Wildlife appointees all Crist boosters

The governor's selections, all with developer ties, all donated to GOP causes - and to Crist.

Published August 21, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist says his new appointees to the state board that oversees fish and wildlife will safeguard the environment, even though they all are tied to the development industry.

"I think that they'll protect the resources and I think they will serve with honor," Crist said recently. "Just because somebody has business interests does not mean that they don't care about and have a deep love for natural Florida."

To fill three seats on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission earlier this month, Crist picked Broward County developer Ron Bergeron, Orlando development lawyer Ken Wright and Jacksonville construction company executive Kathy Barco.

All three have been active supporters of the Republican Party in general and Crist in particular. For instance, Bergeron was among the crowd at Crist's $1-million kickoff fundraiser at the Tampa Airport Marriott in May 2005, the event that catapulted Crist to a financial lead he never relinquished.

Crist's campaign reported receiving $9,000 from Bergeron and his network of businesses, in 18 checks of $500 each, on one day in 2005.

Barco, 48, and her company gave the GOP $25,000 in just the past year, and her company gave another $10,000 to Crist's inaugural program. Wright, who has donated to both Crist and the party personally and through two businesses, represented the Florida GOP during the lawsuits that followed the contested 2000 presidential election.

Crist chief of staff George LeMieux said that when the positions on the wildlife board became open Crist "knew those names right away of who he wanted to appoint."

Among the three dozen applicants Crist passed over were several with academic or conservation backgrounds, such as longtime University of South Florida biology professor Henry Mushinsky, past president of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles.

"Looks like the developers have won again," Mushinsky said. "I think his choices were extremely narrow and one-sided. Wildlife will not benefit from these sorts of actions."

'Different interests'

The wildlife commission manages all of Florida's fish and wildlife. It oversees areas where hunters can track deer and other game, enforces speed zones to protect manatees from boats and reviews development permits that might affect panthers.

The commission has repeatedly run into controversy, most recently over its practice of issuing thousands of permits for developers to pave over the burrows of gopher tortoises, leaving them to die.

Others on the seven-member commission are a Tampa mall builder; a Miami businessman who runs a real estate investment and development firm and lobbying practice; a Delray Beach construction executive; and an executive with the St. Joe Co., the Panhandle's biggest developer. Barco's company counts St. Joe as a major client.

Although environmental groups have complained that Crist's three picks have made the wildlife commission far too friendly toward development, LeMieux contends they brought balance to the wildlife board.

"The governor takes a very balanced approach, and there's a lot of different folks in the diversity of Florida that have different interests," LeMieux said.

For instance, while Bergeron made his fortune developing Everglades land, Crist said he views him more as an advocate for restoration of the River of Grass.

'Genuine appreciation'

Bergeron, 63, is a sixth-generation Floridian whose grandfather was a game warden. A frequent rodeo competitor - the arena in his hometown of Davie bears his name - and former mobile-home resident, he owns the largest road contracting and site development business in the state and has ranches in Broward and Hendry counties.

"I've got a genuine appreciation for the environment," he said, having taken his first Everglades airboat ride at age 3.

Bergeron also holds the unique distinction of having been investigated by the agency he will now help lead.

In April 2006, Bergeron was giving visitors a tour of his 5,000-acre Hendry ranch when he spotted an alligator sunning itself near a pond. Although the gator appeared to be at least 7 feet long, Bergeron "demonstrated what he called 'an old cracker tradition' to his guests" and "began to wrestle with the alligator," a Fish and Wildlife Commission investigator later wrote.

The gator wrapped its tail around Bergeron's leg, rolled him into the water, bit his left hand "and proceeded to take him to the bottom of the pond," investigator Stephen Farmer wrote in a report. "Bergeron stated he began to strike the alligator on the nose as he was taught as a boy several times." When the gator let go, Bergeron swam to the surface and went to a nearby hospital.

State law forbids attempting to take, pursue, molest or capture an alligator without a license, Farmer noted, and Bergeron had given him a statement about jumping on the animal.

But when the investigator met with prosecutors in La Belle, they declined to pursue the case because "there was not enough evidence (i.e. sworn witness statements) to prosecute the subject," Farmer wrote.

Bergeron declined to comment on whether the investigation will have any effect on how he will lead the agency.

'Can't please everyone'

After Crist's election, Wright, 59, worked on the transition team that evaluated the wildlife commission's work.

He also serves as the attorney for the Orlando-Sanford Airport Authority. Earlier this year the authority outraged environmental groups by destroying three bald eagle nests because of what airport officials termed "loafing eagles" posed a danger to aircraft.

"I love the outdoors," said Wright, an avid flats fisherman and turkey hunter.

Wright included in his application a short but glowing 2002 article in Florida Trend magazine on his record as a Jeb Bush appointee chairing another state board, the Environmental Regulation Commission. (The magazine is an affiliate of the Times.)

LeMieux, Crist's top aide, called it "interesting" that environmentalists who praised Crist's recent actions in battling global warming, and his five pro-environment picks for a climate change study group, now fault his wildlife board choices.

"It's under the heading that you can't please everyone all the time," he said.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or at (850) 224-7263.

Fast Facts:

The documents

To view the investigator's report on Bergeron's gator incident and the applications of Bergeron and Wright, visit politics.tampabay.com.

Who they are

Ron Bergeron, 63, of Weston, is a sixth-generation Floridian who owns the state's largest road contracting and site development business. He was investigated by the state wildlife agency last year over an incident in which he wrestled a gator.

Ken Wright, 59, is an Orlando lawyer who represents Central Florida developers. He represented the Florida GOP during the legal feud over the 2000 presidential election.

Kathy Barco, 48, is a Jacksonville construction executive who also chairs a legal foundation that opposes environmental regulations. She and her company have donated heavily to Gov. Charlie Crist's campaign and to the Republican Party.