Caught unaware that a decision on a disputed landfill was near, ranch owner Robert Thomas moved bureaucracy last month like an experienced hand.
He and fellow rancher Bill Blanchard, who hightailed back from the slopes in Vail, Colo., sat down Dec. 4 with some of Florida's top environmental regulators in Tallahassee. They said they wanted more time to make their case against the proposed Angelo's Aggregate Materials landfill near Dade City.
Within days, the decision on the landfill permit that has been two years in the making was postponed until this Monday. The agency line noted the big, time-consuming holidays — not the big gun who set up that meeting for the ranchers:
Bob Martinez, former governor of Florida.
Opposition to the landfill, which one day could run 1,000 acres near Green Swamp and the Hillsborough and Withlacoochee rivers, has often appeared to be a low-frills outfit against a big company.
It's really been well-heeled resistance.
Blanchard and Thomas have spent tens of thousands of dollars on lobbying and experts, and made a similar investment in campaign contributions. Thomas' Two Rivers Ranch paid Martinez, a lobbyist for Holland & Knight, an estimated $35,000 in early 2008 — and his fees for the run-up to the agency decision have not yet been disclosed.
"Gov. Martinez has been helping us make the proper contacts," Thomas said, noting the former Tampa mayor's connections.
Lobbying for a landfill
So far, the focus has been on the other side. Opponents have highlighted the fact that Angelo's Aggregate Materials delivered political donations of at least $89,000 and hired big name lobbying for the project.
Well-connected lobbyist Brian Ballard and his firm have worked since December 2007 for Angelo's, an arm of Michigan-based Angelo Iafrate Cos., seeking approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Ballard's firm also employs another Angelo's lobbyist, Greg Turbeville, who was an adviser to former Gov. Jeb Bush. Ballard, a senior partner, said he worked last year against legislation that tried to scuttle the project, but Turbeville has done most, if not all, of the work involving DEP.
Compensation reports show Angelo's has paid an estimated $90,000 to the firm through September, the most recent period available.
"We hired a lobbyist because they hired a lobbyist," Dominic Iafrate, vice president of Angelo's, said last week of landfill opponents. "If they hadn't hired a lobbyist, we wouldn't have hired one."
But that's not the only explanation Iafrate has given for hiring Brian Ballard.
In response to a written question from the Times about Ballard in January 2008, Iafrate stated:
"As you know we are attempting to get a permit from FDEP for our composting and recycling facility. We were advised that he is very good at helping to navigate through the regulatory environment in Tallahassee."
Besides Ballard's ties to top lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist, Ballard's brother Bob is a deputy secretary at FDEP.
Questioned over the relationship, the agency told the Times that Bob Ballard, who oversees land and recreation, would recuse himself from having any role.
His post does not rule on solid waste or environmental permits, though he did attend a Nov. 20 meeting about the landfill because of questions over nearby state conservation land. Critics such as County Commissioner Ted Schrader and resident Carl Roth seized on the relationship as a potential conflict last week.
The agency declined to make the deputy secretary available, but press secretary Doug Tobin said Bob Ballard had no inkling of his brother's involvement until reading the Times last week.
For their part, landfill opponents Martinez and Thomas said they have seen nothing to indicate Bob Ballard has played any role.
"Any notion that there's any improper involvement is not only unfounded — it's absurd," said attorney Chris Kise, a friend of Brian Ballard — and lobbyist for Blanchard, the landfill critic.
Fighting the 'absurd'
Kise's hiring is another indication of the landfill opposition's deep pockets. Blanchard hired Kise, a confidante of Crist, in December for legal work and starting this month, lobbying. Blanchard also had hired four lobbyists in December from the Akerman Senterfitt firm, records show. Blanchard said he believes only one, Frank Tsamoutales, has done work on the case.
Another environmental lobbyist, James Harvey of West Palm Beach, is registered to lobby for Thomas' Two Rivers Ranch, but Thomas said he's only on standby for this case.
None of the lobbying payments have been disclosed yet.
A notable public relations consultant from Lutz, Honey Rand, also works for their cause, but not as a lobbyist.
Blanchard's family owns almost 1,900 acres near the proposed landfill, much of it under conservation protection but some home to a tree and plant business. Thomas' ranchland span 14,000 acres in Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties. He also owns Crystal Springs Preserve, which Nestle pumps for drinking water, and is a developer.
"We are deeply concerned," Thomas said. "I never really expected DEP would ever consider issuing a permit for something so colossally absurd, but evidently they are."
The wealthy duo, their family members and their companies have contributed more than $50,000 to politicians and interest groups after Angelo's applied to run the landfill, campaign finance records show. At least one recipient, Schrader, opposes the project.
Schrader received $500 from Two Rivers Ranch, based in Thonotosassa, in 2008 before defeating challenger John Nicolette in the County Commission race. Nicolette is a family friend of Iafrate.
"Ted Schrader was my son's baseball coach," Thomas said. "Pasco County's lucky to have Ted Schrader."
By hiring Martinez, who has promoted land preservation locally and statewide, and other lobbyists, Blanchard and Thomas say they're trying to change the course of the permit. In December, they sensed a permit was imminent. As of last week, they saw reasons for optimism.
Martinez confirmed he has set up meetings, saying he did most of his work since latter 2008. He declined to say who he contacted about "basically trying to get the story out as to why it shouldn't be done."
Last week, Kise, Blanchard and others made the case to DEP Secretary Michael Sole and other officials in Tallahassee.
"I think we helped DEP realize some of the flaws in the permit. You know, they are very busy in that office," Blanchard said.
This week, Martinez and Thomas will darken the doorway of Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber to urge that agency to take a closer look at the landfill, too.
A 2007 review by the agency — the regional overseer of drinking water supplies —found the project was "outside the zone that could affect our water supply system."
Thomas wants to win a different outlook — with a little help from his friends.
Times staff writer Lisa Buie contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.