Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Rick Scott, Adam Putnam, and Matt Caldwell: Part 2, Turbulent Waters For Florida's Toxic Trio ... by Alan Farago

Everglades Agricultural Area, algae filled drainage ditch
Before Florida's midterm election, the media filled with news reports and visual imagery, spanning network news to the Daily Show, of rampant red tides and toxic algae coating all of Florida's coasts.

After the election? A few pundits noted the impacts on political careers well-grounded in defending polluters.

Big Sugar's best laid plans for the Republican hierarchy came a cropper.

For the first time in Florida political history, Sugar's campaign contributions to state-wide candidates became a threshold issue for candidates and for voters who get it: Florida's water crises is the direct result of dark political money from billionaires turning our waters and Everglades into sacrifice zones for their profits. 

Credit is due to Bullsugar.org whose voter guides highlighted polluted campaign contributions from billionaires who have commandeered the state legislature.

Adam Putnam, whose political career benefited from family wealth derived from a water district funded farm acquisition -- and who has been a strong defender of Big Sugar -- was defeated by Ron DeSantis who made opposition to Big Sugar's cost shifting to taxpayers a central plank in his platform. 

Florida Democrats, again, proved susceptible to Big Sugar money and influence. Where and when they could have planted a flag on the outrageous exchange of Florida waters for corporate welfare, they largely declined or tip-toed through a perceived mine field. cf. Bill Nelson.

Big Sugar, you see, has a different way of forcing its echo chamber into Democratic party ranks. Chris King, Andrew Gillum's running mate, is a notable exception.

Matt Caldwell, who rose to prominence by orchestrating the upset 2012 defeat of Ray Judah -- a Republican commissioner in Lee County who eloquently supported more storage and treatment acreage in the EAA -- failed in his quest to step up the ladder to Agriculture Commissioner. He called Bullsugar, a "hate group", and attacked the group in ads but voters knew better. Look for Caldwell to find a sweet place, like former Democratic senator Jeff Clemens, on the Big Sugar payroll.

"Red Tide" Rick Scott slipped into the US Senate on a razor thin margin, bolstered by a personal investment of tens of millions. A sharper and focused Bill Nelson could have preserved his Senate seat if he had allied himself clearly and strongly against Big Sugar and for Florida's waterways, threatened tourism industries, and the Everglades.

While the punditry has dragged its feet on linking Florida's election outcomes to the toxic influence of Big Sugar, a few raised eyebrows indicate the industry is endlessly resourceful in preserving its prerogatives. It moved with lightning speed after the election, a show of political, legislative, and legal force.

A day after the election on November 7th, the very same day Jeff Sessions resigned as US Attorney General, Sessions signed an extraordinary memorandum providing new guidance to DOJ on federal consent decrees. Its key point: avoid them. Leave the messy business of fixing what is wrong to the states. A day later, the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District -- all appointees of Gov. Rick Scott -- voted to vacate the consent decree that governed relations between the state, the federal government and Big Sugar polluters for a quarter century. If you think the timing was coincidental, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

The District timing on its intent to rip up the consent decree was a show of Big Sugar force. It had been supported by very expensive lobbying and lawyering for at least a couple of years. The votes from the 2018 midterm elections hadn't been counted, but Big Sugar really didn't care. 

Do you?

(originally published August 2, 2018)
In the winter of 2016, polluted water from Lake Okeechobee turned from brown to guacamole green, thick with toxic algae carrying cyanobacteria to downstream communities, putting people and businesses in harm's way. In the summer of 2018, it is happening again. Right before midterm elections.

Gov. Rick Scott. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. State Representative Matt Caldwell. All are seeking to move up the political ladder in November on the Republican side of the slate. Rick Scott is aiming to unseat Bill Nelson, the Democrat incumbent, in the US Senate. Adam Putnam is running to be Florida's next governor. Matt Caldwell, to take Putnam's chair in the state agriculture hierarchy. The ladder is real, and it is constructed carefully by the state's shadow government: Big Sugar.

There are a handful of Big Sugar players, and a much larger circle of influence peddlers, but there are two billionaire families who are the mainstay of the Big Sugar cartel; the descendants of Charles Stuart Mott who own US Sugar Corporation and the Fanjul family, owners of Florida Crystals and a vertically integrated, transnational sugar empire.

Both the Mott descendants and the Fanjuls spend heavily to make rules and regulations work their way while claiming a public benefit: "farming for families to put the food on your table". They never say that sugar is not a food but a substance more addictive than cocaine when consumed in excess. But that is another story.

Big Sugar deeply cares about the political ladder because laws and regulations are a key variable in its profit. Florida's sugar industry uses politics to minimize risk that laws and regulations can lower profits below expectations.

Big Sugar calibrates campaign money, including dark pools allowed after the 2010 Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court, as carefully as it laser-measures its fields, from seeding to harvest, from back bench to committee leadership. It carefully externalizes its costs on the environment, from sulfur magnifying into methyl mercury to phosphorous and nitrogen runoff to cyanobacteria, from ditches into public waterways, from post crop burning to ash plumes to respiratory illnesses in farming communities where frightened residents are too intimidated to complain.

In 2012 Big Sugar picked Matt Caldwell from the legislative crowd. Caldwell, a state representative from Lehigh Acres -- one of the areas in southwest Florida hit hardest by rampant speculative construction and the mortgage excesses triggering the great recession of 2007/ 2008 -- successfully executed a US Sugar Corporation strategy to unseat a popular county commissioner in Lee County, Ray Judah. Big Sugar t-boned Judah with dark money. Judah was a lone Republican calling for Big Sugar to fairly shoulder the costs of its pollution caused through fertilizer and additives designed to extract the absolute last penny from crop yields. Caldwell was head of a political committee that launched $1 million of dirty ads in the last weeks of the campaign against Judah.

For his success, Caldwell was elevated to Big Sugar's de facto majority whip in the Florida House where, in 2013, he pushed a new law extending to thirty years, Big Sugar's leases on public lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area. That was the same year as a major toxic algae outbreak in the Caloosahatchee River, a key connector between Lake Okeechobee and Florida's tourism-dependent west coast.

At a moment the public clamored to buy more sugar lands for surface water treatment and storage to avoid the mess of downstream toxics waste puking on rivers and private property and small businesses owned by ordinary taxpayers, Caldwell went with Big Sugar. Now he's aiming to replace Adam Putnam who Big Sugar is promoting to Florida governor.

Adam Putnam's family farm was purchased by a state agency - the South Florida Water Management District - at five times the appraised value conducted only a year earlier. The Palm Beach Post reported in 2012: "Adam Putnam — former congressman, current commissioner of    agriculture and widely viewed as the future of Florida politics — became a very rich man in 2005 when taxpayers spent $25.5 million on 2,042 acres of his family’s ranch that had been valued at $5.5 million a year earlier..."

Putnam ferociously opposed the intervention by the federal US Environmental Protection Agency in establishing state-wide nutrient limits. Nutrients being the primary cause of the toxic puke, including vast amounts of legacy pollution when Big Sugar used Lake Okeechobee as its septic tank. Big Sugar has waged a decadal war to boot federal laws from overseeing its pollution. "States rights!"

In the Palm Beach Post, Rick Cerabino noted yesterday, "“Eight years ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency called for specific numeric limits on pollutants from farmers, municipal wastewater and stormwater utilities operations, and other polluters of state waters. In a letter responding to the EPA, Gov. Scott, Attorney Gen. Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and the state’s legislative leaders wrote that Florida couldn’t afford the “onerous regulation” of reducing man-made pollution in its waterways. “We each ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility and hear from numerous constituents about concerns of an overbearing federal government that’s placing burdensome regulations on Florida’s families and employers,” the letter said.“

And Rick Scott. Scott came to Tallahassee in 2010 without any prior experience in government.

Scott became extraordinarily wealthy through expertise navigating the edges Medicare reimbursement practices. The company he founded, Columbia/ HCA, was hit with the largest Medicare fraud fine ever in 1997. Scott left the company four months after the federal investigation began, but paid no political price for whistling past the HCA graveyard. Which is why, he believes, he can do it again with the toxic mess he substantially helped create.

Once in Tallahassee Scott immediately sought to build a political infrastructure. Among those offering a helping hand; the special interest with institutional experience and memory longer than most who served in the legislature: Big Sugar.

One of Scott's commitments, straight out of the box: terminate a deal consummated by his predecessor, Charlie Crist, to purchase ALL the lands of US Sugar Corporation in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Originally, about 187,000 acres. Because the EAA is highly compartmentalized by ownership (and by design), the US Sugar lands would not of themselves have solved the problem of wetlands treatment marshes on the scale necessary to fix the toxic algae problems. But in aggregate, the lands if they had been purchased by taxpayers even at the enormous costs -- would have been a massive lever to rearrange the Everglades Agricultural Area for the purpose of encouraging a sustainable economic future based on public health instead of sugar cane production.

Conservation groups, enormously frustrated by the failure of the state to complete the US Sugar purchase -- its critics said, "we don't have the money" -- proceeded to mount a statewide ballot referendum to secure that money and more, around $1 billion per year. In 2014 Amendment 1 passed the threshold of more than 60% voter approval. "The 2014 amendment... was approved by 75 percent of voters, sends 33 percent of revenues from a tax on real-estate documentary stamps to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund." Then Gov. Rick Scott proceeded, with the Republican leadership, to thwart the will of the people by refusing to allocate the money for its stated purposes. (Environmental groups sued in state court and won, four years after the referendum was passed.)

The net effect: rather than pursuing a course that more than 200 qualified scientists believe is necessary -- addition of significant acres of land for water treatment and cleansing marshes -- Scott paved the way towards a 2017 fix that is really a Big Sugar Trojan Horse; a $2 billion "Everglades" reservoir that won't be complete for at least a decade and will likely trigger violations of existing water quality law, imposed on the state by a federal consent agreement after more than a decade of litigation in the 1990's.

In other words, Scott killed the real chance to protect Florida's waters, rivers, bays and Everglades and substituted with one that serves Big Sugar's interests. In another early act as governor, Scott gutted the science budget of the South Florida Water Management District. In doing so, he neutered the state capacity to investigate, explain and show the science of pollution of state waters and the linkages between toxics in farming and cities and the Everglades. In effect, Scott made it so that the public couldn't get good information from qualified scientists because he fired them -- most of them. Then he stacked the governing board of the water districts -- his right under state law -- with Sugar-friendly advocates, some of whom delighted in denigrating critics.

According to a recent report, "During the seven years under Governor Rick Scott, environmental enforcement has hit a modern nadir, with 2017 registering some of the most anemic results on record, according to a new analysis released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The upshot is that not only is Florida’s environment bearing a greater pollution load, but also its Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is losing revenue as well as its capacity to monitor--let alone deter--eco-offenses. Apart from the 2017 results in isolation, the Scott record shows a deep, across-the-board nosedive in Number of Cases in virtually every enforcement category."

Big Sugar wants to elevate Rick Scott to the US Senate. There is only one risk to its plans for the Toxic Trio -- Scott, Putnam and Caldwell -- that Big Sugar can't control: the weather.

And it is the weather, once again, that threatens to force Big Sugar to rebuild its political ladder. Not yet. But maybe. The summer of 2018 is shaping up to be a complete disaster for coastal communities bearing the brunt of highly toxic algae out of Lake Okeechobee.

The US Army Corps of Engineers held a public hearing on the toxic algae outbreak while scarcely a hundred feet away a dying manatee clung to one already dead. July 30, 2018 
Yesterday, the US Army Corps of Engineers -- the federal partner in charge of the canal infrastructure investment that is built around relieving Lake O water levels when there is too much rain -- held a meeting in Cape Coral, Florida. Only a few hundred feet away, a dying manatee clung to the corpse of another; killed by cyanobacteria in the red tide.

The Toxic Trio have nothing to say, because everything they have done as elected officials has set in concrete the measures needed to keep science and disclosure of fact at bay. They have closed off options that could save public health, Florida's waters, and a tourism-based economy in favor of sugar industry profits. They don't want the public to know any more than Big Sugar thinks the public needs to know.

Go anywhere near cyanobacteria mixed in with red tide, you are at risk of serious neurological disease including links to later-development of Alzheimer's. But Florida won't do the science and won't disclose the data and won't clearly outline the steps necessary to protect public health, because Big Sugar doesn't make money that way. Big Sugar deploys phalanxes of lobbyists, downtown lawyers, and for-hire media professionals so it can continue to extract the last penny from its crop, grown on nearly 400,000 acres, never mind the MILLIONS of Floridians, their families, guests and visitors who put tens of billions into the state economy. Oh, they say, "We are doing MORE than our fair share. We reducing phosphorous hugely!"

Rick Scott talks about "jobs". Adam Putnam talks about "jobs". Matt Caldwell talks about "jobs". But they didn't see the weather coming.


Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you,
However I am having problems with your RSS. I don't understand why I am unable to subscribe
to it. Is there anyone else getting the same RSS problems?
Anybody who knows the solution can you kindly respond?

Anonymous said...

Shameful...time to drain the swamp...vote for people that care about our environment...end those careers of those who don't

Unknown said...

Just moved to Venice, FL from Cape Cod, MA. Never have I seen a more blatant and corrupt power play than that put together by Big Sugar, Mosaic Mines and the purchased biostitutes at Mote Marine Labs in Sarasota with Rick Scott, Adam Putnam and Matt Caldwell. A vote for any of these three is a vote for selling Florida down the river...or should I say two rivers.

Seeing the video of the surviving manatees pushing their dead friend around in hopes of reviving him was the most pathetic illustration of a corrupt state government from top to bottom.

Anonymous said...

Keep this going please, great job!

Anonymous said...

Money love of

Anonymous said...

Please get out and vote for people that care about the environment. We need to keep Nelson in the senate and get a Democrat in for governor. Please do not vote for more people that are bought by big sugar.

Anonymous said...

Please get out and vote for people that care about the environment. We need to keep Nelson in the senate and get a Democrat in for governor. Please do not vote for more people that are bought by big sugar.

Anonymous said...

When I go to Publix, I do not see products with the name “Big Sugar”. I do see labels with “Dominos” and Florida Crystals. Don’t let them hide behind a vague pseudo name. Arm consumers, restaurants, bakeries with good info to use when making purchases.

Anonymous said...

I seldom leave a response, however i did a few searching
and wound up here "Rick Scott, Adam Putnam, and Matt Caldwell: Turbulent Waters For Florida's Toxic Trio ... by gimleteye".
And I actually do have a couple of questions for you if it's allright.
Is it just me or does it appear like a few of the comments look like they
are written by brain dead folks? :-P And, if you are writing on other places, I would like to
keep up with everything new you have to post. Could you make a list of all of all your communal pages like
your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

Anonymous said...

In my book Scott, Putnam and Caldwell are out and I’m a Republican. Informative article and I would love too see more of the officials who are running are state who put money and their own personal interests before the health of our people and our land!

Anonymous said...

Now that it's over, the bad news. Putnam lost the primary for one reason: Trump's endorsement of DeSantis, not because of his allegiance to Big Sugar. Survey after survey ranked health care and the economy as the prime issue (perhaps pollsters did not include environment in the questioning). Worst of all, the chief instigator of our current mess (through his reduction of environmental regulations, destruction of the science staff at the WMD's replacing them with aligned lawyers, DEP, etc.) Rick Scott was rewarded by handily winning each of the most affected Florida counties. Scott's margins in Martin, Collier, Lee, Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties make it clear that Republicans will vote for Republicans, even if with Scott's record. Will Desantis actually stand up to his own party? Not likely. The first thing to be done will be to undo most of Scott's policies. How can any resident of Florida support a climate denier? Apparently a majority had no problem.