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Politics

Weekly Roundup: 'One Giant Leap'

July 20, 2019 - 9:00am

Neil Armstrong’s words still give chills.

“The Eagle has landed.”

Fifty years after the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle descended on the moon, the nation --- and space freaks worldwide --- are celebrating Saturday’s anniversary of what was, according to Armstrong, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Google doodles, a postage stamp and parades galore are among the acknowledgments of the awesome event.

And the half-century anniversary is especially momentous in Florida, where the Space Coast is host to a slew of festivities “honoring this unprecedented moment” experienced by Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and “the entire world,” according to the Kennedy Space Center website.

Armstrong’s “actual blue Corvette” will be just one of the special exhibits on display at the space center on Saturday, which will also offer an “enhanced Moon landing event” featuring a wax figure of Armstrong and the world’s largest Moon Pie. Bad news for lunar lovers who’ve waited until now to purchase $50 tickets to the event, which includes being able to take home a Moon Pie in a “commemorative tin” --- it’s sold out.

Vice President Mike Pence will be on the scene, to salute the Apollo mission and speak about the White House’s “commitment to return to the moon, Mars, and beyond,” according to his office.

TOP FINANCIAL REGULATOR ON HIS WAY OUT?

Meanwhile, back on earth in Tallahassee, the war of words --- and legal actions --- between state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and suspended Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Ronald Rubin continued to accelerate this week.

Patronis doubled down on his demand that Rubin should get the boot from Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet next week, following the release of an inspector general report into sexual-harassment allegations against Rubin.

The report is on the meeting agenda, but it’s unclear whether DeSantis and the Cabinet --- comprised of Patronis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried --- will vote on Rubin’s ouster.

“I can say I believe now more than ever that Mr. Rubin is unfit for office,” Patronis said in a prepared statement Wednesday, when an executive summary of Office of Financial Regulation Inspector General Bradley Perry’s report was released. “If Cabinet does not act on July 25, Mr. Rubin will continue to collect a $13,000 a month salary and the complainants who came forward will remain open to the fear that he may someday return to office.”

The executive summary said Rubin, who had been on the job for 57 days before being suspended by Patronis on May 10, violated department policy prohibiting misconduct.

“Other agency employees and candidates for agency employment alleged misconduct including that Commissioner Rubin made discriminatory, offensive and other inappropriate comments; took and held an item without permission; requested subordinate employees to perform personal tasks, including finding his personal residence, moving and repairing his personal belongings, locating house cleaning services, and accommodating his personal travel needs; offered the use of his personal residence to subordinate employees; and resided in housing provided through family of a subordinate employee,” Perry’s report said.

Rubin, who once was pushed by Patronis for the position as the state’s top financial regulator, has accused Patronis of “pay to play --- or else” politics that included demands for a $1 million political contributions from Rubin’s father, who is a wealthy developer, for the February hiring.

Patronis on Wednesday noted that Rubin’s attorney, Mike Tein of Miami, was among the lawyers who have provided legal defense to financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was recently arrested on federal sex-trafficking charges and is alleged to have sexually abused minors.

But in a telephone interview. Tein accused Patronis of having "weaponized the complaint" against Rubin for a selfish purpose.

"But what can we expect? If you cross Mr. Patronis, he will run you out of town on a rail," Tein said. "Aren't we all tired of ugly Florida politics that chase away honest public servants? Enough is enough."

TROUBLING CONDUCT OR TERRIFIC COUNSEL?

A federal judge who has routinely ruled against the state in election-related lawsuits withdrew this week from overseeing a challenge to a new state law that carries out a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to Floridians convicted of felonies.

U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker on Wednesday filed an order disqualifying himself from the case, saying his wife works for the same law firm as an attorney who recently signed up to represent two of the defendants in the case, including Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

George Meros of Holland & Knight LLP filed a notice with the court Tuesday, saying he would represent Lee and Broward County Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci. Walker’s wife, Karen, also works for the firm.

In his order Wednesday, Walker, who serves as the chief judge of Florida's Northern District, hinted that the move to hire Meros may have been intended to force Walker off the case, writing that “the conduct at issue here is deeply troubling.”

But Antonacci, who was appointed as elections supervisor by then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2018, said Meros was a natural pick for the job.

The two men have known each other for decades and worked together at GrayRobinson, a prominent law and lobbying firm. And Meros has a background of being Republicans’ go-to guy when it comes to contentious elections matters. For example, Meros represented the Florida House in several high-profile cases involving redistricting.

“George Meros has been retained by this office because I have known and worked with him since 1997. As my former law partner, I know his expertise in this area of law very well. With this professional competence and for that reason he has been retained in this matter,” Antonacci said in a prepared statement provided to The News Service of Florida.

The lawsuit challenges provisions of a sweeping elections law, approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature in May, that would carry out a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to convicted felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” Under the new law, “all terms of sentence” include payment of any restitution, fines or fees ordered by courts.

Plaintiffs in the case allege that the law is a "modern-day poll tax" that "discriminates on the basis of wealth." The lawsuit claims that 500,000 people who are otherwise eligible under the amendment won't be able to register to vote because they have outstanding financial obligations. That's a half-million Floridians who may not be on the rolls in time to cast ballots in next year's presidential election.

If the defendants attempted to judge-shop by hiring Meros, the effort may have backfired.

The case is now assigned to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who isn’t a firebrand like Walker but who’s not averse to ruling against the state, either.

Hinkle’s overruled Florida laws restricting abortion. He’s sided with the Seminole Tribe in a dispute over controversial “designated player” card games at pari-mutuel facilities. And he struck down as unconstitutional Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage, a decision that was cemented by a seminal U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis ramped up demands that state’s suspended top financial regulator, Ronald Rubin, be fired by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet, following the release of an inspector general report into sexual-harassment allegations against Rubin.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The bitter irony is the proposed location is a museum located in the same building where 70 years ago the Groveland Four had their lives and reputations ruined.” --- Mayors from Lake County, in a letter objecting to the relocation to the county of a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. The Smith statue has represented Florida in the U.S. Capitol since the 1920s, but Florida lawmakers decided to replace it with a likeness of civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. The Groveland Four were black men accused of raping a white woman in 1949 in Lake County.

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