State suspends license of Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills

A Hollywood nursing home in the midst of a criminal investigation into the deaths of nine residents after Hurricane Irma had its license suspended Wednesday.

The Agency for Health Care Administration announced Wednesday that it issued an emergency suspension order on the license of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

According to the order, residents at the facility had body temperatures of more than 100 degrees when they arrived at Memorial Regional Hospital, across the street from the nursing home.

Justin Senior, secretary for the state agency, wrote in the order that the facility also made many “late entries” into patients’ medical records, claiming that the entries were made “under dubious circumstances” hours after a nurse visited the patients.

One of the people who died last week had a body temperature of 109.9 degrees Fahrenheit, while others had body temperatures of 108.5, 108.3 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit, the order claims.

Hollywood police said Tuesday that a ninth person died after an air conditioning issue that nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo blamed on “a prolonged power failure to the transformer which powered the facility’s air conditioning system as a result of the hurricane.”

The AHCA previously banned the facility from admitting new patients and from receiving Medicaid. The nursing home has filed a lawsuit trying to block those orders.

“As more information has come to light on this egregious situation, this facility absolutely cannot continue to have access to patients,” Senior said in a statement. “This facility failed its residents multiple times throughout this horrifying ordeal. It is unfathomable that a medical professional would not know to call 911 immediately in an emergency situation. The facility also entered late entries into medical records claiming safe temperatures for patients while those same patients were across the street dying in the emergency room with temperatures of over 108 degrees Fahrenheit.”

According to the order, several residents suffered respiratory or cardiac distress between 1:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. Sept. 13 at the nursing home, which was using eight portable coolers and fans in the halls while it was without air conditioning.

“The action AHCA took today to close the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center sends a clear message — if you do not protect the patients that are entrusted in your care, you will be held accountable,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement. “The more we learn about this facility’s reckless behavior, the more concerning it becomes that the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center made the decision not to immediately call 911 or evacuate to one of the state’s largest hospitals located across the street — which never lost power. We will not stop demanding answers to these questions on behalf of every family who lost a loved one.”

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‘Frivolous lawsuits’ will not pressure FPL to provide preferential treatment to Coral Gables

“Frivolous lawsuits and ludicrous code violations” from Coral Gables will not pressure Florida Power & Light to provide “preferential treatment” to the city, company officials said in a statement.

“We understand that it’s extremely frustrating for our customers to be without power,” the statement read in part. “That said, frivolous lawsuits and ludicrous code violations that attempt to pressure us into providing preferential treatment for their city will not work.”

The city of Coral Gables recently threatened legal action in a letter to FPL, saying the company has been slow to act after Hurricane Irma knocked out power in Coral Gables and most of South Florida.

On Tuesday morning, the city issued a citation against FPL for not restoring power by a Sept. 17 deadline. 

FPL officials said they are committed to restoring power to all of its customers, but said Coral Gables has resisted their previous efforts to trim trees in the area and toughen its electric system.

“Our focus is on restoring power to all of our customers, and we will not be moved by self-entitled politicians who are looking for someone to blame for the city’s irresponsibly managed tree program,” FPL’s statement said. “The fact is the city of Coral Gables has for many years resisted FPL’s well-documented efforts to trim trees and harden our electric system. Unfortunately for our customers in that area, they are now paying the price in terms of extended outages due to hundreds of trees that have fallen into our lines.”

FPL officials said it’s unclear how many of the city’s 38,000 trees were “improperly located,” causing damage to electrical equipment during the storm, but said they are certain that the trees are the problem.

“There’s no doubt that the city’s extreme approach to trees is the cause of the problem,” FPL said. “More importantly, it threatens the safety of the residents of Coral Gables and the lives of the lineworkers who are trying to restore power.”

FPL officials said 97 percent of Miami-Dade County has had power restored and thousands of crews are working around the clock to restore power to the rest of the county.

FPL’s statement comes after a class-action lawsuit was filed against the company on behalf of two people, and all Florida residents who are or were without power after Hurricane Irma.

The company said the people who filed the lawsuit have a history of “pursuing frivolous legal action,” and said that they were concerned that the suit was filed by a law firm they said is linked to Coral Gables Commissioner Frank Quesada.

Below is FPL’s full statement:

“We understand that it’s extremely frustrating for our customers to be without power. That said, frivolous lawsuits and ludicrous code violations that attempt to pressure us into providing preferential treatment for their City will not work. Our focus is on restoring power to all of our customers, and we will not be moved by self-entitled politicians who are looking for someone to blame for the City’s irresponsibly managed tree program. The fact is the city of Coral Gables has for many years resisted FPL’s well-documented efforts to trim trees and harden our electric system. Unfortunately for our customers in that area, they are now paying the price in terms of extended outages due to hundreds of trees that have fallen into our lines.

While we do not have a precise assessment of the number of City-owned trees that may have been improperly located, resulting in unnecessarily extensive damage to electrical equipment and extended outages for Coral Gables residents, there’s no doubt that the City’s extreme approach to trees is the cause of the problem. More importantly, it threatens the safety of the residents of Coral Gables and the lives of the lineworkers who are trying to restore power.

We have restored 97 percent of Miami-Dade, and thousands of crews are working to restore the remaining customers without power. After restoration is complete, FPL would be happy to work with the City constructively and provide them recommendations on how to avoid some of these problems from reoccurring during severe weather in the future. However, it is important to note, that numerous attempts we’ve made in the past to address the impact of the City’s dense, overgrown vegetation and tree canopy has on the reliability of their residents’ electric service has been ignored.

We recently learned of a separate, related lawsuit filed on behalf of two individuals who appear to have a history of pursuing frivolous legal action. Frivolous lawsuits are filed every day in America, however, what is concerning in this case is that the suit was filed by a law firm linked to a Coral Gables City Commissioner. We have not yet received a copy of the lawsuit, but we can only assume it’s another attempt to distract from the City’s failure to properly locate and manage its trees, despite having a website that shows the exact location of each of its 38,000 trees.

Our crews have been removing a shocking number of fallen and damaged trees that were apparently planted by the City in dangerous locations far too close to power lines. Other trees appear to have been planted too closely together, preventing their root systems from being able to grow properly and hold the ground securely in high winds. With wind gusts of more than 90 mph recorded in nearby weather stations, it’s no wonder why so many trees came crashing down all over the City.”   

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Class-action lawsuit filed against FPL after Irma leaves millions without power

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Florida Power & Light on behalf of all Florida residents who were without — and some who remain without — electricity after Hurricane Irma.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in Miami-Dade County court.

According to the lawsuit, FPL collected storm charge fees to allow for trees near power lines to be pruned and for moving some power lines underground. But FPL didn’t do what was promised, the lawsuit claims.

“Obviously, they did not honor that promise, but nonetheless continue to collect millions and millions and millions of these fees,” South Florida attorney Gonzalo Dorta said at a news conference to announce the lawsuit.

Dorta said FPL began collecting the fees after Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

“What happened here was not a snowstorm,” Dorta said. “It was a wind and rain event, which is typical in South Florida. But this is a monopoly that agreed to provide services in South Florida where these events are foreseeable.”

The city of Coral Gables recently threatened legal action in a letter to FPL, saying the company has been slow to act.

“We understand that it’s extremely frustrating for our customers to be without power,” FPL spokesman Richard Beltran said in a statement. “That said, frivolous lawsuits and ludicrous code violations that attempt to pressure us into providing preferential treatment for their city will not work. Our focus is on restoring power to all of our customers, and we will not be moved by self-entitled politicians who are looking for someone to blame for the city’s irresponsibly managed tree program. The fact is the city of Coral Gables has for many years resisted FPL’s well-documented efforts to trim trees and harden our electric system. Unfortunately for our customers in that area, they are now paying the price in terms of extended outages due to hundreds of trees that have fallen into our lines.”

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Miami-Dade County judge’s Facebook friendship doesn’t require recusal

A Facebook friendship doesn’t necessarily constitute a real friendship, so says a South Florida appellate court.

Miami-Dade County Judge Beatrice Butchko doesn’t need to recuse herself because an attorney involved in a case in her courtroom is a Facebook friend, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday.

In a 10-page opinion, the court ruled that Facebook data mining and algorithms lead to people accepting friend requests from people whom they hardly know or with whom they are acquainted in professional circles.

“To be sure, some of a member’s Facebook ‘friends’ are undoubtedly friends in the classic sense of a person for whom the member feels particular affection and loyalty,” the judges ruled. “The point is, however, many are not.”

The court cites a 2012 case involving a Temple University student who didn’t know he was a Facebook “friend” with another student he was accused of assaulting because he had more than 1,000 Facebook friends.

A North Miami law firm petitioned the court to have Butchko removed from presiding over a contract dispute against the United Services Automobile Association because her former bench colleague and Facebook friend, Israel Reyes, appeared before her as an attorney.

“Because a ‘friend’ on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, we hold that the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook ‘friend’ with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook ‘friend,'” the judges said.

But the fight over Facebook friendship continues. An appellate court in West Palm Beach has ruled to the contrary. That means the question over the true meaning of social media friendship could eventually be decided by the Florida Supreme Court.

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Dalia Dippolito seeks bond during appeal of murder-for-hire conviction

Dalia Dippolito is expected back in court Thursday as her attorneys seek to get her out of jail while they appeal her 16-year prison sentence for hiring an undercover police officer who was posing as a hit man to kill her husband.

The 34-year-old Boynton Beach woman was convicted in June of solicitation to commit first-degree murder. It was her third murder-for-hire trial.

Defense attorneys Brian Claypool and Greg Rosenfeld are seeking an appellate bond for Dippolito while the Fourth District Court of Appeal considers their argument for a new trial. They claim that a juror was sleeping during crucial testimony in Dippolito’s most recent trial.

Palm Beach County Judge Glenn Kelley denied a previous request for a new trial.

If attorneys successfully appeal the decision, Dippolito would get a fourth trial.

Assistant state attorney Craig Williams wrote in a recent court filing that Dippolito should not be released from custody because she is a flight risk. In the filing, Williams cited a July 8 jail conversation that Dippolito had with an apparent lover about a recent prison break.

“Shortly after the verdict, the defendant can be heard on tape enthusiastically discussing a recent case of how an inmate broke out of a maximum security prison using wire cutters that were delivered to him via drone,” Williams wrote.

Local 10 News obtained the recorded jail call last week.

“There is a guy who was in prison in Texas and he had somebody fly a drone over and drop off wire cutters, and he cut wires and escaped from prison,” Dippolito said in the recording.

“Wow, that’s awesome,” the man said.

Dippolito was wrong. The escaped inmate broke out of a South Carolina prison, although he was captured in Texas two days later.

“Everyone here was, like, pumped up when they read that,” Dippolito said.

Dippolito was found guilty of hiring an undercover police detective whom she thought was a hit man to kill her then-husband in 2009, saying that she was “5,000 percent sure” she wanted him dead. The Boynton Beach Police Department staged a phony crime scene on the day that Dippolito’s husband was supposed to be killed and recorded her reaction.

Her 2011 conviction and 20-year sentence were thrown out on appeal. Last year’s trial ended with a 3-3 hung jury.

Dippolito has a 1-year-old son who was born while she was out of jail on house arrest between the second and third trials.

A hearing on the matter was scheduled for Thursday morning.

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New public defender appointed for Howard Ault

Howard Ault found himself back in court Thursday as the state readies a new sentencing trial in the 1999 death penalty case against him.

“I would like to talk about setting up some deadlines. They’re not cast in stone, but it gives everyone a framework,” Broward County Judge Tim Bailey said.

Ault was on death row for the 1996 murder of two sisters whose bodies were found in the attic of his Fort Lauderdale home. 

The 49-year-old’s case is one of hundreds across the state that were affected by a Florida Supreme Court ruling last year that called the penalty process unconstitutional. 

At issue are cases in which jurors didn’t come back with a unanimous decision on whether to execute a convicted killer. 

Ault’s initial sentencing trial was appealed and later upheld in 2007, but not by a unanimous decision. 

In addition, the state has said some witnesses in the case have died, and it was unclear if evidence in the case has made its way back to Broward County from the Supreme Court facilities in Tallahassee. 

When asked if he wanted the court to appoint a new attorney, Ault agreed.

“Your honor, I would like the court to appoint the public defender’s office,” Ault said.  

Bailey appointed a public defender for Ault but did not get into the details of a new sentencing trial, including witness testimony and the evidence in the now 21-year-old case. 

Another hearing is scheduled for next week.

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