The mainstream U.S. media gave George W. Bush virtual carte blanche during the first two years of his presidency, but now the glaze is peeling from Teflon President II. The promised weapons of mass destruction haven't been found in Iraq, and the Justice Department recently launched an investigation into a White House leaker who illegally named a covert CIA agent, likely as political payback.
Now federal investigators are scrutinizing a smelly deal birthed last year from Everglades muck. A year ago, New Times probed the Bush administration's planned $120 million buyout of mineral rights in the Big Cypress National Preserve from the wealthy Collier family, whose operation is based on Florida's west coast ("Big Cypress Buyout," September 12, 2002). The deal, announced in May 2002 on the White House lawn by the president and little brother Jebbie, was also to include to-be-determined tax breaks that could have amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Though New Times revealed that the feds ignored staff estimates that the mineral rights were worth only $5 million to $20 million, there was little response.
So why did the inspector general of the Department of Interior just recently decide to probe the deal, as the Sun-Sentinel disclosed last week? The IG won't say a word about the inquiry, but a DOI insider has a pretty good idea of what sparked it. "There's blood in the water," the source says of the growing criticism of the White House. "It's near election time, and the sharks are circling. A lot of people are worried about what this administration is doing."
If it chooses, the IG's office can easily verify that the inflated valuation is a waste of taxpayer money. The question the IG investigators should be asking, however, is this: Did DOI higher-ups use that federal agency to aid Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in his reelection bid against challengers Bill McBride and Janet Reno?
Coming as it did during the thick of the campaign, the proposal certainly raised eyebrows. "The timing with the Bush administration -- that energy-happy, let's-drill-everywhere administration -- was certainly very suspect," says Robin Rorapaugh, who at the time was McBride's campaign manager. "The Bush White House and Interior Department are not an environmentally friendly organization. The deal was counter to what that administration is usually doing. [The announcement] was there to help his brother."
Even the governor hinted as much at the time. "Whenever there is a convergence of good politics and good public policy, I don't think we should be ashamed about it," he declared at the White House.
The Collier family has been a major landowner in South Florida since 1921, when Barron Gift Collier bought 1.25 million acres of swampland. His heirs sold almost 700,000 acres of Everglades property to the federal government during the '70s and '80s, much of which now makes up the Big Cypress. The Colliers retained the mineral rights, however.
The family has tried to wring as much as it can from its holdings, including an attempt to trade them for surplus military bases in California and Florida in 1996. At that time, the DOI's Minerals Management Service in New Orleans determined that the rights were worth $230 million to $430 million. The deal died, though, says the DOI source, because the appraisal was so far-fetched that it couldn't pass the "red-face test." In 1999, the Colliers tried to swap the mineral rights for property at the Homestead Air Force Base, but by then, DOI staff had determined they were worth $5 million to $20 million.
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The idea of a straightforward mineral rights buyout, however, gained legs in the upper echelon of the DOI a few months after Dubya's election in the fall of 2000. Some park-service staff pressed the department to use strict appraisal standards set by the Justice Department. These standards had a history of withstanding court challenges.
The DOI source says that an Interior attorney stated that "the Colliers will probably not accept a value that is derived from the standards." The source contends that giving Jeb Bush's campaign a shot in the arm was a driving force behind making the Colliers an offer they couldn't refuse. Indeed, when the park-service staff became too pesky about determining an accurate valuation, DOI higher-ups ordered them to stop all work on the Collier matter.
Early this year, Sen. Bob Graham reacted angrily when the Bush administration tried to slip a $40 million down payment for the Colliers into a 2003 appropriations bill without congressional scrutiny. It was subsequently withdrawn.
Perhaps the IG's office, which is under the control of President Bush's handpicked Interior secretary, Gale Norton, will be the first to take an honest look at the truth behind the Big Cypress deal. More likely, though, its probe will display the same rigor as John Ashcroft's conflicted hunt for the White House leak.