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Surfside land swap for Florida condo collapse site rejected

SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Commissioners in Surfside, Florida, have rejected a proposal to trade public beachfront to the eventual buyer of the condominium collapse site so that a memorial to the 98 victims could be built there.
The decision followed an emotional meeting Tuesday as family members of those who died in the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South and town residents packed the commission chambers, the Miami Herald reported. They had to set up an overflow room to accommodate the crowd.
After about an hour of public comment, commissioners told the victims’ families that they wouldn’t consider a proposal to tear down Surfside’s community center and build a new one, along with a memorial, at the collapse site. They also said they would not put such a land swap before voters in a referendum.
“My heart breaks for you because I know this is something that you were getting your hopes up about,” Mayor Charles Burkett, who was the lone supporter of the proposal, said. “I hope you will not give up hope.”
Commissioners Salzhauer and Nelly Velasquez had appealed to opponents of the idea to speak up.
“This is the moment we come together as a community to defend our community center and all town-owned properties,” Velasquez wrote on social media. Salzhauer wrote separately that the town “will NOT allow this tragedy to be exploited for profit and become the undoing or Surfside’s priceless community center and our residents’ quality of life.”
Deliberations were interrupted at times by upset family members, the newspaper reported. One man yelled “Let the people vote!” A woman pressed Salzhauer on her recent comments, saying: “You called us delusional.”
The board agreed to explore ways to build a victims memorial, either on a sliver of land where part of the tower fell, or at another location.
Currently, an offer of $120 million for the Champlain Towers South property is on the table. The swap plan would have allowed the buyer to build a tower instead at the site of Surfside’s 10-year-old community center, which features an oceanfront pool and waterslide and multi-purpose rooms. A new center would be built, along with a memorial, at the disaster site.
Miami-Dade Judge Michael Hanzman, who is overseeing the class-action lawsuit over the collapse, had favored the swap as a way of compensating victims through a property sale while enabling a memorial to be built.
“It shouldn’t be their decision, it should be the residents’ decision,” said David Rodan, whose brother and three cousins died in the collapse. “They’re afraid because they know that the residents want to do the right thing, they want to look back in history and see a memorial where it should be instead of a building.”
Rodan told the Herald that he and his group will continue pushing for a referendum.
“The community wants to see a memorial there and if the land swap is the only option, the community is willing to move their community center five blocks,” Rodan said.
However some residents who oppose the land swap told commissioners they support a memorial site, but not at the expense of the community center.
“I’m in favor of a memorial. I think it’s only right for the victims and their families. I’m not in favor of a land swap,” Surfside resident Paul O’Malley told NBC6.
Raquel Oliveira, whose husband and 5-year-old son died in the collapse, asked commissioners to help the families find a way to build a memorial.
“Maybe the swap is not the best option or maybe it is,” she said. “What I ask is that we have a little bit of time to take the right decision.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press.

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Florida Headlines

Woman accuses fertility doctor of secretly using own sperm

By CAROLYN THOMPSON
Associated Press
A woman is suing a New York fertility doctor, claiming he used his own sperm to secretly impregnate multiple patients — something she said she discovered when DNA genealogy tests revealed she had at least nine half-siblings.
The lawsuit was filed Saturday by the 35-year-old daughter of a woman who got fertility treatments from Dr. Morris Wortman in Rochester in the 1980s. It said he falsely told the family the sperm donor had been a local medical student. He kept the truth a secret, the lawsuit said, even after the woman, his biological daughter, became his gynecology patient.
Wortman was with patients and unavailable for comment Tuesday, his Rochester office said. The office did not immediately respond when asked for the name of an attorney who could speak on his behalf.
The case is one of more than 20 instances in recent years where fertility doctors have been accused of using their own sperm, rather than samples from anonymous donors, to treat patients. The discovery of such scenarios has been made possible with the rise of genealogy sites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe.
In Indiana, Dr. Donald Cline was accused of using his own sperm to impregnate as many as dozens of women after telling them the donors were anonymous. He ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to investigators during an investigation and was given a one-year suspended sentence.
HBO released a documentary last year, “Baby God,” about a Nevada doctor accused of inseminating multiple patients with his sperm. In another example, a Colorado doctor was sued by at least six families alleging negligence and fraud for allegedly using his own sperm in several successful artificial insemination procedures from 1975 to 1989. A New Jersey woman sued a former New York doctor with similar allegations earlier this year.
The woman who sued Wortman asked, through her attorney, that her name be withheld because of the personal nature of the allegations and because they involved her medical history. She declined to be interviewed.
The lawsuit differs from some others involving fertility doctors in that Wortman, a gynecologist, had also treated the woman as a patient for nearly 10 years, performing numerous breast and pelvic exams and discussing her sex drive and other personal issues.
The doctor’s conduct “shocks the conscience,” the legal filing said.
The lawsuit said the woman had known that she was born in 1985 through artificial insemination and that Wortman had, in fact, been “revered” in her family for helping her mother conceive through what they thought was an anonymous sperm donation from a University of Rochester medical student.
But the woman began to question the story after taking a genetic test in 2016 that began to link her with one half-sibling after another — all people who were, themselves, the children of sperm donors.
One such sibling, David Berry, had been in touch with the woman for about four years before their growing suspicions were confirmed. He and other half-siblings were at first delighted to meet over their shared bond. His feelings are more complicated now.
“An interesting dichotomy is feeling gratitude for your existence and knowing at the same time that you are the product of something that should have never happened,” Berry, 36, said by phone from Miami, Florida.
“It became a tougher pill to swallow,” he said. “On one hand you’re grateful for your existence and the people you’re sharing the experience with. On the other, I don’t know how you forgive the violation of confidence and trust that a woman puts into her physician in the most intimate of settings.”
In the meantime, Wortman continued to give the woman medical care, sometimes peppering her visits with personal questions about her husband and children and telling her about his own background as a child of Holocaust survivors. At one appointment, Wortman introduced her to his wife.
During an April visit, the lawsuit said, Wortman chuckled to himself and said aloud, “You’re a really good kid, such a good kid.”
Follow-up DNA testing with Berry and Wortman’s daughter from his first marriage confirmed the genetic link in May, the lawsuit said.
The suit accuses Wortman and his Rochester clinic, the Center for Menstrual Disorders, of medical malpractice, battery, infliction of emotional distress, negligence, fraud and lack of informed consent.
Wortman is unlikely to face criminal charges because too much time has passed, according to the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office.
“While no victim has reached out yet, our appeals bureau did do some quick research and it appears that in reference to what has been made publicly available, any criminal action is barred by the statute of limitations,” spokesperson Calli Marianetti said in an email Tuesday.
A handful of states, including Indiana, where Cline practiced, have enacted laws in recent years expressly making it illegal for a doctor to secretly donate sperm for a fertility patient, but few if any legal restrictions existed in the 1970s and 1980s, the period involved in many of the allegations.

 

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Florida Headlines

DeSantis defends the right to choose whether to vaccinate

By BRENDAN FARRINGTON
Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE (AP) —  Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that people who decide not to get a COVID-19 vaccine might be making the wrong choice, but defended their right to make that choice.
Speaking a day after holding a news conference to condemn vaccine mandates, DeSantis agreed that vaccines save lives.
“There are some of those folks who may make a decision that’s not ultimately the right decision for them,” DeSantis said at a news conference Tuesday in Miami-Dade county. “There’s obviously probably people that have been hospitalized who probably wouldn’t have been if they had done that.”
The discussion was a follow-up to a campaign-like event Monday, where DeSantis and the two independently elected Republican Cabinet members criticized local government and federal vaccine mandates. Several Gainesville city employees spoke at the event, saying government shouldn’t force them to get vaccinated.
One speaker said vaccines change people’s RNA, which has led critics to say DeSantis is spreading anti-vaccine theories. But DeSantis said he doesn’t share the opinion.
“Honestly I don’t even remember him saying that. So, it’s not anything I’ve said. I think the data’s very clear on the vaccinations,” he said. “You’re much less likely to be hospitalized or die if you’re vaccinated.”
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines deliver a synthetic form of messenger RNA into the body, but that material is short-lived and doesn’t affect a body’s genetic material. The mRNA in the vaccines gives instructions to cells in the body to make a harmless piece of what is called the “spike protein,” which prompts an immune response against COVID-19. The body’s cells then break down the mRNA.
“What we did yesterday was say, ‘OK, this is something we made available for all. We worked really hard, we were very successful in distributing it.’ But to take somebody’s job away?” DeSantis said. “These people have been on the front lines for us this whole pandemic, and if someone needed their help, whether they were COVID positive or not, these guys were on the scene.”
Still, Democrats used Monday’s event to criticize DeSantis, who turned 43 Tuesday, and people opposed to vaccines.
“He is spending his birthday week undermining vaccines and complicity standing by as anti-vaxxers spew dangerous lies. DeSantis’ commitment to playing politics continues to threaten the lives of MORE Floridians as the child COVID death rate more than doubles and hospitalizations continue to rise,” the Democratic National Committee said in a news release.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press.

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Florida Headlines

Equipment explodes in South Florida casino; 26 injured

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — Fire suppression equipment exploded in a South Florida casino Monday morning as crews performed maintenance work, causing six people to be hospitalized and 20 others to be treated at the scene, officials said.
None of the injuries at Seminole Classic Casino Hollywood were life-threatening, Hollywood Fire Rescue told news outlets.
Contract workers were performing routine service on the building’s fire suppression system when a gas canister ruptured, Seminole Tribe spokesperson Gary Bitner said. The explosion occurred on the second floor in an area not accessible to the public, but debris flew across the casinoís main floor, fire officials said.
Bitner estimated about 100 employees and guests had been in the building.
Hollywood and Seminole officials were investigating the cause of the explosion. They didn’t say when the casino might reopen.
The building is located about a half-mile south (0.8 kilometers) of the much newer and larger Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which features a landmark guitar-shaped building.

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Florida Headlines

DeSantis threatens cities with fines for vaccine mandates

By MIKE SCHNEIDER
Associated Press
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday threatened local governments with $5,000 fines per violation for requiring their employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus that has overrun hospitals and killed tens of thousands across the state.
Local municipalities, such as Orange County and the city of Gainesville, potentially face millions of dollars in cumulative fines for implementing a requirement that their employees get a COVID-19 vaccine, the Republican governor said.
“We are not going to let people be fired because of a vaccine mandate,” DeSantis said at a news conference outside Gainesville. “You don’t just cast aside people who have been serving faithfully over this issue, over what is basically a personal choice on their individual health.”
Florida has been a national epicenter for the virus’s spread this summer, with COVID-19 deaths in Florida accounting for more than 20% of the virus-related deaths across the country last week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
At the news conference, DeSantis called on several local government workers from central Florida to explain why they didn’t want to get a vaccine at the risk of losing their jobs. Several offered false conspiracy theories about the vaccines, which medical experts have said are safe and highly effective.
Many of the municipalities requiring employees to get vaccinated offer exemptions for medical or religious reasons.
Gainesville spokesperson Shelby Taylor said the city stood by its decision.
“It is our belief that as an employer we retain the right to require vaccination as a condition of employment,” Taylor said in an email.
At a news conference, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, a Democrat, said that he believed many of the decisions the Republican governor makes are politically motivated and that the county “would deal” with DeSantis’ threat, either through the courts or another manner.
“It could be a lot of money, yes, not question about it,” Demings said. “At the end of the day, it is our goal to protect the people in our greater community, to keep them safe, which is a fundamental role of government.”
DeSantis is running for reelection next year and is widely seen as a potential candidate to be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2024.
Earlier this year, DeSantis signed legislation prohibiting proof of vaccination in order to get services from businesses or governments. He also issued an order preventing local governments from imposing restrictions meant to stop the spread of the virus.
DeSantis’ remarks on Monday were his latest throwing down the gauntlet at local authorities’ efforts to implement COVID-19 measures. The state Department of Education has docked the salaries of school board members in Alachua and Broward counties for defying the governor by implementing mask mandates. A total of 13 school boards currently are ignoring the mask mandate ban.
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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP

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Florida Headlines

Giuliani associate pleads guilty in campaign donation case

By JIM MUSTIAN, LARRY NEUMEISTER and MICHAEL R. SISAK
Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — A Florida businessman who gained notoriety for helping Rudy Giuliani seek damaging information on Joe Biden in Ukraine pleaded guilty Friday to a charge alleging he facilitated illegal foreign campaign contributions in an effort to build a marijuana business in the U.S.
Igor Fruman, 56, entered the plea in federal court in Manhattan after reaching a deal with prosecutors. Fruman’s plea agreement does not require him to cooperate in other cases, U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken said.
Initially charged in a wide-ranging indictment, Fruman pleaded guilty to a single count of solicitation of a contribution by a foreign national. The plea resolves the case against him.
Federal sentencing guidelines call for a punishment of 37 to 46 months in prison, though Fruman could get up to five years, the judge said. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 21.
The plea leaves two men — Lev Parnas, another Soviet-born Florida businessman and Giuliani associate, and Ukraine-born investor Andrey Kukushkin — to face trial next month. A fourth person, David Correia, was sentenced in February to a year in prison for fraud involving a company he ran that brought Giuliani on as a consultant.
“Mr. Fruman is not cooperating with the government and has determined that this is the fairest and best way to put the past two years of his life behind him,” Fruman’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, said in a written statement after the plea hearing. “He intends to continue to work hard, as he has his entire life, and raise his family in this country that he loves. We will not have any further public communications.”

Fruman was also charged with, but did not plead guilty to, arranging hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal donations to Republicans and political action committees while trying to get Americans interested in investigating Biden’s son in Ukraine during the Democrat’s successful run for president.
Fruman apologized in court. He said he was not aware of laws prohibiting foreign campaign contributions at the time he engaged in the donation scheme.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos said in court Friday that Fruman sent text messages to the foreign national and that person’s agent seeking $1 million in political contributions and that the foreign national wired two $500,000 installments for that purpose.
In court Friday, Fruman said the donation scheme was part of an effort to encourage support for a fledgling marijuana distribution business that he and others were starting in states where the drug was being legalized.
While prosecutors have kept the identity of the donor secret, a lawyer for one of the defendants revealed him during one court hearing to be Russian businessman Andrei Muraviev.
Business and other court records show that Muraviev was an investor in a marijuana company with Kukushkin in California.
Some of the donations made during the campaign to win support for the marijuana business went into the campaign coffers of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican whose name has been floated as a potential presidential candidate.
Giuliani, 77, has said he had no knowledge of illegal campaign contributions, but has acknowledged working extensively with Fruman and Parnas as he sought communications with Ukrainian figures.
The Republican and former New York City mayor who once gained worldwide respect and admiration as “America’s Mayor” after the Sept. 11 attacks was not charged in this case. But Giuliani has been under criminal investigation for his dealings with Ukraine while serving as a personal lawyer to then-President Donald Trump.
In April, federal agents raided his Manhattan home and office and seized computers and cellphones, signaling a major escalation of the investigation. Authorities are deciding whether Giuliani’s activities required him to register as a foreign agent.
Giuliani has insisted his Ukrainian activities were conducted on behalf of Trump, not a foreign entity or person.
Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine for an investigation of the Bidens led the House to impeach the then-president, though he was acquitted by the Senate.

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Florida Headlines

4th person accused of stealing IDs from Surfside victims

MIAMI (AP) — A fourth person has been accused of stealing the identities of victims in the South Florida condominium collapse that killed 98 people, officials said.
Nelson Ronaldo Garcia-Medina, 20, was arrested Wednesday, but his name was not included when Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle held a news conference that afternoon to announce three arrests on multiple charges. She said then that there could be other co-conspirators in the case.
Garcia-Medina is the brother of Betsy Alejandra Cacho-Medina, 30, who was taken into custody on Wednesday morning along with Kimberly Michelle Johnson, 34, and Rodney Choute, 38. They each face 15 to 30 years in prison.
News outlets reported that Garcia-Medina is accused of assuming the identity of someone killed in the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South to buy a $130 pair of Air Jordan sneakers.
“These individuals appear to be very skilled identity thieves, they’re professionals,” Fernandez Rundle said on Wednesday. “Except for their names, almost nothing else about them seems to be true.”
Authorities were first notified of possible fraudulent activity on July 9, when the sister of one of the deceased victims contacted Surfside police, officials said. The sister had noticed password changes to the victim’s bank accounts and credit cards, as well as new addresses and contact information.
None of the new addresses were the residences of the identity thieves, officials said. The group was using a series of drop locations, investigators said, adding that is a common tactic used in fraud schemes.
Multiple agencies were involved in the fraud investigation, including Miami-Dade police, Surfside police, Aventura police, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Officials are still trying to determine what caused the 40-year-old building to collapse years after initial warnings about serious structural flaws. Debris has been cleared from the site and taken to a warehouse near the Miami International Airport for examination.
Cacho-Medina, Garcia-Media, Choute and Johnson all remained in the Miami-Dade jail on Friday morning. Jail records did not list attorneys who could speak on their behalf.

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Florida Headlines

Court: DeSantis ban on school mask mandates back in force

By CURT ANDERSON
AP Legal Affairs Writer
ST. PETERSBURG  (AP) — The on-again, off-again ban imposed by  Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak is back in force.
The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.
The upshot is that the state could resume its efforts to impose financial penalties on the 13 school boards currently defying the mask mandate ban. Those have included docking salaries of local school board members who voted to impose student mask mandates.
The U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday it has begun a new grant program to provide funding for school districts in Florida and elsewhere that lose money for implementing anti-coronavirus practices such as mandatory masks.
DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw said in a tweet that the decision means “the rule requiring ALL Florida school districts to protect parents’ rights to make choices about masking kids is BACK in effect!”
DeSantis has argued that the new Parents Bill of Rights law reserves solely for parents the authority to determine whether their children should wear a mask to school. School districts with mandatory mask rules allow an opt-out only for medical reasons, not parental discretion.
Charles Gallagher, attorney for parents challenging the DeSantis ban, said he is “disappointed” by the appeals court decision.
“With a stay in place, students, parents and teachers are back in harm’s way,” Gallagher said in a tweet.
The back-and-forth legal battles stem from a lawsuit filed by parents represented by Gallagher and other lawyers contending that DeSantis does not have authority to order local school boards to ban mask mandates.
Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper agreed in an Aug. 27 order, then on Wednesday lifted a stay that had blocked his ruling from taking effect. The appeals court now has put that stay back in place as the governor seeks a ruling making his mask mandate ban permanent.
The appeals judges noted that a stay is presumed when a public officer or agency seeks appellate review of a judicial order.
“We have serious doubts about standing, jurisdiction, and other threshold matters,” the appeals judges wrote in a one-page decision. “Given the presumption against vacating the automatic stay, the stay should have been left in place pending appellate review.”
In his previous order, Cooper said the overwhelming evidence is that wearing masks provides some protection for children in crowded school settings, particularly those under 12 who are not currently eligible for vaccination. The court battle comes as Florida copes with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus that has overrun hospitals across the state.
On the Parents Bill of Rights, Cooper said his previous order follows the law that reserves health and education decisions regarding children to parents unless a government entity such as a school board can show their broader action is reasonable and narrowly tailored to the issue at hand.
The next stage of the legal fight will test whether Cooper’s conclusions are correct.

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Key West’s Fantasy Fest is on but no parade or street fair

KEY WEST  (AP) — An annual celebration of debauchery and outrageous costumed parties in the Florida Keys is canceling its famous parade this year due to the state’s surge in COVID-19 cases, but events connected to the 42-year-old festival are still being held, according to planners.
The Fantasy Fest parade and a street fair in Key Fest slated for the end of October have been canceled because of the pandemic, and a masquerade march through the city’s Old Town section has been put on hold until organizers can determine that it’s safe to hold, Nadene Grossman Orr, the festival’s director said in a statement earlier this week.
Attendees of the adult-oriented festival are being asked to be fully vaccinated and they should come prepared with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test and face masks, she said.
“We cannot look into the future, but we can certainly see what is happening in our community today, and the impact that the new variant of COVID-19 has made,” Grossman Orr said. “Fantasy Fest – will look different this year but it is not canceled!”
In pre-pandemic times, the 10-day festival attracted as many as 75,000 visitors each year around Halloween for dozens of adult parties, costumed marches, street fairs and balls. The highlight of the festival was the Fantasy Fest parade, a Mardi Gras-worthy procession of floats, as well as costumed and often scantily-dressed revelers.

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Florida Headlines

Land swap proposed for Florida condominium collapse property

By CURT ANDERSON
AP Legal Affairs Writer
A proposed land swap to allow for an on-site memorial to the victims of the deadly Florida beachfront condominium collapse will be examined for financial viability, a judge ordered Wednesday.
Many survivors and victim family members of the Champlain Towers South collapse oppose a memorial at a nearby Miami Beach park. And many are uneasy with replacement of that doomed building with a luxury structure on what they regard as sacred ground.
“We think it’s kind of a burial site,” said Carlos Wainberg, who lost several family members in the June 24 disaster in Surfside, Florida, and favors the land swap idea.
Investigators are trying to determine what caused the 12-story building to collapse, killing 98 people.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman, who is overseeing lawsuits filed in the collapse aftermath, told a court-appointed receiver to investigate the proposed swap.
“It is something that is going to be looked at,” Judge Hanzman said at a status hearing. “There will never be enough to fully compensate everyone.”
The proposal would work this way: a new Surfside community center containing a Champlain memorial would be built on the collapse site. In exchange, land on which the 10-year-old community center now sits would be sold to provide compensation to survivors and victim family members.
A proposal to purchase the existing Champlain site for about $120 million is still being negotiated, with other bids expected. A complicating factor is the potential that the town of Surfside will enact a zoning change that could reduce the property’s value.
“The right thing is to add as much value to the property as possible,” said Oren Cytrynbaum, a former Champlain resident and attorney who informally represents many victims. “Lives have been lost. Lives have been displaced or ruined.”
Surfside officials said a Sept. 9 workshop is scheduled on the zoning issue but no vote by the town council has been set. The zoning question has to do with how much density — in other words, potential condo units — would be permitted in a new building.
Hanzman has expressed dismay previously that Surfside would continue to pursue a zoning change affecting the Champlain site’s value.
“There’s no deal until and unless it is approved by this court,” the judge said.
Another hearing is set for next Wednesday.