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.”

‘What’s going on?’ Broward airport contractor said to owe millions may win millions instead

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Former Broward Aviation Department Director Kent George

Former Broward Aviation Department Director Kent George

Five months after demanding that contractor Tutor Perini pay Broward more than $34 million in damages for costly airport construction delays, ex-county aviation boss Kent George instead wants the county to pay Tutor Perini $18.9 million.

George and new aviation boss Mark Gale will ask Broward commissioners to approve the big payout on Tuesday as part an about-face settlement negotiated by George with the Tutor Perini Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Venture (TPFLHV).

The proposed settlement would end a bitter, behind-the-scenes fight over who is to blame for numerous pricey construction holdups during the airport’s $800-million south runway expansion project.

George stepped down as aviation director in March and today is a county consultant/negotiator on the matter.

 In January, FloridaBulldog.org reported that on New Year’s Eve George’s representative had dispatched a blunt letter to Tutor Perini demanding in excess of $34 million to cover costs incurred by a dozen “significant…deficiencies and unresolved issues” that had seriously delayed completion of the project.

Tutor Perini’s position: the delays were caused by the aviation department’s “maladministration.”

As recently as three weeks ago, George told the Sun-Sentinel, “We feel they owe us money.”

Out the window

George’s tough public stance went out the window Thursday with the disclosure of his expensive settlement proposal.

An angry County Commissioner Lois Wexler said in an interview Friday that she won’t vote to approve it.

“This has gone from them owing us money to now I’m supposed to pay them money,” said Wexler. “The last I heard was that we’d be recouping all this $34 million in court…What’s going on?”

George hung up on a FloridaBulldog.org reporter seeking comment about the proposed settlement.

The county, however, capitulated to Tutor Perini after the aviation department lost more than a dozen claims adjudicated before a “dispute avoidance panel” established at the outset of the project to resolve disagreements between the county and its runway contractors.

George’s giveaway of the county’s huge claim has come as a shock, however, because it followed repeated assurances to Commissioner Wexler and others that the county would go to court to enforce it.

Nevertheless, George was inclined to settle on terms favorable to Tutor Perini as early as mid-December when he emailed Tutor Perini Chief Executive Jack Frost offering to pay $21 million to settle the dispute if Tutor Perini would pay the airport about $11 million in liquidated damages for contractual delays.

FloridaBulldog.org reported in January that Frost declined the deal, which would have been tantamount to an admission that Tutor Perini was responsible for many delays in the airport project.

The current settlement proposal requires no payment of liquidated damages.

A local Tutor Perini representative declined comment, and Frost did not respond to an email requesting comment.

A prime consultant

California-based Tutor Perini, with venture partner Ohio’s Baker Concrete Construction, is the prime consultant for the tunnel structures that carry Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport’s 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 cost of the runway expansion project, the centerpiece of $2.4 billion in in ongoing airport terminal and other improvements, continues to rise.

County records say the original contract award to Tutor-Perini for design-build services was $179.9 million. Subsequent approved change orders, including one for $6.1 million executed just before Christmas, raised the contract’s cost to $226.2 million.

The latest “final” contract amount with the settlement: $239 million.

The negotiated settlement includes the $6.1 million that was approved but never paid to Tutor Perini, plus an additional $12.8 million. The county’s agenda item for Tuesday’s meeting does not explain how that figure was arrived at.

The six-page settlement requires Tutor Perini to complete all remaining work by Aug. 31. The county is also required to “promptly” pay what it still owes and to quickly release money, possibly millions of dollars, that it has retained to cover claimed damages.

Fear of stalling as U.S. intelligence chief says Congress must OK release of 28 pages

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Photo: CNN

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Photo: CNN

In a development that could delay the release of 28 classified pages from Congress’s report about Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11, the head of the nation’s intelligence community has told a delegation seeking their release that the ultimate decision about whether to make those pages public would be made by Congress.

Former Sen. Bob Graham recounted Tuesday evening’s hour-long meeting with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in an interview with FloridaBulldog.org.

“He described himself as being a proponent of transparency and would be forward-leaning on the release of the 28 pages,” said Graham. “The surprise we heard was that after the president makes the decision about whether or not to release them, and if so in what form, they’ll send it back to Congress.”

Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 in 2002, said the idea of adding Congress to the declassification mix is new. “I’ve talked with numerous people in the White House and they’ve never suggested that anyone other than the president would make the decision to release. I don’t know where Clapper got this idea, and I hope it’s not just another stalling tactic.”

Graham said it is unnecessary to involve Congress now. “This was a document the Congress was prepared to make public 14 years ago, but the Executive Branch intervened and said there were unstated reasons as to why these pages could not be released,” he said.

Such a move would just add “another unexpected step to the process with a body which has a reputation of being slow to make decisions. Look what’s happening today about the Zika epidemic. Congress can’t decide whether to appropriate money to prevent it.”

Joining Graham in meeting with the nation’s intelligence chief were Reps. Walter Jones (R-NC) and Stephen Lynch (D-MA), the initial co-sponsors of House Resolution 14, which urges President Obama to declassify the 28-page chapter on foreign support for the 9/11 hijackers. The resolution has 58 co-sponsors. Senate Bill 1471 would require the president to declassify the 28 pages.

A “candid” meeting

Graham described Clapper, a retired Air Force general, as “very thoughtful and very generous to us with his time. I think he was candid in his thoughts.”

Aside from the surprise caveat about Congress, Graham called the meeting “encouraging,” and an indication that the Executive Branch is on track to deliver a decision about the 28 pages by President Obama by mid-June.

“He wasn’t going to tell us things like whether he’s made up his mind and if so what it is, but he outlined the (declassification) process,” said Graham. “He said he is finishing his review which primarily, almost exclusively, relates to the impact of the 28 pages on things like intelligence procedures and potential sources of information. It then goes to an interagency council which includes the State Department, the FBI, the Department of Defense and other agencies.”

That group, which describes itself as a “forum” for possible declassification, is the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP). Its other members include the Justice Department, the CIA, Clapper’s Office of National Intelligence, the National Archives and the president’s National Security Advisor.

President Obama asked Clapper to lead a review of the 28 pages last year. The review process, however, has been underway for nearly three years.

In 2013, Broward Bulldog Inc, which operates the Florida Bulldog, invoked President Obama’s Executive Order 13,526. The 2009 order sets the process for classification by executive agencies and the conditions that require declassification. The Bulldog’s appeal is currently before ISCAP.

Thomas Julin, an attorney in the Miami office of Hunton & Williams, represents the news organization and 9/11 authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan in the matter.

Study: New members of Congress rely on special interest money once in Washington

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

U.S. Reps. Gwen Graham and Carlos Curbelo

U.S. Reps. Gwen Graham and Carlos Curbelo

Nearly five-dozen newly elected members of Congress collectively raised $17.3 million in special interest money during their first year in office – increasing their reliance on contributions from single-issue political action committees, according to a new government watchdog report.

The fundraising analysis by Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) found, too, that the 58 new members’ reliance special interest campaign contributions was especially true for those in “a vulnerable seat or serve on committees of particular interest to major industries.”

The $17.3 million in special interest PAC contributions was 16 percent higher than those members collectively raised as first-time federal candidates during the two-year election cycle for 2014, the report said.

The CREW report identifies Florida U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Gwen Graham as among the top money haulers.

“We think it is important for the public to know where their money is coming from and how much money is coming in,” said CREW spokesman Jordan Libowitz. In the case of Curbelo and Graham, “the floodgates certainly opened,” Libowitz added.

Curbelo’s press secretary Brittany Martinez did not return two phone calls and an email requesting comment. Graham declined to respond to the report via her spokesman, Matt Harringer.

CREW’s analysis found that Curbelo received $497,338 in 2015, representing a 228 percent increase in donations from special interests groups compared to the $151,550 he raised between 2013 and 2014 for his first congressional race. The report said Graham’s $582,147 in special interest contributions was the second-highest amount raised by a member of the freshman class in 2015. Compared to the 2014 election cycle, Graham’s contributions from special interests groups increased 42 percent after she went to Washington.

Libowitz said the campaign data CREW analyzed shows that new members who were considered vulnerable, including Curbelo and Graham, constituted nearly half of the freshmen members who received more special interest money in 2015 than they did as first-time federal candidates. The report also noted that Curbelo, a Republican, and Graham, a Democrat, were also put into programs by their parties meant to help vulnerable candidates with fundraising and organizational support.

In 2014, Curbelo beat incumbent Joe Garcia in a tight race despite being outspent by his Democratic rival, who at the time was being dragged down by election-fraud scandals involving a former campaign manager. However, a new map for Curbelo’s congressional district approved in December 2015 now favors Democrats even more than when Garcia held the South Florida seat. In the general election, Curbelo will likely face off against Garcia again or Annette Taddeo, a Colombian-American businesswoman who was Charlie Crist’s running mate in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

Last month, Graham, the daughter of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, announced she was dropping her re-election bid now that her North Florida district is solidly Republican. She strongly hinted at a possible 2018 gubernatorial run.

“The money seems to flow most to representatives that are viewed to have tougher races to win re-election,” Libowitz said. “If special interests are targeting the most vulnerable in Congress, the public deserves to know what they are getting for supporting these members.”

CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement that many of the freshmen members ran on a platform that they would curtail the influence of special interest groups. “But the truth is, as soon as they got into office, they were more than happy to be taking massive campaign contributions from special interests,” Bookbinder said. “What we found is a clear illustration of the special interest influence that is out of control in Washington right now.”

Lobbyist rules? What rules? Broward Health fails to enforce own policy in another snafu

By Dan Christensen and Buddy Nevins, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Health's never used lobbyist registration form

Broward Health’s never used lobbyist registration form

For more than a decade Broward Health has ignored its own rules, allowing lobbyists to operate freely behind the scenes as they seek to influence who gets tens of millions of dollars in contracts the hospital district awards every year.

Broward Health’s failure to enforce its own lobbyist registration policy is another management snafu by the billion-dollar public health system whose business practices are being probed by federal and state investigators.

One lobbyist who tried to register a year ago literally had to beg the system’s staff to enforce its own rules.

“I hounded them. Maybe there was something going on behind the scene they didn’t want known,” Seth Platt of Miami Beach-based LSN Partners recalled. Platt had a client in April 2015 seeking to provide free marketing services in exchange for product placements in the district’s four hospitals.

Platt eventually forced the hospital staff to allow him to attempt to register. A district lawyer sent him a copy of Broward Health’s five-page lobbyist policy passed by commissioners in 2004 with a registration form. He filled it out and sent it – he doesn’t recall to whom – but it apparently landed in the circular file. Broward Health has no record of it.

Broward Health Commission Chairman Rocky Rodriguez, appointed to the board by Gov. Rick Scott in December 2013, was surprised when told the lobbyist registration had never been implemented.

Broward Health Chairman Rocky Rodriguez and Commissioner Sheela VanHoose

Broward Health Chairman Rocky Rodriguez and Commissioner Sheela VanHoose

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

Even more surprising is that Commissioner Sheela VanHoose serves on the board’s legal affairs committee that recently held workshops to establish a lobbying policy without being told by staff that a policy was already in place.

A waste of time

“We’ve spent two committee meetings talking about a lobbying policy and most of what we talked about is not relevant,” she said after being provided a copy of the policy. “It was a little shock to see.”

VanHoose said she wants to know why no registration process was ever established and will ask the administration to provide a list of registered lobbyists at the next regular board meeting on May 25.

“How did it happen and how do we prevent it from happening again? Those are the questions that we as board members need to answer,” said VanHoose.

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

Still, in a 2004 nod to protecting the “integrity” of the hospital district’s “governmental and contracting processes,” Broward Health’s board of commissioners adopted a five-page lobbying policy requiring both registration and disclosure, with sanctions for violators.

The policy remains in effect, but hospital district administrators never followed through to set up a registration process or even acknowledge on its website that such a policy exists. Not a single lobbyist has ever registered at Broward Health, district officials told FloridaBulldog.org.

Today, Broward Health is a lobbyists’ playground. The hospital district’s forlorn attempt to flush them from the shadows is all but forgotten.

Platt’s attempt to register was disclosed in an interview with Charlotte Mather-Taylor, Broward Health’s vice president for government relations. She said she was never instructed to set up a registration process and that when a frustrated Platt contacted her about registering, she referred him to the district’s lawyers, who sent him a copy of the lobbying policy and told him to call the CEO’s executive secretary.

“That was the last I heard about it,” said Mather-Taylor.

Platt told FloridaBulldog.org that after sending in his now-lost registration form, he pitched his client’s marketing proposal to Broward Health Senior Vice President Doris Peek and others, but nothing came of it. Instead a month later, in May 2015, the district signed a $2.1-million marketing deal with Fort Lauderdale’s Zimmerman Advertising that later morphed into a controversial proposal for a $71.4-million ad deal. The proposal withered following the Jan. 23 suicide of Broward Health CEO Dr. Nabil El Sanadi.

Gov. Rick Scott’s investment

Broward Health, the brand name of the North Broward Hospital District, has awarded many fat contracts during the years its lobbying policy was not enforced. Perhaps the fattest was an unprecedented 25-year, no-bid deal in 2012 that outsourced the public hospital system’s radiation oncology services to a Fort Myers-based cancer care company, 21st Century Oncology.

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

FloridaBulldog.org reported in February that at the time of the deal Gov. Rick Scott had an indirect ownership interest in 21st Century Oncology via his $210,000 investment in Vestar Capital Partners, the private equity firm that owns 21st Century.

The governor’s office has said Scott had “no conversation or contact about Vestar Capital or 21st Century Oncology with the North Broward Hospital District.” Still, Scott’s good friend and confidant, Fort Lauderdale lobbyist William “Billy” Rubin, is known to have lobbied at Broward Health and counts 21st Century Oncology among his clients.

Rubin likewise represents two other companies that have lucrative contracts with Broward Health: Armor Correctional Health, the county jail’s in-house healthcare provider, and Emcare, which has a trio of contracts to provide emergency and urgent care services, obstetrical and gynecological care and pediatric care. Those two contracts and the one with 21st Century Oncology are worth tens of millions of dollars.

Rubin, however, is not registered to lobby at Broward Health.

Broward Health’s lobbying policy was approved in November 2004. It drew from state law to define who is considered a lobbyist and says “no person(s) may lobby the district or any of is board members, employees or agent until such person has registered as a lobbyist with the district’s Vice President/Corporate Services.”

A hitch: Broward Health has no Vice President/Corporate Services.

“That’s not a title that belongs to anybody I know,” said Rodriguez. “We have a lot of vice presidents. But nobody with that title.”

The policy requires lobbyists, in addition to identifying themselves, to disclose the nature of the business activity and any business or financial relationships they have with any Broward Health board member, employee or agent. Lobbyists must also submit an annual statement of each of their lobbying expenditures before the district in excess of $100. Violators can be precluded for lobbying at the district “for a period of time to be determined by the board” and their clients may be debarred.

In 2014, after Rodriguez complained about board members being swamped by “tons and tons of phone calls” from lawyers, doctors and others about contract negotiations, the board amended its policy to prohibit lobbying “during the consideration of any contracts.”

Missing from the updated policy was the original lobbyist registration form that lobbyists were supposed to use to disclose under oath information about themselves and their clients.

As heroin, fentanyl deaths mount, Miami-Dade leaders “research the topic”

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Epidemiologist James Hall, left, and drug addiction interventionist John Schmidt

Epidemiologist James Hall, left, and drug addiction interventionist John Schmidt

Drug-addiction experts in February pitched Miami-Dade County leaders a plan to tackle the alarming rise in deaths related to overdoses from heroin and fentanyl, an even more powerful opiate that has flooded the streets of South Florida.

With a budget of about a quarter million dollars a year, Nova Southeastern University epidemiologist James Hall and Miami-based drug-addiction interventionist John Schmidt recently told FloridaBulldog.org, Miami-Dade could begin to mimic the success of private organizations and government agencies in Broward County that worked together to clamp down on flakka, a synthetic stimulant that also has been causing an unusually high number of overdoses and deaths in recent years.

“That strategy has been very effective,” Hall said. “It basically eliminated flakka from the streets of Fort Lauderdale. It was the result of a united community effort crossing many domains at the local, state and federal level.”

But nearly three months after making their presentation to the county commission, Schmidt and Hall claim Miami-Dade officials have not moved quickly enough to curb the local opiate epidemic.

“Bottom line is we would like to see this slow down and get people help,” Schmidt said. “Things are just not moving quickly with the mayor’s administration. I care that an average of two people per day are overdosing.”

Hall said opiate overdoses have led to an “epidemic of death in Miami-Dade.” However, he is not aware of any steps the county is taking to combat the problem since raising the issue at the commission meeting on Feb. 17.

“One thing about the flakka community team in Broward is that people left meetings and did something,” Hall said. “They didn’t have to spend six months preparing a plan of action.”

Michael Hernandez, spokesman for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, denied the county is not taking the increase in opiate deaths seriously enough.

“The Office of the Mayor is aggressively working toward addressing this issue,” Hernandez said, noting Miami-Dade Deputy Mayor Russell Benford is still figuring out what the county’s role will be. “The Deputy Mayor has informed Mr. Schmidt that he would research the topic and provide Mayor Gimenez with a recommended plan of action.”

Heroin, Fentanyl deaths way up in Miami-Dade

According to a report prepared by Hall, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner recorded 80 heroin-related deaths in 2015 compared to 42 the previous year. Fentanyl-related deaths had a more than four-fold increase from 22 in 2014 to 94 last year. There have been more than 400 non-fatal prescription opioid poisoning overdose hospital admissions in Miami-Dade annually over the past five years and private-treatment center admissions for heroin increased 77 percent between 2014 and 2015, the report states.

In Miami-Dade’s northern neighbor, Hall co-chaired the Flakka Community Action Team, an advisory council sponsored by Broward County government and the United Way of Broward County’s Commission on Substance Abuse. Hall said the action team brought together key organizations and experts who have led numerous efforts to counter the outbreak of flakka, which is the street name for alpha-PVP. The groups involved include staff of Broward’s sheriff’s office, medical examiner, state attorney, public defender, private hospitals, treatment centers and churches.

“We have made very significant progress in reducing the flakka problem in Broward,” Hall said. “We went from 12 emergency room visits in the summer of 2015 down to two in December 2015. The last death related to flakka was on Dec. 11.”

Hall also claimed Broward’s action team influenced the Chinese government to ban the manufacture and sale of Alpha-PVP and other synthetic drugs made in clandestine labs in the Communist country.

Hall and Schmidt have suggested that Miami-Dade establish its own opiate epidemic advisory council in conjunction with a large community organization. The coalition would need roughly $80,000 a year for staffing and meeting expenses, according to a budget proposed by Hall and Schmidt.

Schmidt is also lobbying county officials to contract with Marvin’s Corner, a drug-addiction services company he founded, to implement an outreach program for family members and significant others of opiate addicts to educate them on how to spot the sign and symptoms of an overdose, as well as promoting awareness of Florida’s 911 Good Samaritan law — which allows a person to contact emergency responders without fear of being arrested on a drug-related crime.

Marvin’s Corner would also assist opiate addicts in finding treatment options and resources, including placing them in local detox facilities, 28-day residential treatment and outpatient programs and long-term residential programs, Schmidt said. He’s asking for roughly $179,000 in county funds to staff and operate the assistance program.

Schmidt told FloridaBulldog.org that he has the support of several county commissioners and the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community. “We definitely think this is a public health safety issue,” Miami Coalition CEO Emilio Vento told county commissioners on Feb. 17. “We hope you provide the funding. Every day we don’t take action, there are more people dying in our community. We can prevent it through a coordination of services.”

Schmidt claims Benford doesn’t seem interested enough in combating Miami-Dade’s opiate problem. “I think Benford could be more active,” Schmidt said. “He’s talked about holding town hall meetings. I don’t think town halls have ever cured addiction.”

Hernandez refuted Schmidt’s accusation. The mayoral spokesman said that between Feb. 24 and March 29 Benford spoke with several Broward officials who were part of the flakka response team, including Broward’s assistant county administrator Alphonso Jefferson Jr. and Heather Davidson, a prevention specialist for the United Way of Broward County. “The purpose of the conversations was to learn how Broward County worked through a similar issue,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said Benford also discussed establishing the advisory council through the Miami-Dade County Addiction Services Board with the board’s chairman David Kahn, as well as establishing an opioid focus group with Lilian Rivera, administrator for the Miami-Dade office of the Florida Department of Health.

As for contracting with Marvin’s Corner, Hernandez said Schmidt needs to apply for funding through the county’s community-based organization process.

Its spy vs spy as CIA directors differ on making public 28 hidden pages of 9-11 report

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

CIA Director John Brennan, right, and former CIA Director Porter Goss

CIA Director John Brennan, right, and former CIA Director Porter Goss

Two CIA directors. Two conflicting opinions.

On Monday, former CIA director Porter Goss strongly disagreed with current CIA chief John Brennan’s assertions on Meet the Press as to why President Obama should keep secret 28 classified pages from a 14-year-old congressional report about 9/11 said to implicate the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the terrorist attacks.

“I favor full declassification of the 28 pages unless there is a national security reason not to,” Goss told FloridaBulldog.org. “If there is such a reason, I feel the Administration should tell us specifically what it is. I will not settle for generalities about ‘offending allies.’ ”

Brennan, who has been CIA director since 2013, told TV interviewer Chuck Todd Sunday the top secret 28 pages contain information that was “thoroughly investigated” and in some cases found to be inaccurate by the subsequent 9/11 Commission and last year’s lesser-known 9/11 Review Commission.

“I think some people may seize upon that uncorroborated, unvetted information that was in there that was basically just a collation of this information that came out of FBI files and point to Saudi involvement which I think would be very, very inaccurate,” Brennan said.

The Obama Administration’s Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which includes the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is reviewing the hidden chapter in the 838-page congressional report about “specific sources of foreign support for some of the September 11 hijackers while they were in the United States.”

The review process for the 28 pages has been underway since June 2013 when the Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., invoked what’s known as the Mandatory Declassification Review process. James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, told reporters last week that an “interagency position on the declassification of the 28 pages” is ongoing and that a decision on whether to release the 28 pages was likely by June.

Goss, who helped write the 28 pages, believes the government will act soon, yet will continue to withhold some information they contain from the public.

“My guess is that some of the 28-page material will be released soon, but some bits will still be redacted. Thus the speculation will continue. I think this will all be settled about the same time everyone agrees about the Kennedy assassination,” Goss said.

Goss, the CIA director from 2004 to 2006, was a veteran Republican congressman from Southwest Florida and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence when in 2002 he was tapped to help lead Congress’s Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001. His co-chairman was Florida Sen. Bob Graham, the Democrat who chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Rebuffed by the FBI director

Graham has been a leading figure in calling publicly for the release of the 28 pages. In a recent 60 Minutes report, Goss told how Graham and he met with then-FBI Director Robert Mueller before the Joint Inquiry’s report was released to secure declassification of the 28 pages, but were rebuffed.

“I distinctly recall that after Bob [Graham] and I were turned down by Bob Mueller at FBI, we both were disappointed and a bit puzzled about ‘why.’ We were under some time constraints to get our Joint Inquiry Report out and we had the option of handing off the material to the 9/11 Commission for further attention – which we did,” Goss said in an email. “I have never had a satisfactory explanation of why this material has not been declassified – though there may be one.”

The 9/11 Commission’s final report later stated that while “Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding … we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization. (This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.)”

As FloridaBulldog.org has reported, Saudi King Salman “actively directed” one Saudi charity that court papers filed by 9/11 victims and their families say was “especially important to al Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the U.S.”

Goss said he hasn’t “pushed as hard as Bob on this, possibly because I do not think there was any official Saudi State complicity in the 9/11 attacks …

Obviously there could have been a rogue ‘official’ or misguided ‘Royal’ in the mix, but even that is uncertain.

“For me the salient point today is just how tolerant are we as a civilized society to allow exploitation of our freedoms by foreigners who deliberately want to undermine those freedoms with systematic violence and malevolent propaganda,” Goss said.

“I am not sure why the Obama Administration thinks the Radical Islamists are rational enough to negotiate with or emotionally stable enough to live peacefully among us. The concept of trying to appease those who have no interest in anything less than a whole new Caliphate is dangerously foolish. Using mosques as forward based platforms to preach and perform violence is a reality that far outstrips my understanding of Freedom of Religion,” Goss said.

Goss called the continued classification of the 28 pages “a minor irritant compared to the idiocy of ‘over-tolerance’ and mishandling of the real threat by the current (and likely next) Administration.”

“If you surmise that I have low confidence the Administration will tell us the truth, you have a high perception,” said Goss. “I guess they could send [National Security Advisor] Susan Rice out to the Sunday Talk Show Circuit to explain it.”

Broward Health looks to pay headhunting firm $300,000 to find a $950,000 CEO

By Dan Christensen and Buddy Nevins, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Health Interim CEO Pauline Grant, whose salary will be voted on Wednesday. Photo: Nova Southeastern University

Broward Health Interim CEO Pauline Grant, whose salary will be voted on Wednesday. Photo: Nova Southeastern University

Taxpayer supported Broward Health’s board of commissioners will be asked today to approve spending $300,000 for a search firm to find a new CEO whose total pay would be $950,000 a year.

The new CEO’s “total targeted cash compensation” would far exceed the $675,000 annual salary of the last CEO, the late Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, who committed suicide Jan. 23.

At the same meeting, commissioners will be asked to approve a $619,000 salary for Interim CEO Pauline Grant, who currently runs the district’s system of public hospitals and clinics.

The board will also be asked to hire Philadelphia-based Diversified Search, the firm recommended to locate and screen candidates for the permanent job of running Broward Health, which has over 8,200 employees, roughly 300,000 emergency room visits every year and an annual budget of about $1.2 billion.

If hired, Diversified would be paid a “minimum retainer fee” of $300,000, or 31.5 percent of the successful candidate’s total compensation package in the first year. The company’s fee would grow “should the actual compensation exceed the basis of our retainer.”

The new CEO’s “total compensation includes salary, estimated bonus, signing bonus and any other incentive cash compensation,” says a March 30 letter written by John T. Mestepey, the managing partner of Diversified’s Miami office.

Broward Health is also to pay Diversified for “direct and indirect expenses,” including “candidate and consultant travel” and database research costs. “Indirect expenses are 9% of the fee,” Mestepey wrote.

With the hiring of Diversified Services, Broward’s two public hospital districts – North and South – would be actively engaged in expensive searches for pricey top executives. Memorial Healthcare System, as the south district is known, is paying $330,000 plus expenses to Korn Ferry to find a replacement for longtime CEO Frank Sacco, who retired at the end of February. Korn Ferry was hired last year.

Taxpayers foot bill, kept in dark

While taxpayers will be helping to foot the bill for the search, they would be kept in the dark about certain unspecified aspects of the search under guidelines laid down by Mestepey in his March 30 letter to Interim CEO Grant.

“During the course of this assignment, Diversified will provide you with various information on potential candidates,” Mestepey wrote.

“Accordingly, it is understood and agreed that dissemination of this information shall be limited to employees of Broward Health who are directly connected with this specific search, or whom a reasonable person would agree have a need to know.”

The board decided a nationwide CEO search was needed in the wake of El Sanadi’s Jan. 23 suicide. Kevin Fusco, Broward Health’s chief operating officer, was named acting CEO but was later removed. Grant took over as interim CEO last month.

Grant was given the tough task of restoring Broward Health’s battered public reputation amid daunting news of both federal and state investigations of the district’s purchasing practices. Her first job has been to calm the political firestorm from the probes and El Sanadi’s suicide, and to reassure doctors complaining that patient care was “hanging by a thread” due to contracting delays.

Those contracting delays, said to be improved lately, were laid at the doorstep of Broward Health General Counsel Lynn Barrett.

Barrett, whose nine-month tenure has been steeped in controversy, faces a performance evaluation this month. That evaluation, however, may not be entirely public.

According to the meeting’s agenda, an unidentified board member(s) recommended that commissioners meet individually with Barrett to ask questions and complete her evaluation.

“This will afford each commissioner the ability to ask the questions necessary to complete their evaluation form as well as to respect the potential for certain sensitive matters that should not be mad[e] public potentially in defense of the system,” the agenda says.

Broward Health seeks bids for ad contract as huge no-bid deal with Zimmerman dies

By Buddy Nevins and Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org Broward Health hq

In a signal that Broward Health’s controversial no-bid $71.4 million deal with Zimmerman Advertising is dead, blueprints have been drafted for a new, smaller marketing campaign for the public health system.

The Zimmerman agreement collapsed after the suicide of former Broward Health CEO Nabil El Sanadi.  His death triggered a wave of negative publicity as news surfaced of separate investigations by the governor’s office and the FBI of business practices at Broward Health.

“It’s done,” Broward Health Commissioner Maureen Canada said. “With all the heat that came onto the Board (of Commissioners) with the contract, it was better we move on.”

Advertising firms earlier this month were asked to provide ideas and potential budgets to produce media ads for Broward Health’s four public hospitals, 16 community health clinics, four urgent care centers and the Broward Health Physicians Group of roughly 90 doctors, according to the Request for Proposals obtained by Floridabulldog.org.

Inviting competitive bidding from registered firms for the lucrative, possibly multi-million dollar contract is a change from last year, when the agreement was planned in private and then steered publicly to Zimmerman without any proposals from other firms.

Zimmerman signed a $2.1 million one-year contract in May 2015. Within months, Broward Health Commissioners agreed to expand Zimmerman’s contract to a six-year, $71.4 million agreement.

The Fort Lauderdale-based firm, its showcase headquarters off I-95 and its flamboyant founder Jordan Zimmerman were familiar to some commissioners and El Sanadi, who was instrumental in fashioning the no-bid deal.

Zimmerman is a Republican campaign contributor.  The seven commissioners who govern the tax-assisted health care system are all Republican activists appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, who also appointed El Sanadi, another heavy contributor to the Republican Party of Florida, to the Florida Board of Medicine.

Death before deal done

El Sanadi committed suicide Jan. 23, four days before the board was set to approve the deal. The deal, put on temporary hold in the wake of El Sanadi’s death, fell apart after FloridaBulldog.org first reported on the unusual advertising deal Feb. 16.


Now Broward Health’s original one-year contract with Zimmerman is winding down.

Jordan Zimmerman, left, advertising firm founder and Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, late chief executive of Broward Health

Jordan Zimmerman, left, advertising firm founder and Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, late chief executive of Broward Health

“The Zimmerman contract for $2.1M expires on May 4th.  Zimmerman continues to work on tactics on the marketing plan scheduled for the month of April,” Doris Peek, Broward Health’s director of marketing wrote in an e-mail.

The Zimmerman deal is one of several being examined by the Florida’s Chief Inspector General in an extensive probe of Broward Health’s contracts and the correspondence concerning them stretching back to July 2012.  In a separate investigation, a Fort the FBI and a Fort Lauderdale federal grand jury are gathering evidence of corruption in purchasing, according to numerous sources and public statements by staff and others.

Gov. Scott suspended former Broward Health Chair David Di Pietro and Commissioner Darryl Wright in March after Inspector General Melinda M. Miguel complained about interference with her probe.  A key supporter of the Zimmerman contract at Broward Health, Di Pietro won his commission job back in Broward Circuit Court, but resigned before an appeal by the governor could be heard.

Peek said she doesn’t know if Zimmerman will bid on the new contract, saying, “Zimmerman is welcome to respond and should they respond would be evaluated in the same manner as all other responding vendors.” Proposals are due to the Broward Health staff by 3 p.m. May 5, one day after Zimmerman’s contract ends.

Jordan Zimmerman did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

The cost and other terms of the new ad campaign will be negotiated between the firm chosen by staff and approved by commissioners. It will be based on what responding firms bid compared to a no-growth “flat” budget predicted by the financially challenged public health system next year, Peek said.  The firm winning the contract will get an annual retainer and a production fee.

New contract smaller

Firms are being told that the new contract will be less extensive than the one given Zimmerman.  That previous contract gave Zimmerman responsibility for media ad buying, outdoor and online media.  It also included a 15 percent commission on all clicks on digital ads.  These tasks have been removed from the new proposal and given back to staff.

Peek was insistent that any firm chosen will be required to show the advertising is working.  Zimmerman balked at including performance standards in that firm’s contract, but Peek called including them “common practice.”

The revamped contract is for “external brand awareness and service line promotions, development of media plans for Broward Health…and creative design of multi-media advertisements for all divisions of Broward Health,” the Request for Proposals states.

The winner will be expected to present Broward Health with “billing documentation including detailed invoicing from media outlets” and produce weekly status reports for health care executives.

Commissioner Canada said the hospital district has a new interim CEO, Pauline Grant, and a new dedication toward transparency in its business dealings.

“We’re resurrecting the marketing and communications contract in a transparent way,” she said. “We’re moving forward in a different direction.”

Bob Graham questions decision to send Guantanamo detainees to Saudi Arabia for rehab

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Mohammad bin Naif Counseling and Care Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which claims a nearly 90 percent success rate in rehabilitating terrorists

The Mohammad bin Naif Counseling and Care Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which claims a nearly 90 percent success rate in rehabilitating terrorists

Ex-Florida Sen. Bob Graham is questioning the wisdom of the Obama Administration’s decision to release nine Guantanamo detainees to Saudi Arabia for “rehabilitation.”

“Here’s a country that is under deep suspicion of being a co-collaborator in 9/11 and now we are sending it people who were considered to be among the most violent terrorists in the world,” Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said in an interview with FloridaBulldog.org.

“In fact, this is another reason why the blanket of secrecy that’s been thrown over this material should be lifted so people can make their own judgment as to whether this is the kind of country we should be sending these people to for rehabilitation.”

Saturday’s transfer of the nine Yemenis to Saudi Arabia, in the name of reeducating them to become law-abiding citizens, continued President Obama’s plan to “securely and responsibly” move detainees out of the notorious military detention facility so it can be closed.

The release preceded the President’s mid-week visit with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh.

The U.S. said 80 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi bin al Shibh, identified in Department of Defense documents as the “coordinator” of the 9/11 attacks. The Miami Herald reported this week that 26 of the 80 have been cleared for release.

About 780 men have been detained at Guantanamo, many without charges or access to federal courts, since January 2002.

U.S. law currently restricts the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States, as well as the use of funds to build or modify prisons for such transfers. In February, Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s office said the administration “looks forward to working with Congress to lift those restrictions.”

During his 2008 campaign, President Obama promised repeatedly to close Guantanamo following allegations that detainees had been tortured. On Jan. 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration, he signed an executive order creating the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force, whose job included reviewing the cases of individual detainees to determine who can be released for transfer.

Approved for transfer

The task force unanimously approved transfer for eight of the Yemenis. Another entity, the Periodic Review Board, recommended transfer by “consensus” of the ninth Yemeni, Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmed al-Sabri.

The U.S. does not explain itself when a determination is made that individual Guantanamo detainees, once described by top U.S. officials as “the worst of the worst,” are no longer considered to pose a significant threat to the security of the United States.

Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmed al-Sabri, who was among nine Guantanamo detainees sent to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation on Saturday.

Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmed al-Sabri, who was among nine Guantanamo detainees sent to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation on Saturday.

For example, in 2008 the task force reported to the commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami that al-Sabri was a member of “a Yemeni al-Qaeda cell directly involved with the USS Cole attack.” A bomb ripped open a large hole in the Navy guided missile destroyer while it was anchored in the port of Aden in October 2000, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others.

The task force’s 12-page, declassified report says al-Sabri, now 38, received “advanced training at al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan” and engaged in combat there in support of the Taliban after 9/11.

Without rehabilitation and supervision, the report says, “it is assessed detainee would immediately seek out prior associates and reengage in hostilities and extremist support activities.”

The U.S. assessment of al-Sabri was softened, however, in an unclassified, three-paragraph profile submitted to the Periodic Review Board in December 2014. The profile downplayed al-Sabri’s alleged role to that of an al-Qaeda “associate” who “possibly received militant training” and who “probably did not play a significant role in terrorist operations.”

“There is no indication” that al-Sabri had “foreknowledge of the attack” on the Cole, the profile said, even though the 2008 Defense Department report said his al-Qaeda cell had “conducted surveillance on the USS Cole and prepared explosives for the bombing.”

Al-Sabri “has expressed non-extremist goals for his life after detention, and none of his family members in Saudi Arabia or Yemen are involved in terrorist activity,” the profile concluded. “He may, however, attempt to contact a family friend who is an AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) operative and facilitator with a long history of association with extremists, providing (al-Sabri) a possible path to reengage.”

Four months after the profile was filed, al-Sabri was cleared for release and transfer. Saudi Arabia recently agreed to accept him and the other Yemenis. bobgraham60minutes2

Ex-Sen. Graham said he is “really sympathetic to the idea of trying to close Guantanamo” because “it’s giving us a bad name.”

Still, he believes that trusting a “perfidious ally” like Saudi Arabia with the job of rehabilitating hardened terrorist suspects imprisoned for years at Guantanamo is fanciful.

“I went to Riyadh in 2011 or 2012 when I was on the CIA’s external advisory board. We had a session on this rehabilitation program and it seemed a little frivolous to me. Part of it was they were learning to paint to help them rehabilitate their terrorist leanings,” said Graham, appeared on 60 Minutes last week to urge the government to release hidden 9/11 records.

The high-security Mohammad bin Naif Counseling and Care Center is one such rehabilitation center. Its main objectives include “pointing out the role of [the] Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in fighting terrorism, overcoming immoderate thoughts and caring for its youth,” according to its website.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in May 2015 that art therapy, water aerobics classes, Ping-Pong, Jacuzzis, gourmet chefs, psychologists and imams are available to 250 Jihadist patients at the correctional facility in Saudi Arabia’s capital city.

The three-month rehabilitation program was created by namesake Crown Prince Naif, the powerful First Deputy Prime Minister who is first in line to the throne.

The Monitor and the Associated Press reported the center claims a nearly 90 percent success rate for the approximately 3,000 men who have gone through the program, including many convicted of terrorism-related charges in Saudi Arabia.

John Horgan is a professor at the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University and the author of “The Psychology of Terrorism.”

He could not be reached for comment, but in an interview with the AP last year he was skeptical of Saudi Arabia’s rehab program.

“Some critics would say that this isn’t true de-radicalization, this is just a diversion. It’s smoke and mirrors,” Horgan said. “What I’ve seen so far is that it’s just a token gesture. It’s very good for the optics and very good for public relations.”

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