Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign has focused on painting the Republican incumbent as a friend of the environment, which means attempting to show Democratic challenger Charlie Crist isn’t.
A Republican Party of Florida commercial released Aug. 7, 2014, lambasts Crist for taking a supporter’s personal aircraft to a press event.
“On his way to an event about — get this — green issues, Crist cruised in on a private jet,” the narrator says. “That’s rich. What’s richer? The jet belongs to a serial polluter with a history of environmental violations fined nearly $2 million for polluting water.”
That certainly sounded like fodder for headlines, but was it true? PolitiFact Florida attempted to pull the permits on this one and find out what happened.
The state GOP told PolitiFact the commercial stemmed from a plane ride Crist took from Gainesville to Tallahassee on July 25. While Scott uses his personal jet to attend events and has been criticized for a lack of transparency surrounding its use, Crist has often used private planes to help him get to events around the state. This time the Scott campaign took a photo of the 2005 Cessna 560XL’s tail number and traced its ownership.
The owner turned out to be James Finch, a Lynn Haven contractor who owns Phoenix Construction Services Inc., a company previously fined for environmental infractions. That was especially problematic for the flight in question, since Crist was attending a climate change lecture by Florida State University oceanography professor Jeff Chanton.
Finch, a former NASCAR team owner, has a long history of political donations, giving tens of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party of Florida and John McCain’s presidential campaign. He also has a history of facing fines from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. While neither agency responded to PolitiFact Florida’s requests for documentation of Finch’s penalties, we were able to do a little digging on our own.
On two occasions, in 1984 and 1996, he was cited for backfilling the bayou at his home. No action was taken on the first instance, but he was forced to pay a penalty and do restoration work on the second.
A 1998 complaint about destruction of seagrass and another notice about a potential sewage spill at a Millville wastewater treatment plant were withdrawn for lack of evidence.
His company Phoenix Construction Services was fined $23,000 by the EPA after filling in wetlands at a Panama Beach park against the terms of the project’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit in 1999. Fill dirt is considered by law to be a pollutant in “navigable wetlands.”
The Army Corps of Engineers issued a noncompliance notice after the company installed a portion of a sewage pipeline across St. Andrew Bay above ground against permitting guidelines. Finch’s company was cleared when the work was corrected per DEP guidelines by 2005.
The truly epic saga, however, was Phoenix’s botched work at the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, which opened north of Panama City in 2010. Crist in 2007 called the airport “a national model for economic transformation and environmental preservation.”
Environmental groups had complained in 2009 that because of poor construction methods, the site was resulting in “pollution in Burnt Mill Creek, Crooked Creek, West Bay and the surrounding wetlands.”
Later that year, Phoenix was fined $1.7 million by the DEP for environmental permit violations. The agency concluded the contractor did not follow stormwater runoff plans or erosion stabilization methods, allowing improperly filtered water to flow into nearby wetlands.
As costs wildly overran, Phoenix and the airport authority first sued each other, then banded together to sue other parties working on the project before settling in 2012.
Phoenix did not return PolitiFact Florida’s request for comment. Phoenix continued to do work for the local government, though. The Bay County Commission in 2013 gave Phoenix a $25 million contract to build the county a water pumping station.
The Crist campaign said the former governor didn’t know about the environmental fines against Finch. They said Crist hasn’t used the plane since July 27.
The Scott campaign shouldn’t be too quick to point fingers at Finch for pollution fines, however.
Finch worked on the airport with Charles W. “Chuck” Roberts III, a Panhandle paving contractor whose company was accused of improperly building a parking lot in that project. The airport authority was eventually blamed for not securing the proper permit.
C.W. Roberts Inc. plants in several counties have been cited for leaking or improperly storing chemicals or being in disrepair. Many of the company’s infractions did not result in penalties.
What is Roberts doing now? In 2011, Gov. Scott appointed him to a seat on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The Republican Party of Florida said Crist rode on a jet that “belongs to a serial polluter with a history of environmental violations fined nearly $2 million for polluting water.”
The plane’s owner, Bay County contractor James Finch, has been fined in the past for filling in wetlands or allowing unfiltered runoff to flow into waterways, in violation of environmental permits. That’s a legitimate definition of polluting, and there’s no doubt Finch has been fined almost $2 million over the years.
It’s hypocritical of the state GOP to call out Finch when one of his subcontractors has benefited from a relationship with Gov. Scott. But that doesn’t change the facts. We rate the statement True.
Politifact Florida is a partnership between The Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald to check out truth in politics.