TIME republicans

Governor Rick Scott Shows What a Real Scandal Looks Like

Rick Scott, Will Weayherford
Gov. Rick Scott, left, and house speaker Will Weatherford speak at a news conference after session on Thursday, May 1, 2014, in Tallahassee, Fla. Steve Cannon—AP

The Florida governor has been questioned about his investment in a natural gas company and his aide's involvement in a rail project.

A few months ago, I wrote about an epidemic of fake Republican scandals that Democrats were hyping for 2014, starting with a nothingburger of a whatever-gate involving Florida Governor Rick Scott. My point was that political scandals rarely get traction, and shouldn’t get traction, without a semi-plausible link to significant public policies. Let me put it a different way: Damaging scandals look more like the two latest messes involving Governor Scott.

The first involves Scott’s support for a controversial Miami-to-Orlando rail project known as All Aboard Florida, when the company pushing it had financial ties to his chief of staff. The second involves Scott’s support for a controversial natural gas pipeline to North Florida, when he owned a stake in the company building it. You probably haven’t heard about these messes, because they’re pretty obscure. They’re also mini-messes, especially for Scott, who was once CEO of a hospital chain that paid a record $1.7 billion fine for fraud committed on his watch.

What could turn these messes into scandals is their potential link to public policies—in particular, to lame and unpopular policies that could look even worse if Scott’s probable opponent, Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, can frame them as corrupt policies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with government support for a train linking Miami and Orlando—though my pal Carl Hiaasen is not an All Aboard Florida fan—but it looks pretty sketchy after Governor Scott (at the urging of his conflicted chief of staff) rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail project that would have eventually linked Miami, Orlando and Tampa. Similarly, there’s a case to be made for a natural gas pipeline to Florida, but it’s hard to square with Scott’s support for utilities waging an outrageous war to prevent homeowners from going solar in the Sunshine State.

Asking questions about an opponent’s record can be good politics, but answering them can be even better politics. It’s one thing to ask why Scott rejected federal money for a shovel-ready high-speed train that promised 27,000 jobs and enjoyed strong support from Florida’s business community; it’s another thing to suggest that Scott was clearing the way for his crony’s speculative slow-speed train. It’s one thing to ask why the Sunshine State is intentionally skipping a nationwide solar revolution that is reducing carbon emissions while saving ratepayers money; it’s another thing to suggest that Scott has a personal interest in pushing gas instead.

Scott will have a dramatic financial advantage in the fall, and it’s not clear whether voters will accept Crist’s latest political change of clothes, especially in what’s shaping up as a Republican year. But Scott is unpopular—he’s still best known as the Medicare fraud guy—and so are his policies. The challenge for Democrats is to link the personal to the political. Real scandals can do that.

 

TIME Environment

The 5 Worst Invasive Species in the Florida Everglades

A most wanted list for alien pests in the Sunshine State

+ READ ARTICLE

As I write in a cover story in TIME this week, invasive species are a growing threat around the U.S. And there’s no place quite as thoroughly invaded as Florida:

“We are ground zero for the impacts of invasive species,” says Doria Gordon, director of conservation science for the Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) . “And our invaders are very good at finding new habitats.”

Often those habitats are in or around the Everglades, that vast “river of grass” that covers much of South Florida. Half of the original Everglades has been developed for farming or housing, and the sprawling wetland has been carved up by more than 1,400 miles (2,250 km) of canals and levees that divert water for South Florida’s 5.8 million people. That mix of suburbs and wilderness makes the Everglades an invasive free-for-all.

But which invasive species pose the biggest threats to the Everglades? Check out the video above

 

TIME Environment

How to Catch a Python, in Five (Sort of) Easy Steps

The inelegant art of hunting an invasive snake

+ READ ARTICLE

“Fear is a natural reaction.” That’s what the dangerous-animal expert Jeff Fobb told me stood in the backyard of his house in Homestead, Florida, waiting to tangle with a Burmese python. Fobb was right—even though Burmese pythons don’t really pose a threat to human beings, there’s something about the way a snake slithers, the way the muscles under the sheen of its scales ripple, that seems to strike a bell in the human amgydala. Almost as scary: the fact that there may be tens of thousands of invasive pythons slithering around the state of Florida.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to catch a python—provided you can find it. Here’s how:

TIME Environment

The Volunteer Army Hunting Florida’s Invasive Pythons

Finding an invasive python in the wild is difficult, which is why you need a volunteer army

+ READ ARTICLE

As I write in TIME’s cover story this week, Burmese pythons invaded Florida years ago, and they’ve thrived in the warm tropical climate. There may be tens of thousands of pythons slithering around south Florida, but the truth is that no one really knows. That’s because when they don’t want to be found—which is most of the time—Burmese pythons are all but impossible to locate. At a 2013 state-sponsored hunt, nearly 1,600 participants found and captured just 68 pythons. “For every one snake you’ll find, you can walk by at least 99 without seeing them,” says Michael Dorcas, a snake expert at Davidson College.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just ask experts like Jeff Fobb, a dangerous-animal specialist with Miami Dade County Fire Rescue department. Fobb helps train volunteers for the Python Patrol, an initiative begun by the Nature Conservancy and now run by the state of Florida. Training as many people as possible improves the chances of actually capturing a python when one is found. But it’s not always easy, as this video shows.

To see the full cover story click here: Invasive Species Coming to a Habitat Near You

TIME Middle East

American Teen Beaten in the Middle East Returns to Florida

Tariq Abu Khdeir, 15, and his mother flew back to Tampa on a flight arriving from New York and were greeted by about 50 cheering supporters

(TAMPA, Fla.) — The Palestinian-American teenager who relatives allege was beaten by Israeli authorities returned home to Florida late Wednesday, saying he will never think of freedom in the same way again.

Tariq Abu Khdeir, 15, and his mother flew back to Tampa on a flight arriving from New York and were greeted by about 50 cheering supporters waving American and Palestinian flags. The Khdeirs had flown out of Israel earlier in the day.

“I am only 15 but I will never think of freedom the same as I did two months ago,” Tariq said upon arrival at Tampa International Airport. “No child, whether they are Palestinian or Israeli, deserves to die.”

The teenager said the thoughts and prayers of the supporters had helped him, adding “I got through these past two weeks because I knew you were all thinking of me.”

Now, he said, he just wanted time with friends and to relax. “It feels so good to be back in Tampa. Can I even put it in words? I can’t wait to go back to play with my friends and go fishing,” he added, speaking only minutes.

Hassan Shibly, the teen’s attorney and the executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, had said Tariq suffered head trauma and had to receive stitches on his face when beaten two weeks ago as he was arrested during a protest. Supporters say Tariq’s beating was videotaped. The Israeli justice ministry has said an investigation has been opened into the footage.

There were no immediately apparent signs of injuries to Khdeir on his arrival.

Israeli authorities released Tariq shortly after his arrest and sentenced him to nine days of house arrest while they investigated what they say was his participation in violent protests over the death of Tariq’s cousin, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir. His family denied that he participated in the protests. Palestinians suspect Mohammed Abu Khdeir was killed by Israeli extremists exacting revenge for the abduction and killings of three Israeli teens in the West Bank last month.

His mother, Suha Khdeir, said Wednesday in Tampa that the last two weeks had been a “nightmare.” She wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke and added she was “grateful” for the support she received at home in the Tampa area.

“I cannot begin to describe to you the pain I felt when I looked at his face for the first time after that beating,” she said.

Friends and family have said Tariq went on a vacation to visit relatives he hadn’t seen in about 10 years — not to be part of a conflict. They have described him as a good student who likes basketball, soccer and video games.

Tariq’s arrest happened shortly before Israel attacked Gaza to stop Hamas members from launching rockets into its territory. Earlier Wednesday, Israel and Hamas agreed to a five-hour U.N. brokered “humanitarian” pause to their 9-day-long battle, offering the most encouraging sign yet that the fierce fighting could come to an end. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 200 Palestinians, including four boys struck on a beach Wednesday by shells fired from a navy ship.

TIME justice

Judge Dismisses Zimmerman’s Lawsuit Against NBC

George Zimmerman, Mark O'Mara
Defense attorney Mark O'Mara, left, talks to defendant George Zimmerman during a recess in Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla on June 17, 2013. Part of a lawsuit against NBC Universal that claims that the television network defamed Zimmerman in a 2012 broadcast was thrown out by a Florida judge Thursday, June 19, 2014, putting the entire litigation in jeopardy. Joe Burbank—AP

A defamation lawsuit filed by George Zimmerman against NBC and three reporters for causing him emotional distress and mental anguish was dismissed by a Florida judge on Monday.

(ORLANDO, Fla.) — A Florida judge on Monday dismissed the defamation lawsuit filed by George Zimmerman against NBC and three reporters, saying the former neighborhood watch leader failed to show the network acted with malice.

Judge Debra Nelson said the malice standard was appropriate because Zimmerman became a public figure after he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford in February 2012, generating a national conversation about race and self-defense laws.

Zimmerman was acquitted last year for Martin’s shooting. He said he shot Martin in self-defense when the teenager attacked him. Martin was black. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.

Zimmerman “voluntarily injected his views into the public controversy surrounding race relations and public safety in Sanford and pursued a course of conduct that ultimately led to the death of Martin and the specific controversy surrounding it,” said Nelson, who presided over Zimmerman’s criminal trial last summer.

In his lawsuit, Zimmerman said NBC’s editing of a story on the shooting made it sound as if Zimmerman voluntarily told an operator that Martin was black. He was actually responding to a dispatcher’s question about the Miami teen’s race. Zimmerman said the broadcasts made his seem like a racist and exposed him to public ridicule and threats. He was seeking damages for emotional distress and mental anguish.

Zimmerman also said he was defamed when an NBC reporter said he uttered a racial slur during the call with the dispatcher. Zimmerman denied using a slur and law enforcement analyses of the call have been unable to conclude what he said and so defamation can’t be proved on that case either, the judge said.

Zimmerman’s attorney, James Beasley, was in depositions for another case Monday and didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

NBC News spokeswoman Ali Zelenko said in a statement that the network is “gratified by the court’s dismissal of this lawsuit, which we have always believed to be without merit.”

Zimmerman still owes his defense attorneys $2.5 million. Any award he could have gotten from the lawsuit was expected to help him pay those bills.

A spokesman for Mark O’Mara, one of Zimmerman’s attorneys, didn’t have an immediate comment.

TIME beauty

Miss Florida Just Lost Her Crown Because of a Voting Error

Beauty queen dethroned due to "error in the tabulation process"

Elizabeth Fechtel was crowned Miss Florida on June 21, but enjoyed her title for only a few days before it was revoked Friday due to the discovery of an “error in the tabulation process.

First runner-up Victoria Cowen was given the crown instead after an independent audit and review of the ballots revealed that she had actually earned the highest score, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

The pageant coordinators did not cite any specific details about the error in their official statement. The family was told that “in the last 15 seconds of the time allotted to vote, [one judge] drew lines to reverse his first vote,” mother Dixie Fechtel wrote in an email to the Times.

[Tampa Bay Times]

TIME

Prosecutors Move to Drop Charges Against Al-Arian

McLEAN, Va. — Federal prosecutors moved Friday to drop criminal contempt charges against a Palestinian activist whose case has sat in limbo for five years in front of a skeptical judge.

Former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian has been a target of the Justice Department for more than a decade. He was initially charged with playing a leadership role in the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He ended up taking a plea bargain on greatly reduced charges after a jury failed to convict him following a lengthy trial.

After accepting the plea deal in Tampa, Florida, in 2006, it had been expected that Al-Arian would be deported.

Instead, the legal saga continued when prosecutors in Alexandria sought his testimony in a separate investigation. Al-Arian refused, saying he had carefully negotiated the Florida plea deal to exclude the usual requirement to cooperate with government investigations.

But appellate courts ruled that prosecutors were within their rights to subpoena Al-Arian. In 2008, prosecutors in Virginia filed criminal contempt charges against Al-Arian for his refusal to testify despite a grant of immunity.

For the last five years, the case has sat dormant on the court docket. Judge Leonie Brinkema questioned the government’s tactics and wondered whether prosecutors were violating the spirit of Al-Arian’s plea deal in Florida, if not the letter of it.

In 2009, she told lawyers that she would rule “soon” on pretrial motions that needed to be resolved for the case to go forward. But without explanation, she has refused to rule on those matters.

The only substantive action she has taken on the case has been to liberalize the conditions of Al-Arian’s pretrial detention. For several years, he had essentially been on home arrest, living with his family. Last year, she modified the conditions so that Al-Arian was free to leave the home under GPS monitoring as long as he met a curfew.

As a result of the legal limbo, prosecutors have been unable to pursue the contempt case, and the government has been unable to deport him.

The five-year limbo is a rarity in criminal cases and even more unusual in the Eastern District of Virginia, known as the “Rocket Docket” for its swift disposition of cases.

Prosecutors said Friday they will drop the case, which will likely result in Al-Arian’s deportation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg noted in the motion to dismiss that the government had prodded Brinkema back in 2010 to rule on pretrial matters so the case could proceed, one way or another.

“The United States reaffirms the evaluations of the merit of the prosecution that were made in 2008 and again in 2010. Nevertheless, in light of the passage of time without resolution, the United States has decided that the best available course of action is to move to dismiss the indictment so that action can be taken to remove the defendant from the United States,” Kromberg wrote.

Prosecutors’ only other option for pushing the case forward would have been to pursue a writ against Brinkema in front of another judge, which would have proved awkward given that prosecutors appear before Brinkema on hundreds of criminal matters a year.

Al-Arian’s lawyer, Jonathan Turley, who had argued for the case to be dropped, declined comment until the judge formally signs off on the dismissal.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia also declined comment.

TIME

Cousteau Nears End of Underwater Living Experiment

AQUARIUS REEF BASE, Fla. (AP) — Fabien Cousteau has a week left in his 31-day underwater living experiment in the Florida Keys, and he’s not exactly eager to return to the surface.

“If anything, I’m panicking about the lack of time we have left,” he said. “I’m feeling really comfortable and happy down here.”

In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press inside Aquarius Reef Base, 63 feet below the surface of the waters off Key Largo, Cousteau said the scientists from Florida International University and Northeastern University who joined his “Mission 31″ have had unprecedented access to a coral reef.

“The FIU researchers have accomplished more than six months’ worth of data gathering in just two weeks because they were here, living under the sea in this undersea habitat,” he said. “This highlights how important a habitat is for scientific research as well as outreach.”

A team of filmmakers and researchers dove with Cousteau on June 1 to Aquarius. At the mission’s mid-point, the FIU researchers traded places with researchers from Northeastern, who will return to land July 2 with Cousteau. They’ve been studying the effects of climate change and pollutants such as fertilizers on the reef.

Aquarius, federally owned and operated by FIU, allows researchers to dive for hours without needing to return to a boat or go through decompression. The lab — about the size of a school bus and encrusted with coral — includes living quarters for six people.

Cousteau conceived of “Mission 31″ as an homage to the Conshelf underwater living experiments orchestrated in the 1960s by his grandfather, ocean exploration pioneer Jacques Cousteau.

The three Conshelf missions were partly aimed at exploring the possibilities for colonizing the oceans. After almost a month without sunlight, Cousteau said living underwater long-term was technically possible for humans, but it may not be financially feasible on a large scale.

“If it’s for science, education, outreach, filmmaking, those sorts of things, this is a great platform for that,” he said.

The mission has been broadcast live online, and it has proceeded without any serious medical or technical problems, aside from an air conditioning failure one night that left the aquanauts sweating as the temperature inside Aquarius rose to 98 degrees with 100 percent humidity.

“It was extraordinarily uncomfortable, like sleeping in the Amazon, minus the bugs,” Cousteau said.

There’s been so much work to do on the reef that no one has had time to be too homesick or to develop cabin fever, he said.

“Getting out there is so entertaining and so different every time that you’d be hard pressed to think that you’ve started to go crazy,” he said.

TIME Accident

Florida Man Killed in ‘Horrifying’ Wood Chipper Accident

Cleanup of the scene lasted well into the night

Authorities in Florida say a tree service worker died on Monday after he accidentally fell into a wood chipper.

“You hear about this stuff in the movies, but then all of the sudden it happens right outside your door step,” Joseph Horta, a nearby resident, told CBS Miami. “All the sudden I hear all these sirens and I look outside and I see some piles of blood. It was horrifying.”

The victim, whose name is being withheld until his family is notified, fell into the teeth of the machine and his body was pulled completely through. Cleanup on the street reportedly lasted well into the evening.

“This isn’t something you see every day,” Davie Police Capt. Dale Engle said. “It’s not something you can just go home and forget about.”

There were 11 wood chipper deaths between 2000 and 2013, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

[CBS Miami]

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser