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Controversial Florida wetlands project hired lobbyist with DEP connection to push permit

Published Aug. 6, 2012

To get a wetlands permit from a state water agency, the owners of the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank hired engineers and a law firm. When that permit didn't give them what they wanted, they took an unusual step.

They hired Jacksonville lobbyist Edward "Ward" Blakely Jr. and took their case to the state Department of Environmental Protection — an agency headed by someone Blakely knew well: former Jacksonville business executive Herschel Vinyard.

But DEP Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn says politics play no role in the agency's permitting process.

"We do not consider politics or public opinion in making permit decisions," he said. "We've got some really excellent science and policy people in the agency."

The way DEP has handled the Highlands Ranch permit already has been the subject of two inspector general investigations. The first, in June, cleared the agency's top wetlands expert, Connie Bersok, who had refused to approve the permit to build a wetlands mitigation bank. Her bosses had accused her of leaking damaging information about the project.

The second investigation was based on a complaint by Bersok that her bosses appeared to be bending the rules to push a permit that would damage the environment. It was quietly closed last month with a one-page letter saying only that DEP's own attorneys had signed off on letting Highlands Ranch apply for a permit that is unlike any other previously approved by the agency.

Everything about the Highlands Ranch wetlands permitting process has been outside the ordinary, and Blakely's hiring is no exception. Seeing a permit applicant bring in an engineer, environmental consultant or an attorney is expected, explained Jeff Elledge, who oversaw permitting at the St. Johns River Water Management District until last year.

"However," he said, "I have never before seen lobbyists used in the permit application process."

"That's a doozy," agreed Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney who now heads up the Florida branch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The DEP has yet to make a decision on Highlands Ranch. Its owners last month asked the agency to allow it to skip putting up a $1.5 million bond guaranteeing performance — something required for every other mitigation bank — because they say it would be a financial hardship.

The Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank was created in 2008 when a politically influential private equity firm called the Carlyle Group formed a joint venture with a Jacksonville company, Hassan & Lear Acquisitions. They spent $15 million buying a 1,575-acre pine plantation in Clay County.

Mitigation banks are supposed to restore wetlands in exchange for credits they can then sell to developers who need to make up for destroying swamps and marshes. Although records show Highlands Ranch planned to do little to restore any wetlands, its owners sought a permit with 688 credits from the St. Johns River Water Management District.

The district's staff approved only 193, a difference worth millions in a market where credits have sold for up to $100,000 each. So Highlands Ranch sought a new permit from the DEP, one that offered 425 credits. Meanwhile, its owners hired Blakely to help boost their case with Vinyard's agency.

Blakely and Vinyard once lived half a mile from each other in Jacksonville. Before taking charge of DEP, Vinyard spent two years on the Jacksonville Port Authority. Blakely was its lobbyist.

There were political connections, too, according to Blakely's former boss at the Republican Party of Florida, ex-chairman Tom Slade.

Vinyard worked for Jacksonville's biggest shipbuilding company, Atlantic Marine, founded by George Gibbs III. Gibbs "was a fairly generous giver to political campaigns," Slade recalled. "Ward spent a lot of time running political campaigns" so his candidates had to seek contributions from Gibbs. When Vinyard became Atlantic Marine's vice president, he said, "Herschel took over the disbursement of those funds."

Despite their connections, DEP records do not show Blakely met with Vinyard. He did confer several times with Littlejohn to talk about what his client wanted, and to complain about Bersok.

"Connie dug in, doesn't believe we should be reviewing the application," Littlejohn wrote in his notes on one meeting, adding that Blakely said Bersok's questions about the application seemed "punitive."

Littlejohn acknowledged in an interview that Blakely may have been the first person to talk to him last year about Highlands Ranch. Littlejohn says he then persuaded Vinyard to let the Highlands application be considered a pilot project for a new way to handle mitigation bank permits.

The DEP has refused three requests from the Tampa Bay Times to interview Vinyard about Highlands Ranch. Highlands Ranch manager Marc El Hassan agreed to an interview about Blakely, then canceled it. A spokeswoman said she could confirm only that Blakely worked for El Hassan.

As for Blakely, after two weeks he responded to repeated calls from the Times, then replied to almost every question with the same answer: "I can't tell you that."

The one exception came when he was asked if he had talked to Vinyard about Highlands Ranch's problems before meeting with Littlejohn.

"I can't remember who's on first or on second," he said before ending the call.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

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