Playing with fire: Rick Scott, a raging inferno, and a $50,000-a-head fund-raiser

'They're not going to get away with this,' declares a fire victim in Eastpoint.
The scene in Eastpoint [Capitol News Service]
The scene in Eastpoint [Capitol News Service]
Published June 28, 2018|Updated June 28, 2018

Thirty-six homes and 800 acres are reduced to charred rubble. Residents of a close-knit, hardscrabble community are left without food and shelter. As they assess their lives in 95-degree heat, all they have are questions.

It's the result of a raging wildfire Sunday that decimated part of Eastpoint, a fishing village near the Apalachicola River south of Tallahassee renowned for its oysters.

It wasn't a lack of rain. It wasn't lightning. It was a prescribed burn, the burning of hazardous underbrush, by a vendor hired by the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that went badly wrong and cost people their homes, pets and worldly possessions.

"Accidents happen, but they should own up to it," Arlene Thompson of Eastpoint told the Tallahassee Democrat. "They're not going to get away with this."

Resident April Dalton told the paper: "Children and families are homeless now because someone did not do their job."

FWC hired Wildlands Fire Service of Tallahassee in another example of the state privatizing a public safety function. Amid the fallout, the agency has begun an investigation and suspended prescribed burns. Director Eric Sutton said: "We will take proper steps to ensure accountability."

Who's accountable?

One place to start is with the seven political appointees on the wildlife commission who hired the vendor. Every one of them is a close friend of Gov. Rick Scott.

Serving as a wildlife commissioner is a plum appointment. The FWC board is an extension of the governor's office and always has been, so this is also Scott's problem.

At a time when he's asking voters to put him in the U.S. Senate, Scott went to Eastpoint Monday and his office quickly posted a photo of him meeting with the local sheriff. At the Times/Herald's request, Scott issued a statement Wednesday that said he expects FWC to "do a thorough investigation to get all the facts and urges them to hold people accountable … He will fight to make sure everything is done to help these families fully recover."

Scott's campaign referred questions for this story to the governor's office.

Scott's FWC appointees include political allies such as Gary Lester, the vice president of community relations at The Villages, a retirement community that's a crucial Republican power base in statewide elections; Sonya Rood, wife of John Rood, a former ambassador to the Bahamas and former chief financial officer of the Republican Party of Florida; and Mike Sole, an executive of Florida Power & Light's parent company and former top state environmental regulator.

The Tampa Bay Times has reported that Scott's selections for these coveted appointments had no wildlife experience.

In his two campaigns for governor, Scott received more than $25,000 from five board appointees including $13,000 in two checks from Commissioner Robert Spottswood.

Yet another Scott appointee to the FWC is Gary Nicklaus — the son of that Nicklaus, as in Jack, the Golden Bear, a long-time Palm Beach County resident. While Eastpoint residents were still sifting through the rubble on Wednesday, the golfing legend threw a fund-raiser for Scott's Senate race, and a listing as a host cost a donor $50,000. That money would go a long way in Eastpoint right now — and those are hardly ideal optics for any political campaign.

Wildlands, the vendor, submitted an invoice for $26,400 for a prescribed burn that became an inferno. The invoice was among the documents that FWC posted on its web site, along with a certificate of liability insurance showing that Wildlands had a policy with a $2 million limit for each occurrence and a $5 million umbrella policy.

"All was OK," company owner Doug Williams wrote in longhand on a fax transmittal sheet June 20, before the fire. "Received some rain Monday night." Efforts to reach Williams on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Eastpoint residents are hardy and resilient people and are determined to rebuild.

Scott's Division of Emergency Management said it was sending 27 state troopers and mobile driver license van to Eastpoint and is helping with meals on wheels and a shelter at a church. The state also is sending adjusters to help residents file claims for living expenses.