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Ayala's Office Operating With $1.3M Budget Cut In Rift Over Death Penalty

Roy Austin, attorney for ninth judicial state prosecutor Aramis Ayala speaks to reporters after oral arguments at the Florida Supreme Court. Photo: Renata Sago.
Roy Austin, attorney for ninth judicial state prosecutor Aramis Ayala speaks to reporters after oral arguments at the Florida Supreme Court. Photo: Renata Sago.

Heads nod and papers shuffle at a small meeting for Florida Abolitionist inside an unassuming office building in Winter Park. Staff members sit in a circle discussing new human trafficking cases and deciding whose turn it will be to oversee the organization's emergency hotline. 

The group formed eight years ago. Its goal has been to expose central Florida’s underbelly: parents selling children into slave labor. Foreign-born workers arriving stateside with visas only to be outsourced for scam jobs.

"It could be someone who thinks maybe they're getting a job modeling, and it ends up being they're forcing them to be an escort in porn," said Tomas Lares, executive director for Florida Abolitionist.

He has seen his share of cases which include victims caught up in a cycle of manipulation, exploitation, and crime.

"It impacts their community economically with them going to the jail continuously, then they have to go through the clerk of court, they have to see a judge, then they’re back, unfortunately, a lot of times, back into the traffickers’ hands. This has an impact on our economy with crime," said Lares. 

The direct number of people involved iin human trafficking is hard to gauge. In the first quarter of this year, Florida Abolitionist worked on nearly 50 sex trafficking cases with the state attorney’s office alone, according to the organization's data. Lares said that is the tip of the iceberg. With more and more people coming to central Florida each month, he sees the need for investigators, victims’ advocates, translators, substance abuse services, and a dedicated shelter.

“If there’s not advocacy in this true, targeting funding to help these victims, then these traffickers and pimps are getting away, basically, in my opinion, with murder,” said Lares. 

The Florida Legislature saw a need last April when it awarded the Orange and Osceola state attorney’s office $1.4 million to target human trafficking and domestic violence. It was the only office in the state to get the extra money. Jeff Ashton, then ninth circuit state attorney, hailed the funds as the largest amount the office had ever received directly from the Legislature.

"We were really excited that we were getting this extra money and we would be able to do this sort of extra, extra work," he said. "It was basically to make the ninth circuit the example of how good it can be and how much additional funding can help those particular problems." 

Less than six months into state attorney Aramis Ayala’s term, the Legislature voted to cut $1.3 million, most of the special appropriations funds. The move came after Ayala announced she would not pursue the death penalty, and after Governor Rick Scott subsequently reassigned two dozen ninth circuit murder cases to fifth circuit state attorney, Bradley King.

Republican Representative Scott Plakon of Longwood was the behind the cut.

“She’s refusing to do a significant part of her job, so if she refuses to do that, someone else has to do it,” he said. 

Under a provision Ayala could request to get the money back if there’s any left after the two dozen death penalty cases are prosecuted. Plakon, who has backed legislation in support of both causes added that the $1.3 was not the special appropriations funding, per se, and that it was, rather an estimate made from staff analyses of how much it might cost for another prosecutor to take on ninth circuit death penalty cases. He argued Ayala's office can shuffle funds to address human trafficking and domestic violence.

"They have the positions open. They have the funding open. They don’t need the $1.3 million."

Democratic Senator Randolph Bracy was the staunchest advocate of a smaller cut in to the special appropriations fund, which House lawmakers did not approve. For him, the cut was a political statement.

"That we are the Legislature and we make the laws and if you don't follow the law, then we have other ways to punish you," he said.

Ayala has argued repeatedly that tough cuts to staff in her base budget are not a solid starting point to be able to deeply penetrate human trafficking or domestic violence.

"We see 60 million visitors come through Orlando, and because of that, it’s the primary spot for human trafficking, so when we aren’t properly equipped with it, the crime continues and continues. It devastates and basically paralyzes all of those efforts that we’re not able to expand it," she said. 

Her  predecessor, former boss, and political opponent former state attorney Jeff Ashton agreed.

"My first feeling is, that’s two years of hard work squandered because it was a very, very concerted, long term effort to get that money and so, now, presumably, that’s gone."

But he said it could have been prevented by approaching death penalty cases differently.

Victims’ advocates' groups hope more money will come from the Legislature to support the work. But in the meantime, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in the death penalty standoff will be the biggest indicator of whether the $1.3 million will be restored.