Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Tampa Bay Times investigates Florida sugar, Gov. Rick Scott, fat cat Republicans and secret trips to a Texas hunting ranch


“Do your own job."Susan Hepworth, Republican Party of Florida spokesperson to a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

Susan Hepworth, Republican Party
of Florida spokesperson. 
A few months ago two Tampa Bay Times reporters were following the money. They were trying learn details about trips taken by Florida Republicans to an exclusive hunting ranch in Texas.

But Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Susan Hepworth wasn't in the mood to talk, even though, according to her, she was the only RPOF official who could answer questions about the trips.

"I can tell you 100 times over and over that we follow the letter of the law. Do your own job," Hepworth told a reporter.

And so they did.

Tampa Bay Times staff writers Craig Pittman and Michael Van Sickler have a story in this morning's paper that's the culmination of a months-long investigation into the secret trips taken by Florida Republicans to a Texas hunting ranch, financed partly with contributions from U.S. Sugar to the Republican Party of Florida.

Click to enlarge.
From the story....
"A Times/Herald analysis shows that since late 2011, U.S. Sugar paid more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips — destinations unspecified on public documents — within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.

"By not disclosing their King Ranch trips, officials and sugar lobbyists have avoided any scrutiny of their private dealings with each other and whether their relations influence decisionmaking on state agricultural issues, including the future of the Everglades."

On his Facebook page Pittman says this of the story: "It's like the Fight Club of one wants to talk about it."

Pittman and Van Sickler write: "Scott won’t answer questions about his trip. After weeks of requests from the Times/Herald, his campaign staff released a one-paragraph statement on Friday saying he had gone to King Ranch 'in support of his political fundraising efforts.' "

Pittman covers the environment for the Times. (He's also the go-to guy on anything having to do with Weird Florida.)

Yesterday I emailed him five questions about his work on the story:

1) How long have you and your colleagues been working on this story and whose idea was it to do the story in the first place? Were you tipped off? Also, can you give us an idea of how many pages of documents you filed requests for and what was that process like?
We got an anonymous tip about it in May and worked on it through June and most of July. The big breakthrough came when Mike Van Sickler came up with the brilliant idea of requesting Texas hunting license records. We checked scores of names, and then were able to compare the dates they got their licenses with the dates listed in Republican Party campaign filings that said that's when the sugar companies paid for flights and lodging.

2) Why is this story important and why should voters care about what politicians do on their days off?
It's important because it shows how Tallahassee really works. Big industries take the politicians off somewhere well away from public scrutiny and wine them and dine them and nobody knows about it. Then they pass legislation that benefits the businesses and leaves the taxpayers holding the bag.

3) Were you surprised at the amount of stonewalling you encountered in reporting this story?
Yes. You'd think at some point someone would say, "Boy, we look really bad by refusing to talk about this." But if anyone ever did say that, it didn't change anyone's minds about opening up. Personally, I hope that every time one of these guys shows up in public, at a campaign rally or an editorial board meeting or just out shaking hands with the public, someone will ask them to explain about these trips.

4) Anything strange happen while you were reporting this, i.e., late night hang-up calls or dark cars with tinted windows following you? Anything else funny or unusual happen?
The door being shut in Van Sickler's face was pretty amazing. His transcript of the encounter left me shaking my head. Gov. Scott's aide tried to body-block me at the groundbreaking, [see video above] but I slipped around her and grabbed his elbow to get his attention so he had to respond to my question (although it was just to brush me aside). And the U.S. Sugar spokeswoman who e-mailed me to say they wouldn't comment, and then added, "I hope you find this helpful." Reporting a story like this rarely involves meeting people in parking garages or anything like that. Instead it was a lot of phone calls and e-mails and building a timeline so we could compare when things happened.

At one point I consulted a guy I know in the Justice Department. We went to high school together, and he tracks down financial info on drug dealers and so forth now. He had some good ideas for getting the info we wanted, but unfortunately they all required having the power to issue subpoenas. He's got that, but we don't.

5) I notice in the video you were wearing your fabled seersucker suit when you tried to buttonhole Gov Scott. If this story goes on to be your Watergate moment, would you consider donating the suit, along with your notes and papers to some journalism school?
Sure. That's tax-deductible, right?

Friday, July 25, 2014

A note to my readers....

If you like what I do here, and you'd like to see it continue, then I could use your help. I hope you'll consider making a donation to help keep this blog going.

Just click on the Paypal "donate" button at the top of the right-hand column and follow the instructions.

Thank you for your support and continued readership.

The Random Pixels Haitian Culture Corner

I'm sure our Haitian-American friends have made some positive contributions to our community, I just can't think of any at the moment. But I'm reasonably sure that Haitian cuisine and food preparation standards ain't among them.

Pay close attention to the first three restaurants visited by  Local 10's Jeff Weinsier.

WARNING: Do NOT watch the video if you've just eaten!

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Your lunch hour time waster

Bear tries to open a bear-proof trash can at a testing facility near Yellowstone National Park.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Miami media get all sentimental over the closing of Jumbo's and miss part of the story

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Miami Herald, July 23, 2014.
(Click to enlarge. )
Landmark restaurant Jumbo's is serving up its last plate of shrimp today.

The eatery, a Miami mainstay at NW 7th Ave. and 75th Street, is shutting down after almost 60 years in business.

And every single media outlet in town is covering the story. The restaurant's closing even made page one of today's New York Times.

But it would be an understatement to say that much of the coverage of Jumbo's closing is a bit mawkish. (See Calvin Hughes' report above for proof of just how mawkish.)

There's no denying that owner Bobby Flam broke ground in the 1967 or 1968 when he bucked the trend in Miami and hired three black workers.

And in the video below, Flam explains that in early 1968 he stopped the practice of forcing black customers to order their food at Jumbo's back door.

But what's not mentioned in any of this week's coverage of Jumbo's closing is that downtown Miami lunch counters were integrated in August 1960.

(Integration of Dade County schools began as early as 1959.)

Flam was a little late to the party.


WTVJ news film of integration of downtown 
Miami lunch counters in Aug. 1960.


Also missing from the fawning and syrupy coverage of the past few days is the fact that for years, Jumbo's was not exactly a groundbreaker when it came to restaurant cleanliness.

In 1973, a WTVJ cub reporter named Bob Mayer followed Dade County restaurant inspectors around Miami for a series of reports he called "Not On the Menu."

One inspector told Mayer that a meat slicer at Jumbo's hadn't been cleaned in a year. Mayer closed out his report by noting that the inspectors had given Jumbo's a sanitation rating of "filthy."

Mayer returned to Jumbo's with inspectors a few days later and interviewed Flam, who astonishingly told him that he wasn't aware of how to "maintain cleanliness" in a restaurant.

Jumbo's manager Bobby Flam being interviewed in 1973 on his
restaurant's lack of cleanliness. "I wasn't aware of what to do."

But that was then.

Forty years later, as the saying goes, "old habits are hard to break.

On September 27 of last year, State restaurant inspectors temporarily shut down Jumbo's after citing the place for 37 violations that included things like rodent activity.

And just last March, inspectors found 27 violations - 8 of them "high priority."

I'm sure Jumbo's regulars will miss the place, but the sad fact is this dump should have been closed 10 years ago.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Miami TV news operations exist for one reason: To scare the sh*t out of you!

So there I was scanning my Facebook newsfeed for important news stories when this headline jumped out at me: "Davie girl OK after bite by garden snake."

I clicked the link which led me to the website of a well-known Miami TV station ... you know, the one with "Plex" in its name.

The only reason I clicked is because I figured there had to be more to the story. After all, if it was a non-poisonous snake and the girl was OK, where's the story?

Here's what I found:
A South Florida girl and her father had a scare Tuesday after she was bitten by a snake in her neighborhood.

Davie resident Martin Castro said he and his daughter were walking outside their home, along Southwest 71st Terrace and 40th Court, when suddenly she started crying.

Castro said he picked her up and saw what had happened. "I started panicking because I didn't know exactly what it was, but I saw the bite on her leg, and that's when I noticed it was a snake because she was pointing it out to it, and I got a little, I got scared."

As it turns out, Castro's daughter had been bitten by a common garden snake, which is not venomous.
That's right, there was no story.

However, there are about a dozen phrases that send Miami TV newsrooms into overdrive...and "snake bite" is one of them. "Shark attack" is another. You get the idea.

But in South Florida, there's a higher likelihood that someone will die a horrible death in a fiery car crash on I-95 than there is that someone will die from a snake bite. (A four-year-old boy from Bryceville, FL, died last month, one week after being bitten by a timber rattler.)

Deaths from snake bites are extremely rare. In the United States, about five people a year die after being bitten by a poisonous snake.

But don't take my word for it.
It has been estimated that 7,000–8,000 people per year receive venomous [snake] bites in the United States, and about 5 of those people die. [Source: CDC]

Thousands of people are stung by insects each year, and as many as 90–100 people in the United States die as a result of allergic reactions. [Source: CDC]

The fact is you have a greater chance of dying from a wasp or bee sting than you do of succumbing to a snake bite. But no Miami TV reporter will ever include those facts in a story of this kind.


Because TV news directors have a dirty little secret that they don't want you to know: TV news operations don't exist to inform. Their sole mission is to scare the sh*t out of you.

Here's how another TV station covered the story. They even scrambled a helicopter.

Listen to Local 10 reporter Neki Mohan describe how the snake "jumped out of the bushes."

Wow! A jumping snake?

Tell me more, Neki!

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