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Highlands_news-sun
Steiner back in county to face child porn charges

SEBRING — Zachrey Stephen Steiner, 30, of Sebring, was arrested on Jan. 4 in Hillsborough County on a warrant from Highlands County stemming from 22 counts of child pornography with the intent to promote, an enhanced charge, and 22 counts of transmission of child pornography. He was extradited to Highlands County on Jan. 8. The amount of charges he is facing has risen exponentially.

Steiner is facing 53 additional charges of possessing, possibly promote or depict child sex conduct, a first degree felony, and 10 additional counts of obscene communication in a state, electronically transmitting child pornography, a third degree felony.

The original 22 counts were from one victim. However, the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office believed there were more victims, with at least two of them being from Highlands County. Local officials also said Steiner uploaded pornography of his girlfriends that he videoed without their knowledge. His girlfriends were all minors at the time the images were taken.

HCSO was made aware of the case when two of Steiner’s victims reported it to detectives on Nov. 18. The victims said Steiner uploaded pornographic still images and videos on pornographic sites and sent them through emails and Facebook messenger. The arrest report calls them witness 1 and witness 2, or W1 and W2. The report also said that W1 learned about the images from W2.

The detective found the videos in question and got a search warrant for the pornographic website’s lawyers. Witness 2 told the detective in a sworn statement that she was 15 years old when the picture was taken. Witness 1 reported having sex with the suspect before she turned 18. Steiner allegedly uploaded a video of them having sex with an underage minor.

A third victim was found and said she was in a relationship with Steiner also, while being a minor and he was over 18. The third victim said the pictures that were on the website were taken while she was a minor.

HCSO said more charges could be added to Steiner’s case. He is being held in the Highlands County Jail with a bond of more than $1.3 million.

HCSO is still looking for those who may have been in a relationship with Steiner or who may have information about the case. They are asked to call 863-402-7357 or email detectives@highlandssheriff.org.


Highlands_news-sun
Citrus forecast unchanged since December: 74 million boxes of oranges

SEBRING — The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts the same return for the 2019-20 Florida citrus harvest as last year: 74 million 90-pound boxes of oranges.

The forecast also predicts 5.4 million boxes of grapefruit and 1.05 million boxes of tangerines and tangelos.

The USDA made the announcement at noon Friday via a statewide conference call. The numbers didn’t surprise Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.

“Nothing’s really changed since the initial estimate,” Royce said, with the caveat that the USDA did add 500,000 boxes of grapefruit to the estimate. “We really are just now getting into the harvest season.”

Royce said it’s been a slow start, thanks to labor issues caused by new policies and procedures at the border and other government offices for H2A guest workers, mostly Hispanic.

As previously reported in the Highlands News-Sun, the workers come to the United States under what’s known as an H2A contract, and harvesting companies employ these workers for about six months, supplying them with housing and transportation.

After the season is over, usually about mid-May, the workers return home to Mexico or other nations.

This time, harvesting got started two to four weeks later, Royce said.

“It started slower with fewer people than normal,” Royce said. “It’s going relatively well. We have adequate crews here now.”

Timing is crucial to the harvest, Royce said. Once growers have sold a crop, the buyer will send in testers during the fall to check the sugar and acid content of the fruit. When they have reached optimal levels, they are ready to be picked, Royce said.

There are federal and state standard for oranges to be used for orange juice, he said.

Royce said local growers sell a little more “packing house fruit” for produce shelves than they used to, but the majority of the crop goes for juice.

Growers prefer to have the fruit picked when it’s at its maximum for “solids,” Royce said, because they are paid by weight and each box of fruit is measured out by weight, not by volume.

In January, as the groves get cooler weather, the fruit gets some “color break,” Royce said, turning yellow and orange. Until then, the fruit is green, so pickers don’t go by the look of the fruit.

Each picker is given a stand of trees to work, and they pick every orange from them, whether orange and soft or green and hard.

“They will pick that tree clean,” Royce said.

They get paid a wage, but also are paid by each tub of oranges they fill.

Juice processing plants’ production schedules tend to act as a regulator on the speed of the harvest, Royce said. Harvesters also look for signs of dropped fruit.

“Once it hits the ground, we can’t use it any more,” Royce said.

The juice plants may blend some early season juice with late season juice, especially now that the cold and flu season prompts many in the nation to stock up and drink up orange juice for vitamin C.

Many of those customers are in the Northeast, he said, where the weather is “darker and grayer” than Florida right now.

“They will want to bring some Florida sunshine into their homes,” Royce said.

Get the juice sold is key, he said. Marketing for juice has been cut back from state funding, including the funds paid to VisitFlorida to have free orange juice and grapefruit juice at every Florida state line welcome station.

Orange juice is a trademark of the state, Royce said, like beaches and Walt Disney World.

Grower associations have had to close that gap.

“We’re using every penny we have to market that juice,” Royce said, adding that he hopes the governor and the Florida Legislature will decide this year to increase their investment in the state’s signature crop.


News
AP infrastructure director resigning

AVON PARK — City of Avon Park Director of Infrastructure Ronnie Jones and Executive Administrative Assistant/Interim City Clerk Suzie Gentry are each resigning effective Jan. 20.

In a letter to Interim City Manager Kim Gay, Jones stated, “I regret to inform you that I am resigning my position as the director of infrastructure. My last day will be Friday, January 17, 2020.

“If there is anything I can do to help make this transition easier, please let me know. I do not intend to inconvenience you with this news and hope you will accept my most sincere apologies. Thank you so much for your understanding in this matter.”

Jones previously tendered his resignation in letter dated Nov. 14, 2019 with a last day of Nov. 22. That resignation letter stated, “I’ll reconsider and stay for a ten percent raise and no more interference into daily operation by council members.”

He decided to stay, but council did not provide a pay increase from his salary of $80,000 and there was no change offered in the council’s interaction with his position.

In a Nov. 20 letter to Gay, Jones stated, “Please accept this letter of rescission in lieu of my resignation. After receiving many calls for support from council, staff and your office, I have decided to decline the generous offer I had received and instead stay to continue the work we’ve started.”

Before Jones, decided to remain with the city, the City Council was concerned about who would oversee the north and south utility extension projects.

At a council meeting, Carl Cool of Cool and Cobb Engineering said he will be working with the city’s staff, not as a supervisor, but available if they have questions. He said he goes to the north utility extension site a couple of times a day anyway looking at the work that is being done.

Also in a letter to Gay, Gentry tendered her resignation as executive administrative assistant to the city manger and interim city clerk.

“It has been a great pleasure working as your EAA and interim city clerk,” she stated.

Councilwoman Maria Sutherland said, “If there is an employee who is unhappy who finds greener pastures elsewhere, I am all for them and self-promotion in any form they are seeking. I congratulate them.”


Highlands_news-sun
House leader focuses on use of genetic information

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories advancing the 2020 legislative session.

TALLAHASSEE — A powerful House Republican on Thursday filed legislation that would ban insurance companies from using people’s genetic information to cancel, limit or deny life-insurance policies or long-term care coverage.

If incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls is successful, Florida will be the first state in the nation to prohibit life-insurance and long-term care insurance companies from using the information.

“I believe there is nothing greater for our privacy than our genetic code,” said Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican who is slated to become speaker after the November elections. “Handing that over to large insurance companies is bad public policy.”

It’s unusual for incoming House speakers and Senate presidents to file bills under their names. While bills were filed on the genetic-information issue the past two years, the responsibility of shepherding them through the legislative process was given to other members.

“It’s a badge of honor to take the lead,” Sprowls, a cancer survivor, told The News Service of Florida.

Federal law already prevents health insurers from using genetic information in underwriting policies and in setting premiums. But the prohibition doesn’t apply to life insurance or long-term care coverage, which Sprowls described as a “massive loophole.”

Sprowls said he discovered the issue in December 2017 when he was applying for life insurance. While he was on hold on the telephone waiting for assistance, he said he was struck by commercials from companies such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA encouraging people to buy genetic tests.

“And then I wondered, how long is it going to be until the person on the phone is going to ask me for that?” Sprowls recalled.

In addition to preventing life insurers and long-term care insurers from using the information in making policy decisions, Sprowls’ bill (HB 1189) also would block the companies from requiring or soliciting genetic information from applicants.

Florida isn’t the only state to look at the issue. According to a Florida legislative staff analysis last year, California, New Jersey, and New York require insurers to get informed consent when requesting genetic testing for life or disability insurance.

Also, Massachusetts prohibits unfair discrimination on the basis of genetic information or tests and prevents requiring applicants or existing policyholders to undergo genetic testing. In Arizona, life and disability insurance carriers are prohibited from using genetic information for underwriting or ratemaking unless supported by an applicant’s medical condition, medical history and either claims experience or actuarial projections.

“Other states are privacy light,” Sprowls said, noting that the Florida bill, which would preclude the use of any DNA data is “the most aggressive in the country.”

Sprowls has considerable influence in the House, which passed an identical bill last year. But the proposal, which is adamantly opposed by insurance companies, hit a snag in the Senate.

Curt Leonard, regional vice president for state relations for the American Council of Life Insurers, said his association is concerned about how the proposal would disrupt the insurance market and raise prices for consumers.

“We look forward to an open dialogue and process to make sure we protect consumers as the bill sponsor desires and also keep coverage affordable and accessible,” Leonard said in a statement.

Insurance lobbyist Mark Delegal said that if people know they are predisposed to diseases or chronic illnesses because of genetic test results, insurance companies also should have access to that information.

“It’s the bilateral nature of the information,” said Delegal, who represents New York Life Insurance Co. and State Farm. “If the consumer has it, we need it.”

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told the News Service in December that he supports a compromise proposal similar one that was proposed during the 2019 session.

Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, drafted a bill last year that would have allowed the information to be used if genetic tests were ordered by physicians and were part of a patients’ medical records.

“If you take the test for fun, it’s totally off limits. Totally off limits,” Bean told the News Service. “But if your doctor orders one as part of diagnosis, then that should be fair game and in your health profile. To me, that’s the Senate position.”

But with the 2020 session starting Tuesday, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has filed a bill (SB 1564) that is a Senate companion to Sprowls’ measure. Stargel in a prepared statement said she is proud to work with Sprowls on the issue and encouraged lawmakers to support the proposal.