Hard road, cheap pay, for South Florida school bus drivers




















If you think driving a car with a couple of children fussing and fidgeting in the back seat can be distracting, consider the plight of school bus drivers.

They maneuver a bulky, boxy vehicle through busy streets while shouldering responsibility for dozens of otherwise unsupervised students.

It’s a full-time job with irregular hours. The pay? Generally less than $20,000.





At a time when the state is looking to ramp-up security in schools, some point out school buses have not been a part of the conversation.

In Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest school district, which has more than 1,300 drivers, none of the school buses have security cameras, a situation that was underscored not long ago when a 15-year-old student brought a loaded gun onto a bus and it accidentally discharged, hitting a 13-year-old in the neck, killing her.

In New York City, where about 9,000 school bus drivers recently went on strike, close to $7,000 is spent annually for each student passenger. Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth-largest school district, spends about $1,000 for each school bus passenger.

Parents like Robin Godby of Pembroke Pines say school bus drivers should just be in charge of driving students safely — that there ought to be an aide on board watching students to make sure they’re behaving and are safe.

“I don’t think they get the support,” Godby said of bus drivers. “They have to deal with kids who have disciplinary problems and they have to drive a vehicle.”

She knows what it’s like to try to discipline her two daughters from the driver’s seat.

“It drives me nuts,” Godby said. “Especially if they start fighting or bickering. It’s distracting.”

School bus drivers in Florida’s larger districts can have close to 90 students behind them.

Ronda Martin, with the Office of Labor Relations for Miami-Dade public schools, says bus drivers are paid for the 191 days when students are in school. But she says many of the drivers work overtime and weekends to earn extra money.

“I try to do overtime at least every day, five days a week,” said Sharayne Milton, a school bus driver for Miami-Dade schools. “And if they want me to work on the weekend, I will.”

Milton takes students on field trips and waits to transport students who have after-school sports and activities. Her day starts at 4 a.m. and can end at 10:30 p.m., with about four unpaid hours in between while students are in class.

In Miami-Dade, about 75 percent of school bus drivers are female, which can make it difficult to discipline older, male students.

When fits fly

Driver Gwendolyn Tillman says she won’t get in between fighting students.

“Usually if there are some other guys on the bus and the guys have respect for the bus drivers, the other young men on the bus will pull them apart,” Tillman said.

If nobody pulls the kids apart, bus drivers are instructed to call the district dispatcher — and not the police.

“Our drivers do not take actions against individual students,” said Jerry Klein, who is in charge of school transportation in Miami-Dade County.

“There is a process for them to fill out a report and then the schools deal with it like any other misbehavior in the schools.”





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Hugh Grant is a Dad Again

Hugh Grant confirmed Saturday that he is a dad again.

PICS: Celebs and Their Cute Kids

The 52-year-old British actor tweeted, "In answer to some journos. Am thrilled my daughter now has a brother. Adore them both to an uncool degree. They have a fab mum."

Hugh and actress Tinglan Hong welcomed a daughter named Tabitha in 2011. No word yet on what Tabitha's little brother is named.

Related: Hugh Grant Responds to Jon Stewart Diss

Hugh told The Guardian in 2012 of being a dad, "I like my daughter very much. Fantastic. Has she changed my life? I'm not sure. Not yet. Not massively, no. But I'm absolutely thrilled to have had her, I really am. And I feel a better person."

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Upstate fire department's squirrel hunt fundraiser draws ire








HOLLEY — A weekend squirrel-shooting contest in upstate New York is a sell-out, with all 1,000 tickets spoken for, organizers said, despite a push by animal rights groups and others to cancel the event.

The 7th annual "Hazzard County Squirrel Slam" will raise money for the volunteer Holley Fire Department, the event sponsor.

Prizes ranging from $50 to $200 will be given out Saturday for the largest squirrel shot and the heaviest group of five squirrels. Five rifles and shotguns are to be raffled off, according to a flier on the western New York fire department's website.




Critics have sought to stop the event through online petitions and protests, calling the event cruel and a bad example for children. The contest targeting red and gray squirrels is open to anyone over age 12 with a hunting license.

"Declaring someone a winner for killing the most animals influences children and the wider community to believe that wildlife is unimportant and killing for a monetary prize is meritorious," Brian Shapiro, New York state director of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in a letter to Holley Fire Chief Pete Hendrickson.

Supporters say hunting is just part of life upstate, including in the largely rural village of 1,800 people on the Erie Canal.

"This is a community of hunters and they're going to hunt anyways. Why not hold a fundraiser that will reach our community," the event's chairwoman, Tina Reed, told the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester. She said the event has grown each year: This year, 1,000 tickets were made available after it sold out of 200 tickets last year.

Participants must abide by New York's hunting regulations, hunting only where it is permitted and killing no more than six squirrels in a single day. Shooting will be followed by a weigh-in, then a dinner.

State Sen. Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat, called the contest insane during an Albany news conference with the group Friends of Animals earlier this week. The group planned to protest outside the Holley Fire House on Saturday afternoon.

Avella's upstate colleague, Sen. George Maziarz, a Democrat who represents Holley, defended the fundraiser, saying hunting, fishing and shooting sports are part of the region's lifestyle.

"It's like a fishing derby but it's squirrels, not fish," Maziarz spokesman Adam Tabelski said Friday.

Neither the fire department nor members of its board of directors returned telephone and email messages from The Associated Press.










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Sign up for Feb. 21 Miami Herald Small Business Forum




















Prepare your best pitch for the Miami Herald’s Small Business Forum, Feb. 21 at the south campus of our sponsor, Florida International University.

In addition to how-to panels and inspirational stories from successful entrepreneurs, our annual small business forum will include interactive opportunities with experts to learn about financing options and polish your personal and business brands.

During our finance panel, audience volunteers will be invited to explain their financing needs to the group. During our box-lunch session, they will be invited to pitch their business or personal brand to our coaches.





Those who prefer just to listen will be treated to a keynote address by Alberto Perlman, co-founder of the global fitness craze Zumba. Panels include success stories from the local entrepreneurs who founded Sedano’s, Jennifer’s Homemade and ReStockIt.com; finance tips from experts in small business loans, venture capital, angel investments and traditional bank loans; and insiders in the burgeoning South Florida tech start-up scene.

Plus, it’s a real bargain. $25 includes the half-day seminar, continental breakfast and a box lunch.

Register here.

Program

8 a.m.

Registration and continental breakfast, provided by Bill Hansen Catering

8:30 a.m. Welcome

Host: David Suarez, president and CEO, Interactive Training Solutions, LLC

•  Jerry Haar, PhD, associate dean & director, FIU Eugenio Pino and Family Global

Entrepreneurship Center

•  Alice Horn, executive director, Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE South Florida)

•  Jane Wooldridge, Business editor, The Miami Herald

Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge Overview:

•  Nancy Dahlberg, Business Plan Challenge coordinator, The Miami Herald

8:45 a.m. Session I – Success Stories

Moderator: Jerry Haar, PhD, associate dean & director, FIU Eugenio Pino and Family Global

Entrepreneurship Center

Speakers:

•  Jennifer Behar, founder, Jennifer’s Homemade

•  Matt Kuttler, co-president of ReStockIt.com

•  Javier Herrán, chief marketing officer, Sedano’s Supermarkets

10 a.m. Session II – All about Tech

Moderator: Jane Wooldridge, Business editor, The Miami Herald

Speakers

•  Susan Amat, founder, Launch Pad Tech

•  Nancy Borkowski, executive director, Health Management Programs, Chapman Graduate School of

Business, Florida International University

•  Chris Fleck, vice president of mobility solutions at Citrix and a director of the South Florida Tech Alliance

•  Charles Irizarry, co-founder and director of product architecture, Rokk3r Labs

11:15 a.m. Keynote

Speaker: Alberto Perlman, CEO and co-founder of Zumba® Fitness

Introduction: Jane Wooldridge, business editor, The Miami Herald

11:45 a.m. Session III – Show me the money: Financing your small business

An interactive session featuring audience volunteers who will be invited to make a short investment pitch before a panel, including experts in microlending, SBA loans, traditional bank loans, venture capital and angel investing. Audience volunteers should come prepared with a two-minute presentation that includes details about current backing, how much money they are seeking and a brief synosis of ow that money would be used.





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Charlie Crist's wife loses custody of two teenage daughters




















The ex-husband of former First Lady Carole Crist has been granted full custody of their two daughters, after alleging that she abandoned them and hasn’t returned messages in nearly two years.

“She’s completely abandoned them,” Todd Rome said of his former wife of 14 years in a brief telephone interview Friday.

He said Mrs. Crist, married for four years to former Gov. Charlie Crist, has not seen or spoken to her 14- and 16-year-old daughters since June 8, 2011, and that even simple tasks like getting her signature on documents has become a challenge.





Mrs. Crist and ex-husband Rome had joint custody until Feb. 1, when a family court judge in New York granted him temporary full custody. Rome said he may seek full custody permanently.

“She probably will not fight it, because she didn’t fight this one,’’ he said.

Neither Charlie nor Carole Crist could be reached for comment Friday, and a local lawyer for Mrs. Crist said they would have no comment.

“This is a domestic situation, which is private,” said Sam Heller, her lawyer. “Unfortunately, Mr. Rome has been untruthful throughout this process.”

The court records in New York are not public record, and Rome, CEO of Blue Star Jets in Manhattan, declined to provide a copy of the custody order. He did, however, read the judgement of the phone to the New Times in South Florida, which first reported the ruling.

“The children’s needs haven’t been met,’’ Rome’s New York lawyer, Mark Heller, told the New Times. “She won’t answer calls. Her lawyers won’t answer calls. And we had no choice but go to family court.”

Reached by phone as he was driving with his daughters, Rome said he has no explanation for why Mrs. Crist, 43, cut off contact with his daughters. He then passed the phone to his wife of four-plus years, Vanessa Rome.

“Anything that needs a co-parent signature becomes a complete ordeal, because she doesn’t answer,’’ Mrs. Rome said of Mrs. Crist. Mrs. Crist used to visit her daughters every other weekend in New York City.

Mrs. Rome said Mrs. Crist had no patience for the girls any time they complained about something.

“She doesn’t like to discuss anything or be called out, so if they say anything that rocks the boat she’ll say, 'Okay, bye. I have to go,’ and hang up.”

The former governor has in the past spoken warmly of his stepdaughters — he called them “our children” in 2009 — but Mrs. Rome said “he wanted no part of them.” When in Florida during 2010, the girls constantly found themselves bored at political fundraising events with no one to talk to. Mr. Crist, she said, also had no tolerance for any hint of unpleasant teen behavior.

“He would say, 'I’m not coming to dinner with you with that attitude,’” she said. “Often they were left alone in the hotel room to order room service.”

Mr. Rome has been outspoken in his criticism of his ex-wife’s parenting and in 2011 sued her for failing to pay support. The New York Post wrote about one late-2011 court hearing attended by the Crists. The Post quoted a judge noting that their divorce agreement requires no child support for the daughters living in Manhattan and, “I also can’t make her visit her children.”





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Stripping mom halts school assembly








ALBANY — Police say a parent who got on stage and started to strip during an upstate New York school assembly is facing child endangerment and lewdness charges.

Albany police say they arrested 24-year-old Aydrea Meaders at the North Albany Academy at about 10:30 a.m. Friday.

They say school staff told them the assembly was halted and the cafeteria cleared after Meaders began dancing onstage and took off some of her clothes.

She's charged with seven counts of endangering the welfare of a child and one of public lewdness.

An Albany City Court clerk says Meaders was arraigned Friday afternoon and ordered held on $3,000 bail. She doesn't have a lawyer yet.



The North Albany Academy is a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school in the Albany district.










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South Florida trade shattered records in 2012




















It was a golden year for international trade through the Miami Customs District in 2012, as South Florida’s airports and seaports handled a record $124.73 billion worth of trade and cracked into the nation’s Top 10 customs districts for the first time.

But the Miami district’s top exports and imports were also golden. Since 2009, gold from countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Guyana and Peru has been South Florida’s top import as skittish investors bought the precious metal, pushing its price to lofty heights. In 2012, gold also became the top export of the Miami district, which includes airports and seaports from Miami to Key West.

Last year the district imported a record $7.25 billion worth of gold — a 42 percent increase over the previous year, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by WorldCity, a Coral Gables media company that focuses on U.S. connections to the global economy.





But almost as quickly as the gold arrives, it is shipped out, primarily to Switzerland and to other European countries in smaller amounts. Last year the Miami district exported a record $7.93 billion worth of gold.

The gold business is a “relatively recent phenomenon,’’ Ken Roberts, president of WorldCity, said at a Trade Connections event in Coral Gables Friday that analyzed the past year’s trade numbers.

Global economic uncertainty, he said, has driven people to the safety of gold and that has pushed up prices. Not only are central banks buying gold; so are many jittery investors.

Miami became the nation’s leading importer of gold in 2009 but imports only totaled $2.14 billion then. Over the past 10 years, the Miami district’s gold imports have increased by 2,420 percent and gold exports are up a whopping 13,433 percent. That corresponds with a huge run-up in the price of gold over the past decade — gold prices increased from around $300 an ounce in mid-February 2002 to $1,730 an ounce in mid-February 2012.

But the volume of gold trade through Miami also has increased.

Roberts noted that overall, Miami district exports increased to a record $73.3 billion, up nearly 6 percent from the previous year, and imports totaled a record $51.4 billion — a 17 percent increase.

Most interesting, said Roberts, is that the Miami District made its move into the ranks of the nation’s Top 10 Customs districts, by value of trade, at a time when the U.S. economy has been sluggish. But 30 percent of Miami’s trade is with South American, Central America and the Caribbean, and many of the Latin economies have been relatively resilient throughout the U.S. downturn.

Brazil remained the Miami district’s No. 1 trading partner in 2012 with $16.4 billion in total trade — a 6.4 percent increase.

“Brazil has had a tremendous decade and they’re a little smug about it,’’ said Scott Miller, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and former director of global trade policy at Procter & Gamble. “It’s a tough place to do business and they know it and don’t seem to want to do much about it.’’

Miami traders acknowledge that restrictions and high tariffs make the Brazilian market difficult, but Latin America’s largest economy is so big and diverse that it’s still very attractive. Brazil also is the top source of international visitors to Miami-Dade County.

Colombia, with $9.89 billion in trade with the Miami district, was the 2012 runner-up, and Switzerland, with $8.8 billion in trade with South Florida, was third.

But trade statistics only tell part of the story of international commerce.

Miller pointed out that increasingly, world trade involves the exchange of components rather than finished goods. If one takes out oil, he said, half the world’s trade is in components.

He pointed to Apple’s iPhone, which is made in China from U.S. and Japanese chips, a screen from Malaysia and other components from around the world. “So many things today are made in the world,’’ rather than manufactured start to finish in one location, said Miller. “What is really being done is that we make things together.’’

Every iPhone that is imported into the United States, he said, adds $178 to the U.S. trade deficit, but that doesn’t take into account all the jobs created by Apple’s inventions and design development, its sophisticated customer service system and its marketing apparatus.

“Stop looking at trade as a competition,’’ he said. “It’s a mutually beneficial exchange.’’





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Jackson Health System dismisses trauma petition




















Jackson Health System announced Thursday it has filed a notice to voluntarily dismiss its petition for a state hearing that included a suggestion that the state revoke the provisional license for the trauma center at the Kendall Regional Medical Center.

The Florida Health Department is trying to craft a new statewide standard for determining how many trauma centers an area needs.

In a memo to county political leaders, Jackson Chief Executive Carlos Migoya called it “a strategic decision on the future,” meaning it will focus instead on the Florida Health Department’s plan to craft a new statewide standard for determining how many trauma centers an area needs.





The Health Department is holding a hearing next Wednesday in its offices in Doral to get South Florida feedback on how much need there is for trauma centers.

In January, Jackson filed a petition with the state demanding a hearing on why the state had turned down its request for additional trauma centers at Jackson North and Jackson South while the state had granted provisional licenses to facilities like Kendall Regional — licenses that a judge had ruled were granted improperly.

Some county commissioners expressed concerns that Jackson was opposing the Kendall operation.

The state responded on Jan. 31 that Jackson’s petition was invalid and demanded that Jackson show cause by Feb. 14 why the petition shouldn’t be dismissed. Jackson instead decided to voluntarily dismiss it.

In his memo sent Wednesday, Migoya said that Jackson will focus on drafting the new rules. “We intend to provide the medical evidence, expert advice, written testimony and community support to buttress the positions that will best serve our residents.”

Jackson has consistently maintained that the region is best served by having only one trauma center — its Ryder center at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

The HCA hospital chain, which owns Kendall Regional, has been aggressive in applying for new trauma licenses and has received several provisional certifications.

On Thursday, the Health Department notified another HCA facility, the Orange Park Medical Center near Jacksonville, that that it “did not meet the standards” for a provisional center and ordered its trauma operations to cease immediately.





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Nikita Black Badge Exclusive Promo


Nikita
has long been one of the most dynamic and rewarding dramas on television. It's also consistently been one of the most underrated. But you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone that isn't coated in a thick layer of goosebumps after watching ETonline's exclusive new promo for the upcoming episodes!


RELATED - TV's Saddest Death Scenes

Featuring first look footage from the next two all-new episodes, Black Badge and With Fire, the two-minute sneak peek opens with a bang, and ends in a fiery blaze.


RELATED - What's Next on The CW's Arrow?

But before the clip comes to a close, Ryan poses an all-important question to Nikita: Is Division inherently bad or is the elite ops agency only as bad as the people in charge?

Tune in Fridays at 9 p.m. to see how Nikita answers that question!

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Devout Catholic SI mom sues city for not allowing daughter to attend class over religious exemption








A devout Catholic mom on Staten Island is suing the city, saying her daughter was barred from attending class because the Board of Education wouldn't recognize her religious exemption from receiving required medical vaccinations.

Dina Check, of West Brighton, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city accusing it of prohibiting her 5-year-old from attending PS 35 on Tuesday -- because of the family's belief that forced immunization violates important tenets of their faith.

"To inject invasive and unnatural substances into this divine creation is showing a lack of faith in God and His way," Check says in the lawsuit."Life is a gift from God, and the body is a marvelous work of divine creation to be reverenced as a temple of God."




The controversy was caused in part by a paperwork snafu - because her daughter already had been granted an exemption from vaccination on religious grounds by state health officials when she attended a YMCA preschool, Check says in the suit, filed in Brooklyn federal court this week.

To make matters worse, Check says she made repeated complaints to city school officials about the issue - only to see them fall on deaf ears, the suit says.

Despite her impassioned pleas asking officials to correct the paperwork error and list her daughter as being exempt from medical treatment on religious grounds, she received nothing more than a litany of e-mails from the Education Department denying her requests, the lawsuit claims.

Some of the correspondence Check sent to education officials quotes various passages of Scripture, Canon law proclamations from the Vatican, and contains earnest pleas asking the authorities to respect the family's religious beliefs.

In the lawsuit, Check also notes that her family physician had given a formal opinion that because the child suffers from immune deficiencies and gastrointestinal problems, immunization posed a medical risk for the girl.

But city school officials rejected that argument, too, ruling that the child's condition was insufficient to warrant exemption from vaccination based on medical grounds, the suit claims.

The suit charges that city school administrators violated laws that exempt children with deeply-held religious beliefs from receiving vaccines.

Check has asked a federal judge to intervene and force the city schools to exempt her daughter from future medical treatment. She also asks for unspecified damages.

mmaddux@nypost.com










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American Airlines, US Airways announce merger




















After a nearly yearlong courtship, the union became official Thursday: American Airlines and US Airways have formally announced plans to merge.

An early morning announcement by the airlines confirmed reports widely circulated after boards of both companies approved the merger late Wednesday.

The move brings stability to one of Miami-Dade County’s largest private employers more than a year after the airline and its parent company filed for bankruptcy protection, leaving the fate of thousands of employees — and the largest carrier at Miami International Airport — in question.





According to the Thursday announcement, the deal was approved unanimously by the boards of both companies, creating the world’s biggest airline with implied market value of nearly $11 billion, based on the Wednesday closing price of US Airways stock. The airline will have close to 100,000 employees, 1,500 aircraft, $38.7 billion in combined revenue.

The deal must be approved by American’s bankruptcy judge and antitrust regulators, but no major hurdles are expected. The process is expected to take about six months, according to a letter sent to employees Thursday by American CEO Tom Horton.

Travelers won’t notice immediate changes. The new airline will be called American Airlines. It likely will be months before the frequent-flier programs are merged, and possibly years before the two airlines are fully combined. The new airline will be a member of the oneWorld airlines frequent flier alliance.

And for Miami travelers, it’s unlikely that much will change at any point. American and regional carrier American Eagle handled 68 percent of traffic at the airport last year, while US Airways accounted for just 2 percent. American boasts 328 flights to 114 destinations from Miami.

“We don’t expect any substantial changes at MIA if the merger occurs because our traffic is largely driven by the strength of the Miami market and not the airlines serving it,” said airport spokesman Greg Chin.

American has said for more than a year that its long-term plan calls for increasing departures at key hubs, including Miami, by 20 percent. That pledge has already started to materialize; in recent months, the airline has added new service to Asuncion, Paraguay and Roatán, Honduras.

During its bankruptcy restructuring, about 400 American employees lost jobs, leaving American and its regional carrier, American Eagle, with 9,894 employees in Miami-Dade County and 43 in Fort Lauderdale. US Airways has few employees in the area.

“It really isn’t going to affect Miami in a very major way anytime soon,” said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant in Evergreen, Colo. “Only because US Airways isn’t a big player in South Florida.”

At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, American and US Airways combined would still only be the fifth-largest airline after Southwest, Spirit, JetBlue and Delta, a spokesman said. The two airlines have little overlap in routes from Fort Lauderdale.

Despite the lack of major changes, Boyd said the merger would be a good development for Miami.

“It should be positive for the employees and it should be positive for the communities that the airlines serve,” he said.

Robert Herbst, an independent airline analyst and consultant, said US Airways will add a “significant amount” of destinations in the Northeast, including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.





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JFK airport staffer allowed Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to sneak past security checkpoints








Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

VLNY / Sharky / Splash News

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.



Celebrity lovebirds Kanye West and Kim Kardashian forced an airplane full of travelers to wait for takeoff at JFK after an airline employee allowed them to bypass security screening, sources told The Post.

The stars -- who were running late for an American Airlines flight – were ushered around a security checkpoint before boarding the plane from New York to Los Angeles yesterday.

But airport officials got wind of the special treatment and yanked them off the plane – giving them a private pat-down and delaying the flight by nearly an hour.



The stars arrived in JFK on a flight from Rio De Janeiro, where they were celebrating Carnivale. They cleared Customs and were through the baggage area when the airline employee gave them the unsolicited escort through a restricted area, the sources said.

Rules require all airline passengers to pass through the TSA security checkpoint at the airport.










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Now owned by top executives, Cruise Planners on course toward continued growth




















With a background in travel and present-day focus on raising her two small children, Lori Jahner set out to find work she enjoyed that would give her the flexibility she needed.

The 33-year-old from Aurora, Colo. decided on Cruise Planners — American Express Travel, a home-based travel agent network headquartered in Coral Springs.

“They have so much training to offer, ongoing education, and the branded name alone is so reputable and distinctive,” Jahner said. “Out of all the ones that I kind of looked into, this is the one that was standing out. More or less, it’s just the perfect opportunity so that I can do what I love, which is raising my kids but also selling travel.”





She has plenty of company. More than 850 franchise owners around the country are actively selling travel through Cruise Planners after paying startup costs that range from zero to $9,995. Those costs cover initial and continued training, marketing and advertising programs, a website, accounting and customer management software and support from the home office.

Fueled by everyone from stay-at-home moms to firefighters and retirees, the number of franchisees has grown by 14 percent annually for the last few years.

That has not gone unnoticed by cruise lines, who welcome more voices pitching their product.

“I think they are very important,” said Camille Olivere, Norwegian Cruise Line’s senior vice president of sales in North America. “They’re big supporters of ours and they’re bringing new people into the industry — and that is something that we desperately need.”

Cruise Planners agents sold $156 million in travel and related services last year, a 16 percent increase over 2011 and 48 percent jump over 2009.

Confident in continued growth, top Cruise Planners executives bought the company late last year from Palm Beach Capital, the private equity firm that had been majority owner since 2007.

CEO Michelle Fee, who has always held a stake in the company and now owns 50 percent, said she and fellow owners chief financial officer Tom Kruszewski and chief operating officer Vicky Garcia did not want to risk Cruise Planners being taken over by another investment group that might try to make changes.

“We wanted to make sure that whatever we keep doing is in the best interest of the company,” said Kruszewski, 60.

Before, Fee said, agents often asked whether the investment company would try to sell or change Cruise Planners. She said the purchase sends a good message.

“It shows them that we’re in this with you,” said Fee, 50, who co-founded the company with two partners 19 years ago. Those partners retired in 2007.

The company has invested about $2 million in technology upgrades and equipment in the last few years, including a mobile reservations system for agents that was introduced about a year and a half ago, and a consumer mobile app for iPhones and Androids that should launch later this month.

“We just have to be cutting edge,” Fee said. “Travel is technology; we have to be there with the big guys. Not only are we matching them, but we want to be better.”

Janet Fernandez, who started her Crise Planners franchise, Cruise Impressions, last July after working in different parts of the cruise industry since 1998, said she is already taking advantage of the latest tech innovations.





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It’s a whodunit as Internet feed from Pakistan dies in Miami terrorism trial




















On Tuesday morning, the Internet connection linking a suspected Taliban soldier who was testifying in a video call from Pakistan to a Miami federal courtroom suddenly went dead.

Was it a communications glitch at the Islamabad hotel? Or did the Pakistani government kill the feed because of the witness’s alleged Taliban ties?

The 12 jurors were left in the dark, as U.S. District Judge Robert Scola excused them after saying, “We have lost our transmission.”





Perhaps the most befuddled in the bunch: Miami imam Hafiz Khan, 77, who is standing trial on charges of sending thousands of dollars to the Taliban terrorist organization, sworn enemies of the U.S. and Pakistan governments. Khan was the leader of the Flagler Mosque, 7350 NW Third St.

Despite safety concerns, the judge had allowed Khan’s defense attorney to travel to Pakistan to take live testimony from 11 witnesses so the defendant could receive a fair trial. Prosecutors opposed allowing the testimony and refused to make the trip.

Everything seemed to be going pretty well until about 11:20 a.m., or 9:20 p.m. Tuesday in Islamabad — with 8,000 miles separating the two cities. The flat-screen televisions and video monitors in front of the judge, lawyers and jurors suddenly lost signal and flashed “disconnected.”

Khan’s defense attorney, Khurrum Wahid, explained to the judge by phone that there was “absolutely no problem” until a prosecutor in Miami mentioned the name of the Serena Hotel, where the testimony was being taken, during cross-examination. He noted the hotel staff said “there were some intelligence operatives in the business center here, and they were taking pictures of us and our witnesses.”

Added Wahid: “I’ve been told by the hotel staff that it’s from outside the building and that ... the IP address has been blacklisted by the Interior Ministry, I’m sorry, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.”

Scola was not amused. He reminded Wahid that he allowed him to travel to Pakistan to take the live testimony of defense witnesses — including three defendants who had been indicted along with Khan — as long as he obtained the approval of the Pakistan government. Wahid told the judge that he had received verbal approval, but the government refused to put it in writing.

“They’re supposed to know about it,” the judge told Wahid. “The whole purpose of this was that I wanted it to be open and notorious. I didn’t want to do something behind the back of the Pakistani government.”

The judge wondered aloud about possible solutions: If the problem is purely technical, it could be fixed and testimony could resume Wednesday morning. If it’s an “intentional act by the government of Pakistan,” there probably wouldn’t be any more live testimony from Islamabad.

Then, Wahid suggested that Skype might work as an alternative to the Internet video-conference feed.

Scola seemed flabbergasted: “I’m not going to do that. I’m not creating some kind of international incident. This is exactly what I was trying to avoid.”

Then, Wahid pointed a finger of blame at the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami for killing the Internet connection: “I’m of the belief at this point that our government, through the prosecutors, is attempting to derail this process.”





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Project Runway Exclusive Clip Bette Midler

Bette Midler makes her Project Runway debut on Thursday's all-new episode and ETonline scored an exclusive clip!

In the fourth episode of Lifetime's design competition show, the contestants are tasked to create clothes from hard and soft materials -- which brings them to the hardware store!

And as Midler comments in the clip, "I've never seen anything like that in my hardware store!" Check out our exclusive sneak peek and see if you agree!


Project Runway
airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.

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Gangemi challenging Adams for Brooklyn borough president








State Sen. Eric Adams won’t have a clear path to becoming Brooklyn's next borough president after all.

John Gangemi Sr., a lawyer and former at-large City Councilman during the 1970s, confirmed today he plans to make a political comeback by challenging Adams in this year’s Democratic primary.

“I miss politics,” said Gangemi, 73, of Dyker Heights, who plans to formally announce his candidacy as early as Thursday.

Gangemi said term-limited Beep Marty Markowitz has done “a fantastic job” promoting the borough, but if elected, he’d rely his 48 years of experience as a lawyer and former prosecutor to boost Brooklyn.




“I’d be less about ribbon cuttings and be more of an advocate for Brooklyn” by pushing legislation and new development to benefit the borough, said Gangemi, an at-large councilman from 1971 to 1976.

Gangemi’s Bay Ridge law practice was under fire a decade ago when his son Frank, a former lawyer, pleaded guilty to grand larceny after swindling 20 elderly people out of $2 million. The elder Gangemi, who was not charged with any wrongdoing, said his son “has done his time” behind bars and doesn’t expect the matter to become a campaign issue.

Meanwhile, Gangemi, who has yet to begin raising campaign funds, needs to get to work fast. Adams’ campaign account as of last month had $373,857 in hand, records show.










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Register for our free Business Plan Bootcamp




















Whether you are planning to enter the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge or want to refine a short business plan you already have, our free Business Plan Bootcamp later this month can help.

Melissa Krinzman, a veteran Business Plan Challenge judge and managing director of Venture Architects, will be leading a panel of experts who will give you advice on crafting a short business plan aimed at grabbing the attention of investors — or judges. If you are entering the Challenge, we encourage you to bring your entry with you because the panel will critique critical sections of the short plan.

Panelists include:





•  Richard Ginsburg, co-founder of G3 Capital Partners, a mid-market and early stage investment company.

•  Steven McKean, founder and CEO of Acceller, a Miami-based tech company, and a Challenge judge.

•  Mike Tomas, CEO of Miami-based Bioheart, president of ASTRI Group and a Challenge judge.

Time, date, place: 6:30 p.m. Feb. 26, Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus Auditorium (Room 1261, Building 1, 2nd floor).

To register: It’s free, but please register here.

Parking: Free parking at the MDC garage at 500 NE 2nd Avenue. It is important to note that the entrances are on NE 5th and 6th Streets.

You do not have to enter the Challenge to attend our free boot camp, but we hope you will. The Challenge deadline is March 11.





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Melgen lawsuit a glimpse at intersection of business, love life




















A politically connected South Florida eye surgeon under investigation by the FBI filed a lawsuit against his former lover in a case centered on a dispute about whether he gave her close to a million dollars for a joint business venture or, as she testified, because “he wanted me to live like royalty.”

In late January, federal agents raided the offices of West Palm Beach eye surgeon Salomon Melgen in an investigation about Medicare billing. The FBI is separately examining his relationship with U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez a New Jersey Democrat, and the trips they took on Melgen’s private plane to the Dominican Republic. Through his lawyers, Melgen has denied wrongdoing.

In 2000, after his love affair with Yudehiris Dorrejo ended, Melgen filed a lawsuit on behalf of his company, Vitreo-Retinal Consultants, against Dorrejo in an attempt to get his money back. A Palm Beach judge dismissed the case two years later, citing jurisdictional issues in the dispute that involved no written contract.





An attorney for Melgen, Alan Reider, told The Miami Herald in an email: “The legal dispute with Ms. Dorrejo concluded over a decade ago. Dr. Melgen believed at the time and continues to believe that he had a valid legal claim. Beyond that, it would be inappropriate to comment.”

Depositions of Melgen and Dorrejo taken in 2001 read like a trashy romantic tale gone bad, with a business twist. It’a story laced with bizarre allegations from death threats to consultations with witch doctors.

The depositions show the wealthy Melgen lavishing his girlfriend with a Mercedes-Benz , private airplane flights and a cash-stuffed bank account. Melgen testified that he gave her money to launch a clothing store together, though she testified they never had a business relationship.

Melgen said that he first met Dorrejo in 1998 through a friend in Santo Domingo, the city he’s originally from. Melgen told her that he was single, but when she found out he was married they broke up, she testified. She would have been about 28 at the time. He was in his mid 40s.

Later that year in October, she said Melgen sent for her to meet him at a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in West Palm Beach “to propose the conditions for our romantic relationship,” she testified.

Melgen proposed that they get back together and said he was divorced. “He showed me divorce papers, which were falsified, I later found out,” she said.

Melgen then set up a bank account for her for whatever she needed. “He wanted me to live like royalty, that I would have no problems of any kind,” she testified

At the time, she worked for a store in the Dominican Republic called Vestimenta that she had formed with her mother in 1996. In 1999, Vestimenta entered into a franchise or distribution agreement with the clothing store Vertigo, according to Dorrejo’s testimony. At the time of the deposition, the store operated under the Vertigo name at the Diamond Mall in Santo Domingo.

Melgen testified that he had pitched the business idea one day when they were “in bed just talking” at the Ritz-Carlton.

“And I said why don’t you ask for the franchise of Vertigo and we go into a joint venture....” he said. He had hoped to establish an absolute right to Vertigo in the Dominican Republic, he said.





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Maroon 5 and Warner Music Group Grammy Party

The Grammys represent music's biggest night, so it's only fitting that music's biggest stars would party like the rock stars that they are after the show. ET's Rocsi Diaz caught up with Adam Levine and James Valentine of Maroon 5 at their big Grammy Party at Soho House in West Hollywood, and then we're on the red carpet at Chateau Marmont for the equally happening Warner Music Group party. Watch the video highlights!

Pics: Grammy Award Candids -- What You Didn't See On TV

"We decided we needed a tradition, and so hopefully this will be a tradition that will last a lifetime," says Adam of their party, joking that the band sat down "in a strategic meeting" with music industry icon Clive Davis to take notes on how to throw the ultimate party, "and then I did all those things." The boys also weigh in on the outrageous Grammy fashions...

Related: Mumford & More Rock Music-Filled Grammys

Keep watching the video for Grammy show reactions and shots of such stars as Sting, Neil Patrick Harris, Hunter Hayes, Fun. and more at the Warner Music Group party.

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Lindsey Vonn mending after surgery on right knee








Instagram



FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The doctor who operated on Lindsey Vonn's injured right knee thinks the four-time overall World Cup champion just might return to the circuit as soon as November.

That's the goal, anyway, with Vonn being back in top form by the Sochi Games, where she will try to defend her Olympic downhill title.

Dr. Bill Sterett, a surgeon for the U.S. Ski Team, examined Vonn on Monday and was optimistic about what he saw: Less swelling around the knee and an increased range of motion a day after a procedure to repair two torn ligaments.



Vonn was hurt during a crash last week at the world championships in Schladming, Austria.










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Green cards for sale at a South Beach hotel: Competition is on for EB5 investment visas




















If David Hart gets his way, South Beach’s 42-room Astor Hotel will be on a hiring spree this year as it adds concierge service, a roof-top pool, an all-night diner, spa and private-car service available 24 hours a day.

New hires will be crucial to Hart’s business plan, since foreign investors have agreed to pay about $50,000 for each job created by the Art Deco boutique.

The Miami immigration lawyer specializes in arranging visas for wealthy foreign citizens under a special program that trades green cards for investment dollars. Businesses get the money and must use it to boost payroll. The minimum investment is $500,000 to add at least 10 jobs to the economy. That puts the pressure on Hart and his partners at the Astor to beef up payroll dramatically, with plans to take a hotel with roughly 20 employees to one with as many as 100 workers.





“My primary responsibility is to make something happen here over the next two years that will create the jobs we need,’’ Hart said a few steps away from a nearly empty restaurant on a recent weekday morning. “It’s all going to be transformed.”

Though established in the 1990s, the “EB5” visas soared in popularity during the recession as developers sought foreign cash to replace dried-up credit markets in the United States.

Chinese investors dominate the transactions, accounting for about 65 percent of the nearly 9,000 EB5 visas granted since 2006. South Korea finishes a distant second at 12 percent and the United Kingdom holds the third-place slot at 3 percent. If Latin America and the Caribbean were one country, they would rank No. 4 on the list, with 231 EB5 visas granted, or about 3 percent of the total.

Competition has gotten stiffer for the deep-pocketed foreign investors willing to pay for green cards. The University of Miami’s bio-science research park near the Jackson hospital system raised $20 million from 40 foreign investors under the EB5 program, most of them from Asia. The money went into the park’s first building; visa brokers are waiting to see if the second building will proceed so they can offer a new pool of potential green-card sales.

In Hollywood, the stalled $131 million Margaritaville resort had hoped to raise about $75 million from EB5 investors before ditching that plan last year to pursue more traditional financing. A retail complex by developer Jeff Berkowitz in Coral Gables also launched a program to raise $50 million in EB5 money for the project, Gables Station. Hart worked with other EB5 investors to back pizza restaurants in Miami and South Beach. A limestone mine in Martin County also was backed by EB5 dollars.

This year, the city of Miami itself is expected to get into the business by setting up an EB5 program to raise foreign cash for a range of city businesses and developments. The first would be the tallest building in the city — developer Tibor Hollo’s planned 85-story apartment tower, the Panorama, in downtown Miami.

With a construction cost of about $700 million, Miami’s debut EB5 venture hopes to raise about $100 million from foreign investors, said Laura Reiff, the Greenberg Traurig lawyer in Virginia working with Miami on the EB5 effort. “This is a marquis project,’’ she said.

The arrangement is a novel one for Miami, with the city planning to help a private developer raise funds overseas for a new high-rise. And it would allow Hollo and future participants to tout the city of Miami’s endorsement when competing with other Miami-area projects for EB5 dollars. “We will have the benefit of the brand of the city of Miami,’’ said Mikki Canton, the $6,000-a-month city consultant heading Miami’s EB5 effort. “A lot of these others are privately owned and they won’t have that brand.”





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Everglades python haul low, but scientists envision wealth of new data




















The numbers are relatively benign, and they didn’t change much in last weekend of the Florida Everglades great python hunt, but event sponsors are calling it nothing short of a great success.

Reports as of Friday were that 50 Burmese pythons had been captured during the month-long chase that ended at midnight Sunday, and Sunday evening, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Jorge Pino said he wasn’t aware whether the total had increased.

Still, he called ridding the Everglades of any of the hugely invasive predators that have caused havoc with the ecosystem, and which have been seen challenging top-of-the-food-chain alligators for supremacy, nothing short of fantastic.





“We’ll have a better handle on the exact numbers by late Monday or Tuesday,” Pino said. “But undoubtedly for us, it’s a complete success. You can argue it’s not a huge number, but its 50 pythons not in the ecosystem causing havoc.”

Hunters had to register with the wildlife commission, take a quick online course, and follow specific humane rules the commission determined were best fit to kill the Southeast Asian native monsters that can grow to close to 20 feet long. The pythons can be legally killed only by a gunshot to the head or by beheading with a machete.

Hunters have until 5 p.m. Monday to turn in what they have captured. They can keep the skins to do with as they wish. Prizes of up to $1,500 for the most pythons caught, and $1,000 for largest python captured, will be awarded at Zoo Miami on Saturday.

No one knows exactly how the Burmese python made its way to South Florida, but it has been around for decades, and multiplying at an alarming rate. It’s not uncommon to find females carrying dozens upon dozens of eggs. The largest python caught to date was 17.5 feet long and weighed 164 pounds, though six to nine feet is more typical in the Everglades.

Scientists estimate there are now tens of thousands of slithery reptiles — that used to be common as pets — in the wild. Though they are large, they are extremely difficult to spot, often hiding among weeds or in dark water.

Last year the Obama administration banned the importation of four species of constrictor, including the Burmese pythons. It is also illegal to keep them as pets unless you can produce paperwork showing you had the creature prior to July 2010.

Pino said by Monday night his agency should have a better feel for the totals, but, he said, that really doesn’t matter.

“The data we’ll get will be unbelievable,” he said.





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Carly Rae Jepsen Interview 'Call Me Maybe'

I can officially check singing Call Me Maybe with Carly Rae Jepsen off my bucket list... (be jealous). 

Carly Rae was at The Grove signing covers of her March issue of Seventeen magazine and I got the chance to talk to her about being the cover girl, her two Grammy noms, and her favorite songs on the radio...  oh, and don’t forget, I also did a duet with her!

PICS: Star Sightings

Carly is behind, what I consider to be, the song of the century, Call Me Maybe, and has been on a whirlwind adventure ever since Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ashley Tisdale and company released a choreographed/lip-synced version of the song in February 2012.  Shortly thereafter, she became a household name with people of all ages catching on to her upbeat tune, including the Recording Academy.

The singer is nominated for two Grammy Awards in the coveted categories Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance, for Call Me Maybe. Carly told me she did a kitchen dance when she found out about her nominations and that her family was on the phone immediately afterwards hearing the good news! Carly also told me about her plans on Grammy day -- from kissing her glam team members to eating granola and yogurt.

VIDEO: Carly Rae Jepsen on How She Joined Team Bieber

Check out the video to see my once in a lifetime duet moment with Carly Rae Jepsen!

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Houseboat man found dead under dock in Brooklyn








The body of an elderly man who lived on a houseboat was found floating under a dock today in Brooklyn, authorities said.

The 74-year-old man’s boat was docked in the Plumb Beach Channel off of Ebony Court in Gerritsen Beach when he he was spotted in the water around 12:35 p.m., cops said.

He was pronounced dead at the scene. Police do not suspect any criminality at this time, cops said.

The city’s medical examiner will determine the cause of death.











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Green cards for sale at a South Beach hotel: Competition is on for EB5 investment visas




















If David Hart gets his way, South Beach’s 42-room Astor Hotel will be on a hiring spree this year as it adds concierge service, a roof-top pool, an all-night diner, spa and private-car service available 24 hours a day.

New hires will be crucial to Hart’s business plan, since foreign investors have agreed to pay about $50,000 for each job created by the Art Deco boutique.

The Miami immigration lawyer specializes in arranging visas for wealthy foreign citizens under a special program that trades green cards for investment dollars. Businesses get the money and must use it to boost payroll. The minimum investment is $500,000 to add at least 10 jobs to the economy. That puts the pressure on Hart and his partners at the Astor to beef up payroll dramatically, with plans to take a hotel with roughly 20 employees to one with as many as 100 workers.





“My primary responsibility is to make something happen here over the next two years that will create the jobs we need,’’ Hart said a few steps away from a nearly empty restaurant on a recent weekday morning. “It’s all going to be transformed.”

Though established in the 1990s, the “EB5” visas soared in popularity during the recession as developers sought foreign cash to replace dried-up credit markets in the United States.

Chinese investors dominate the transactions, accounting for about 65 percent of the nearly 9,000 EB5 visas granted since 2006. South Korea finishes a distant second at 12 percent and the United Kingdom holds the third-place slot at 3 percent. If Latin America and the Caribbean were one country, they would rank No. 4 on the list, with 231 EB5 visas granted, or about 3 percent of the total.

Competition has gotten stiffer for the deep-pocketed foreign investors willing to pay for green cards. The University of Miami’s bio-science research park near the Jackson hospital system raised $20 million from 40 foreign investors under the EB5 program, most of them from Asia. The money went into the park’s first building; visa brokers are waiting to see if the second building will proceed so they can offer a new pool of potential green-card sales.

In Hollywood, the stalled $131 million Margaritaville resort had hoped to raise about $75 million from EB5 investors before ditching that plan last year to pursue more traditional financing. A retail complex by developer Jeff Berkowitz in Coral Gables also launched a program to raise $50 million in EB5 money for the project, Gables Station. Hart worked with other EB5 investors to back pizza restaurants in Miami and South Beach. A limestone mine in Martin County also was backed by EB5 dollars.

This year, the city of Miami itself is expected to get into the business by setting up an EB5 program to raise foreign cash for a range of city businesses and developments. The first would be the tallest building in the city — developer Tibor Hollo’s planned 85-story apartment tower, the Panorama, in downtown Miami.

With a construction cost of about $700 million, Miami’s debut EB5 venture hopes to raise about $100 million from foreign investors, said Laura Reiff, the Greenberg Traurig lawyer in Virginia working with Miami on the EB5 effort. “This is a marquis project,’’ she said.

The arrangement is a novel one for Miami, with the city planning to help a private developer raise funds overseas for a new high-rise. And it would allow Hollo and future participants to tout the city of Miami’s endorsement when competing with other Miami-area projects for EB5 dollars. “We will have the benefit of the brand of the city of Miami,’’ said Mikki Canton, the $6,000-a-month city consultant heading Miami’s EB5 effort. “A lot of these others are privately owned and they won’t have that brand.”





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