State Capital Briefs (Evening Edition): Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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A sentencing hearing is scheduled Aug. 18 after former state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, pleaded guilty Wednesday to failing to file a 2011 tax return, according to court documents. Fresen left the Legislature in November because of term limits, after serving as House education appropriations chairman. The U.S. Attorney's Office in South Florida said in a news release that Fresen and his wife had $270,236 in gross income in 2011 but did not file a tax return due in 2012. A plea agreement filed in federal court said the charge carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and up to a $100,000 fine. Fresen also agreed to cooperate with the Internal Revenue Service in an examination of his tax returns from 2007 to 2016 and to pay any unpaid amounts of taxes, according to the plea agreement.

The Florida House signed off Wednesday on a measure that would give the governor and Cabinet control of appointing administrative law judges, who make decisions on state agency actions. Currently, the judges are hired by the chief judge of the Division of Administrative Hearings. The House bill (HB 1225) would give Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet authority to appoint the judges, who would be limited to serving a maximum of eight years --- unless they get fired by the statewide officials. The judges would be picked from lists of nominees provided by a commission, also appointed by the governor and Cabinet. The House passed the measure in an 86-28 vote Wednesday, but some Democrats complained that the plan attacks the independence of the administrative hearings process, which involves judges making decisions about agencies controlled by the governor or Cabinet. The legislation "dramatically undermines the reliability and fairness" of the administrative hearing system, said Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura. "I am all for accountability," said Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee. "But I think this bill goes too far." But Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, the bill's sponsor, said her proposal would improve the process by requiring "more robust" vetting and selection. "A good system, which we have now, should not be where we want to stop. Let's strive for excellence," Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, said. A similar proposal has not received a floor vote in the Senate. The Senate measure (SB 1352) would also limit administrative judges to serving two, four-year terms, and create a nominating commission appointed by the governor and Cabinet, but the chief judge would still have control over hiring and firing.

The House on Wednesday approved a bill that would keep secret information about initial pools of applicants for university and state-college presidential positions and other top academic posts. The measure (HB 351), sponsored by Naples Republicans Bob Rommel and Byron Donalds, passed in a 103-11 vote. It would initially exempt applicants for president, vice president, provost or dean at universities and colleges from public disclosure. Only the identities of the "final group" of applicants for each post would be disclosed, with the requirement that the disclosure be made at least three weeks before formal action on the final candidates. The secrecy is necessary, according to the legislation, because most applicants are employed elsewhere, and disclosure of their interest in new jobs could "jeopardize" their positions. The bill also said the exemption would allow universities and colleges to access "the most experienced and desirable" pools of applicants. The measure is opposed by the First Amendment Foundation. In letter to lawmakers in February, Barbara Petersen, president of the open-government advocacy group. noted the public investment in universities and colleges and said information about the candidates, including their experience and qualifications, is "vitally important" to the public. "To shield the selection process from public oversight and accountability is, we believe, bad public policy," Petersen said. A similar bill (SB 478), filed by Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has not been heard in the Senate. (Disclosure: The News Service of Florida is a member of the First Amendment Foundation.)


© 2017 The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved. Posting or forwarding this material without permission is prohibited.