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Gov. Rick Scott's foreign trips increasingly rely on corporate contributions

Via @ToluseO at Bloomberg

Months before Florida Crystals Corp. won a no-bid contract to farm sugar on state-owned land, its top lobbyist and president met with Governor Rick Scott in the home of King Juan Carlos of Spain.

They got access during a 2012 trade mission underwritten by corporations including the company, which is co-owner of the Domino Sugar brand. The trip, intended to recruit businesses to Florida, also provided a lobbying opportunity for those already in the state. After the meeting at the palace, Florida Crystals executives joined Scott at a reception they sponsored, featuring Spanish omelets and dry-cured ham.

Governors increasingly are using corporate money to fund their excursions, often from businesses that stand to benefit from state decisions. While taxpayers traditionally paid for trade missions, at least 15 states have started collecting donations to cover costs, including six since 2010. Scott, a 61-year-old Republican, has tapped the private money most often, making 10 overseas visits in the past three years, twice the pace of his predecessor, according to public records.

“It’s an opportunity that the vast majority of people and companies never get,” said Hayden Dempsey, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former aide to the governor who went on the Spain trip. Scott, he said, was “very accessible.”

In the months after, Scott approved a 30-year lease extension that Florida Crystals sought on 8,700 acres of state land. He also signed a bill helping the company limit payments to clean up pollution near its South Florida farms.

Jackie Schutz, a Scott spokeswoman, declined to respond to criticism of the trips or say whether Florida Crystals representatives talked to the governor during the trip about the cleanup costs or lease.

“The only goal of trade missions is to recruit businesses that will create jobs and hire Florida workers,” she said.

The lease was also approved by the state’s cabinet and legislature, said John Tupps, a Scott spokesman.

Florida Crystals President Jose “Pepe” Fanjul and lobbyist Gaston Cantens didn’t respond to requests for comment on the Spain trip left with Karen Zamani, who handles media calls for the company.

Florida Crystals is among more than 15 companies that have sponsored events on Scott’s overseas trips. The company paid for the reception, held at the home of the U.S. ambassador.

Corporate donations to Enterprise Florida, a public-private group that organizes the missions, are used for Scott’s expenses, according to the group. Travel bills for other officials are covered by taxpayer money.

Executives from Florida Crystals didn’t get special treatment for their $7,500 payment to sponsor the reception in Spain, said Nancy Blum-Heintz, spokeswoman for Enterprise Florida. Blum-Heintz confirmed the meeting with the king. Eduardo Palmer, a lawyer from Coral Gables who traveled to Spain, described the reception at the ambassador’s house.

The closely held sugar company has spent $16,500 to sponsor receptions during Florida trade missions and has donated more than $150,000 to Let’s Get to Work, a political committee that supports Scott’s re-election in November, records show.

Scott and other governors say the trade missions resulted in foreign investment and increased exports. After the Spain trip, Scott’s office said 465 jobs would be created in Miami-Dade County by companies based in that country. Scott’s office said in May that companies from Canada, England and Brazil opened or expanded operations in Florida after his trips. More here.