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Politics

Weekly Roundup: High Time for Politics (and Better Security)

October 24, 2013 - 6:00pm

Peer pressure from a fellow lawyer won't be enough to get Attorney General Pam Bondi to go along with an effort to make marijuana legal in Florida for medicinal purposes.

Bondi, who earlier in the week drew a Democratic opponent as she runs for a second term, came out Thursday against a ballot initiative aiming to give sick people access to cannabis. It was a decision that could have political as well as policy implications.

Meanwhile, state prison officials tried to figure out how two convicts managed to escape from the system with forged documents, and how the state could prevent it from happening again.

PAMELA JO VS. MARY JANE:

It's approaching high noon for those who would like to keep a ballot initiative aiming at legalizing medical marijuana from getting to voters. Or perhaps from attracting voters who might be a bit more liberal in their social views -- and more likely to check the boxes next to the names of Democratic nominees while joining in reefer madness at the polls.

The first strike from those opposed to the measure came from Bondi, who wrote in a filing before the Supreme Court that the ballot summary written by United for Care: People United for Medical Marijuana wrongly suggests that only people with "debilitating diseases" could get the leafy green substance.

Bondi is required to seek an advisory opinion from the high court once an initiative reaches a certain number of signatures.

"But if the amendment passed, Florida law would allow marijuana in limitless situations," she wrote in the Thursday filing. "Any physician could approve marijuana for seemingly any reason to seemingly any person (of any age) -- including those without any 'debilitating disease.' So long as a physician held the opinion that the drug use 'would likely outweigh' the risks, Florida would be powerless to stop it."

And while it didn't necessarily seem like a joint effort, the GOP-leaning Florida Chamber of Commerce was quick to support Bondi's filing in a statement Thursday.

"Our Constitution is a foundational document meant to provide for our basic rights and organization of government," said David Hart, the chamber's executive vice president. "It should be protected and not sold to special interests trying to purchase a place in it for their ideas to be forced onto the rest of us."

Of course, the fight against grass also brings the chamber into conflict with one of its old foils. The most prominent supporter of the initiative has been John Morgan, the television commercial star and trial lawyer who also happens to be a prominent Democratic donor and Charlie Crist's boss.

In any case, the reaction from those who are pushing the amendment could more or less be boiled down to: Chill.

"It is not surprising that out-of-touch Tallahassee politicians like Pam Bondi continue to oppose compassionate health care policy in Florida," said Ben Pollara, the campaign manager for United for Care. "Just as politicians in the Florida Legislature refused to even give medical marijuana a hearing in the 2013 session, AG Bondi wants to deny Floridians the opportunity to even vote on this issue -- despite numerous polls showing that an overwhelming majority of the state is supportive of the issue."

BONDI'S OTHER OPPONENT:

But the marijuana amendment was not Bondi's only foe this week. George Sheldon, a longtime Florida hand and former Department of Children and Families secretary, jumped into the race against Bondi with an argument that he would return "character" and "integrity" to the office.

The move had been rumored for a while: Sheldon had been considering running for the position, and last week he quit his Washington job as a high-ranking official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency implementing the federal health-care law known as "Obamacare."

Sheldon's entrance into the race gives Floridians the option of choosing between an attorney general who crusaded to do away with the health law and a Democratic candidate whose boss was in charge of making it work -- as long, of course, as Sheldon wins a primary that could also include House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Bondi led the multistate legal challenge to Obamacare, which was upheld for the most part by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, and she has been a harsh and frequent critic of the law. She also supported Florida lawmakers' decision not to expand Medicaid, something included in the law but which the high court decided was optional for states.

Sheldon tried to draw distinctions with Bondi's focus on Obamacare.

"Taking on predatory lenders, human traffickers, and those who engage in deceptive practices is the job of the attorney general not working full-time trying to deny health insurance to children and anyone with pre-existing conditions," Sheldon said in a message posted on his Facebook page Monday.

Sheldon said he decided to announce this week so he could drum up support at the Florida Democratic Party's annual conference in Orlando this weekend.

Bondi will be difficult to beat. She's raised more than $1.2 million for her campaign and a related organization. She's also seen as a rising star in the conservative movement, frequently appearing on the Fox News Channel and campaigning in other states for Republican candidates.

"There may not be a greater contrast between two candidates in 2014 than in the Florida attorney general race," Republican State Leadership Conference President Chris Jankowski said in a statement on behalf of GOP attorneys general. "On one hand, you have General Bondi, who courageously stood up to the Obama administration in leading the fight against Obamacare, and on the other hand you have George Sheldon, a man who has spent years defending Obamacare and even worked for (Secretary) Kathleen Sebelius at HHS. Floridians should prepare themselves for a whole lot of excuses from Mr. Sheldon on why Obamacares roll-out, in which he was personally involved, has been such a failure. The choice is clear -- Pam Bondi deserves four more years as Floridas top law enforcement officer."

ESCAPE PLAN:

Even as the new Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger prison movie, "Escape Plan," was making its way into theaters last weekend, Florida officials were dealing with a very real escape problem of their own. After apprehending a pair of fugitive murderers late Saturday, the state's prison system was left dealing with the fallout this week.

With state lawmakers calling for an in-depth review of the escapes, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey said Tuesday several suspects have been "targeted" for helping two murderers escape from prison by using forged documents. But he added, "there is a way to go" in the investigation.

"There is still a lot we do not know and a lot we have yet to prove," Bailey said during a news conference.

Bailey said the state is widening the scope of its investigation into how Charles Walker and Joseph Jenkins, both sentenced to life sentences for murder, were able to get out of the Franklin Correctional Institution.

Bailey said authorities know of at least five other attempted escapes using the same method of faked documents, including two that were in process when discovered. One of the prior attempts was by Jenkins. The attempts have occurred at the Franklin Correctional and Gulf Correctional institutions and the Pinellas County Jail.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who chairs the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, said he will hold a hearing on the escapes, which became national news.

Bailey said Tuesday he hopes to have new information to share before he goes in front of the Bradley's panel in November to address the issues.

Meanwhile, FDLE and the Department of Corrections are also combing through several years of inmate records statewide to determine if other prisoners used fraudulent orders to con their way from behind bars.

On Monday, 9th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Belvin Perry Jr. issued an order that changes procedures for dealing with criminal-court documents to try to prevent any other inmates from making similar escapes.

Perry advised the Orange County and Osceola County clerks of court that "effective immediately" they must verify with a judge or judicial assistant that an order was issued before the clerk processes and transmits the order to the appropriate Department of Corrections facility.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Prison and court officials dealt with the fallout after recapturing two convicted murderers who had escaped by using forged documents.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "You don't open a ski resort on the assumption that nobody's going to be hurt. That's just silly. The cost of doing business as a ski resort is you recognize there's going to be broken legs. You don't close the ski slope. You fund the ski patrol," said Robert Hunter, who runs the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas, testifying at a public hearing of the Senate Gaming Committee about the need to set aside funds for the treatment of gambling addiction. Lawmakers are considering several options on gambling, including allowing resort-style casinos in some areas of the state.

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