An article which appeared in the "Views" section of another paper on Sunday, March 3, was titled "Ethics and Accountability." It featured pictures of Florida Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, Senate President Don Gaetz and Pres. pro tempore Garrett Richter touting "Sweeping Ethics Reform Bills Appear To Carry Enough Teeth To Stop Abuse Of The System And Improve Public Trust."
Because of my personal recent negative experiences in the legislative process with Benacquisto (Distrist 30), Gaetz (Distrit 1), Sen. Greg Evers (District 2), chairman of the Senate, Criminal Justice Committee, Rep. Dane Eagle (District 77), Rep. Matt Gaetz (Distrist 4), House chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, Speaker of the House Will Weatherford (Distrist 38), legislative aides Matthew Hunter for Benacquisto and Paige Biagi for Eagle, and Scotti Howell, director of Open Government (speaking for Weatherford), I felt compelled to respond to this article.
The issue: This is about seven Florida statutes I amended to provide for a uniform procedure in identifying Florida's unidentified human remains, which the majority are homicide victims. As a matter of fact, Florida is ranked No. 5 in the United States with the highest amount of unidentified human remains by the National Missing and Unidentified System (NamUs) a U.S. Department of Justice funded databank and the FBI data bank Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).
The bill I authored would have provided a uniform procedure, mandating medical examiners to help law enforcement officers in these investigations, by providing a biological sample for every unidentified body discovered in Florida, so that it could be sent to a certified laboratory to have a "DNA Profile" done and entered into the state and national Unidentified Data Banks. However, a staff person (not an elected official) rejected it as, "Unnecessary, as it is being done already."
Why was this legislation necessary??Because it is not being done here in Florida.
In fact, current statutes and administrative codes here in Florida are riddled with discretionary terms regarding medical examiners (MEs). Disposition of Dead Bodies Florida statue Chapter 406, terms such as, "He or she shall deem necessary," in the administrative code 11G-2, "if necessary." In the practice guidelines for Florida medical examiners, it says MEs "should assist law enforcement officers." Also, on the introduction page of The Practice Guidelines for Florida MEs it states, "The guidelines are usually crafted in language that is more 'discretionary.'" Remember they said; "It is being done already," well why is it that of all of the Florida Unidentified listed in the NamUs and CODIS data banks, have only 41.42 percent with DNA profiles (as of March 5, 2013)?
Why is a law necessary? Because it is the law that directs Florida's medical examiners and law enforcement officers to follow statutory procedures that are supposed to provide for positive outcomes in the identification of unidentified human remains. However, the current statutes are not providing for a positive outcome because it is discretionary for an ME to seek a DNA profile. By doing a DNA profile on every discovered human remains, it will help in the identification process. You cannot leave it up to the discretion of 24 medical examiners who cover 67 Florida counties to perform a procedure and try to hold them accountable under current statute and codes because all they would have to say is, "In my opinion it wasn't necessary," and they would be right. As you can see in the current statistics, there are only 41.42 percent with DNA profiles, 58.58 percent short of 100 percent. How would you as a parent feel knowing your child was one of those 58.58 percent? How can you do a missing person DNA profile comparison, to an unidentified human remain, when there is no unidentified DNA profile in the databanks?
Basically, you cannot do an effective homicide investigation if you don't know who the person is also. Consider this from a nationally recognized forensic pathologist: "Without identification you don't have victimology, without victimology you don't have suspects, without suspects you don't have prosecutions, without prosecutions, killers are free to kill again." What about future victims, who is looking out for them while killers are still at large? Also, how would you feel as a parent of one of these victims, not knowing what happened to them or at minimum, having their remains to properly bury them? In this day and age and with the technology that is available, it is unacceptable not to do DNA profiles on every unidentified human remain. I have had bureaucrats say to me, "It's too expensive." Hogwash. There is a clause in current Florida statutes which says, "If federal funding is available" (regarding doing DNA profiles). I also deleted that Florida funding clause in the proposed bill as it is not reasonable or justified. Fact: The University of North Texas, has an FBI certified laboratory, is funded by the Justice Department and will do the DNA profiles for nothing, submitted from any state and even enter the profile in the databases for the submitting states. Is an unidentified human remain not worth spending a couple of dollars for postage to find out who they are and who killed them? By the way, Florida has six crime laboratories.
For more information on missing persons and unidentified remains you may want to read an excellent article posted in January of 2007 by the National Institute of Justice: "Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The National Silent Disaster," which can be read on the following Web site: http:www.nij.gov/journals/256/missing-persons.html. It is certainly an eye opener. Or visit the NamUs Web site: www.namus.gov/
Criminal Justice Committee staff people often write memorandums in support of a bill, why shouldn't they be required to write a memorandum to reject a proposed bill, give it to the "elected" Criminal Justice Committee legislators to make the final decision? In this case if there was elected official oversight and staff person(s) from the Criminal Justice Committees were told to prove their rejection of this bill, they would not have been able to and the elected legislators on these Criminal Justice Committees could have reviewed the bill and voted on it, for its benefit to the people of Florida and our law enforcement detectives/investigators, or I could have gone to Tallahassee and proven that is was not being done. Passage of this bill would have also set an example for other States to follow.
Florida legislators: I first asked for permission from Benacquisto to write the bill in April of 2012, gave it to her in August of 2012. I also gave a copy of the bill to Eagle, unofficially in August before he was elected, officially in December of 2012 after he was elected. On the evening of Jan. 29, 2013, I first learned that the bill was rejected by a staff person from the "House Criminal Justice Committee" from Eagle. This person(s) was not an elected official. When I questioned what occurred, who said what and for an explanation, he referred me to his legislative staff person Biagi. She e-mailed me with several excuses from this alleged "staff person(s)" which I debunked every one. She has refused to answer my follow up questions in my reply e-mail to her. There was still time at this point for me to prove to the Committee that this bill is necessary with documents from the FBI CODIS Database, the NamUs Database even the Florida Unidentified Decedents Database (FLUIDDB). It did not happen, as Biagi said to me, "It's a dead issue." I also sent e-mails to Benacquisto and was fluffed off to her legislative aide, Hunter. His only e-mail to me said she was too busy and he would get back to me with answers. To this date Eagle, Benacquisto, Hunter and Biagi have not answered my e-mails or ever even given me the courtesy of a phone call regarding this bill. Ethical and accountable behavior? Not in my opinion. I am very disappointed in all of them and will never trust them again.
Then I sent certified letters April 9 to the chairs of the House and Senate Criminal Justice Committees, Rep. Gaetz and Evers. They have not answered my letters. Are they ethical and accountable?
On May 15 I then sent certified letters to Sen. Gaetz and Weatherford. Gaetz was the only person to answer my letter himself on May 29, he did not answer the question about a flawed legislative process that I spoke about (in my opinion), so I sent him another letter in response to his letter. He has not answered that letter. Weatherford had Howell answer the letter for him on July 1. He put a spin on his response, so I mailed him another letter asking the same questions about the legislative process not having elected legislator oversight. He has not answered that letter.
Conclusion: We elect legislators to provide statutes to protect citizens, provide laws to regulate government, businesses, health, law enforcement et cetra, then we find out that Florida government staff people can reject laws without elected official oversight and when questioned, the "stone wall" appears. Is this their new "sweeping ethics and accountability" they are trying to convince us they are doing? You may label this hypocrisy, however, I think the U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner speaking about the Obama scandals in May of this year said it best, "Arrogance of power." He apparently didn't know it exists here in Florida also.
I have more than 37 years of distinguished law enforcement service and experience in investigative, command and executive positions. I have authored laws advocating for parents rights, child protection, police procedures, child protection service procedures, police training curriculums and others, that were passed and signed into law by the governors at those times. I just wanted to point this out as they have said to me their criminal justice staff people are "professionals." I would welcome the opportunity to compare my professional background to anyone of their professionals' background in the Senate or the House.
But this is certainly not about me - it's about missing persons, abductions, murderers and their grieving families and loved ones, who every day wonder what happened to them. How many issues in the legislative process can you name that are more important than those I just mentioned? Law enforcement officers can't do it alone, they need the help of other service providers in government, policies/laws that will provide for positive outcomes and support from the public as well. Who is held accountable in this process? Certainly not the staff persons, or any of the people I mentioned in this article.
The issue now should be: What kind of people are we electing for these positions? Are we vetting them properly for their ability to be a legislator? I think not and I am as guilty as everyone else, party voting. But I know I will change, if you agree, will you? Your call.
John Cataldi is a Cape Coral resident.