McCormick Place

Oct 2016 Also on Digital Edition

$8.5 million.
That number appeared at the end of a recent Sun-Sentinel editorial supporting efforts to restore the Everglades. It should have been at the beginning, in the middle and in every sentence in between. For $8.5 million is the amount the paper says has been spent by one sugar company in political contributions during the last few years. Those contributions went largely to elected officials who continue to side with the sugar industry against the people.
And if one wonders why, with all the publicity about the environmental damage being done by water being pumped east and west from Lake Okeechobee, instead of flowing south as nature intended, $8.5 million is the answer. It is the reason that the Sun-Sentinel’s well meaning editorial (“To save the Everglades, go south”) won’t change very much, if anything. The editorial endorsed a proposal by Senate President-elect Joe Negron to buy some land south of Lake Okeechobee to permit water to flow and be stored south, where it can be cleansed naturally enroute to the Everglades.
More importantly, it would reduce discharges of polluted water from the lake that now is pumped east and west, fouling estuaries on both sides of the state, ruining the fishing economy, and damaging tourism in the Stuart and Fort Myers areas. This destruction has gotten a lot of ink this year because of the algae bloom contaminating waterways to an unprecedented degree, and for the first time affecting water in Palm Beach County.
 Negron’s proposal is a variation on the larger plan approved by voters, but rejected by Gov. Scott’s stooges on the South Florida Water Management District, to buy land to establish the natural flow of water south to what was once a much wider Everglades. We wrote about this in last year’s fall water issue.
Sure, the Sun-Sentinel’s editorial will be read by some elected officials (at least those who still pay attention to what newspaper editorials say), but it will not be read as carefully as they read the checks they receive from Big Sugar to buy their support. These are bribes, but legal under our present campaign laws, and one sugar company has paid $8.5 million to make sure nothing changes, no matter how serious the environmental damage, or the growing public clamor.
What the Sun-Sentinel editorial did not mention is that the very man whose proposal it supports, Sen. Negron, who represents the Stuart area, has been the beneficiary of much of that Big Sugar money, without which he would not likely be in such a powerful position in government. Among environmentalists he, and other officials from the same affected areas, are considered lip servers—talking one way and voting another, or basically doing little even as their neighbors suffer from avoidable water pollution.
The Sun-Sentinel’s interest in the Lake Okeechobee controversy may be because it realizes that the lack of water heading south has spreading consequences, creating shortages in the Everglades, pollution problems in Florida Bay and possibly eventually contaminated drinking water supply for all South Florida.

Karl Wickstrom, founder and longtime editor of Florida Sportsman magazine, based in Stuart, has been a strong voice for the environment for decades. He thinks the Negron plan is just more eyewash. He says Negron knows it won’t pass a legislature dominated by Big Sugar money. He likens it to the ongoing campaign to frame the pollution problem in false contexts, offering solutions to everything but the obvious problem—the lack of water flowing south.
“[Big Sugar] figured out how to put in programs that sound good but aren’t,” Wickstrom says. “They put a happy face on projects which don’t amount to anything. The polluters are still in charge.”
And they will be, until the day when massive campaign contributions, in return for perceived influence in government decisions, become treated as what has been described as legal bribes—minus the word legal. 
 We have noted previously that in some parts of the country that is happening. While visiting in Pennsylvania last month, we caught a Philadelphia Inquirer story about the indictment of a former state treasurer and a financial manager who is accused of giving about $3 million in campaign contributions in return for the privilege of selecting investment managers for the state treasury’s funds.  Those managers, in turn, paid several millions of dollars a year to the financial guy as “finders” fees.
It was an unusual case, but came as a result of a federal investigation that included the use of informants using wiretaps. That is the type of activity needed to establish the “quid pro quo” necessary to prove bribery.
An influential public figure in Stuart actually proposed such an investigation last year, and drew a standing ovation from an audience of community leaders.
Wickstrom, a former investigative reporter for The Miami Herald, points out how diffiicult bribery is to prove. He told this magazine last year: “They can always say, ‘Sure, I took the money, but I voted the way I did because it was the right thing to do.” But that defense becomes more difficult when tape recordings suggest otherwise.
It would be interesting to know if any  authorities active in the state (it would have to be federal; the state officials are part of the problem as the Pam Bondi/Donald Trump affair illustrates) look at numbers such as $8.5 million in political contributions, and the enormous environment damage, both present and future, associated with that money, and think it might be worth their time to probe a bit.
 Like putting a bug on some of those accepting the $8.5 million.