TALLAHASSEE | The historic flooding in Texas this week mesmerized people throughout the nation, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who dispatched hundreds of search and rescue personnel to the storm-ravaged region.
While the impacts of Hurricane Harvey rightfully garnered most of the attention, the Sunshine State was awash in news.
Scott emerged the victor in a controversial battle over a Central Florida prosecutor and the death penalty. A critical mayor’s race in St. Petersburg injected Democrats with enthusiasm. And the fallout at the Florida Highway Patrol over speeding ticket quotas netted two more victims.
On a more somber note, hundreds of attendees said farewell to Panhandle strawberry farmer and former state Sen. Greg Evers, who captured the hearts of Republicans and Democrats alike during his 15-year tenure in the Legislature.
“This plainspoken man with a Southern drawl was equally at home in work clothes rolling around in the dirt trying to repair a broken tractor or in a suit and highly polished cowboy boots debating on the floor of Florida House or the Senate trying to do the right thing for Florida citizens,” Marion Hammer, a Florida lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and a close friend of Evers, said during a eulogy at his funeral on Tuesday.
Court backs Scott in death penalty dispute
With a 5-2 ruling Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court delivered a major victory to Scott in a battle with 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala.
Siding with Scott, the court’s majority decided that the governor did not exceed his authority by stripping the Orange-Osceola prosecutor of death penalty cases.
Scott removed Ayala from handling capital cases earlier this year, shortly after she announced her office would not pursue the death penalty for defendants.
Ayala — the state’s first black elected state attorney — filed a lawsuit against Scott, accusing the governor of usurping her authority by reassigning the cases, including a high-profile case involving accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd.
Scott handed that case and more than two dozen others — including cases involving the recent shooting deaths of two Kissimmee police officers — to Ocala-area State Attorney Brad King, a veteran prosecutor and outspoken defender of the death penalty.
Florida law gives the governor “broad discretion in determining `good and sufficient reason’ for assigning a state attorney to another circuit,” Justice Alan Lawson wrote in a nine-page opinion joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston. Justice R. Fred Lewis concurred with the result, though he did not sign on to the majority opinion.
Scott’s executive orders reassigning the cases in Ayala’s circuit to King “fall well `within the bounds’ of the governor’s `broad authority,’” Lawson wrote.
In a statement issued after the ruling, Ayala said she respects the Supreme Court decision and appreciates the “clarification” from the court. Ayala said she is setting up a “death penalty review panel” to evaluate future first-degree murder cases.
“With implementation of this panel, it is my expectation that going forward all first-degree murder cases that occur in my jurisdiction will remain in my office and be evaluated and prosecuted accordingly,” she said.
But Scott doesn’t appear to be caving, at least for now. His spokesman said the governor won’t stop reassigning capital cases “until State Attorney Ayala fully recants her statement that she will not seek the death penalty in any case.”
Trump albatross in St. Pete?
While President Donald Trump may be a boon to conservative candidates, the link with the president likely served as a dead weight for Republican Rick Baker in his bid to oust incumbent St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
The battle of the Ricks resulted in a virtual tie Tuesday, even though Kriseman trailed Baker — a former mayor who remained immensely popular — in money and polls throughout the campaign. Both candidates received about 48 percent of the vote, forcing a November runoff because neither topped 50 percent.
Democratic and Republican strategists blamed Baker’s slide on Trump.
Baker’s campaign tried to link Kriseman to a variety of divisive local issues, including a kerfuffle over the replacement of an iconic waterfront pier, a massive sewage link and a pricey new police station.
While those topics may have resonated for many voters, Democratic and Republican political consultants maintained that what likely hurt Baker the most was the Kriseman team’s success in tying Baker to Trump.
Strategists cautioned against overstating the broader significance of Kriseman’s Tuesday comeback in the nonpartisan race.
“But it should be a warning sign. It should be an alert signal. It should cause Republicans to ask themselves, how could a guy who was so beloved in this community (Baker) not be able to turn that on again,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson said.
Kriseman’s success could be a model for progressives and Democrats going into next year’s elections, Progress Florida Executive Director Mark Ferullo said.
“It’s going to validate that strategy going into 2018, to make Trump an anvil to hang around the neck of our opponents,” said Ferullo, whose organization endorsed Kriseman.
Not a golden ticket for these guys
Fallout continued this week in a controversy about whether Florida Highway Patrol troopers received quotas for writing traffic tickets.
The agency has maintained there are no quotas, but the controversy has now led to the departure or suspension of three high-ranking agency officials.
A three-day suspension without pay of Chief Mark Brown from his $118,000-a-year position as the North Florida operations regional commander was announced this week as the FHP said it had completed a review of the quota issue and is enacting new guidelines.
In a letter Wednesday to Brown outlining the suspension, FHP Director Gene Spaulding noted Brown sent an email to subordinate commanders on July 28 “encouraging 2 citations per hour” from troopers working the Statewide Overtime Action Response program aimed at curbing speeders.
“Following a review, it was discovered that other supervisors under your command forwarded similar directives and, as we had previously discussed, it is not appropriate to request that a trooper write a specific number of citations,” Spaulding wrote.
In addition to Brown’s suspension, an FHP release noted that an early retirement request from Lt. Col. Michael Thomas — submitted Monday — was accepted.
Thomas, the second-highest ranking officer in the FHP and a 30-year veteran, had acknowledged he wrote an email in May encouraging troopers to write at least two tickets per hour as part of the statewide program to curb speeding. The email said, in part, “so we can encourage our members to maintain our 2.0 citations per hour ratio, as we attempt to provide a safer driving environment for Floridians.”
Thomas’ resignation followed the resignation of Maj. Mark Welch, a troop commander who oversaw eight counties near Tallahassee and had served the state for more than 35 years. Welch announced his retirement after acknowledging he also sent a July 28 memo to troopers that they interpreted as a mandate for a ticket quota.