Gov. Rick Scott and a host of state politicians have managed to embarrass themselves and the people of Florida again over an issue many thought had been laid to rest more than 20 years ago when two dozen lawmakers pleaded guilty to failing to disclose free trips from lobbyists.
That scandal included hunting trips to Georgia, Texas and Mexico and eventually led the Legislature to prohibit gifts to themselves worth more than $100. But they cleverly left a loophole that allows lobbyists to give unlimited amounts to political parties, which can funnel the money to the politicians and no one will be the wiser.
Or so they hoped. But recently the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau found that Gov. Scott, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam and state House leaders have accepted secret hunting trips to the fabled King Ranch in Texas.
The trips took place over the past three years, ever since U.S. Sugar leased 30,000 acres at the ranch. 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.
Thanks to the party fund-raising loophole, none of this may be a violation of law — which is a scandal in itself — but even that is not completely clear.
Current law lets donors give unlimited contributions to parties and political committees, as long as the gift serves a vaguely defined “campaign purpose.” But there is no mention of the ranch trips as an expense, donation or location for fund-raising in any party campaign documents, even though six current or former elected officials have confirmed attending what they call GOP fundraisers at the King Ranch since 2011.
The glaring lack of transparency is an insult to Florida’s residents. The officials involved and the party itself have gone to great lengths to hide the trips, and no one wants to talk about them. Why not? How much money was raised, if any? If there’s nothing to hide, why hide it?
The elephant in the room, so to speak, is the potential for secret backroom deals. The King Ranch owns thousands of sugarcane acres in Florida and the industry — including U.S. Sugar — has sought relief from the Legislature over payments tied to pollution of the Everglades. Just last year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Scott signed a bill that could save sugar growers millions in industry cleanup.
On Friday, the Times/Herald disclosed that Gov. Scott named Michael A. “Mitch” Hutchcraft, an executive with the King Ranch property in Florida, to the South Florida Water Management District Board, which oversees the massive restoration of the Everglades. The appointment came just one month after Gov. Scott took his trip to the King Ranch. Mr. Hutchcraft may be well qualified to serve, but his employer’s connection to the questionable hunting trips and Gov. Scott’s secret involvement raise serious questions about a possible conflict of interest. Looks bad, smells bad.
The scandal cries out for an investigation by the state’s attorney general, Pam Bondi, but she has shown no inclination to deal with issues that might harm her own party. Instead, she has put her priority on trying to uphold the state’s archaic gay-marriage ban. That plays well on the tea-party circuit but does nothing to improve the sad state of Florida politics. If Ms. Bondi wants to show that her office is above partisanship and will pursue wrongdoing no matter where it leads, this would be a good place to start.