Ms. Book goes to Tallahassee, sees no conflict voting $ for Lauren’s Kids or dad’s clients

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Lauren and Ron Book in Times Square in March 2015 promoting her child sex abuse education book. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Freshman Broward State Sen. Lauren Book says she won’t abstain from voting on matters involving clients of her father, powerful lobbyist Ron Book. Similarly, she sees no conflict of interest in voting on measures to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to benefit her non-profit charity and political launching pad, Lauren’s Kids.

Book, a Plantation Democrat, offered her thoughts on the issue of personal voting conflicts in an email exchange last week with Florida Bulldog.

“No,” she said when asked if she plans to abstain from voting on any matters involving Ron Book’s clients. “In ALL matters, I will vote my conscience and in what I believe is best for my district, for Broward County, and for the people of the State of Florida.”

Sen. Book also said that Lauren’s Kids would again seek significant state funding during this year’s legislative session that began March 7. Does that mean she will abstain from voting on bills to authorize funding for her organization?

“No. I have met with the Counsel of the Senate and have been advised that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not,” Sen. Book said.

Lauren’s Kids, however, pays Sen. Book a six-figure annual salary for serving as its chief executive. In 2015, her salary was $135,000 – a $20,000 increase from 2014, according to the charity’s federal income tax returns.

“My salary is not paid for with any state funds,” said Sen. Book. “I derive no personal benefit from public tax dollars except knowing that these monies are being used to save lives, raise awareness and prevent childhood sexual abuse.”

Sen. Book said that to make certain her salary includes no state dollars, she “restructured my employment to ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work” once she declared her candidacy. She declined to elaborate on how she accomplished that restructuring and that separation.

Ron and Lauren Book at a Tallahassee rally promoting Lauren’s Kids in April 2015. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Sen. Book did say, however, that she resigned from the board of directors of the Lauren’s Kids Foundation “to add an additional (but entirely unnecessary) layer between myself and the Foundation.”

Lauren’s Kid’s tax return for 2015 – the latest available – shows the charity received more than 83 percent of its $4.5 million in total revenue that year from the state. Since 2012, records show, the state has contributed more than $10 million to Lauren’s Kids.

The Florida Department of Education has requested another $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids for Fiscal Year 2017-18 “so we can continue to educate children and families to prevent abuse and help survivors,” said Sen. Book. “I might add, the DOE would only recommend funding if as experts they believed the curriculum was of significant benefit to our children.’’

Ron Book as landlord

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, is the unpaid president of Lauren’s Kids. Yet he also makes money from Lauren’s Kids. According to the 501(c) (3) organization’s 2015 tax return, he paid himself $61,651 for renting space to Lauren’s Kids in his Aventura office.

Ron Book, who is also on the charity’s board, collected $63,175 in rent from Lauren’s Kids in 2014, according to that year’s tax return.

Ron Book declined to comment.

On Wednesday, March 22, Sen. Book will face one of the first ethical tests of her nascent political career. As a member of the Florida Senate’s health policy committee, she will be evaluating five bills to establish the rules and regulations for the state’s medical marijuana industry.

While some patient and industry advocates argue the state should open up the market to competition, four of the bills discourage participation by more cannabis providers beyond the seven companies already licensed to manufacture a non-psychoactive, non-smokable form of the drug under a restrictive medical marijuana program set up by the Legislature in 2014.

Among the Florida licensed providers is a joint venture between Homestead-based nursery Alpha Foliage and Surterra, an Atlanta-based medical marijuana company that employs the senator’s father Ron Book as its Tallahassee lobbyist.

While government watchdogs said Sen. Book should abstain from voting on any matters involving her father, she told Florida Bulldog she has no intention of doing so because Florida law and Senate rules do not prohibit it.

“As I stated above, I will follow the letter and spirit of the law in how I vote and how I conduct my business,” she said.

Conflict questions loom

Still, questions about Sen. Book’s potential vote conflicts involving both her father’s 100-plus clients and Lauren’s Kids loom large.

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog organization Integrity Florida, noted that because Florida has a citizen legislature that allows members to have outside employment, the bar is set low when it comes to ethical requirements.

Florida’s weak Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees says that state officers “may not vote on any matter that the officer knows would inure to his or her special gain or loss.” It does not prohibit such votes. Rather, the code says vaguely that officers who vote to benefit themselves or a relative “shall make every reasonable effort to disclose the nature of his or her interest in a public memorandum” that can be filed up to 15 days after the vote.

Integrity Florida Research Director Ben Wilcox

Sen. Book, nevertheless, could face questions when it comes time to vote on an appropriations bill that would include Lauren’s Kids, which advocates against child sex abuse.

“You are not supposed to vote on something that has a direct benefit to you personally,” said Wilcox. “That is where she may get into some trouble if her organization is getting an appropriation from the Legislature.”

Wilcox said Book should also be mindful about voting on matters favorable to her father’s clients. “She should be sensitive to the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Wilcox said. “Even if it technically is not a conflict, it raises questions in the public’s mind and causes the public to lose confidence in government.”

Since founding Lauren’s Kids 10 years ago, Book has seemed on a trajectory for public office. In addition to appearing before the Legislature to lobby in favor of laws that crack down on sexual predators and child abusers, Book has led an annual walk from Key West to Tallahassee to raise awareness for child sex victims that receives statewide media coverage. She’s also written two books, including one for children, about her own experience being sexually abused by her former nanny. Book and her father had a starring role in the recently released documentary about Florida’s sex offender laws called Untouchable.

Book, 32, decided to run for the Senate seat previously held by Eleanor Sobel, who left the Legislature in 2016 due to term limits. After raising more than $1.5 million through her campaign and her political action committee, Leadership for Broward, Book automatically won the seat when no one filed to run against her. A Bulldog analysis of her 2015 and 2016 campaign finance reports and her father’s client list show she received $35,000 from 15 entities that employ Ron Book.

Clients and contributions

Of that amount, her campaign received $1,000 apiece from two of Surterra’s owners, Michael Havenick and Alexander Havenick, who is also vice president and general counsel for Southwest Florida Enterprises, a company that owns several pari-mutuels in the state, including Magic City Casino in Miami. Southwest, four affiliated companies and four other Havenicks also each gave the $1,000 maximum to Sen. Book’s campaign.

According to 2016 lobbyist compensation reports filed with the state, Ron Book’s law firm was paid between $40,000 and $80,000 by Surterra to lobby the Legislature. Ron L. Book P.A. also received approximately $30,000 from Surterra to lobby the executive branch.

Lauren’s Kids has also been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in state funding. According to the organization’s 2014 tax return, Lauren’s Kids received $2.7 million in state grants. Its 2015 tax return shows the nonprofit got $3.4 million that year from Florida’s Department of Education. In 2016, records show, the Legislature awarded Lauren’s Kids $1 million.

A Lauren’s Kids insert in a Florida Department of Motor Vehicles registration renewal.

Florida’s Department of Motor Vehicles also contributes to Lauren’s Kids via the sale of specialty license plates approved by the Legislature. Lauren’s Kids, which got its specialty tag in 2013, received $294,653 from the DMV in 2015, tax records show.

Further, the DMV allows Lauren’s Kids to insert a brochure asking for donations in every auto tag renewal notice mailed to Florida residents. Lauren’s Kids is one of several nonprofits eligible to insert their brochures under the specialty tag program.

Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor who teaches a course on ethics in U.S. politics, said in an interview that Book might derive a benefit from her father’s earnings as a lobbyist. “Parents always help out their kids,” Rosenson said. “Let’s say she had a medical emergency or something in which she needed money so her father’s financial situation is not something that is totally separate from hers.”

Rosenson said Sen. Book’s potential for conflict is analogous to President Donald Trump and his sons, who have taken over the Republican billionaire’s companies while he’s in the White House. “In a perfect world, she would realize that her relationship with her father raises questions of conflict of interest,” Rosenson said. “So ideally, yes she should recuse herself.”

When it comes to Lauren’s Kids, Integrity Florida’s Wilcox said even if Book’s salary is not being paid with state funds, she should still abstain from voting on matters involving her nonprofit. “In an abundance of caution, that is something she may want to reconsider,” Wilcox said. “While technically it may be correct, I don’t think it will look good to the public.”

Rubio’s ambition tied to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for South Florida schools

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio

Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach public schools have lost hundreds of millions of dollars since 2004 when the Florida Legislature changed the way schools are funded – an action linked to the political ambitions of Republican Party presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

The New York Times reported Oct. 21 that then-State Rep. Rubio bargained for political support to become speaker of the Florida House in exchange for not opposing measures that diverted funds from large school districts like his home county of Miami-Dade to smaller districts upstate.

Rubio served as Florida House Speaker from 2006-2008. According to The Times, he secured the position in 2003 with backing from upstate legislators after he agreed not to oppose measures that would reduce funding to heavily populated areas with higher property tax bases like Miami and increase spending in less dense, rural regions in the state.

Rubio, 44, now a first-term U.S. senator and serious Republican challenger for his party’s presidential nomination next year, did not respond to requests for comment left with his campaign and his Senate office. The Times, however, reported that Rubio previously said there were no tradeoffs in his successful effort to become Speaker of the House, and that he had complained that there was excessive spending and waste of funds by the Miami-Dade school district.

The changes that have cost South Florida’s school districts so much included alterations to the school funding formula that determined student allocations. One change to the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) involved the addition of an “amenity factor” to the so-called district cost differential, or DCD, which at the time sent more money to large districts due to their higher costs of living.

Another change involved so-called “compression or equalization” funding in which school districts rich in local property taxes – like Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach – saw funds above a statewide average taken away and given to less property-rich districts. Under this take-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor arrangement, school districts in South Florida became known as “donors.”

The changes, signed into law by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, were effective starting in the 2004-2005 school year.

At the request of FloridaBulldog.org, Miami-Dade Public Schools compiled a list of the cumulative gains and losses from then until now due to those funding changes at school districts in each of Florida’s 67 counties.

MIAMI-DADE THE BIGGEST LOSER

Miami-Dade County Public Schools was the biggest loser of state funds, with an eye-popping total loss of slightly more than $1 billion.

Broward County Public Schools took the second biggest hit, ranking 66th among Florida’s 67 county school districts with total losses from 2004 thru 2015-16 due to the funding changes of $509 million.

Palm Beach Public Schools was third with losses of $335 million, and ranked 65th among the counties, according to the list. Even Monroe County schools lost big: $30.5 million, ranking 63rd.

The Miami-Dade School’s study also found the biggest winner from the funding changes was Duval County, with a cumulative gain of $309 million since the 2004-2005 school year. Hillsborough County ranked second with a $271 million gain and Polk County was third with a gain of $225 million.

Federick Ingram

Federick Ingram

Fedrick Ingram, the recently elected vice president of the Florida Education Association and outgoing president of the United Teachers of Dade, said the funding loss in South Florida impacted teacher salaries and resulted in some program cuts.

“He (Rubio) could have assisted the local area … but supported more funds for the north (schools districts), ‘’ Ingram said. “He chose personal ambition.”

School districts in Broward and Palm Beach confirmed that they, too, suffered significant cumulative losses as a result of the changes to the funding formula and the district cost differential since 2004. They calculated their total losses to be millions of dollars lower than what Miami-Dade found.

Broward County Public Schools lost approximately $346 million since 2004 as a result of the changes, according to the district’s public information office. An official with knowledge of financing at Palm Beach County Public Schools said that district lost $189 million through last year as a result in the changes.

The Times story outlined how Rubio, after being elected to the House in a special election in 2000, set out to curry favor with House Republican leaders, leading to his ascent to House speaker after making the alleged deal.

While the Legislature was in session in 2004, the Miami-Dade School Board attempted to thwart the funding changes. Records show that on April 14, 2004 the board instructed staff that its top issue was to “preserve” the existing favorable district cost differential.

But a month later, with the change apparently by then approved by the Legislature, the Board instructed staff to hire lawyers to sue to stop it. The legal effort was later joined by the Broward and Palm Beach school districts.

SCHOOL DISTRICTS’ CASE TOSSED OUT

The courts, however, dismissed the case about June 2005. But not before legal costs rose to $620,000, the Miami-Dade School Board was later informed. Broward paid $150,000 and Palm Beach, $125,000.

It didn’t take long before Miami-Dade and other large districts felt the pain of the funding cuts.

Then-Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew outlined the financial impact of the changes at the March 12, 2008 School Board meeting.

“The continuation of the loss of the DCD has meant that between 2004 and now this district has lost approximately $200 million,” said Crew, according to the minutes. He went on to discuss a series of budget cuts that included layoffs and furlough days.

Two months later, at its May 5, 2008 meeting, the school board was informed that the losses were worse than originally thought.

“Another impact has been equalization of local millage where the state adopted a policy that deprived Miami-Dade and other like counties of general revenues coming from general revenue taxes – sales taxes, explained then-Associate Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, according to the minutes.

“The impact of that on Miami-Dade over the past four years, beginning in 2005-2006, with a $10 million hit progressing all the way to 2007-2008, current year, to the tune of $67 million, and projected to become $18 million next year,” Carvalho said.

Adam Hasner, a former Florida legislator who was a part of Rubio’s Tallahassee team, did not return calls for comment. The New York Times story reported Hasner praised Rubio for looking out for the entire state rather than just his home county.

But that stance also appears to have helped Rubio achieve what only two other South Florida politicians have accomplished in the last half-century: capturing the powerful post of Speaker of the Florida House.

While Miami-Dade school officials fumed about the funding cuts, at least one education watchdog cheered the changes. Charlotte Greenbarg, who for years has closely monitored education in Miami-Dade and Broward, said the funding change was necessary because the large districts had wasteful spending practices.

Miami-Dade, Greenbarg said, was top heavy with high-paying administrators, many of them earning more than $100,000 year while teachers were paid much less.

Trouble at the Statehouse: secrecy, questionable ethics and conflicts of interest

By Nicholas Kusnetz, Center for Public Integrity 

The Florida House of Representatives

The Florida House of Representatives

In November 2014, Arkansas voters approved a ballot measure that, among other reforms, barred the state’s elected officials from accepting lobbyists’ gifts. But that hasn’t stopped influence peddlers from continuing to provide meals to lawmakers at the luxurious Capital Hotel or in top Little Rock eateries like the Brave New Restaurant; the prohibition does not apply to “food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body is invited,” so lobbyists can buy meals so long as they invite an entire legislative committee.

Such loopholes are a common part of statehouse culture nationwide, according to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The comprehensive probe found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists. (more…)

Gov. Rick Scott won’t release 2014 tax return or info about his blind trust

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

When Gov. Rick Scott qualified to run for re-election last year, he made public his federal income tax returns for 2010-2012 “in the interest of full and complete public transparency,” according to his lawyer.

Four months later, with Election Day approaching and media inquiries rising, Scott also disclosed his 2013 tax return.

But today, amid news of Scott’s investment in a company that’s seeking to build a controversial, $3-billion natural gas pipeline in north and central Florida, the governor won’t make public his federal income tax return for 2014.

“If he’s provided his income tax returns in the past, it would seem in the spirit of transparency that he should provide it now,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida.

The governor’s office also declined a request by FloridaBulldog.org for copies of the federal tax returns filed by the now-closed blind trust that Scott used during his first term to hold his assets outside public scrutiny.

Scott revoked his original blind trust in June 2014 in order to run for re-election, immediately opening a new blind trust into which he rolled over his assets. By state law, public officials do not have access to the tax returns of their active blind trust.

Likewise, the governor’s office would not make public copies of the agreements Scott signed with the trustee of his blind trusts in 2011 and again last year. Those trust agreements control the trustee’s actions. Florida’s “qualified blind trust” law specifically allows the governor to make his trust agreements public, but it does not require him to do so.

“A search of the Executive Office of the Governor’s files produced no documents responsive to your request,” said Savannah Sams of the governor’s Office of Open Government.

In 2013, the Legislature decided that if a public official creates a trust and does not control the interests it holds, his “official actions will not be influenced or appear to be influenced by private considerations.”

BLIND TRUST = IMMUNITY FROM CONFLICTS 

That justification underlines the enactment of Florida’s qualified blind trust statute, which effectively grants immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest to public officials regarding assets they stash in a blind trust.

There is strong evidence, however, that Gov. Scott retains control over his blind trust.

An investigation last year by FloridaBulldog.org found that the state’s blind trust law has been ineffective in keeping Scott from becoming aware of what’s in his trust. Indeed, on several occasions in the last three years Gov. Scott signed paperwork filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that reported in detail on large stock transactions made by his blind trust. Those transactions brought the governor tens millions of dollars.

Alan Bazaar, CEO of Hollow Brook Wealth Management

Alan Bazaar, CEO of Hollow Brook Wealth Management

Further, the governor has described his trustee, New York’s Hollow Brook Wealth Management, as “independent,” yet the firm’s chief executive officer is longtime Scott crony and former employee Alan Bazaar. Also at Hollow Brook: Cathy Gellatly, Scott’s former corporate accountant at Richard L. Scott Investments.

Bazaar signed paperwork in 2011 and again last year certifying the blind trusts met the requirements of Florida law and were independent of the governor. His certifications, however, were not made under oath and were not notarized, offering the public little assurance or recourse.

When Scott revoked his original blind trust last year while qualifying to run again for governor, he made public a lengthy list of his assets. The maneuver served to insulate Scott from criticism about financial transparency during his successful re-election campaign against Charlie Crist, but it also revealed that since 2011 Scott had placed a large personal bet on the natural gas industry.

One of Scott’s investments was in Texas-based Spectra Energy, which wants to build Sabal Trail, a controversial 474-mile underground pipeline designed to run from Alabama and Georgia to a hub in central Florida near Orlando, in partnership with Florida Power & Light. Scott reported owning $108,000 in shares of Spectra and its affiliate DCP Midstream Partners.

Florida ethics laws generally prohibit public officials from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation or that do business with state agencies.

Gov. Scott’s stake in Spectra wasn’t publicly known in 2013 when he signed into law a pair of bills designed to speed up permitting for the pipeline project, or when the state Public Service Commission – whose members he appointed – unanimously approved its construction.

In July, the Department of Environmental Protection announced it intended to award both a permit and underwater drilling rights for the project to Sabal Trail Transmission LLC. An environmental group challenging that decision has accused the governor of a conflict of interest. A state administrative judge is considering the matter.

Florida gives $3.8 million to Lauren’s Kids charity after questionable poll on sex abuse

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and Lauren Book at an April rally in Tallahassee for Lauren's Kids charity

Gov. Rick Scott and Lauren Book at an April rally in Tallahassee for Lauren’s Kids charity

On June 4, Lauren’s Kids, released the results of an Internet poll it commissioned that found more than one-third of female respondents and one-fifth of male respondents had admitted to being sexually abused as children.

The survey’s results came in just as legislators reconvened for a special session to decide the 2015-2016 budget, which included a $3.8 million grant for the Aventura-based charity that specializes in child sex abuse prevention education.

Founded by Lauren Book, the daughter of prominent Tallahassee lobbyist Ronald Book, Lauren’s Kids got the funding, even escaping Gov. Rick Scott’s dreaded veto axe. But the trustworthiness of the online survey – a method national polling experts warn often results in unreliable, inaccurate public opinion data – can’t be verified.

Sachs Media Group, the Tallahassee public relations firm that was paid an undisclosed sum by Lauren’s Kids to conduct the poll, declined to provide detailed information about how individuals were selected to participate in the invitation-only survey. A Sachs senior executive also would not say how many people received invitations, and cited privacy considerations in declining to provide a list of the 1,033 participating Florida adults and their responses.

“We use industry standard balancing and targeting techniques to ensure randomness [of the participants],” said Karen Cyphers, Sachs Media Vice-President for Research and Policy. “The survey was fully online, no person-to-person interviews were conducted. Of those who clicked on the initial invitation to participate, the completion rate was just over 75 percent.”

Cyphers did provide FloridaBulldog.org with the list of poll questions that led to some of the alarming conclusions in the Lauren’s Kids survey.

For instance, the first question asked, “Were you sexually abused prior to age 18?” According to the document provided by Cyphers, 21 percent responded “yes.”

The participants who answered “no,” “not sure,” or “don’t want to say” were then shown a list of acts that constitute child sexual abuse that included being forced to expose themselves to grown-ups and being forced to watch adults have sex, Cyphers explained.

They were then asked, “After seeing a list of what constitutes child sexual abuse, were you sexually abused prior to age 18?” Nine percent of those who had answered “no,” “not sure,” or “don’t want to say” changed their answer to “yes,” according to the poll questions document.

QUESTIONS ABOUT SURVEY ACCURACY

Russell Renka, a retired political science professor at Southeastern Missouri University who wrote a 2010 research paper on what makes a good and bad poll, told FloridaBulldog.org the Lauren’s Kids survey is an advocacy poll being used to promote a specific viewpoint, which raises questions about accuracy.

Renka said professional pollsters, like the Pew Research Center, regularly publish backup data with survey results so that observers can independently evaluate the information. He noted Lauren’s Kids has only posted on its website selected highlights of the poll instead of the entire survey with the full set of questions and a full explanation of the methodology.

“You are counting on them to assure that the results are accurate,” Renka said. “That is a slippery slope.”

Click here to see the Research Methodology sheet provided by Sachs Media and its unit, Breakthrough Research, for the Lauren’s Kids survey.

Heather Gray, executive director of Lauren’s Kids, defended the nonprofit’s poll, saying Internet surveys have overtaken telephone methods in reaching a diverse, representative sample of respondents while producing reliably comparable results.

“Internet surveys reduce interviewer bias, enabling respondents to share personal or undesirable opinions without fear of judgment by another person,” Gray said. “This is important, particularly for a topic as sensitive as this one.”

However, even some of the nation’s most respected numbers crunchers caution about the use of Internet-based surveys.

In an early June post on his blog FiveThirtyEight, stats wunderkind Nate Silver said web polls are a big part of gauging public opinion, but that some pollsters are abandoning scientific principles when conducting them.

“It’s fundamentally challenging to ‘ping’ a random voter on the Internet in the same way that you might by giving her an unsolicited call on her phone,” Silver writes. “Many pollsters that do Internet surveys eschew the concept of the random sample, instead recruiting panels that they claim are representative of the population.”

Silver points out that online surveys grossly miscalculated the results in last year’s mid-term elections, Israel’s general election in March, and the Parliament elections in the United Kingdom last month.

“The foundation of opinion research has historically been the ability to draw a random sample of the population,” Silver writes. “That’s become much harder to do.”

Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, wrote in the June 20 New York Times Sunday Review that there are major problems with Internet polls.

PROBLEMS WITH INTERNET POLLS

“First is what pollsters call ‘coverage error,’” Zukin wrote. “Not everybody is reachable online.”

A professor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics and Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Zukin asserts that statisticians have not figured out how to draw a representative sample of Internet users.

“Almost all online election polling is done with nonprobability samples,” Zukin opines. “These are largely unproven methodologically…It is impossible to calculate a margin of error on such surveys.”

Also problematic are the conflicting interests involved when a company that conducts the survey, in this case Sachs Media, is paid to do so by another company with an interest in the outcome.

Cyphers insisted Sach’s Internet polls are scientifically sound. For the Lauren’s Kids poll, she said invitations were randomly sent to people who were identified as living in Florida. Those who responded that they resided out-of-state were dropped from the results.

Between 2011 and 2013, Lauren’s Kids paid Sachs a total of $1.6 million for producing webinars, program materials such as brochures, palm cards and a mobile app, and a 30-minute TV program that was aired on network affiliate television stations throughout Florida, among other media services.

The poll results came out at a crucial time for Lauren’s Kids, which has received nearly $7 million in state appropriations in previous years used to fund the non-profit’s programs that train kids, teachers, and child caretakers at the Pre-K to third grade level to recognize the signs of sexual abuse and report it to authorities.

With the $3.8 million Lauren’s Kids will receive this year, it plans to expand its curriculum at the fourth grade to high school level. During the teleconference with reporters on June 4, Lauren Book, who was sexually abused when she was a teen, said the Internet poll proved the reasons why her programs must continue.

“Clearly sexual abuse can happen in any family,” Book said, adding the poll “shines a light on how much work we have to do to report sexual abuse and to recognize the signs of sexual abuse.”

The appropriation for Lauren’s Kids was tucked in a $23.8 million pot for “school and instructional enhancements” that emerged unscathed when the governor finalized the budget earlier this week. Scott obliterated funding for 24 other special interest projects on the list, including $100,000 for youth summer job programs and $30,000 for a financial literacy pilot program in Broward County.

Gray said Lauren’s Kids was not given preferential treatment.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who sits on the appropriations committee, sponsored funding for Lauren’s Kids. Fresen did not respond to a request for comment, but Gray said he was required to submit the non-profit’s request before the entire committee for evaluation.

Gray said Lauren’s Kids was also vetted before the state senate appropriations committee.

“Chairman Don Gaetz [a Republican] and Vice Chairman Bill Montford [a Democrat] sent a joint letter to all organizations in the state budget who received funding in fiscal year 2014-15 and asked them to submit information for evaluation for fiscal year 2015-16,” Gray said. “We complied with the request and are pleased to have received bipartisan support from the committee upon completion of the submission and evaluation process.”

Tallahassee jackpot: Politicians send millions to charity of lobbyist’s daughter

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera at an April 22 rally in Tallahassee for Lauren's Kids with Lauren and Ron Book

Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera at an April 22 rally in Tallahassee for Lauren’s Kids with Lauren and Ron Book

Over the last four years, Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit founded by the daughter of top Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book has become one the legislature’s favorite charities, raking in nearly $7 million in taxpayer funds. If and when legislators reconvene to pass a budget, that total is slated to rise to $10.8 million.

The mission of Lauren’s Kids is to raise awareness about child sexual abuse. At the same time, however, Lauren’s Kids has cultivated a symbiotic relationship with important political figures in the Capitol, led by Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

The politicians get feel-good publicity with photo ops. Lauren’s Kids gets state dollars, and plenty of them.

Legislative appropriation records show that of the 27 special interest groups to be allocated funds from a $19 million pot earmarked this year for “school and instructional enhancements,” Lauren’s Kids will get the most, $3.8 million. More than two dozens youth organizations, including the Girl Scouts of Florida and the YMCA, are to receive less than $300,000 each.

Critics say Book’s political clout gives Lauren’s Kids an unfair advantage over hundreds of applicants vying for state discretionary funds.

“There are so many things this money could be used for,” said Vicky Henry, a national advocate against sexual offender registration laws. “Take some of that $3.8 million and give more to school districts or church and scout organizations.”

Lauren Book, chief executive of Lauren’s Kids, said her non-profit is on the same playing field as others seeking state funds.

“I believe the process is highly competitive,” Book said in an email. “Projects receive intense scrutiny; first in budget subcommittees, then in full committees, on the floors of the chambers, and in joint budget conference committees. Following all of that, an appropriation is vetted by the governor’s staff, and must withstand the gubernatorial veto process.”

Book, who was sexually and physically abused by her nanny for six years starting at age 11, founded Lauren’s Kids in 2007. Her father Ron Book — an attorney who counts the Miami Dolphins, the GEO Group prison company and dozens of cities and counties as clients — is the organization’s chairman. Last year, his firm collected $5 million in lobbying fees, state records show.

SPECIAL TREATMENT FOR LAUREN’S KIDS

Grants aren’t the only way government helps fund Lauren’s Kids. Miami-Dade and Broward counties facilitate individual $1 donations by including a box for people to check on their car registration renewal forms. Lauren’s Kids also has its own state-approved specialty Florida license plate, from which it collects $25 from each sale, according to its web site.

Gov. Scott hugs Lauren Book at the April 22 rally on the steps of Florida's Historic Capitol

Gov. Scott hugs Lauren Book at the April 22 rally on the steps of Florida’s Historic Capitol

Lauren’s Kids tax returns show that from 2011-2013 those $1 car registration renewal donations brought in more than $700,000. How much revenue has been generated by the specialty license tags, approved by the legislature in 2013, was not available.

Ron Book did not respond to Henry’s criticisms or to questions about how Lauren’s Kids got earmarks inserted into the budget.

Lauren Book’s most publicized annual event is “Walk In My Shoes,” a 1,500-mile trek across Florida from Key West to the steps of the old state Capitol building. It’s also a favorite of elected officials.

Book completed her sixth walk on April 22. Joining her at the Capitol were dozens of child sex abuse victims and their families, her father and a line-up of powerful Republicans and Democrats. They included Scott, Lopez-Cantera, Senate President Andy Gardiner, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and vice chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

Vicky Henry, president of Missouri-based Women Against Registry, organized a protest against Book’s walk by having registered offenders and their family’s picket near the state capitol. Henry said state leaders overzealously shower Lauren’s Kids with attention to stay in her dad’s good graces.

As the top lobbyist for many major corporations in Florida, Book serves as a faucet for campaign cash. For example, Book and clients Steve Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, and George Zoley, president of the GEO Group, served together last October on the host committee for a $25,000-a-plate fundraising dinner for Gov. Rick Scott at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.

A PAC ALL HER OWN

Lauren Book, who has hinted at a run for office, formed a political action committee last September called Leadership For Broward that has collected $525,257, mostly from her father’s clients including $100,000 from the Miami Dolphins.

“Do other people involved in child abuse prevention get the same amount of hoopla Lauren’s Kids gets?” said Henry. “No. And they definitely do not get the kind of money awarded to [Book’s] organization.”

Lauren’s Kids most recent tax returns show it received government grants of $486,116 in 2011, $1.6 million in 2012, and $1.1 million in 2013. Most of the combined $2.8 million was from the state.

The organization has yet to file its tax return for 2014, but Book confirmed previous media reports that Lauren’s Kids received $3.8 million from the legislature last year.

 The 29-year-old Book’s annual salary is on a similar upward trajectory, rising from nearly $68,000 in 2011 to $95,000 in 2013.

From 2011-2013, Lauren’s Kids collected $1.4 million in private contributions, more than half coming from the $1 donations via car registration renewals. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in other revenue has come through special events and the sale from books, including Lauren Book’s self-published memoir, It’s Ok to Tell.

Book says the bulk of Lauren’s Kids revenue has been used to create and maintain an educational program called “Safer, Smarter Kids” that trains public school teachers and child caretakers throughout the state on how to identify signs of sexual child abuse and how to report cases to authorities.

Originally targeted to children in pre-kindergarten to third grade, the program has expanded to educate kids in fourth and fifth grades, as well as adolescents in middle and high school. To implement the program, Lauren’s Kids hired Tallahassee advertising firm Sachs Media Group, which was paid a total of $1.6 million between 2011 and 2013. Sachs produces webinars, program materials such as brochures, palm cards and a mobile app, and a 30-minute TV program that was aired on network affiliate television stations throughout Florida, among other media services.

Lauren’s Kids also paid $219,000 to the Monique Burr Foundation in Jacksonville for acting as a go-between with schools participating in the Safer, Smarter Kids program. It paid another $142,000 to the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence for staffing a crisis hotline and developing training materials and conducting training sessions for 15 school districts.

As a result of her organization’s educational program, tens of thousands of Florida children now know to report incidents of sexual abuse, Book said.

Senate push to expand lobbyist registration to special districts like Broward Health

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Florida Senate Chamber

Florida Senate Chamber

A bill to broaden water management district lobbyist registration rules to apply to hospital districts, expressway and port authorities, children’s services districts and other special taxing districts with budgets in excess of $5 million is moving through the Florida Senate.

More than a half-dozen large, special-purpose taxing districts in South Florida would be impacted by the change. The biggest: the North Broward Hospital District, also known as Broward Health, which levied nearly $150 million in property taxes in 2012.

SB1372, sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, seeks to build on ethics reforms enacted last year while he was Senate president that for the first time applied state lobbying rules to special-purpose governments that raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

The proposed changes in this year’s omnibus government accountability bill would require lobbyists to publicly register, identify their clients and disclose any direct or indirect business or financial relationships with officials or employees of the entity being lobbied.

“Our bill has progressed well through both the House and the Senate,” said Gaetz, referring to a related measure, HB1063, sponsored by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Eustis. “I’m reasonably certain that the bill will get to the floor” for a vote.

The bill is a further legislative response to a January 2014 investigation by FloridaBulldog.org – formerly known as Broward Bulldog – that found nearly all of the state’s 1,000 independent special districts do not require lobbyists who appear before them to register or disclose any information about themselves or their clients. Collectively, those limited-purpose governments raise and spend billions in public dollars every year.

“Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue,” Gaetz said of the investigation that was supported by a grant from the Washington-based Fund for Investigative Journalism.

‘A LOGICAL EXTENSION’

Frank Palen, a West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in government law and special districts, called the proposal “a logical extension of last year’s bill.”

“The goal should always be to encourage maximum transparency. I think this bill achieves that goal without imposing significant administrative burdens or costs by focusing on the types of districts that should most interest the public,” Palen said.

There are 134 active independent special districts in Florida with ad valorem taxing power, including those that provide libraries, utilities and fire and mosquito control.

Other smaller districts, where lobbyists are rarely seen, rely on various user fees, assessments, tolls and other sources to finance and maintain facilities.

This year’s bill is currently before the Senate Rules Committee after sailing through two other committees by unanimous votes last month. It obliges the state ethics commission to investigate sworn complaints about registration violations and to make findings and recommendations to the governor, which can include penalties ranging from public censure to a fine or restitution.

Lobbyists would be required to pay an annual fee of $40 for each client to fund the registration system if the bill passes.

The bill includes other changes to governmental ethics policies, notably making it a first-degree misdemeanor for government officials to provide prohibited extra compensation such as bonuses, golden parachutes or hush money to state officials or contractors.

That provision was met with strong opposition, particularly from public hospitals. “There are lots of people working behind the scenes on this, demanding exemptions from the bill,” Gaetz said.

One of those who pushed on the hospitals’ behalf was Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, but he withdrew his amendment.

The bill would also require counties and school boards to take action in response to the recommendations of auditors. It would also strengthen collection methods against politicians and state employees with unpaid fines for violations of financial disclosure requirements.

Other reforms include post-employment lobbying restrictions would also be applied to certain individuals with Enterprise Florida, its divisions and the Florida Development Finance Corporation.

U.S. Sugar seeks OK for huge development after news it paid for GOP leaders’ trips

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org sugarcane

Weeks after news that Gov. Rick Scott and Florida GOP leaders took secret hunting trips to Texas financed by Florida’s sugar industry, U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers are pushing plans for a massive new development in rural Hendry County near the northwest edge of the Everglades.

The Sugar Hill Sector Plan envisions turning 43,313 acres – or more than 67 square miles – of sugar cane fields, citrus groves and pasture lands into a planned community featuring 18,000 residential units and 25 million square feet of space to accommodate manufacturing, warehousing, transportation services and other kinds of businesses.

Development would occur over the next 46 years, until 2060. No price tag for the project is mentioned in plan documents made public by Hendry County to date. Nor are financial arrangements discussed.

Maps indicate the Sugar Hill property is part of 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar land the state has an option to purchase through October 2015 at fair market value under the Everglades restoration land acquisition program. Changes to Sugar Hill’s current agricultural zoning could significantly drive up the price per acre.

Various state agencies have been or will be involved in reviewing the giant project by the two Clewiston-based companies. They include Florida’s departments of Economic Opportunity, Transportation, Agriculture, Environmental Protection as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the South Florida Water Management District.

AN INITIAL THUMBS UP

The plan for Sugar Hill, which documents show has been discussed with various state and local officials since July 2013, appears on a fast track. The plan was formally submitted to Hendry County on June 2. The county commission gave its initial thumbs up last week by approving U.S. Sugar/Hilliard’s lengthy development application for transmittal to Tallahassee.

Under a law signed by Gov. Scott in 2011, the state’s sector planning program now lets local governments engage in long-term planning for large areas with minimal state interference. The same law abolished Florida’s Department of Community Affairs, which had overseen state growth management efforts and reviewed local comprehensive plans, and transferred its planning function to the newly created Department of Economic Opportunity.

The department had yet to receive the Sugar Hill application by late Tuesday.

A county planning and zoning document presented to commissioners before the Aug. 26 public hearing minimized the environmental impact of the Sugar Hill development. It says that an environmental analysis prepared by the sugar interests “confirmed that there are no regionally significant natural resources within the sector plan” area.

U.S. Sugar is looking for state support for the Sugar Hill plan in the wake of embarrassing disclosures by the Tampa Bay Times in July that it financed hunting trips to Texas’ King Ranch for Gov. Scott and Republican leaders. They include Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam; Former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park; Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, scheduled to become speaker in 2016; Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, who had been set to become speaker this year until he lost his bid for re-election; and House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.

The paper reported that “since late 2011, U.S. Sugar paid more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips – destinations unspecified on public documents – within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.” The industry also paid for the licenses.

The Sugar Hill property – shorthand for U.S. Sugar/Hilliard – is described as adjacent to the Airglades Airport, Clewiston and borders on the Glades County line.

BIG PLANS FOR A LITTLE AIRPORT

According to the county’s planning and zoning department, it “will incentivize businesses and development companies to locate in Hendry County by removing any barrier that may exist with the current land use designation. As important, this proposal would complement the future expansion of the Airglades International Airport.”

Hendry County's Airglades Airport Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Hendry County’s Airglades Airport Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Airglades is a small county-owned facility where British Royal Air Force cadets trained during World War II. Since 2010, the county has been seeking to sell the airport to private owners in order to turn it into a major hub for cargo shipments. The Federal Aviation Administration must approve any sale.

The airport is working with Airglades International Airport, LLC, (AIA) a private investor that wants to buy and privatize the airport as part of a $400 million plan that would turn it into an international cargo hub by adding a new 12,000-foot runway. AIA’s directors include U.S. Sugar executive Malcolm S. “Bubba” Wade Jr. and Joe Marlin Hilliard, chairman of the Florida Sugar Cane League.

On Monday, following FAA approval, AIA took over management of Airglades, said AIA President Fred Ford. He said the company expects a decision allowing AIA to purchase the 2,800-acre airport property “within the next 12 months.” The price to be paid would depend on how many jobs are created, said Ford.

According to Ford, the fate of Sugar Hill, which owns much of the land that surrounds the airport, is tied largely to the success of Airglades.

“If the airport isn’t successful, it won’t happen,” said Ford. “Sugar Hill is what could happen if the airport is successful…The sector plan could be just an interesting document.”

Gov. Scott had stake in pipeline firm whose $3 billion venture he and his appointees backed

 

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Florida's existing and proposed pipeline routes. Gov. Scott invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in companies that own all three. Illustration: NextEra Energy

Florida’s existing and proposed pipeline routes. Gov. Scott invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in companies that own all three. Illustration: NextEra Energy

Upon his election, Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team included a Florida Power & Light executive who pitched his company’s plan to build a major natural gas pipeline in North Florida to fuel a new generation of gas-fired power plants in places like Port Everglades.

“The proposed project will need state regulatory and governmental agencies to understand and support this project,” said the proposal submitted by FPL vice president Sam Forrest.

Gov. Scott understood. In May and June 2013, he signed into law two bills (HB 999 and HB 1083) designed to speed up permitting for what came to be known as the Sabal Trail Transmission – a controversial, 474-mile natural gas pipeline that’s to run from Alabama and Georgia to a hub in Central Florida, south of Orlando.

Five months later, the Florida Public Service Commission, whose five members were appointed by Gov. Scott, unanimously approved construction of Sabal Trail as the state’s third major natural gas pipeline. More approvals are needed from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which the governor oversees.

What wasn’t publicly known in 2013, however, was that Gov. Scott owned a stake in Spectra Energy, the Houston company chosen by Florida Power & Light that July to build and operate the $3 billion pipeline. Sabal Trail Transmission LLC is a joint venture of Spectra Energy and FPL’s parent, NextEra Energy.

BrowardBulldog.org’s review of financial records made public last month by Gov. Scott show that as of Dec. 31 his portfolio included several million dollars invested in the securities of more than two-dozen entities that produce and/or transport natural gas – including some, like Spectra, with substantial Florida operations.

His stake in Spectra Energy was reported as being worth $53,000 that day.

Florida’s ethics laws generally prohibit public officials like the governor from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation, or that do business with state agencies. A similar prohibition exists on owning shares in companies that would “create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict” between an official’s private interests and the “full and faithful discharge” of his public duties.

NEW CONCERNS ABOUT BLIND TRUST LAW

Scott’s investments in companies that do business in Florida raise fresh concerns about the operation of Florida’s so-called “qualified blind trust” statute – a law that allows public officials to veil their investment activity while affording them immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest.

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Scott acquired his Spectra shares via his blind trust. Exactly when that occurred is not known, and Greg Blair, a spokesman for the governor’s re-election campaign, said in an email that Scott has “no knowledge of the investment because his decision to invest was made by a trustee of the blind trust.”

Blind trusts are supposed to eliminate conflicts of interest by “blinding” public officials and the public to the nature of their holdings. The law’s requirement that officials hand over control of an investment portfolio to a disinterested manager was intended to accomplish that.

But as BrowardBulldog.org reported in March, the governor’s blind trust was ineffective in keeping the governor’s assets secret. And Alan Bazaar, a trusted former employee of the governor’s private investment firm Richard L. Scott Investments, managed it.

“The legislature makes it easy for officials to get away with conflicts of interest through loopholes in the ethics code,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, the nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog group. “Corruption has been institutionalized in Florida with flawed policies like blind trusts and political appointees issuing advisory opinions on what’s ethical.”

The governor, the senate president and the house speaker appoint the members of Florida’s Commission on Ethics.

The governor’s financial interest in Sabal Trail’s builder, Spectra, is also fueling criticism from opponents of the controversial natural gas pipeline project.

“That’s very interesting,” said Susan Glickman, Florida Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “It’s totally inappropriate that we have policymakers making important decisions where they have a financial stake in the outcome.”

“OUTRAGED AND DISHEARTENED”

Beth Gordon is a lawyer and former South Florida resident who now lives with her family on a 32-acre horse farm in Levy County where Spectra wants to route Sabal Trail. She helped found Spectrabusters, a citizens’ group that’s fighting Sabal Trail.

“I’m outraged and disheartened by this news. I feel blindsided,” said Gordon, who like Scott is a Republican. “The governor’s interest is in getting these companies the permits they need and he’s not interested in the environment.”

The governor’s financial disclosure form, essentially a snapshot of his extensive holdings as of Dec. 31, shows that Scott also owns a $55,000 stake in another Spectra asset, DCP Midstream Partners. DCM is a natural gas limited partnership 50 percent owned by Spectra Energy.

Scott disclosed his portfolio last month after he closed his original blind trust, then immediately opened a new one and placed all of his assets back into it.

He did it “to ensure that there would not be the possibility of any conflict of interest,” spokesman Greg Blair said via email. “As a result, Gov. Scott has no knowledge of the current contents of the blind trust.”

The trustee of the new blind trust, however, continues to be New York’s Hollow Brook Wealth Management and its chief executive and longtime Scott crony Alan Baazar.

Neither the governor nor anyone on his staff would be interviewed about his investments. Last month’s disclosure form marks the first time the governor has made public a list of his securities investments since he formed the blind trust in April 2011.

The maneuver served to insulate Gov. Scott from criticism about financial transparency amid his re-election campaign against former Gov. Charlie Crist. But it also revealed Scott’s large personal bet on natural gas and firms like Spectra and Energy Transfer Equity LP.

GOV. SCOTT’S STAKES IN OTHER FLORIDA PIPELINES  

Energy Transfer is a publicly traded master limited partnership whose subsidiaries include a joint venture that owns Florida Gas Transmission. FGT is the state’s largest natural gas pipeline, transporting it from Texas through the Florida peninsula south to Miami-Dade.

Florida Gas Transmission is also a major state vendor. According to Transparency Florida, the state website where government spending information is posted, FGT was paid $28.4 million by the Department of Transportation for various construction services in 2013-2014.

Scott valued his units of Energy Transfer as being worth $311,000 as of the end of last year. He likewise reported additional investments in a pair of entities owned by Energy Transfer, Regency Energy Partners LP and PVR Partners LP, totaling $400,000.

Scott’s investments in Spectra and Williams, an energy infrastructure company, also gave him a financial interest in Florida’s other major natural gas pipeline, Gulfstream, which runs from Alabama to Tampa Bay beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Those companies and their limited partnerships jointly own and operate Palmetto-based Gulfstream Natural Gas System LLC.

Scott’s disclosure form reported that in addition to his Spectra holdings he owned Williams shares worth $104,000 and a $71,000 ownership interest in a master limited partnership owned by Williams, Access Midstream Partners.

In addition to the bills Scott signed to streamline permitting for natural gas pipelines, he likewise benefitted the industry last year by approving another law (HB 579) that provides $30 million over five years to fund rebates to commercial fleet operators who buy, convert or lease vehicles that run on natural gas. The program, administered by Agriculture and Consumer Services boss Adam Putnam, offers applicants a maximum annual rebate of $250,000.

The Public Service Commission later approved several individual natural gas vehicle programs. PSC Commission Chairman Ronald A. Brise said the moves helped make “natural gas pricing more competitive with conventional motor fuels.”

The law also exempts natural gas fuel from state fuel, sales and use taxes for five years.

“They’re doing everything they can to build the market,” said Glickman.

Florida’s natural gas market is huge and growing. Nearly 68 percent of Florida’s electric generation, and more than 72 percent of FPL’s total energy, was fueled by natural gas in 2012, according to the Public Service Commission. Pipelines bring virtually all of that gas to Florida.

SABAL TRAIL TO POWER FPL PLANTS

The Sabal Trail underground pipeline is to run through 13 Florida counties. Documents state that it is intended to provide Florida Power & Light with a dedicated supply of natural gas for power generation needs and other purposes starting in May 2017.

Much of that new supply is to come from natural gas fracked from shale. It would flow to Florida from Sabal Trail’s connection to Williams’ Transco pipeline in Alabama.

Sabal Trail is to terminate at a new central Florida hub where it would connect to the state’s two other main natural gas pipelines, Florida Gas Transmission and Gulfstream. Another part of the new pipeline project that does not involve Spectra is the construction of a 126-mile, $550 million pipeline to run from Sabal Trail’s termination point in Osceola County to an FPL plant in Indiantown in Martin County.

“The primary factors driving this increased need are the three modernization projects currently in progress at FPL’s Cape Canaveral, Riviera Beach and Port Everglades natural gas plants to upgrade older, 1960’s-era steam combustion turbine generating units to modern, and more efficient combined cycle technology,” said the Public Service Commission’s October 2013 memorandum endorsing the pipeline projects.

Sabal Trail, however, has drawn significant opposition from both environmentalists who fear pollution and residents who consider the 36-inch steel pipeline a hazard and don’t want it anywhere near them.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a 17-page letter to FERC that questioned the need for Sabal Trail and suggested alternatives, like improved energy conservation measures, that would allow FPL to otherwise meet the power needs of its customers.

“U.S. electricity sales appear to have peaked in 2007,” the letter says.

FPL isn’t the only utility looking to generate electricity using natural gas imported via Sabal Trail.

Later this year, the Public Service Commission will consider plans by Duke Energy Florida to build a new, combined-cycle natural gas plant near Crystal River in Citrus County that would be a major customer of the new pipeline.

According to a Duke Energy press release, the project also requires certification under Florida’s Power Plant Siting Act. Certifications are issued by Florida’s siting board, which consists of the governor and Cabinet.

Gov. Scott signs ethics bill; Lobbyists at water districts must register and disclose

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org wmds

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Friday a state ethics bill that requires lobbyists at Florida’s five water management districts to register and disclose who they’re working for and how much they’re being paid.

The new law that takes effect July 1 marks the first time state lobbyist regulations have been applied to any of the state’s independent special districts – limited purpose governments that raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

“It’s encouraging that for the second year in a row, the governor and legislature have advanced anti-corruption measures aimed at improving public trust in government,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog group Integrity Florida. “While more work will be needed in the future to take on corruption, state lawmakers are moving in the right direction.”

The final bill (SB 846) was a diminished version of the original Senate ethics bill sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chair of the Ethics and Elections Committee. Under the Senate plan, all 136 independent special districts in the state that levies property taxes would have been required to register and disclose lobbyists who appear before them.

NO LOBBYIST REGISTRATION AT NORTH BROWARD HOSPITAL DISTRICT 

Florida’s taxing districts, many run by unelected boards, levied more than $1.8 billion in property taxes on homeowners and businesses in 2011. The new law means that districts such as the $1 billion North Broward Hospital District and the $483 million Health Care District of Palm Beach –  two of the three biggest taxing districts in the state – can continue to do business with lobbyists out of the sunshine.

BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, reported in January that nearly 1,000 independent special districts across Florida do not require lobbyists to register, pays fees or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.

A week later Latvala and Senate President Don Gaetz announced their support for legislation to impose on larger special districts registration requirements long in place for lobbyists at Executive Branch agencies.

“I personally support the idea that ethical standards, including lobbyist registration, apply to special districts,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “Broward Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue.”

The Senate passed the bill 38-0. But the bill languished in the House where House Ethics and Elections Chair Kathleen Passidomo, R-Fort Myers, considered it to broad. Her committee decided to begin by imposing the new requirements only on water management districts. The bill passed the House 118-0 on May 1.

If registration works smoothly at the water districts, Passidomo said, she will consider requiring more special districts to register lobbyists.

WATER DISTRICTS TO SPEND $1 BILLION THIS YEAR

Florida’s water management districts will spend more than $1 billion this year, with nearly half of that money coming from property tax revenues.

The South Florida Water Management District, with a $622 million annual budget, is the largest of the five districts. It collects taxes in 16 counties, including Broward and Miami-Dade, and is a frequent target of lobbyists who engage staff and a governing board dominated by real estate, agribusiness and development interests.

The new law requires lobbyists at water management districts to register annually, disclose and pay a fee of up to $40 per client. Registration includes a statement from each principal authorizing the lobbyist’s work and identifying the client’s main business and a statement disclosing the existence of any direct or indirect business relationship between the lobbyist or any officer or water district employee.

All lobbyist registration records are public records that must be available online.

The new law includes other changes to Florida’s ethics laws:

  • Allows the Florida Commission on Ethics to initiate investigations when state officials fail to file financial disclosure reports.
  • Requires annual ethics training for elected municipal officials
  • Applies portions of the state ethics code to Enterprise Florida and Citizens Property Insurance Corporation.
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