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Friday, October 28, 2016

Most embezzlers try to conceal their thefts, but not in Tallahassee, Florida. The looting of Florida’s Amendment One conservation funds took place in broad daylight, orchestrated by two poker-faced swindlers named Andy Gardiner and Steve Crisafulli.

Gardiner is president of the Senate. Crisafulli is Speaker of the House. Remember their names, because they ripped Floridians off big-time — and it will happen again next year, if they think they can get away with it.

More than 4 million Floridians voted last November to set aside 33 percent of the revenues from existing real-estate stamp taxes for buying conservation and recreation lands, and for the restoration of such areas already owned by the state.

The plan offered hope for the Everglades, the Indian River Lagoon and other places endangered by over-development and pollution.

Amendment One was approved by a landslide, an unprecedented mandate to protect what remains of Florida’s wetlands and wild places. And the Legislature, led by Gardiner and Crisafulli, responded with a bold statement of its own: Screw you, folks.

Gov. Rick Scott, of course, shoved his hands in his pockets and looked the other way.

How much did they steal? And where did it go?

The infuriating details are spelled out in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and other conservation groups.

After the debt service was paid on its bonds, the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund held $550 million that could have been spent the way voters intended — purchasing key tracts of unspoiled habitat and recreational lands.

Yet only about 7 percent of that money — $50 million — was actually set aside for new land as promised in Amendment One. Of that amount, a pitiful $15.2 million was allocated to Florida Forever, the state’s signature land-buying program.

Lawmakers’ contempt for the new constitutional amendment (and all Floridians who supported it) was made clear by how casually they siphoned the conservation money — more than $237 million of it, the lawsuit charges.

About $21.7 million went to the Department of Agriculture to implement “best management practices” on privately owned property — in other words, a big fat giveaway to ranchers and farmers. Even the governor couldn’t stomach it, and vetoed $5 million from the allocation.

However, he let slide another $5 million that Crisafulli and Gardiner funneled to the same agency for “nutrient reduction” and water retention projects on private lands. What an odd philosophy from two alleged conservatives: Paying farmers and ranchers not to dump their waste into public waters. It’s a like a Polluters Relief Fund.

If you’re wondering how an agency that has almost nothing do with conservation received so much conservation money, remember that Crisafulli’s dream is to be Florida’s commissioner of agriculture someday.

He wants corporate farmers and ranchers to owe him, because that’s who’s going to bankroll his campaign. The Legislature also swiped Amendment One funds to buy “risk management insurance” for several state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of State.

The money would cover worker’s comp claims and federal civil rights violations, off-the-wall expenditures that are nowhere to be found in the ballot language of Amendment One.

Even more suspicious is the $38.6 million appropriated for “springs restoration.” Earthjustice says the funds could actually be hijacked for municipal sewage plants and storm water systems, which also aren’t mentioned anywhere in the amendment.

Attorneys for Crisafulli, Gardiner and the Legislature have asked Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds III to dismiss the suit. They say Amendment One is worded broadly enough to allow them to do all sorts of things with the money, besides buying conservation lands.

Seldom in politics will you see such naked disdain for the public’s will. Crisafulli last year was re-elected to the House with 42,363 votes. Multiply that by 100 and you get the approximate number of Floridians who voted statewide for Amendment One.

In Crisafulli’s home county of Brevard, the measure was favored by a 3-1 margin. Gardiner’s senate district covers parts of Brevard and Orange County, where about eight out of 10 voters said yes to Amendment One.

Obviously he doesn’t care. Neither does Crisafulli. They might not be as subtle as most embezzlers, but their consciences look the same.

Small and empty.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

Photo: Romana Klee via Flickr