On a Friday in February 2013, Gov. Rick Scott stepped aboard a Texas-bound plane to take part in a secret ritual for Florida's power elite.
As other politicians had done before and would do after, Scott was departing for historic King Ranch, one of North America's premier hunting grounds. The trips, records indicate, were financed all or in part with contributions from Florida's sugar industry, right down to the hunting licenses.
Scott won't answer questions about his trip. After weeks of requests from the Times/Herald, his campaign staff released a one-paragraph statement on Friday saying he had gone to King Ranch "in support of his political fundraising efforts."
Also keeping mum: state House leaders who have accepted similar trips in the past three years, ever since U.S. Sugar leased 30,000 acres at the ranch and built a hunting lodge amid its rolling hills.
The urge to keep details about the trips confidential is so strong among Florida's elected officials that Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam's press secretary shut a door in the face of a reporter asking about King Ranch.
"You'll have to talk to the Republican Party of Florida, since it was their fundraiser," Putnam said as the door closed.
Yet Florida GOP officials either said they don't know about the King Ranch trips or they won't talk about them. Sugar industry officials declined to comment.
The King Ranch trips don't show up on Scott's or Putnam's official schedules, or in any RPOF fundraising documents.
A Times/Herald analysis shows that since late 2011, U.S. Sugar paid more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips — destinations unspecified on public documents — within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.
By not disclosing their King Ranch trips, officials and sugar lobbyists have avoided any scrutiny of their private dealings with each other and whether their relations influence decisionmaking on state agricultural issues, including the future of the Everglades.
In addition to Scott and Putnam, politicians who confirmed they took trips to King Ranch include:
• Former Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who was House speaker from 2010 to 2012.
• Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, slated to become House speaker in 2016.
• Former Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, who would have become speaker this year if he hadn't lost a bid for re-election in 2012.
• House Appropriations Chair Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.
Others, including House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, have registered for Texas hunting licenses in the past three years. But they refused to say whether they had visited King Ranch. And all current elected officials deferred to political professionals, who refused to talk about the trips.
Only one, Cannon, insisted that his two trips to King Ranch were strictly personal.
"I paid my own way," he texted a reporter on Friday, 39 days after initially being asked about the trips. He wouldn't respond back for further details.
None of the Legislature's top Democrats said they had taken trips to King Ranch. Neither did former Gov. Charlie Crist or any current Senate leaders, according to Texas license records.
"I'm very disappointed no one asked me to go," quipped Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, once an avid hunter.
Legislators and hunting have long made for a combustible mix in Florida. In 1992, when Democrats controlled the Legislature, two dozen lawmakers faced criminal charges after accepting free trips from corporate lobbyists, including some to hunt at game preserves in Georgia, Texas and Mexico.
A 2006 state law called the "gift ban" prohibits lawmakers from directly accepting gifts like free meals, drinks and trips — but a gaping loophole still allows them to be feted like VIPs.
Current law lets donors give unlimited contributions to parties and political committees, as long as the gift serves a vaguely defined "campaign purpose." Parties can then turn around and bestow the gifts on politicians who need not tell taxpayers what they received or who paid for it.
The sugar industry — which includes not only U.S. Sugar but also King Ranch, which owns thousands of acres of sugar cane in Florida — has frequently sought help from the politicians who accepted the Texas hunting trips. Just last year, for instance, the Legislature approved, and Gov. Scott signed, a bill that promises to save the industry millions on pollution cleanup in the Everglades.
"It looks to me like they found a way around the gift ban," said Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs, who prosecuted the 1992 case, when told about King Ranch trips. "It may not be illegal, but there's probably something wrong with it because it's not transparent."
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Although Putnam and other politicians insist that the hunting trips raise money for their party, top party officials say they have not attended a single one.
"I have never attended events at King Ranch," said Lenny Curry, state party chairman from 2011 to 2014. Curry, who gave up his post to run for mayor of Jacksonville, would not discuss whether he authorized the hunting trips or even knew about them.
Curry's second in command had no such qualms.
"I'd never heard of King Ranch until this question," said party vice chairman Blaise Ingoglia, who is running for a House seat in Spring Hill. "I had to Google it to find out what is was."
The party's publicly filed documents disclose spending for fundraisers such as a $71,000 Disney cruise to the Bahamas, $74,000 at Pebble Beach, Calif., and $81,000 at a New York Yankees game, all held last summer. The party even logs minor expenses like $6.41 at a Gainesville Chick-Fil-A in November or $2.31 at a Tampa Starbucks in February.
Even though six current or former elected officials confirmed to the Times/Herald that they attended what they called RPOF fundraisers at King Ranch since 2011, there's no mention of King Ranch as an expense, donation or location for fundraising in any party campaign documents.
It should be hard to miss. A two-day hog hunt for up to three hunters at King Ranch costs $3,200. A trophy deer hunt can range between $6,000 and $25,000, according to its website. Hunts for nilgai, the largest Asian antelope, cost up to $850 per day. Those prices don't include lodging or food.
A year after a spending scandal sent former Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer to prison for money laundering, party spokeswoman Susan Hepworth insisted the Republican Party is complying with all state and federal laws regarding its finances.
"I can tell you 100 times over and over that we follow the letter of the law," she said. But she refused to discuss documentation for King Ranch trips, telling a reporter, "Do your own job.''
Hepworth said she was the only RPOF official who could answer questions about the trips. But when asked if anyone other than sugar lobbyists and executives joined the Florida politicians, Hepworth said, "I don't know who went on these trips. I don't know what donors went."
Though the trips may not look like fundraisers in the conventional sense, that doesn't mean they don't serve a distinct purpose — or that they're unique to Florida, an expert said.
"In order to build good relationships with politicians, corporations will finance these trips with them," said Anthony Corrado, a Colby College government professor who has written extensively on campaign finance laws. Masking the favor by making it look like a party donation "allows them to cultivate a relationship without it looking like a direct contribution."
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Neither state nor federal law requires political parties to specifically describe contributions made as gifts of goods and services, otherwise known as "in-kind contributions." It's acceptable to report, for instance, a flight worth $4,200 as "air travel'' without specifying the destination.
However, by comparing the dates of U.S. Sugar's non-cash contributions to the RPOF with the dates when Florida politicians registered for Texas hunting licenses, a pattern becomes clear.
From November 2011 to March 2014, U.S. Sugar made in-kind contributions for air travel, lodging and meals to the RPOF valued at more than $95,000 for at least 20 weekend trips. Each one was scheduled within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department records.
• On Feb. 11, 2013, someone registered Gov. Scott for his Texas hunting license. Four days later, the RPOF paid U.S. Sugar $1,029 for travel, meals and a hunting license, the only time in the past four years the party paid the company back. Records don't explain the one-time payback and Hepworth would not answer questions about it.
Scott would not sit for an interview about his trip requested by Times/Herald reporters, and his press secretary referred all questions to the RPOF.
When Scott showed up at a corporate groundbreaking in Clearwater on Thursday, a reporter tried to ask him about his King Ranch trip. The governor brushed aside the questions, saying his campaign aide would answer them.
But instead, she emailed a one-paragraph statement that said Scott "bought his own hunting license and paid for his own flight and did not receive any gifts. Costs were covered by appropriate political entities and properly reported as required by law."
State travel records show that also on Feb. 15, agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who guard Scott at all times were deployed in Kingsville, the town created to service King Ranch, but the agents did not have to pay a dime for their stay. FDLE officials said they couldn't explain why the agents did not have to pay.
• Putnam confirmed he has gone to King Ranch but refused to furnish details, insisting the RPOF could answer those questions. Putnam's campaign finance reports list a $275 expense for "air fare" on Feb. 27, 2014, to a Fort Lauderdale private air charter company called Sky Limo. Putnam's campaign, however, lists the address for the company as the Clewiston address of U.S. Sugar. Party documents show that U.S. Sugar gave the party a $260 in-kind contribution for air travel on the same day.
• The party did report spending $5,464 on Texas hunting licenses between October 2012 and January 2014, but didn't say who got them or where in the state they were used. Since 2011, Texas records show that 10 leading Florida legislators and a top House staffer registered for hunting licenses and permits that cost a total of $7,147. Derek Whitis, a U.S. Sugar lobbyist, and Malcolm "Bubba" Wade, a U.S. Sugar senior vice president, also received Texas hunting licenses during this period.
• U.S. Sugar gave the party an in-kind contribution of $1,797 for air travel and food for a trip — no destination specified — from Nov. 3 to Nov. 6 in 2011. The weekend trip came 10 days after Weatherford obtained his first Texas hunting license, two weeks after McKeel's first, and six weeks after Crisafulli's first.
On Nov. 4, that Friday, Weatherford, McKeel and Kris Money, who serves as deputy chief of staff for Weatherford, registered for Texas permits that allowed them to kill migratory birds. That same week, Crisafulli's political committee paid $86 for a meal at Linda's Main Street Cafe, which is a quarter-mile from King Ranch.
• On Dec. 6, 2012, the party paid $1,371 for Texas hunting licenses, according to expenditure reports. On the same day, U.S. Sugar contributed $14,209 to the RPOF for "travel expenses and food" for a weekend trip. Just 10 days before, Weatherford and Stephen Precourt, then the House's majority leader, registered for Texas hunting licenses.
• On April 25, 2013, Rep. Matt Hudson, the chair of the House's health care committee whose Naples district includes the Clewiston home of U.S. Sugar, had his campaign committee report a $600 expense at Hibler Wild Game, a taxidermist near King Ranch. Three months before, Hudson registered for his first Texas hunting license. Neither Hudson nor a Hibler official would answer questions.
The role that King Ranch itself plays in all this remains unclear. Established in 1853 as Texas' first ranch, it is also the largest member of the Sugar Cane Growers' Cooperative of Florida, cultivating 12,500 acres of sugar cane. It's also part-owner of American Sugar Refining, which markets its products under the Domino and C&H brands. Its partner is another sugar company, Florida Crystals.
The ranch is majority owner of Consolidated Citrus, the largest citrus grower in the United States. Through its Consolidated Citrus and Running W subsidiaries, King Ranch has contributed $27,500 in cash to the RPOF, Scott, Putnam and other Republican candidates in the last two years.
Although it once made its money off cattle and oil, nowadays some of the King Ranch's biggest profits come from hunting leases. The ranch leases half a million acres to corporations for the hunting of an array of wildlife.
King Ranch's CEO Robert Underbrink did not respond to repeated phone calls.
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The sugar industry works hard to convince Florida decisionmakers to see issues its way.
Some of that is through cash donations to campaigns. During the 2014 election cycle, U.S. Sugar and its officers, lobbyists and corporate entities have contributed $2.2 million to Republicans state candidates, and $132,000 to Democrats.
Often what the sugar industry is concerned about most is pollution. In 2003, 42 industry lobbyists persuaded lawmakers to delay the deadline for cleaning up sugar's phosphorous pollution of the Everglades by at least a decade.
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 see then-Gov. Charlie Crist seeking his help.
Crist proposed the state buy all the company's 187,000 acres and various assets and use it for Everglades restoration projects. But in 2010, amid the economic meltdown, the state bought just 26,800 acres from U.S. Sugar for $197 million, with an option to buy the rest later.
A year after the state's purchase, U.S. Sugar bought its King Ranch hunting lease from Joe Marlin Hilliard Sr. Later that year, Putnam, Cannon, McKeel, Crisafulli and Weatherford all registered for their first Texas hunting permits.
Last year, the subject of Everglades pollution arose once again — and once again, the sugar industry united to seek a legislative solution.
Since 1995, sugar growers have paid $25 per acre per year toward restoring the River of Grass. Environmental groups have long contended that sugar companies should pay more, rather than sticking taxpayers with the rest of the pollution cleanup costs.
But Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, sponsored a bill to extend the $25-per-acre cost until 2026. The 2013 bill also said the sugar companies' payments would meet the requirements of Florida's "Polluter Pays" law, guaranteeing no one could sue them to make them pay more. It passed with little opposition and was signed into law by Scott.
A few months later, Caldwell's re-election campaign received $4,750 from U.S. Sugar and $500 from King Ranch. Soon after, Caldwell registered for his first ever Texas hunting license. Caldwell referred all questions about his license, King Ranch and U.S. Sugar to the RPOF.
U.S. Sugar has one of Tallahassee's most formidable lobbying corps, enlisting 13 different firms. One of its lobbyists, Whitis, also represents Alico, which is involved in sugar, citrus and cattle. He formed a hunting club in Tallahassee with Robert Coker, U.S. Sugar's vice president and long time chief lobbyist.
Records show Whitis has contributed $16,625 to the party for air travel, food, beverages and other expenses since 2013.
He has registered for Texas hunting licenses each of the past four years, but he wouldn't say whether he had gone to King Ranch with the politicians.
"I don't know much about those trips,'' he said, referring questions to Coker and U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez. Neither would talk.
Asked why he couldn't say whether he went on the trips, Whitis said that's not what U.S. Sugar pays him for.
"I don't talk to the media," he said, "just like I don't do brain surgery or grow tulips."
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In his two-year stint as House speaker, Weatherford made campaign finance transparency a priority. He pushed to eliminate Committees of Continuous Existence, which allowed candidates to use unlimited contributions made by unnamed donors for their personal expenses.
"We must increase transparency so that voters will know who's giving to campaigns so they can make informed decisions," Weatherford said during his legislative session opening day speech to lawmakers in 2013. "It's not complicated. If Floridians can't trust us with basic responsibilities, how will they ever trust us on bigger challenges?"
Yet despite the elimination of CCEs, parties can still funnel money to candidates from unlimited donor contributions while providing few details, concentrating more power among party leaders.
Weatherford has personally received $68,501 from the state party since 2011. The GOP described the reimbursements in vague terms only: travel, meals, supplies.
Contrary to his public plea for transparency, Weatherford didn't respond to repeated phone calls asking when he had gone to King Ranch, who paid, and who else was there. Two weeks after Weatherford was first asked those questions, his spokesman Ryan Duffy responded with a two-sentence email.
"As incoming speaker and as speaker, part of the job is to raise funds for Republicans," Duffy stated. "All questions regarding fundraising should be directed to the Republican Party of Florida."
The party's response?
"We don't discuss fundraising," said spokeswoman Hepworth. "We never have. Ever."