The developers of a controversial proposal to build a landfill near Dade City have given $89,000 in campaign donations to politicos in Pasco County and around the state.
One of them was Pasco Republican Party chairman Bill Bunting.
Angelo's Aggregate Materials, the company behind the proposed landfill, donated $5,000 to the county GOP for its biggest annual fundraiser, the Reagan Day Dinner on Sept. 14.
In return, Bunting said, he agreed to visit the company's existing commercial landfill and recycling center, which is also near Dade City. Bunting said last week he promised no advocacy for Angelo's' new proposal.
He said he left the Enterprise Road landfill impressed. So, he said, he invited Angelo's officials to pitch their case to the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce's government affairs committee Nov. 9. They did and won a vote of support.
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In other cases, the company and its founding family have donated by bundling contributions from individuals and nine companies and trusts.
Angelo's vice president Dominic Iafrate denies any suggestion that the company is trying to buy votes. In an e-mail to the Times, he wrote that the company and his family members, who control the parent corporation, Iafrate Cos., contribute to numerous candidates "whose work or views we support." The family members have been "blessed financially," he wrote.
In fact, Angelo's companies did give money in Pasco County before beginning the landfill project. In 2004, they gave $3,250 to candidates, including County Commissioners Ted Schrader, Ann Hildebrand and then-Commissioner Peter Altman, who lost his election.
Iafrate also noted they have contributed to charities and nonprofits in Pasco. Among the recipients: the Little Everglades Steeplechase ($60,000), the Pasco County Cattleman's Association youth program ($20,000), the Pioneer Florida Museum ($10,000) and the Pasco County Fair ($5,000).
Some of the these are run by influential residents. The Steeplechase is held at Little Everglades Ranch, owned by the Blanchard family, known for the steeplechase and conservation efforts. The Cattleman's Association involves the Barthle family, one of Pasco's pioneering ranching families. Marlene and Robert Sumner, the former county attorney, steer the museum.
Angelo's' proposed landfill, which could eventually cover more than 1,000 acres, has touched off a political fight with conservationists, who fear adverse effects on the nearby Green Swamp. State Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, whose district would be the landfill's home, has filed a bill that could stop its construction. State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, also opposes the project.
Schrader said he will no longer accept donations from the Iafrates or their companies. He is running for re-election against John Nicolette, an Iafrate friend and past business partner. To date, Nicolette has not received a contribution linked to Angelo's.
"In 2004, there was not an issue about the landfill. It seemed appropriate," Schrader said.
But this time, Schrader said, landfill officials have not been entirely open with him about their intentions to truck waste from outside Pasco to the site.
Landfill opponent Carl Roth, who leads Protectors of Florida's Legacy, said Angelo's' strategy seems to be to "sprinkle money around and low and behold, you get your permit and conditional uses."
Roth said his group has operated on $3,000 during the past two years.
His group is meeting with county commissioners to urge opposition to the landfill. The group won a letter from Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio opposing the project. Roth said he has not yet seen any sign that Angelo's money is influencing decisions.
"I don't want to be cynical or anything," Roth said. "I hope that's not the way government works."
To open the landfill, the company needs the approval of state regulators and county officials.
The company began buying land for the landfill in 2005, and applied for a state permit in October 2006. It had been little-known in Pasco until a fight sparked over the project, and has made little news elsewhere around the country. Angelo's is a subsidiary of Michigan-based Iafrate Cos., which says it has 2,000 full-time employees and $400-million in annual revenue.
Last week at a County Commission meeting, Dominic Iafrate declined an interview but later took questions by e-mail.
Iafrate answered a question about the landfill's anticipated profits this way:
"I think the question really should be how much have you invested in this project and how much will that investment benefit the citizens of the county?" he wrote. He said it could save Pasco $500-million by reducing the need to expand the county incinerator, a figure county officials dispute.
As its story goes, Angelo Iafrate started the company by salting away enough money to buy a 10-year-old dump truck in 1960. Now, his companies operate in at least 18 states. Angelo's hired one of Florida's top lobbyists, Brian Ballard, a confidant to Gov. Charlie Crist. Ballard registered to lobby for the company Dec. 5.
"We were advised that he is very good at helping to navigate through the regulatory environment in Tallahassee," Dominic Iafrate said.
The company's other contributions include:
-Ê$50,000 to Citizens for Housing and Urban Growth, the political committee of state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. The chairman of the Senate Communications and Public Utilities Committee, Bennett has introduced a bill proposing grants for businesses that create biofuel related energy.
Bennett recently told the Times that he didn't support the landfill, but Iafrate said the company shares Bennett's view on "smart, sustainable growth solutions" - like the landfill project.
Angelo's says its site will eventually produce "green energy" from methane gas created by composting, but not for several years.
-Ê$5,600 to state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, whose district includes the landfill site. Unlike Crist and Fasano, Weatherford has shied away from criticizing the project. He did back a letter from Pasco's legislative delegation asking the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to delay a decision on the landfill while lawmakers work.
-Ê$4,500 to Property Appraiser Mike Wells of Dade City, who wields influence after a long tenure in county politics. He has no authority on the project. But Angelo's received a reduced tax bill after challenging its assessment last year - and making the donations. (See story, front page.)
Only one County Commissioner, Pat Mulieri, has received money from Angelo's as the new landfill proposal is being pursued. She got $1,000 in 2006. Commissioner Steve Simon received $5,000 that year, before he lost the election to Michael Cox.
Mulieri said she has had two meetings with Angelo's officials and their attorney, Jerry Figurski. One included Iafrate family members, and the other was with their general manager and engineer, John Arnold.
"I've explained to them, I don't have a comfort level that they can do everything they say," Mulieri said. As for the donations: "If you were to ask me to name 20 people who contributed to my campaign, I don't think I could do it."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Chuin-Wei Yap contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or toll-free at 1-800- 333-7505, ext. 6232.
State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel
Weatherford's district includes the site of the proposed landfill.
Allen Altman, Pasco School Board member
Altman, an influential east Pasco resident, says he has had no talks with the company.
Pat Mulieri, Pasco County commissioner
Mulieri says she questions whether the project would work.
Steve Simon, former Pasco County commissioner
Simon was commission chairman before losing the 2006 election.
Mike Wells, Pasco property appraiser
The Dade City resident is a leading east Pasco power broker. Angelo's won a lower property tax assessment late last year.
Republican Party of Pasco County
GOP chairman Bill Bunting helped get Angelo's time to lobby the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce.
Charles Bronson, Florida agriculture commissioner
Has promoted state investment in biofuel energy, which landfills can produce.
Citizens for Housing and Urban Growth
Political committee of state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who has proposed financial credits for recycling and renewable energy businesses.
Republican Party of Florida
Angelo's officials are regular donors to GOP officials.
Bob Dillinger, Pinellas-Pasco public defender
Dillinger, who could not be reached, has no role in the project.