Gaetzgate is getting closer to Tallahassee and there are new odds on gambling reform

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Mary Ellen Klas
·10 min read
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It’s Monday, April 12. Florida legislators are working on massive policy shifts —on everything from education, and sales taxes to voting laws and state pensions — while the Matt Gaetz saga slowly creeps closer to Tallahassee.

If the drip of news reports on Florida’s most well-known congressman has your head spinning, stay tuned. We’ve got the recap.

But first, proposals with major policy implications, from voting laws and race relations to the state pension fund and homeowners insurance continue to barrel through the state Legislature — and because of the pandemic protocols, they have received less public input than any time in recent history.

WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT

Hurting housing: Legislators sent to the governor the second bill of the session last week. SB 1954 calls for spending up to $100 million a year on projects to address flooding and sea-level rise and creates a grant program for local governments. But the investment in resiliency will come at the expense of affordable housing. Both House and have now both approved bills that would siphon up $400 million in documentary-stamp taxes that had been previously been intended for affordable housing.

$2 billion balloon: As expected, the budget grew a whopping $2 billion last week when state economists concluded that consumer spending and corporate earnings, buoyed by federal stimulus funds, have left the state’s budget far healthier than previous expectations.

Will that mean legislators will increase spending on programs with a carefully executed vision of improving Florida’s future? Or will it be easier to continue to cut empowerment programs and, as with housing, whittle away the safety net?

Failed oversight: Two stories that emerged this month are proof that Florida legislators don’t do long-term oversight well.

Leaking phosphate waste: The first was the Piney Point phosphate plant, which the state has said it intended to close nearly 20 years ago, but never did. Now, after a leak was detected in a wastewater pond, threatening to flood the area with hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted water and forcing 165 million gallons of the wastewater into Tampa Bay, state senators last week agreed to spend $3 million immediately for clean-up efforts. Senate President Wilton Simpson has already said he wants to put another $200 million in federal pandemic relief money into the site to clean it and close it.

Justin Nguyen, 24, is supported by his sisters, Jennifer and Jessica Pham, and his mother, Julie Nguyen, as they use a Hoyer lift to help transfer him from his bed to a chair in his bedroom in their Jacksonville home. Justin suffered severe brain damage at birth.
Justin Nguyen, 24, is supported by his sisters, Jennifer and Jessica Pham, and his mother, Julie Nguyen, as they use a Hoyer lift to help transfer him from his bed to a chair in his bedroom in their Jacksonville home. Justin suffered severe brain damage at birth.

Botched births: The second oversight fail is the heart-wrenching story of the families dependent on the Florida Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Association, or NICA, which was created by legislators in 1998 as part of a series of legal reforms designed to lower malpractice premiums for doctors.

An investigative report in the Miami Herald found that the organization has amassed nearly $1.5 billion in assets but has denied or delayed help for struggling families — sometimes spending tens of thousands more in legal fees fighting requests for benefits than it would cost to help parents who depend on the program to care for their children.

Birth & Betrayal: Both Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls have since announced they will investigate NICA’s finances. The Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller and Dan Chang detailed the pain the system has put Florida families through in their series, Birth & Betrayal. But why does it have to take investigative reporters to do this work first?

Where does Gaetzgate stand? Joel Greenberg, the former Semniole County tax collector and friend of Gaetz, revealed in court on Thursday that he is considering a plea deal on charges ranging from child sex trafficking to fraud. This is ominous for the Republican congressman because it’s a sign that Greenberg already has been cooperating with prosecutors. The New York Times reported that as a result of the Greenberg probe, the FBI had been investigating Gaetz since December over an alleged sexual relationship with the same 17-year-old girl, in exchange for gifts or payments.

Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, offers comment on the House floor March 22, 2017.
Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, offers comment on the House floor March 22, 2017.

Where’s the evidence? The Times also reported that Greenberg, Gaetz and Halsey Beshears, the former head of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, traveled to the Bahamas in late 2018 or early 2019 with female escorts. NBC, CBS, and the New York Times reported that expenses were paid by Orlando-based hand surgeon and marijuana investor Jason Pirozzolo. The Daily Beast reported that in May 2018, Gaetz used Venmo to pay Greenberg $900 late one night. The next morning, Greenberg used the same app to send three young women varying sums of money totaling $900.

Beshears connection: Beshears had worked with Gaetz in the state legislature and his family’s business, Simpson Nurseries, won one of the few medical marijuana licenses, created under the 2014 legislation sponsored by Gaetz.

Dorworth link: Just when it didn’t seem that Republican politics could get more tangled, the Times reported that federal investigators learned of a conversation in which Gaetz and Chris Dorworth, Greenberg’s friend and a Tallahassee lobbyist for Ballard Partners, discussed the possibility of putting up a third-party candidate to help their friend, Jason Brodeur, win a Senate seat in November 2020.

Artiles appears: Brodeur’s Senate race in Seminole and Volusia counties included a mysterious third-party candidate who did no campaigning but was featured in advertisements funded by a dark-money group. Attending Brodeur’s election night victory party was not only Dorworth but Frank Artiles. As the Miami Herald first reported, Artiles bragged about planting the ghost candidate in the Senate District 37 race.

Dorworth announced Friday he was leaving the Ballard firm as the scrutiny over his relationship with Greenberg had become a distraction. Beshears resigned his state government post in mid-January. Artiles, the former Hialeah state senator, is facing multiple felony campaign-finance related charges in connection with recruiting and paying an alleged spoiler candidate with the goal of swaying the outcome of Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race.

‘Built for battle’: On Friday, Gaetz spoke to a conference of Republican supporters at the Trump National Doral resort and described himself as a “champion of women.” Hours earlier, the Democrat-dominated U.S. House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating Gaetz for violating House rules. Among the allegations, according to chairman Chairman Rep. Ted Deutsch, a Delray Beach Democrat: sharing photos of his sexual liaisons on the House floor, using campaign funds for personal use and accepting bribes.

Gaetz, who has not been charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing, told supporters that the allegations are part of a “deep state” smear campaign to silence him. “I’m built for the battle, and I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami, Florida on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Artiles posted $5,000 bail after facing charges relating to a 2020 Senate District 37 campaign.
Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami, Florida on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Artiles posted $5,000 bail after facing charges relating to a 2020 Senate District 37 campaign.

Artiles and the second spoiler: Meanwhile, the Miami Herald obtained the police search warrant that showed that Artiles may have been involved in a second spoiler no-party candidate who ran in a competitive Miami-Dade state Senate races in 2020. Police found that in addition to campaign paperwork for Alexis (Alex) Rodriguez in Senate District 37, whom Artiles is accused of recruiting and paying to siphon votes away from the Democrat with the same last name, he also had paperwork for Celso Alfonso, who ran in the contentious District 39 race to replace term-limited Republican Anitere Flores.

Still need more help keeping track? Here’s a helpful rundown of the cast of characters by the Washington Post.

In this May 19, 2010 file photo, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this May 19, 2010 file photo, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Goodbye Alcee: Florida lost the dean of its congressional delegation last week. Alcee Hastings, crusading civil rights lawyer and the first Black federal judge in Florida died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 84. He leaves a vacancy that will be filled with a special election, called by the governor. But expect redistricting will also play a role.

WHAT WE’RE WATCHING

Gaming commission? Two scaled down gaming bills emerged last week in the Senate and they will get the first hearing in a committee Monday. The proposals, which attempt to modernize Florida’s gambling laws by allowing card rooms to operate without live racing and to create a Gaming Control Commission, fall short of the ambitious proposal sought by Senate President Wilton Simpson. He had hoped for a gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe to allow for a slate of gaming deals. Instead, the bills don’t involve the tribe and don’t include any talk of transferring a gaming permit from Broward County to Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel and Resort, a top priority of real estate mogul Jeff Soffer.

Meanwhile, another economic powerhouse in Miami has come out against the establishment of casino gambling in Miami Beach and gambling expansion in Miami-Dade. A Ietter addressed to the governor and legislative leaders from Art Basel Global Director Marc Spiegler and Basel Americas Director Noah Horowitz say their organization is “strong(ly)“ opposed to expanding gambling.

Riot reax: The so-called “anti-riot” bill that has emerged as a top priority of DeSantis passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting Friday after a marathon meeting of emotional, and often deeply personal debate. Democrats warned the bill would stoke racial tensions because it enhances penalties for crimes committed during protests that turn violent. Republicans said it was needed to protect private property.

Florida Ron DeSantis holds a press conference to announce a lawsuit against the CDC to try to get cruising restarted at PortMiami in Miami, Florida, Thursday, April 8, 2021.
Florida Ron DeSantis holds a press conference to announce a lawsuit against the CDC to try to get cruising restarted at PortMiami in Miami, Florida, Thursday, April 8, 2021.

DeSantis sues CDC: DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody announced they are suing the federal government in a long-shot attempt to get the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to lift the no-sail rule for cruise ships. The cruise industry was caught off guard, and didn’t ask for the lawsuit. No cruise lines attended a press conference and legal experts called the event “a political stunt” with “negligible viability.”

The next day, a bi-partisan collection of Miami politicians tried a less antagonistic (and cheaper) approach. They held a press conference asking the CDC to let cruises restart this summer.

Selling private data: Florida legislators are giving bipartisan support to legislation that imposes new disclosure requirements on companies that collect information on their customers and sell it to data brokers. Modeled after a California law, SB 1734 creates the Florida Privacy Protection Act and requires businesses to tell consumers what information they’ve collected and how they’re going to use it.

Vaccinating prisoners: After the governor blocked access to vaccines to Florida’s prison inmates for months, state officials announced last week that about 30,000 doses have been earmarked for the Florida Department of Corrections.

Gin cocktails are the heart and soul of Botanico Gin & Cookhouse, opening soon in Coconut Grove. But don’t worry — there’s plenty to eat here, too.
Gin cocktails are the heart and soul of Botanico Gin & Cookhouse, opening soon in Coconut Grove. But don’t worry — there’s plenty to eat here, too.

To-go cocktails: One of the pandemic protocols that legislators want to preserve is to allow Floridians to buy alcoholic drinks with to-go and delivery orders from restaurants — with some restrictions. The Florida Senate approved the measure and it’s now pending in the House.

Toll turf wars: The power struggle over Miami-Dade’s toll highways escalated on Friday when appointees of the governor held their first meeting as a new toll authority to replace the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. It was the formal launch of the “GMX” nearly two years after the Greater Miami Expressway Authority was created by state law to replace the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. But the backers of MDX weren’t ready to give up the fight.

Stay well and we’d love to hear from you. Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas curated this newsletter. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please drop me a note at meklas@miamiherald.com.

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