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Weekly Roundup: Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, speaks on the red light bill during session, Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, speaks on the red light bill during session, Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) (Associated Press)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Sometimes, apologies take a long time in public life. Other times, they come more quickly.

There were examples of both this week at the Capitol. Expletive-laden and racially explosive comments by Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, quickly led to an apology from Artiles after Senate leaders became aware of what he had said, followed by a public apology on the Senate floor.

News of the Artiles conversation came as the House was working to atone for far-older sins, passing apologies for one of the state's most-notorious institutions and a once largely ignored incident of mangled justice.

In the background, the machinery of the legislative session continued to turn, as Gov. Rick Scott tried a few late interventions to get more money for the environment and tourism marketing. While lawmakers said publicly they were making progress toward a budget deal that could close out the session, there were few concrete public signs that an agreement was within reach.

There will perhaps need to be an apology if they fail to get their work done on time. But the cause of that act of contrition would pale in response to the mistakes that drew apologies this week --- whether because of an unguarded conversation in downtown Tallahassee, or because of workers at a reform school in the Panhandle.

The man from Hialeah

Artiles has never been accused of pulling punches. Indeed, the Marine veteran is known for tough talk. But he went a step --- or two or three --- too far Monday night at a members-only club near the Capitol.

It was there that Artiles berated Sen. Audrey Gibson, a black Democrat from Jacksonville, calling her "girl" and a "bitch," among other things. Artiles also used the n-word or a derivative thereof, depending on who was telling the story. For good measure, he threw in a Trumpesque description of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

The comments touched off a firestorm after news reports Tuesday and led, among other things, to calls for Artiles' resignation.

By Wednesday afternoon, Negron had appointed the Senate's general counsel, Dawn Roberts, to serve as special master to conduct an inquiry into Artiles' behavior, hours after the president yanked Artiles from his role as chairman of the Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee.

For his part, Artiles expressed regret for his blow-up, including the use of the n-word.

"With regard to the word which I used toward no one in particular, but is rightfully the most inflammatory, I know my explanation is inadequate but it is sincere," Artiles said. "I grew up in a diverse community. We share each other's customs, cultures and vernacular. I realize that my position does not allow me for the looseness of words or slang, regardless of how benign my intentions were."

Gibson, who kept her back turned to Artiles throughout his nearly four-minute speech, later called Artiles' apology "meaningless." She said Artiles unleashed the invectives in reaction to Gibson's questioning the Republican's amendments during committee meetings last week.

"It's just ugly, in any setting, and totally unacceptable. I doubt that he would talk to his wife that way. I don't guess that he does, or any other woman that he cares about, or any other people that he cares about," she said.

Gibson wasn't the only one who felt Artiles' apology wasn't enough. The Florida Legislative Black Caucus was among several groups --- most of them on the left side of the aisle --- calling for the senator to step aside. Artiles said he wouldn't.

"If every time a senator made a mistake, or someone made a mistake, that they had to resign … we'd have half the Senate gone for whatever reason. I did not insult anybody directly. What I did was have a heated debate with a colleague, and I basically apologized for that," he said. "As a matter of fact, I'm not only not going to resign, I'm going to file for 2018, and I'm going to win my election."

Artiles said the calls for him to step aside were politically motivated, given that his seat leans Democratic, but Senate Minority Oscar Braynon, who is black, rejected that idea.

"If you really look at it, he is a great target at this moment. We wouldn't be asking for him to be expelled if it was about electoral politics. We'd be asking for him to stay right there, so in '18 we can run against him, put this exact article on every mailer," said Braynon, D-Miami Gardens. "It's about him. It's about what he said. It's about how he offended his constituents."

It's never too late to say you're sorry

The day before Artiles asked for forgiveness, two groups sat in the House gallery to witness apologies that they had been waiting decades to hear.

One of the groups included 17 former students of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a now-closed reform school that became a sort of torture camp for many of the youths sent there.

A House resolution (HR 1335) acknowledged that treatment of boys sent to Dozier and a related facility in Okeechobee was cruel, unjust and "a violation of human decency."

More than 500 former students have alleged brutal beatings, mental abuse and sexual abuse at the Dozier school, which was shuttered in 2011 after 111 years of operation in Marianna.

"That was a genuine thing that was heartfelt by all of the White House boys," said Charles Fudge, a 69-year-old Homosassa resident who wiped away tears during the House debate and vote. "It means an awful lot for them to acknowledge the abuse that went on."

Fudge, who was sent to Dozier with three of his brothers in the early 1960s, is part of the "White House Boys" group, which is named after a facility at the school where boys were beaten and abused.

The House also unanimously passed a bill (HB 7115) that would authorize the creation of monuments in Tallahassee and in Jackson County, which includes Marianna, to commemorate the Dozier and Okeechobee victims.

"It's time," said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, a Miami Democrat who helped sponsor the bill. "It's time for closure. It's time for accountability. It's time for justice."

Also on hand Tuesday were descendants and relatives of the "Groveland Four," a group of four black men accused of raping a white woman in 1949 in Lake County. Only two of the men survived the manhunts and discredited trials that followed the allegations, with the case becoming the subject of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Devil in the Grove."

Among those watching the proceedings was Carol Greenlee, the son of Charles Greenlee. She still remembered one time when she visited her father six decades ago.

"I'm the child that went to the prison one Sunday with my mother, and my daddy kissed me on the head and said, 'Don't bring her back no more. It's too hard,' " Greenlee recalled. "And I didn't see him no more until I was 12 years old."

Now 67, she lived to see the House vote to formally apologize for the prosecution and persecution of her father as well as Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas.

"The memories can't be erased, the pain they've endured can't be fixed, but today we have an opportunity to provide closure to these families in the form of an apology," said Rep. Bobby DuBose, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who sponsored the House measure (HCR 631).

The Senate is expected to approve the apology before the end of the legislative session.

Scott Intervenes 

Over the seven regular legislative sessions during his time as governor, Scott has alternately been intensely involved, utterly indifferent, or somewhere in between. This year, after weeks of campaigning for more money for economic development incentives, the governor has decided to push hard in the closing weeks for environmental funding and tourism-marketing dollars.

Scott began the week by throwing his support behind a revised Senate water-storage plan in the Everglades and called for lawmakers to financially help the federal government speed repairs to the dike around Lake Okeechobee.

In a news conference, Scott urged lawmakers to add $200 million to the budget to help the federal government's ongoing repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike.

He also backed a redrawn water-storage plan south of Lake Okeechobee that has been a priority of Negron.

"If we can start working to fix the dike, we can help solve a lot of the water issues we have seen with Lake O," said Scott, who met with seven Senate leaders individually prior to his announcement on Monday. "Repairing the dike is key to enhancing the water quality in South Florida. I am going to be very aggressive at doing whatever we can to protect our environment."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers currently anticipates a $1.7 billion project to reinforce the dike could be completed by 2025.

Scott said he's addressed his desire to complete the dike repairs by 2022 with President Donald Trump's administration. He also said state money could be freed up for the environmental work because of a federal commitment last week to boost what is known as Low Income Pool health-care funding to $1.5 billion.

The governor also pushed this week for more money for Visit Florida, which touts the state's beaches and other tourism draws. That's nothing new, but the size of Scott's ask --- $100 million --- was $24 million more than he requested earlier.

"As I travel the state and talk about this, people are just shocked that the House would even think about reducing marketing in the state for tourism," said Scott, who has feuded for months with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, about the future of Visit Florida and the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida.