Sen. Bobby Powell at Senate Appropriations meeting during May special session on property insurance. May 23, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
Amid questions Monday on the first piece of legislation related to Florida’s property insurance crisis that has roiled insurers, homeowners and taxpayers, South Florida Democrat Sen. Bobby Powell asked if experts in the insurance industry would testify under oath before senators. He was denied.
That kind of request had come up before.
“I can tell you, last (special) session, we came about for congressional maps, there were some–” Powell took a long pause, “things said, that I think would not have been said under oath if the person who was testifying on drawing the map could prove it,” Powell told the Florida Phoenix.
In fact, some lawmakers wanted Alex Kelly, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s deputy chief of staff and architect of the controversial maps, to go under oath then, but GOP committee chairs wouldn’t allow it.
At that time, in April, tensions had risen in the House and Senate among Black legislative caucus members who saw the new maps as limiting political influence of Black voters. In an extraordinary display in the state House chamber, Black Democrats loudly chanted, wore t-shirts that read “Stop the Black Attack,” and staged a sit-in protest that shut down debate over African-American representation in the redistricting process.
In this week’s special session, in May, Powell, who represents part of Palm Beach County, brought up the concept of testifying under oath at Monday’s Senate appropriations committee, where senators would be dealing with billions of dollars to try to fix the growing property insurance crisis.
“As a point of process, I know later on we’ll have testimony from professionals in the industry, some of them are witnesses – expert witnesses. Will anyone be going under oath today? Is my first question, in terms of process,” Powell asked of bill sponsor Sen. Jim Boyd, who was taking questions on his bill, SB 2-D, during Day 1 of Florida’s special session. Boyd represents Manatee County and part of Hillsborough.
Boyd chuckled, seemingly, at the question.
“My opinion would be no — no one’s going under oath. But, these are public meetings and privy to anyone who wants to watch them so I would hope and trust that all sides would be speaking truth and in an honest manner today.”
Powell tried again:
“As a follow-up, would you be opposed to anyone going under oath, Sen. Boyd?”
“Sen. Powell, I appreciate your question, I would think that would be a better question to ask of rules or of the presiding officers, I’m not the one to make that call, I don’t believe,” Boyd responded.
Sen. Aaron Bean, who serves as vice chair of the appropriations committee, jumped in on the back-and-forth, to recommend saving the question for the chair, Sen. Kelli Stargel, who was out of the room at the time.
“You’ know, and thank you Sen. Boyd — Let’s wait, the chair just stepped out for a moment, she’ll be back and we’ll let you rephrase that to the chair,” Bean said. He’s a Republican who represents Nassau County and part of Duval County.
After a few questions on the bill itself, Stargel returned to her seat.
Powell tried again.
“Madam Chair, this is a very important topic, very concerning to us. And there’s a lot of people here who are very much experts, who know way more about this subject than many of us, would you be opposed to us putting some of these experts, who have served in court as witness, under oath in terms of the testimony related to this very important issue?” he asked.
She said no.
“The challenge would be the process — we’re going to pick and choose who we think is lying and who we think is telling the truth. So, I think, um, that’s not traditional of how we’ve done our committee meeting. These are public testimony. And these individuals are presenting as the public, so I would suggest that we not put them under oath. I don’t know how we’d even do that in process,” Stargel said.
“And I think we can make the assumption that if someone is testifying before this committee, they’re testifying in truth. And if you have belief, think something’s wrong with that, you can take that into consideration when you’re reconciling their testimony. But I don’t believe we’ll be putting people under oath today, because that’s not the traditional process that we’ve done in the processes from these committee meetings.
A few minutes later, Stargel added:
“I would like to point out, based on Sen. Powell’s question earlier…witnesses before a legislative body or its committee need not be sworn, but witnesses give their testimony under the penalty of perjury, a judge guilty of contempt, and punished if they’re testifying falsely. So, not that we’d assume otherwise, but just putting that out there that you actually are basically already under penalty of law that you’re testifying accurately.”
Following what happened at the committee hearing, Powell spoke to the Florida Phoenix, saying:
“There’s just a level of truth – this is such an important issue and we’re assuming that the people coming up here and telling us that these are the issues that are impacting insurance. We assume they’re giving us all the information and telling us the truth. But when we put people under oath, that allows that conversation to be at a higher level,” Powell said.
As to some of Stargel’s statements, Powell said, “I understand that the chair said that technically they’re under oath in front of this committee.”
“And ‘oh we don’t want to pick and choose’ — well, put everybody under oath. Let’s make sure it’s true. There’s a process. We wouldn’t be setting a precedent. We would make sure that we’re getting the best information.”
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