New record for Trump: lawsuits seeking public records soar

Perhaps in an attempt to find the truth behind what President Trump has decried as “fake news,” requests for government documents under the Freedom of Information Act have soared since he took office, according to an analysis released Tuesday by Syracuse University.

Donald Trump

The 63 public record lawsuits filed in April represented a 25-year high, said officials at The FOIA Project at the Newhouse School at the New York university said. Further, with 60 lawsuits filed already in May, it, too, is likely to be another record-setting month, they said.

Information sought includes records on Trump’s executive orders and last month’s missile attack on Syria. Lawsuits have also been filed to get warrant applications for surveillance activities and internal agency communications about China. People and organizations are also seeking paperwork about actions taken by the new director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and border searches by the Department of Homeland Security.

If the pace continues, university officials said they expect more than 579 public records lawsuits will be filed before the fiscal year ends in Sept. 30. By comparison, 512 Freedom of Information Act lawsuits were filed during the last fiscal year of the Obama Administration.

 

Legislature agrees two former PBC students can be paid for horrific injuries

Two former Palm Beach County high school students – one who was horrifically injured when a tire exploded in his shop class at Seminole Ridge High School – are poised to get money from the School Board to pay for their injuries.

Dustin Reinhardt holds his dog Deedee while visiting his home in Loxahatchee in 2014. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

In a lopsided vote of 117-2, the Florida House on Wednesday gave the final nod to an unusual bill that directs the School Board to pay Dustin Reinhardt $4.7 million for injuries he sustained in the 2013 explosion in his auto shop class. Now 20 and living in an assisted living facility, Reinhardt lost an eye and suffered severe brain damage in the accident. He has already received $300,000 from the school district.

The bill also allows the School Board to pay $790,000 to Altavious Carter, who broke his neck in a 2005 traffic accident caused by a school bus driver. Carter, now 25, was a 14-year-old freshman basketball standout at the former Summit Christian School when the crash occurred.

Altavious “Tae” Carter before he enrolled in Eckerd College in St. Petersburg in 2013. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

Since the Florida Senate passed the measure 31-5 on Monday, the bill is  headed to Gov. Rick Scott for his approval.

In Florida, the Legislature must approve any payments over $300,000 before government agencies can pay people who are injured by wrongdoing. The measures are known as claims bills.

In addition to awarding money to the two young men, the Legislature also ordered the Florida Department of Children & Families to pay $3.75 million to Victor Barahona. He was was found near death in a van along Interstate 95 in Lake Worth in 2011. Both he and his 10-year-old twin sister, Nubia, had been sprayed with pesticides. Nubia Barahona didn’t survive.

Officials at DCF admitted ignoring years of evidence of severe abuse and neglect at the children’s Miami home. The adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, are awaiting trial on murder and attempted murder charges.

Former Florida Sen. J. Alex Villalobos, a lawyer who now works as a lobbyist, persuaded the legislature to combine what had been two separate bills into one measure for Reinhardt and Carter. In his 25 years of watching the legislature, he said he has never seen it combine two claims bills. Without it, he said it is likely Carter, who in 2010 was awarded $1 million for his injuries by a Palm Beach County jury, would have been forced to wait yet another year.

Attorney Brian Denney, who represented Carter, said he was pleased the bill passed both chambers. But, having waited seven years, he said he wasn’t celebrating until Scott’s signature is affixed to the measure.

Carter, who also played at Grandview Prep, earned a college scholarship to play basketball. But, medical experts said, the injuries he suffered will force him to have additional surgery as he ages.

With two days left in the legislative session, a former Wellington youth, identified only has C.H.M, is still waiting to see if the legislature will pass a bill that would allow him to recover $5 million from DCF. A jury in 2013 agreed the state child welfare agency was negligent when it failed to warn his parents that a foster child they brought into their home was a predator.

The money is to help C.H.M. deal with psychological problems he suffers as a result of being sexually assaulted by the foster child, also the victim of horrific abuse.

This year appears to be a good ones for claims bills. In some recent legislative session, none have been approved.

 

Hoverboard-riding Boca armed robber gets eight years in prison

Keon Dennard Cunnington

A 21-year-old arrested for a string of armed robberies that culminated in a purse-snatching from a trio of elderly women while on a Hoverboard was sentenced to eight years in prison Monday.

The sentence for Keon Dennard Cunnington came as part of a plea agreement from three separate cases from February 2016.

They included an armed robbery with a teen accomplice of two men’s iPhones in Greenacres and a robbery outside the Boca Raton library where the robbers dragged an elderly woman to the ground at gunpoint before making off with a purse, credit cards and other items from her and two other women.

Cunnington, who was listed with addresses in Lauderhill and Clewiston, was also accused of robbing another man of his cell phone at gunpoint while the man was sitting on a bench at Veteran’s Park in Greenacres.

According to arrest records in the library case, Cunnington and the teen followed three elderly women to the parking lot of the public library after dark while riding Hoverboards they’d taken at gunpoint from two riders in Ocean Ridge hours earlier.

 The women told police one of the men pulled out a pistol right before they got to their car. He grabbed one woman, 70, and dragged her onto the parking lot floor in an attempt to steal her purse, the report says.

The robbers ran off with one purse with several credit cards and personal items inside. The women had minor injuries.

Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes sentenced Cunnington to a total of eight years in prison on all the charges as part of a plea deal from Assistant Public Defendern Maegan Young and Assistant State Attorney Emily Walters.

Court records show that Cunnington’s case was moved to mental health court for several months after a court-ordered mental health evaluation in August. The records show he was subsequently deemed competent to stand trial in November.

JUST IN: Seth Adams case gets a new judge, new date for second trial

Richard and Lydia Adams with attorney Wallace McCall at the Federal Courthouse in West Palm Beach on March 30, 2017. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

The retrial of the multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Palm Beach County sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Custer in the 2012 shooting death of Seth Adams will be held before a different federal judge as early as July 10.

Seth Adams

In an order signed Monday, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley, who presided over the trial that ended  last month with a hung jury, assigned the case to his colleague, federal Judge Donald Middlebrooks.

Hurley, who reportedly planned to retire before the summer, had scheduled the second trial to begin Oct. 10. But, in the order, he said attorneys for Adams’ parents and the sheriff’s office  indicated they wanted it to be held sooner. Both sides agreed to a July 10 start, he said.

Middlebrooks agreed to hear the case, Hurley wrote. He told the attorneys to consult with Middlebrooks’ staff to see if the trial could be held sooner.

PBSO Sgt. Michael Custer

After a month-long trial, the nine jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict about whether Custer used excessive force when he fatally shot the 23-year-old as Adams returned to A One Stop Garden Shop in Loxahatchee Groves, where he lived and worked with his brother and sister-in-law.

Attorney Wallace McCall, who talked to some of the jurors after the trial, said he was told there was one hold out. He had sought $10 million to $20 million for Lydia and Richard Adams, claiming Custer lied when he said Adams attacked him and the sheriff’s office helped him cover up the truth.

The sheriff’s office has said that Custer, who was working undercover on the night of the shooting, was in fear for his life.

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer to join Holland & Knight

Wifredo Ferrer
Wifredo Ferrer

Wifredo A. Ferrer, the outgoing U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, has accepted a position as head of the Global Compliance and Investigations team at the international law firm Holland & Knight.

The move, announced in a press release Wednesday, will put Ferrer in charge of corporate compliance and government investigations for the firm’s white-collar defense division.

Company officials said Ferrer, who with seven years as U.S. Attorney was the South Florida office’s longest-serving top prosecutor since the 1970s, will focus on both domestic and international clients.

“Over my many years in the South Florida community, I’ve been very impressed by the caliber and professionalism of Holland & Knight attorneys, many of whom I count as friends,” Ferrer aid in the news release. “The firm has an outstanding reputation in the profession and also embodies a culture that is deeply committed to giving back to the community. I look forward to contributing to its continued success.”

Ferrer will work at the firm’s Miami office, one of its 27 branches worldwide.

Former Statewide Prosecutor William Shepherd, who heads Holland & Knight’s West Palm Beach office, attributed Ferrer’s move in part to an opportunity to reunite with the head of the firm’s litigation section, John Hogan.

Ferrer previously worked with Hogan at the Department of Justice while Mr. Hogan was chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

“I think it’s great to have Willy as part of the the team,” Shepherd said, later adding: “He’s a real trial attorney, both from the county attorney’s office in Miami-Dade and as Assistant U.S. Attorney, so he brings new depth to an already strong national team.”

Boca attorney again asks court to declare Trump mentally unfit

A Boca Raton probate and guardianship lawyer has renewed his efforts to have Donald Trump declared mentally unfit to serve as president of the United States.

Donald Trump
New U.S. President Donald Trump

Attorney James Herb said Trump’s actions over the last 10 days – fighting over the size of the crowd at his inauguration, insisting he really won the popular vote and inciting international turmoil with an immigration ban – reinforce his earlier claims that part-time Palm Beach resident is delusional.

A similar guardianship petition Herb filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court in the run-up to the November election was thrown out by Circuit Judge Jaimie Goodman. As a state court judge, Goodman said he had no power to block Trump’s candidacy or remove him from office. Further, he ruled, Herb didn’t have a relationship with Trump that would allow him to ask that the real estate tycoon be declared incompetent.

Herb said he has addressed those legal obstacles in a new petition filed Monday. “I did not have a relationship with him but I now do because he’s my president,” Herb said.

Further, he said, he’s not asking a judge to remove Trump from office. That would be done in accordance with a process outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

Herb said he is simply asking a judge to appoint a team of experts to evaluate the new chief executive’s mental health. If Trump is found incompetent by the three-person panel, the judge could then limit his activities.

In the petition, Herb is asking that Trump be barred from “seeking or retaining employment.” In an asterisks, he notes that he is asking Trump be prohibited from “retaining employment as President of the United States.” If a judge agrees to the limitation, the order would be forwarded to federal officials capable of removing him from office.

As he did in the previous petition, Herb claims Trump exhibits signs of narcissism and histrionic personality disorder. Both are recognized as mental illnesses by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association. Since taking office, Trump has also exhibited signs of being delusional, Herb wrote.

Herb, who was criticized as a publicity-hound after filing the first petition in October, said his actions aren’t part of some self-serving publicity stunt. A longtime guardianship and probate lawyer, he said his practice is now primarily limited to wills and trusts.

“I’m not interested in getting business. I have plenty of business,” he said.

His goal, he said, is much more far-reaching. “I’m trying to save the world,” he said.

He is not alone in his suspicion that Trump is mentally unfit to be president. A group calling itself “We The People,” on Sunday started an online petition to “Demand Congress Require an Independent Expert Panel Determine the President’s Psychiatric Stability to Protect America.” If they get 99,999 signatures by Feb. 28, the White House by law has to respond.

 

Operator who heard Corey Jones shooting recalls encounter

Corey Jones, 31, was shot and killed by a Palm Beach Gardens police officer on Oct. 18, 2015. Photo courtesy of WPTV.
Corey Jones, 31, was shot and killed by a Palm Beach Gardens police officer on Oct. 18, 2015. Photo courtesy of WPTV.

It was only Madeline Tolliver’s fifth day on the job at a call center for Allied Dispatch Solutions. And the first two were for training.

She introduced herself as Maddie to the predawn caller who calmly told her his name was Corey Jones and asked for a tow truck because his car wouldn’t start. Moments later, Tolliver, a 27-year-old woman in Johnson City, Tenn., became a witness — albeit 800 miles away — to the shooting of Corey Jones by then-Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja.

The emotional impact on Tolliver was clear in her recorded interview with FBI agents on Nov. 3, 2015, about two weeks after the shooting. The interview was released Tuesday by prosecutors as they prepare to bring Raja, 39, to trial on criminal charges. The two agents interviewed Tolliver with an attorney present in the city about 100 miles northeast of Knoxville, near the North Carolina border.

Prosecutors said officer lied in Corey Jones’ shooting

Over the hum of workers in the nearby call center, Tolliver told agents she hadn’t read or seen anything about the man whose last moments she overheard. By then, however, Jones’ case had become the latest in a string of national news stories about fatal police encounters with black men.

The FBI agents played the entire recording of the phone call for Tolliver, including the nearly 40 minutes Jones spent on hold.

Right after Jones told her he was at Interstate 95 and PGA Boulevard, Raja’s unmarked van pulled up perpendicular to Jones’ car and an FBI animated reenactment, also released Tuesday, indicates Raja approached Jones’ car.

Tolliver asks her next question — Are there any landmarks? — but in reply all she hears is the clanging of Jones’ car to indicate that the driver’s side door is open with the keys in the ignition.

Then comes the brief exchange between Jones and Raja, in which Jones tells the out-of-uniform officer “I’m good,” followed by three gunshots.

“Oh, my gosh,” Tolliver says.

Blood-covered Raja on night of Corey Jones shooting: ‘I need to wash this off me’

Then, seconds later, “umm,” followed by the three methodical gunshots that authorities say included the killing blow. Tolliver utters “umm, there’s gunshots.”

And finally, all that can be heard is the clanging of the car alarm.

The playback stopped. Tolliver said nothing.

“Are you OK?” an agent asked.

“Yes,” she replied, her voice a tight whisper, so strained that her response sounded more like a question.

Tolliver said she never would have guessed that the voice that interrupted her conversation with Jones belonged to a police officer.

All she knew is the other man cursed at Jones, telling him to “get the eff back” or something like that.

“After that I stood up and I flagged for a supervisor to come over,” Tolliver told the agents, later adding: “I told him that I heard gunshots, and I didn’t hear anything else, and I didn’t know what to do.”

She and her supervisor sat for a few moments and tried to figure out what to do next. Because Tolliver hadn’t been able to pinpoint an exact address for Jones by the time of the shooting, neither she nor her supervisor had any idea who to call for help.

Corey Jones shooting coverage from the beginning: News, videos, analysis, photos

They finally decided that Tolliver should hang up and call back in hopes the caller would answer. By then, the investigation reveals, Jones likely was dead.

Tolliver said her mother, who also worked at the call center, was sitting behind her and heard her say that she heard gunshots. Her mother and a couple of supervisors were the only people Tolliver said she told about the incident.

Mother and daughter talked about it as they drove home that night. Tolliver said that by the time she got home, her husband was asleep, so she didn’t tell him about it until the next day.

By the time of the interview, Tolliver was still just three weeks into her new job. Before that, she told agents, she had worked for nearly a year at a local Wal-Mart.

After the shooting, Tolliver’s employers, Allied Dispatch Solutions, came under fire after it was revealed that it took five calls and about an hour of total time on hold before Jones and Tolliver connected.

The recordings indicate that Jones, despite his long predawn wait with a stalled car, remained calm and courteous.

Just 18 days before the shooting, AT&T had changed subcontractors overseeing its roadside assistance service, bringing in the startup company marred by internal problems, including lost calls, inexperienced help and long waits.

One former manager for  Allied told The Palm Beach Post in 2016 that Jones’ situation wasn’t handled properly, and that equipment failures might have been to blame.

“He could have been off the side of the road by the time this happened,” he said.

Others in the competitive roadside assistance industry reacted in horror to Jones’ experience. They described it as far outside the industry norm.

However it came to be, the recorded roadside assistance call proved key to prosecutors’ quest to build a criminal case against Raja, who drove up on Jones in an unmarked van and approached him without a police vest, badge or anything else to indicate he was a police officer.

Several statements Raja made to investigators in a walk-through of the scene hours after the shooting directly contradict the recording.

Jones’ brother, Clinton “C.J.” Jones Jr., said Wednesday that he and family members discussed what must have been going through Tolliver’s mind during those harrowing moments, and wondered aloud whether his family could do anything to support her while they themselves are still dealing with their loss.

“Could you imagine what it would have been like to go through something like that? It’s like something out of a movie,” C.J. Jones said of Tolliver’s experience. “But if it wasn’t for her being there, staying on the line with him, we wouldn’t have heard what happened.”

PBSO deputy didn’t lose pets – only property – to pay $22.4 million jury verdict

The saga of efforts to seize a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy’s belongings to pay the expenses of a West Palm Beach man he shot and paralyzed took another turn on Tuesday when attorneys challenged the value he claimed his possessions are worth.

Sgt. Adams Lin leaves the U.S. Federal Courthouse in downtown Ft. Lauderdale on January 28, 2016. Dontrell Stephens, who became a paraplegic after being shot by Lin in September 2013, claims Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy Lin used excessive force. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
Sgt. Adams Lin leaves U.S. District Court last year. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

In court papers, attorney Jack Scarola, who represents Dontrell Stephens, accused Sgt. Adams Lin of understating the value of his car, his television and a Play Station. They are the only belongings Lin said he owns that are worth more than $25. In total, he said, his possessions, excluding his car, are worth less than $4,000.

Also, while Lin in court papers set the value of his two dogs and a cat at $100, a spokesman for Scarola said neither those pets nor an aquarium with fish were seized. By law, Lin was required to list the value of all of his possessions worth more than $25, the spokesman said.

A hearing will be held before U.S. Magistrate Barry Seltzer on Wednesday to determine if Lin will get his belongings back. He is allowed to retain $4,000 worth of his possessions, according to the state law. He claims he owes more on his 2014 Dodge Challenger than the $22,000 claims it is worth. Scarola claims it has been modified at a cost of $13,000, making it far more valuable.

Lin’s belongings were seized by court order on Jan. 7 from Lin’s home to defray a $22.4 million judgment Scarola won for Stephens last year. Stephens, 23, who was paralyzed after he was shot by Lin in 2013, is destitute, Scarola said.

The judgment is also against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. Scarola said he wants Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to pay Stephens the $200,000 he agency will be legally required to pay if the verdict is upheld on appeal. Bradshaw, he said, has refused.

Under Florida law, $200,000 is the most government agencies can be required to pay for wrongdoing. To get more, the Florida Legislature must pay a claims bill, lifting the cap.

 

Accused Fort Lauderdale airport shooter denied bond

Fort Lauderdale airport shooter Esteban Santiago Ruiz was denied bond during a brief hearing on Tuesday where new details emerged about his mental state that prompted the Jan. 6 rampage that left five dead and six injured.

FULL COVERAGE OF THE FORT LAUDERDALE SHOOTING

Santiago, 26, an Iraq veteran who lived in Anchorage, Alaska, didn’t request bond. Even if he had, U.S. Magistrate Lurana Snow indicated she would not grant it.

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Esteban Santiago Ruiz (Broward County Sheriff’s Office)

“There’s no choice. Much of the danger to the community is on camera,” she said, referring to airport video that shows Santiago methodically gunning down travelers near the baggage claim area in Terminal 2 of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Further, facing the death penalty or at least life in prison, Santiago has no reason to stay and stand trial, she said.

RELATED: Two more Fort Lauderdale shooting victims out of hospital

While news outlets have reported that Santiago went to the Anchorage FBI office in November to report that he was hearing voices and believed his mind was controlled by the CIA, Special FBI Agent Michael Ferlazzo testified that the former U.S. Army reservist wasn’t prescribed any psychotropic medicine when he was committed to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute for evaluation.

“He was released with no medical prescriptions,” he testified. While in the hospital Santiago was treated with anti-anxiety drugs. “He was deemed stable,” he said of Santiago’s hospital discharge papers. A gun he turned over to Alaskan authorities – the same one used in the airport shooting – was returned to him, the agent said.

Photo gallery: Exclusive images of Lauderdale Airport Shooting

While Santiago initially told Broward County sheriff’s deputies that voices told him to kill, when he was interviewed by the FBI hours later, talk  turned to his interest in ISIL, Ferlazzo said. “We were discussing jihadist chat rooms he visited” on the “dark web,” the agent said.

During interviews, Santiago said he was in contact online with those affiliated with the Islamic terrorist organization – “like-minded individuals who were all planning attacks,” Ferlazzo said. No foreign group has accepted responsibility for the shooting rampage and Ferlazzo didn’t say whether Santiago’s claims had been verified. He did say that Santiago’s computer and those of his family, who live in Naples and Puerto Rico, had been seized.

Assistant Public Defender Robert Berube interviewed Ferlazzo  at length while Santiago sat at a table dressed in a red jail jumpsuit, indicating he is considered high risk. The only time Santiago spoke was when the magistrate asked him if he agreed to a delay in a preliminary hearing. “Yes,” he answered, giving permission for the hearing to be delayed until Jan. 30.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ricardo Del Toro said Santiago confessed to planning the killing spree. In October, Santiago bought the gun and practiced at an Anchorage area shooting range. Then, he bought a one-way ticket on a Delta flight to Fort Lauderdale. It left Anchorage with one stop in Minneapolis. His only luggage was a gun case that contained a Walther 9-millimeter handgun.

Once Santiago retrieved the gun from airline officials, he went into a bathroom near the baggage claim area, loaded it and stuck it in the waistband of his pants, Del Toro said. “He pulled the gun out of his waistband and fired 15 rounds, aiming at victims heads,” Del Toro said. The five who died ranged in age from 57 to 84 years old. The injured were 40 to 70 years old.

“There’s no conditions or combination of conditions that can secure the safety of the community,” he said.

NEW: No venue change for third Dippolito trial

Prosecutors will not take the unprecedented step of asking a judge for a change of venue in the upcoming third trial for Dalia Dippolito.

The news comes just days after Dippolito’s lawyers said they’d like to keep the 34-year-old’s case in Palm Beach County, where last month jurors failed to reach a unanimous decision on whether or not Dippolito was guilty of hiring an undercover Boynton Beach Police officer posing as a hitman to kill her then-husband, Michael.

Dalia Dippolito, 34, sits in a Palm Beach County courtroom awaiting the start of a hearing in her case on Jan. 6, 2017.
Dalia Dippolito, 34, sits in a Palm Beach County courtroom awaiting the start of a hearing in her case on Jan. 6, 2017.

Dippolito attorneys, Brian Claypool and Greg Rosenfeld, said prosecutors soon after their announcement sent an email to Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley indicating that they would seek to move the trial out of the area.

Local defense attorneys say they’ve never heard of prosecutors making such a request in this circuit. In most states, prosecutors are prohibited from asking for changes of venue.

Claypool and Rosenfeld had unsuccessfully tried several times to get Kelley to move the trial out of the area before last month’s trial.

  Continue reading “NEW: No venue change for third Dippolito trial”