Lawsuit: US Sugar deal violated Sunshine Law

Published: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 9:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 9:49 p.m.

MIAMI -- Florida's proposal to acquire 300 square miles of Everglades land from U.S. Sugar Corp. was illegally brokered in closed-door meetings, an attorney claimed in a lawsuit filed Friday.

Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, who has led efforts to restore the Everglades, is challenging a historic $1.75 billion deal in which U.S. Sugar would go out of business and sell its land to the state for restoration. He filed the lawsuit against the South Florida Water Management District.

Lehtinen contends meetings about the deal were illegal because they evaded Florida's Sunshine Law, among the broadest open-government legislation in the country. It mandates advance notice of government meetings and their agendas, a provision Lehtinen claims was ignored in the lead-up to the U.S. Sugar deal.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions that they've managed to not answer," Lehtinen said by phone after the filing was made in Circuit Court in Palm Beach County. "I'm not trying to stop the purchase. I'm just trying to stop a process in which there are no answers and there's no way to get answers."

Lehtinen said the public has been denied specifics on how the proposal would be funded and whether other Everglades projects would have to be scaled back to make money available.

"If this is added on to the existing projects then it's OK," he said, "but I have every indication it's not going to be added on. It's going to be used as an excuse."

Lehtinen doesn't expect his lawsuit to dissolve the deal, but he said he wants all further discussions to be held in accordance with the Sunshine Law and he wants to know what effect the U.S. Sugar buyout would have on current environmental programs.

Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Gov. Charlie Crist, who brokered the deal, said, "We support the South Florida Water Management District and have confidence that the district has operated within the public record laws of Florida."

The water management district issued a statement saying the agency "remains committed to open government and conducting itself according to the letter and spirit of the law throughout these complex and delicate negotiations."

Crist announced in June that the state and the nation's largest producer of cane sugar were close to an agreement on turning over the land for Everglades restoration. The deal would mean the end of U.S. Sugar's operations and the loss of 1,700 jobs.

Officials hope to have a final agreement by November. U.S. Sugar would then be allowed to continue farming for another six years.

Water managers plan to use the land to construct a network of marsh treatment areas and reservoirs to clean and store water before sending it south into the Everglades.

Lehtinen is a former state legislator and Miami U.S. attorney who brought a key federal lawsuit in the 1980s aimed at stopping environmental damage in the Everglades. In private practice he has long represented the Miccosukee Indian tribe in similar lawsuits aimed at accelerating Everglades restoration. He is a Republican, like his wife, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

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