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THE BUZZ: FLORIDA POLITICS

Old ACORN funding request raises new questions for state Rep. Randolph

A Democratic state representative from Orlando tried to get $50,000 in state funding (http://flhouse.gov/FileStores/Adhoc/Appropriations/CBIRS/cbirs-house2007/HSEReq3986FY0607.htm) for the controversial group ACORN in the 2007 legislative session, the same time his wife was working as a lobbyist for the organization, records show.

Rep. Scott Randolph was seeking the money for the Central Florida ACORN Institute Financial Justice Center, which provides tax preparation for poor people. But the request died, as many do during the legislative appropriation process. His wife, Susannah Lindberg, registered as a lobbyist during the 2007 session.

Normally a funding request that old would disappear in history. But the widening national controversy over ACORN has renewed questions about the group's dealings in Florida, including bogus voter registrations forms. Some Republican lawmakers are demanding a review of any state connection to the group.

Randolph denied a conflict of interest, saying his wife did not push for the funding. "She wasn't lobbying on that issue at all," he said Friday." She didn't even come up to Tallahassee that much. I don't find anything wrong with that."

But overlapping interests have raised issues before. Most recently, Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, faced questions in her passionate bid (http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/legislature/article992177.ece ) to save the state mental hospital in her district. Her husband, who operates an assisted-living facility that gets patients from Northeast Florida State Hospital, engaged in lobbying-like activity in the Capitol.

Randolph filed the community budget issue request (CBIR) in January 2007 and his wife registered to lobby in late March. Lindberg could not be immediately reached Friday but Randolph said her role was mainly to bring up ACORN members to Tallahassee.

"She didn't push it," he said of the funding request, filed in the Senate by Gary Siplin, D-Orlando. "I didn't push it. I just had other priorities."

Randolph scoffed at the suggestion of impropriety.

"I'm still waiting for Republicans to put the statements out about reviewing (funding obtained by former House Speakers) Ray Sansom and Marco Rubio. I would support them 100 percent of reviewing every single entity that has gotten state funding. To single out one organization just shows the lack of sincerity."

He said his wife lobbied for ACORN not the affiliate.

The money would have gone toward a tax preparation center, which helps people who might not know they are eligible for certain breaks such as the earned income tax credit.

ACORN Florida director Stephanie Porta said Friday that about 4,300 low-income people in Florida got free tax help over the past two years, resulting in about $5 million in money in their pockets.

She called questions about Randolph's involvement with his wife "disgusting" and blasted Rubio's questioning this week of Gov. Charlie Crist, who has met with ACORN members to address the foreclosure crisis.

"For meeting with an organization that has fought to stop people from losing their homes and to get tax refunds and (one) has helped raise Florida's minimum wage, that's despicable," Porta said.

Lindberg no longer works for ACORN. She now works in U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson's office in Orlando.

Posted by Alex Leary at 03:52:13 PM on September 18, 2009

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Brown-Waite adds to ACORN outrage

U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who joined most other House members yesterday in voting for a bill to cut off federal funding for ACORN:

"This vote was long over due. It is time that Democrats put their personal interests aside and took proper action to stop funding this organization which clearly supports illegal activities from voter fraud to tax evasion. Time and again ACORN has shown disregard for the law.

"ACORN officials have been convicted of voter fraud. Acorn officials have been accused of voter fraud in my district and in districts across the country. It is unfortunate that is took a hidden camera investigation to finally shed light on the pervasive illegal on goings within this organization. My constituents are asking, 'Where has our media been?' The Governor needs to sever all ties between the State of Florida and this shady group."

Recently eleven Florida-based ACORN employees were charged with falsifying information on hundreds of voter registration cards. A recent hidden camera investigation shows ACORN employees offering advice on tax evasion, prostitution, and fraud. Just last week, the U.S. Census Bureau ended its association with ACORN saying in a release, "it is clear that ACORN's affiliation with the 2010 census promotion has caused sufficient concern in the general public."

Posted by Alex Leary at 01:30:28 PM on September 18, 2009

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Meek mixes Gator football and politics

Who says college football isn't political? Congressman Kendrick Meek, the Democrat vying for a U.S. Senate against Republican candidates Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio, will be in Gainesville on Saturday seeking petitions toward his candidacy from the hoard of victory-hungry football fans.

The No. 1 ranked Gators face off against the Tennessee Volunteers at 3:30 p.m. in the Swamp, in a game that's generating some extra hype and excitement thanks to Tennessee coach Kiffin's trash talk against Gators coach Urban Meyer. Meek will be there at 1, location TBD.

Meek is a FAMU graduate, but apparently political aspirations send some of those college allegiances to the back burner. He is collecting petitions for his statewide effort to qualify for the ballot. If he gets the 112,476 petitions from registered Florida voters by March of 2010 that he needs, it will be the first time in Florida history that a statewide candidate successfully qualifies for the ballot that way.

UF President Bernie Machen, it's worth noting, publicly endorsed McCain for president last year. And in an odd move, he released a statement recently praising Crist's selection of former chief of staff George LeMieux to serve the rest of Mel Martinez's U.S. Senate term.

Posted by Shannon Colavecchio at 09:44:26 AM on September 18, 2009

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Oil drilling off Florida's coast means jobs and money, proponents say; questions remain

By Craig Pittman, Times staff writer

In Print: Friday, September 18, 2009

They appeared in the spring, a secretive group trying to upend Florida's longtime ban on offshore drilling by promising millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs.

The effort to allow drilling within 3 to 10 miles of the beaches failed to pass the Legislature, but only just. Now emissaries from Florida Energy Associates LLC are touring the state to campaign for overturning the ban at the next legislative session, either this fall or next spring. Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, says he'll sponsor a bill to allow drilling as close as 5 miles offshore.

But if Florida Energy Associates gets its wish, what will Florida get? According to company officials, residents will see:

* Drilling for oil, not gas, but in only limited areas along the Gulf Coast, including off Pasco and Hernando counties and up in the Panhandle. However, there could be no drilling off Pinellas County's beaches, in the Keys or anywhere along the Atlantic coast.

* Blue-collar crew jobs on the rigs, but nothing for supervisors, who will likely be imported from Louisiana. The rigs will also require supplies ferried in by boats, not helicopters.

* Construction work building underwater pipelines - the source of most offshore spills - to carry the oil to Louisiana.

* No refineries, but some onshore facilities such as a plant to separate oil from the pollution-laden water that comes up with it. That could create further debates about where such a facility could be.

M. Lance Phillips, the Texas oilman leading the charge to overturn Florida's ban, says he's sure there's oil within a few miles of the state's white sand beaches.

"It's all in close," he said. "The heart of what we're looking at is in state waters."

Geological studies and legalities indicate the target is the gulf, not the Atlantic coast. But even there, there are obstacles. No one can drill within the state's aquatic preserves, said Doug Daniels, the Daytona Beach attorney representing the oil consortium. That lets out Pinellas County, because the state waters along its famous beaches are part of a preserve.

The Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve up along the Nature Coast would block drilling in state waters from Taylor to Levy counties, and the Charlotte Harbor preserve would bar drilling off Charlotte and Lee counties, Daniels said. The Florida Keys are off-limits too, protected as a national marine sanctuary.

But rigs could go up anywhere else, he said. That would leave Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties open, as well as more tourism-dependent Sarasota and Collier counties and virtually all of the Panhandle.

Drilling in those areas could produce "as much as 16 billion barrels," Daniels said. Although the company has put forward more conservative estimates, "that is more like what we think it would be." That's more than 30 times as much oil as has been produced by the largest field ever found in Florida.

Daniels said the estimates are based on numbers from another company that tried to find oil in Florida's waters, Coastal Petroleum. A tiny company backed by Tampa's powerful Lykes Brothers, Coastal obtained 800,000 acres of near-shore leases stretching from Apalachicola to Naples in 1941. It drilled about 20 test wells from 7 to 10 miles offshore prior to 1968 but came up dry.

So why does Florida Energy Associates think its luck would be any better?

"I'm not going to tell you what we think, but Coastal says they did not drill deep enough and did not drill in the right places," Daniels said. Asked if Coastal - which ended up suing Florida and losing - is part of the Florida Energy consortium, the lawyer blurted, "God, no!"

The only place where lots of oil has been found in Florida is onshore: the Jay oil field in the Panhandle. Over three decades, Exxon pumped more than 425 million barrels from that field. The geologist who found it in 1970, Charlie Meeks, is now working for Florida Energy Associates.

"We think there's a lot of opportunity for production there," Meeks said. "The geology is all solid. But you know how oil is - you got to find it."

Daniels says if the prediction of 16 billion barrels is accurate, that would create 231,000 new jobs.

Most of those would be on the rigs as crew members. Phillips said each rig would need about 150 people. But supervisors need to be experienced, so they would be imported from existing crews elsewhere, Daniels said.

There are also jobs supplying the rigs. These rigs would be too close to shore to justify using helicopters, he said, so instead boats would carry supplies and people back and forth. Phillips said there would be "a huge demand for divers" to inspect the rigs, too.

Many oil industry jobs are in refineries, but "there's no refinery that's going to be built onshore" in Florida, Daniels said. Instead, he said, the oil would be refined at existing facilities in Louisiana.

Getting the oil there would require building pipelines, which means construction jobs. Pipelines were the source of most of the 3,898 barrels of oil that, on average, spilled from U.S. offshore drilling every year between 1998 and 2007, according to Doug Morris of the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association. The pipelines off Louisiana are particularly old and in need of repair, he said.

Depending on where around Florida's coast the drilling occurs, the pipelines could either bring the oil onto land here to be piped overland to Louisiana, Daniels said, or a pipeline could be built to hook up with the existing pipelines now off Louisiana.

There would still be a need for onshore facilities. Pipe companies "will be setting up yards to sell all of the various kinds of pipe and fittings the industry needs," Phillips said.

Meanwhile rigs often produce as much water from underground as they do oil, which means a need to build a plant to separate the oil from what the industry calls "produced water," Daniels said.

Loaded with chemicals and heavy metals, produced water is the oil industry's largest toxic byproduct. Once it's separated from the oil, it's either trucked to desalinization and treatment facilities or pumped into wells deep underground for disposal.

Finding an area to build such a plant - perhaps at Port Tampa or Port Manatee on Tampa Bay - and getting the permits for disposing of the radioactive water, could pose a challenge for the oil companies.

Another option: drilling diagonally from an as-yet unselected onshore location to the offshore lease site. That puts the rig on land - again, in an industrial area. Phillips said no one would see it.

"Here in Texas we are drilling in school yards in downtown Fort Worth and other than during the month or so drilling phase, you would be challenged to even find the locations," Phillips said. "There are hundreds of people playing golf right now through courses with wells on them that they don't even know exist."

According to Florida Energy Associates, the state's residents should embrace a future of near shore drilling.

"We really do want to do for Florida," Phillips said, "what oil and gas has done for Texas."

Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

This article has been revised to reflect this correction: Jay Field is not the only place onshore oil has been found in Florida.

Backers say plan would É

* Create an estimated 231,000 blue-collar crew jobs.

* Create construction work building underwater pipelines - the source of most offshore spills - to carry oil to Louisiana.

* Create diving jobs to inspect rigs.

* Include some onshore facilities that could affect rig sites, but no refineries.

16 billion

Potential barrels of oil.

425 MILLION

Barrels Exxon pumped over three decades from Jay oil field in the Panhandle, an onshore oil field

3,898 (Yearly average)

barrels of oil spilled from U.S. offshore drilling yearly from 1998 to 2007, mostly from pipelines.

[Last modified: Sep 18, 2009 04:51 PM]

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Florida death penalty system needs reform

By Raoul G. Cantero III and Mark R. Schlakman, Special to the Times

In Print: Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Three years ago, the American Bar Association released a Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team report that raised concerns about the state's death penalty process. Since then, neither the government nor the Florida Bar has done much to remedy the problems.

To study Florida's death penalty, the ABA assembled a highly credentialed eight-member team that was diverse and balanced to reflect prosecutorial, defense, judicial and academic perspectives. The report was developed after almost two years of research and analysis, and findings and recommendations had to be unanimous to be included in the report.

The report neither supports nor opposes capital punishment. However, individual team member perspectives regarding capital punishment ran the gamut. Simply put, the report's findings and recommendations were intended to improve the administration of justice in Florida and promote fairness and accuracy in our criminal-justice system without regard to one's views on capital punishment.

Among the report's findings was that legal representation of death penalty defendants in post conviction proceedings, particularly by certain private registry counsel, is often abysmal. The report makes several related recommendations, including reinstating the capital collateral regional counsel office, or CCRC, in the Northern Region of Florida. That office was disbanded as part of a still-ongoing pilot project launched during Jeb Bush's tenure as governor. It in effect privatized the northern office of the CCRC, thereby relying almost exclusively upon private registry counsel to handle post conviction appeals in death penalty cases.

Gov. Charlie Crist has expressed support for reinstating the northern CCRC office.

Another one of the report's major recommendations embraces a Florida Supreme Court opinion that unanimously called upon the Legislature to revisit the state's death penalty statute. The report, like the opinion, observed that Florida is the only one of 35 death penalty states that allows a jury to decide that aggravating factors exist and to recommend a sentence of death by a majority vote. Despite the court's strongly worded opinion, however, the Legislature has been unresponsive.

Interestingly, it was reported that Gov. Bush said that the issue was "definitely worth consideration" and cautioned legislators not to ignore the court. Yet Crist has opposed the recommendation.

Another alarming problem with Florida's death penalty is the number of defendants on death row who have been exonerated. The Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that provides independent analysis on issues concerning capital punishment, advises that Florida has exonerated more death-sentenced inmates than any other state since 1973. One inmate was exonerated after he died of cancer on death row.

The report also expresses concern about socioeconomic and geographic bias, the latter attributable in part to the fact that Florida's 20 state attorneys offices do not have uniform protocols to decide when to seek the death penalty. When prosecutors from different judicial circuits assess substantially similar criminal cases, prosecutors from one circuit might opt for the death penalty while prosecutors from another might opt for life without parole, heightening concerns over whether the death penalty is applied consistently throughout the state.

The report contains many other recommendations. To access the full report, visit www.abavideonews.org/ABA340/.

The Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights will be hosting an ABA-sponsored forum on the Florida death penalty in Tallahassee at the FSU College of Law Rotunda today to coincide with the three-year anniversary of the release of the ABA report. To watch (either live or delayed) visit http://campus.fsu.edu/ABA.

The challenge for those who hold and aspire to elected office, including Florida's 20 state attorneys, is to ensure that personal perspectives pertaining to capital punishment, and the public outrage arising out of heinous crimes, do not overshadow the fact that Florida's death penalty process is fraught with problems. Floridians expect a system of justice that engenders confidence based upon fairness and accuracy. With regard to the state's death penalty process, in many respects that standard has proven to be elusive. We hope that this election cycle will provide an opportunity to openly and honestly discuss these issues and to seriously consider possible solutions for the problems identified in the report.

Raoul G. Cantero III is a former Florida Supreme Court justice appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush and is in private practice in Miami. Mark R. Schlakman serves as senior program director for Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights and as board chair for the Innocence Project of Florida. He was one of eight individuals who served on the ABA's Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team.

[Last modified: Sep 15, 2009 06:46 PM]

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