Category Archives: Government Ethics

U.S. Sugar, King Ranch, and Some Elected Officials Walk Into a Bar (Guest Opinion)

The following was not drafted by TameTheGorilla.  It is a guest opinion from Phil Buchanan of Pine Island, FL – pseudo-retired attorney and civic leader.  For context, first is an email excerpt describing his inability to get certain press coverage.  This is followed by his proposed Letter to the Editor. He can be contacted at coolcherokee@comcast.net for more information.  (Apologies for formatting issues.)

 

Email Re: Pine Island is the Next Victim of US Sugar/King Ranch Corruption
The Pine Island Eagle chose not to publish this item. The only way we have to get out the    word is email, Facebook, etc., so please forward this message to everybody you know.
The News-Press has also avoided publishing information on this corruption or even the King Ranch purchases on Pine Island. Even the extensive King Ranch involvement in the election/appointment/re-election of two county commissioners was largely ignored.
US Sugar/King Ranch refer to our local state legislator Matt Calwell as “our boy.”  I’m told they now intend to place him on the Lee County Commission. If Hamman is also re-elected, they would then own at least three of the five Lee County Commissioners, and the Pine Island Plan, environmental protection, and sustainable growth polices will be history in Lee County. That situation, if it occurs, will have been made possible by the cowardice of the media and apathy of the voters.
Please get involved. Stand up to the corruption.
Proposed Letter to Editor
Pine Island is the next victim of US Sugar/King Ranch corruption
US Sugar and King Ranch have paid tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to Governor Scott and other state and local officials, and in return have been rewarded with legislation and appointments worth untold millions of dollars. They claim it’s all legal because the money was routed through the Republican Party instead of going directly to the officials (like that actually makes a difference!). One newspaper said this “looks fishy.” Gee, you think! Bribery is bribery (even if it’s legal under Florida statutes!).
The victims of this corruption thus far have been the taxpayers, Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah (who was driven from office by a sleazy million dollar television blitz led by US Sugar), as well as the Everglades, the quality of our water, and the quality of life of numerous Florida communities. In the past few years, King Ranch has bought large tracts of land in Hendry, Martin, and Palm Beach Counties, and is using their enormous power and influence (including legalized bribery) to do away with local zoning and other land use controls. Now, they are also after Pine Island.
King Ranch has within the past two years purchased some 18 properties on Pine Island, a total of about 340 acres for some $4 million—all palm farms except one mangrove area near the Calusa Land Trust Dobbs Preserve (they will probably use those mangroves as “mitigation” for wetlands development). The palm farms are all in Bokeelia, include the former Soaring Eagle properties, and are located on Stringfellow Rd, Harbor Drive, Howard Rd, Quail Trail, and Pembroke Rd. King Ranch has overnight become the second largest commercial enterprise on Pine Island (second only to PalmCo). They also, true to form, immediately hired a local “developer-oriented” attorney to get rid of the Pine Island Land Use Plan. That attorney’s effort last year (aided by the County Attorney’s Office) to quietly eliminate the 910 rule failed, but no one thinks they have given up.
The corruption clearly extends into Lee County. Governor Scott, just after returning from an all-expenses paid ($20,000 or so to kill a deer) hunting trip to the King Ranch Hunting Lodge in Texas, appointed King Ranch Vice-President Mitch Hutchcraft to the South Florida Water Management District. He also appointed Brian Hamman to the Lee County Commission, and Hamman in turn also appointed Hutchcraft to the Lee County Local Planning Agency. Our legislative representative Matt Caldwell also took one of those hunting trips to King Ranch, and then sponsored legislation that saved US Sugar and King Ranch millions of dollars in Everglade’s pollution cleanup costs (which has to be made up by taxpayers). Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker got his position when US Sugar/King Ranch eliminated Ray Judah, and US Sugar and King Ranch are of course strongly supporting with money and influence the re-election of Commissioner Brian Hamman. Huge sums of PAC money are flying in every direction and extremely difficult to trace. Numerous and powerful foxes are in the Lee County hen house, which bodes ill for us chickens on Pine Island.
Pine Island is a beautiful coastal rural subtropical paradise, but unfortunately it’s located in the most corrupt state in the United States, and we are set up for some very bad times. You should expect to see well-financed misinformation campaigns, legal actions in the courts, and political shenanigans accompanied by grandiose development proposals—perhaps even including another bridge to the mainland and annexation by Cape Coral.
Follow me on Twitter at Patience Burke@TameTheGorilla.    
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Do You Know a Good Repairman? My Democracy is Broken.

This week, The Hill contributor Allan J. Lichtman writes about “a shattering new study (that finds) ordinary Americans have virtually no impact…on the making of national policy in our country.”

Shattering? That’s really not the word I would use. Is it shattering that the sun rises? Surprising that earth spins? No. We’ve come to expect it. But interesting, I’ll give you that.

The study was conducted by pronounced university professors Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern. It is due out in full this fall.

Mr. Lichtman, a professor himself at the American University in Washington, likely was privy to a sneak peak. He continues that “the influence of ordinary Americans registers at a “non-significant, near-zero level”…(while the) rich individuals and business-dominated interest groups dominate the policymaking process.”

Again, I don’t think this qualifies as “news” for the majority of Americans. Most of us already possess a healthy level of pessimism where political influence is concerned. But don’t let my sans-coffee, cranky musings diminish the importance of what Mr. Lichtman promotes.

Indeed, this “should be a loud wake-up call to the vast majority of Americans…bypassed by their government.” Yes, “the relationship between the people and our government” must be changed.

But how?

Mr. Lichtman describes an apathetic public, one where more and more Americans are opting not to vote, not to participate. Somewhere, our country fell off the civic bandwagon.

So, what does it take to spark a revolution?

I’ll point you back to a 1972 political theory called the Downs Model. It was the basis for much of my college thesis and is something I refer to whenever I need to sound smart. It is my fix-all for virtually any governmental or social ill and is the only political theory I can identify by name.

The genesis of the model is quite simple: crisis breeds opportunity. Change follows catastrophe.

With these crises come “windows of opportunity.” Every sinking ship needs a plug, so the first shipmate to show up with a giant piece of cork wins. People aren’t so picky during times of emergency.

But the window won’t stay open forever. No patch kit? Well, there goes humanity. Opportunities are just as easily missed due to the fact that no one stepped up with a solution. Or, on the contrary, someone stepped up with a bad one.

Mr. Lichtman suggests non-elites pool their moderate resources into competing political action committees (PACs)…meet thy enemy head on in the war of political fundraising.

I’ve got to admit, PACs and Super PACs straight up give me the willies. Even for a cause I believe in, it just feels wrong. Could it be a transparent Super PAC that doesn’t eat meat and that hugs bunnies?

Frankly, I don’t have an alternative for the masses. I’ll think on it, if you will. But remember, time’s a wastin’. Do as Mr. Lichtman suggests, and act now! This is a limited time offer – it won’t last forever!

 

Follow me on Twitter at Patience Burke@TameTheGorilla.

 

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SB 1714 – What a Buzz Kill

Like when your mom volunteered to chaperone your senior year class trip, SB 1714 is a real downer for the Florida craft beer industry.

The bill as amended would seriously restrict the ability of Florida’s breweries to sell their wares directly to consumers.  In many cases, it would increase the cost of doing business by requiring breweries to sell their bottled concoctions to a beer distributor before buying it back at a marked up cost.  Only then could the breweries sell it in-house.

While not technically a fee, Senator Jack Latvala (R- Clearwater) equated it to “paying protection to Vinnie in New York.”  Bill sponsor, Senator Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) admitted in the Senate Community Affairs committee that craft breweries aren’t paying this cost now, which means this bill represents a brand new fee on Florida’s businesses.

Senator Stargel asserts vulnerability of her preferred three-tier system: manufacturer, distributor, and vendor.  If breweries are allowed to sell directly to consumers, the argument goes, what’ll come of the other tiers!?  It’s essential, she continues, for government to step in and regulate the way these companies do business.

Gone would be the days of driving to Tampa for my (Cigar City) Jai Alai, Gainesville for my (Swamp Head) Stump Knocker, and Tallahassee for my (Proof) Robust Porter.  I guess I’ll have to settle for the convenience and gas efficiency of my corner ABC store.

Senator Stargel – climate change champion!

Although, using Stargel’s logic, one has to wonder if homebrewers might at some point find themselves on the radar.  Homebrewing is an increasingly popular hobby, and one can’t deny the risk that it poses to the three tiers.  If people are making and drinking their own beer, the entire framework of the tiers may very well collapse.

Given this imminent danger, I was curious to know whether this three-tier logic applied elsewhere in Florida.  I reached out to the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services, and was informed that Florida farmers are not required to pay an additional fee or tax to sell their products directly to the consumer.

It sounds like Publix needs better lobbyists.

But regardless of that threat, it would be surprising if Governor Scott gives Stargel his stamp of approval.  The Governor has been very consistent in his opposition to any new fees and taxes on Florida’s businesses.

You might recall last session when Governor Scott vetoed HB 265, which would have increased the fee for purchasing a wildflower license plate by $10.  Heck, one of the Administration’s primary goals this year has been to return $500 million in fees and taxes back to the “Florida families and job creators.”

SB 1714 reeks of cumbersome regulation and poorly veiled attempts to monopolize the burgeoning craft beer industry of Florida.  If a companion bill makes it through the House, that alone should beckon the Governor’s veto.

 

Follow me on Twitter at Patience Burke@TameTheGorilla.

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Florida’s Legislative Payload is Too Big for its Own Good.

Appeared in Tallahassee Democrat under title “Huge Workload Makes for Bad Legislation.”

Florida’s Legislature is bursting at the seams.  In 2011 and again in 2012, members of the Florida Senate and House of Representatives filed more than 2,000 pieces of legislation.  Last year’s session was relatively light, with only 1,898 bills being filed. 

Florida’s legislative session is just 60 days long.  Common sense dictates that no Senator or Representative could get through the 900-1,000+ bills filed in his or her chamber well enough to understand, much less vote on them.  It is true that many bills get filed early and that not every bill makes it through the committee process.  But remember that most members are juggling fulltime jobs, in addition to their legislative responsibilities.  Despite the assistance of hard working and very talented legislative staff, Florida’s legislative workload is larger than our elected officials can handle.

That puts us all at risk.  The legislature is where our laws get made, the laws by which we agree to live as a society.  The process needs to be deliberate and thoughtful.  But with those numbers, it’s impossible to meet that mark.

Working over capacity makes us vulnerable.  Legislation is hard to write and hard to analyze.  Drafting errors can have major consequences.  For example, I’m not entirely sure whether the computer I’m using to type this column is legal.  That’s because in last year’s legislative session, a broadly written slot machine bill may accidentally have made computers illegal in Florida.  Smart phones, too.

But that was an accident.  Unfortunately, the fast paced, high volume nature of the Florida legislature also makes it susceptible to exploitation.  Unscrupulous interests, wise to how things operate can manipulate the situation by offering seemingly harmless, innocuous sounding language that gets put into bills.  This is risky business.  You may as well be inviting Bernie Madoff to a cocktail hour for eager new investors.

To be clear, I’m not pessimistic about lobbyists as a class.  Not everyone plays that game.  But there are good people in this world, and there are bad people.  And when bad people get into positions of power…  Besides, no one hires a lobbyist without a reason.  They are expensive.  And some intentionally downplay the significance of their proposed language, which should be a red flag to anyone paying attention.

Which again, is my point – you can’t find a leak when it’s raining.

The rushing torrent of session makes legislative review a hard lift.  This reality puts members in a tough spot.  There must be an inherent pressure to vote yea or nay, regardless of whether or not that official possesses a sufficient understanding of the legislation.  Frankly, I’d rather see members abstain from voting altogether than see them vote on bills about which they cannot possibly have had the time to adequately consider.

I suspect many members often end up triaging to focus on the bills they find most important.  It’s an open question what they base their votes on the rest of the time.  Mind you, Florida isn’t alone on this.  Other states do it, too – not to mention Congress.  (You may recall the recent passage of that massive omnibus spending bill that came just days after the final text was released.  Did congressional members actually read that? Yeah, right.)

But just because everyone does something, doesn’t make it right.  We all know this.  If we identify a problem, we have an obligation to fix it.  This is particularly the case when dealing with something as sacred as the laws that govern our society.

Perhaps bills should be work-shopped longer prior to filing.  Maybe the total number of amendments and bills filed needs to be made more restrictive.  Review could be made easier by preventing multiple companion and placeholder bills.  There are lots of ways the system could be improved.  Reform just needs to be made a priority.

Follow me on Twitter at Patience Burke@TameTheGorilla.

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Fort Lee: Is losing their job enough?

January 11, 2014 

Government corruption akin to what’s recently taken place in the Christie administration – i.e. the Fort Lee debacle – isn’t an anomaly.  This stuff happens amongst elected officials and their staff across the country.  No surprise really, as powers corrupts.  That old adage likely will forever remain true.

But that response really isn’t satisfying to the American public, who foots the bill and the frustration both during and in the aftermath of these events.  Yet, it seems that too often the only penalty felt by those bad actors is the loss of their jobs.  Is that enough?

Saturday’s Washington Post cites thousands of man-hours lost and wasted as result of the Fort Lee lane closures – both by the port authority and ostensibly also by the many private citizens who were trapped in gridlock traffic on the bridge.  The Post also cites more troubling consequences such as the traffic jam interfering with the care of a woman in cardiac arrest and the search for a missing child.  Really!?

Government officials know that if they cross the line into Blagojevich-land, they can reap criminal penalties.  But what about cases like Fort Lee?  Did these bad actors break any laws?

My husband joked about a massive class action suit, and surely, there were tangible harms felt by those thousands of individuals.  While I suspect it would be hard to get around the “state actor” protections these former government employees enjoyed, it isn’t a terrible idea.  There needs to be some accountability, and I question whether loss of employment is enough.

Civil service is an honorable responsibility, and those with a poor moral compass ought not enter the field.  We need some established deterrent to prevent these types from wanting to serve in government in the first place.

Follow me on Twitter at Patience Burke@TameTheGorilla.

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