Man gets $2M for 22 years he lost

Legislators approve compensation for Wilton Dedge, who was sentenced to prison in 1982 after a wrongful conviction.

Published December 9, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - A man who spent 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit received $2-million and a personal apology from House Speaker Allan Bense Thursday as a four-day special Legislative session drew to a close.

Wilton Dedge, the Brevard County man sentenced to two consecutive life terms in 1982 after being convicted of sexual battery, aggravated battery and burglary, watched stonily from the visitor's gallery as members of the House of Representatives voted 117-2 to compensate him for loss of liberty, lost wages and legal fees, a move they failed to take during the regular session earlier this year.

The Senate approved the measure 39-0.

After the House vote, Bense took the unusual step of speaking directly to Dedge, who was flanked by his girlfriend, Denise Buzzelle, and his lawyer, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte.

Bense said he was responsible for blocking the bill to compensate Dedge earlier this year because he was unsure if it was the correct thing to do.

"I humbly ask that you accept my apology for not getting it done sooner," Bense said, looking up at Dedge.

Dedge nodded but did not smile. Later, he said he appreciated Bense's honesty.

"That's more than I got from some of the prosecutors," said Dedge, wearing a gray T-shirt, black cotton pants and carrying a straw hat. "Honestly, there's nothing anyone can do to make up for 22 years."

The Dedge bill was one of several loose ends the Legislature tied up this week.

Members passed legislation finalizing details of a pilot program for using managed care health coverage for Medicaid patients in Broward and Duval counties. They also passed legislation regulating slot machines at four Broward parimutuels.

On Medicaid, lawmakers approved changes that will steer more patients to HMOs or other private managed-care plans in an effort to slow rising costs.

Final passage came only after the House bowed to Senate demands that the full Legislature, not a committee, approve any expansion beyond the initial test counties of Broward and Duval.

"We have to prove this now," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "This will require a lot of work."

Now, doctors and hospitals are reimbursed for treating Medicaid patients, but many doctors refuse to participate because reimbursement rates are so low.

Alan Levine, who runs Florida's Medicaid program as secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, says the current program is a failure because health disparities in certain populations, such as blacks and Hispanics, have not improved, fraud is rampant and Medicaid patients are not getting healthier.

The Senate passed the bill 26-14 and the House followed, 87-31.

Lawmakers worked through the night Wednesday to craft a compromise on slot machines.

The House favored a 55 percent tax and no more than 1,000 machines per facility. The Senate favored a 45 percent tax and 2,000 machines. They settled on a 50 percent tax and 1,500 machines.

The tax rate will be among the highest in the nation, far more than the parimutuels wanted. The money must be spent on education under a constitutional amendment Florida voters approved in 2004.

Some Democrats said the tax is so high it would prohibit parimutuels from building quality facilities. They recommended a sliding scale, starting at 35 percent.

"I fear we're doing this so that people can say, "Look, see it didn't work,"' said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach. "I'm afraid we're setting something up with the intent of failure."

Republicans in both chambers expressed dismay at expanded gambling in Florida.

Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, called casino gambling a "degradation of our moral compass" and said it would deplete the already meager incomes of the state's poor.

Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, an outspoken gambling opponent who is running for chief financial officer, proposed several last-minute amendments, including banning slot machines on Sundays. None were successful.

"Is everything in this bill so right that you can go home and defend it?" Johnson asked. "Because you're going to have to.'

The House passed the bill 110-8, the Senate 33-7. Bush, who opposed the constitutional amendment, said he would sign the bill.

"I think it's a fair bill," he said. "It fulfilled the wishes of the voters. I wish we didn't have to do this but we do and we needed to do it right."

The bill calls for at least 85 percent of the money put into each machine to be paid back to players. Casinos can operate 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Discounted or free drinks and ATMs are banned.

The vote could open the door for the state's seven tribal casinos to add Las Vegas-style machines to their casinos.

Those casinos now have bingo-style machines, in which gamblers can win only from the pool of bets made by others on the machines.

Gamblers on Vegas-style machines bet against the house, which is more lucrative for the house.

Ron Book, a lobbyist representing Floridians for a Level Playing Field, which supported the amendment, said he was grateful to see a bill approved.

"Although there were some things we would have liked differently, we think it's a great bill," he said. "It gives us an opportunity to go out and show that, at the end of the day, the financial benefit for the state with slots are going to be significant."