Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. July 28, 2021.

Editorial: A rare and healthy dose of outrage from ethics watchdogs

From its earliest days in 1974, the Florida Commission on Ethics has been criticized as too lax in punishing politicians and candidates for illegal conduct that crushes faith in government.

The perception lingers of a lapdog, not a watchdog, but it’s not all the commission’s fault. After all, it was created by legislators, who did not really want too much scrutiny. That’s why they have refused to toughen state ethics laws with stiffer fines or give greater legal protection to people filing complaints. Most politicians were content with a veneer of high ethical standards, and they knew they would be targeted by enemies filing flimsy ethics charges solely to create negative headlines right before an election.

But in its latest decision, the ethics panel shows a healthy level of outrage that deserves praise. Commissioners rejected a $6,500 fine against a phony “ghost” candidate for a Miami-Dade state Senate seat and suggested a fine of $20,000 or a maximum $10,000 on each of two counts.

The tawdry case of Alexis Rodriguez has also produced multiple felony counts against him and former state Sen. Frank Artiles by prosecutors in Miami-Dade. The scandal has caused outrage all over the state — except in the cozy offices of the state Capitol in Tallahassee, where Republicans have largely yawned about a stolen election and a gross abuse of democracy.

In the latest developments, the Orlando Sentinel shows the case creeping closer to the highest levels of Republican power. Artiles, who turned in Rodriguez’s illegal campaign paperwork, was on the GOP payroll at $15,000 a month plus expenses by Data Targeting, a Gainesville political consulting firm and general consultant for Republican Senate races in 2020, working closely with Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

In the ethics case, the state worked out a deal with Rodriguez, known as a joint stipulation, and recommended he pay a $5,000 fine for taking money from Artiles in exchange for switching parties from Republican to no party affiliation (NPA). Rodriguez ran solely to confuse voters in a race where the Democratic incumbent, Jose Javier Rodriguez, lost by a scant 32 votes to Republican Ileana Garcia.

Alexis Rodriguez also would have paid a $1,500 fine for filing an inaccurate financial disclosure form, but the ethics panel rejected that as too lenient — which it was. By a 7-0 vote, with two members absent, the panel found probable cause that Rodriguez committed both violations. That decision moves the case along to a full evidentiary hearing, unless Rodriguez now negotiates another deal, including a $20,000 fine.

‘A flat-out bribe’

“This actually was determinative, probably, of an election, and this was a flat-out bribe,” said commission member Jim Waldman, a Democrat, a former Broward legislator and ex-Coconut Creek mayor. “I can’t accept this. If the maximum fine is $20,000, that’s what I think he ought to have.”

Waldman was quickly supported by two former Republican lawmakers, former Sen. John Grant of Tampa and former Rep. Travis Cummings of Orange Park, as well as the panel’s chairman, Joanne Leznoff of Fernandina Beach, a retired senior staff member in the Legislature., who said: “The sacred trust of elections is paramount.”

All four said they knew Artiles, who is not charged in the ethics case. Waldman and Cummings, both of whom served with Artiles in the House, called him a friend but said they could still render an impartial decision.

According to agency records, the ethics commission has levied the maximum fine of $10,000 on fewer than a dozen cases in the past 20 years. Even rarer is rejecting a recommended penalty as too low.

A more typical result is the case of Matt Shirk, a former public defender in Jacksonville, where the Florida Times-Union documented how he built a shower in his office, hired women based on physical attributes, asked them for sex and drank with them on the job. A grand jury recommended his removal, and he could have received fines of $30,000 but agreed to $6,000.

In the Rodriguez case, even a $20,000 penalty is too lenient. He presumably can’t afford to pay it, so the state will eventually have to hire a collection agency and hunt him down for the money.

In its annual package of legislative changes, the Commission on Ethics asked for more authority, including raising the maximum penalty per violation from $10,000 to $100,000, which should have applied in this case, but the amount has not been increased since 1994.

As usual, the Legislature did nothing.

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Tampa Bay Times. July 27, 2021.

Editorial: Why COVID makes it harder for Florida to fight the HIV crisis

The Sunshine State led the nation in new HIV cases — again.

COVID-19 isn’t the only potentially deadly disease on the rise in Florida. The Sunshine State leads the nation in new HIV cases and ranks third in overall infection rates. Like the coronavirus, HIV is preventable — and deaths are unnecessary — with ongoing public education and the use of well-established precautions.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Florida saw 4,400 new HIV infections in 2019, the most recent year of data. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are among 48 federally designated “areas of concern” in the nation based on infection rates. Statewide, the infection rate averages out to 23.7 cases per 100,000 people, well above the national average rate of 13. Florida also led the nation in new infections in 2018. And 2016. And 2015. This is not a new problem — it just keeps not getting solved.

Long-standing tools for combating HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, remain the best defense, including communication, condoms and PrEP, a medicine that helps prevent people from getting HIV. Another important tool: getting tested. People who don’t know they’re HIV positive are unknowingly giving the disease to others. Public outreach efforts are also critical in reaching the most at-risk populations, which in Florida include Black and Hispanic groups as well as gay men. But the pandemic has made that work more difficult. For nearly all of last year, there were no health fairs, no community festivals, no Pride celebrations to distribute literature about safe sex practices and the importance of getting tested.

Perhaps even harder to overcome is the overall reduced fear of contracting HIV. Thanks to tremendous advancements in treatment in the 40 years since AIDS was first reported in the U.S., getting the disease is no longer a death sentence. In 1996, the total life expectancy for a 20-year-old person with HIV was 39 years. In 2011, the total life expectancy was around 70 years. A marvel of modern medicine yes, but with a distressing side effect: People simply aren’t as worried about what will happen if they get the virus, and that leads to risky behaviors. Furthermore, young people today weren’t confronted with the harrowing death tolls from HIV and AIDS cases, which spiked in the late 1980s and 1990s before many of them were born.

Public health advocates are always fighting battles on multiple fronts, trying to reduce stigmas, change attitudes and alter behavior. They’ve been doing it since 1981 to combat AIDS and since 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19. Yet there are only so many resources to deploy, and only so much public attention that can be captured. For more than a year, researchers have said they are losing ground in understanding and combating other diseases because COVID-19 is so all-consuming.

That’s one more reason for Floridians to get the COVID vaccine.

To be clear: There is no cure for HIV or AIDS. Prevention is both the arrow and the bullseye for beating this disease. In a year when our public health system has been stressed to a breaking point, the reality can seem grim indeed. Except that, unlike many cancers, autoimmune disorders and other grave afflictions, HIV is preventable. Testing, outreach and responsible sexual behavior can go a long way toward keeping HIV in check, sparing precious resources for the larger fight at hand.

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Miami Herald. July 27, 2021.

Editorial: Florida’s COVID pandemic is full blown, but, once again, state isn’t sharing life-saving data

At this point, we already know that Florida’s COVID-19 cases are rising “at an alarming rate,” as U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said on Thursday.

But it’s become more cumbersome for the average Floridian to find detailed information about the pandemic that was easily available until a couple of months ago. After Gov. Ron DeSantis essentially declared victory on the pandemic by canceling all local restrictions in May, the state scaled back reporting data to the public. With cases down and vaccines widely available, the state Department of Health went from releasing reports of coronavirus numbers on a daily basis to a weekly basis and it stopped releasing hospital data and classifying deaths by county.

Turns out, though, we haven’t beaten COVID-19 yet, and Florida now accounts for 20% of all cases in the country.

It’s time for the DOH to start sharing that data with the public in a comprehensive manner again.

Florida still is gathering such data, just not releasing it like it used to.

Much of that information can still be found in various reports and databases from the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist, told the Herald Editorial Board. He added that the CDC has gotten a lot better at gathering that information from states and sharing it.

Salemi uses those federal reports to complement state data to update his own online COVID dashboard, which has been a lifesaver for journalists and Floridians looking for one-stop information about the pandemic. But the point is that Florida should make that information more easily available to the public and not rely on private citizens with the knowledge and time to dig up that data.

Crucial information should be at Floridians’ fingertips right now. Only if they are armed with the best data can they make decisions for their health and that of their loved ones, as DeSantis and many Republicans believe they should be left alone to do.

Salemi believes the Department of Health has limited its public data sharing for a “good reason.” Gathering, analyzing and releasing that information is time consuming, and “I’m hoping this is freeing” DOH staff to focus on fighting the pandemic, he said.

We hope he is right.

But we have also seen a pattern of Florida obfuscating information since the beginning of the pandemic. The state spent a year stonewalling and evading requests for information about vital matters such as the number of COVID deaths recorded by medical examiners’ offices and details about contact tracing to see where transmission was occurring.

It was only after the Herald and other news organizations filed a public-records lawsuit in April 2020 that the DeSantis administration began releasing detailed information about coronavirus fatalities at long-term-care facilities. The data showed that, as of May 2020, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities accounted for one in three coronavirus deaths in the state.

Florida ranks second-worst in the nation for vaccination rates among nursing home staff. The state has stopped releasing information about individual long-term-care facilities, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Some of that information is available through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website, but it’s only updated biweekly. The state used to publish that data daily.

Before DeSantis prematurely declared the end of the pandemic in Florida, the state’s information sharing wasn’t perfect — and we had to fight for it — but it provided Floridians with more easily accessed data to help them make more-informed health decisions.

Now that we’re back in the crosshairs of the coronavirus, it’s time the Department of Health make transparency a priority again.

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Orlando Sentinel. July 23, 2021.

Editorial: Florida talks about election integrity, then skips a chance to take action

Evidence is mounting that the pursuit of wrongdoing in elections isn’t the priority that state officials claim it is.

Emails obtained by Orlando Sentinel reporters show the Seminole-Brevard State Attorney’s Office got a juicy tip about election shenanigans from prosecutors in Miami-Dade County.

It involved a shady political committee that looked a lot like it was breaking election finance laws in a Central Florida state Senate race.

But none of the agencies capable of investigating seemed interested.

That might come as a surprise in a state where politicians spent much of the past six months bloviating about the sanctity of elections and their sacred responsibility to restore and preserve trust in the process.

Here in Florida, it’s starting to look like the level of excitement over election integrity might depend on whether your team is the beneficiary of broken rules.

The Sentinel’s reporting involved an apparent attempt to undermine a Democratic state Senate primary, to the benefit of the Republican.

Emails show that prosecutors with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office alerted Central Florida prosecutors last September about possible financial corruption in the District 9 Senate race, which is primarily a Seminole County race that includes southwest Volusia County.

The Sentinel was writing about the mysterious money at the time, citing election observers who didn’t see any way the reported financing was legal.

What did Phil Archer, the Republican state attorney for Seminole and Brevard counties do? He kicked it over to the state Division of Elections in Tallahassee.

What did they do? By all appearances, nothing.

Same with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a statewide investigative agency. Nothing.

Same for the Florida Elections Commission, an investigatory agency housed within the state Attorney General’s office. Nothing.

In other words, not a single state office with the power to investigate appears to have lifted a finger to look into a credible complaint of a possible election crime.

Remember, this is a state whose Republican governor and Legislature professed to be deeply concerned about election integrity when they were rationalizing new laws intended to stop election crimes and fraud before it happened.

Translation: They were passing laws to crack down on improprieties they claimed might happen, while ignoring allegations of existing improprieties that were right before their noses.

It’s also a state whose Republican attorney general, Ashley Moody, asked the FDLE and the FBI to launch an investigation into former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s idea of helping ex-felons pay off their fines and fees so they could finally vote. (The investigation turned up no wrongdoing.)

So why wouldn’t Moody and the rest of Florida’s justice apparatus leap into action when presented with a complaint that a shady-looking political committee was dumping unaccountable mystery money into a state Senate campaign?

Miami-Dade prosecutors appeared similarly baffled.

“They seem to not want to be involved at all, even though it’s their jurisdiction that is directly impacted,” Tim VanderGiesen, a Miami-Dade public-corruption prosecutor, emailed to a colleague when he learned of Archer’s decision not to pursue the tip himself.

Archer has said previously that his office doesn’t conduct investigations. Instead, he forwards complaints to other agencies, a strategy that looks to be fairly ineffective.

The complaint centered on a political committee called Floridians for Equality and Justice, which was dumping money into mailers attacking Democrat Patricia Sigman in order to help her primary opponent, Rick Ashby. He was considered the weaker of the two Democrats and more likely to lose the general election to Jason Brodeur, the Republican nominee.

In other words, helping Ashby win the primary would help the Republican cause.

The committee had several problems, including a $250,000 “starting balance” in its account that didn’t disclose where that money came from. Florida’s campaign finance laws may be weak, but not so weak that you can spend a quarter-million bucks without saying where it originated.

Or maybe you can, if the state’s investigating agencies turn a blind eye to corruption.

If this inaction sounds familiar, it should.

In an April editorial we recounted complaint after complaint of criminal misconduct by the disgraced and now indicted former tax collector of Seminole County, Joel Greenberg, another Republican.

Once again, Archer’s office and the FDLE — as well as the Florida Department of Revenue — did nothing about those allegations.

It took federal authorities, not the state of Florida, to seek justice for some of the most outrageous official misbehavior we can remember, and that’s saying something for Florida.

Why do we have these expensive investigating agencies if they won’t investigate? Or, to put a finer point on the question, would these agencies have been more aggressive if the crimes alleged had involved Democrats? Moody showed us how quickly she could react upon learning that Bloomberg, a Democrat, said he wanted to pay felons’ fines.

Meanwhile, as those agencies whistle a happy tune, the South Florida prosecutors who tried to alert Archer’s office to potential wrongdoing are racking up arrests in a separate state Senate election case.

That’s how you combat lawbreaking and corruption — you investigate. You show initiative. You make arrests. You do your job.

That sends a message this state isn’t going to tolerate violations of election laws.

Instead, Florida’s inaction risks sending a message — intentional or not — that they’ll look the other way if bad actors are playing for the right team.

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Palm Beach Post. July 28, 2021.

Editorial: Don’t just brace for COVID’s second coming, do something about it

It’s on us.

The second coming of COVID-19 (via the Delta variant) has sent our politicians scurrying.

Some are again downplaying the need for masks and vaccinations, 600,000-plus American deaths notwithstanding. Some are crafting messages of dubious sincerity to curry favor from vaxxers and anti-vaxxers alike.

Others are actually following their consciences and doing what they can, to batten the hatches back down and reduce the spread of the deadly virus.

Truth is, though, we’re past the point where we can rely upon our leaders to keep us safe.

It’s on us to wear our masks when we venture out to Publix, to avoid crowded bars that have abandoned social-distancing (remember that phrase?) and to press our friends, colleagues and employees to “get the shot” or get away.

The Biden Administration took charge from Day One and has been doing all it can. And yet, a huge portion of the populace remains unvaccinated and vulnerable. Many still shun a precaution as painless as mask-wearing.

Florida, a state used to mass mobilization whenever a hurricane looms, refuses to do the same to fend off a pandemic that is killing more people than decades of hurricanes. Once seen as beating back this plague, we now lead the nation in new cases.

Where is the leadership?

Face it, we’re never going to get Gov. Ron DeSantis to care more about people than about business receipts. It’s not who he is. In a closed-door panel discussion Monday, he hardened his opposition to mask-wearing in schools, just as the new school year is about to start.

Likewise, other Trumpian rhinoceroses who trample on the logic of scientific evidence will not be persuaded -- except maybe, sadly, by the illness of a loved one. Even then, one has to wonder. We’ll see soon enough, because that’s who now populates COVID wards across the nation: the unvaccinated.

Recent reporting indicates that even some Republican governors now see their red states as red meat for this virus and its variants and are taking action. But we remain in the thrall of the unmoved and the unmovable; even DeSantis’ better-late-than-never public support to get vaccinated can’t seem to shake them enough. How many more deaths will we countenance in the name of personal freedom?

A tough fight to beat the virus back down awaits.

Three states — Florida, Texas and Missouri — have contributed over 40% of all recent positive cases in the U.S., according to the White House. The Palm Beach Post reported this week that Florida accounted for one in five positive cases in the United States for the second week in a row. The state’s positivity rate skyrocketed to 11.5% as of July 15, the last time the Florida Department of Health released updated COVID information.

The data showed Palm Beach County registering just under 200 deaths per 100,000 residents, 10 more than the national average.

So, let’s not wait for help.

Let’s mount an army of volunteers to reach out to communities that haven’t been reached or that need a nudge, whether in the Glades, West Palm Beach, Lake Worth Beach, Wellington or Jupiter. Grassroots. Door-to-door.

Redouble coordinated efforts of our health care district, municipalities and nonprofits. The extraordinary volunteer efforts created to feed those left hungry by the pandemic early on should serve as a model for the medical help needed to provide information and vaccinations.

Kudos to those cities, community groups and individuals who already have been operating mobile vaccination units and reaching out to the poor, the shut-ins and others during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, some of the advances they helped bring about were weakened by those who allowed the Delta and other variants to spread by not following the logic of inoculations, mask-wearing and social distancing. But in the absence of a major, coordinated effort by the state – and in some cases with the governor standing in the way of protective restrictions -- local power is all we have to work with, so we need to work it.

When the governor restricts cities and towns -- and even cruise lines -- from tightening mask and social distancing requirements, he’s on the wrong side of history. Municipalities need to resist the political and financial consequences, tighten the rules and knock on every door in town.

If all we get from Tallahassee is two-faced support or outright resistance, we need to remember our priorities and protect our neighbors. We can live with that.

END