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With close ties to sugar, next House speaker admits King Ranch trip

To say that Steve Crisafulli is comfortable working with the sugar industry is an understatement.

Crisafulli, who becomes the most powerful man in the Florida House of Representatives this fall, has been a major beneficiary of the state's sugar industry. During the last two election cycles, agricultural interests have contributed at least $200,000 to Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and his political action committees. U.S. Sugar contributed nearly half of that total, $94,500.

And now, through a spokesman, the House speaker-designate has confirmed that he took at least one secret hunting trip to King Ranch in Texas.

The Times/Herald revealed last month that Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and other Florida politicos took secret hunting trips to King Ranch that were orchestrated by and at least partially paid for by U.S. Sugar. The cost of lodging, travel and other items was funneled through the Republican Party of Florida, which said it was for fundraising.

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.

Last month, Crisafulli and current House Speaker Will Weatherford would not respond to questions about whether they went on the trips, too, although both received Texas hunting licenses. After the Times/Herald stories published, Weatherford acknowledged going.

"I went to King Ranch once in 2011, once in 2012 and once in 2013," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said in a statement. "All three trips were Republican Party of Florida fundraisers. In those three years, I shot one deer. I personally paid for all costs associated with the mounting of the deer which my wife would not allow me to hang in our home."

Now Crisafulli, 43, has acknowledged going, too — although, as with Weatherford, Scott and Putnam, he would not say who accompanied him on the trip or what was discussed.

Instead, he released a four-paragraph statement through his spokesman that said in part: "I have participated in fundraising events in places such as New York City, California and Texas, to name a few. Some have been events at sporting competitions, others have been at historic locations, and at King Ranch the events included game hunting."

Records indicate Crisafulli has obtained a Texas hunting license three times since 2011, including at least once when Weatherford had one. King Ranch is a major Florida sugar and citrus grower, and U.S. Sugar leases thousands of acres on the ranch's Texas spread for hunting.

Crisafulli was born into a citrus-growing family. Prior to his election to the House in 2008 he was president of the Brevard County Farm Bureau.

"Agriculture is the foundation of Florida's economy," his website, stevecrisafulli.com, states.

The sugar industry touches every aspect of his political life.

U.S. Sugar contributes to nearly everyone in the state's GOP leadership. During the 2014 election cycle alone, the company and its officers gave $2.2 million to state Republicans. But the company is exceptionally close to Crisafulli. For the past two election cycles, U.S. Sugar makes up about 4 percent and agribusiness makes up nearly 10 percent of Crisafulli's total contributions.

Other Republican leaders don't come close to matching that.

Weatherford, a prodigious fundraiser, mustered only 3 percent of contributions in his last two elections from agribusiness, and 2 percent from U.S. Sugar. Senate President Don Gaetz drew only 2 percent of his contributions from agriculture, with about half from U.S. Sugar. Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner drew 2 percent from agriculture, 1 percent from U.S. Sugar.

Of those four leaders, only Crisafulli has received $500 contributions from people sitting on the board of directors of U.S. Sugar, and their spouses, as well.

Crisafulli typically doesn't speak to reporters, referring questions to Brian Hughes, Scott's former spokesman. Hughes left the governor's office in 2011 and now represents Crisafulli with his consulting company, Meteoric Media, which he started in 2009.

In addition, Hughes works for the House Republican Campaign Committee and he's the spokesman for Florida Sugar Farmers, a coalition of U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and the Florida Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, of which King Ranch is the largest member.

Crisafulli's campaign adviser, Trey McCarley, registered for Texas hunting licenses the past two years along with Kris Money, Weatherford's deputy chief of staff. Since 1998, McCarley has worked on the campaigns of Putnam, House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, former House Speaker Dean Cannon and Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres — all of whom took King Ranch trips.

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 Caldwell 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.

The bill's first committee hearing was at the State Affairs Committee, chaired by Crisafulli. Environmental groups told committee members that they objected to that provision in the bill.

Only two people spoke in favor of the break for sugar companies. One was a sugar company lobbyist. The other was Brewster B. Bevis, who oversees lobbying for the pro-business group Associated Industries of Florida. The bill passed unanimously, and afterward, Hughes talked to reporters on behalf of the sugar industry, rather than speaking for Crisafulli. Ultimately the bill passed the Legislature and was signed into law by Scott.

On the same day in 2012 that Crisafulli obtained a Texas hunting license, Bevis posted a photo on his Facebook page showing him with a dead buck. The caption indicated he had shot it at King Ranch, and in a subsequent post he identified the location as the area where U.S. Sugar has its hunting lease.

After the Times/Herald stories on Florida politicians taking secret trips to King Ranch, Bevis removed that photo from Facebook. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Bevis works with an Associated Industries group focused on crafting a new, business-friendly Florida water policy called the Florida H2O Coalition.

During the 2014 legislative session, Weatherford delayed any major water policy legislation that would address pollution from agricultural production. He said he was doing so out of deference to Crisafulli, who had declared that he would make crafting a state water policy his chief priority as speaker. So far, he has not specified what that policy would be.

Contact Michael Van Sickler at mvansickler@tampabay.com. Follow @mikevansickler. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

With close ties to sugar, next House speaker admits King Ranch trip 08/17/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2014 11:56am]

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