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COLUMN

Happytown

Assisted living facilities say state's former ombudsman is threatening their right to free speech, U.S. Rep. Allen West says progressives are communists and Gov. Rick Scott's Facebook page pisses off the Miami Herald.

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It was just about a year ago that the Miami Herald started rolling out the horrific installments of its investigation into the rampant abuses that make Florida's nursing homes and assisted-living facilities hell on earth for many of the state's elderly and infirm residents. The paper revealed tales of starvation, deprivation, conditions not fit for animals, much less your loved ones – enough shocking material that it prompted a demand for investigation and reform of the industry. A governor's task force was appointed, bills were introduced, the federal government sent chiding letters, everyone was angry.

And then, in true bureaucratic form, nothing happened. All of the bills died, the legislative session ended and everyone in Tallahassee went back to sleep.

The only person left kicking and screaming over the dismal state of affairs in the state's assisted-living facility industry has been the only guy who's been kicking and screaming about it all along – former Florida Long Term Care Ombudsman Brian Lee,who kicked and screamed so much on behalf of the residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities that he was told to resignshortly after Gov. Rick Scott took office. Apparently, he was such a good advocate that he was pissing everyone off – and by everyone, we mean the industry, which complained about him and even sent a helpful letter to the state recommending its own hand-picked replacement for Lee.

Lee, who has continued his advocacy work as executive director of the nonprofit Families for Better Care, sued the state charging that it illegally interfered with the Ombudsman's office and fired him for being a whistle-blower. The state filed a motion to dismiss the suit, claiming that the industry's complaints to the state about Lee are protected under “free speech,” but last week Circuit Court Judge James Shelfer said the case will move forward, much to the consternation of industry lawyers and lobbyists.

“What is at stake here in this case truly is the liberty to discuss publicly all matters of public concern and particularly to petition the government to redress grievances,” Florida Health Care Association lawyer Kari Aasheim told the Miami Herald.

Nice try, but that's not what's at stake at all – Lee's suit doesn't seek to keep lobbyists and special interests from petitioning the government. It does, however, seek to keep the government from doing the bidding of those special interests at the peril of the people – especially when those people are at their most vulnerable.

“I'm really excited about the fact that what could come out of this is the potential for ombudsman case law on interference and intimidation against the office,” Lee says. “That would be completely unprecedented.”

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