by Dara Kam, News Service of Florida
Senate President Joe Negron resigned from his law firm to avoid a possible conflict of interest over the Republican leader’s advocacy on a water issue that has put him directly at odds with one of the firm’s biggest clients.
Negron announced Monday he is stepping down from the Gunster Law Firm, which has a long history of representing U.S. Sugar Corp., days after a bill dealing with a land purchase affecting Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades was introduced in the Senate.
Through spokeswoman Katie Betta, Negron acknowledged his departure is related to the controversial bill (SB 10), which he hopes will reduce the amount of polluted water going from Lake Okeechobee into waterways in his Treasure Coast district.
“I could see that helping to orchestrate the passage of that bill, having promised that solution to his constituents, that he might find himself in an uncomfortable place with his law firm, whose probably primary client is a sugar company and an Environmental Agricultural Area landowner,” Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper said Monday.
Negron, R-Stuart, did not directly address the legislation in a statement issued Monday, but said he has “reached a crossroads where my firmly held conviction to promote legislation that would benefit my constituents, community, and state has the potential to result in a possible perception of a conflict with my professional employment.”
To avoid “even the possible appearance of such a difference, and to make certain I can continue to effectively advocate for my community,” Negron said he is stepping down.
Negron wants to buy sugar-industry land as part of an effort to store and clean water and reduce releases from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries — a plan his law firm’s client opposes. Negron’s Stuart community has been heavily impacted by toxic algae blooms resulting from water releases out of the lake.
The Everglades Foundation, which supports the bill, lauded Negron’s “continued and unwavering support of his local community and the environmental health of Florida,” when asked about his resignation.
“We are saddened that this commitment has resulted in him having to part ways with his law firm, but like all Floridians we stand with him and are amazed at his ethics and statesmanship,” foundation president Eric Eikenberg said in a text.
Negron’s resignation from the Gunster firm comes days after Gov. Rick Scott’s chief of staff, Kim McDougal, sent a letter to House Speaker Richard Corcoran — who has been at odds with Scott over business incentives — demanding more transparency about employment of legislators who work for law firms that engage in lobbying.
Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, is of counsel to Broad & Cassel law firm, which lobbies the Legislature on a variety of issues, as does Gunster.
“Everyone makes their own individual career choices,” Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in an email when asked about Negron’s decision.
Negron joined Gunster in 2010, the same year the firm boasted in a press release of its representation of U.S. Sugar in a $197.4 million land deal in which the South Florida Water Management District bought nearly 27,000 acres from the sugar giant, with the option of purchasing another 153,000 acres over 10 years.
This year’s Senate bill, sponsored by Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley, would require the state to exercise an option from the 2010 agreement on the sale of 60,000 acres from U.S. Sugar if “willing sellers” are not found for the land Negron is seeking..
The South Florida Water Management District — now headed by Pete Antonacci, who formerly served as Scott’s general counsel — soured on the deal in 2015, voting to terminate an option for 46,800 acres, with board members rejecting calls that the U.S. Sugar land was the only solution to cleaning South Florida waters.
And U.S. Sugar now calls the use of its land for the proposed reservoir “the most expensive and least effective idea with the longest timeline of all available options for reducing lake discharges.”
Representatives of U.S. Sugar would not comment on Negron’s announcement, but environmentalists said it’s no surprise Gunster and Negron would part ways, especially after the introduction of the Senate bill.
“I think Gunster, Sen. Negron and his constituents have known for a long time that he had to manage a separation from Gunster’s representation of (Everglades area) landowners and him representing his constituents,” Draper said. “Joe Negron has a really good reputation for being clean and standing above lobbyist influence. … I don’t know what would have triggered his decision at this moment to have to create such a hard separation but I respect his decision and I think that’s going to make him an even more effective advocate for passing this bill.”
— News Service of Florida staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.