how to implement a 12-year-old, yet newly discovered lobbyist registration policy, reform-minded CEO Pauline Grant said she would have a registration system up and running in June.

“I have come up with procedures to implement registration over the next couple of weeks,” Grant said in an interview on Friday. “It will be done.”

News of Broward Health’s failure to enforce its own lobbyist registration policy gave yet another black eye to a beleaguered hospital system that’s already the focus of federal and state agents.

In a brief discussion at Wednesday’s regular board meeting, Commissioner Sheela VanHoose said board members want an online registration system. In an interview afterward, she said it should be comparable to those used by Broward County or Broward Public Schools.

“That to me is accountability and transparency at its best,” said VanHoose, whose paying job is as a lobbyist for Charter Schools USA.

VanHoose heads the district’s Legal Affairs Committee, which spent months studying how to develop a lobbyist policy without being told by staff that a policy already existed.

“You assume these things are being taken care of. The board doesn’t get involved in operations,” said Broward Health board Chairman Rocky Rodriguez. “The public has a right to know who is lobbying the hospital district.”

Broward Heath CEO Pauline Grant

Broward Heath CEO Pauline Grant

What’s happened has caused VanHoose to wonder whether other policies have not been followed. She said she’s talked with Grant about creating a searchable database of district policies.

“People come and go … so there has to be a process put in place to make sure nothing slips through the cracks in the future,” VanHoose said in an interview.

Unlike city and county governments, hospital taxing districts like the North Broward Hospital District – Broward Health’s legal name – are not required by law to register lobbyists or compel them to publicly disclose what they’re up to and who they represent.

Lobbying policy adopted, not implemented

In 2004, however, Broward Health’s board adopted a five-page lobbying policy requiring lobbyists to register, identify their clients and disclose both the nature of their business activity and any business or financial relationships they have with Broward Health board members, employees or agents. Also while under oath, lobbyists were supposed to submit an annual statement for each of their lobbying expenditures before the district in excess of $100. Violators can be debarred.

Still, the district has never required a single lobbyist to register.

Nevertheless, district records show that the board was aware of its policy enough to modify it in 2014 after Rodriguez complained about being swamped by “tons and tons of phone calls” from advocates for doctors and others in contract negotiations. The change: lobbying was prohibited “during the consideration of any contracts.”

Wednesday’s board meeting also included a brief speech by Broward Health compliance manager Brian Nicholas, who talked about a “culture of fear, retaliation and bullying” at the district.

As an example, Nicholas cited the reaction of board Chairman Rocky Rodriguez and Commissioner Christopher Ure to a recent anonymous letter that accused General Counsel Lynn Barrett of impropriety involving the Baker Donelson law firm.

Broward Health hired Baker Donelson last year to serve as the “independent review organization” that monitors its compliance with the terms of its federal settlement of Medicare and Medicaid fraud allegations last fall. Nicholas said that when the anonymous complaint was discussed at a May 18 committee meeting, Rodriguez and Ure were only concerned with trying to identify the author, not with the complaint itself.

“I believe you’ve now given a figurative middle finger to the federal government,” Nicholas told commissioners. “I will undoubtedly be retaliated against.”

Tainted water releases likely to continue even after Lake Okeechobee dike is refurbished

By Ann Henson Feltgen, Florida Bulldog.org 

Crews install a partial cutoff wall in the middle of the Herbert Hoover Dike near Pahokee in 2012. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed 21.4 miles of cutoff wall in the southeast side of the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee from 2007-2013. Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District

Crews install a partial cutoff wall in the middle of the Herbert Hoover Dike near Pahokee in 2012. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed 21.4 miles of cutoff wall in the southeast side of the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee from 2007-2013. Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District

While Floridians are anticipating the completion of the renovation to the 75-year-old Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee during 2020, more water discharges, like those that occurred this winter, will likely be required after the work is complete, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Our goal of the rehabilitation of the dike is to solve a public safety problem” of keeping nearby towns from flooding, said John Campbell, public affairs specialist with the Corps. “We don’t know the ecological problems that could occur if we keep the lake too high for too long. There’s not an unlimited amount of water that can be stored in Lake Okeechobee.”

The government has already spent in excess of $500 million to fix the dike.

This year El Nino turned Florida’s typically dry season into a wet season with 200 to 400 percent increases, depending on location, over the normal 12-inch dry season rainfall, according to the National Weather Service. When Lake Okeechobee gets too much rain, its decades-old dike, which protects nearby communities like Pahokee, Belle Glade and Clewiston from flooding, is in danger of failing from water pressure undermining the structure.

High-volume releases from the lake began in February. As water was pushed into the Caloosahatchee River and eventually flowed into the Gulf of Mexico at Fort Myers, a tea-colored bloom of water replaced the typically aqua color of the gulf. The fresh water, which is mixed with phosphates, fertilizer and farm waste dumped into Lake Okeechobee years earlier, mixes with saltwater, resulting in sea grass, fish and oyster kills throughout the area.

On the east coast, millions of gallons of tainted water poured out of the St. Lucie River, creating its own mess of dead fish. However, pollution along the Indian River is not related to the runoff from Lake Okeechobee, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

An economic assessment of damages is being conducted by surveying businesses in Lee, Martin, St. Lucie counties as well as other affected communities. As of March 23, 137 surveys have been returned with estimated losses to small businesses reaching as much as $15.5 million on both coasts.

The survey is being run through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity by its Florida Virtual Business Emergency Operations Center. Once tallied and analyzed, the results will be shared with state agencies that can offer small businesses emergency assistance, such as disaster bridge loans.

Lee County alone boasts five million visitors per year who generate about $3 billion during their visits. Fishing, shopping, eating and touring the area, which some call one of the last vestiges of “Old Florida,” are vacation highlights. Tourist season runs roughly from October through April.

Small business takes a hit

Ric Base, president of the Sanibel and Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, said the Lake Okeechobee releases are common in the summer, during the traditional wet season. He said locals are used to the tea-colored water. And while the releases pose ecological problems, they have never before affected the tourist economy.

On the islands, he said, some visiting anglers canceled their fishing trips and their short-term rentals. But he added that at the high cost of a weekly rental, many people stayed and found other things to do, including renting bicycles, visiting the numerous parks and wildlife refuges, shopping at mom-and-pop specialty shops that line the island and sampling the myriad restaurants.

“I don’t think anybody here will have to close their doors,” he said. “We made it through the recession very well. People were spending less, but they were still coming.”

Jim McCallion operates a small real estate business with his wife. He saw four home sales fall apart when the buyers heard of the discharge.

“We measure our sales in tens, not thousands like the big businesses,” he said. “We don’t know how much this will impact us; we don’t know how many people didn’t engage with us because they thought there was sewage in the water.”

McCallion claims people were misinformed by the media with misleading terms like “toxic bacteria” and “algae.”

“The color of the water was disturbing, it looked bad,” he said. But the brownish color was due to water flowing through mangrove-lined rivers, not sewage.

Because of the perception the water was impaired, the charter fishing business took a big hit, he said.

Daniel Andrews operates a fishing charter in Fort Myers and said his bookings are down by more than 50 percent from last year.

“Most guides are reporting their bookings are down between 20 to 90 percent,” he said in mid- March. “I usually have 10-14 charters per week. Now I have two to four per week.”

Hotel stays were down along the southwest coast during the first quarter of the year, according to county tourism reports. In Collier County, for example, hotel stays slipped 5.2 percent in March compared to the same period in 2015. Hotel stays in Lee County were off 6.7 percent overall for the first three months of 2016.

“According to reports from Lee County property managers, reservations for spring season 2016 suggest business will not be as strong as last spring,” says the report. “Thirty-three percent of those surveyed said their reservations are down compared with only 6 percent saying the same in 2015.”

No reason for the downtown is cited in the report, but a survey of visitors indicated that 13 percent disliked the water quality, compared to four percent in 2015.

Fishing guide Andrews has helped to form the nonprofit Captains for Clean Water to highlight the plight of the Everglades and enact a long-term solution.

Like others, he believes that discharges should flow south through the Everglades rather than west through the Caloosahatchee River and east along the St. Lucie River.

Andrews also agrees with the Everglades Restoration Project’s plan to purchase land near the lake to build water storage and treatment projects.

Those along the St. Lucie River appear to be faring better, with only about 20 of a small business impact surveys returned. However, some of their comments tell it all.

A St. Lucie County fish and tackle shop opener said he closed his doors for good at the end of March because he could not sustain his business.

Another said: “I want those responsible to be indicted and charged with endangering the health and wellbeing of 175,000 residents of Port St. Lucie by enabling our river to become an open sewer.”

A St. Lucie County dive service operator said: “Shame on you Florida.”

What is Being Done?

Since 2007 the Corps of Engineers has spent $500 million to shore up the dike around Lake Okeechobee, said Campbell with the Corps. He said as the project has moved along, more structural areas of concern were identified.

While he expects the work to be completed in 2020, “not all of the funding is in place,” he said.

“Some of the funding was upfront and some is appropriated yearly by Congress, which has fully supported this project.”

While the Corps is responsible for the lake, it is not responsible for the flow of the water and what it carries with it. That charge belongs to the State of Florida. The Legislature had penned a deal to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee to begin implementing the Everglades Restoration Plan, but backed away and the deal fell through last fall.

On March 17, Congressman Curt Clawson (R-FL) filed federal legislation to set aside $500  million for the U.S. Department of the Interior to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee.

“While land purchases have traditionally been the responsibility of the State of Florida, this bill would serve as another option to get water flow back into the Everglades at the soonest possible date,” according to a press release from Clawson’s office.

The bill was referred to the House Budget Committee where it was not acted upon

Meanwhile, Fort Myers officials are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Next year will show if this has lasting impacts,” said Matt Johnson, Fort Myers’ interim assistant city manager.

He said during the last discharge, his city beaches were not at all impacted, but “media frenzy and errant statements impacted us greatly the following year.

“The question now is what are they going to do to stop this from happening again.”

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