Sugar Deal Is Not So Sweet

Charlie Crist gets a bogus hero medal for bailing out Big Sugar.

"Your wife spends your money easier than you do," Lawrence says. "Tax money is spent easier than the money that's made a nickel and a dime at a time out here. The state always overpays."

"Have you ever seen the state pay the right price for something?" Harris asks.

The real crime in all of this is that the state held all the cards in these negotiations. In addition to the obvious problems with the industry, U.S. Sugar is facing the shareholders' lawsuit, which is asking for at least $150 million in damages, and last year the company was barred from polluting Lake Okeechobee — a move that was going to further decimate its already tax-subsidized business. (Crist, to his credit, was largely behind that move, so he knew all about it.)

Kyle T. Webster

Current U.S. Sugar CEO Robert Buker admitted to concerned workers after the deal was announced that "the company had no choice but to sell, because the state had the upper hand and could have pushed them off the land with laws rather than with $1.7 billion," according to an article in the New York Times.

We'll take Buker's word for it. So why didn't Crist use more of that leverage? Why would he rush a deal through at a price that is only sure to enrich a family in Michigan while leaving the taxpayers holding the bag for the Everglades' restoration?

The timing of the announcement might have to do with his obvious ambition to become John McCain's running mate (much like his recent announcement that he has become engaged to be married). But another clue might come from Crist's evolving relationship with Big Sugar — and its relationship with some of his closest friends and advisors.

When he was vying for the U.S. Senate in 1998, Crist railed against Big Sugar. He refused to accept campaign cash from sugar firms and said the industry, rather than the government, should pay for damaging the ecosystem.

"If Big Sugar is responsible for most of the pollution in the Everglades," Crist said at the time, "then Big Sugar should pay for it."

Less than two years after losing that race, Crist loosened up and accepted $2,500 from Big Sugar (including $1,500 from U.S. Sugar and $1,000 from the Fanjuls' Florida Crystals).

But it wasn't until Crist's run for governor in 2006 when U.S. Sugar really came to his side. The company put millions into a campaign to sink his Democratic challenger, Jim Davis. At the same time, it contributed to Crist's campaign directly and put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the state's Republican Party. That included a splurge of $242,500 in the last three months of the campaign.

The kicker came after Crist won the race and began collecting money from businesses to hold a swanky inaugural ball. His inaugural committee — cochaired by a man he calls his "great friend," lobbyist Brian Ballard — raised $500,000 from special interests, with $50,000 of it coming from U.S. Sugar.

When news of the extravagant party hit, Crist cancelled the plans and returned the money out of embarrassment.

After U.S. Sugar was banned from pumping polluted water into Lake Okeechobee, the company hired Ballard — Crist's friend and longtime ally — to lobby the governor. That's when Crist allegedly came up with the idea to buy the company.

Handling the negotiations for U.S. Sugar was the law firm of Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart. Crist also has a big connection to the firm: His former chief of staff, George LeMieux, the man the governor calls "The Maestro," now works in Gunster's Fort Lauderdale office, where he continues to promote Crist at every turn.

There is no evidence LeMieux played a direct role in the negotiations, but the ties to Crist's political associates in the deal, as well as the role the company played in his election, might help explain why the governor is playing so nice with U.S. Sugar.

While it looks disastrous as public policy, the plan has indeed been, so far, a masterstroke politically. Environmental groups are hailing him as a hero, and Democrats haven't shown the courage to question it in any meaningful way yet. His political machine is emboldened, and the press is largely playing along.

In short, it's been very good for Charlie Crist. So far. And why shouldn't he bask in the glory while it lasts, possibly riding it to the vice presidential nomination? He won't have to pay for it, after all.

We will.

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