Sunday, September 23, 2018

Swiftmud dropped gun club lawsuit one day after lawmaker sent NRA-crafted dismissal plan, records show

By early this year, the Florida agency that oversees water quality in the Tampa Bay area seemed to have the upper hand in an acrimonious legal fight with the Skyway Trap & Skeet Club.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, had sued the gun range to force it to build a barrier to prevent spent ammunition from landing in Sawgrass Lake Park, a wetland next door. Then, without warning, Swiftmud abruptly dropped the lawsuit.

Swiftmud walked away from the legal battle after one of the National Rifle Association's most powerful lobbyists enlisted a prominent Florida Republican to intervene, according to emails and texts obtained through a public records request by the Trace, a nonprofit, independent website that reports on guns and gun violence.

On Feb. 18, one day before Swiftmud dropped the case, a legislative aide to Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, the head of a natural resources appropriations subcommittee that helps establish the agency's budget, sent an email to Swiftmud's head of public affairs, Colleen Thayer. Attached was a document spelling out the terms of the lawsuit's dismissal — written as if Swiftmud had already agreed to it.

"Colleen," the note stated, "Rep. Albritton wanted me to forward this to you. He said he wants thoughts sooner rather than later."

Thayer then forwarded the message to Swiftmud's executive director and chief of staff. To the former, she wrote: "I have no words … But now high blood pressure." To the latter, she said: "don't wet yourself."

The legislative aide's email doesn't reveal who crafted the lawsuit dismissal. But its metadata, essentially its digital signature, reveals the first name of the source: "Marion."

The Marion in question is Marion Hammer, one of the most effective gun lobbyists in American history. The architect of laws like "stand your ground," Hammer had recently attacked Swiftmud in the news media, calling it "a malignant state agency" that was engaged in "an evil attempt to … destroy a small private business."

Beginning Feb. 10, and continuing for the next week, Hammer exchanged a series of texts with Rep. Albritton, records show. They discussed the drafting of the legal "agreement," which Hammer said in a text was crafted "at NRA's direction by the attorney representing us."

Albritton said in a text that he had shared the draft dismissal with Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, whose district falls within Swiftmud's territory. Soon after, the legislative aide, named Andrew Liebert, forwarded the legal document to Swiftmud, prompting the alarmed reaction from the water district's public affairs chief, according to emails.

In an interview, Hammer acknowledged the NRA's involvement in the drafting of the legal agreement. She also said that she had sent the dismissal to Gov. Rick Scott's office, Albritton and Grant.

"But I don't know what they did with it," she said. "I do not know whether or not they were communicating with Swiftmud, and if they were, it was not on my behalf or the NRA's behalf."

But a Feb. 18 text message exchange shows Albritton and Hammer discussing the transmission of the lawsuit-dismissal document to Swiftmud.

"SWFWMD has the agreement," Albritton texted. "I'm going to give them a couple of days to digest it and then call them. I'll update you right after."

Hammer responded: "Did you and representative Grant make any changes to the draft agreement before you gave it to them?"

"No Mam," Albritton said. "Sent it as is. Feel it is the appropriate starting point."

Albritton and Liebert declined repeated requests for comment. Rep. Grant was, according to his aide, "out of state and unavailable."

Swiftmud also didn't respond to repeated requests for comment, as did its outside legal counsel.

In a followup phone call, Hammer said: "The fact that Albritton sent the agreement to Swiftmud is on him. That was his choice. I did not ask him to do that."

• • •

The Skyway dispute has festered for more than 16 years. Its origins date to 2000, after the Florida Department of Environmental Protection excavated a groundwater well on a parcel of parkland near Skyway's property. A water sample revealed "unacceptable" levels of lead, according to a complaint filed by Swiftmud against Skyway, which prompted further investigation.

Swiftmud oversees a 16-county region of 4.7 million people. The lead from the old ammunition leaching into Sawgrass Lake was particularly concerning to the agency, because its water flows through a canal and into Tampa Bay, a fragile marine estuary. (The club years ago required shooters to switch from lead shot to steel shot to prevent contamination).

Swiftmud sued the gun range soon after the water test, in April 2000. The water agency asked a judge to bar Skyway's shooters from firing into the park. Hammer got involved a few years later. She condemned Swiftmud's case as "backdoor gun control" and said its officials were "drunk with power."

Hammer's presence in the capital and her stature among gun activists is legendary. "For Marion Hammer, it's about maximizing the power of gun owners," said Juan-Carlos Planas, a Republican who held a seat in the Florida House for eight years. "It's about coming up with policies that allow them to get their way."

In 2004, then-Gov. Jeb Bush ordered the feuding parties to hash out a deal. Under the agreement that resulted, Swiftmud said it would finance the cleanup in the park, which eventually cost $25 million in taxpayer money. As part of the agreement, the club would build a barrier to stop shot from landing in the park. Around the same time, Hammer pushed for a bill that would make it a crime for any agency but the Department of Environmental Protection to sue a gun range over pollution. Bush signed it into law soon after.

Swiftmud finished cleaning up Sawgrass Lake in 2014.

The barrier, though, was never built. In August 2015, Swiftmud sued to force Skyway to finally erect the wall.

On Feb. 9, Hammer put out a news release calling on Gov. Rick Scott to "abolish" Swiftmud. She demanded that the attorney general investigate the agency for "criminal conduct."

Her text message exchanges with Rep. Albritton began the next day.

• • •

The legal agreement the NRA drafted is much longer than what Swiftmud eventually filed in court. It is, in every sense, an articulation of Hammer's world view.

One provision said that Swiftmud "recognizes" that its lawsuit is "prohibited" by Hammer's law. Another would have required Swiftmud to pay $350,000 to Skyway to cover court costs. A third would have required Swiftmud to pay the gun club $100,000 a month "for a period of 20 years." And another said it would have to take full responsibility for the berm and shot barrier. "Skyway shall pay zero," it said.

The draft legal document also had Swiftmud issuing a "public apology."

None of these provisions were included in what Swiftmud filed in court on Feb. 19. Instead, it was a one-paragraph dismissal.

Amy Wells Brennan, Swiftmud's deputy general counsel, forwarded the draft of that dismissal to another attorney in the office along with a note.

"Here you go," she said. "It's as much as I can muster."

The Trace is an independent, nonprofit media organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the United States. The Times published this article with permission.

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