April 26, 1997
A court fight between Save Our Everglades and U.S. Sugar Corp. escalated on Friday when the environmental group filed a $900 million claim against the sugar giant.
The filing is actually a counterpunch in a Tallahassee state court suit filed Feb. 12. The litigation is fallout from last year's penny-a-pound sugar tax referendum, a victory for sugar interests after an expensive and contentious advertising campaign.
The Clewiston-based company struck the first blow, accusing Save Our Everglades and its leader, Mary Barley, of lying about the group's finances to avoid paying a $150,000 fee for verifying referendum signatures.
Now Save Our Everglades says U.S. Sugar lied in last-minute pamphlets warning voters that if the sugar tax passed, they would wind up paying higher property taxes.
The group seeks a declaration that U.S.Sugar violated a criminal statute, Florida's Corruptly Influencing Voting Law. It also asks the court to order the company to pay $900 million for Everglades cleanup costs that shifted to the public when the penny sugar tax was defeated.
"It's a goose and gander kind of deal," said Thom Rumberger, general counsel to Save Our Everglades. "What's good for the goose is good for the gander."
U.S. Sugar spokesman Bob Buker called the claim "a desperate ploy of some people who are caught stealing public funds. They're trying to scare us off, and we won't scare."
Buker said the claim will fail for two reasons: U.S. Sugar had a First Amendment right to make the claim, and it was true.
Ultimately, taxpayers would have faced the additional burdens if the sugar industry had been forced to pay the tax, he said: "There is no tooth fairy that you can tax and it doesn't come back to the average person."
The sugar tax, a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution, was defeated by an 8-percentage -point margin in the Nov. 5 election.
Before the vote, the sugar industry spent $24 million and Save Our Everglades spent $14 million- $11.5 million from supporter Paul Tudor Jones, a Wall Street commodities trader- on their respective campaigns.
U.S. Sugar's initial lawsuit ties back to a state requirement that petition-drive groups help defray the costs of verifying the signatures on petition.
The fee- 10 cents per signature- is waived if paying it would cause financial hardship.
Save Our Everglades president Barley swore in an affidavit that the fee would be burdensome to her group.
In its suit, U.S. Sugar says the group had the money to pay the fee.
In its counterclaim filed on Friday, Save Our Everglades says U.S. Sugar contributed 4.3 million to a group called Citizens to Save Jobs & Stop Unfair Taxes to pay for a campaign against the sugar tax provision, Amendment 4.
A week before the election, the group sent a mailer to voters. "Can you afford a property-tax increase?" it asks. "Amendment 4 gives politicians and bureaucrats the power to raise property taxes hundreds of millions of dollars."
In a Nov.1 letter, Orlando State Attorney Lawson Lamar wrote, "I do not find that the language of the amendment would in any way permit the result you have represented to the voters of this state."
Lamar added: "It is my strong recommendation that no further misleading materials be distributed to the public and that a statement correcting the misinformation in this document be included in your upcoming campaign mailings or other communications with the public."
That recommendation was ignored, according to Save Our Everglades.