Overlooked class action against Democratic Party and Wasserman Schultz turns nasty

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hillary Clinton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Bernie Sanders

An ongoing legal battle playing out in Fort Lauderdale federal court over the Democratic National Committee’s presidential nominating process has devolved into accusations of harassment and intimidation conducted by unknown political operatives.

Last month, an attorney representing 150 Democratic voters in a little-noticed class action lawsuit against the DNC and its former chairwoman, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, sought court-ordered security guards for himself, his clients, and his co-counsels and their employees following a string of bizarre incidents in June, including strange phone calls and emails by individuals disguising their voices and a mysterious break-in at the home of one of the plaintiffs.

On June 15, Senior U.S. District Judge William Zloch denied Fort Lauderdale lawyer Cullin O’Brien’s motion after determining that his request would overburden the U.S. Marshals Service because the plaintiffs reside in 45 states and Washington, D.C. The judge also noted that O’Brien had not provided any evidence directly linking the incidents to the DNC and Weston-based Wasserman Schultz.

“The undertaking would in all likelihood require the entire U.S. Marshals Service to direct all of its efforts and attention to this specific case,” Zloch wrote in his order.  “The Court notes that plaintiffs’ motion contains absolutely no factual nexus between Defendants and the conduct set forth in the motion.”

O’Brien did not respond to two phone messages and an email request for comment. Mark Caramanica, an attorney for Wasserman Schultz, referred questions to DNC lawyers Bruce Spiva and Marc Elias, who also did not return two phone messages and emails requesting comment.

DNC attorneys Bruce Spiva, left, and Marc Elias.

Elizabeth Beck, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Florida Bulldog that it was not her legal team’s intent to show that the DNC and Wasserman Schultz were involved in the incidents. “We are not saying the DNC or the congresswoman ordered the harassment against us, the plaintiffs and our staff,” Beck said. “We don’t know who is doing it, but it did happen.”

The stakes are high for the DNC and Wasserman Schultz. The complaint accuses both of fraud, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty and negligence by rigging Democratic primaries to favor former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. More than half of the plaintiffs are Sanders supporters who donated money to his campaign. The lawsuit claims the 150 Democrats are entitled to punitive damages in addition to refunds for their political donations.

Despite the explosive accusations in the lawsuit and the subsequent motion seeking court-ordered protection, there has been no coverage of the case in mainstream media outlets, including South Florida’s newspapers, since it was filed in June 2016.

‘Funny Business’

Beck and her husband, Jared Beck, are Miami-based personal injury lawyers who decided to support Sanders in early 2016. “I was phone banking and also hosted phone banks to teach other people,” Elizabeth Beck said. “I joined a lot of Facebook groups where I was sharing information and political memes. That’s when I started hearing about all this funny business happening during the primaries in various states.”

Attorneys Elizabeth and Jared Beck

She said her suspicions that the DNC was in the tank for Hillary Clinton were confirmed when Russian hackers publicly released internal documents from the committee on the Internet. “The lawsuit was filed based on that information,” Beck said. “Everyone, including the people who hired us, reached the same conclusion that the process was rigged.”

Beck also launched a Facebook page that has grown to more than 57,000 followers and started the political action committee JamPAC. She uses the JamPAC’s website to post updates and documents related to the lawsuit.

According to the 39-page complaint, the DNC and Wasserman Schultz violated DNC’s charter and bylaws that say the party chair “shall exercise impartiality and evenhandedness” and “shall be responsible for ensuring that the officers and staff of the DNC maintain impartiality and evenhandedness.” Further, that while Wasserman repeatedly made public statements between September 2015 and May 2016 that she was committed to running a neutral primary, the congresswoman and the DNC was on team Clinton from the beginning of the 2016 presidential election cycle, the lawsuit claims.

To support their claims, the plaintiffs cited internal DNC documents obtained by Russian hackers and published on the Internet by purported hacker Guccifer 2.0. For example, on May 26, 2015 the DNC issued a memo outlining the party’s goals in providing a contrast between the “GOP field and HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton].” The memo also added the DNC would use “specific hits to muddy the waters around ethics, transparency and campaign finance attacks on HRC.”

The DNC has confirmed that the emails are legitimate.

During an April 25 motion hearing, DNC lawyer Spiva argued the plaintiffs don’t have standing to bring the lawsuit because the courts don’t have jurisdiction over how political parties decide to pick their candidates. “The Supreme Court and other courts have affirmed the party’s right to make that determination,” Spiva said. “Those are internal issues that the party gets to decide basically without interference from the courts.”

DNC ‘not obligated’ to follow own rules

The DNC is not obligated to follow its charter and its bylaws, Spiva added. “We could have voluntarily decided that we’re gonna go into back rooms like they used to do and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way,” he said. “That’s not the way it was done. But they could have. And that would also have been their right.”

Beck told Florida Bulldog she was taken aback by Spiva’s legal argument since Wasserman Schultz had always denied the DNC was playing favorites. “It’s a pretty outrageous position to take,” she said. “It was very different from what the congresswoman had been saying on national TV during the primaries.”

A little over a month later, things got even more strange. On June 1, Beck sent an email to DNC attorneys to inform them that her secretary had received a phone call from an unknown individual seeking information about the case. “The caller refused to identify himself/herself,” Beck wrote. “My secretary stated that it sounded like the caller was using a voice changer because the voice sounded robotic and genderless.”

Fort Lauderdale Attorney Cullin O’Brien

Beck also noted that the phone number that showed up on the caller ID was the same one for Wasserman Schultz’s Aventura district office. According to a June 1 reply filed in court by the congresswoman’s lawyers, Wasserman Schultz had no knowledge of the call being made and did not authorize it.

“Further, it is highly unlikely that the call did in fact originate with that office, as no one is currently working in the office associated with the subject number — or has anyone been working there for several months — due to ongoing repairs,” the reply states. “Given that the matter involves congressional phone lines, the incident has been reported to Capitol Police.”

The following day, Fort Lauderdale attorney O’Brien received three phone calls from an unknown number from a person who identified himself only as “Chris” inquiring about the lawsuit, according to the motion requesting protection. During the second phone call, “Chris” allegedly said, “This is bigger than you and your family and your law partners” and made a reference to news about the mysterious death of Assistant U.S. Attorney Beranton Whisenant in Fort Lauderdale. O’Brien also submitted under seal 11 emails allegedly sent by “Chris.”

Whisenant’s body was spotted floating just off Hollywood beach shortly before dawn on May 24. The cause of death has not been released, but the Miami Herald has reported that Hollywood police have said Whisenant suffered some trauma to his head.

On June 3, plaintiff Angela Monson from Dassel, Minn., said she woke up around 5:45 a.m. to use her laptop computer only to find it in a different spot from where she had last left it, which she thought was odd, according to an affidavit she filed as part of the motion for protection. “When I plugged in my laptop, it made a snapping noise and did not turn on,” Monson said. “When I turned it over, the bottom cover of the laptop fell off.  I then noticed that the bottom cover, which is attached to the laptop with 10 screws, had all the screws missing.”

After noticing that two patio doors she had locked the night before were unlocked, Monson called local police to file a report about a possible break-in, her affidavit states. The same day, O’Brien claims he received a call from the far-right militia group Oath Keepers offering him and his clients protection.

Non-profit donors allegedly acting as “fronts” for utilities backing Amendment 1

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org solar-panels

Consumers for Smart Solar, the Political Action Committee supporting controversial Amendment 1 that critics say would give Florida utility companies a monopoly on solar energy, has raised $4.45 million from three non-profit groups allegedly acting as “fronts” for utility industry contributions.

“Big monopoly utilities filter money through outside organizations in an attempt to make it appear like they have support from non-utility interests,” said Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a group that supports a marketplace for solar energy that allows consumers to choose their provider. “But the money [donated to Consumers for Smart Solar] all comes from the same place.”

The three alleged fronts for the state’s largest electric companies are Let’s Preserve the American Dream, the 60 Plus Association and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Records show that each has received money from utility interests in the past, and each does not disclose the identities of its financial backers.

For the Amendment 1 ballot measure to pass, it must get 60 percent voter approval.

Although the money raised by the non-profits is a fraction of the $20 million-plus utility companies have given to Consumers for Smart Solar, their donations create the false perception that Amendment 1 has the support of regular people, said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, a group promoting environmental protection and clean energy.

“These groups supporting Amendment 1 have brought up the legitimate concern about protecting consumers,” Moncrief said. “Unfortunately, they are acting as fronts for the big utility companies.”

Consumers for Smart Solar chairman Jim Kallinger did not respond to two requests for comment sent to his company’s email address. The company, Stamp Vault, does not have a listed phone number, and the phone number listed on the Political Action Committee’s campaign filings belongs to a Tallahassee accounting firm.

Sarah Bascom, the PAC’s spokeswoman, did not respond to a voicemail and email requesting comment before deadline.

According to Consumers for Smart Solar’s campaign finance reports, Let’s Preserve the American Dream has donated $1.3 million since 2015 with its most recent contribution of $250,000 made on Oct. 28. The Tallahassee-based non-profit organization’s executive director is Ryan Tyson, who is also vice president of political operations for Associated Industries of Florida, a group that bills itself as “The Voice of Florida Business” and counts former Florida Republican House Speaker Tom Feeney as its chief executive.

Funding sources not disclosed

Let’s Preserve the American Dream’s 2015 income tax return shows the non-profit generated more than three quarters of its $1.6 million in annual revenue through contributions, grants and gifts. However, the sources for those funds are not disclosed on the tax returns. Reached via email, Tyson declined to comment on who or which companies financially support Let’s Preserve the American Dream. He also would not explain why Let’s Preserve the American Dream did not use its Political Action Committee (which has the same name) to donate the $1.3 million that went to Consumers for Smart Solar. Had the money gone through the PAC, Let’s Preserve the American Dream would be required to disclose its donors.

According to campaign finance reports, the Let’s Preserve the American Dream PAC was disbanded on Oct. 6 after raising and spending $33,000 since 2015. The group collected $10,000 apiece from FP&L and The Mosaic Company, the owner of the Central Florida fertilizer plant where 215 million gallons of contaminated wastewater recently drained into an aquifer that provides drinking water for millions of Floridians.

Another Consumers for Solar backer, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, also does not disclose the source of the contributions, gifts and grants it receives, according to its 2012, 2013 and 2014 tax returns. However, a brochure for the group’s 2015 annual convention at the Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood lists several energy and fossil fuel companies as sponsors, including Gulf Power, Koch Industries and Chevron.

The black chamber, which generated $1.3 million in revenue in 2014, donated $200,000 to Consumers for Smart Solar through its National Black Chamber of Commerce Free Trade Initiative, a 501c(4) non-profit organization that had its tax-exempt status revoked by the Internal Revenue Service for not filing tax returns for three consecutive years.

With no tax-exempt status, the Free Trade Initiative can essentially engage in political activities without any restrictions, said Steve R. Johnson, a Florida State University tax law professor. “The revocation of tax-exempt status does not prohibit them in any way from making contributions,” Johnson said. “It can spend money on any kind of lobbying activity.”

Harry Alford, the black chamber’s longtime president, did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

The 60 Plus Association, a Virginia-based senior citizen advocacy group that supports privatizing Social Security and ending the federal estate tax, has contributed $1.69 million to Consumers for Smart Solar since last year. Like the black chamber and Let’s Preserve, 60 Plus does not disclose its donors.

However, tax filings for Freedom Partners, an organization that receives substantial financial support from industrialists Charles and David Koch, shows it gave $15.7 million to 60 Plus in 2012. American Encore, another organization supported by the Kochs, gave 60 Plus a combined $14 million between 2010 and 2012. James Martin, 60 Plus chairman, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

According to Moncrief, “Everyone knows 60 Plus is a front group for the Koch brothers trying to appeal to seniors.”

Glickman said voters deserve to know that the three non-profits backing Consumers for Smart Solar are indebted to energy and fossil fuel corporations. “Power companies are spending tens of millions of dollars to deceive people into voting for Amendment 1,” she said. “Don’t be misled by this deceptive campaign.”

Marco Rubio’s campaign racks up inquiries about prohibited contributions

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Marco Rubio

Sen. Marco Rubio

In what has become a regular habit for Marco Rubio’s campaigns, the Federal Elections Commission has again flagged the senator’s presidential committee for possibly skirting federal law limiting the types and amounts of donations it can receive.

The FEC’s latest questions about questionable behavior indicate a pattern that shows Rubio’s political committees have played fast and loose with rules governing campaign financing, according to Noah Bookbinder, executive director for the elections watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics In Washington (CREW).

“There seems to be a willingness by Sen. Rubio’s campaign and groups associated with it to doing things that are outside the rules and are not allowed,” Bookbinder said. “They push the envelope. It’s only when they feel pressure that they have retreated from those kind of tactics.”

In December, CREW requested that the Senate Ethics Committee investigate Rubio for allegedly paying his book author Mark Salter $20,000 for “strategic consulting” around the same time both worked on the 2012 memoir. The watchdog group also filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service last year against Conservative Solutions Project, a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization that spent $8 million in television ads promoting the Florida Republican.

Meanwhile, Rubio’s campaign has been racking up inquiries from the FEC regarding its donors. Since the beginning of the year, the commission has identified more than $1.2 million in questionable donations.

According to a March 28 letter sent to Rubio committee treasurer Lisa Lisker, FEC analyst Laura Beaufort cited $783,823 in “excessive, prohibited and impermissible” contributions that the campaign received in February. For comparison, the campaign for Jeb Bush, who dropped out prior to Rubio, received $29,189 in prohibited donations during the same period, according to the FEC.

The FEC letter was sent two weeks after Rubio suspended his presidential campaign following an embarrassing second-place finish in Florida’s winner-take-all Republican primary to frontrunner Donald Trump, who trounced the senator by 18 points on his home turf.

The 44-year-old pol, who said he will retire from the Senate after his term ends, still hopes to play a spoiler if the nomination is contested at the Republican National Convention this summer. According to recent media reports, Rubio intends to keep the delegates he won.

On the outside chance Rubio were to become the nominee through a contested convention, it would appear the campaign intends to maintain its war chest for the general election until told otherwise.

 In an April 12 response to the FEC, Lisker said the campaign is re-designating 84 contributions received in January and February for the general election that total a little over $1 million. Yet only 16 contributions totaling $119,950 are being refunded.

No comment

Rubio’s Senate spokeswoman Kristen Morrell did not respond to emails seeking comment. Over the phone, one of his aides told FloridaBulldog.org that Rubio’s office only accepts media inquiries submitted electronically. Lisker ignored multiple requests for comment via voicemail at her office and home.

Since 2009, Rubio’s Senate and presidential committees have received 23 “request for additional information” letters, or RFAIs, according to the FEC’s website. The letters typically alert treasurers to questionable contributions and request an explanation as to why their campaigns accepted possibly illegal donations. In many cases, those contributions are either refunded to the donor or applied to a general election if the donation was incorrectly logged for a primary election.

In 2012, Rubio’s committee agreed to pay an $8,000 civil penalty to the FEC after the commission determined it accepted $210,173 in excessive contributions during his senate campaign six years ago. The sloppy bookkeeping has persisted through his presidential campaign. Last September, it refunded more than $120,000 in contributions the FEC tagged as excessive.

In a February RFAI, FEC analyst Beaufort documented $540,676 in “excessive, prohibited and impermissible” contributions the Rubio presidential committee received in January. In late March, Lisker notified the FEC that the campaign had sent refunds to 45 of the 101 donors listed in the February RFAI.

Beaufort’s most recent RFAI included a 31-page list of 93 donors who gave more than the maximum $2,700 limit allowed per individual per election. Beaufort also singled out $10,000 in excessive contributions from two Super PACs, $6,710 in prohibited contributions by individuals with a foreign address, and $2,500 combined from three organizations not registered with the FEC.

“The frequency of these additional inquiries and other potential problems with Sen. Rubio’s campaigns is a little bit alarming,” Bookbinder said. “We should really be figuring out how we can reign in people disregarding or breaking the rules.”

Donald Trump and the art of the campaign expense

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Inside Donald Trump's Boeing 757

Inside Donald Trump’s Boeing 757

Donald Trump knows how to make money, even when he’s running for president.

Federal records show that Trump’s campaign paid the Republican frontrunner and 10 companies he owns more than $1.64 million for various campaign expenses since the billionaire businessman began his run last spring.

The payouts amounted to nearly one of every three dollars the Trump campaign spent through Sept. 30, according to campaign reports, including an amended quarterly report filed Dec. 17 with the Federal Elections Commission.

Most of that money, $1.2 million, was paid to Tag Air, the holding company for the luxury Boeing 757 with 24-karat gold plated seat belts that Trump uses on the campaign trail. The jet can accommodate up to 43 passengers. The payout was the fair market value of those flights, according to the campaign. You can take a video tour of the plane here.

Another $410,000 went to Trump and Trump entities to reimburse payroll expenses and pay rent, hotel and restaurant bills.

Trump himself was paid more than $100,000, including $45,000 for rent and $60,000 in reimbursements for campaign payroll expenses he incurred, the records show.

The Trump campaign pie also was sliced to pay rent to The Trump Corporation, Trump Tower Commercial LLC, Trump Plaza LLC, and Trump CPS LLC. Together, they collected more than $278,000.

Trump Payroll Corp., too, was paid nearly $18,000 for pre-paid payroll expenses. Campaign checks also went to Trump Restaurants LLC and Trump hotels in New York and Las Vegas for meals and lodging, though in much lesser amounts.

While noteworthy, it’s not unlawful for Trump’s campaign to pay Trump or his companies for their services. Indeed, federal law often requires it.

“It’s not illegal as long as they’re paying fair market value,” said prominent Washington, D.C. campaigns and elections lawyer Jan Witold Baran. “In fact, if a campaign uses the goods and services of a corporation they have to pay for it. Otherwise, it would be an illegal corporate contribution even though the candidate might be the 100 percent owner of the business. That has been the policy of the Federal Elections Commission for decades.”

Federal election law, however, does not contemplate a mega-wealthy candidate like Trump.

“There’s no question that Trump is conducting a campaign that’s unique in many respects. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I never heard of a candidate disclosing his financial numbers and complaining they were too low – that I’m really richer than these forms say,” said Baran.

GIVING MONEY TO A BILLIONAIRE

Trump and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski have said repeatedly – most recently in a radio interview with Lewandowski three weeks ago – that Trump is self-funding his campaign. While that was true last spring when Trump seeded his campaign with a $1.8 million loan, it no longer is.

The Trump campaign solicits credit card donations on its website, telling supporters to “Stand with Donald Trump to Make America Great Again.” Through Sept. 30, the campaign reported accepting $3.8 million in contributions – a number that’s sure to rise with the campaign’s year-end report due Jan. 31.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

About $2.8 million of those contributions to billionaire Trump were given by small donors whose names aren’t required to be disclosed because they contributed $200 or less.

Neither the Trump campaign nor Dan Scavino, a senior advisor to the campaign, responded to requests for comment.

What the Trump campaign took in from outside contributors in the last reported quarter is less than what it spent, $4 million. In all, the campaign’s reported net operating expenditures were $5.4 million.

Some other major Republican candidates have spent much more.

For example, Sen. Marco Rubio raised $14.8 million in contributions and spent $6.9 million on operating expenditures through Sept. 30. Jeb 2016 Inc., the campaign committee set up by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, raked in $24.2 million in individual contributions and spent $14.5 million during the same period.

All those contributions, and Trump’s as well, are designated for the primary elections. $2,700 is the maximum an individual may give for the primaries.

The Trump campaign’s first television ad, released Sunday, marks a turning point in spending. To date, Trump has benefitted from untold hours of free coverage. With the Iowa caucus on Feb. 1, the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9 and Super Tuesday on March 1, he and other candidates are expected to shell out big bucks to blanket the airwaves.

Can Trump turn a profit on his campaign — that is, see his loans repaid in full and additional campaign dollars flowing to his companies? It will depend on his fortunes in the primaries, his contributors’ staying power and his determination to win.

Back to the future: Bill would bring back disgraced office of Miami-Dade Sheriff

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

T.A. "Tal" Buchanan, Miami-Dade County's last sheriff. Voters abolished the sheriff's office after his indictment on corruption charges in 1966.

T.A. “Tal” Buchanan, Miami-Dade County’s last sheriff. Voters abolished the sheriff’s office after his indictment on corruption charges in 1966.

A bill that would resurrect the office of Miami-Dade Sheriff, a post abolished by voters 49 years ago in the wake of scandal, is winding its way through the Florida House.

The measure and a companion bill in the Senate seek to amend Florida’s Constitution to strip charter counties of their authority to change the way certain county officers – often called constitutional officers – are selected.

Specifically, House Joint Resolution 165 and Senate Joint Resolution 648 require that county sheriffs, property appraisers, supervisors of elections, tax collectors and clerks of the circuit court be elected. The bills would also limit the ability of counties to abolish those five posts and transfer their duties.

The bill, seen by some as a way to ensure more locally elected jobs for term-limited legislators, would most significantly impact the governments of Miami-Dade and Volusia counties. Both of those counties abolished the constitutional offices of sheriff, tax collector, supervisor of election and property appraiser decades ago and transferred their powers elsewhere.

Broward would be required under the new scheme to reinstate the county tax collector as an elected constitutional officer, unless the county decides instead to seek to abolish the constitutional office through a special act passed by voters. Broward’s tax collector was abolished and his duties were transferred to the Finance and Administrative Services Department as part of broad charter changes in 1974.

Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, is sponsoring the measure in the House. Sen. Travis Hutson R-Palm Coast, is the sponsor of the Senate version which is set for a 1 p.m. hearing on Dec. 1 before the Committee on Community Affairs.

Rep. Frank Artiles,R-Miami, wants to amend Florida's Constitution to require counties to elect sheriffs, property appraisers and other constitutional officers

Rep. Frank Artiles,R-Miami, wants to amend Florida’s Constitution to require counties to elect sheriffs, property appraisers and other constitutional officers

Hutson did not respond to a request for comment. Artiles, however, confirmed in an interview that if Miami-Dade voters vote to elect a new sheriff, Republican or Democrat, he or she would assume the power and duties now held by Miami-Dade’s police director.

Artiles said his bill is intended to end intergovernmental conflicts of interest, ensure the separation of powers, and restore “accountability and transparency” by making those five constitutional offices directly responsible to voters.

“What it boils down to is the bill is about giving the power to the people, direct representation through the county officers as originally placed in the Florida Constitution” in 1885, Artiles told members of the House’s Local Government Affairs Subcommittee on Nov 4.

‘NO INTEREST’ IN HELPING TERM-LIMITED LEGISLATORS

In an interview with FloridaBulldog.org last week, Artiles said it was “idiotic” to think his bill is about creating jobs for legislators forced to depart Tallahassee because of term limits.

“I have no interest whatsoever in running for a constitutional office in Miami-Dade County, nor am I doing this for anybody or anyone to run for another position,” Artiles said.

The subcommittee voted 11-0 to adopt the joint resolution. The House Judiciary Committee is set to take up the matter this week, Artiles said.

Miami-Dade County and the Florida Association of Counties are leading the fight against Artiles’ bill at the Capitol. Jess McCarty, an assistant Miami-Dade county attorney and county lobbyist, calls it a flawed, “one-size-fits-all” approach.

“Our biggest concern is that the state could impose this even if Miami-Dade voted against it,” McCarty said in an interview. “I think most residents would be very concerned about people a long distance from here imposing a form of government.”

Missing from both the debate and a 10-page House staff analysis of Artiles’ bill is an examination of the history behind the various systems of local government that have evolved since 1885, or a review of the events that drove the changes the counties adopted.

In Miami-Dade, for example, systemic corruption led to both the indictment of Sheriff T.A. “Tal” Buchanan and voter approval of a referendum abolishing the sheriff’s office in 1966.

Miami Herald organized crime reporter Hank Messick

Miami Herald organized crime reporter Hank Messick

James Savage is a retired investigations editor for the Miami Herald. As a young reporter, Savage covered those events with Hank Messick, the noted organized crime writer whose crusading stories set the stage for reform.

“I cannot believe that anybody in their right mind would propose reinstating the sheriff’s office in Dade County,” Savage said last week. “There was a whole history of corrupt sheriffs that came before Buchanan… In my 40 years as an investigative reporter, getting rid of the elected sheriff was probably one of the best things we accomplished.”

If three-fifths of each house of the Legislature approves, Artiles’ proposed constitutional changes would be presented to voters statewide next November. The Constitution requires 60 percent voter approval for passage.

The reinstated constitutional officers would be filled in the 2018 general election, unless counties sought instead to pass a special act to abolish them and transfer their powers through a special referendum to be voted on by county citizens.

POLITICAL APPOINTMENTS

In Miami-Dade today, the mayor appoints both the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department and the director of the county Elections Department, which decades ago subsumed the old Supervisor of Elections. The mayor and the clerk of courts jointly appoint the director of the county’s Finance Department, which absorbed the tax collector’s duties.

Miami-Dade voters still elect an independent court clerk, currently Harvey Ruvin, and a property appraiser, now Pedro J. Garcia, who decides the taxable value of residential and commercial property. Garcia, however, is not an independent constitutional officer. Rather, he is a department head for the county.

Artiles was asked if he knew of any systemic abuses that gave rise to his bill. He said he knew of none except “the issue of the (Miami-Dade) property appraiser being beholden to the county commission that sets the tax rate for the county.”

There are 67 counties in Florida, 20 of which have adopted home rule charters. Artiles said his bill directly impacts only eight of those counties – Brevard, Broward, Clay, Duval, Miami-Dade, Orange, Osceola and Volusia – that by charter change or special act have altered the way at least one of their five constitutional officers is chosen or restructured or abolished those posts.

In all eight, the changes included the transfer of constitutional powers away from the court clerk, according to the House analysis.

In Miami-Dade the clerk’s duties as financial recorder and custodian were transferred to the Department of Financial Services, and the clerk’s auditing duties were transferred to the Commission Auditor. In Broward, the clerk’s constitutional duties as clerk of the county commission were transferred to the county administrator.

If approved, the joint resolution would require charter counties that have changed the authority of their constitutional officers to revise their charters and ordinances to conform to the new law.

The House analysis estimates Florida’s print and advertising costs to place the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot would be about $100,000.

GOP governors, including Rick Scott, take cue from Obama on how to push policy

By Rachel Baye, Center for Public Integrity 

The Let's Get to Work political group began running this ad featuring Florida Gov. Rick Scott, called "On the Move," in March to help promote the Republican's proposed tax-cut plan. Use of such political groups to push policies, rather than elections, is a new twist on how governors are using political money. Youtube/Let's Get To Work

The Let’s Get to Work political group began running this ad featuring Florida Gov. Rick Scott, called “On the Move,” in March to help promote the Republican’s proposed tax-cut plan. Use of such political groups to push policies, rather than elections, is a new twist on how governors are using political money. Youtube/Let’s Get To Work

Two Republican governors are copying an unusual tactic from President Barack Obama’s political playbook: using pet political groups seeded by donors to push policies, not just candidates.

Political organizations tied to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner are diverging from the typical so-called leadership PACs used by federal lawmakers and some governors to amass power because they are not just giving campaign contributions to like-minded legislators. Instead they are pushing the governors’ legislative agendas with public campaigns far removed from the campaign trail. (more…)

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.

As Marco Rubio pushes past Jeb Bush in polls, Democrats shift sights

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Jeb Bush, left, and Marco Rubio

Jeb Bush, left, and Marco Rubio

With Marco Rubio overtaking Jeb Bush in polls for the Republican presidential nomination, national Democratic political organizations have turned up their attacks on the U.S. senator, accusing him of breaking Senate ethics rules and federal election laws by soliciting campaign donations from his Senate office and using Senate staff to work on his campaign.

In the coming weeks, these groups will continue highlighting more of Rubio’s vulnerabilities, from his alleged misuse of a Republican Party credit card to his close friendships with disgraced politicians like ex-congressman David Rivera and former State Rep. Ralph Arza, according to Democratic and Republican operatives in Rubio’s home county of Miami-Dade.

“Marco seems to be the guy on the upswing right now,” said Ben Pollara, a Miami Beach-based Democratic political consultant. “It is only natural that they are turning their fire on him. A true deep dive into his record in Florida is bound to happen.”

Miami-Dade Republican Party Chairman Nelson Diaz concurred. “I’ve noticed Democrats are trash-talking Marco more,” he said. “It might hurt him a little. At the end of the day, people understand candidates are not 100 percent perfect.”

Miami-Dade Republican Party Chairman Nelson Diaz

Miami-Dade Republican Party Chairman Nelson Diaz

Over the past two months, Rubio has ascended in national polls, as well as surveys in early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida. While Rubio still trails billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, he’s topping Bush, who has tumbled into the single digits after starting his campaign as the presumed front-runner.

A Quinnipiac national poll released Nov. 4 has Rubio garnering 14 percent of Republican voters, trailing Carson and Trump, who virtually tied for first. Bush, on the other hand, had his worst showing yet with 4 percent, placing him fifth behind U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

The momentum shift has led to groups like the American Bridge 21st Century political action committee and the American Democracy Legal Fund to escalate their strikes against Rubio.

American Bridge is a super PAC that conducts opposition research for the Democratic Party. Rodell Mollineau, a former staffer of Sen. Harry Reid, is American Bridge’s treasurer and George Soros, the billionaire hedge fund manager and Democrat rainmaker, is one of the PAC’s largest benefactors. Soros contributed $1 million to American Bridge in May, according to filings with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).

Since Oct. 23, American Bridge has produced three YouTube videos assailing Rubio, but none on the other Republican contenders. Prior to that, American Bridge primarily focused on Bush, having made 41 online clips since the former Florida governor entered the race in June. In contrast, the PAC has produced 10 total videos about Rubio since his presidential announcement in April.

TAKING AIM AT RUBIO

In the most recent American Bridge video about the senator, uploaded on Oct. 29, the PAC takes aim at Rubio’s abysmal Senate attendance record with screenshots of a Sun-Sentinel editorial calling for him to resign. In addition, Rubio is featured in the headlines of 15 of 22 blog posts on American Bridge’s website between Oct. 23 and Nov. 4. Spokespersons for American Bridge and Rubio’s presidential campaign did not respond to multiple email requests for comment.

While American Bridge is hammering Rubio with videos and blogs, the American Democracy Legal Fund — a group helmed by former Democratic National Committee communications director Brad Woodhouse — wants the FEC to investigate Rubio for allegedly breaking Senate ethics rules and campaign finance laws.

According to an Oct. 28 complaint signed by Woodhouse, Rubio solicited campaign contributions during an on-air interview with Fox News when he was inside the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The complaint alleges Rubio said, “obviously if somebody watching this program wants to help us, they should go to marcorubio.com and chip in.”

Woodhouse claimed “Rubio’s campaign donation pitch was a flagrant violation of federal law and Senate rules.” His complaint also accuses Rubio’s Senate staff of providing policy proposals and ideas to his campaign that were crafted during work hours using Senate resources and facilities.

This is not the first time Rubio has run afoul of campaign finance laws. In September, after receiving a warning from the FEC, the Rubio campaign notified federal regulators that it had refunded more than $120,000 to contributors who donated more than the $2,700 maximum allowed by law. Ernest Semersky, an Illinois Porsche dealership owner, received the largest refund: $10,000.

A month later, on Oct. 27, a super PAC called Values are Vital voided a $5,000 check it gave the Rubio campaign after the committee was unable to get a refund. In July, the FEC had warned Values are Vital that its excessive contribution was not allowed by law. According to an Aug. 21 letter to the FEC, the committee’s lawyer James C. Thomas III requested more time to address the problem because the Rubio campaign failed to respond to his email inquiry and a certified letter asking for the refund.

Prior to his April presidential campaign unveiling, Rubio’s campaign had been warned by the FEC after each of its four quarterly filings in 2014 that it had accepted excessive contributions. Two days before Rubio announced his candidacy, the campaign refunded more than $23,000 in excessive contributions and another $27,000 was either reclassified for use in the 2016 general election, or applied to the spouses of donors who gave more than the maximum allowed by federal law. In 2012, Rubio’s campaign and its treasurer paid an $8,000 civil penalty to settle an FEC inquiry into $210,173 in excessive donations accepted in 2010, the year he won his Senate seat.

Pollara said Rubio can expect even more intense scrutiny of his campaign’s financial missteps, his record as a state legislator, and his friendships with Rivera and Arza. Although he hasn’t been criminally charged, Rivera’s ex-girlfriend Ana Alliegro has implicated the former congressman as the mastermind behind a ringer candidate that ran against his nemesis and Democrat Joe Garcia in the 2012 primary. Alliegro made the accusation under oath during a federal court hearing in February. A month later, an administrative judge in Tallahassee ruled Rivera had to pay nearly $58,000 in fines for ethics violations that occurred when he was a state legislator.

In 2006, Arza was forced to resign from the State House after he was charged with two felonies, including for retaliating against and tampering with a witness. Arza had left a threatening voicemail on the phone of then-State Rep. Gus Barreiro over a dispute involving then-Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Rudy Crew, whom Arza referred to with a racial slur. Arza pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of tampering with a witness and was sentenced to probation, community service, an anger management program, and alcohol abuse counseling.

“The more he gets examined, the worse it will get for Marco,” Pollara said. “It’s like cockroaches. When you see one scurrying around, there are thousands more behind the walls.”
Diaz countered that voters are not going to hold Rubio accountable for the alleged misdeeds of his friends. “People elected Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama knowing all their flaws,” he said. “Voters will accept a flawed candidate.”

Democracy inaction: old equipment and partisan battles threaten election integrity nationwide

By Nicholas Kusnetz, Center for Public Integrity 

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The offices in a former Kohl’s department store here look inconsequential enough — linoleum floors, fluorescent lights and cookie-cutter furniture. But what happens in this strip mall, and other equally nondescript settings nationwide, could in fact be crucial to the struggle over America’s voting laws and apparatus — a struggle that may go a long way toward determining the outcome of next November’s presidential election.

The Franklin County Board of Elections moved to the north side of this capital city last year after using the site in 2012 to accommodate the rush of people who cast their ballots during Ohio’s early voting period. But that early voting policy is still not set in stone — its duration and details have been stretched and squeezed repeatedly over the past few years by both state law and court order, part of a bitter clash between Democrats and Republicans over access to the ballot, electoral integrity and resources. (more…)

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

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org unum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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