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NRA sway: For Florida officials, it’s always Hammer time

A Tampa Bay Times review of hundreds of emails between NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and the state’s Department of Agriculture found her sphere of influence stretches far beyond gun legislation.
National Rifle Association Marion Hammer exchanged hundreds of emails from 2014 to 2017 with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Brusque and demanding, the messages suggest Hammer is rarely told “no.”
National Rifle Association Marion Hammer exchanged hundreds of emails from 2014 to 2017 with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Brusque and demanding, the messages suggest Hammer is rarely told “no.”

On the Fourth of July 2016, National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer fired off an email to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"This crap needs to stop," begins Hammer in the first of seven emails she would exchange with the department over the next 48 hours. "You need to figure out how to stop business email spamming."

Those who work in the Florida agency that oversees gun permits never know when Hammer will command their attention — or what about. Nights, weekends and even holidays, she sends messages to senior department officials with complaints and demands. They often respond within minutes.

Hammer's singular power over lawmakers, especially Republicans, is the stuff of Tallahassee legend. Just this March, a New Yorker profile detailed how the 79-year-old gun rights champion pushed gun laws through Florida's Legislature, transforming the state into a laboratory for the most contentious gun policies, such as "stand your ground."

Yet according to a Tampa Bay Times review of hundreds of Hammer's emails with the state's Department of Agriculture, her sphere of influence stretches far beyond gun legislation. Emails from 2014 to 2017 show the lobbyist involves herself in a wide array of day-to-day tasks of an agency that was accused five years ago in a lawsuit of being run by the NRA.

READ THE EMAILS: See all released emails between the NRA's Marion Hammer and the Florida Department of Agriculture

Using an email address, Hammer's emails touch on topics such as spam email, South Korean dogs and a personal problem with a pest control company.

Brusque and demanding, the messages suggest Hammer is rarely told "no."

"Who on earth was arrogant and antigun enough to authorize this?"

" … put this at the top of the priority list and do it right away."

Hammer, who is registered to lobby for the NRA and its Florida affiliate, Unified Sportsmen of Florida, said there's nothing unusual about her relationship with the agriculture department. They respond quickly to her, she said, because she herself is responsive. They appreciate her brutal honesty.

If people view her role as problematic, then they don't understand how government works, she said. She is holding elected officials accountable to the people who elected them. Her role in government isn't outsized, it's representative of her organization's large membership.

"Where a lot of people see that as a negative, I see it as a positive."

• • •

It was after business hours on the night of Jan. 12, 2016, but Hammer wanted to know why the Department of Agriculture denied someone's renewal for a concealed weapons license.

"Guys, this is your first test from me since Ken moved to his new position," Hammer wrote that evening, referring to an agency official. "Do him proud and find out what the heck is going on."

A reply came within minutes.

"Ms. Hammer, I'll research it first thing in the morning and provide answers," responded Paul Pagano, the assistant director in the department's licensing division.

The application had an error, Pagano discovered. It wasn't notarized correctly, as required by law at the time.

Pagano approved the license anyway, he assured Hammer the next morning.

Marion Hammer, the NRA’s Florida lobbyist.

While most states have a law enforcement agency manage the licenses, Florida lets the Department of Agriculture oversee its licensing program. Hammer takes credit for setting it up that way.

"It was just me," Hammer told the Times in June. "Just NRA."

Nearly 2 million Floridians hold licenses to carry a concealed weapon in public, more than any other state and yet another tribute to Hammer's legacy.

A lifetime member of the NRA by 1968, Hammer quickly immersed herself in state gun issues when she moved with her husband and three daughters to Tallahassee in the 1970s. In 1978, she was named executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida, a title she would hold for decades.

Though she rose to lead the national NRA as president from 1995 to 1998, it is in Florida that Hammer has made her mark. In the 1980s, she crafted the state law that made it legal to carry a concealed handgun in public, a law many other states have since mirrored. It is a playbook that gun-rights advocates have repeated to much success: First Florida, then the country.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has called himself a "proud NRA sellout." In a 2013 whistleblower lawsuit, an employee alleged that the director of Putnam's licensing division, Grea Bevis, told her she "worked for the NRA" when she tried to draw attention to problems with the gun licensing program. The department denied the accusation, but settled with the employee for $30,000.

RELATED: Ex-supervisor in Adam Putnam's gun-license unit warned of 'gross misconduct,' sued and got $30,000 settlement

'Proud NRA sellout': One year later, Adam Putnam fights for his political survival 

Bevis has run the concealed weapons program for the past eight years, overseeing a record expansion of licenses and, at times, the mishandling of background checks on applications.

Emails between Bevis, his employees and Hammer show changes to the department's concealed weapons program have come from her. At the very least, they go through Hammer first.

"We routinely communicate with stakeholders on department-related matters," department spokeswoman Jenn Meale said in a statement.

Proposals are sent to Hammer "for your consideration" or "for your review" before the Legislature.

If not, Hammer gets on them.

"I understand some of your people are walking around some new language dealing with (concealed weapons) licensing and Tax Collectors fees," Hammer wrote Bevis one night last October. "Care to share it with me?"

By morning it was in her inbox.

• • •

For years, Democrats have charged that Florida Republicans are beholden to Hammer out of fear of her annual legislative report cards, where she grades lawmakers on their gun votes. Republicans haven't denied the allegation.

Coordination on gun bills has permeated through the halls of the Capitol and all the way to Gov. Rick Scott's office, according to emails reported by the New Yorker. But Hammer doesn't just write policy; she makes sure it is followed exactly as she intended.

In 2015, Hammer discovered a Division of Licensing's Punta Gorda office hung posters forbidding three things: Cameras, cell phones and "carrying of unlawful weapons."

Hammer demanded its removal.

"I can probably stop a lawsuit for a while if you proceed with all due speed to get these signs down anywhere they exist," Hammer wrote.

Two weeks later, Bevis sent her a mockup of a new poster.

Putnam created a partnership with county tax collectors to accept concealed weapons applications in 2014. Hammer helped decide which counties would be first to participate.

Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden volunteered immediately, according to an email from Nassau County Tax Collector John Drew.

"I don't feel that I have the clout to make that happen," Drew wrote. "But I know that you do."

Hammer was unmoved. (Belden in a phone call after the story published said he never sought preferential treatment. "It's unbelievable (Drew) would say that. I was glad to wait my turn.")

"My focus right now has to be helping fill the gaps with the right people."

• • •

Hammer wasn't pleased when Putnam's department unveiled a new website.

"To state it simply, the Division of Licensing website SUCKS!" she wrote directly to Putnam in 2014. "I actually don't know who is responsible for this so I am copying the most important people so whoever screwed it up will know that it is as bad as it gets."

State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, left, confers with gun-rights lobbyists — Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s longtime Tallahassee representative, and Florida Carry’s attorney Eric Friday — about a late-filed amendment proposed to Gaetz’s open-carry gun legislation on Jan. 28, 2016, during a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee. (Kristen M. Clark / Times/Herald)

Sometimes she emails Putnam and his staff on other concerns.

For example, Hammer dressed down the state veterinarian last year when she felt he didn't take seriously her unease over South Korean dogs rescued by a Tampa Bay shelter.

"Respectfully, 'That's not my job' is a familiar refrain from people who are unwilling to step up and tackle new threats to our state," Hammer wrote. "If it's not your job, then MAKE IT YOUR JOB. If you don't have the authority THEN GET THE AUTHORITY."

When asked about this email, Hammer told the Times that diseases from these dogs could have affected hunting and police dogs. "I'm just passionate about people doing their job to protect this state," she added.

Other times, her causes start out more personal. When she suspected a Tallahassee pest control company damaged her house during a termite treatment before she bought it, she took her complaints to the director of Agricultural Environmental Services. Then, she lobbied for harsh penalties for nefarious pest control companies.

"I asked for felony penalties but I'd settle (for) a $10,000 fine," Hammer wrote. "Anything less will be a joke." Hammer couldn't recall if the bill passed. The Times couldn't find the proposed language in state law.

"If it didn't pass, it'll be on my radar in the future," Hammer said with a laugh, before adding: "I just can't stand injustice."

Last year, Hammer suggested someone for a job, forwarding his résumé. A response indicated that a job wasn't available at the time. He later was hired for a job in the marketing division.

"I brought him and his qualifications to their attention," Hammer told the Times. "When you help someone find a job, it's up to them to keep the job."
Hammer questioned why her emails with the department deserved more scrutiny than other high-powered Tallahassee lobbyists. She suggested government officials are just as quick to answer them as they are to her.

"You're reading something into this that's not there," Hammer said. "I think that you're assuming a lot if you think people are interested in my emails."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.