Fla. GOP officials enjoy sugar industry ranch trips
Published: Saturday, July 26, 2014 at 7:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 26, 2014 at 7:40 p.m.
TAMPA, Fla. — Top Florida Republican officials including the governor have enjoyed hunting trips to South Texas' historic King Ranch thanks to the Sunshine State's sugar industry, but they aren't talking about them.
The Tampa Bay Times reported Saturday that an analysis of records shows the trips were financed all or in part by the Florida sugar industry (http://bit.ly/1nDD1Y2).The lack of disclosure could enable officials and sugar lobbyists to avoid scrutiny about discussions on a host of important issues such as state agriculture policy, water pollution and Everglades protection.
Under a 2006 ban, lawmakers can't accept free meals, drinks or trips from donors, but a legal loophole allows parties and political committees to do so. They can then pass on these gifts without detailing who gives or receives them — as long as the donations are considered to have a "campaign purpose."
The Times analysis shows that in the last three years, U.S. Sugar paid nearly $100,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips. The destinations were not made public, but they all occurred within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.
Republican Party Spokeswoman Susan Hepworth says the party follows the letter of the law but declined to discuss the trips.
The tension over just what gifts lawmakers can receive goes back decades in Florida. Leon County state attorney Willie Meggs prosecuted a 1992 case against two dozen Florida lawmakers accused of accepting free trips from corporate lobbyists. He said the King Ranch trips may not be illegal, but they raise questions about the lack of transparency.
The trips to King Ranch appear to have begun back in 2011, when U.S. Sugar began leasing 30,000 acres and built a hunting lodge there. King Ranch is also the largest member of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. Both Governor Rick Scott and Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam are among those who visited the retreat, but the trips don't show up on their official schedules. Asked about his travels there, Scott on Friday released a statement saying he visited the retreat in February of 2013 "in support of his political fundraising efforts." A campaign aide said the governor paid for his own hunting license and flight and that "costs were covered by appropriate political entities and properly reported as required by law."
State travel records show Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents who guard Scott accompanied him, but the state was not charged for their stay. FDLE officials could not explain to the Times why the state did not pay, despite the fact it normally picks up the tab for the governor's security detail even on personal trips.
Putnam said the trips raised money for the state GOP and referred questions to the party. Florida Republican Party campaign documents do not list King Ranch on any documents related to fundraising or donations. Sugar industry officials declined to comment.
Lawmakers who confirmed they visited the ranch include Former House Speaker Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. Cannon said he paid his way but declined to provide more details.