Swiftmud drops gun club lawsuit after NRA lobbyist demands agency be abolished

The Skyway Trap & Skeet Club sits next to Sawgrass Lake Park. Swiftmud, which owns the park, cited pollution from lead shot.
The Skyway Trap & Skeet Club sits next to Sawgrass Lake Park. Swiftmud, which owns the park, cited pollution from lead shot.
Published Feb. 24, 2016

Two weeks after the National Rifle Association's top state lobbyist demanded that the governor and Legislature abolish the Southwest Florida Water Management District over its treatment of a gun club, the agency quietly dropped a lawsuit against the Pinellas Park club.

The matter was added to a Tuesday meeting agenda at the last minute as a "consent agenda" item and passed unanimously without discussion.

And afterward, nobody wanted to talk about it.

The agenda item called for the board to approve an action that its executive director had already authorized, filing a motion to drop the case against the Skyway Trap & Skeet Club. That motion, filed Friday by attorney Bryan Bolves of Tampa's Manson Bolves Donaldson law firm, does not explain why the agency was taking that action.

A spokeswoman for the agency commonly known as Swiftmud and controlled by the governor said the board took that dramatic step because "there's been a change in the practice at the club." But she wouldn't say what that change was, nor comment on whether the governor's office told the agency to back off.

"That's all I can tell you," Susanna Martinez Tarokh said. "I have no further comment."

When the Tampa Bay Times asked Gov. Rick Scott's office whether Scott or his staff had directed the water agency to wave a white flag, Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz did not respond to the question.

Instead, in an emailed statement, she said only, "We are glad Swiftmud and the skeet club are working together on a solution that is good for everyone."

Marion Hammer, who has been lobbying for the NRA since 1978, said she suspected Swiftmud backed down because officials there were worried they were breaking a law she'd gotten passed in 2004. She said they must have "finally woke up to the potential for jail time."

The Times questioned Tarokh about whether Swiftmud board members discussed the topic with each other outside of public view, which would be a violation of Florida's Sunshine Law.

"We do not believe our board members would communicate on this issue outside the sunshine," she said.

Swiftmud governing board chairman Michael Babb, president of Two Rivers Ranch of Thonotosassa, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Neither did the gun club.

Skyway Trap & Skeet Club, which has been around for 71 years, sits next to Sawgrass Lake Park. The park, owned by Swiftmud and run by Pinellas County, has had to deal with pollution caused by lead bullets and shot fired from the club.

The state Department of Environmental Protection sued Skyway in 2000 over the lead contamination. The club has since switched to requiring all its members to use steel shot instead to avoid lead pollution problems.

Because of the 2000 lawsuit, Hammer prodded the Legislature in 2004 to pass a bill banning any state agency from suing a gun range. She called such lawsuits "back door gun control" and contended then that state officials were "drunk with power, and they think they can bully anybody they want." The bill passed easily, and Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law.

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The legislation said a change was necessary because the high cost of fighting off lawsuits filed by overly aggressive state regulators "threatens to destroy the sport shooting and training range industry."

However, state records showed no privately owned range had ever been driven out of business by a lawsuit mandating cleanup. Hammer said Skyway wasn't the sole cause of the legislation, but it was the only one being sued.

Just as the measure passed, Swiftmud and the DEP reached a settlement with the gun club that resulted in taxpayers footing the $25 million bill to clean up a million pounds of lead in the park and lake.

Last August, Swiftmud sued the club again, this time contending it had failed to follow through on a promise in the settlement to erect a barrier to block any more shots from going into the lake. The gun club's attorney argued that such a suit violated Hammer's 2004 law. The judge disagreed.

Skyway appealed that ruling. In the meantime, the club persuaded the judge last month to stay all further proceedings in exchange for a promise from the gun club not to allow any more shooting until the matter is resolved.

But then on Feb. 9, Hammer struck back against Swiftmud. She called it "a malignant state agency that uses unlimited tax dollars in what I can only call an evil attempt to steal private property and destroy a small private business."

She demanded that Scott and the Legislature abolish Swiftmud, which was created in 1961 to protect the water resources in a 16-county area. She also called for Attorney General Pam Bondi and the governor's inspector general to investigate the agency and prosecute everyone involved.

On Tuesday, after hearing about Swiftmud dropping its suit, Hammer told the Times, "It could be that after we repeatedly pointed out that Swiftmud's lawsuit violated the law, they probably finally read the law themselves and realized they could be held criminally liable for violating the law."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.