Sugar dollars pour into pro-Smith group

A total of $295,000 donated to a committee backing the state senator for governor has ties to U.S. Sugar.

Published July 19, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Big Sugar has helped Rod Smith's bid for governor in a big way. But the industry's largess may prove to be a headache.

A political group formed to promote Smith's candidacy received $295,000 from U.S. Sugar Corp. of Clewiston and its subsidiaries, according to federal tax records.

The contributions to Floridians for Responsible Government paid for a statewide direct mail effort touting Smith as a candidate with "experience, vision, guts."

Smith, a state senator from Alachua, said he was "enormously comfortable" with the contributions. He noted his service of nine years on the Florida Farm Bureau board before becoming a state attorney.

"It shouldn't surprise anybody that I'll be championed by citrus, by sugar, by cattle, and I intend to continue to have that," Smith said.

But the money could damage his already shaky standing with some environmentalists, loyal primary voters who deride the sugar industry as a major polluter of the Everglades.

"Something like that just highlights the concerns the environmental community has about Rod Smith," said Curt Levine, political director for the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, which has endorsed Smith's Democratic rival, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis. "When you have that kind of money, they expect a return on their investment."

Mary Barley, president of the Everglades Trust, said, "To a lot of people this could be a negative thing."

U.S. Sugar and its citrus companies donated $205,000 to Floridians for Responsible Government in late May and early June. In the same period, the committee received $90,000 from Florida's Working Families, an organization funded by U.S. Sugar, bringing the total quarterly contributions to $295,000.

A spokesman for U.S. Sugar was traveling Tuesday and did not return a call for comment.

The political committee was formed by Michael Spellman, a Smith supporter who owns an Ocala golf course. Last month, Spellman said he was shutting down the organization after it was revealed it took $30,000 from a Gainesville vending company, American Institutional Services. The company was linked to a kickback scheme that led to the downfall of former Corrections Secretary James Crosby.

The owner of the vending company, Eddie Dugger, has also been implicated in the scandal, and Smith returned $2,500 in direct contributions from him. Davis' campaign pressured Smith to return the $30,000 given to the political committee, but he said it was not his to give back.

The pro-Smith committee had other donors too. Records show the Geo Group of Boca Raton gave $15,000. The company, which contracts with the state to run private prisons, got into trouble last year when an audit showed it overbilled the state at least $5-million. Smith said Tuesday he did not know about the company.

Smith's campaign was aware of the Spellman group and provided pictures for use in the direct mail ad produced by a Tallahassee company, Rocket Daddy. The flier stressed Smith's legislative successes, including fighting Republican efforts to weaken the class size amendment.

Smith defended his friend Spellman's political committee as perfectly legal.

"I didn't raise one dollar during the 120 days that I (was) in session," he said. "But I'm allowed to have these and I'm not going to back away from what is legal."

He said there should not be a choice between the environment and agriculture. "Just remember this, every time we lose an acre from citrus or an acre from vegetable production, it becomes development," he said. He noted that Davis also has taken money from the sugar industry (about $3,500) and from Anderson Columbia, a major road builder.

Davis did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The Democratic rivals clashed Monday as they filed qualifying papers in Tallahassee.

Davis, asked by reporters how he differed from his opponent, said Smith supported a 2003 bill that some felt weakened protections for the Everglades and jeopardized federal funding. Smith said Davis has little room to talk, because Congress has not stepped up and put as much money into Everglades restoration as the state Legislature has. Smith even gave kudos to the Jeb Bush administration for committing so much to the Everglades, when Congress did not do more.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.