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Richard Corbett resigns as Florida Fish and Wildlife commissioner

Avery Cobbs, 48, from Orlando, dressed in a bear suit with a bull's-eye on his chest, heads back to his seat after addressing the group at a hearing on Florida's wildlife commissioners' plan to vote on bringing back bear hunting. The hearing was June 24 at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota. (DIRK SHADD | Times )
Published Aug. 23, 2015

Richard Corbett, the Tampa mall developer who chaired the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission when it decided to bring back bear hunting after 21 years, has resigned.

Corbett sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott dated Tuesday in which he said he wanted to "retire" before his term on the commission officially ended in 2018. His last day is Sept. 1.

Corbett's letter makes no mention of the controversial decision to bring back bear hunting, a move he strongly supported even though 75 percent of the 40,000 people who called, emailed or wrote letters to commissioners opposed it. He gave no reason for his resignation, and could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Scott moved quickly to fill the position. On Friday he appointed another developer to replace Corbett. The new commissioner is Robert Spottswood, a wealthy hotel builder and attorney from Key West. His first day in office will be the first day of the commission's next meeting, at which it is supposed to discuss a new policy on Florida panthers and also set a limit on how many bears can be killed during the October hunt.

Spottswood has contributed money to politicians of both parties, including $10,000 to the governor's Let's Get to Work Committee in 2013. He also is one of Scott's appointees to the Commission on Health Care and Hospital Funding.

Corbett, who built International Plaza in Tampa, was originally appointed to the wildlife commission by former Gov. Charlie Crist, then re-appointed by Scott in 2013. While chairman, he also was the strongest voice among the commissioners in support of approving the bear hunt after four women were mauled by bears in recent years.

"Do you want blood on your hands?" a visibly angry Corbett asked reporters after a June preliminary vote to approve the hunt. "We don't. We have taken a step."

If a child were to be injured or killed by a bear, he explained, "the parents would go right after us" in court unless the commission took action. Later commission attorneys said that was incorrect. As an arm of the state, the commission is immune from such lawsuits.

When asked how he could support a hunt when so much of the public opposed it, Corbett said, "Those people don't know what they're talking about. Most of those people have never been in the woods. They think we're talking about teddy bears: 'Oh Lord, don't hurt my little teddy bear!' Well, these bears are dangerous."

At a subsequent commission meeting, where the commissioners gave final approval to the hunt, several speakers blasted him for his comments. Corbett said he'd been misquoted, which led to the crowd booing him.

Corbett is a Notre Dame graduate, a onetime junior White House aide during the Kennedy administration and a former boxer whose nose was broken five times. His wife Cornelia is a former part-owner of the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team.

He completed his term as chairman in June. The new chairman is Brian Yablonski, who works as external affairs director for Gulf Power and co-wrote the book Profiles in Character with former Gov. Jeb Bush.

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