Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida politicians are the real quarry on King Ranch

** TO GO WITH STORY SLUGGED MAESTRIA PARA VAQUEROS  ** Texas A&M University-Kingsville's nascent Institute for Ranch Management students watch a horse trainer during their visit the King Ranch near Kingsville, Texas, Friday, Sept. 14, 2007.  (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
** TO GO WITH STORY SLUGGED MAESTRIA PARA VAQUEROS ** Texas A&M University-Kingsville's nascent Institute for Ranch Management students watch a horse trainer during their visit the King Ranch near Kingsville, Texas, Friday, Sept. 14, 2007. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) AP

A trip to a hunting preserve on the legendary King Ranch in Texas may evoke lots of adjectives. “Forgettable” isn't one of them.

Texas Monthly described the giant ranch (825,000 acres) as “one of the premier game areas in North America. Many people consider it the best white-tailed deer and bobwhite quail hunting, period.”

Tromping across the 161-year-old ranch would be like walking into history. Or literature. The King Ranch inspired Edna Ferber’s novel Giant (and the 1956 movie version starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Rock Hudson and Dennis Hopper) and Philipp Meyer’s 2013 novel, The Son.

Besides, a hunting invitation to one of the private preserves, where lodges are outfitted like luxury hotels, is about as exclusive as it gets when it comes to killing animals. Hard to imagine the experience slipping someone’s mind.

Yet, King Ranch dream junkets seem to have induced mass amnesia among Florida’s governor and agricultural commissioner and certain legislative leaders. When Tampa Bay Times reporters Michael Van Sickler and Craig Pittman asked about the hunting trips, it was as if our political leaders had been sworn to secrecy.

Neither Gov. Rick Scott nor Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam would answer questions about their trip. Nor did the excursions show up on their official schedules. Staffers said these were party-sponsored “fund-raising” outings, but it seems that the Republican Party of Florida also forgot to include the King Ranch trips in fundraising documents.

Van Sickler and Pittman reported that former House Speaker Dean Cannon, and speaker designate Richard Corcoran and former house legislative leader Chris Dorworth hardly acknowledge getaways to King Ranch.

The reporters discovered that a dozen key members of the House leadership, including House Speaker Will Weatherford, had applied for Texas hunting licenses in the past three years. But the state reps wouldn’t say whether they had been treated to a King Ranch safari. Maybe they couldn’t remember. A lot of that seems to be going around.

Best thing about these hunting trips, other than blasting the hell out of Bambi, is that U.S. Sugar, which leases a 30,000-acre hunting preserve on the Ranch, picked up the bill. The company has spent $95,000 (officially listed as donations to the state Republican Party) for at least 20 weekend jaunts.

Thanks to a Texas-sized loophole in Florida’s ethics laws, the hunts aren’t covered by the prohibition on gifts. Lawmakers can’t accept fancy junkets unless the junkets are disguised as contributions to a political party, rather than individual politicians.

Pols may be reluctant to talk about sweet outings provided by Big Sugar, but their silence finally provides an answer to an enduring mystery in Florida: why the state legislature has allowed the sugar industry get away with paying just 12 percent of the $2 billion cost to clean the Everglades of sugar cane farming pollution, despite the 1996 voter-approved “polluter pays” amendment to the state constitution.

Because the real quarry on those King Ranch hunting expeditions hasn’t been deer or quail. Big Sugar has bagged itself some fat Florida pols.

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