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October 2015 - McCormick Place

If Donald Trump’s presidential bid has provided anything besides entertainment—a public forum for the kind of rants you usually hear only from drunks in bars—it is his candid assertion that in government, money talks. Trump brags about knowing the system, buying influence, and claims his wealth frees him from needing large campaign contributions and being beholden to those who write the checks.

Unfortunately, not many elected officials can make the wealthy claim, at least not when they start out and haven’t had time to perfect the art of stealing. Illustrating this reality close to home is our piece in this issue on water conservation. Gradually, public opinion is moving toward the realization that despite the fact that Florida almost floats on water, we could have serious problems providing H2O for a constantly growing population, and making sure the water we do have is relatively clean for other purposes, such as fishing and even bathing. This also, of course, includes the plight of Everglades creatures who need water for survival.

We only have to look at Martin County just two years ago, when discharges from Lake Okeechobee in the St. Lucie River estuary not only killed off sea life, but resulted in a warning to residents to stay out of the water for health reasons. People in Stuart were furious—still are—when key elected officials took campaign contributions from the major polluters and remained docile as a result. The same people have been largely mute on the current Amendment 1 scandal—in which money approved by 75 percent of Florida voters is being withheld from its intended use to buy U.S. Sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee. It is a purchase intended to cure the pollution problem in estuaries on both coasts.

The discharges are not a problem this year. The lake levels are low—dangerously so. Another summer as dry as this one could cause serious problems. The Army Corps of Engineers acts only when high water endangers the levee. It doesn’t want to see a New Orleans-style flood in Florida. Water conditions did not stop one prominent public official, who is a big beneficiary of agriculture campaign contributions, from demanding in the spring that the Corps not make any discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary. The Corps promptly agreed, making the politician look like an environmental hero.

“It was just a publicity stunt,” says environmentalist Karl Wickstrom. “He knew they weren’t going to make any discharges this year.”

Wickstrom points out that Big Sugar’s political influence is not just a Florida problem. “It goes on all over the country,” he says. “There’s just so much money being spent.”

Wickstrom happens to be one of the best magazine publishers in Florida. His Florida Sportsman began when Wickstrom lived in Miami. He takes the water crisis personally because he moved to Stuart partly to get away from pollution in Miami-Dade County waterways. He knew that clean water was an essential part of Stuart’s reputation as a magnet for outdoorsmen.

As our story points out, the relationship between large campaign contributions and the inaction of those receiving them has become so obvious that the use of the word “bribery” was applauded at a meeting of Stuart area leaders trying to prevent future contamination of their waterways. The citizen who brought up bribery referred to recent court cases which may redefine bribery as something more than the traditional quid pro quo. The courts seem to be leaning toward a broader concept—that if public officials take a contribution with the expectation they will favor the contributor down the road, it could land them in trouble.

The implications of this concept could be enormous, all over the country. As one person in our story is quoted, it is routine for large corporations in Florida to give generously (often in disguised forms) to elected officials who vote on legislation affecting their interests. That is exactly the problem, and it is nationwide. Money is corrupting the democratic system.

Attractive as it may seem, we are likely a long ways off from seeing politicians going to jail over campaign money. However, the mere fact that meetings occur, such as the one in Stuart last spring, can have an effect. That meeting spread by word of mouth without the help of the press, until now. But simply that it happened, will make some people nervous.

They should be. If the law doesn’t get them, The Donald will. His words may wind up thrilling more than drunks in bars