By Carl Hiaasen

Call This A Sign Of Our Sleazy Times

February 5, 2013 12:00 am Category: Memo Pad 36 Comments A+ / A-
Call This A Sign Of Our Sleazy Times

Even in a state of perpetual sleaze, some dirty deals stink more than others.

The most recent is a weird little law approved last spring that allows the South Florida Water Management District to enter the commercial billboard business.

The water agency usually sticks to flood control and Everglades restoration, touting itself as a defender of imperiled wetlands. Yet in coming months, 10 large electronic billboards are due to be installed on district holdings, which are public lands, with an additional 20 signs to follow in 2014.

And dig this: The water agency’s staff, parroting the coy language in the law, refers to these digital monstrosities as “public information systems.” The term billboard is being avoided like an embarrassing disease.

How did this latest travesty occur? Palm Beach Post reporter Christine Stapleton broke the story and did a fine job connecting the dots.

The billboard provision was quietly shoehorned into a crucial bill for the water district. Oddly, the amendment had no named sponsor in the Legislature, no footprints anywhere.

Even stranger: The billboard industry’s main lobby group apparently knew nothing about the proposal, including where it came from.

In time, though, the muddy waters would clear.

After the law took effect in July, the district’s staff informed its governing board that the agency could now erect these “public information systems” to display important service announcements such as flood warnings, drought advisories and Amber alerts. And oh, by the way, they could sell some advertising on them, too.

Board members, who are political appointees, voted 5-3 to move ahead with contract talks. Barely a month later, a company called Florida Communication Advisors was formed by a man named Harkley Thornton.

You might not be shocked to learn that Thornton was once on the board of the water management district, or that he’s a friend and former business partner of its current executive director, Melissa Meeker.

Likewise, you might not be flabbergasted to know that Thornton was also a Republican fundraiser and very tight with former House Speaker Dean Cannon, under whose reign the billboard giveaway was sneaked into law.

And finally, your jaw probably won’t drop when you hear that Thornton’s brand-new company, FCA, was picked over several other billboard firms to get the lucrative 10-year contract with the South Florida water district.

When one of the other companies complained, the agency backed down and gave it half the job. The digital signs will be owned by the water district, which hopes to someday make $3 million annually from its puny share of the profits.

As the final deal was put before the board, no mention was made of Thornton’s past tenure with the agency nor of his connection to Meeker.

And of course that vile word “billboard” was never uttered.

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Call This A Sign Of Our Sleazy Times Reviewed by on . Even in a state of perpetual sleaze, some dirty deals stink more than others. The most recent is a weird little law approved last spring that allows the South F Even in a state of perpetual sleaze, some dirty deals stink more than others. The most recent is a weird little law approved last spring that allows the South F Rating:

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  • Gregory Williams

    Republican corruption is RAMPANT in ALL the red states…this is just one more case of the VILE abuses that republicans engage in where ever and when ever they have power.

    Make PUBLIC corruption a major felony with REAL mandatory minimum time to serve (10 years at least) and the FINES at 3-5 times the $ value of the corruption and you will see things like this go away… no republican would risk REAL prison and REAL financial penalties just to scam a few million from the tax payers.

    • http://www.facebook.com/dominick.vila.1 Dominick Vila

      That would be nice. Unfortunately, instead of putting some of these scumbags in the slammer we elect them Governors!

      • jarheadgene

        And why do these guys keep getting elected and re-elected, in spite of their masoginistic, racists, homophobic, demigoguery antics ????? Oh yeah….because of the lying kings.

        • http://www.facebook.com/dominick.vila.1 Dominick Vila

          I think the ability of people like Florida Governor Rick Scott to be elected in spite of their personal record is influenced by more than just FOX News. I believe most of our media outlets are complicit and keep relevant information away from their audiences because of the influence of special interests in American politics or, maybe, because they are afraid of lawsuits. I also believe that many voters don’t bother to research the background of candidates or their policy proposals, particularly during mid term elections or state and local government elections.

          • http://www.facebook.com/blake.faulkner.7 Blake Faulkner

            It probably helped that he spent 76 million dollars of his own money overwhelming the state and it’s easily dupable and angry voters with all his campaign propaganda. I think we all know where all his personal wealth came from by now. I also think a certain subset of GOP voters admires any GOP politician who has ripped off a large ‘socialistic’ federal government program like Medicare as a businessman/CEO of a huge, for-profit, health-care corporation…And basically got away with it…’Scott-Free’. His much more qualified Democrat female opponent Alex Sink didn’t spend anywhere near as much money on her campaign for governor. But it was still a very close election. It does reveal something very disappointing about Florida voters…and human nature & intelligence in general though…You betcha…*wink wink*

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/GSBZ7RTZFTF3VE6TMEYTDRBEIE Dan B

      Sorry Gregory, I’m a Navy Vet. too, and an Independant Voter. If you were to include the Democrats along with many of the other socalled criminals, I might be able to go alone with you…It’s not a Republican problem, it’s stupid people in congress period….

      • http://www.facebook.com/jerry.beck.9659 Jerry Beck

        Dan,it just seems the Republicans are doing way more that is hurting the most people.

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/HGC4BGWVYXV76PHZBPSPOOU5GA Independent1

          I’ll second that. Dan, if you haven’t noticed the significant increase in criminality by the GOP these past 10-15 years, you’ve had your head buried in the sand.

    • RobertCHastings

      And just where did you get the idea that no one would risk the penalties. Remember Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who had his hand in just about everything illegal, immoral, and unfair during the Bush administration? He is now serving time, and had to know at the time that he was going to eventually get caught. Not only are they crooked, they are stupid.

  • nobsartist

    This is exactly why we need LESS gun laws.

    Its time to start making elected crooks pay.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joan-Maurer/100000910841619 Joan Maurer

      You go from corrupt political actors in Florida to gun control? You and Fox News riding that one trick pony.

      This is one site where you will get no support for taking the law into your own hands – particularly with a gun. Are you suggesting that you or someone else shoot any of the people involved in this?

      That’s a plan worthy of the GOP – just shoot anyone you do not agree with.

      • Michael Kollmorgen

        I hate to admit it, but as for targets being Republicans, I unfortunately would make a few exceptions.

        Now, I wouldn’t do the dirty deed. Let some right wing nutcase do the job to their own people.

        What a better way to solve two major problems at once; elimination of republicans, and a more pressing reasons for gun control “AFTER” its all said and done:)

        Nothing is sweeter than them using their own tactics against them.

        • old_blu

          I don’t think we need to kill them, or even let them kill themselves, just leave them alone they are imploding as we speak.

          • http://twitter.com/LostAnarchist S-3

            It’s not happening fast enough – I’d personally love to shoot these crooks runnig South Carolina just to help, though.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Sehler/100000396279499 John Sehler

            Yes let them implode but are they going to take the State of Fla. with them.

      • sigrid28

        But first, empty their pockets.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dominick.vila.1 Dominick Vila

    The billboards to be erected in parts of the Everglades are a minor environmental problem compared to the damage that has already been caused by irresponsible urban sprawl, pollution, and inadequate water management. Shortsighted community development policies, influenced by a focus on short term gain, are destroying one of our greatest natural treasures. Policies that encourage, and sometimes force, homeowners to have lawns kept healthy by irrigation and extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides, are depleting and polluting the Florida aquifer with serious impact to the Everglades and potential impact to human health. Fear not, Obama will be blamed for the policies advanced by our Republican Governors and GOP controlled legislature.

    • sigrid28

      Maybe the billboards will be a bigger problem than we think. Time out for an American literature up-date. I would like to cite in full a poem by humorist Ogden Nash (1902-1971), which mimics a world famous poem by another American poet, [Alfred] Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918). Kilmer’s poem begins, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree . . . . ” There was a time when most Americans knew it by heart. Nash’s parody is entitled “Song of the Open Road”:

      I think that I shall never see
      A billboard lovely as a tree.
      Indeed, unless the billboards fall,
      I’ll never see a tree at all.

    • http://www.facebook.com/blake.faulkner.7 Blake Faulkner

      Dominick…I live in Stuart, Florida. We are right at the confluence of the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon with the St. Lucie Inlet close by where the two ‘rivers’ combine in an area called ‘the crossroads’. This estuary is a rich one, but we are heavily impacted here by massive releases of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee by the Army Corp of Engineers when lake levels get high enough from rainfall to threaten the integrity of the Hoover dike that surrounds the lake for flood control reasons. The releases go east and west, rather than south into the Everglades. Between the southern end of Lake O. and the northern reaches of the remaining everglades are massive tracts of sugarcane fields. Some fresh water from Lake O. goes to flood control/water supply canals that run south and southeast through the sugarcane growing tracts and the Everglades Conservation Areas to the urbanized areas of southeast Florida like West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. The old, natural sheet flow of Lake O. freshwater through the Everglades has all but been eliminated.

      The growing of the vast tracts of sugarcane where there should be Everglades and sheet flow of freshwater…has been subsidized by the Federal Government for decades…by propping up the base price of sugar to an artificially high level. Imported sugar from Cuba and other Caribbean islands is restricted by trade agreements. It is corporate welfare mostly for ex-Cuban sugar barons, 2 brothers, named the Fanjuls…with some other subsidized, corporate, agri-business players as well. It is in some ways a continuation of the Cold War against Cuba…by economic means. But it makes the price of sugar…and all the food products that it goes into here in the USA…artificially high. It has made the Fanjuls very rich and politically powerful men here in Florida. And their sugar empire has altered the natural ecosystem north of the Everglades…The diversion of excessive freshwater from Lake O. away from the Everglades and into the fragile marine estuaries on both sides of Florida damages all three ecosystems in ways that cannot be completely calculated. In some years the fish kills and other negative marine life effects are enormous. Many businesses and recreational interests that depend on a healthy marine ecosystem suffer serious economic losses as well.

      Melissa Meeker got much local notice and a high P.R. profile here some years ago when she worked for the state DEP investigating bacterial lesions on large numbers of estuarine fish that were being impacted by large releases of freshwater from Lake O. She got a fast-track promotion eventually from being on the board of directors of the South Florida Water Management District…to becoming it’s director. I think this was after Jeb Bush cleared out many of the more professional, long term staff that were trying to follow through on existing Everglades restoration plans.

      The Fanjuls have contributed campaign money to Florida politicians of both political parties. And the status quo continues, despite constant grass roots political efforts to fight the water releases and promote effective, non-polluting Everglades restoration. Fertilizer runoff from the sugarcane fields currently drains into the freshwater being routed east and west. Any fertilizer runoff draining into water entering the Everglades would cause a massive, unwanted growth of freshwater cattails…that would crowd out and overwhelm the sawgrass…which requires extremely low levels of dissolved nutrients to thrive. Fertilizer nutrients would upset that ecosystem balance drastically.

      I’m relying on my memory and recent reading for much of this narrative. I may be wrong or unfair in some details. I recently found out that there was a movie screenplay written and optioned by Robert DeNiro/TriBeca. Jody Foster got interested and involved in the project too. It was about the sugar barons and the third world farm labor conditions their subsidized sugar empire created in the areas south of Lake O. The movie would have been called “Sugarland”. Something happened in 2007…and the movie screenplay was shelved indefinately. No one has said why. I also learned recently one of the Fanjul brothers despised Al Gore…and may have played a crucial role in vote suppression in Miami in 2000…via the then Miami-Dade Democrat mayor Alex Penelas. Some aspects of that story may have been in the HBO movie “Recount”…with Kevin Spacey. I have not yet seen that movie though…so I’m not sure. If now isn’t the time to end corporate welfare in the form of artificially high sugar prices to make it profitable to grow here…I don’t know when it will be. Imported sugar would be much cheaper. But our sugar import quotas would have to be relaxed or lifted…and we would have to stop trying to punish Cuba with a continued trade embargo on their sugar. The Cold War is overrrr.

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/GSBZ7RTZFTF3VE6TMEYTDRBEIE Dan B

        Thanks for the history lesson of southern Florida. I live in Central Florida, and water problems here, mostly those of water shortages, because of political reasons on the Harris chain of lakes, almost makes you think the govt. has a way to keep everyone upset. For what ever the reason, they do believe they are doing it for our betterment. what that reason is, I have no idea.

        • http://www.facebook.com/blake.faulkner.7 Blake Faulkner

          I think I was wrong about the 2001 magazine article about the Fanjuls. I think it was in Harpers…not Vanity Fair.

          • http://www.facebook.com/blake.faulkner.7 Blake Faulkner

            There was an article about the Fanjuls in Harpers in 1999. The Vanity Fair article…on which the screenplay for the yet-to-be-produced movie “Sugarland” is based…came out in 2001. The article is titled “In The Kingdom Of Big Sugar”. There is a PDF format(it’s pretty long) link available via google if you enter the title and Vanity Fair…The same link is also available on my Facebook page as of a couple hours ago. Tonight I just learned that our former governor Charley Crist became ‘persona non grata’ within his own Republican Party because he tried to engage in talks about buying out some of the sugargrowers and using their lands for Everglades restoration purposes…without consulting with the Fanjuls first. Unbelievable but true.

      • jarheadgene

        I’m sure the Fajuls spread their money on both sides to hedge their bets on DEMS and GOPs…but the ones who give them better return are probably the GOP’s. How much did they contribute to Rubio? Their type of antics is what separates the majority of Cubans from the rest of the Latin community. What cracked me up this last election cycle was when Cuban GOP supporters made claims, that as they were for Romney, America was going to be surprised at the support, of the Latin community for him as well. They even made the claim President Obama was going to lose. We all know how the election really turned out though. Sorry, just because Jeb Bush can speak spanish and GW lives in Texas and can say senorita and siesta, in a drawl, and Romney can were darkened makeup on Univision doesn’t make them one of us, nor any other Republican “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The GOP has already made it’s positions clear re Latinos, African Americans, and Gay and Lesbians. Let’s not get fooled again.

      • sigrid28

        Now I’m going to think Everglades whenever I stir a teaspoon of sugar into my iced tea. Thank you for a terrific piece, offering a window into Florida politics and how influence-peddling affects the future of this state’s incomparable natural resources. I intend to keep following this story, probably online, as our news outlets seem to have been muffled by special interests and the senseless repetition of the 24-hour news cycle. I tried to find the film you mention on IMDB, where it’s status is probably available if you have more key words to search than do I. Of interest to you also may be (if you have not read it already) a novel by Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937), recounting in horrific detail the flooding of Lake Okeechobee during a huricane, sweeping away small communities of migrant workers and native Floridians living in its path.

        • http://www.facebook.com/blake.faulkner.7 Blake Faulkner

          Glad you liked it sigrid. I get started typing and the thoughts and memories start to flow. Before I know it, there’s a bunch of text for some poor souls to wade through. I have since found more interesting related info and have posted it on my Facebook page by this same profile name. I left a much longer response to Dan B above about my 5 years of living in Central Florida decades ago…and what it was like back then vs. now. But I included a link to an article about the Florida sugar barons’ empire of sugarcane growing and it’s negative effects…and the reply never got posted. I don’t think ‘National Memo’ likes having links in comments. Two of my replies with links just disappeared. Huff Po does that too. Don’t understand why.

          • sigrid28

            The problem with links could have to do with whether or not these journals retain copyright for posts. Keep up the posts.

  • Eleanore Whitaker

    Red state good ole bois live by one rule of GOP dogma…You grease my palm and I’ll grease yours. This, they do not refer to as “corruption.” That grease just happens to be taxes the rest of the states end up paying for.

    • http://www.facebook.com/dominick.vila.1 Dominick Vila

      That is the outcome they are hoping for. They want the best of both worlds. Hopefully blue states are smart enough to put residency clauses designed to deny coverage for residents of red states that reject ACA when they are seriously ill and need care they cannot afford or is unavailable to them in their home states. That may soon cruel, but there are consequences to our actions and if residents of red states prefer to keep the current medical system, they must be ready to deal with its shortcomings.

  • clarenceswinney

    ELECTION SYSTEM BROKEN
    President Obama said:
    “we have to fix it”.
    When? Who? How?
    I voted for several Democrats. Then reviewed my votes. Every vote was for a Republican.
    I went to nearby Democratic Headquarters to ask for an investigation of that machine.
    Found no problem.???
    Voter denied right to vote-Untrained poll workers—Misapply voter AD and provisional ballot laws—Frantic Voting—Last minutes changes such as new polling sites—Failed voting machines–
    Deception phone calls to voters. Long registration lines for early voters.
    OBAMA, WHEN WILL IT BE FIXED???

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/HGC4BGWVYXV76PHZBPSPOOU5GA Independent1

      Unfortunately, the President can say something needs to be fixed, but quite often it doesn’t give him the authority to get what he wants fixed fixed. The president has no control over how states run their voting procedures.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/HGC4BGWVYXV76PHZBPSPOOU5GA Independent1

      Sorry, I forgot to include that it’s the Constitution that doesn’t give him the authority to always get fixed what he thinks needs to be fixed.

  • adriancrutch

    When does the money start changing hands? Or has it already?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Sehler/100000396279499 John Sehler

      It never stopped.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/ZEDCQ4URHFFCKH5THB4DT3G54M Brian

    The deep South.

    I had one year of it.

    It was enough to last me a lifetime.

  • Pamby50

    These signs have no place in the Everglades. I don’t live there, but I would start thinking of a way to take them down. The republicans have no respect for our environment or our national parks. They wanted to drill in the Grand Canyon. I am so tired of them but I know we have to keep up the fight. That’s what they expect us to do. Quit the fight. If we do, they win.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/HGC4BGWVYXV76PHZBPSPOOU5GA Independent1

    Just because he says “We have to fix it” doesn’t mean he has the authority to personally do it. If you’re assuming he’s responsible for not getting it fixed, you need to learn a little more about how our government works – the President can’t control how states handle their particular voting procedures. From state to state they vary considerably – for example, I believe in Oregan, people can vote over the internet, while in many states that’s illegal. So the President can push to get things fixed, but many times the Constitution doesn’t give him the authority to see that what he wants fixed actually gets fixed.

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