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Afternoon update: Visit Florida CEO defends spending; Rubio calls for Russian hacking investigation; female employees secretly videotaped by Tampa executive; and live updates from Plant's state championship game

Pitbull performs on stage at Amalie Arena in Tampa during the 2016 Bad Man Tour. [Friday, July 29, 2016] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]

Pitbull performs on stage at Amalie Arena in Tampa during the 2016 Bad Man Tour. [Friday, July 29, 2016] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]

After spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money on a race car, soccer team and a pop star with sexually charged lyrics in his music, it's easy to see why the state's primary tourism marketing agency has become an easy target for fiscal hawks. With a budget that has grown from $29 million to $78 million since 2009, Visit Florida has spent $1.2 million over the last two years on a British soccer team that isn't even in England's famed Premier League. Details on contracts to advertise on a race car and with hip-hop star Pitbull have never been disclosed publicly, giving more ammo to conservative lawmakers taking aim at the agency's budget.

RUBIO SUPPORTS CALL FOR INVESTIGATION INTO ALLEGED RUSSIAN MEDDLING IN ELECTION

Sen. Marco Rubio supports a call for a congressional investigation into Russian involvement in the election, his staff confirmed today. Top Republicans including Sens. John McCain and Richard Burr, have called for a "coordinated and wide-ranging probe," as the Washington Post put it. On Friday, President Obama separately instructed his administration to prepare its own report.

FOR FOUR YEARS, FEMALE EMPLOYEES OF A TAMPA FIRM DIDN'T KNOW A TOP EXECUTIVE HAD SECRETLY VIDEOTAPED THEM IN THE RESTROOM

[OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

James Patrick Stanton Jr., upper left, was chief financial officer at MaintenX in West Tampa when he was found to be secretly videotaping female employees in the restroom and shower at their facility, pictured here. Company officials didn't alert police or the female employees, who continued to work with Stanton for years until he was arrested years later. The case was dropped because the statute of limitations had expired.

Two years ago, Tampa police and FDLE agents raided the headquarters of MaintenX International, which does maintenance for Home Depot, Walmart, CVS and other major firms, and arrested its CFO, James Stanton, on felony charges of secretly videotaping female employees as they used the toilet, changed clothes and showered naked. At the time, top executives said they had "no idea'' of what Stanton was doing. That's not true. Read more from Susan Taylor Martin.

LIVE BLOG: CLASS 7A FINAL: PLANT VS. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS

[ANDRES LEIVA | Times]

Plant head coach Robert Weiner celebrates alongside quarterback Dane Frantzen (16) after the Panthers' win over Robert E. Lee High School in the Class 7A semifinal.

The Plant Panthers (13-0) go for their fifth state championship tonight in Orlando against Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (11-2) in the Class 7A final at Camping World in Orlando. Martin Fennelly says Robert Weiner, 52, will lead the way, as he has for 13 seasons. Coaching, teaching, caring. And winning. Follow our live blog tonight for real-time updates.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS-NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: WHY EAGLES CASTOFF JOSH HUFF COULD PLAY A BIG ROLE SUNDAY

Josh Huff had a career-high 76 yards on four catches and has made a bigger mark in his NFL career on kickoff returns. After four weeks on Tampa Bay's practice squad, he'll make his Bucs debut Sunday against the Saints (4:25 p.m. FOX). That the Bucs could turn to Huff, 25, as a potential answer to a long string of injuries at receiver is only possible because he was arrested five weeks ago in New Jersey, on charges of possession of marijuana and an unloaded handgun without a permit. He was promptly released by the Eagles, and now has earned a second chance with Tampa.

MICHIGAN'S PEPPERS SHOCKED TO BE HEISMAN TROPHY FINALIST

Michigan's Jabrill Peppers pressed a phone against his right cheek, head bowed, and swayed from side to side. He picked his head up when he heard unexpected news. "Wow. Hey," he said, tilting his head back with a huge smile upon finding out he was a Heisman Trophy finalist. "Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!" The do-it-all, three-way dynamo had quite a year for No. 6 Michigan, and the team says he played 15 positions across offense, defense and special teams. See if he comes away with the Heisman Trophy on Saturday.

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA RESEARCHERS STUDYING TEA AS POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE CROP TO CITRUS

On a given day, about 158 million Americans drink this beverage. No, not coffee. Tea. In fact, the United States is the third-largest importer of tea, behind Russia and Pakistan. The 285 million pounds of tea imported into the United States in 2015 was valued at about $11.5 billion. In order to offset Florida's declining citrus crop, researchers at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, in partnership with Mississippi State University, are studying the possibility of growing camellias used to produce drinkable tea as one alternative crop.

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN DONALD TRUMP ATTACKS A PRIVATE CITIZEN ON TWITTER

About a year ago, 18-year-old college student Lauren Batchelder stood up at a political forum in New Hampshire and told Donald Trump that she didn't think he was "a friend to women." The next morning, Trump fired back on Twitter — calling Batchelder an "arrogant young woman" and accusing her of being a "plant" from a rival campaign. Her phone began ringing with callers leaving threatening messages that were often sexual in nature. Her Facebook and email in-boxes filled with similar messages. As her addresses circulated on social media and her photo flashed on the news, she fled home to hide. See how she has responded since.

LOCAL ARTIST DEREK DONNELLY OPENS GALLERY MADE OF SHIPPING CONTAINERS IN PINELLAS PARK

[SCOTT KEELER | Times]

The gallery/studio and living quarters for artist Derek Donnelly is made of seven 40-foot shipping containers.

Derek Donnelly remembers the small town of his childhood, where hanging out at the Pinellas Square Mall was one of the only things to do. It was a different world from the Pinellas Park the local artist moved back to last month to live in a gallery and upstairs apartment built out of seven shipping containers. The space, at 5705 Park Blvd., is part of what's now known as the Pinellas Arts Village in three blocks of studios, galleries and shops.

MAKE YOUR WEEKEND PLANS

From parades, a high-profile comedy show and concerts, there's plenty to do around the Tampa Bay area this weekend. Check out our editors' recommendations.

Afternoon update: Visit Florida CEO defends spending; Rubio calls for Russian hacking investigation; female employees secretly videotaped by Tampa executive; and live updates from Plant's state championship game 12/09/16 [Last modified: Friday, December 9, 2016 3:58pm]
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  1. Hillsborough and Pinellas officials can't even agree that they agreed to meet

    Local Government

    Tampa Bay political leaders often tout taking a regional approach to solve the region's most pressing issues. But the challenge has been getting Hillsborough and Pinellas County leaders together on the same page.

    Or in this case, in the same room.

    This month Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill (above) nixed a joint meeting of the Hillsborough and Pinellas County Commissions. But Pinellas County Commission chair Janet Long said her Hillsborough counterpart, Stacy White, had already agreed to two meetings. [DANIEL WALLACE   |   Times]
  2. Ex-sheriff's official says sheriff intentionally hid federal inmate revenue from county

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The former third-in-command at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office has filed a complaint, alleging that Sheriff Al Nienhuis intentionally hid from the County Commission $1.3 million in revenue he collected from housing federal inmates last year.

    OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times  Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said he was "extremely disappointed'' to hear of James Terry's allegations about the sheriff's handling of federal inmate dollars and noted that Terry was "offered the opportunity to resign from his position at the Sheriff's Office when numerous complaints as to his unprofessional conduct began flowing into the front office.''
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    Movies

    Despicable Me 3 doubles down on Steve Carell's silly way with words, a smart idea after too much Minions gibberish spoiled part 2. They're still here, in smaller doses and somewhat funnier for it.

     voiced by Trey Parker, in a scene from "Despicable Me 3."  (Illumination and Universal Pictures via AP)
  4. After Rick Scott veto, Tarpon Springs renews push for money to dredge Anclote River

    Local Government

    In a pocket formed at the end of a branch of the Anclote River, Kevin Meisman has seen the size of the boats coming by his family's business get smaller.

    Kevin Meisman, 37, looks out from the dock of his family’s business, Quality T-Tops & Boat Accessories, in Tarpon Springs. Meisman says that, without dredging along the Anclote River, the number of boats he can service is limited.
  5. Senator Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa