Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Palm Beach Post

House leader pushes bill to keep 911 calls private, at behest of GOP contributor

By Dara Kam Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Updated: 8:16 p.m. Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Posted: 7:13 p.m. Wednesday, March 10, 2010

TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Larry Cretul is pushing a measure to make 911 calls secret, on behalf of the president of an association that has contributed nearly $30,000 the state GOP in the past two years.

The controversial proposal has angered some crime victims, who object that it's taking attention away from their efforts to require training for emergency dispatchers.

Cretul used an uncommon procedural maneuver to ensure the bill's passage this morning. He temporarily assigned one of his top lieutenants, House Speaker Pro Tem Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, to the Government Accountability Policy Council meeting to cast a vote in favor of the measure (PCB GAP 10-3).

The committee approved it with an 8-5 vote this morning. To date, the bill lacks a Senate sponsor.

It is unusual for a House Speaker or Senate President to take a personal interest in a bill's success, lawmakers acknowledge. And Cretul's staff, along with council chairman Rob Schenck, the bill's sponsor, had refused to link Cretul with the bill until the Ocala Republican himself said that he is backing the bill at the behest of Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick. The Florida Farm Bureau has contributed $29,000 to the Republican Party of Florida since 2008.

Hoblick's 16-year-old son Jake died from a lethal combination of alcohol and illegal prescription drugs. Hoblick, out of town when his son Jake died, heard his older son John's 911 call on the news and asked Cretul to do something about keeping the emergency calls out of the public domain.

Making the calls secret spares victims and their families the trauma of reliving the tragedies when they are broadcast on television or the Internet, Cretul said. Transcripts of the tapes would be available 60 days later.

"When those folks are calling in, they're generally calling in for help. In some cases, the situations are tragic. In the case of the gentleman that first brought it to my attention, his was a 16-year-old son that had been found after doing something he shouldn't have been doing, by his older brother. You know. It has to be difficult. It is difficult for those families," Cretul, R-Ocala, said.

But Rep. Rick Kriseman, a St. Petersburg Democrat, objected that the transcripts are not available to the victims of the 911 calls unless they made the calls themselves.

Kriseman, a lawyer who voted against the bill, also said automobile manufacturer Toyota may not have responded to quickly to runaway cars without the 911 tapes.

"Had it not been for the recording, the pressure that's now being put on Toyota would not have happened. Because it was through that recording that we learned about the problem with the gas pedals and all the other associated problems. That's a protection that we're losing by putting this in place," Kriseman said.

The husband of Denise Amber Lee, a Northport woman who was murdered after a botched 911 call, pleaded in an e-mail to Cretul and Schenck not to pass the bill, in a message that Cretul apparently ignored until it was called to his attention long after the vote.

Nathan Lee also asked that his message be read at Schenck's committee, but Schenck made no reference to Lee's message at the meeting.

"We believe 9-1-1 issues need more transparency and not less if we are ever to learn from past mistakes," Lee wrote.

In the e-mail, Lee details an eyewitness 911 call that could have saved his late wife's life, had it been handled correctly.

"She provided the exact location of this event and even though there were, by all accounts, four police cars within a mile of this call, it was never dispatched. This call was, obviously, grossly mishandled and would have resulted in the saving of Denise's life," Lee wrote.

"This call was hidden from the public and myself. And even hidden from the police department who was actively investigating the case and searching for my wife for two days. The subsequent internal affairs investigation shows the communication center and agency who took this crucial call were immediately aware that the call was about Denise. The call was suppressed. Had the eyewitness not contacted the North Port Police Department, we may never have known about her call. And the prosecution would have lost the last eyewitness to see my wife alive," he wrote.

Cretul said he supports the 911 training bill.

"But my whole interest in this issue has been watching what it also does to families and what it does to people that call in. They become suddenly out there for all the world to see," Cretul said in an interview. "This is a very tough, very difficult issue. Very sensitive in all respects."

The Lee family is familiar with the pain associated with the 911 calls. A six-minute 911 call made by Denise Amber Lee pleading for her life while she was held captive by the man who was later convicted of murdering her is used in training sessions throughout the nation, Nathan's father Mark Lee said.

The family often attends such sessions, he said.

"We go out of the room. We don't want to listen to it. We don't want to hear it. But if it's helping those people train and be better listeners for the next Denise that calls, it's worth it," Mark Lee said. "Now, we're going to lock those up and we're going to save somebody's feelings. The tragedy isn't the call that was made to 911. The tragedy is what happened."

Despite Cretul's clout in the House, the bill lacks a Senate sponsor.

Sen. Garrett Richter had originally agreed to run a companion for Schenck, R-Spring Hill, but backed off the bill even before controversy surrounding it -- First Amendment and civil rights lawyers also staunchly oppose it -- erupted this week. The Naples Republican said he won't sponsor the measure