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Once a U.S. Sugar foe, Scott now accepts its contributions, hunting hospitality

TALLAHASSEE — Before he was governor, Rick Scott attacked another Florida politician for accepting campaign funding from U.S. Sugar. He even said Bill McCollum, his opponent in the 2010 Republican primary, had been "bought and paid for.''

Four years later, Scott has received at least $534,000 for his re-election campaign from the corporate giant and went on a 2013 hunting trip to its lodge at King Ranch in Texas.

"The governor enjoys hunting and doesn't get to go as often as he'd like," campaign spokesman Greg Blair said in a Tuesday night email. "But he enjoyed the experience. He was even able to shoot a buck on the trip."

While Scott bagged a buck, his hosts may claim the bigger prize: access to the state's most powerful politicians.

The Times/Herald has reported that Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and several Republican legislative leaders have taken trips to King Ranch that were paid for at least in part by the sugar industry.

Scott repeatedly refused to talk to reporters about his Feb. 15, 2013, trip to King Ranch, a secluded game preserve where U.S. Sugar leases 30,000 acres and built a hunting lodge.

Until Tuesday, all Scott's campaign would say about the trip is that he paid for his flight and hunting license, didn't receive any gifts, and that the trip was "in support of his political fundraising efforts."

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Blair finally answered some — though not all — questions from reporters about Scott's King Ranch excursion:

Trip expenses paid for by Scott's "Let's Get to Work" election committee and the Republican Party of Florida "were fully reported, as required by law," Blair said.

"The governor paid personally to have the buck mounted," he said. "The meat was likely donated to a charitable organization, as is the normal process. There are no photos" of Scott hunting with sugar executives. He would not say where the governor displays his mounted trophy.

Shooting a buck at King Ranch costs between $6,000 and $25,000, depending on the spread of the antlers, according to the ranch website. Blair said there are no hunting costs on a private lease like the one U.S. Sugar holds.

"But, out of an abundance of caution, the governor did pay the private lease costs for the time he was there," Blair stated.

Left unanswered: Who was with Scott at King Ranch? Why did the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents who guard Scott at all times not pay for their lodging? And why did Scott change his mind about U.S. Sugar and its money?

The only response Blair offered regarding Scott's attitude toward U.S. Sugar was this statement: "The governor is proud to have the support of many in Florida who are focused on the state's continued job creation and not turning back the state's clock to the record of failure and job loss left behind by Charlie Crist."

U.S. Sugar officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The appearance of the trip is at odds with how Scott campaigned four years ago as a political outsider who would change Tallahassee's corrupt ways, one of his former supporters said.

"This is what's disappointed me so much about Scott — he was supposed to resist these things," said Henry Kelley, former chairman of the Fort Walton Beach tea party. "I get it that you have to compromise sometimes. But this is not that. This is cozying up to special interests at the expense of the taxpayers."

Months after Scott's hunting trip, the Legislature passed and Scott signed a bill that environmental groups say lets sugar growers pay less than their fair share for repairing damage they did to the Everglades, sticking taxpayers with the bill for the rest.

Did the legislation come up during the trips to King Ranch? No legislator will say.

As for Scott, Blair said that "no state business was discussed" while he was hunting deer with sugar industry officials.

Although Scott's campaign staff calls his 2013 hunting trip a fundraiser, campaign records do not show a single donation made by anyone to Scott or his campaign committee during that Valentine's Day weekend.

Of the $534,462 U.S. Sugar has donated to the Scott re-election campaign, all was cash except for a donation of $1,462 in food and beverages for a June 10 event. On the same day, Scott's campaign accepted $25,000 from King Ranch, which is a major player in the Florida sugar and citrus industries.

Was this another King Ranch visit? Scott's official calendar only lists one hourlong event, at 2 p.m. in Tampa, on June 10. The rest of the calendar is blank. The entire next day, a Wednesday, is also blank.

John Tupps, Scott's press secretary, referred questions about the June 10 event to the Republican Party of Florida. Susan Hepworth, an RPOF spokeswoman, referred questions to John French, an attorney for the pro-business group Associated Industries who also leads Scott's "Let's Get to Work" committee.

"To the best of my recollection, the June 10 event was for a routine event here in Florida as opposed to the King Ranch," French said in an email.

In 2010, Scott had reason to oppose U.S. Sugar, which was steering more than $680,000 to television ads helping McCollum's campaign.

During a 2010 tea party rally in West Palm Beach, Scott accused McCollum of being a puppet of U.S. Sugar. Scott opposed a big land deal between Florida and U.S. Sugar that had been pushed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who had also received big U.S. Sugar support as a candidate.

"I can't be bought," Scott told the crowd. "Just as I'm doing today, as governor, I will stand up to Tallahassee's special interests."

Scott called U.S. Sugar's financial support of McCollum's 2010 campaign "disgusting." He later said the Clewiston company "owned" McCollum.

The charges grew out of what was at first hailed as a major move to save the Everglades.

In 2008, a judge ruled that the sugar industry's long-standing practice of dumping polluted water into Lake Okeechobee was illegal, and a state agency voted to forbid the practice. U.S. Sugar lobbyists went to seek Crist's help with the state agency.

Instead, Crist proposed that the state buy all the company's 187,000 acres and various assets and use it for Everglades restoration. McCollum supported the move, which led to Scott's blasting him for being a puppet of sugar interests.

The big U.S. Sugar deal would soon dwindle into something far smaller. In 2010, amid the economic meltdown, the state agency in charge of Everglades restoration, the South Florida Water Management District, bought just 26,800 acres from U.S. Sugar for $197 million, with an option to buy the rest later. It has not exercised that option, water district spokesman Randy Smith said.

McCollum did not respond to a request for comment this week.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Michael Van Sickler at mvansickler@tampabay.com. Follow @mikevansickler. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

Once a U.S. Sugar foe, Scott now accepts its contributions, hunting hospitality 07/30/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 30, 2014 10:00pm]

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