Gov. Rick Scott is remaking the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission with a series of appointments who appear to have no expertise in managing wildlife.
His most recent pick, Gary Lester, is vice president of community relations at the Villages, developer of the largest gated retirement community in the world. Lester is also head of the school board at the Villages Charter School, and previously worked as a minister at Presbyterian churches in several states.
Lester, 59, did not respond to calls seeking comment on his appointment.
"Governor Scott appoints the most qualified candidates who he believes will faithfully serve Florida families with honesty and integrity," Scott’s deputy communications director, McKinley Lewis, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
Two people Scott picked for wildlife commission seats last month were Gary Nicklaus, 48, son of golfing great Jack Nicklaus; and Sonya Rood, 53, wife of developer and former Bahamas ambassador John Rood, who is also former chief financial officer of the Republican Party of Florida. Neither Nicklaus nor Rood could be reached for comment.
None of the three have previously been active in wildlife conservation.
"I don’t know those people," said Manley Fuller, longtime president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, who closely monitors the work of the commission.
A wildlife commissioner whom Scott didn’t re-appoint, cattle rancher Liesa Priddy, said running the agency now will be "a challenge," given the lack of expertise among the new commissioners plus the fact that there’s a new executive director, too.
Rood is the only one who appears to have any wildlife management experience, noting in her application that she enjoys bird hunting and has "been involved in the management of our family-owned hunting plantation." Her husband is a former chairman of the wildlife commission from back during the Jeb Bush administration, but he was married to someone else at the time.
Nicklaus, a former pro golfer who now designs golf courses, wrote in his application that his parents instilled in him a love of the outdoors, giving him "a passion to help preserve Florida’s natural resources for my children."
Early in the Scott administration, Gary Nicklaus’ father backed a proposal to build Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses in state parks. Two legislators filed bills to launch the "Nicklaus Trail," but the idea proved to be so incredibly unpopular that the legislators withdrew them after a week. Even fellow golfing legend Arnold Palmer said it sounded like a bad move.
Lester’s qualifications for being picked for the wildlife commission included his work as a minister, according to the governor’s spokesman.
"Reverend Lester has served Floridians in various roles for more than 30 years, including as a minister in the Presbyterian Church," Lewis said. "Reverend Lester is also an avid outdoorsman who greatly values Florida’s incredible natural treasures. The governor is confident that Gary will work each day to protect and manage our state’s wildlife on behalf of Florida families and visitors."
Lester stopped serving as a minister in 1999, when he went to work for the developer of the Villages.
Lester’s application for the commission job included, as references, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio; former Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, who’s a lobbyist for the Villages; and Mark Morse, president and chief operating officer of the Villages.
Not mentioned in his application: his multiple campaign contributions to state and federal candidates, totaling more than $84,000. That includes $3,000 to Scott in 2014, $2,700 to Rubio in 2016 and $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in 2002.
Public records do not show that Gary Nicklaus has given any personal political contributions. But Rood has: $15,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2012, and $500 to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in 2013. Her husband is a longtime fundraiser for the GOP whose long list of contributions includes $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in 2015 and $1,000 to the governor’s own Let’s Get to Work PAC.
The company that employs Lester offers another perk for some politicians. It has frequently thrown open the gates of the Central Florida mega-retirement mecca for Republican candidates, including Scott, to hold rallies among the retirees.
Lester, whom Scott also appointed to the Constitution Revision Commission, has been a frequent speaker at events in the Villages. For instance, he introduced Sarah Palin at a Villages campaign rally when she was running for vice president in 2008.
He gave a talk to a tea party group there in 2014 on the subject of freedom. Afterward, a member of the audience asked him his opinion of the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the Villages Tea Party website, he replied: "Capitalism has done more to clean up the environment than any government agency, like the EPA."
As commissioner, Lester is replacing Richard Hanas, a vice president of agricultural giant A. Duda & Sons Inc. and a contributor to Republican candidates. But the other appointees replaced commissioners who had some firsthand experience dealing with wildlife.
Gary Nicklaus is replacing Ron "Alligator" Bergeron, a developer and rodeo champion from Davie who nearly lost two fingers while wrestling an alligator on his ranch. Bergeron grew up in the Everglades and continues to maintain a hunting camp there. Whenever visiting politicians or dignitaries want a tour of the River of Grass, Bergeron is usually the one piloting the airboat showing them around.
Rood, meanwhile, is replacing Priddy, an Immokalee rancher who has been deeply involved in discussions about private property and wildlife habitat. She has been particularly interested in human-panther interactions in that area, especially after a University of Florida study confirmed she was losing calves to hungry cats.
She said she was disappointed to learn in a phone call from one of Scott’s aides that neither she nor Bergeron were being reappointed to the position. The timing made it worse.
"Mr. Bergeron and I found out on a Friday, when the next meeting started on a Tuesday," she said. Both had spent a lot of time preparing for the meeting without realizing they wouldn’t be in the job any more, she explained.
Last year Scott selected as a wildlife commissioner former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole, who has a degree in marine biology. Sole, who in 2014 donated $3,000 to Scott’s election campaign, was at the time working for Florida Power & Light, one of the state’s biggest utilities and a major contributor to political campaigns. He now works for FPL’s owner, NextEra Energy.
Scott has one more vacancy on the wildlife commission to fill.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.