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Martin Dyckman: King Ranch scandal shows why you need newspapers

In one of Bill Mauldin’s many memorable World War II “Stars and Stripes” cartoons, two Army officers stand on a cliff overlooking a picturesque French valley as sunlight streams through the clouds.

“Beautiful view,” says one to the other. “Is there one for the enlisted men?”

That cartoon came to mind the other day as I read in the Tampa Bay Times how Gov. Rick Scott and some other Florida politicians have been treated to lavish Texas hunting junkets that they don’t want to talk about.

They have been the guests of U.S. Sugar Corporation, one of the heaviest of the heavyweight lobbies in Tallahassee. It leases 30,000 acres at the King Ranch and has built a hunting lodge there.

Reporters Michael Van Sickler and Craig Pittman found that since 2011, U.S. Sugar has paid more than $95,000 to the state Republican Party for at least 20 weekend trips to the King Ranch on various occasions that coincided with more than a dozen Florida pols taking out Texas hunting licenses.

Texas, in this instance, is more forthcoming than Florida. Imagine that!

After stiffing the reporters for weeks, Scott’s office eventually said he went there “in support of his political fundraising efforts.”

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he went there for “campaign purposes as well as to see more of their ag operations.”

“I’m an ag commissioner. I don’t play golf,” he said.

Asked who paid and on whose plane he flew, Putnam said it was a Republican Party fundraiser. Soon after, an aide shut the door in the reporter’s face.

No such events appear on the Florida Republican Party’s fundraising reports. Party officials aren’t talking much. Big Sugar’s people aren’t talking at all.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and incoming Speaker Steve Crisafulli, two of the pols who have registered for Texas hunting licenses, refused even to confirm that it was to hunt at King Ranch.

Now, what has the Mauldin cartoon to do with this?

In the cartoon, the officer speaking displays at least a slight concern for his underprivileged troops.

But when it comes to Florida’s underprivileged taxpayers — the millions of taxpayers who will never be offered lobby-funded hunting junkets–the only apparent concern on the part of Scott, Putnam and the others is to let them know as little as possible.

Rank does have its privileges.

U.S. Sugar’s interest is to keep its pollution abatement payments as low as possible — an enterprise at which it has been consistently successful.

For this year’s election alone, the Times reported, the company and its various officers, lobbyists and subsidiaries have contributed $2.2 million to Florida Republican candidates and $132,000 to Democrats.

The ratio likely would be reversed if the Democrats were in power.

Compared to that, the hunting junkets are like frosting on a cake. The frosting makes the gluttony that much sweeter.

As legions of lobbyists have demonstrated over the centuries, contributions make the deal but camaraderie seals it.

You’ll probably hear more about this as the election campaign progresses. One certainly would hope so.

It bears keeping in mind that this scandal — not too strong a word for it — was uncovered not by the opposition but by a newspaper willing and able to stay on the trail as long as it took to pierce the obfuscations.

It’s the newspaper where I worked 46 years. Needless to say, I’m proud of the reporters and editors who developed the story.

Florida should be proud of them too.

Who needs newspapers?

You do.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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