TALLAHASSEE — A month after Gov. Rick Scott took a secret hunting trip to the King Ranch in Texas last year, he faced a big decision.
A seat had come open on the board that oversees Florida's efforts on the multibillion-dollar project to repair damage to the Everglades caused by agriculture. To fill that position, Scott picked a corporate executive named Mitchel A. "Mitch" Hutchcraft.
Hutchcraft's major qualification for a seat on the board of South Florida Water Management District: He is the vice president in charge of the King Ranch's Florida agricultural acreage.
"That's astounding," said David Guest of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which has repeatedly sued the agency over its protection of Lake Okeechobee and other water-related issues.
Scott's announcement of Hutchcraft's appointment in March 2013 made no mention of what the governor's staff called a fundraising trip the month before. Scott's trip wasn't listed anywhere on his official calendar, nor is there any mention of King Ranch donations from that period in his campaign finance reports.
Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and several current and former leaders of the Florida House took secret trips to the famed Texas ranch that were financed, at least in part, by the sugar industry. Those confirming that they went refused to provide details about the trips.
Instead, they referred reporters' questions to the Republican Party of Florida, although party leaders said they didn't go on those trips. A party spokeswoman, Susan Hepworth, said she didn't know whether anyone other than sugar lobbyists and executives accompanied the politicians, and said the party never discloses any details of its fundraising.
In response to questions from Times/Herald reporters, a spokesman for Scott's re-election campaign, Greg Blair, issued a statement this week that said while Scott was at the ranch "no state business was discussed." He also said Scott killed a buck that he paid to have mounted as a trophy.
Hutchcraft, who has worked for King Ranch since 2007, declined to be interviewed about his appointment. His boss, King Ranch CEO Robert Underbrink, didn't return calls.
Hutchcraft was one of 11 applicants for three openings on what has been described as the "most powerful unelected, unpaid government seats in South Florida." He told the Fort Myers News-Press that his top priorities were "polluted water flows from Lake Okeechobee and area Everglades restoration projects" — two subjects dear to the heart of sugar companies, such as his employer.
King Ranch's holdings in Florida are extensive. In southern Florida, it owns 40,000 acres in a dozen separate citrus groves that make it the state's largest grower of juice oranges. It also owns 20,000 acres near Belle Glade, 12,000 of which are devoted to sugar cane and the rest to sod, sweet corn, green beans and specialty lettuce.
Two of King Ranch's corporate entities, Consolidated Citrus and Running W, have been reliable contributors to Republican candidates in Florida, chipping in $41,450 since Hutchcraft came aboard in 2007. Democrats have received only $500 during the same period.
Hutchcraft's LinkedIn profile says his King Ranch position puts him in charge of "land acquisition, protection of assets from changing regulations, long term value enhancement of real estate assets, public policy, and operational enhancement through real estate projects."
In his application for the seat on the South Florida Water Management District, Hutchcraft said his years with King Ranch and land development prepared him well for the board.
"I had to learn how to work with natural and economic systems to ensure efficient use of water and natural resources, and with a variety of stakeholders," he said in his Jan. 9, 2013, application. "As a member of the 'regulated community', I am well versed in the role (SFWMD) serves in protecting the public interest."
His identification as part of that "regulated community" is explored further in a 2012 book he co-wrote for the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management that argued agribusiness needed a greater say in water policy.
"The vast majority of the U.S. population does not know what goes on beyond the water faucet and the grocery store," according to an excerpt from Agricultural Water: Protecting the Future of Our Nation. "Only agricultural producers can tell the whole story firsthand and have both the knowledge base and the need to do so."
His 2013 application was his second bid for appointment to the board. He tried in 2011, but Scott picked someone else.
Despite the opportunity for conflicts, appointing industry insiders to boards that oversee and regulate their interests is not unusual. At the same time Scott appointed Hutchcraft, he also appointed a development consultant named Rick Barber to another open seat on the board. Hutchcraft replaced Joe Collins, vice president of Lykes Brothers in Tampa. Lykes is one of the largest landowners in the United States, with large cattle, citrus and sugar holdings in Florida.
Hutchcraft is well known to environmental activists in Southwest Florida, who opposed his push for a growth plan in Hendry County that allowed greater development of the ranch's property there, according to Andrew McElwaine, former head of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
But Eric Draper of Audubon Florida wrote a letter in support of Hutchcraft's 2013 application, stating his "collaborative and science-based approach to land and water management will make him a valuable member of (SFWMD)."
A seat on the water-management district board offers no salary, but considerable influence. The South Florida district, based in West Palm Beach, is the largest of the state's five water-management districts, with a budget of more than $700 million and about 1,600 employees. Its jurisdiction stretches across 16 counties, from Orlando to the Keys.
In addition to overseeing such issues as who gets permits to pump water from the ground and how much can be pumped, the district is overseeing the state's part of the massive, multibillion-dollar, Everglades restoration project. This work has the sugar industry's full attention, in part because state officials have bought some sugar acreage for restoration projects.
Before taking his job with King Ranch in 2007, Hutchcraft spent six years working for one of Southwest Florida's biggest developers, Bonita Bay Properties. He also served as campaign treasurer for a county commissioner making decisions on Bonita Bay's controversial development plans. After overseeing development of thousands of homes there, he left in 2007 after he saw "the fundamentals in the real estate market changing," he told the Naples Daily News.
Although Guest was surprised by the timing of Scott's hunting trip and Hutchcraft's appointment, he said he sees it as part of a pattern of Scott administration hires: "Let's get a representative of the folks who want something in here to run the store."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from the Fort Myers News-Press. Contact Michael Van Sickler at [email protected] Follow @mikevansickler. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.