When prominent Florida politicians repeatedly gather in Texas for secret hunting weekends as guests of a special interest, the public has an interest in who attended, who paid and who said what. Yet Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, House Speaker Will Weatherford and other legislative leaders are refusing to provide basic details about their so-called fundraising trips to a legendary Texas ranch leased by Florida sugar interests. The outrage is that these trips appear to be legal and that these politicians are more interested in privately courting a big political donor than in publicly explaining themselves to the voters who elected them.
To keep repeated rendezvous private, U.S. Sugar and elected officials have exploited intentional blind spots in the state's gift ban and campaign finance laws. State law doesn't ban officials from accepting meals, travel or coverage of other expenses when they are raising money for a political party. And campaign finance records submitted by the Republican Party of Florida can be opaque about exactly how such money was spent.
Tampa Bay Times' reporters Michael Van Sickler and Craig Pittman found that since late 2011, U.S. Sugar has donated more than $95,000 in in-kind contributions to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips. The destination was undisclosed. But the contributions came within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses. U.S. Sugar has built a private lodge on thousands of acres it leases from King Ranch in southeast Texas. Beyond Scott and Putnam, those who have benefited from the private retreat include past, present or anticipated future House Speakers Dean Cannon of Winter Park, Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, Steve Crisafulli of Merritt Island and Richard Corcoran of Trinity; legislative budget leaders and other prominent members.
Just what happens at King Ranch when Tallahassee's elite decamps there? Apparently not much fundraising. Key Republican Party officials said they weren't even aware of the weekend junkets. Campaign finance records show no pattern of party contributions commensurate with hunting trip dates, but there are expenditures for travel, a taxidermist and lunch at a local Texas diner.
Putnam won't say much about his trips there other than to confirm there haven't been "more than a handful" and that he hunted deer and hogs. Never mind he is the state's chief agriculture regulator, overseeing various operations not just of U.S. Sugar but also King Ranch, which has significant Florida holdings, including major citrus operations.
Scott, who won the Republican primary four years ago in part by blasting his opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum, for accepting Big Sugar donations, is now reaping the same largesse for his re-election bid. And within a month of his trip to King Ranch in February 2013, he tapped a King Ranch Florida employee to serve on the South Florida Water Management board — the most powerful entity in South Florida when it comes to the nexus of agriculture and water use, including the cleanup of the Everglades. No wonder nobody wants to talk about trips to Texas.
Elected leaders hiding behind political party fundraising to avoid discussing their extended interactions with special interests at a private retreat a thousand miles away? Floridians have every reason to suspect they have something to hide. Time for Scott, Putnam, Weatherford and the rest to explain just what that is.