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The week that was in Fla. politics: Resignation, scandal, campaign bucks flood capital

By on July 15, 2012

Fireworks hit the capital city the week after the Fourth of July, with sparks flying over the resignation of a besieged university president, allegations of inappropriate behavior in the lieutenant governor’s office and a high-profile court case upholding a tough Florida drug law.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle filed a flurry of financial disclosures, giving the public a good first look at campaign contributions following the redrawing of political boundaries.

Gov. Rick Scott spent the week at the Farnborough International Air Show in London, flying the Florida flag as he met with aviation executives and tourism officials as part of his continuing mission to attract businesses and tourists to the state and bring jobs, jobs, and jobs.

A round-up via Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.

FAMU’S AMMONS LATEST TO GO DOWN FOLLOWING HAZING DEATH

Florida A&M University President James Ammons was the latest school official to pay a price for the November hazing death of “Marching 100″ drum major Robert Champion.

Ammons, who makes upwards of $325,000 a year, resigned mid-week amid continuing fallout from Champion’s death and a lingering list of other concerns at the historically black university ranging from poor student-retention rates and sexual abuse to budget deficits and accounting fraud.

Ammon’s resignation came a month after receiving a vote of no-confidence from the FAMU Board of Trustees and nearly eight months after Champion’s death. The resignation was tendered the same day Champion’s family filed a lawsuit in Orlando against FAMU and the company that operated the charter bus in which the hazing allegedly occurred.

Ammons said he would stay as president until Oct. 11 and remain on campus after that time as tenured professor. Trustees will meet Monday by telephone to discuss his resignation.

Champion died on a charter bus in November after the university’s renowned marching band performed at the annual Florida Classic football game in Orlando. Thirteen band members have been charged in Champion’s death. Of those, 11 face felony hazing charges and could face up to six years in prison. Two others were charged with misdemeanors.

While the hazing case has drawn national attention, some university-system officials have been as troubled by other issues, including allegations of fraud involving summaries of an audit that hadn’t actually been done and a sexual assault of a minor at FAMU’s research school.

“This is not about hazing, this is about leadership or lack of leadership at FAMU,” said Trustee Rufus Montgomery. “There have been over 30 serious issues over the past year that have come before this board ….This all came under the watch of the current president. For the last seven months we’ve danced around it week after week, problem after problem….”

LAWSUIT: CARROLL CAUGHT IN COMPROMISING POSITION:

Controversy swirled within Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll’s office this week as a former aide said she caught Carroll in “a compromising position” with another aide shortly before getting fired.

Former aide Carletha Cole, who faces criminal charges for sharing a recorded conversation of Carroll’s chief of staff with a reporter for The Florida Times-Union, made the accusations of sexual impropriety as part of her defense. The allegations were included in response to a request by prosecutors to seal some of the court documents in Cole’s upcoming trial.

The lieutenant governor has vehemently denied the accusations.

“Unfortunately, as an elected official character deformation that is totally fabricated can occur like this and there is not much I can do,” Carroll wrote in response to an email from Mary Jane and George Duryea of Lake Mary. “The media loves to put out sensational stories without doing due diligence to verify the authenticity.”

Cole’s motion portrays a dysfunctional office where Carroll’s aides frequently recorded conversations and the lieutenant governor pushed for a website where fans could follow her. It also says Steve MacNamara, former chief of staff for Gov. Rick Scott, viewed Carroll as a “loose cannon,” in the words of the filing.

But its most sensational anecdote concerns Cole inadvertently walking in on what she believed to be a sexual encounter between Carroll and a female employee.

“When she entered the office, she found the Lieutenant Governor and her Travel Aide, Beatriz Ramos, in what can only be described as a compromising position,” according to a motion filed by Cole’s lawyer.

Cole passed a polygraph late last year concerning her claim. Polygraphs are not admissible in court, but details of the test were included in the court file.

According a report from the polygraph expert, a retired FDLE chief polygraph examiner, Cole answered “yes” to questions about the incident, including “Did you ever observe Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll and … Ramos in a sexually compromising position in the Capitol?”

DRUG LAW UPHELD

The Florida Supreme Court ruled a state drug possession statute can force some defendants to prove their innocence, in one of the most closely watched drug cases decided in recent years.

In a 5-2 ruling, the court upheld a 2002 Florida law that says defendants busted with drugs are presumed to have known the substance they were holding was illegal. And if they claim they didn’t, the law requires them to prove that to a jury.

The provision puts Florida at odds with at least 48 other states that require prosecutors to convince a jury that defendants knew they were carrying illegal drugs.

Under the Florida law upheld Thursday, the state still must prove that defendants knew they were in possession of something. For example, if drugs are found in the trunk of a car, the state would have to prove the defendant knew that some substance was there.

The high court was asked to weigh in on the case after a state circuit judge in Manatee County last year threw out 46 drug possession cases, saying they conflicted with a recent federal court opinion that found the law unconstitutional. Lower federal court decisions aren’t binding on state courts, but some state judges have dismissed cases based on the federal ruling. That led to the Manatee case being sent directly to the state’s highest court.

STATE TO RELEASE VOTER LIST

State officials will release a list of 180,000 names at the center of a controversy over attempts to remove non-citizens from the voting rolls, after determining that the information is a public record, according to the Department of State.

The collection is essentially the master list that the Secretary of State’s office used to come up with a sampling of 2,700 names of suspected non-citizens that was then sent to county elections supervisors. Supervisors have since said that many of the names either belong to citizens or to people who can’t be contacted.

Some non-citizens have been removed from the rolls as part of the voter purge.

In late June, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle rebuffed a request by the U.S. Department of Justice to issue a restraining order blocking the state from continuing its purge efforts, but only after receiving assurance from the state that it was no longer actively pursuing the initiative.

At least two other lawsuits have been filed against the state, which is in turn suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to gain access to a federal database that officials say would make future efforts more accurate.

CAMPAIGNS/GROUPS ANNOUNCE SECOND QTR FINANCES

Large chunks of money flowed during the past three months to House, Senate and Supreme Court candidates who are trying to win high-profile campaigns or capture vacant seats. The campaign numbers were the first round to be seen since new maps for legislative and congressional districts were approved.

A prime example is former Senate President Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who collected $199,585 in contributions as he tries to return to the Senate in District 24. Lee is locked in a primary campaign against Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, as they seek to replace Sen. Ronda Storms, who made a surprise announcement in May that she would not seek re-election.

Burgin raised $50,248 during the year’s second quarter and, combined with money she raised before Storms’ announcement, has an overall total of $122,223. Candidates faced a Friday deadline for filing updated campaign-finance reports.

Another example is a South Florida Senate race that pits two incumbents whose districts were redrawn as part of the once-a-decade reapportionment process. Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, reported raising $106,196 during the quarter, giving her an overall total of $366,767.

Candidates weren’t the only ones raising money. A committee closely aligned with Gov. Rick Scott collected $2.85 million in contributions during the past three months. The Let’s Get to Work Committee has hauled in a total of nearly $3.8 million in 2012 — more than two years before Scott is expected to seek re-election.

Between April 4 and July 3, the committee collected nine contributions of $100,000 or more, as money came from companies and people with interests in issues such as energy, health care and gambling.

The biggest contributors during the second quarter were Florida Power & Light Co., casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and prominent investor H. Wayne Huizenga, with each giving $250,000 to the committee.

STORY OF THE WEEK: FAMU President James Ammons steps down.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “We’ve got the FAMU students on trial this fall in the Champion case, we have no band this fall, we’ve got a drop in enrollment coming, and I read the other day the Florida Senate’s (considering) investigating the school. I mean, come on, you all, we need to deal with this.” FAMU Trustee Rufus Montgomery expressing his frustration over the slow pace of reforms at the university.

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