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Judge urged to clear way for case over migrant flights from Florida to Massachusetts

Mon, 05/15/2023 - 07:29

TALLAHASSEE — Plaintiffs last week fired back after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration argued that a federal judge should dismiss a potential class-action lawsuit filed after Florida flew 49 migrants from Texas to Massachusetts in September.

Attorneys for three migrants from Venezuela and the nonprofit group Alianza Americas filed a 106-page document in federal court in Massachusetts disputing a series of arguments raised by the DeSantis administration in a Feb. 28 motion to dismiss the case.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys described the flights as a “shocking abuse of power” designed to boost DeSantis’ political profile in advance of a potential run for the White House in 2024.

“This is a case about defendants’ unlawful, tortious and inhumane manipulation of a group of 49 immigrants newly arrived to the United States, many of whom did not or barely spoke English, in order to further defendants’ agenda and political aspirations,” a legal memorandum, filed Thursday, said. “Despite defendants’ attempt to characterize this case as one about national immigration policy, it is not. Rather, at its heart, this case is about whether the laws of the United States and of Massachusetts permit state officials and their cronies to lure innocent people onto a plane with false promises of jobs, housing, and support, and dump them in an unknown place where they were not expected.”

The lawsuit, filed in September and revised in November, alleges that the flights violated federal and Massachusetts laws, including violating migrants’ due-process and equal-protection rights. Defendants include DeSantis, other DeSantis administration officials, the Florida Department of Transportation, contractor Vertol Systems Company, Inc. and alleged organizer Perla Huerta.

The lawsuit seeks damages and an injunction to prevent the state from “inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.”

The DeSantis administration paid $615,000 to Vertol to fly the migrants Sept. 14 from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, with a brief stop in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview. The flights, which spurred national attention, came as DeSantis frequently criticized federal border policies.

In the Feb. 28 motion to dismiss the case, lawyers for the DeSantis administration raised a series of procedural and substantive issues.

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“Plaintiffs obviously disagree with Florida’s policies and political leaders,” the state’s attorneys wrote in a memorandum of law. “But those disagreements are no substitute for asserting plausible facts or viable legal theories, or for overcoming fatal jurisdictional and immunity obstacles. They are also not a valid legal basis for hauling Florida, one of its agencies, the head of its executive branch and three other state officials into a Massachusetts courtroom.”

As an example, the state’s attorneys wrote that a Massachusetts federal court should not have jurisdiction over the case.

“To be sure, the planes landed in Massachusetts,” the state’s attorneys argued. “But plaintiffs’ claims all arose before the plane touched down.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys, however, disputed such arguments in the filing last week. The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs.

“Plaintiffs were injured in the Commonwealth (of Massachusetts),” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote. “Defendants engaged in a concerted, multi-state scheme to entice the unwitting individual plaintiffs onto flights to Martha’s Vineyard where they were falsely imprisoned, then abandoned and humiliated in a publicity stunt contrived for DeSantis’ personal and political gain.”

Also, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued they had sufficiently raised claims of federal constitutional violations.

“The scheme, at its core, denied class plaintiffs their liberty in the most fundamental sense by tricking them into boarding planes under false pretenses and only revealing the planes’ true destination once escape was impossible, and impermissibly interfering with access to their immigration proceedings,” the document said.

The Legislature last year included $12 million in the state budget for the Department of Transportation to carry out a “program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” The DeSantis administration used part of that money to pay Vertol.

But amid the lawsuit in Massachusetts and another case in state court in Leon County, the Legislature on Feb. 10 passed a bill that sought to neutralize legal arguments against the handling of the flights.

In part, the bill repealed the part of the budget that was used to pay for the flights and created the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program in state law. Also, the bill funneled remaining money provided in the budget section back to state coffers, and allocated $10 million to the newly created program — effectively swapping out money.

That led to a Leon County circuit judge dismissing the lawsuit filed in state court. The DeSantis administration attorneys also has argued that the new law should scuttle part of the Massachusetts case, saying that the disputed section of the budget has “been repealed so it is impossible for any plaintiff to be subjected to future transportation” under the section.

DeSantis last week signed an immigration bill (SB 1718) that provided $12 million for the program in the coming year.

A Florida man living underwater won’t resurface even after breaking the record

Mon, 05/15/2023 - 07:26

KEY LARGO, Fla. — A university professor broke a record for the longest time living underwater without depressurization this weekend at a Florida Keys lodge for scuba divers.

Joseph Dituri’s 74th day residing in Jules’ Undersea Lodge, situated at the bottom of a 30-foot-deep lagoon in Key Largo, wasn’t much different than his previous days there since he submerged March 1.

Dituri, who also goes by the moniker “Dr. Deep Sea,” ate a protein-heavy meal of eggs and salmon prepared using a microwave, exercised with resistance bands, did his daily pushups and took an hour-long nap. Unlike a submarine, the lodge does not use technology to adjust for the increased underwater pressure.

The previous record of 73 days, two hours and 34 minutes was set by two Tennessee professors — Bruce Cantrell and Jessica Fain — at the same location in 2014.

But Dituri isn’t just settling for the record and resurfacing: He plans to stay at the lodge until June 9, when he reaches 100 days and completes an underwater mission dubbed Project Neptune 100.

The mission combines medical and ocean research along with educational outreach and was organized by the Marine Resources Development Foundation, owner of the habitat.

“The record is a small bump and I really appreciate it,” said Dituri, a University of South Florida educator who holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering and is a retired U.S. Naval officer. “I’m honored to have it, but we still have more science to do.”

His research includes daily experiments in physiology to monitor how the human body responds to long-term exposure to extreme pressure.

“The idea here is to populate the world’s oceans, to take care of them by living in them and really treating them well,” Dituri said.

The outreach portion of Dituri’s mission includes conducting online classes and broadcast interviews from his digital studio beneath the sea. During the past 74 days, he has reached over 2,500 students through online classes in marine science and more with his regular biomedical engineering courses at the University of South Florida.

While he says he loves living under the ocean, there is one thing he really misses.

“The thing that I miss the most about being on the surface is literally the sun,” Dituri said. “The sun has been a major factor in my life – I usually go to the gym at five and then I come back out and watch the sunrise.”

Dolphins signing XFL defensive back who previously played for Saints

Mon, 05/15/2023 - 07:12

The Miami Dolphins are signing XFL defensive back Bryce Thompson, according to a league source Monday.

Thompson, who has played in the NFL for the New Orleans Saints, had 34 tackles and two interceptions in 10 games with the XFL’s Seattle Sea Dragons this season.

Over the 2021 and 2022 seasons with the Saints, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Thompson appeared in eight games and totaled two tackles. Most of his NFL action has come on special teams, but he saw six snaps at cornerback in 2022. He made his NFL debut as a COVID replacement for the Saints in a “Monday Night Football” loss to the Dolphins in December 2021.

Thompson was an SEC standout at Tennessee, collecting eight interceptions from 2018 to 2020. He returned one for a touchdown and also was in on kickoff returns.

In 2019, Thompson was arrested for misdemeanor domestic assault, but the charge was later dismissed.

Thompson decided to forego his senior season of college, but went undrafted in 2021 before signing with the Saints.

Thompson will get a chance to compete for a roster spot among a deep Dolphins secondary that has cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey, Xavien Howard, second-round pick Cam Smith, Kader Kohou, Nik Needham, Keion Crossen, Justin Bethel, Noah Igbinoghene, Trill Williams and versatile defensive back and special teamer Elijah Campbell. Miami also has Tino Ellis and 2023 undrafted free agent Ethan Bonner vying for a roster spot.

The move Monday comes after Sunday’s decision to agree to terms with former New England Patriots offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn. The Dolphins now have 89 players signed a week ahead of the start of organized team activities.

Same as it ever was in Heat-Celtics? Not exactly in heated rivalry

Mon, 05/15/2023 - 06:34

MIAMI — The perfect way to resume a playoff rivalry reserved only for the Eastern Conference finals over the past four years would be for Jimmy Butler to pull up for a 28-foot 3-point attempt on the Miami Heat’s first possession in the upcoming series against the Boston Celtics.

Indeed, on the eve of this season’s training camp, Butler reflected on that attempt with 16.6 seconds left and the Heat down two in the Game 7 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals they eventually would lose to the Celtics.

“I hope I get it this year,” he told the team’s flagship radio station, WQAM at media day. “I’m taking it every time. That’s what you play the game for.”

But that also doesn’t mean the teams will be picking up where they left off on May 29, 2022.

When the best-of-seven series opens Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. in Boston, the teams’ third meeting in the East finals in four years, many elements will be the same, including the leading men.

But there also will be enough differences to potentially cast this in a different light.

The venue: The Celtics this time will hold homecourt advantage, after four of the seven games last season were played in Miami.

Last year, the Heat entered as the conference’s No. 1 seed, after a 53-29 regular season, with the Celtics No. 2 in the East, at 51-31.

This time around, the Heat enter at No. 8, coming off a 44-38 season, with the Celtics again No. 2, at 57-25.

Of course, last year the Heat went 1-3 at home in the series, 2-1 in Boston.

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The coaches: The sideline constant in the series has been Erik Spoelstra, who has coached the Heat in all five of the franchise’s previous playoff series against the Celtics, dating to 2010, winning three.

By contrast, this will be the third Celtics coach to work a series against the Heat over the last four years.

At the 2020 Disney World quarantine-bubble setting amid the pandemic, Brad Stevens lost 4-2 to the Heat.

In last season’s East finals, Ime Udoka coached Boston to its 4-3 win.

Now, with Udoka removed as coach on the eve of this season, 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla enters the equation, having gone 2-2 against the Heat during the regular season.

The lineups/rotations: While the rosters largely are intact from last season’s Game 7, there are subtle differences.

The Celtics opened last year’s Game 7 with a starting lineup against the Heat of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Robert Williams and Marcus Smart. That also is the lineup Boston opened with Sunday in their Game 7 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers that landed them in the East finals.

However, Boston largely had previously moved to a smaller lineup that had guard Derrick White, the sixth man in last year’s Heat-Celtics series, as a starter in place of Williams.

With the offseason addition of Malcolm Brogdon, Boston also has moved away from the reliance on forward Robert Williams, who had been a major component in last season’s series matchup.

The Heat opened last year’s Game 7 with a lineup of Bam Adebayo, P.J. Tucker, Butler, Max Strus and Kyle Lowry.

With Tucker lost to the 76ers last summer in free agency, Love has been the Heat’s starting power forward since the middle of the first round, but that could change if the Celtics go small. Indeed, Caleb Martin, a potential Heat starting option in place of Love, was not even utilized in last year’s Game 7 between the teams.

Also, Gabe Vincent, who played only 15:18 in reserve in last year’s Game 7, now starts in place of 37-year-old Lowry.

As was the case with last season’s series, the Heat’s Tyler Herro again is ailing. Last year, it was a groin injury that limited him to 6:43 in his Game 7 comeback attempt; this time it is a broken hand that has him sidelined. In addition, Heat guard Victor Oladipo, who played 32:41 in last year’s Game 7, is out for the remainder of the playoffs following knee surgery.

All eight players who saw action for Boston in last year’s Game 7 remain on the Celtics’ roster, with all seven of the eight (minus Tucker) who saw action for Heat remaining on Miami’s roster.

The expectations: After losing to the Golden State Warriors in last season’s NBA Finals, the approach has been championship or bust for this season’s Celtics, something that was not the case a year ago, when the Celtics finally made their NBA Finals breakthrough.

The Heat, by contrast, were crushed by last season’s Game 7 loss. Now, as just the second No. 8 seed to advance to a conference finals, there is more of an air of playing with house money.

The Heat are a decided underdog in the series (at 6-to-1, according to BetOnLine), and opened as an eight-point underdog for Wednesday night’s Game 1.

The rivalry: With Danny Ainge having left the Celtics for the Utah Jazz front office, the primary edge of the rivalry over the years, Pat Riley vs. Danny Ainge, has been lost. The STFU era is over.

Heck, even Boston’s alumni appear to finally be over Ray Allen defecting to the Heat in 2012 free agency (which took a decade of bridge rebuilding).

There also was the angle a year ago of Adebayo upset of his snub for 2022 Defensive Player of the Year in favor of Smart.

Plus, of course, the Heat will always have Adebayo’s game-deciding block of Tatum in the teams’ series opener in 2020.

Mostly, beyond the edginess of Butler and Smart, there is a degree of respect, and even friendship, between most in the series.

DeSantis team plans reset after rough start to possible presidential run

Mon, 05/15/2023 - 05:07

In November, U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds scored a coveted speaking slot: introducing Gov. Ron DeSantis after a landslide re-election turned the swing state of Florida deep red. Standing onstage at a victory party for DeSantis in Tampa, Donalds praised him as “America’s governor.”

By April, Donalds, R-Naples, was seated at a table next to another Florida Republican: Donald Trump. He was at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club, for a multicourse dinner with nine other House Republicans from Florida who had spurned their home-state governor to endorse the former president’s 2024 run.

In six short months from November to May, DeSantis’s run for president has faltered before it has even begun.

Some allies have abandoned him. Tales of his icy interpersonal touch have spread. Donors have groused. And a legislative session in Tallahassee designed to burnish his conservative credentials has instead coincided with a drop in the polls.

His decision not to begin any formal campaign until after the Florida legislative session — allowing him to cast himself as a conservative fighter who not only won but actually delivered results — instead opened a window of opportunity for Trump. The former president filled the void with personal attacks and a heavy rotation of negative advertising from his super PAC.

Combined with DeSantis’s cocooning himself in the right-wing media and the Trump team’s success in outflanking him on several fronts, the governor has lost control of his own national narrative.

Now, as DeSantis’ Tallahassee-based operation pivots to formally entering the race in the coming weeks, the governor and his allies are retooling for a more aggressive new phase. His staunchest supporters privately acknowledge that DeSantis needs to recalibrate a political outreach and media strategy that has allowed Trump to define the race.

Changes are afoot

DeSantis is building a strong Iowa operation, a state he visited over the weekend. He has been calling influential Republicans in Iowa and is rolling out a large slate of state legislator endorsements.

“He definitely indicated that if he gets in, he will work exceptionally hard — nothing will be below him,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Iowa evangelical leader whom Mr. DeSantis hosted recently for a meal at the governor’s mansion. “I think he understands — I emphasized that Iowa’s a retail politics state. You need to shake people’s hands, look them in the eye.”

Still, his central electability pitch — MAGA without the mess — has been badly bruised.

A book tour that was supposed to have introduced him nationally was marked by missteps that deepened concerns about his readiness for the biggest stage. He took positions on two pressing domestic and international issues — abortion and the war in Ukraine — that generated second-guessing and backlash among some allies and would-be benefactors. And the moves he has made to appeal to the hard right — escalating his feud with Disney, signing a strict six-week abortion ban — have unnerved donors who are worried about the general election.

“I was in the DeSantis camp,” said Andrew Sabin, a metals magnate who gave the Florida governor $50,000 last year. “But he started opening his mouth, and a lot of big donors said his views aren’t tolerable.” He specifically cited abortion and Ukraine.

Three billionaires who are major G.O.P. donors — Steve Wynn, Ike Perlmutter and Thomas Peterffy, a past DeSantis patron who has publicly soured on him — dined recently with Vivek Ramaswamy, the 37-year-old long-shot Republican.

Allies of both leading Republicans caution that it’s still early.

DeSantis has more than $100 million stored across various pro-DeSantis accounts. He is building goodwill with state party leaders by headlining fund-raisers. He remains, in public polls, the most serious rival to Trump.

And a supportive super PAC called Never Back Down is staffing up across more than a dozen states, has already spent more than $10 million on television ads and has peppered early states with direct mail.

DeSantis supporters point to polls showing that the governor remains well-liked by Republicans.

“The hits aren’t working,” said Kristin Davison, chief operating officer of Never Back Down. “His favorability has not changed.”

The DeSantis team declined to provide any comment for this story.

Six months ago, as Republicans were blaming Trump for the party’s 2022 midterm underperformance, a high-flying DeSantis made the traditional political decision that he would govern first in early 2023 and campaign second. The rush of conservative priorities that  DeSantis has turned into law in Florida — on guns, LGTBQ rights, immigration, abortion, school vouchers, opposing China — is expected to form the backbone of his campaign.

“Now, the governor can create momentum by spending time publicly touting his endless accomplishments, calling supporters and engaging more publicly to push back on the false narratives his potential competitors are spewing,” said Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist in Florida and a longtime DeSantis supporter.

A turning point this year for Trump was his Manhattan indictment, which DeSantis waffled on responding to as the G.O.P. base rallied to Trump’s defense.

Yet Mr. Trump’s compounding legal woes and potential future indictments could eventually have the opposite effect — exhausting voters. A jury found Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation.

“When you get all these lawsuits coming at you,” DeSantis told one associate recently, “it’s just distracting.”

‘So God Made a Fighter’

Days before the midterms, the DeSantis campaign released a video that cast his rise as ordained from on high. “On the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a protector,’” a narrator booms as Mr. DeSantis appears onscreen. “So God made a fighter.”

For years, the self-confident DeSantis has relied on his own instincts and the counsel of his wife, Casey DeSantis, who posted the video, to set his political course, according to past aides and current associates. DeSantis has been written off before — in his first primary for governor; in his first congressional primary — so both he and his wife have gotten used to tuning out critics.

Today, allies say there are few people around who are willing to tell DeSantis he’s wrong, even in private.

In late 2022, the thinking was that a decision on 2024 could wait, and Trump’s midterm hangover would linger. DeSantis published a book that became a best seller. And Mr. DeSantis was on the offensive, tweaking Trump with a February donor retreat held only miles from Mar-a-Lago that drew Trump contributors.

But it has been Trump who has consistently one-upped Mr. DeSantis, flying into East Palestine, Ohio, after the rail disaster there, appearing with a larger crowd in the same Iowa city days after DeSantis and swiping Florida congressional endorsements while DeSantis traveled to Washington.

Trump’s team has portrayed Mr. DeSantis as socially inept, and a pro-Trump super PAC distributed a video — dubbed “Pudding Fingers” — playing off news articles about Mr. DeSantis’s uncouth eating habits.

People close to Trump have been blunt in private discussions that the hits so far are just the start: If DeSantis ever appears poised to capture the nomination, the former president will do everything he can to tear him apart.

Beginning with his response to the coronavirus outbreak, DeSantis’ national rise has been uniquely powered by his ability to make the right enemies: in academia, in the news media, among liberal activists and at the White House. But Trump’s broadsides and some of his own actions have put DeSantis crosswise with the right for the first time. It has been a disorienting experience for the DeSantis operation, according to allies.

For the past three years, DeSantis has had the luxury of completely shutting out what he pejoratively brands the “national regime media” or “the corporate media” — though Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corporation does not, in his view, count as corporate media.

This strategy served DeSantis well in Florida. But avoiding sit-down interviews with skeptical journalists has left him out of practice as he prepares for the most intense scrutiny of his career.

“The Murdochs encapsulated him in a bubble and force-fed him to a conservative audience,” said Steve Bannon, a former strategist for Trump. “He hasn’t been scuffed up. He hasn’t had these questions put in his grill.”

Some condo buyers are hesitant to purchase as they wait out new rules

Mon, 05/15/2023 - 04:00

Some uncertainty among potential condominium buyers is brewing as they wait to see how the latest state guidelines on condo safety play out.

Florida lawmakers approved a revised version in early May of last year’s guidelines on ensuring safety in condo buildings in an effort to smooth out the process, though experts say that some buyers are choosing to wait to see what happens with assessments before taking a leap.

“It’s more chaotic right now because the studies aren’t done yet, and there is uncertainty because of that,” said Jeff Lichtenstein, founder Echo Fine Properties in Palm Beach Gardens. “There is a big unknown.”

Under the revised version of the rules, buildings that are three stories or taller can now undergo a “milestone inspection” after being occupied for 30 years, unless local officials deem that there are “local circumstances, including environmental conditions such as proximity to salt water,” that would require a milestone inspection every 25 years if they were within three miles of the coastline.

The revised bill also allows local officials to offer buildings additional time past the deadline if they have a contract with an architect or engineer.

The law was passed after the deadly Surfside collapse in June of 2021 raised concerns across Florida about the structural integrity and safety of older buildings. Champlain Towers South, built in 1981, collapsed right as its 40-year recertification was due; ninety-eight people lost their lives.

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“In the long-term, these safety inspection requirements are a good thing. It’s going to add a considerable layer of expenses that probably should have happened years ago,” said Elliot Koolik, founding partner with the Koolik Group with Compass in Boca Raton.

A key part of the law entitles buyers of certain buildings to a copy of the milestone inspection of the building when they enter into a contract, as well as a structural-integrity-reserve study, which notes the amount of funds needed to be reserved for future major repairs and replacement of the condominium property, with certain exceptions granted.

“In the older buildings, there are more buyers reserving their decisions to see how this will play out. There are people that are hesitating because they don’t want a big expense without knowing it,” Koolik said.

Closed sales for condos have decreased overall when compared to last year. In Palm Beach County, closed sales for condos decreased about 21.4%, according to the Miami Realtors Association.

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Broward County’s condo sales decreased 28.7% year over year. In Miami-Dade County, closed sales for condos decreased 43.8% year over year.

This uncertainty doesn’t mean the condo market is failing; rather, the fall in sales can be contributed to a few factors: the rise in mortgage rates, the slowdown that has also affected the rest of the market, and potentially a small part being hesitation from prospective buyers, real estate agents said.

“In older buildings there might be some price depression, and more people selling, but overall the market has been pretty strong,” Koolik said. “In general, newer construction is doing well depending on the price point you are looking at.”

In light of the uncertainty in some areas or buildings, there are things buyers and sellers can do to prepare and work around it, Lichtenstein noted. It’s especially important for a seller to know as much about the building’s financials as possible and to disclose that information upfront to the buyer.

Overall, there are still options for buyers looking to get into a condo.

“Just because a building is older, it doesn’t mean that it needs a lot of updates. Many condo associations have been diligent and they have stayed on top of this.” Koolik added.

ASK IRA: Could the schedule of NBA East finals cramp the Heat’s style?

Mon, 05/15/2023 - 03:05

Q: Is the conference final’s schedule too flawed and unforgiving? I remember thinking after Jimmy Butler missed the three in Game 7 last year that it was disappointing, but the Heat and Celtics were so gassed from the series no way they were winning in the NBA Finals. Everyone was exhausted with only having one day off between each game. – Kris, Oceanside, Calif.

A: I have no issue with a single day off between games when they are in the same city, as is the case between Games 1 and 2 in Boston, and then Games 3 and 4 in Miami. But if you check a map, it’s not as if Boston and Miami are particularly close, certainly not like the flying distance the Celtics had in their series against Philadelphia. And especially late in series, when you want stars at their best, I think an extra day before Game 6 and then Game 7 would make sense. But this is all about programming. As it is, teams generally don’t practice when there is a travel day involved or after late games. So it is possible, with all games in the Eastern Conference finals starting at 8:30 p.m., that once the series starts, neither team might practice.

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Q: The Celtics won their last two games starting Al Horford and Robert Williams, but you said that plays into the Heat’s hands. What say you now? – Nestor.

A: It will be interesting. And both coaches might take an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach. The Celtics won their last two games going big, but that also was against Joel Embiid. Conversely, if the Celtics downsize, I’m not sure Erik Spoelstra would automatically go away from what has worked with Kevin Love in his first five. What might be more interesting is the depth on both sides. The Celtics went only seven deep until garbage time on Sunday. With not even Grant Williams seeing any minutes of meaning. Again, the tighter scheduling in this round could change things.

Q: Why did Tyler Herro have to dive for that loose ball? – Timmy.

A: I agree that the Heat could have used Tyler Herro’s shot creation in a series like this. But it also seems overly optimistic to have an expectation of a Herro return in this round against the Celtics. Remember, the Heat’s biggest investment in Tyler starts next season, with the start of his four-year, $130 million extension.

Central Florida ranch voted top glamping destination nationwide

Mon, 05/15/2023 - 02:35

A Central Florida ranch has been voted as the top destination for glamping nationwide, according to USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards.

Westgate River Ranch Resort, located about 90 minutes south of Orlando, was chosen by voters as number one on a list of the Top 10 glamping spots in the U.S. The Florida dude ranch and luxury glamping resort sits on 1,700 acres overlooking the Kissimmee River with options to sleep in a Conestoga wagon, glamping tents, teepees, rail cars, cabins, cottages, and lodge suites. Overnight stays start around $49 per night for primitive tent sites and go up to $799 per night for a Conestoga wagon (check the Westgate website for up-to-date prices).

“Glamping” is an emerging trend for people who want to dip their toes into the world of camping without the hassle of roughing it and setting up their own tent. The term was added to the Oxford dictionary in 2016, defined as “a type of camping, using tents and other kinds of accommodation, facilities, etc. that are more comfortable and expensive than those usually used for camping.”

The Florida destination placed ahead of glamping getaways in Ohio, Michigan, Utah, Alabama, Wisconsin, New York, Maine and Tennessee.

DON PETERSEN / APA bull rider hangs on tight to his bucking bull during the rodeo at Westgate River Ranch Resort on March 2, 2019. (Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel)

Westgate River Ranch Resort, the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi, offers families the chance to embark on an airboat or swamp buggy ride, experience a petting farm, take a river cruise or a horseback ride and make s’mores on the fire. Ambitious adventurers can try trap shooting, skeet shooting or riding the mechanical bull, but there are more laid-back activities such as mini golf and fishing.

One of the ranch’s biggest draws is the Saturday night rodeo, where visitors can see bull riding, barrel racing and trick riding.

“Our team members at River Ranch work diligently to provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences for our guests,” said Ray Duncan, the resort’s general manager, in a news release. “To see their efforts being rewarded by USA Today and its readers is phenomenal, and we are thrilled to be representing Central Florida with such a high distinction.”

To learn more, visit 10best.com or westgateresorts.com.


Find me on Instagram @PConnPie or send me an email: pconnolly@orlandosentinel.com.

Are you who you say you are? TSA tests facial recognition technology to boost airport security

Sun, 05/14/2023 - 21:48

BALTIMORE (AP) — A passenger walks up to an airport security checkpoint, slips an ID card into a slot and looks into a camera atop a small screen. The screen flashes “Photo Complete” and the person walks through — all without having to hand over their identification to the TSA officer sitting behind the screen.

It’s all part of a pilot project by the Transportation Security Administration to assess the use of facial recognition technology at a number of airports across the country.

“What we are trying to do with this is aid the officers to actually determine that you are who you say who you are,” said Jason Lim, identity management capabilities manager, during a demonstration of the technology to reporters at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The effort comes at a time when the use of various forms of technology to enhance security and streamline procedures is only increasing. TSA says the pilot is voluntary and accurate, but critics have raised concerns about questions of bias in facial recognition technology and possible repercussions for passengers who want to opt out.

The technology is currently in 16 airports. In addition to Baltimore, it’s being used at Reagan National near Washington, D.C., airports in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Jose, and Gulfport-Biloxi and Jackson in Mississippi. However, it’s not at every TSA checkpoint so not every traveler going through those airports would necessarily experience it.

Travelers put their driver’s license into a slot that reads the card or place their passport photo against a card reader. Then they look at a camera on a screen about the size of an iPad, which captures their image and compares it to their ID. The technology is both checking to make sure the people at the airport match the ID they present and that the identification is in fact real. A TSA officer is still there and signs off on the screening.

A small sign alerts travelers that their photo will be taken as part of the pilot and that they can opt out if they’d like. It also includes a QR code for them to get more information.

Since it’s come out the pilot has come under scrutiny by some elected officials and privacy advocates. In a February letter to TSA, five senators — four Democrats and an Independent who is part of the Democratic caucus — demanded the agency stop the program, saying: “Increasing biometric surveillance of Americans by the government represents a risk to civil liberties and privacy rights.”

As various forms of technology that use biometric information like face IDs, retina scans or fingerprint matches have become more pervasive in both the private sector and the federal government, it’s raised concerns among privacy advocates about how this data is collected, who has access to it and what happens if it gets hacked.

Meg Foster, a justice fellow at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, said there are concerns about bias within the algorithms of various facial recognition technologies. Some have a harder time recognizing faces of minorities, for example. And there’s the concern of outside hackers figuring out ways to hack into government systems for nefarious aims.

With regard to the TSA pilot, Foster said she has concerns that while the agency says it’s not currently storing the biometric data it collects, what if that changes in the future? And while people are allowed to opt out, she said it’s not fair to put the onus on harried passengers who might be worried about missing their flight if they do.

“They might be concerned that if they object to face recognition, that they’re going to be under further suspicion,” Foster said.

Jeramie Scott, with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that while it’s voluntary now it might not be for long. He noted that David Pekoske, who heads TSA, said during a talk in April that eventually the use of biometrics would be required because they’re more effective and efficient, although he gave no timeline.

Scott said he’d prefer TSA not use the technology at all. At the least, he’d like to see an outside audit to verify that the technology isn’t disproportionally affecting certain groups and that the images are deleted immediately.

TSA says the goal of the pilot is to improve the accuracy of the identity verification without slowing down the speed at which passengers pass through the checkpoints — a key issue for an agency that sees 2.4 million passengers daily. The agency said early results are positive and have shown no discernable difference in the algorithm’s ability to recognize passengers based on things like age, gender, race and ethnicity.

Lim said the images aren’t being compiled into a database, and that photos and IDs are deleted. Since this is an assessment, in limited circumstances some data is collected and shared with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. TSA says that data is deleted after 24 months.

Lim said the camera only turns on when a person puts in their ID card — so it’s not randomly gathering images of people at the airport. That also gives passengers control over whether they want to use it, he said. And he said that research has shown that while some algorithms do perform worse with certain demographics, it also shows that higher-quality algorithms, like the one the agency uses, are much more accurate. He said using the best available cameras also is a factor.

“We take these privacy concerns and civil rights concerns very seriously, because we touch so many people every day,” he said.

Retired TSA official Keith Jeffries said the pandemic greatly accelerated the rollout of various types of this “touchless” technology, whereby a passenger isn’t handing over a document to an agent. And he envisioned a “checkpoint of the future” where a passenger’s face can be used to check their bags, go through the security checkpoints and board the plane — all with little to no need to pull out a boarding card or ID documents.

He acknowledged the privacy concerns and lack of trust many people have when it comes to giving biometric data to the federal government, but said in many ways the use of biometrics is already deeply embedded in society through the use of privately owned technology.

“Technology is here to stay,” he said.


Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.

Space Coast launch schedule: Upcoming missions from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral

Sun, 04/30/2023 - 17:49

Latest on upcoming launches from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station as the Space Coast saw a record number of launches in 2022 and more expected in 2023.

Golden Beach police sergeant in stable condition after shooting during chase of car-theft suspects

Sun, 04/30/2023 - 14:24

A Golden Beach police sergeant was shot twice during a foot chase after trying to stop suspects in a stolen car early Saturday morning, according to Hollywood Police.

Florida was the most prized swing state for decades. That won’t be true in 2024.

Sat, 04/29/2023 - 21:05

For decades, Florida was an essential element of every candidate’s strategy for winning the presidency. In 2024, much of that time, energy and money will go elsewhere. “The path to the White House for Democrats now goes through Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and not Florida.”

Tornado touches down in Palm Beach Gardens | Video

Sat, 04/29/2023 - 15:34

A tornado likely ripped through Palm Beach Gardens Saturday evening, according to forecasters the National Weather Service.

Pompano woman wins $5.5 million in lawsuit over mold in her co-op apartment

Sat, 04/29/2023 - 05:30

A Pompano Beach woman won a $5.5 million judgment against her co-op association after proving in court that she suffered irreparable harm from mold in her unit.

SpaceX aborts Falcon Heavy launch, but manages Falcon 9 flight on Space Coast

Fri, 04/28/2023 - 17:44

Yet another day of severe storms rolled through Central Florida on Thursday with lightning striking the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center where SpaceX had its latest Falcon Heavy rocket awaiting launch. The delay meant the chance for SpaceX to send up two rockets from the Space Coast within 2 1/2 hours of one another, but while it did manage a Falcon 9 liftoff, the Falcon Heavy aborted in the last minute of the countdown.

26 apply for Broward schools superintendent

Fri, 04/28/2023 - 16:33

Several candidates for Broward Schools superintendent are local candidates, including longtime Broward administrator Valerie Wanza.

Florida House approves lowering rifle-buying age to 18

Fri, 04/28/2023 - 16:30

The Florida House passed a measure to lower the minimum age from 21 to 18 to buy rifles and other “long” guns, voting to scrap a change passed after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland.

Four teens arrested after crashing stolen car into Pompano business to steal AR-15s, deputies say

Fri, 04/28/2023 - 15:30

Four teens are accused of stealing guns from a Pompano Beach business last week after they crashed into the building in a stolen car, then stole another car to flee the scene, authorities said.

Biden approves major disaster declaration, FEMA assistance for Broward County. Fort Lauderdale may offer $5,000 per household

Fri, 04/28/2023 - 13:51

President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Broward County on Friday, making federal money available for individuals affected by the flooding two weeks ago, as well as state and local governments.

Florida lawmakers approve controversial election bill that clears way for DeSantis to run for president

Fri, 04/28/2023 - 12:24

The Florida House on Friday gave final approval to a major elections bill that would place additional restrictions on voter-registration groups and help clear the way for Gov. Ron DeSantis to potentially run for president in 2024.

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