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Touting his environmental ‘success,’ DeSantis is more con man than conservationist

Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his second inaugural speech in front of the Old Florida Capitol Building on Jan. 3, 2023. Credit: Danielle J. Brown.

Maybe it’s because I’m from Florida, home to sooooo many slick talkers, but I love a good yarn about con artists. “The Sting,” “American Hustle,” “The Music Man” — the list of great grifter movies is a long one, including “The Grifters.”

These stories show how some people can weave a magical spell with words that allows them to siphon all the money out of a mark’s pockets. Often, they do it without the mark even realizing they’ve been conned.

So when I heard Gov. Ron DeSantis’ second inauguration speech, I couldn’t help but to stand up and applaud. What a great con job!

The news coverage of the governor’s speech focused mostly on his truculent proclamation that this is the state where “woke” — a term that means “being aware of important facts and issues” — goes to die. Remember that the next time you walk into a state office and find all the employees have dozed off. The governor is apparently OK with that.

But there was a lot more to the speech than him throwing out political buzzwords left and right (or rather, right and further right).

What really got my attention was what he said about Florida’s rampant water pollution problems. You know what I mean — the ones that keep fueling toxic algae blooms that stink up our waterways, kill off our seagrass, and starve manatees, not to mention making our tourists choke and gasp.

Let me quote it verbatim:

“We promised to usher in a new era of stewardship for Florida’s natural resources by promoting water quality and Everglades restoration efforts — and we delivered.”

Isn’t that a masterpiece of misdirection?

It sure SOUNDS good — or rather, the pieces do. “A new era of stewardship!” “Promoting water quality!” “Everglades restoration!” And he says he delivered, just as reliably as the U.S. Postal Service!

But if you try to pin this wriggling little sentence down to analyze what it means, you’ll find it slipping through your fingers. It sounds like he’s bragging about how he’s cleaned up Florida’s pollution when in fact he’s basically admitting he’s done nothing of the kind.

“He is the master of the greenwash,” fussed Cris Costello, the Sierra Club’s senior organizer, who is clearly not as big a con man fan as I am. “The truth is, he not only hasn’t done anything, he’s actually made things worse.”

Yet with his dazzling diversion, DeSantis has casually sidestepped the consequences of not keeping his promise to clean up our waterways. In fact, he’s danced away from any responsibility for the sorry state of our waters.

Even though he’s the one who let it happen.

‘Promoting,’ not requiring

In 30 years as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, I took a particular delight in writing about real life con men. These guys would spin such wonderful stories they would leave everyone utterly bumfuzzled about what was happening — until the victims checked their pockets and found them empty.

One of my favorites was a guy named Jack LaBounty, a silver-haired, silver-tongued “fundraiser” who ripped off a charity for thousands of dollars then disappeared.

Another reporter and I tracked the fugitive down. He was hanging out at a bar in New Jersey. The clue that led us to him: He kept playing an online trivia game under the name “Mutiny” — as in “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

As with LaBounty, DeSantis’ own pitch offers clues to what’s really going on with his scam.

Take the opening part: “We promised to usher in a new era of stewardship for Florida’s natural resources.” Yes, he did promise that, and in no uncertain terms.

In 2018 DeSantis was an obscure congressman from the Jacksonville area running against a well-known Big Sugar puppet named Adam Putnam for the Republican nomination for governor. He vowed to go after the pollution-fueled toxic algae blooms that were a hallmark of former Gov. Rick “Giving People Jobs Is More Important Than Giving Them Clean Water” Scott’s tenure.

Although DeSantis had racked up an abysmal score on environment issues while he was in Congress, his promises to do better as governor helped him capture the GOP nomination (as did his endorsement by a certain golfer from Palm Beach) and attract enough votes during the election that he juuuuust barely won.

When DeSantis first took office in 2019, he appeared to be sincere about his pledge to make state government go green. For instance, he demanded resignations from the sugar-allied South Florida Water Management District board and appointed replacements free of that influence.

He also named a Blue-Green Algae Task Force full of actual scientists. They put their eggheads together and produced a group of recommendations for cleaning up the state’s rivers, lakes, and bays.

The DeSantis pollution prevention program seemed to be off to a great start. Unfortunately, that’s where it stalled.

The Legislature passed a bill called “the Clean Waterways Act.” It should have been called “the Clean Getaway for Sneaky Politicians Act.” The title sounded good but, once you read the language, you discovered it didn’t force polluters to do diddly-squat.

For instance, the new law didn’t require farmers to monitor or reduce the pollution running off their land. Instead, the law calls for voluntary cleanup.

Take a wild guess how many Florida polluters comply with voluntary pollution limits. It’s roughly the same number of people who would pay their taxes if the law didn’t require it.

Is it any wonder that DeSantis’ “stewardship” is producing such a nasty stew?

Sure enough, a year ago, a TCPalm.com news report found that Florida’s pollution prevention measures are not working and the state was doing its best to disguise that fact. The Clean Waterways Act might as well be called the Clear Fakery Act.

“The impairment of Florida waters is now at an all-time high,” Mike Conner of the Treasure Coast clean water group known as the Indian Riverkeeper said.

Here’s a key paragraph from that story that explains a lot about how Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection allowed our waterways to become such a toxic soup: “State law gives the DEP the power to issue fines up to $50,000, but the agency said it never has, nor has it filed a lawsuit, in the five years the program has been enforceable.”

And DeSantis, who oversees the DEP, is apparently fine with that. He gets to claim credit for signing a law with “clean” in its name, if not in its intent. But he won’t offend his campaign contributors by forcing them to stop polluting. In fact, in many cases he’s appointed them to state jobs.

That’s why, in his inauguration speech, he said he’d been “promoting water quality.” Not requiring it, just promoting it. Talking up the idea of clean water. Not making any attempt to guarantee it actually exists.

He really puts the “artist” in the term “con artist.” And I say that in all admiration!

No discouraging word

Mindful of the rest of that inauguration sentence — “a new era of stewardship … for Everglades restoration” — I called Eve Samples of the Friends of the Everglades. When I mentioned DeSantis’ speech, I could almost hear her rolling her eyes over the telephone.

DeSantis is throwing a lot of money at the multi-billion-dollar Everglades restoration plans. The project, a joint venture of the feds and the state, has been going on for more than 20 years and only now is beginning to show progress on some segments.

The question is whether DeSantis is throwing money at the right parts of the project, she pointed out. Last month, Samples noted, the National Academies of Science released its latest analysis of how the Everglades restoration program is going.

One of the big problems the scientists spotted involves — are you ready for this? — water pollution. Turns out getting the direction of the River of Grass right is only half the battle. The other half is cleaning it up.

Samples also pointed me to several places in the report where the scientists raised questions about how much water can go into one crucial component, the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir. Friends of the Everglades has raised a lot of questions about that $3 billion segment of the Glades rescue, too.

But the pollution problem is a pressing one, given that a federal judge ordered the state to clean up its flow by a certain deadline.

“It’s looking increasingly unlikely that the state will meet its federal court-ordered mandates on phosphorus limits,” Samples told me.

But you didn’t hear that from DeSantis. He’s like the lyricist from “Home on the Range” — seldom is heard a discouraging word.

The ‘crippled’ oil industry

Through the rest of his speech the governor kept ducking the real issues facing Florida. He made no mention of the scads of dead manatees, the disappearance of affordable housing, and skyrocketing property insurance rates that have left a lot of people without coverage.

I bet his coming presidential campaign could make a bundle selling a DeSantis inaction figure. Wind him up and watch him crawl off and hide!

At one point during the speech, though, he slipped up and mentioned something serious. He was griping about his nemesis, the Biden administration. Although, of course, Biden also proved to be a crucial ally when a couple of hurricanes slammed into the state last fall. Somehow DeSantis failed to mention that brief moment of unity.

During the “I Hate Joe” section of the speech, DeSantis said of the White House, “It has imposed an energy policy that has crippled our nation’s domestic production, causing energy to cost more for our citizens and eroding our nation’s energy security, and, in the process, our national security.”

That “crippled production” line would be news to the nation’s fossil fuel industry, which has been enjoying record profits in recent months. Right now that “crippled” industry happens to be the world’s top oil producer. Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is predicting fossil fuel production will hit new highs this year.

As for the reason gas prices are above $3 right now, you might look to that perpetually bare-chested Putin fellow and his bullyboy invasion of Ukraine, say industry experts. (DeSantis blames Biden for that invasion, too. I think I am starting to see a pattern here.)

A DeSantis presidential campaign will require massive infusions of cash, so why not rake it in from Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and the other oil companies? Perhaps he’ll begin slapping sponsorships on the side of his campaign plane as if it were a NASCAR racer, or maybe even on the back and sides of his ever-present blue suit.

That’s why he’s signaling to them right now that he’s on their side, regardless of whether the facts are.

Starring Ron the Con

The governor held a big press conference this week to brag about launching even more gobs of money toward Everglades restoration and other environmental programs. He dubbed this initiative “Achieving Even More Now for Florida’s Environment,” which isn’t a very snazzy acronym.

Still, I am happy to say that his phenomenal con job is continuing.

“I’m directing the Department of Environmental Protection to strengthen basin management action plans [with] specific projects necessary to achieve our restoration goals,” DeSantis said at one point. He also called for improving “farm best-management practices.”

Remember that these “management action plans” and “best-management practices” don’t require that polluters follow them. That means directing the DEP to “strengthen” them won’t make any difference. The pollution will keep flowing unchecked.

The reason DeSantis can get away with behaving like the slick con men in those movies I mentioned is that pollution is a slow-moving disaster. Waterways can take a long time to reach their terminal point, where there’s no longer oxygen for marine life.

By the time anyone realizes what’s been lost, DeSantis figures he’ll have moved into the Oval Office.

It’s such a foolproof scam that I think it should inspire a sequel to “The Sting.” I’m working on the screenplay now. The main character is named Ron the Con. I’m calling it “The Stink.”

Veteran journalist Craig Pittman is a contributor to the Florida Phoenix, which first published this commentary. A native Floridian, he spent 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, where he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting.

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Touting his environmental ‘success,’ DeSantis is more con man than conservationist