TALLAHASSEE — This month marks the height of hunting season at the majestic King Ranch in Texas, where some of Florida's top elected officials have visited, courtesy of U.S. Sugar.
Yet for the first time since 2011, records show, the state's Republican elite have yet to make the trek west. U.S. Sugar — which has much at stake this year with lawmakers rewriting the state's water policy — continues to contribute sizable amounts in cash, but the company has stopped paying for the secret trips to King Ranch.
For one GOP leader, that's no accident.
As incoming House speaker, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, said he has no intention of reviving the King Ranch trips as part of his job raising money for 2016 House races.
"I want the fundraising to be open and transparent," said Corcoran, in a break from his predecessors, Will Weatherford and current Speaker Steve Crisafulli.
U.S. Sugar officials did not respond Monday to a request for comment.
As the Times/Herald reported in a series of stories last summer, the King Ranch trips weren't disclosed in any financial reports the Republican Party of Florida filed with the state. Unlike other fundraisers that were clearly listed, the trips were only alluded to by the listing of non-cash contributions that the party reported having accepted from U.S. Sugar.
Florida law does not require much detail for "in-kind contributions," so the purpose could only be discerned by comparing the dates of the gifts with the dates when Florida politicians registered for Texas hunting licenses.
The politicians who went on the trips, including Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, did not want to talk about them. They referred questions to party officials who would not discuss the issue. When a Times/Herald reporter tried following Putnam into his office to ask for details, a staffer closed the door on him.
A Times/Herald analysis found that U.S. Sugar paid at least $95,000 to the state party for at least 20 weekend getaways at its King Ranch hunting lodge — a time when sugar executives enjoyed exclusive access to the state's top decisionmakers, far from public scrutiny.
This has been the longest interruption in the trips since they began four years ago. Campaign finance records show that from November 2011 to Aug. 6 of last year, U.S. Sugar paid the party $174,148 for travel expenses. That helped pay for at least 20 weekend getaways for an exclusive guest list that included Scott, Putnam and four House speakers.
Corcoran, who went on one King Ranch trip in 2012, said he plans to restrict future fundraisers to "traditional" events, such as luncheons, dinners and weekend trips in-state, for instance visiting Universal Studios in Orlando or fishing in Boca Grande. He said he'll make exceptions for only a few out-of-state events, such as a long-standing Yankee Stadium fundraiser in August and a Napa Valley wine country tour in California that has proved popular.
Corcoran also pledged to organize fewer fundraisers, involve more members who are not part of the House leadership, and make events more open to the public.
"There's no question that special interests have too much influence," he said. "They are strong. What we have to do is push back against those interests by being transparent in what we do."
Crisafulli, who as current speaker was in charge of raising money for House Republican candidates in the 2014 election cycle, referred all King Ranch questions to Corcoran, explaining he'd rather talk about his current job. Crisafulli, who bought a Texas hunting license the previous three years, is planning a rewrite of state water policy, covering everything from springs to the Everglades — a subject sugar companies care about deeply.
For years, U.S. Sugar money dominated state campaigns. During the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, the company, its subsidiaries and its representatives gave $8.1 million to state candidates and their committees. More than 92 percent went to Republicans or conservative committees.
The company concentrated 10 percent of what it gave — $820,912 — to 10 elected officials and their committees who visited King Ranch: $547,462 to Gov. Scott; $36,000 to Putnam; $55,000 to Weatherford; $112,750 to Crisafulli; $31,000 to Corcoran; $10,200 to Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres; $13,000 to Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples; $8,000 to Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford; $5,000 to former Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland; and $2,500 to former Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando.
The trips appear to have stopped less than two weeks after the Times/Herald began publishing its reports. Instead, U.S. Sugar has contributed $815,000 directly to the party.
Through January, none of the state officials who made trips in previous years to the ranch registered for a Texas hunting license for the 2015 season. Without a license, they can't legally shoot the ranch's big game: trophy deer, hogs, birds and Asian antelope.
The clandestine trips to King Ranch — which also grows sugar and citrus in Florida — came at a crucial time for the sugar industry.
During the Charlie Crist administration, the state lined up an option to buy U.S. Sugar acreage for use in Everglades restoration. But then the company and Hilliard Brothers of Florida, another sugar company, unveiled plans to turn 67 square miles southwest of Lake Okeechobee in Hendry County into a development with 18,000 homes and 25 million square feet of stores, offices, warehouses and other commercial buildings.
The South Florida Water Management District, a state agency, holds an option to acquire 100 percent of U.S. Sugar's land through October 2020. The district also has an option to acquire only 47,000 acres — that option expires in October.
If the sugar companies' development plan is approved, that land would be worth a lot more — making it more expensive for the state to purchase. U.S. Sugar began working on the development plan a year after buying a hunting lease at King Ranch, but a spokeswoman said the company did not discuss the plan with any politicians who took the hunting trips.
Just before the November election, the state Department of Economic Opportunity, in a rare move, rejected U.S. Sugar's development plan. The decision can be appealed.
When polluted Lake Okeechobee gets too full, officials release excess water into two rivers — the St. Lucie to the east and the Caloosahatchee to the west — causing a cascade of environmental woes. Politicians and activists concerned about the rivers have been pushing for the state to buy the U.S. Sugar land so the Lake Okeechobee pollution can be sent southward.
Scott has avoided taking a position on buying the sugar land. When the Times/Herald asked Scott's staff whether he is for or against it, the reply was a three-sentence statement that did not contain either a "yes" or a "no." It said Scott is "focused on completely funding existing projects … to protect our estuaries and restore the Everglades," and looks forward to "working with stakeholders and the Legislature to identify additional storage projects."
Contact Michael Van Sickler at [email protected] Follow @mikevansickler.