A DeSantis-ordered Facebook probe never really took off

Good Thursday morning.

Press like Gov. Ron DeSantis, more than three months ago, directed Secretary of State Laurel Lee to launch an investigation into a Facebook program that could have given incumbent politicians “an advantage over challengers” — a charge first outlined in a September article on the social media giant by The Wall Street Journal.

Update So how’s that going? … well… um…

Status quo It would appear there is nothing going on with this probe. Pressed repeatedly for answers, Mark Ard, a spokesman for Lee, said this week in an email that “this matter remains open and under review.” The governor’s office was asked about this as well and did not respond.

Flashback If you’ll recall DeSantis, wrote to Lee and told her that “your office should use all legal means to uncover any such violations, including but not limited to, issuing subpoenas, conducting witness interviews, reviewing all available information and consulting with law enforcement.”

Saw this coming The fact that the department has not really progressed on the governor’s request isn’t all that surprising. First, it was never really clear what state election laws Facebook could have violated. But more importantly, the agency doesn’t have any investigators on staff and normally hands over probes to other agencies, such as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Call the election police Of course, DeSantis is now trying to remedy that by creating a full-blown election police that would have a staff of more than 50 people to investigate violations of election law. Lee went before state legislators on Wednesday, where she even noted the agency has “important statutory duties assigned to us” but has no one to do the work. She called it a “gap” that needs to be fixed although both Democratic and Republican legislators have already sounded a bit skeptical about the need for such a large new unit.

Containment strategy More importantly, DeSantis’ decision to ask for the Facebook probe coincided with a push by some Republicans in the state to do a forensic audit of the 2020 election — a move that both the governor and Lee have said is not needed — sparked by the baseless allegations of voter fraud by former President Donald Trump. The governor has sidestepped that effort and has now pivoted to other “election integrity” actions, leaving this curious Facebook probe in apparent limbo.

— WHERE’S RON? — Nothing official announced for Gov. DeSantis.

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DRAW THE LINES — “Florida Senate’s map for Tampa Bay is drawing heat,” by Miami Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas and McClatchy’s Karen Wang: “A controversial plan to draw a Black state Senate district in Tampa Bay may become the catalyst for a lawsuit, some Democrats are warning about a redistricting map a key Florida Senate committee is scheduled to approve Thursday. The district is part of Senate map S8046, one of two redistricting maps quietly selected by Senate Reapportionment Committee chairperson Ray Rodrigues from dozens of submitted maps this week. The maps, chosen on the first day of the legislative session, will serve as the baseline for any amendments going forward.”

— “Father of congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna dies in car crash,” by Tampa Bay Times’ Romy Ellenbogen

BLANK CHECK? — “Senate seeks to fast track $1 billion emergency fund for DeSantis,” by POLITICO’s Matt Dixon: The Florida Senate is fast tracking the creation of a $1 billion emergency management fund for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a push that comes over concerns that there are few safeguards in place to make sure the money is not misspent. The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Danny Burgess (R-Zephyrhills), would create the Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund and immediately seed it with $1 billion in state reserves. DeSantis then could use that money for issues associated with a disaster he declares if other resources have already been expended.

What could go wrong? But some members of the committee raised several concerns, including the size of the fund, which is nearly 15 percent of state reserves, or that DeSantis or future governors could declare an emergency for things like political pet projects. “Would immigration fall under an emergency or disaster?” asked state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat who inquired about an issue that DeSantis has focused on in recent months.

WARNING SIGNS — “Brandes urges state to reimburse counties that house prison inmates,” by POLITICO’s Stephany Matat: Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes on Wednesday urged the state to begin reimbursing county jails that house the state’s prisons’ inmates amid a staffing shortage at Florida’s correctional facilities made worse by the pandemic. Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), who is retiring, said during a Senate Appropriations Committee budget presentation that county taxpayers have been paying for state prisoners housed at local jails — an amount that equals about two prisons worth of inmates.

WASHINGTON ON YOUR SIDE — “Florida Gov. DeSantis bashes Biden while spending Washington bucks,” by USA Today Network-Florida’s John Kennedy: “Gov. Ron DeSantis’ $99.7 billion state budget proposal, heavily supported by federal COVID-19 recovery dollars, is getting its first reviews from Florida lawmakers in the newly opened 2022 session. And for outnumbered Florida Democrats, frustrations are mounting. DeSantis, who regularly spars with the Biden administration, is using $3.8 billion in federal aid money to cover some of his most eye-catching initiatives in the spending plan – even though every Republican member of the U.S. House and Senate voted against the relief spending.”

MOUNT TALLAHASSEE SPEAKETH — “Florida bill would ease challenges to local government laws,” by The Associated Press’ Curt Anderson: “Legislation that would make it easier for Florida businesses and individuals to challenge local ordinances cleared its first state Senate test Wednesday, with supporters calling it a needed check on government heavy-handedness and opponents saying the bill goes too far.”

ANOTHER TRY — “Environmentalists ask Florida judge to reconsider tossing their challenge to state conversation spending,” by POLITICO’s Bruce Ritchie: “Environmental groups on Wednesday asked a state judge in Tallahassee to reconsider his Jan. 3 order dismissing a 2015 lawsuit challenging state spending on land conservation. The Florida Wildlife Federation and other groups said in their motion that their challenge to 2015-16 state budget appropriations is not moot, as Circuit Judge Layne Smith wrote in his dismissal order.”

LET THEM EAT CAKE? — “Strawberry shortcake could become Florida’s state dessert,” by The Associated Press’ Brendan Farrington: “Florida already has an official state pie — key lime — but might soon designate strawberry shortcake as the official state dessert. The House Public Integrity & Elections Committee unanimously approved a bill Wednesday to bestow the honor on strawberry shortcake after some good-natured scrutiny. ‘As a fan of key lime pie, I have a little concern that this would prioritize (strawberry shortcake) as a state dessert,’ said Republican Rep. Erin Grall, who asked bill sponsor Rep. Lawrence McClure if he would amend his bill to make the tasty treat the official state cake.”

QUITE THE QUOTE — “Spencer Roach seeks end to committee week fundraising, zombie campaigns,” by Florida Politics’ Jacob Ogle: “Fundraising has largely stopped in Tallahassee since the Legislative Session began. But Rep. Spencer Roach wishes it had been cut off much sooner. ‘Committee weeks have devolved into a frenzied orgy of fundraising subsidized by the taxpayers,’ Roach said. ‘It’s wrong, and it needs to end.’ The North Fort Myers Republican filed legislation (HB 1359) ahead of Session to significantly alter Florida’s campaign finance laws. The bill includes a prohibition against fundraising during committee weeks. ‘This bill will ensure that committee weeks serve their intended purpose rather than being overshadowed by a series of fundraisers that eclipse the legislative process,’ Roach said.”

TRANSITIONS — Chelsea Aaron is the new director of appointments for Gov. Ron DeSantis. Aaron, who had worked as a central Florida regional representative for the governor’s office for the past five years, started her job last week. She took the place of Drew Meiner, who in November shifted to a new role as “senior advisor” that includes oversight over a handful of agencies. Meiner is a long-time aide to DeSantis who worked in his congressional office and on his 2018 campaign.

— “Bryan Avila wants to know why nursing homes, hospitals always seek more money,” by Florida Politics’ Christine Jordan Sexton

— “‘Justice delayed is justice denied’: Sen. Rouson pushes for reform school abuse victims to receive restitution,” by Florida Phoenix’s Isaac Morgan

— “Florida seeks to make street takeovers, car stunts illegal,” by The Associated Press’ Brendan Farrington

— “Data privacy redux? House, Senate stake familiar positions on suing tech companies,” by Florida Politics’ Christine Jordan Sexton

— “Bills would let counties object to tax collectors spending after Joel Greenberg debacle,” by Orlando Sentinel’s Martin E. Comas

HMM — “Matt Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend testifies to grand jury in sex-trafficking probe,” by NBC News’ Marc Caputo: “Rep. Matt Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend testified Wednesday before a federal grand jury investigating him for sex crimes, a major development that suggests the Department of Justice may be moving closer to indicting him. The ex-girlfriend, whose name is being withheld by NBC News to respect her privacy, has been in talks for months with prosecutors about an immunity deal. Under a possible deal, she would avoid prosecution for obstruction of justice in return for testifying in the investigation into whether Gaetz in 2017 had sex with a 17-year-old female for money and whether months later he and others violated a federal law prohibiting people from transporting others across state lines to engage in prostitution.”

GAETZ RESPONDS — “Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend seen entering federal courthouse where grand jury probing congressman convenes, according to reports,” by POLITICO’s Matt Dixon: Matt Gaetz has not been charged with a crime, and has consistently denied any wrongdoing. When reached by POLITICO on Wednesday, he replied: “Same nonsense. Same answer.”

SENATE WEIGHS IN ON CUBA Republican Sen. Rick Scott secured a legislative victory on Tuesday when the U.S. Senate approved a resolution on Cuba sponsored by Scott, alongside Sens. Marco Rubio and Mike Braun. The resolution condemns the authoritarian regime of the island nation and the imprisonment of pro-democracy activists, including José Daniel Ferrer, as well as its treatment of those involved in widespread protests against the government back in July. Before the unanimous vote of the Senate, Scott took to the floor to criticize the treatment of democratic activists. He also criticized President Joe Biden and the administration response to Cuba, saying that the president had done the “bare minimum.”

— “Florida senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott fume at Democratic push to end filibuster,” by Florida Politics’ A.G. Gancarski

The daily rundown — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 71,742 Covid-19 infections reported on Tuesday. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 11,378 hospital beds were being used in the state for Covid-19 patients.

CRISIS — “Amid omicron surge, hospitals are stretched thin. What can Florida lawmakers do?” by Tampa Bay Times’ Kirby Wilson: “As lawmakers gather in Tallahassee for the first week of the 2022 legislative session, they will be forced to reckon with a daunting and deepening shortage of skilled healthcare work in the state. At least 44 hospitals are expecting to have a critical staffing shortage within a week, according to data collected Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s the highest recorded figure since mid-October.”

— “DeSantis confirms 1 million COVID tests can be used; Orange seeks 100,000,” by Orlando Sentinel’s Steven Lemongello and Stephen Hudak

ARRESTS — “Officials: 3 Florida officers charged in separate incidents,” by The Associated Press: “Three South Florida police officers are facing criminal charges in separate incidents: two accused of using excessive force during arrests and the other accused of purposefully shooting a fellow officer with a Taser stun gun. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced the charges Wednesday at a news conference. ‘Excessive force can never be an acceptable foundation for the policing of any community,’ Fernandez Rundle said. ‘Officers who forget that, they do a great disservice to the people they have sworn to serve.’”

— “Seven Miami cops let go or demoted during purge by fired chief Acevedo to get jobs back,” by Miami Herald’s Charles Rabin

— “Jared Moskowitz’s hero is his ailing dad. And his father looked on proudly as he’s sworn into Broward Commission,” by Sun Sentinel’s Lisa J. Huriash

BIRTHDAYS: Cathleen Conley, senior communications specialist DUDA and president of Agriculture Communicators of Florida … Phillip Perry, vice president Woolf Strategy

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