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  1. Environment

Rick Scott's last-minute pick for wildlife commissioner: controversial developer Carlos Beruff

Amid a list of more than 70 appointments the outgoing governor made Friday night was the name of former U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Beruff, who's already facing an ethics commission complaint.
Carlos Beruff, Republican. (Times files
Carlos Beruff, Republican. (Times files
Published Jan. 7, 2019

Hidden among more than 70 last-minute appointments by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, released at 6 p.m. Friday night, was one unusual choice: Bradenton developer Carlos Beruff to serve on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A GOP stalwart who lost his 2016 bid to oust U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Beruff is currently facing an ethics commission complaint over how he helped one of his former development partners while serving as chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. In addition, one of his development projects has been accused of illegally moving an eagle's nest, and Manatee County officials investigated his company, Medallion Homes, for ripping up a county-owned conservation area.

"He's not necessarily my first choice for the wildlife commission," said Glenn Compton of the environmental group ManaSota-88, which filed the ethics complaint. "He doesn't have a stellar record on environmental protection."

Neither Beruff nor Scott, whose term as governor ended Monday, responded to requests for comment. Also, Scott's office did not make available a copy of the application that Beruff filed for the post explaining why he was interested.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Senate candidate Carlos Beruff says he's an outsider but records show big campaign contributions.

State wildlife commissioners don't vote on development permits but they do set policy for management of the state's wildlife. For instance, they regulate such matters as whether to allow another bear hunt, or whether to permit anglers to catch and keep Goliath grouper. Wildlife commission scientists lead the research and tracking of everything from Red Tide algae blooms to manatees to the population and breeding of the official state animal, the Florida panther.

Commissioners are not paid but their expenses are reimbursed for traveling to meetings around the state.

Although Beruff has never won elective office, this is far from his first go-round with being appointed to a position. Scott previously appointed Beruff to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding and the Constitutional Revision Commission. Beruff's work as chairman of the constitutional commission faced widespread criticism over bundling ballot issues such as offshore drilling and indoor vaping, although almost all of its proposals won support from the voters.

Seeing him appointed by Scott to yet another position disappointed former Manatee County commissioner Joe McClash, a frequent critic of Beruff's development plans.

"Once again he has been appointed to serve where he has no experience to serve the best interests of the people of Florida," McClash said. Getting a spot on the wildlife commission is "a great departing last gift from Scott and demonstrates why we should all be concerned with him serving the best interest of our state as senator."

Scott's last-minute appointments as he leaves to become a senator mark a break from prior gubernatorial practice, and incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday he's considering rescinding at least some: "I'm going to look at all of them, I mean we will definitely rescind some of the appointments that are effectively lame duck appointments or that have not been confirmed by the Senate and we'll announce some of those soon."

It was a vote Beruff made in 2015 as chairman of the water agency that alarmed ManaSota-88, the environmental group from Manatee and Sarasota counties. Beruff voted to ignore a judge's recommendation and approve a permit allowing another prominent Manatee County builder, former state Sen. Pat Neal, to chop down an acre of mangroves to build waterfront homes.

Although Neal and Beruff are friends and former business partners, Beruff insisted it was not a conflict of interest — but he resigned immediately after the vote.

Compton said his group filed its ethics complaint more than a year ago, and has yet to hear back from the state ethics commission on any resolution.

Meanwhile a group called the Suncoast Waterkeeper has complained to federal wildlife officials that workers at a Beruff waterfront project illegally removed an eagle's nest. The developers applied to remove what they said was an inactive eagle's nest, but photos and video show eagles are still using it, according to the complaint.

Beruff's development company just last month won a court victory over environmental groups that had sued over Manatee County's approval of a project formerly known as Long Bar Pointe and now called Aqua by the Bay.

He wanted to build a wetlands mitigation bank as part of the project, one unlike any other. A wetlands mitigation bank is supposed to look and function like a natural wetland. But Beruff's bank, which was to be created on land adjacent to his development included plans to cut back 40 acres of native mangroves now growing on the property. When a Tampa Bay Times reporter asked him why he would do that, he replied: "For the obvious reason. The view!"

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Carlos Beruff wants a wetland mitigation bank unlike any other.

This is not the first time Scott has picked someone with little or no wildlife management experience for a seat on the state wildlife commission. Last year he appointed Gary Lester, vice president of community relations at The Villages, the largest gated retirement community in the world; Gary Nicklaus, 48, a golf course designer and son of golfing great Jack Nicklaus; and Sonya Rood, 53, wife of developer and former Bahamas ambassador John Rood, who is also former chief financial officer of the Republican Party of Florida.

In 2017, though, Scott tapped former state Department of Environmental Protection secretary Mike Sole, who has a degree in marine biology, for a seat on the commission.

Beruff has long been a supporter of Scott, donating $24,000 to his campaigns for governor in 2010 and 2014. Another $75,000 went to Scott's political action committee, Let's Get to Work in those races. He gave more than $40,000 to support Scott's Senate bid.

Beruff, who spent $8 million of his own fortune on his failed Senate race in 2016, made national headlines during that race for calling President Barack Obama "an animal."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Connie Humburg and reporter Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report, which contains information from the Bradenton Herald. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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