Smell of cronyism in the wetlands

Published August 10 2012
Updated August 10 2012

Every Floridian has a vested interest in wetlands — a primary means for recharging the aquifer and drinking water supply — and so should the state Department of Environmental Protection. But the more that is learned about how top officials have handled the wetland mitigation credit application of a well-connected landowner, the more it appears Gov. Rick Scott's administration is more interested in currying favor than following the law.

As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman has reported, nothing about the way the DEP has handled the application from Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank has been routine. The company is a joint venture of an influential private equity firm, the Carlyle Group, and a Jacksonville company, Hassan & Lear Acquisitions. They spent $15 million buying a 1,575-acre pine plantation in Clay County and hoped to win nearly 700 wetland mitigation credits to sell to developers who want to destroy swamps or marshes elsewhere. A single credit can sell for as much as $100,000, and the growth-friendly scheme is supposed to ensure the aquifer and its drinking water supply remain protected — though earlier Times reporting has raised serious questions about the effectiveness of such mitigation.

After Highlands Ranch's initial effort to play by the rules netted it just 193 of the 688 mitigation credits it sought from the St. Johns River Water Management District, the firm has been betting on political clout to get its way. First it tried to get the Legislature to change the mitigation law. After that failed, it filed an application for 425 credits with the DEP and took the unprecedented step of hiring a high-profile lobbyist to shepherd it. Jacksonville lobbyist Edward "Ward" Blakely Jr. has longtime political connections to DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard.

DEP's wetlands expert, Connie Bersok, wasn't impressed. She said the application still failed to meet legal requirements because it didn't spell out how the firm planned to restore wetlands. Bersok was put on leave, with agency leaders alleging she may have leaked information in the file to the media (all of which was public record). A subsequent investigation cleared her.

Vinyard has refused to be interviewed on the issue, sending Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn to make the case that nothing untoward has occurred; the DEP is simply interested in using the Highlands Ranch application as a pilot project for examining new ways to regulate wetlands mitigation credits. But Bersok has contended the law doesn't allow what the bankers wanted, and the 2011 Legislature wouldn't sign off on the changes Highlands Ranch wanted, either.

The question is why Scott, generally critical of government regulation, has ignored that his own regulators appear to be engaging in such favoritism. The renegade bureaucrat has never been Bersok but a DEP administrative team that acts as though it can change the rules as it pleases. That's not better regulation, it's special interest cronyism. Why has Scott not stopped it?