U.S. Sugar's sweet deal

Paying off the polluters: Was this the only way to save the Everglades?

click to enlarge DEEP IN THE CANE: The land south of Lake Okeechobee is largely farmed for sugarcane, a tall grassy plant that is ground up to extract the juices from its sugar-rich stalk. - Duncan Rawlinson
Duncan Rawlinson
DEEP IN THE CANE: The land south of Lake Okeechobee is largely farmed for sugarcane, a tall grassy plant that is ground up to extract the juices from its sugar-rich stalk.

A week after he flip-flopped his position on drilling for oil off of Florida's Gulf Coast, enraging environmentalists, Gov. Charlie Crist traveled down to the Everglades and became their champion.

On a windy summer day in late June, framed by the mounting thunderstorms along the banks of the Loxahatchee River, Crist readied himself to announce a land purchase that would come to exhaust a thesaurus of platitudes: "bold," "masterpiece," "magnificent," "watershed," "landmark," "priceless," "historic," "once in a lifetime" and "monumental," to name a few.

The deal? The taxpayers of South Florida would pay $1.75 billion for the Everglades-polluting U.S. Sugar Corp., for its 187,000 acres of farmland and the world's largest raw sugar mill. Within six years, U.S. Sugar would cease to exist, and its property would be converted into wetlands and holding ponds to help restore the natural flow of water back into the ailing Everglades.

"Sixty years ago," Crist said that day, "President Harry Truman came to South Florida to dedicate Everglades National Park. Today, we follow in the great footsteps and in the tradition of the great conservationist President Teddy Roosevelt. I can envision no better gift to the Everglades or the people of Florida or to our country than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration."

The acclaim seemed universal; environmentalists, Democrats and Republicans, newspaper editorial writers all lauded Crist for the bold and surprising move that had been reached in months of secret negotiations.

A no-brainer, right?

Not quite.

For instance, why are so few questioning the sale price, which amounts to a high premium of $350 a share for the privately held giant that produces 10 percent of the nation's raw sugar? The proposed price is much higher than the share value the company itself uses, the $180-$204 it pays its own employee shareholders when they cash out.

And why do few question the propriety of rewarding one of the Everglades' biggest polluters? In 1996, voters approved a referendum requiring those responsible for polluting the Everglades to clean up the mess. That includes U.S. Sugar.

And what about the state's second-biggest sugar baron, Flo-Sun, which owns 30,000 acres just south of U.S. Sugar? For the Everglades restoration to work, some or all of their land is needed, too.

Literally a voice in the wilderness on this issue, Republican Hendry County Commissioner Darrell Harris told the Broward-Palm Beach New Times weekly newspaper: "People can't afford to drive down the road to get something to eat. Teachers are getting laid off, state workers are getting laid off. And [Crist is] spending $1.75 billion on this?"

While the final negotiations are conducted confidentially and out of the public eye, there has been little public or media scrutiny since the initial announcement. But given that the people of South Florida are going to foot the bill for the purchase for the next 30 years, the question remains: Is U.S. Sugar getting too sweet a deal?

Everything about U.S. Sugar is big. For 80 years, the agricultural giant has dominated the Everglades Agricultural Area, spanning parts of four counties just south of the Everglades. Its new state-of-the-art sugar mill is the largest in the world. Its citrus processing plant, Southern Gardens Citrus, is the largest bulk citrus processor in the nation and a major supplier of not-from-concentrate orange juice to Tropicana. It has 200 miles of railroad tracks on its properties. It processes 700,000 tons of cane sugar a year. More than 1,700 employees take home a U.S. Sugar paycheck cut from its headquarters in Clewiston, on the southwest bank of Lake Okeechobee.

Big Sugar also has Big Clout.

In Florida campaigns in this election cycle, the company and its subsidiaries have doled out $780,000 to candidates, political committees and both major parties (more than $200,000 to Crist's Republican Party alone). Its PAC has donated another $16,000 to federal candidates in the 2008 elections.

As an illustration of how much it is willing to spend in campaigns, U.S. Sugar played a big role in the 2006 governor's race in Florida, contributing more than $1 million to two political committees — Florida's Working Families and Floridians for Responsible Government — that, in turn, backed unsuccessful Democratic primary candidate Rod Smith, a Gainesville senator who had sponsored sugar-friendly legislation that eased pollution controls on the company, according to FactCheck.org, the Annenberg Political Fact Check website.

U.S. Sugar also pays at least 10 lobbyists to look after its interests in Tallahassee, including several high-powered names such as Brian Ballard and J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, according to state records. Ballard is arguably one of the most influential lobbyists in the capital and a political adviser to Crist; Stipanovich is the former political guru behind Tampa's one-time governor Bob Martinez, and was Katherine Harris' "unpaid and personal attorney" who helped draft her misleading public statements during the 2000 presidential recount.

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