1. Opinion

Ruth: Florida politicians all hail King Sugar

Published Jul. 30, 2014

This could have been very messy. Since the famed King Ranch in Texas is known as a très chichi hunting preserve, it's a wonder the freeloading Florida politicians schlepping through the woods weren't mistaken for fat, juicy wild hogs as they tore up the landscape in the search for six-figure campaign truffles.

How do you tell the difference between a political pig at the trough and a wild boar? The Tallahassee swine species requires a lobbyist leash.

Tampa Bay Times reporters Michael Van Sickler and Craig Pittman reported Sunday that for years some of our august public servants took time out from crusading for responsible government to sneak away to Texas for swanky hunting vacations at the King Ranch with expenses paid by U.S. Sugar.

And while folks like Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, then-Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran, House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Seth McKeel and a host of other big-shot legislators were thrilled to party on a powerful special interest's dime, these "Weekend at Sugar Daddy's" moochers were not willing to explain why they were so happy to accept some sweet baksheesh.

While they may want to claim that going on a lavish, privately funded undisclosed hunting trip at an exclusive 30,000-acre Texas enclave owned by a multinational corporation with vast agricultural interests in Florida was perfectly proper because of some clever campaign finance language, the Scott/Putnam axis of greased palms, along with the rest of their little legislative friends, were actively engaged in accepting nothing less than legalized bribes.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Tallahassee scam works this way:

If U.S. Sugar were to approach Scott, Putnam, Corcoran and other elected officials and offer to directly pay for their hunting trip expenses, these holier-than-thou public servants would indignantly refuse the blatantly illegal invitation. But if U.S. Sugar simply gives the money to the Republican Party of Florida, which launders the contribution back in vaguely defined "campaign purposes," the high-end influence-peddling suddenly becomes legally pure.

This was a golden opportunity for champions of the sunshine such as Scott, Putnam, Corcoran and the rest of the Snowjob of Kilimanjaro hustlers to defend the righteousness of the Texas shootout vacations, which U.S. Sugar has paid more than $95,000 since 2011 to fund. It also would have been a chance for House Speaker Will Weatherford and incoming Speaker Steve Crisafulli, who registered for Texas hunting licenses the past three years, to clear up any confusion as to whether they, too, had spent time at the King Ranch, courtesy of one of the worst corporate polluters of the Florida Everglades.

Alas, a cone of silence descended over the junketeers. They all declined to defend their thinly veiled legalized gratuities from U.S. Sugar, referring reporters' inquiries to the Republican Party of Florida. When Putnam, who is worth nearly $7 million and ought to be able to cover his holiday expenses, was approached, he hid behind his taxpayer-funded flack, who slammed a door in a reporter's face. Now there's some savvy public relations for you.

The Republican Party of Florida wasn't much help, sending out its own flack, Susan Hepworth, to insist that even though there is no mention of the King Ranch killing-field fundraising vacations in its campaign documents, the at least 20 safaris to Texas by some of Florida's most powerful GOP lawmakers paid for by an influential corporate patron followed "the letter of the law."

Maybe so. But simply because skirting campaign finance laws written by the very people who included language creating gaping loopholes allowing for financial mischief might be barely legal, doesn't make it right.

Tallahassee's pocket-stuffers had a swell time stomping around the preserve bagging prey provided by Kings Ranch. But the real trophies are the stuffed scruples of Scott, Putnam, Corcoran, McKeel and other legislative lemmings proudly hung on the walls of U.S. Sugar, which has sent $2.2 million in contributions to Florida Republican politicians in the 2014 election cycle.

If you're concerned about the sugar industry's pollution of the Everglades, what chance do you think you have in gaining access to Scott, Putnam and the rest to press your case?

About the same as a Kings Ranch wild turkey evading an Florida elected official's cross hairs. Hardly a fair fight. But it was never intended to be fair.