This is a story about how to get things done in Tallahassee. Usually, it takes cash. Sometimes, it also takes a helicopter.
Last year, a South Florida water agency ran out of money for a program that pays ranchers to hold back excess rainwater from filling up Lake Okeechobee too fast, a practice known as water-farming. A major agriculture corporation, Alico, asked the Legislature to instead use state taxpayer money to keep the project rolling.
Alico had a lot at stake in trying to prop up the water-farming project. If the project were revived by the Legislature, Alico would get the largest contract, worth more than $120 million over the next 11 years.
Prior to last year’s session, Alico took key legislative leaders on a four-hour helicopter ride around Lake Okeechobee that cost about $5,000. On board for a Jan. 22, 2014 flight: state Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa.
Also aboard: Clay Wilson, president of Alico, the nation’s largest citrus producer as well as a major player in cattle and sugar-growing. Wilson was there to show off his company’s water-farming plan and explain to the legislators why it deserved an infusion of taxpayer money.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 5, 2014, Alico wrote a $15,000 check to Young’s political action committee, the Florida Conservative Leadership Fund.
At the time, Young was the House majority whip. It was her job to tell Republican members of the House how to vote on certain issues. A rising star, Young now serves as House majority leader.
Another passenger on board the Alico copter tour that day in January 2014 was House Appropriations Committee Chair Seth McKeel. As chairman, he wielded an outsize influence on what would go into the state budget and what would be left out.
Six days after the flight, McKeel’s PAC, the Florida Innovation Fund, got a check from Alico for $25,000.
The Alico copter revved up for another tour on Feb. 24, 2014. This time the passenger list included Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the Senate majority leader who is now in line to become Senate president in 2018. Galvano said he flew with two Alico lobbyists on a trip that took all afternoon as he was educated about water farming.
“They said water storage is an opportunity to slow down the bad elements (runoff) from going into the system,” Galvano said.
Alico donated $10,000 to his PAC, Innovate Florida, on March 3, 2014, the last day lawmakers could accept money before the session began. Alico later sent his PAC two more checks for $10,000 each, one in June, the other in October.
Some legislators got money without taking a copter tour. On Feb. 27, 2014 — five days before the start of the session — Alico handed a $25,000 check to the Protect Our Liberty PAC run by soon-to-be-Senate President Andy Gardiner.
In the two months before the 2014 session, Alico contributed a total of $165,399 to nearly a quarter of the Legislature. Money went to 36 different lawmakers from both parties, including $26,000 to then-Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and his PAC. Negron said he also took a helicopter tour “because I wanted to see first-hand the proposed scope of work.”
Alico did not ignore Gov. Rick Scott, who has the power to veto any line item in the budget. Although he did not take a copter tour, the company has given his PAC, Let’s Get to Work, $230,000 since 2013.
Alico got what it wanted. In May 2014, the Legislature voted to approve a $77.1 billion budget that included $13 million for several new water-farming contracts to be let by the South Florida Water Management District
Less than a month later, Alico donated $15,000 to the PAC overseen by soon-to-be House Speaker Steve Crisafulli. A Crisafulli spokesman said he did not go on an Alico copter ride.
Alico spokeswoman Sarah Bascom would not identify any other lawmakers who got a helicopter tour of the company’s land. She denied that the company had coordinated the dates of the trips with the dates of its PAC contributions.
“This was an educational tour and in compliance with Florida law,” Bascom said.
As for Young, the Tampa legislator initially said she did not recall taking a helicopter trip to look at an Alico project. After checking her calendar, she e-mailed the Times/Herald a statement confirming she went on the trip.
“It was helpful seeing first hand these projects that as a legislator we may be asked to make decisions about on an ongoing basis,” she wrote.
McKeel, who is now a lobbyist in Tampa, did not respond to repeated calls and e-mails seeking comment. Young and Bascom confirmed his presence on board the January 2014 helicopter trip.
Water-farming is the latest attempt by Florida officials to figure out how to keep from filling up Lake Okeechobee too fast. When the lake gets too full, some of its polluted contents must be released to the coasts. Once there, it wreaks havoc with fish and other wildlife in the estuaries in Port St. Lucie and Fort Myers, hurting the local economy.
The South Florida Water Management District’s water-farming program pays large agricultural operators millions to hold rainwater on their property so it doesn’t go into the lake. The agency sees it as a way to create a series of “reservoirs” without it spending money to build anything more permanent than a big berm and maybe a pump station on the water-farm land.
Critics say the program is akin to corporate welfare, awarding big contracts to big agricultural operations for basically doing nothing. An audit found that it cost far more to pay to hold the water on private ranch land than to contain it on publicly owned property.
Initially the South Florida district used tax money collected from property owners in its 16-county region to pay for its water farming projects, but the money ran out. One way to revive the program was to use money from the taxpayers from the rest of the state, via the Legislature.
But the water district’s governing board, under state law, is not allowed to hire its own lobbyists to pursue funding. So Alico deployed its team of lobbyists to persuade lawmakers to boost the amount of state money going to the water agency.
Once the Legislature approved the money, the South Florida water district board awarded the contracts to Alico and other companies. Bascom said the company was just helping out a state agency in need, and its lobbyists did not specifically ask for money for Alico’s own contract.
The Alico copter rides and donations point to a loophole in Florida campaign finance law. Although legislators are limited to collecting no more than $1,000 per donor for their campaigns, state law authorizes them to create political action committees that can collect checks of unlimited amounts.
The legislators don’t have to report what bills the money given to their PACs is intended to influence. They do have to report monthly their PAC’s contributions and expenses. They are allowed to reimburse themselves from PAC funds for anything related to the committee’s stated mission.
McKeel’s PAC collected a total of $493,000. Forced out of office last year because of term limits, his committee lives on. It has nearly $100,000 in cash reserves — even though McKeel has not declared his intent to seek another office.
The Alico trips did not end with the 2014 budget vote. The money the Legislature approved then was good for just one year of the long-term contracts, so Alico had reason to keep lobbying lawmakers for money for water-farming projects.
Between the end of the 2014 session and the start of this year’s regular session, Alico contributed another $651,000, including $54,000 to Crisafulli and his PAC, and $11,000 to his successor, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and his PAC.
In October, Alico president Wilson took another copter trip to Lake Okeechobee. The passenger this time: state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who succeeded Negron as head of the Senate Budget Committee.
“They flew me from Tampa to the Everglades,” Lee said.
Once the copter set down, Lee said, he met with Alico water experts and a lobbyist named Derek Whitis, who also accompanied Galvano on his trip. They talked to Lee about the best way for the Legislature to spend the millions of dollars that would be generated by Amendment 1, as well as the water-farming project.
A month later, Alico wrote Lee’s PAC, The Conservative, a check for $10,000. In February, it wrote a second $10,000 check to Lee’s PAC.
Unlike Galvano, McKeel or Young, though, Lee disclosed the Alico copter ride as a contribution on his campaign finance reports. Young said she was told by an attorney for the House that she did not have to do that.
“I was advised that in my official capacity as a legislator, the tour was not a gift and no reporting was required,” she said.
Tampa Bay Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.