There’s so much money and patronage sloshing around Texas politics that it can be difficult to keep track. So it’s unsurprising that our great surplus spills over into other states. This time it’s Florida, where the sudden appearance of one of the all-time great Texas icons in an unseemly story of influence-peddling threatens to damage some of Florida’s top politicians in a critical election year, including the state’s increasingly grimy-looking governor, Rick Scott. Also at stake: billions of dollars and the health of one of America’s great natural assets.
For years, at least half a dozen high-ranking Florida Republicans have been accepting lavish trips to the King Ranch from the state’s sugar industry, and failing to report it properly to either their constituents or the state’s ethics authorities, according to an explosive Tampa Bay Times story that dropped last week. Florida’s currently in the middle of a highly contentious election cycle that’s had a lot to do with trust and corruption issues—so if the story develops, the King Ranch could play a starring role in the last couple months of the race.
The King Ranch is one of the largest ranches in the world, and it’s been a central pillar of Texan identity for a century and a half. But these days, the King Ranch is no mere cattle operation—it’s a globe-spanning corporate interest, deriving income from a diverse set of industries. King Ranch, Inc. owns 12,500 acres of sugar cane production as part of its holdings in South Florida. So in the arid brush country near Kingsville, the King Ranch has come to play host to a very different type of livestock—Florida Republicans.
For years, the Sunshine State has been trying to take better care of the Everglades, the sprawling tropical wetlands encompassing a good portion of Florida’s southern tip. The Everglades suffer from toxic runoff from the rest of the state, especially phosphorous pollution. The phosphorous comes primarily from the fertilizer used by industrial agricultural operations, especially the production of sugar cane.
The federal government heavily subsidizes the production of sugar cane, and coddles the industry through trade protections. But the state of Florida, too, subsidizes the industry. In the ’90s, the state passed a “polluter pays” measure which was intended to force groups poisoning the Everglades to pay for clean-up and control efforts—but the state’s Legislature capped the amount sugar-growers could pay at low levels, shifting the burden to other Floridians. Here’s something that conservatives and liberals can hate together: An industry is winning huge amounts of taxpayer money to grow crops in an environmentally destructive manner.
So how do they keep it going? One answer is that the industry lavishes attention on (and donates huge sums to) Florida Republicans to keep them fat and happy. That’s where the King Ranch comes in. The ranch owns land in Florida, so they have a vested interest in this—but its operations are dwarfed by those of the U.S. Sugar Corporation, the largest producer in Florida. U.S. Sugar owns almost 190,000 acres.
In 2011, U.S. Sugar leased 30,000 acres at the King Ranch and built a hunting lodge on the land. Last week, two reporters from the Tampa Bay Times figured out why.
A Times/Herald analysis shows that since late 2011, U.S. Sugar paid more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips — destinations unspecified on public documents — within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.
This was a substantial investment—but no one reported the King Ranch trips to the relevant ethics authorities. U.S. Sugar reported in-kind donations to the party, but never said why or what it constituted. Almost no one wants to talk about it at all, in fact:
Florida GOP officials either said they don’t know about the King Ranch trips or they won’t talk about them. Sugar industry officials declined to comment. The King Ranch trips don’t show up on Scott’s or Putnam’s official schedules, or in any Republican Party of Florida fundraising documents.
Gov. Rick Scott came to Kingsville with a full complement of state police. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam came too. When asked about it, Putnam variously described the jaunt as a “hunting trip” and “campaign event,” then cut short an interview with the Times, after which his staff closed a door in a reporter’s face. So did a number of high-ranking state reps, including former House Speaker Dean Cannon. The reporters realized they could track who came to the ranch by identifying Florida pols with Texas hunting licenses—paid for by U.S. Sugar.
The trips themselves might not have been illegal—some who talked to the Times say the Republican Party of Florida might have found a loophole in the state’s ethics laws. But it’s unclear why each of the Republicans who accepted the hunting trips have been so mum about them if nothing was, in fact, illegal or improper. Even if the pols didn’t violate the letter of ethics law, they certainly violated its spirit. In 1991, a number of Florida legislators were indicted for accepting hunting trips from lobbyists and failing to report them.
Florida sugar growers appear to have prospered considerably from U.S. Sugar’s investment. A Florida legislator named Matt Caldwell wrote a bill in 2013 that extended the cap on the fee the industry had to pay for pollution alleviation to 2026. The bill quickly passed and was signed into law by Scott. In the Miami Herald, a former county commissioner from the area called the bill one of the “most deceptive and egregious action against taxpayers” he’d seen come out of the Florida Legislature. “Soon after,” the Times writes, “Caldwell registered for his first ever Texas hunting license.”
The sugar industry has given Florida Republicans more than $2 million in the 2014 cycle alone, so the money it sent shipping Scott and friends to Texas may seem small fry. But it’s precisely this kind of corruption that most rankles voters. Since Scott won in 2010 on the tea party wave, he’s been getting increasingly unpopular and has been ducking from scandal to scandal—his race race against the also-unpopular Charlie Crist is one of the most high-profile in the country this year. Soon, the King may be able to tack on another milestone to its august history-a starring role in another state’s political attack ads.