Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Tampa Bay Times investigates Florida sugar, Gov. Rick Scott, fat cat Republicans and secret trips to a Texas hunting ranch


“Do your own job."Susan Hepworth, Republican Party of Florida spokesperson to a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

Susan Hepworth, Republican Party
of Florida spokesperson. 
A few months ago two Tampa Bay Times reporters were following the money. They were trying learn details about trips taken by Florida Republicans to an exclusive hunting ranch in Texas.

But Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Susan Hepworth wasn't in the mood to talk, even though, according to her, she was the only RPOF official who could answer questions about the trips.

"I can tell you 100 times over and over that we follow the letter of the law. Do your own job," Hepworth told a reporter.

And so they did.

Tampa Bay Times staff writers Craig Pittman and Michael Van Sickler have a story in this morning's paper that's the culmination of a months-long investigation into the secret trips taken by Florida Republicans to a Texas hunting ranch, financed partly with contributions from U.S. Sugar to the Republican Party of Florida.

Click to enlarge.
From the story....
"A Times/Herald analysis shows that 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.

"By not disclosing their King Ranch trips, officials and sugar lobbyists have avoided any scrutiny of their private dealings with each other and whether their relations influence decisionmaking on state agricultural issues, including the future of the Everglades."

On his Facebook page Pittman says this of the story: "It's like the Fight Club of one wants to talk about it."

Pittman and Van Sickler write: "Scott won’t answer questions about his trip. After weeks of requests from the Times/Herald, his campaign staff released a one-paragraph statement on Friday saying he had gone to King Ranch 'in support of his political fundraising efforts.' "

Pittman covers the environment for the Times. (He's also the go-to guy on anything having to do with Weird Florida.)

Yesterday I emailed him five questions about his work on the story:

1) How long have you and your colleagues been working on this story and whose idea was it to do the story in the first place? Were you tipped off? Also, can you give us an idea of how many pages of documents you filed requests for and what was that process like?
We got an anonymous tip about it in May and worked on it through June and most of July. The big breakthrough came when Mike Van Sickler came up with the brilliant idea of requesting Texas hunting license records. We checked scores of names, and then were able to compare the dates they got their licenses with the dates listed in Republican Party campaign filings that said that's when the sugar companies paid for flights and lodging.

2) Why is this story important and why should voters care about what politicians do on their days off?
It's important because it shows how Tallahassee really works. Big industries take the politicians off somewhere well away from public scrutiny and wine them and dine them and nobody knows about it. Then they pass legislation that benefits the businesses and leaves the taxpayers holding the bag.

3) Were you surprised at the amount of stonewalling you encountered in reporting this story?
Yes. You'd think at some point someone would say, "Boy, we look really bad by refusing to talk about this." But if anyone ever did say that, it didn't change anyone's minds about opening up. Personally, I hope that every time one of these guys shows up in public, at a campaign rally or an editorial board meeting or just out shaking hands with the public, someone will ask them to explain about these trips.

4) Anything strange happen while you were reporting this, i.e., late night hang-up calls or dark cars with tinted windows following you? Anything else funny or unusual happen?
The door being shut in Van Sickler's face was pretty amazing. His transcript of the encounter left me shaking my head. Gov. Scott's aide tried to body-block me at the groundbreaking, [see video above] but I slipped around her and grabbed his elbow to get his attention so he had to respond to my question (although it was just to brush me aside). And the U.S. Sugar spokeswoman who e-mailed me to say they wouldn't comment, and then added, "I hope you find this helpful." Reporting a story like this rarely involves meeting people in parking garages or anything like that. Instead it was a lot of phone calls and e-mails and building a timeline so we could compare when things happened.

At one point I consulted a guy I know in the Justice Department. We went to high school together, and he tracks down financial info on drug dealers and so forth now. He had some good ideas for getting the info we wanted, but unfortunately they all required having the power to issue subpoenas. He's got that, but we don't.

5) I notice in the video you were wearing your fabled seersucker suit when you tried to buttonhole Gov Scott. If this story goes on to be your Watergate moment, would you consider donating the suit, along with your notes and papers to some journalism school?
Sure. That's tax-deductible, right?

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