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Backroom briefing: Murphy's request gets toxic

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy, the White House-backed candidate for U.S. Senate, hoped to score some positive publicity Thursday.

He planned to host in Washington a group of youths, known as the River Kidz, to highlight the toxic green algae impacting his home district in Southeast Florida.

Instead, Murphy was fending off questions after Gov. Rick Scott's office posted on the state's Sunburst email system a chain of emails in which Murphy's office on Monday requested a delay in announcing the opening of a Small Business Administration recovery center. The potential delay could have led to an announcement during a press conference Murphy was holding Thursday about the algae issue.

The center, at the Martin County Fairgrounds, is aimed at helping businesses impacted by the algae and nutrient-loaded water releases from Lake Okeechobee, along with recent flooding and excessive rain, in Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Indian River, Lee, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Okeechobee, Osceola, Palm Beach, Polk, St. Lucie and Sarasota counties.

The camp for U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, who is running against Murphy in the Aug. 30 Democratic primary for the Senate seat, called Murphy's action an abuse of power "that needs to be immediately investigated."

"Putting his own political fortunes in front of the needs of legitimate small business owners is stunningly shameless," Grayson campaign manager Michael Ceraso said in a release.

Meanwhile, Carlos Beruff, a developer from Bradenton seeking to become the Republican Senate nominee, went further, demanding Murphy "resign his office immediately" and be investigated by the House Committee on Ethics.

"Delaying federal disaster assistance to Floridians in need is perhaps one of the grossest abuses of power imaginable," Beruff said in a release. "People in South Florida are suffering and they need, and deserve, assistance. But, Congressman Murphy is more focused on his desire to hold a higher office. His actions are nothing short of sickening."

Murphy's campaign fired back Wednesday night, saying it was Scott's office "looking to score partisan points" that took out of context a "standard request to coordinate a media strategy with a federal agency."

"Of course our office did not request for this program to be delayed," Murphy campaign spokesman Anthony Kusich said in a statement. "Anyone who reads the original email can see that we did not. The official emails that Republicans are distributing to press intentionally leave out the Small Business Administration's email to our office on Monday morning, which suggests no impending announcement."

On Monday, Murphy legislative assistant Candace Walls asked Kathy Cook, an SBA public affairs specialist, in an email if the "announcement on the office opening could be held until Thursday."

SBA officials appeared to be in support of the request. But SBA Field Operations Manager Kem Fleming -- in relaying the request to state officials for guidance on Tuesday -- said in his email that Murphy's office requested the office opening be delayed until Friday.

Brad Piepenbrink, a Scott deputy chief of staff, on Wednesday morning sent an email out to his "team" -- posted on the Sunburst system -- that said Scott and local officials wanted the assistance made available immediately.

"The BRC (Business Recovery Center) will open today," Piepenbrink wrote.

The Governor's Office announced the office opening just after 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

ENGINEERS WANT MORE WORK

Florida is doing an average job in maintaining roads, airports, seaports and water systems, according to the Florida Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

And the group -- whose members are responsible for the design, construction, operations and maintenance of roads, bridges, pipes and dams -- hopes that policymakers are paying attention.

The Florida engineers on Thursday gave the state's overall infrastructure a grade of "C," on a basic "A" to "F" scale, which is actually an improvement from a "C" a year ago.

Still, section president Jose Acosta said the state needs to do more if it wants to meet the needs of a population that is growing at a rate equal to adding the city of Jacksonville every five years.

"We're doing an average job with all the efforts that have been done," Acosta said during a teleconference on Thursday. "But because of population growth and the various needs throughout our state, from the Keys and Miami all the way up to Pensacola, Tallahassee and Jacksonville, we need to have a stronger commitment to funding our infrastructure and the collaboration to get there."

The state's bridges got a "B" grade, the highest marks in the report card.

Aviation and ports were graded with "B" grades. The state has spent more than $850 million in the past five years upgrading its seaports.

Drinking water systems got a "C," but the engineers noted that demands for water may grow 20 percent over the next 30 years, which could require as much as $16.5 billion in upgrades.

Roads, transit and wastewater systems all got "C" grades. The condition of the state's schools received a "D."