Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis should be investigated for posting report, lawyer for harassment victim says

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis should be investigated for breaking state law after he posted a woman’s sexual harassment complaint within hours of it being filed, according to a request by the woman’s lawyer.

Attorney Tiffany Cruz is representing a woman who lodged a complaint against the state’s banking regulator, Ronald Rubin, on May 10. Patronis, in an apparent attempt to pressure Rubin to resign, issued a news release announcing Rubin’s suspension that included a link to the woman’s redacted complaint.

Florida law seems clear: Employee complaints are “confidential and exempt” until they’ve been investigated. That warning was at the very top of the woman’s complaint form that Patronis released.

It’s a first-degree misdemeanor to knowingly and willingly violate the confidentiality statute.

THE BUZZ: ‘Pay to play — or else:’ Florida’s banking regulator alleges CFO corruption

Cruz wrote to Attorney General Ashley Moody on Monday requesting that her office investigate.

“My client made her written complaint with every expectation that the complaint would be made confidential,” Cruz wrote. “Unfortunately, Chief Financial Officer, Jimmy Patronis and [spokeswoman] Katie Strickland, failed to adhere to the requirement of the statute and released a poorly redacted copy of the complaint to the media within a few hours of receiving it.”

Moody’s office responded to Cruz Tuesday by saying it wasn’t something their office could investigate. Moody’s general counsel instead referred her complaint to the Office of Financial Regulation’s inspector general.

If the inspector general finds a crime was committed, Moody’s general counsel wrote, then it would be referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, not the Attorney General.

Cruz said Tuesday that the release was “absolutely not” proper and that some people have been able to identify her client because of its release.

“Very clearly in the statute, it is not proper,” she said.

She said her client has “absolutely” been harmed, and that it’s possible she’s been used as a pawn in a dispute between two high-ranking Florida officials.

“The timing of the release, certainly, lends credibility to that argument, I think,” she said.

Strickland didn’t respond to a request for comment about Cruz’s assertion. Responding to questions last week, Strickland wrote that the decision to release the complaint was vetted by the department’s lawyers.

“All released documents were reviewed and redacted by legal counsel.” Strickland wrote.

Cruz is now the second person to request an investigation into Patronis for posting the harassment complaint. The first was Rubin’s own lawyer, who also asked Moody to investigate, citing the same state law.

Rubin, in a lawsuit filed last month, alleged that Patronis intentionally released the woman’s harassment complaint to pressure him to resign.

The woman wrote that she had to hide from Rubin at work after he twice invited her to check out renovations to his downtown Tallahassee condominium and invited her to stay at his apartment in Washington, D.C.

Rubin has called the incidents a misunderstanding.

As the commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, Rubin oversees the regulation of banks, payday loan shops and check-cashing stores.

He’s alleged a “pay-for-play” system within Patronis office, blaming the CFO for trying to oust him after he wouldn’t hire someone that Patronis’ chief of staff wanted him to hire.

Rubin, a former enforcement attorney at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, had not had a full-time job in four years, and one media report said he’d been fired from his last job over an accusation of sexual harassment.

A maximum penalty for releasing a confidential employee complaint would be a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. Cases where someone is charged, however, are rare.

One of the few examples is from last year, when Okaloosa County School District spokesman Henry Kelley was charged after releasing a complaint against a school employee to a television reporter.

Kelley was charged with a noncriminal infraction and paid a $500 fine.

Kelley’s lawyer, Nathan Clark, said what Kelley did was an accident. Kelley was merely fulfilling a request for public records from a reporter, and if he’d waited a few more days, he would have been allowed to release the record without penalty.

Patronis’ case looks much different. Florida law makes it a first-degree misdemeanor for anyone who “knowingly and willingly” releases an exempt record.

Releasing the complaint the same day it was filed, combined with the fact that it appears Patronis released it without anyone requesting it, could be reason enough to open an investigation, Clark said.

“I think it’s easy to say there’s probable cause to investigate that,” Clark said. “A case can be made that he knowingly released this.”

Clark called the release of the harassment complaint “highly improper.”

Patronis was a restaurant owner and former state representative from Panama City before former Gov. Rick Scott named him to replace former chief financial officer Jeff Atwater as one of three people on Florida’s Cabinet. He was elected to the job last year.

The dustup over Rubin is largely one of Patronis’ own creation.

Last year, Patronis pressured the previous commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, Drew Breakspear, to resign over vague “concerns over the lack of cooperation, responsiveness, and communication.”

After a standoff, Patronis’ office released sexual harassment complaints that he alleged Breakspear mishandled. Breakspear announced his resignation days later.

Patronis then advocated for Rubin to replace him of 21 other candidates who met minimum qualifications. Rubin was picked by Patronis and the Cabinet in February and hired at a salary of $166,000. He remains on paid leave.

Florida duty free magnates finance controversial Israeli settlements

HEBRON, West Bank — When travelers shop at dozens of duty free stores at airports worldwide, they may be paying for more than a bottle of vodka or a box of chocolates.

The Falic family of Florida, owners of the ubiquitous chain of Duty Free Americas shops, funds a generous and sometimes controversial philanthropic empire in Israel that runs through the corridors of power and stretches deep into the occupied West Bank. An Associated Press investigation shows that the family has donated at least $5.6 million to settler groups in the West Bank and east Jerusalem over the past decade, funding synagogues, schools and social services along with far-right causes considered extreme even in Israel.

The Falics support the ultranationalist Jewish community in Hebron, whose members include several prominent followers of a late rabbi banned from Israeli politics for his racist views, and whose movement is outlawed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. They back Jewish groups that covertly buy up Palestinian properties in east Jerusalem, and they helped fund an unauthorized settlement outpost in the West Bank.

They have supported groups that are pushing for the establishment of a Third Temple for Jews at the holiest and most contested site in the Holy Land. They also have given more money than any other donor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a strong supporter of settlements, and have donated to other leaders of his Likud party.

The Falics’ philanthropy is not limited to the settlements, and they support many mainstream causes in the U.S. and Israel, such as hospitals, athletics and helping the needy. But they are a key example of how wealthy U.S. donors have bolstered the contentious settlement movement.

“Far-right foreign donors are a pillar of the settlement enterprise,” said Brian Reeves, a spokesman for Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog group.

Most of the world considers Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem to be obstacles to peace that gobble up territories claimed by the Palestinians for a future independent state. The international community overwhelmingly believes the settlements violate international law, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its own population into the territory it occupies.

However, Israel considers the territories “disputed,” and says the fate of the settlements should be determined through negotiations.

In a response to AP questions through his lawyer, Simon Falic, who spoke on behalf of the family, said Jews should be able to live anywhere in the Holy Land, whether it’s Israel, Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem or the West Bank. He condemned violence and claimed none of the groups he supports do anything illegal under Israeli law.

“We are proud to support organizations that help promote Jewish life all over the Land of Israel,” said Falic, whose business is based in Miami, Florida. “The idea that the mere existence of Jewish life in any geographical area is an impediment to peace makes no sense to us.”

Since the capture of the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, the settler population has grown to about 700,000 people, roughly 10% of Israel’s Jewish population. In recent years, it has received a boost from Netanyahu’s pro-settler government and from a far more tolerant attitude by President Donald Trump, whose top Mideast advisers are longtime settlement supporters.

This growth has been fueled in part by fundraising arms for leading settlement groups in the United States, which allow them to collect tax-deductible contributions from thousands of American donors.

Data on American philanthropic support for settlements is limited, mainly due to a lack of transparency requirements. But according to a past investigation of U.S. tax forms by the Israeli daily Haaretz, fundraising organizations in the U.S. raised more than $230 million for settlement causes between 2009 and 2013 alone.

Other big donors include casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a backer of Netanyahu and Trump, who donated $5 million in 2014 through his charitable foundation to the Israeli university in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, according to IRS records. Billionaire Ira Rennert, financier Roger Hertog and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, are also among prominent Jewish-American donors to settlement causes. The names of scores of lesser-known donors adorn buildings, playgrounds and even park benches throughout the West Bank.

The Falics stand out for the wide scope of groups they support and their close ties with leading Israeli politicians.

The family has two main charitable organizations, the U.S.-based Falic Family Private Foundation and the Segal Foundation in Israel. It is not clear whether the U.S. foundation contributed to the settlements, because its financial reports do not outline its recipients.

The Segal foundation, operating since 2007, gave away roughly $15 million in its first decade. This foundation’s financial reports also do not outline recipients, but the AP analysis identified at least $5.6 million in donations to settlement and far-right causes by searching through the Israeli records of more than two dozen settlement organizations. Other funds went to other causes, including the country’s amateur American football league, a Jerusalem hospital and a Jewish seminary in northern Israel.

Falic said the family’s support for Jewish life “should not imply the exclusion of anyone else, including Christians and Muslims.” However, critics say activities billed as harmless philanthropy have come at the expense of Palestinians and their claim to a state.

“Everyone should be aware that when they shop at ‘Duty Free Americas,’ their dollars could potentially finance some of the most extreme right-wing actors in Israel,” said Ran Cohen, founder of the Israeli Democratic Bloc, which aims to expose anti-democratic trends.

Duty Free Americas is headed by three Falic brothers: Simon, Jerome and Leon. The chain operates over 180 stores at airports and border crossings in the U.S. and Latin America, including New York’s JFK, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, Ronald Reagan and Dulles in Washington, and Miami International, according to the company website. Leon Falic told the trade publication TRBusiness that the privately held company last year posted over $1.65 billion in sales.

Simon Falic said that under Jewish tradition, it is customary to donate 10% of one’s earnings to charity.

During the decade ending in 2017, they donated about $35 million, according to U.S. and Israeli tax records. Over that time, their U.S. foundation distributed about $20 million. Their U.S. tax filings say that nearly all of the foundation’s contributions went to “various worldwide Jewish organizations,” but do not offer details.

Simon Falic provided the AP with a detailed breakdown of the foundation’s 2017 donations, much of which went to mainstream Jewish causes such as WIZO, a women’s organization that operates scores of Israeli daycare centers, shelters and training programs; Friends of the IDF, a fundraising branch that assists Israeli soldiers; and Chabad, a network of religious institutions. They also contribute generously in the U.S. to medical research, synagogues and Jewish schools.

Most of their donations in Israel, however, do not appear in these forms. Instead, that money is channeled from Panamanian-based companies through the Israel-based Segal foundation, whose name is a Hebrew acronym based on the brothers’ first names.

Falic said the reason for this is not because Panama is a tax haven, but because his brother Leon lives there, and a number of their companies are based in Panama. But the lack of transparency there makes tracking their donations more difficult.

Falic described himself as a “big supporter” of Netanyahu, who has allowed Israeli settlements to flourish during his 10 years in office. Although Falic said he has not contributed to Netanyahu since 2014, collectively the Falics have donated more than $100,000 to Netanyahu over the years, making them his biggest donors, according to Israeli public records.

The Falics are also prominent figures in Israeli right-wing circles. In April, Simon Falic mingled with the mayor of Jerusalem, Ambassador Friedman and other dignitaries in the VIP section of a special Passover service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Friedman, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, evangelical preacher John Hagee, conservative TV host Mike Huckabee and Netanyahu’s son, Yair, have been among the many politicians and VIPs to attend parties at Simon Falic’s Jerusalem home.

The Falics also support American politicians, both Democratic and Republican. Since 2000, they have given over $1.7 million to pro-Israel politicians, including Trump, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Oded Revivi, a settler leader, described Simon Falic and his family as generous and influential, but also modest and shunning publicity.

“You understand that he knows the most important people. He sits in the most influential junction,” said Revivi. “They’ve been extremely helpful and extremely generous.”

Among the projects and investments the Falics have in the West Bank is the Psagot winery, an award-winning vintner that is also a centerpiece of the burgeoning settler tourism industry. The family has also built a sprawling biblical theme park in the West Bank settlement of Shilo, revered as the ancient site of the biblical tabernacle. The site attracts tens of thousands of evangelical Christian tourists each year, but has also drawn criticism for what some say is a narrow historical interpretation that minimizes Muslim history.

The Falics funded the construction of a synagogue and mikveh, or ritual bath, in 2014 in what was then the unauthorized West Bank outpost of Kerem Reim. Kerem Reim was retroactively legalized three years later.

“All of these donations were entirely legal,” wrote Falic. “Any insinuation or allegation to the contrary is patently false and defamatory.”

Israeli records show the Falics also granted over $100,000 to two groups that seek the re-establishment of the Jewish Temple on a contested site in Jerusalem. Revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, that same area houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site. The competing claims to the hilltop compound are a frequent flashpoint of violence.

Falic said the family is not involved in efforts to establish the Third Temple. But he described Yehuda Glick, a former lawmaker and leading figure in the Third Temple movement, as a friend, and said he finds it “ludicrous” that Jews cannot pray at their holiest site. Glick, who survived a 2014 Palestinian assassination attempt, was among the guests at a Passover barbecue hosted by the Falics at the winery for families who had lost relatives in Palestinian attacks.

Perhaps the Falics’ most controversial area of activity is Hebron, a city where several hundred ultranationalist settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves amid some 200,000 Palestinians.

Relations between the populations are notoriously tense, and some of the Jewish leaders are followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose “Kach” party was outlawed in Israel in the 1980s for calling for a mass expulsion of Arabs from the country. The U.S. also branded Kach a terrorist group.

Falic’s associates in Hebron include Baruch Marzel, Kahane’s former aide, who remains a prominent political activist in Israel.

According to the AP analysis, the Falics donated roughly $600,000 to “Hachnasat Orchim Hebron,” a group that hosts visitors to the Jewish community and provides snacks to Israeli soldiers protecting the settlers. Marzel’s wife Sarah is one of the group’s founders, and Marzel is deeply involved.

They also have given about $50,000 to the “Fund for the Rescue of the People of Israel,” which served as a fundraising arm of Lehava, a group that opposes Jewish-Arab couples in an anti-assimilation campaign and often is accused of using intimidation or even violence.

Falic said he was not aware of any connection to Lehava, and said the donations, made in 2011 and 2012, were to assist needy families. He noted that he opposes assimilation and intermarriage but also rejects violence. Israeli financial records show the fund has links to several Kahane disciples, including Marzel.

Marzel is a well-known figure in Israel, easily recognized with a wild brown beard. He continues to call for mass expulsions of Arabs, and has a long history of clashes with the police. During the recent election campaign, he was a leading figure in “Jewish Power,” a hard-line party led by Kahane followers.

Marzel said the Falics “do a lot of good things” and called them “good Jews,” but said they did not work closely together. Yet photos and videos on Facebook show Simon Falic and Marzel warmly embracing at social events in Hebron and Jerusalem. In one 2016 video, taken at Falic’s spacious Jerusalem home, the two men and Third Temple activist Glick hug and sway together as a well-known Israeli pop singer serenades them.

Falic said his connections to Marzel were primarily through a “beautiful project” that runs food trucks serving pizza, ice cream and snacks to Israeli soldiers protecting the residents of Hebron.

“While I may not agree with everything he has said, the work we have done that has been affiliated with the Hebron community has been positive, non-controversial and enhances Jewish life in the Hebron area — which we strongly support,” he said.

Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist in Hebron, disagrees. He said the seemingly harmless project serves the settler cause at the expense of Palestinians.

“We are suffering from settler violence,” he said. “When I tell the soldiers ‘protect me,’ they tell me ‘we are not here to protect you. We are with our own people, who are the settlers.’”

In Jerusalem, the family contributed more than $1 million to causes affiliated with Ateret Cohanim, which facilitates the sale of Palestinian properties in and around the Old City to Jewish settlers, an act of treason in Palestinian society.

Aviv Tartasky of Ir Amim, a monitoring group looking at Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem, said Ateret Cohanim often hides the identities of the purchasers, who are religious, nationalist Jews.

“When they come to live inside a Palestinian community, it can disrupt life for the community,” he said.

Ateret Cohanim says the Jewish people have a right to live anywhere in Jerusalem. Executive director Daniel Luria declined to comment on the Falic family, saying he does not discuss his donors.

But Falic doesn’t hide his support for what he called Ateret Cohanim’s efforts “to bring Jewish life back to all of Jerusalem.”

“It is unfortunate,” he added, “that a Jewish family dedicated to this cause is newsworthy.”

What now? Amendment 4, felon voting move to Florida courts

Steven Phalen lives in Bradenton, has a Ph.D. in communications, and is a felon who owes about $110,000 in court costs and restitution.

In his home state of Wisconsin, where he was sentenced, he is eligible to vote.

But in Florida? He isn’t, after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Legislature’s bill Friday evening restricting how many felons would be eligible to vote under Amendment 4, a ballot measure that passed last year.

Phalen is one of more than a dozen felons who sued state and county officials over the weekend, alleging that they registered to vote after the historic amendment passed last year, but DeSantis’ action will likely kick them off the voter rolls.

“The state was like, ‘Welcome back,’” Phalen said Monday. “And now they’re like, ‘Hold on a minute.’ Which, frankly, is infuriating and troubling.”

THE LATEST: Can ‘rocket dockets’ restore voting rights? Hillsborough says yes. Pinellas says no.

Amendment 4’s fate is now in the courts, where judges will decide whether Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature was right to require all felons pay back court costs and restitution before being eligible to vote.

The judge hearing the case is U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, a Tallahassee judge who has become quite familiar with felon voting.

Last year, he tossed out the previous method for felons to restore their right to vote, calling the system under former Gov. Rick Scott a “scheme,” and the state’s defense of it “nonsensical.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is representing most of the plaintiffs, which include the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Orange County branch of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. A hearing has not yet been scheduled in the cases.

THE BUZZ: Ron DeSantis signs Amendment 4 bill, limiting felon voting

Critics have called the Legislature’s bill a “poll tax” and a remnant of the racist 150-year-old law overturned when two-thirds of voters passed Amendment 4, which sought to restore voting rights for non-violent felons. Most states, such as Wisconsin, do not require felons pay back all court fines, fees and restitution before being able to vote.

Previously, felons had to go before a clemency board led by the governor that met only a few times a year.

Amendment 4 restored the right to vote to most felons who completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”

What “all terms of sentence” meant was up for interpretation, though. A lawyer for one of the groups that pushed for the amendment told the Florida Supreme Court it included fines, fees and restitution, but there was no mention of those requirements in the amendment.

During this year’s session, GOP lawmakers could have taken up a plan that gave relief to felons. The Senate was poised to pass a version of the bill that would have waived fees and fines if they were converted to a civil lien, which often happens.

Instead, lawmakers chose to take the more restrictive approach.

THE BUZZ: Florida Legislature approves Amendment 4 bill that creates hurdles for voting felons

The 13 plaintiffs highlight the various ways that the Legislature made it harder — or impossible — for felons to vote.

One Hillsborough County man, Kelvin Jones, 46, is disabled and cannot work, for example. He can’t afford to pay the $52,000 in fines and fees from his drug trafficking conviction.

The Legislature allowed for a felon to petition a judge to have those dollars converted into community service hours. Already, some prosecutors, such as Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, are hoping to create a “rocket docket” to quickly get those cases heard.

But because Jones is disabled, he can’t perform community service, according to his lawyer, Michael Steinberg of Tampa.

“There’s a large group of people who are disabled,” Steinberg said. “They are physically and mentally unable to do community service or pay court costs.”

And there are big groups of people who won’t be eligible to petition a judge at all. People convicted in other states can’t petition a judge in Florida for relief.

That includes Phalen, who was convicted of arson and reckless endangerment in Wisconsin. He’s paid down more than $40,000 of his $150,000 in restitution and fees so far, but acknowledges he’ll probably die in debt.

“I just feel like Sisyphus pushing this rock up this hill,” Phalen said.

THE BUZZ: She owes $59 million. Should she be allowed to vote under Amendment 4?

People convicted of federal crimes can’t petition a judge for relief, either — the process only applies to people convicted in state court.

That means plaintiff Karen Leicht, 62, will likely never be able to vote under the current law. The Miami paralegal owes $59 million in restitution for various federal insurance fraud charges.

To pay off their debts, many felons pay a little bit down each month.

But the Legislature’s bill does not allow felons to vote while they’re paying it down.

Bonnie Raysor, 58, served 18 months in prison on drug-related charges, and she was released in 2011. The Boynton Beach woman now works as an office manager, according to her lawsuit, and she still owes $4,260 in court fines and fees.

She pays $30 each month, according to the lawsuit, so she might be eligible to vote in 12 years.

Many of the people who are suing are already voters, having registered during the six months between January, when Amendment 4 took effect, and Monday, when the Legislature’s bill took effect.

But now, many are expecting to get a notice in the mail notifying them they’re no longer eligible. No one seems to know when such notices will go out.

Betty Riddle, 61, is one of the people who expects to get a notice. After decades of drug-related convictions, the great-grandmother from Sarasota got a degree from State College of Florida at age 52 and now works as a communications assistant in the public defender’s office in Sarasota County.

“For 11 years, I’ve lived a productive life,” said Riddle, who also has eight great-grandchildren. “I got a job, I went to college, I bought a car, bought a house, I’m paying taxes.”

She and her family celebrated when Amendment 4 was passed, and she successfully registered to vote. But recently, she said she contacted the courts in Sarasota and Hillsborough and discovered she has at least $2,000 in court fees and fines still unpaid.

Riddle, who is part of the ACLU’s lawsuit, now considers herself a voice for other felons trying to restore their civil rights.

“I’m going to fight to the end,” she said. “I don’t care if we lose it. I know it’s not right.”

Just how many felons are affected by the law is unclear. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the Amendment 4 effort, estimated that hundreds of thousands of the estimated 1.4 million felons in Florida will be shut out of voting.

News of the lawsuits gained national attention, but neither the coalition nor its leader, Desmond Meade, is involved with it.

They declined to weigh in on the validity of it the lawsuit, instead touting that Amendment 4 is still “the largest expansion of democracy in 50 years,” Meade said in a statement.

His organization is now helping felons navigate the court system. And the organization is also raising money to help felons pay off their court fines and fees.

“Where other people see obstacles, we see opportunities,” Rights Restoration Coalition spokesman Neil Volz said.

Lottery ticket warnings get vetoed by Ron DeSantis

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers seeking to slap gambling-addiction warnings on state lottery tickets and advertising once again failed to scratch out a winner.

On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis, noting potential impacts to money for education, vetoed a controversial bill (HB 629) that sought to require the following warnings to be prominently displayed on the front of all lottery tickets: “Warning: Lottery games may be addictive,” or “Play responsibly.”

DeSantis in a letter accompanying his veto noted that Florida Lottery officials expressed concerns the new warning requirements could affect marketing and participation in multi-state games.

“As governor, one of my key priorities is making higher education affordable for Florida families,” DeSantis wrote. “This bill reduces the Lottery’s ability to continue to maximize revenues for education and negatively impacts Florida students.”

The veto came as DeSantis signed seven other bills on Friday.

The lottery bill, sponsored by Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, had been a priority of House leaders.

Former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. Senator, vetoed a similar measure in 2017, saying it would impose “burdensome regulations” on the games and retailers.

The Florida Lottery, which already encourages customers to “play responsibly” and promotes a toll-free number about gambling problems, would have become the first in the nation to include warning labels similar to what can be found on cigarette packs.

Lottery officials argued the change could cause an annual reduction between $79.4 million and $232.7 million in money that games generate for education.

They also warned the added gambling-addiction language could require the need to print larger tickets, which would increase costs and potentially affect contracts with retailers that provide vending machine games.

In addition, they contended the warnings could affect the state’s participation in multi-state games, such as Powerball and Mega Millions, and end scratch-off games that feature the TV shows “The Price is Right” and “Wheel of Fortune” and board games Monopoly and Scrabble.

“The regulations imposed by the bill would impact the Lottery’s ability to continue to take advantage of all these avenues and have the potential to impact the revenues available for educational enhancement,” DeSantis wrote in the letter.

State economists, who analyzed the potential effects of the bill, didn’t take such a dire view of the changes. They questioned if other states involved in the multi-state games would risk losing revenue from Florida because of the warnings and questioned whether adding warning labels would drive away retailers and consumers.

Don Langston, staff director for the House Finance & Tax Committee, said during a meeting this month that even if the state lost the Monopoly game, people would still want to play.

Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research, said at the same meeting that she didn’t anticipate a significant exodus of vendors “because they’re making money” from the Lottery.

Democratic debate edition of Winner/Loser of the week in Florida politics


Warren, left, and Harris. [AP]
Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris: Joe Biden came into Miami last week as the front runner, buoyed in part by polls that showed Democrats believe a white male has the best shot at beating President Donald Trump. Well any Democrat who still thinks that didn’t watch the debates. Warren took command Wednesday night and Harris dominated the former Vice President on Thursday, especially during a momentous exchange where she flayed him over his record on race. At least on the debate stage, Democrats should have no qualms about whether either Warren or Harris can hold their own against Trump.

Bill de Blasio: Rule #1 in politics is know your audience. Rule #2 is don’t break Rule #1. New York’s mayor broke both rules this week in Miami when, after an ok debate performance, he uttered “Hasta la victoria, siempre.” Impressive Spanish. A big problem, however, is it’s a phrase linked with Ernesto “Che” Guevara, still a hated figure among Miami’s thousands of Cuban exiles. De Blasio later apologized. How do you say “oops” in Spanish?

After debates, Democratic presidential candidates leave behind a vacuum in Florida for Trump to fill

Florida’s week hosting the Democratic debates and the party’s menagerie of candidates is over. Miami is in the rearview mirror. The contenders are back to stumping in Iowa’s 99 counties and holding court in New Hampshire living rooms, where the attention is likely to stay for much of the rest of the year.

Democrats leave behind a tremendous vacuum in the country’s most important swing state. Except for fundraising stops and a few small events, none of the campaigns have invested much time and energy in Florida and they don’t have plans to anytime soon. But while the candidates eat meat on a stick at county fairs and court New England newspaper endorsements, President Donald Trump is ramping up a well-funded, digitally savvy re-election machine in Florida and other 2020 battlegrounds.

Trump has already demonstrated his base is ready, holding a campaign kickoff in Orlando two weeks ago that drew roughly 20,000 to the Amway Center. And because he never left the campaign trail and has not changed his message, he is already well versed in the art of energizing supporters. Even as an incumbent he is framing the election as the next battle between Washington and the little guy.

There are concerns in Democratic quarters that they lack a counter punch to Trump’s messaging. The Florida Democratic Party responded to Trump’s rally with a protest a few blocks away. They planned to fly a Trump baby balloon over downtown Orlando, but in a twist of fate that could stand in as a metaphor, thunderstorms grounded the inflatable.

n an op-ed meant to raise the alarm, Ben LaBolt, one of the architects of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, warned that Trump is “running unopposed” in critical states like Florida. The two dozen Democratic candidates are understandably concentrated on the early nominating contests. Their operations are too meager to look ahead to Florida’s primary, which isn’t until March 17, let alone the general election.

The party and its allies need to pump money into blunting Trump’s message on the airwaves and through digital advertising now, LaBolt said. If not, “the Trump campaign will define the general election on its own terms, before we can even choose our nominee.”

Florida’s Democratic Party, though, isn’t in position to take on that effort alone. Party leaders are reckoning with years of mismanagement and narrow losses, and are still mastering the basics of party building: registering voters and recruiting candidates. The party hopes to add 200,000 Democrats to the voter rolls by the primary, part of former gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum’s strategy for 1 million new voters in 2020.

(After the story published, state Democratic Party executive director Juan Peñalosa on Twitted said that in addition to registering voters, the party has more than 100 paid organizers, it is training volunteers and plans for monthly five-figure ad buys “slamming Trump.” In a statement, party chairwoman Terrie Rizzo called it, “the largest pre-presidential election organizing effort in years, and we are ready to defeat Donald Trump in the Sunshine State for our Democratic nominee whomever she or he may be.”)

Veteran Democratic strategist Eric Jotkoff said those efforts will pay off and any money spent now on ads “you might as well light it on fire.” Jotkoff is less troubled by Trump’s frequent visits to Florida, he said, because his speeches are divisive rallying cries for his base that won’t recruit new Floridians to his side. Polls show Trump is more popular in Florida than in many other swing states but also that most Democrats would give him a difficult re-election fight.

“The more time Trump spends down here, the better it is for Democrats,” Jotkoff said. “He’s his own worst enemy.”

Ransomware attacks put Florida governments on alert

The thought keeps Harold Schomaker up at night: getting hacked.

Schomaker, Largo’s information technology director and chief information officer, says the government for his bedroom community of about 85,000 people follows best practices for cybersecurity.

But recent news that the Florida cities of Riviera Beach and Lake City were so paralyzed by ransomware attacks that they paid a combined $1 million plus to their attackers can’t help but unsettle him.

“It’s my biggest fear,” Schomaker said, adding that his city gets non-stop cyber threats. “Most of the time, you don’t even know it’s happened until after it has happened.”

The recent cyber attacks on Riviera Beach and Lake City knocked out email, phone service and data on the cities’ systems.

News of those attacks came only weeks after the announcement of a ransomware attack on Baltimore. While that port city refused to pay a ransom to its attackers, officials say it will cost more than $18 million as it rebuilds Baltimore’s systems. according to news reports.

Assaults on government agencies using ransomware, a type of malware designed to extort money or other payoff by blocking systems or making changes to a victim’s computer, are not new. But experts say such attacks have increased in frequency in recent years.

At least 170 U.S. state and local governments have publicly acknowledged ransomware intrusions since 2013, according to a report by Recorded Future, a cyber security firm near Boston. And that’s likely only a fraction of the total attacks, that report noted.

That means government organizations — from tiny Belleair Bluffs to larger municipalities like the city of St. Petersburg — are well aware of the threats hackers pose.

“Ransomware is a growing trend right now because (hackers) saw potential,” said Miloslava Plachkinova, interim director of the University of Tampa’s cybersecurity program. She said cyber criminals “saw organizations and governments were not doing enough to protect themselves.”

It can be hard to stop an attack, Plachkinova said. But best practices like routine backups, segmented networks and training employees to be wary of clicking unfamiliar links can deter attacks and mitigate problems if they succeed.

Allan Liska, an intelligence analyst with Recorded Future, said ransomware attackers tend to be opportunists, looking for weak systems.

He said that tends to be smaller or mid-size towns that “don’t necessarily have the money to put the protections in place to keep the bad guys out.”

Liska said he’s had many conversations with IT employees or others “on the front line in these towns.” He said many have put in appeals for years to get protections in place but funding requests have been ignored or delayed.

The city of Tampa is “very confident” in its “active” cyber security program, said communications director Ashley Bauman. She declined to discuss details.

Across the bay, St. Petersburg faces perpetual threats but has security protocols to limit risk, said Brian Campbell, the city’s chief information security officer. He said the city hasn’t faced any system-wide ransomware breaches, although he said there was a breach on a single person’s laptop three to four years ago.

Chris Arbutine, mayor of the tiny Belleair Bluffs (pop: 2,000), didn’t specify cyber security measures taken, referring questions to the city’s IT company, which did not respond. Arbutine said many of his city’s services — such as police and fire — are outsourced, so an attack on his city wouldn’t hurt some of the vital functions.

In Riviera Beach, which has 35,000 residents, the hackers apparently got into the city’s system when an employee clicked an email link that uploaded malware.

The South Florida city agreed to pay $600,000 in ransom.

Lake City — a small community roughly 60 miles west of Jacksonville — said Tuesday that it paid roughly $460,000 in bitcoin to hackers. Paying the ransom was the most cost-effective solution for the city, said city manager Joe Helfenberger.

“We had data from the beginning of when the city was operating until now,” Helfenberger said, adding that much of it would be lost.

There’s debate about whether ransomware victims should pay their attackers. An FBI guidance document for chief information officers says that the U.S. government “does not encourage paying a ransom to criminal actors,” saying that doing so could “inadvertently encourage this criminal business model” and noting that paying does not guarantee that the organization will regain access to their data or not be targeted again.

But the FBI and others also say victims should consider how feasible it is to restart systems without paying the ransom.

“Paying the ransom may be the only possible way to get a functioning system back,” said Nathan Fisk, assistant professor of cyber security education at the University of South Florida. He said the ransom may be considerably less than the damage from an attack.

Lake City had insurance but it did not cover recreation of data, so it opted to pay a $10,000 deductible and let insurance cover the rest. Riviera Beach also used insurance to cover most of the ransom.

The bottom line, experts say: beef up systems now and pay attention to best practices.

“This is not something unexpected. This is not new,” said Kurt Baumgartner, principal security researcher with cyber security firm Kaspersky. “This is something that people need to pay attention to.”

Can these two political operatives help Democrats win Florida from the middle?

Democrat Andrew Gillum often said his campaign for governor was “for anyone who has felt like they didn’t belong.”

As Lisa Perry knocked on doors in Florida’s suburban neighborhoods — the ones that swing with each election — she wondered: “Does that message resonate with them?”

In a state where Democrats have pinned their fortunes on registering more people who may feel like they don’t belong, Perry wants to try something different. She has teamed up with fellow political operative Tess Martin to launch the Common Ground Project, an organization that aims to win over the political middle by engaging them on issues close to their hearts.

The Common Ground Project will make its public debut this week with a town hall at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Hyatt St. Petersburg.

The goal is the same as the rest of their party: Get more Democrats elected and pass progressive policies. But they don’t plan to do that by trying to beat Republicans in the registration game. Instead, they hope to engage the 3.6 million non-party affiliate Floridians, the fastest growing bloc of registered voters in the state.

There’s a reason those people have decided not to ascribe to a party, Martin said. But she doesn’t believe that means these voters don’t align with the Democratic Party views on water quality, good public schools and affordable child care.

Common Ground will operate in regions across Florida and identify local problems or hot-button community debates. From there, they hope to mobilize and organize groups around these issues year round — not just at election time — and train candidates at every level to campaign around them.

At a statewide level, they’re focusing on affordable housing, Medicaid expansion and creating a state Earned Income Tax Credit.

“You can’t go up to many of those (independents) and say, ‘I’m working for a Democratic candidate, I want your support.’ They would say, ‘No thanks,’ ” Martin said. “But if we can come in and say, ‘This is the top issue of concern in this area, do you agree? What do you think about it?’ we can connect with them.”

Perry helped organize the Women’s March in Florida and Martin is the president of the Brevard Chapter of the ACLU. They met while working on Chris King’s campaign for governor. He finished last in Democratic field of five, but was later named Gillum’s running mate.

While working on that campaign, Perry said she was frustrated that the party was so focused on turning out voters in cities like Tampa, Orlando and Miami, but didn’t have a strategy for booming counties like Pasco. She said she felt like the party had conceded traditionally red areas of Florida where progressive ideas — like Amendment 4 and medical marijuana — have received overwhelming support.

“They continue to use the same tactics over and over that aren’t as successful as they need to be,” Perry said.

Democrats and Gillum are working to register 1 million voters by the next election. If successful, the pay off would be immediate.

Common Ground isn’t a quick fix, its founders said, but it would build a bench of candidates, increase Democratic gains in local governments and make inroads in places where the word “progressive” is a dirty word.

“A lot of people say if we just do this, next election cycle, we’re going to win big,” Martin said. “This is a long term strategy. We’re not asking for a vote, we’re really interested in what moves the needle.”

How does the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gerrymandering affect Florida?

TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. Supreme court ruled 5-4 on Thursday that federal judges do not have the authority to redraw election districts that are overly skewed in favor of one party due to map manipulation known as “gerrymandering.”

The decision will have an impact on several states, including North Carolina and Maryland where partisans brought the legal challenges. But in Florida? The effects are more limited.

That’s because unlike some other states, the Florida Constitution already has written rules prohibiting any redistricting maps “drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.”

“I don’t think it’s going to change anything,’’ said Ellen Freidin, the Miami lawyer who led the 2010 Fair Districts citizen’s initiative to add that rule to the state Constitution.

In 2012, Florida courts overturned maps drawn by the state legislature that redistricted the state Senate and Congress. After six years of fierce litigation, including four separate federal court challenges to the amendments that were rejected by the high court, the maps approved by the courts were adopted.

In its majority opinion on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court referenced Florida’s Constitution in asserting that states have the ability to solve this issue themselves.

Mark Herron, a Tallahassee-based elections lawyer who worked with the coalition that challenged the 2012 redistricting maps said the U.S. Supreme Court “has been unable to articulate standards to measure what gerrymandering is … but we’ve already done that. It’s in our Constitution,” he said. “We should be okay.”

But by keeping the legal challenges at the state level, the ruling is likely to intensify the focus on Tallahassee, as politicians and advocacy leaders wondered how the Florida Supreme Court, with three new justices appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, would evaluate a redistricting case.

But they may find out soon enough. After the 2020 Census is completed, the Legislature, which is currently controlled by Republicans, is scheduled to redraw its districts for Congress and the state Legislature in 2022.

Patti Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, one of the groups that successfully challenged Florida’s redistricting maps in 2012, expressed concern that the state’s highest court would have the ultimate authority on a gerrymandering case in the future, but added it’s “premature” to guess how the new justices would behave.

“There absolutely are lots of question marks,” she said of the court’s new composition. Brigham said Florida should create an independent, bipartisan committee to draw the maps in 2022.

Despite the prohibition on lawmakers from protecting incumbents or political parties, the 2012 Florida Legislature drew Senate and congressional maps that favored GOP incumbents.

“We deeply hoped the Legislature would follow the amendments,’’ Freidin, the Miami lawyer, said. “We never anticipated they would enter into a scheme to thwart the will of the people. Of course, we always knew if the Legislature acted unconstitutionally, the Supreme Court’s job would be to be a check on them.”

Former state Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican who oversaw the Legislature’s redistricting in 2012, said redistricting power should remain with the Legislature. He said the state Supreme Court’s new makeup is an opportunity to right past wrongs.

“It certainly was obvious to everyone, including the litigants, that if they could just get in front of the former Supreme Court they would of course prevail and they did,” he said. “My hope is that the new Florida Supreme Court… will be fair and will be data-driven.”

In her dissenting opinion, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority’s reliance on the courts would lead to an uneven application of the law. She noted that the Florida Supreme Court was the final arbiter in Florida’s redistricting case, as were the courts in Pennsylvania in a similar case.

“But what do those courts know that this Court does not?’’ Kagan wrote. “If they can develop and apply neutral and manageable standards to identify unconstitutional gerrymanders, why couldn’t we? We could have, and we should have.”

Kagan also criticized the Fair Districts amendment in Florida’s Constitution as vague.

“If the majority wants the kind of guidance that will keep courts from intervening too far in the political sphere … that Amendment does not provide it,’’ she wrote.

The Supreme Court blocks Census citizenship question for now. Here’s why that matters to Florida.

The U.S. Supreme Court stopped, for now, an effort by the Trump administration to put a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census, returning the case to a lower court and requiring officials to provide a better explanation for why it’s needed.

It’s a significant blow to U.S. Department of Commerce officials who sought to add the question. The U.S. Census Bureau was planning to print forms as early as next week, and it’s not clear if there will be time to argue for the question in court beforehand.

Had the court approved the question, forms would have asked every resident in every household whether they are a U.S. citizen, a move expected to lead to undercounts of immigrants and Hispanics. It would have been the first time it was asked on such a scale since 1950.

The question, approved by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, was expected (by outside researchers and the bureau itself) to dissuade a sizable portion of the country, especially noncitizens, immigrants and Hispanic people overall, to respond to the Census.

If people refuse to respond to the census forms received in the mail or online, the Census follows up to try to count them anyway. Census takers will knock on doors, ask neighbors and look up other government records. But groups with lower initial response rates risk a chance of never being counted at all.

Florida is still expected to fall prey to a high undercount – projected to be either the 7th or 8th highest among states. Black and Hispanic residents, of which Florida has high populations, are more likely to be missed in general. In addition, one in every 11 Florida residents is not a citizen. (Noncitizens include both undocumented immigrants and those here legally).

For states, Census counts matter for determining apportionment of congressional representatives. But at every level of government, they’re used to determine where to build schools or hospitals, allocate budgets and award grants.

Despite the undercount risk, this state has taken an active role in pushing for the citizenship question. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody signed an amicus brief supporting the question. Of the 17 states to sign on, only Texas has a higher noncitizen population.

Supporters argue that the question is necessary to count the citizen, voting-age population. Knowing that figure, currently determined through survey data, is important for identifying majority-minority districts in accordance with the Voting Rights Act.

But critics suspect asking the question stems from interest in state redistricting based on citizen population, which would in many states give more electoral clout to heavily-white areas. A report found on the old computer of a late Republican operative in Texas outlined how doing so would help the GOP.

Thursday’s Court’s opinion was that the primary justification for adding the question “seems to have been contrived.”

Republicans in Florida have gone so far as to say even congressional representation should rely on each state’s number of citizens, rather than all its residents. Doing so would go against a U.S. Constitution clause that requires counting “the whole number of persons in each State” for reapportionment. (That has always meant total population, except for when it excluded Native Americans and counted three-fifths of the enslaved population.)

Another Florida connection: James Uthmeier, a top attorney for Gov. Ron DeSantis, was in the thick of the process. Uthmeier, who used to work as an adviser and counsel for the Commerce Department under Ross, gave testimony in mid-June to the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee but refused to answer many of the questions about his role.

Uthmeier told the committee he consulted a “long-term mentor,” the law professor and The Federalist Society contributor John Baker. Baker has argued for using the citizenship question to limit congressional apportionment only to citizen population.

“Political representation for aliens in the elections for the House of Representatives conflicts with the ‘one-person, one-vote’ principle,” Baker wrote in 2018.