Daystarter: $3.6 million payoff to SunPass bidder under fire; a second Port Richey mayor is behind bars; small Tampa impact after Boeing 737 Max planes grounded

Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what to know today.
Everything you need to know to start your day is at tampabay.com.
Everything you need to know to start your day is at tampabay.com.
Published February 28
Updated March 14

Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what to know today.

• Not bad. Partly cloudy and warm, with highs in the low to mid 80s, according to the National Weather Service. There will be a chance of showers further south, in the Bradenton and Manatee area. Lows will be in the mid 60s.

• National Guard troops were using specialized vehicles with tank-like treads to rescue stranded drivers in Colorado in the wake of a massive late-winter storm that was expected to unleash heavy rain and snow on the Midwest plains on Thursday. Wednesday’s blizzard caused widespread power outages, forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights and wreaked havoc on roadways as drivers became overwhelmed by blinding snow.

• It costs money to produce quality journalism. Please support the Tampa Bay Times by buying a digital subscription to Florida’s best newspaper and its redesigned website tampabay.com.

• Here are the top things to do today in Tampa Bay, including some fun for Pi Day (it’s 3/14, get it?). Also there’s a carnival set up on the beach and a night market.

• Are you ready for St. Patrick’s Day? Even though the holiday is Sunday, this whole week is awash in green beer, a green parade and even a green river. Look here for our list of the dozens and dozens of ways to get lucky this weekend.

• Floridians may soon be able to smoke medical marijuana. After two days, and with little debate, the Florida Legislature approved a bill that does just that and sent it to Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign. Samantha Gross explains how it came together so quickly and what it means for Florida.

• Looks like Port Richey needs another mayor: The second mayor in 20 days was arrested. This time it’s acting mayor Terance Rowe, 64, who was arrested by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents on charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and use of a two-way communication device to facilitate the commission of a crime — and the case could be connected to the Feb. 21 arrest of former mayor Dale Massad.

• A Senate committee on Wednesday wasted little time recommending the Florida Legislature confirm Kevin Thibault as the state’s next transportation secretary. But Sen. Annette Taddeo said she still expects answers to a Friday Times/Herald story about the Florida Department of Transportation’s $3.6 million payoff to get a SunPass bidder to drop its bid.

• Tampa International Airport says three flights were canceled Wednesday after the U.S. government’s decision to halt operation of all of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 planes. Tampa Bay’s largest airport says less than 5 percent of its daily operations are affected by FAA order.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke has told a Texas TV station that he’s running for president in 2020. The former Texas congressman sent a text message to El Paso TV station KTSM confirming the news that he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination.

As Daystar prepares to move out of downtown, the agency struggles to find a host for its mail distribution program for the homeless. It was a Monday morning and the neatly dressed couple in the Daystar Life Center lobby waited anxiously for their mail.

• For the latest in Florida politics, make sure to check The Buzz.

• A man with a history of not paying taxes is the face of a new legal challenge to Hillsborough County’s transportation tax. Temple Terrace resident John Cimino is the only plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed last week on behalf of Hillsborough taxpayers. Cimino, 48, owed the federal government about $121,000 in unpaid taxes in May, according to an IRS lien. Yet somehow, Christopher O’Donnell and Caitlin Johnston report, Cimino is being represented by a high-powered Washington D.C. law firm and an accident and injury law firm linked to County Commissioner Stacy White, who has filed his own lawsuit seeking to strike the tax down. The lawsuit to overturn the transportation tax approved by 57 percent of the voters also has ties to other powerful Hillsborough Republicans.

• John Jonchuck is back in Pinellas County, arriving days ahead of his murder trial scheduled for next week. Jonchuck, 29, had been housed at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center outside Gainesville, where he was undergoing treatment to improve his mental health until he was ready to stand trial in the 2015 death of his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe.

• Almost two decades after Carrie Leonard’s remains were discovered in the woods of central Hernando County, the true crime series Cold Justice is digging into the unsolved homicide, and the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office said it has made progress in the case. A veteran prosecutor and detective return to Hernando County to look into the case of Carrie Leonard.

• Hordes of spring breakers are already clogging the causeways and filling the beaches, just as they do every year. But 2019 is different: It’s poised to be the busiest spring break yet, with the area’s airports expecting to see 20,000 more people than on a typical day. So how are locals supposed to survive the crowds? Read the Tampa Bay Times’ Guide to Surviving Spring Break.

• Check out the Times online Business page for the latest on the economy, jobs, real estate, retail and workplace culture.

• In 1954, the same year the Sunshine Skyway bridge replaced a ferry across Tampa Bay, a striking new house had just been completed in St. Petersburg’s Pinellas Point area. Designed by architect Glenn Q. Johnson, the two-story “Vision-Aire’’ home was ideally suited to Florida’s warm, buggy climate. Now the “bird-cage’’ style home is for sale, and Susan Taylor Martin explains the history of this architectural era, where architects were breaking away from styles of the pre-war period.

• In 2014, the NAACP suspended its St. Petersburg branch as the group prepared to elect its executive officers. Five years later, the civil rights organization is again being forced to intervene in the business of the local branch, and Waveney Anne Moore explains what’s driving the group apart.

• Florida teachers got some bad news this week that bolsters their case asking for better pay: The state dropped from 45 to 46 on the National Education Association’s annual report of average teacher salaries.

Tampa Bay’s flood of visitors could mean a record-breaking month for the tourism industry. The county tourism agency uses the 6 percent tax charged on overnight stays as a metric to measure how the local tourism industry is performing. Last year, Pinellas County collected about $8.9 million via the tourism tax in March — a 14 percent jump from the year before.

• For the latest education coverage, make sure to read The Gradebook. And check out the Gradebook podcast as education reporter Jeffrey Solochek leads a weekly discussion about Florida education.

• The Times online Arts and Entertainment page tells you everything you need to know about what to do, see, eat and experience around town.

• Read the Tampa Bay Times online Sports page with the latest news about the Lightning, Bucs, Rays, Bulls, Gators, Noles and high school sports.

• Bucs fans could always point their foam fingers at the Cleveland Browns and laugh. Cleveland is Believeland while the salary cap dollars have dried up in Tampa Bay.

• NBC wants to use the 2022 Super Bowl in Los Angeles to promote its Winter Olympics coverage. So Super Bowl LV in Tampa gets Jim Nance, Tony Romo and CBS. In other words, there will be no home-field advantage for NBC NFL analyst, Tampa resident and former Bucs head coach Tony Dungy.

• Lou Piniella’s 2001 Seattle Mariners were once in the same position as the 2019 Tampa Bay Lightning. Here’s what Piniella has to say to Jon Cooper and Co. The runaway Lightning is in Detroit tonight, where another win will be its 54th, tying the franchise season record set last season.

• Spring training is here. Plan your spring training trips by using the Times’ handy 2019 spring training guide for Grapefruit League schedules, maps and daily planners.

• IMG Academy’s Mark Riddell said he is “profoundly sorry” for his role in a college admissions cheating scandal, and IMG said it has no reason to believe his actions affected its students or staff. Matt Baker reports on the federal allegations that the Palmetto resident received thousands of dollars to take the SAT and ACT for high school students.

• With 12 games to play, the Lightning has all but locked up the Presidents’ Trophy, first seed in the Eastern Conference and almost anything else you can win in the regular season. One question remains: Can Tampa Bay break the wins record? Detroit won 62 games in 1995-96. The Lightning needs to win 10 of its final 12 games to win 63. Diana C. Nearhos explains how close the Lightning are to breaking that record and how the team stacks up to that great Red Wings team of 1996.

• For the latest on the Lightning’s quest for the Stanley Cup, click here throughout the season and follow Nearhos at @dianacnearhos and Mari Faiello at @faiello_mari.

• With two weeks until opening a season of grand expectations, the Rays feel, except for the tightness in Matt Duffy’s left hamstring, pretty good about where they are. But not all the decisions the team faces have been resolved, and some will beget other decisions. As we count down to the March 28 opener vs. the powerful Astros on, here are five things Rays beat writer Mark Topkin thinks we know.

• Get the latest Rays’ spring training news from Topkin and follow him throughout baseball season on @Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays .

• The Bucs have a new head coach, free agency is in full effect and the NFL draft is just weeks away. Keep up with the latest offseason changes by following the Times’ Bucs page which is just a click away at tampabay.com. For the latest team news on @Twitter, follow Rick Stroud at @NFLSTROUD and fellow beat writer Eduardo A. Encina at @EddieInTheYard.

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