February 24, 2016 9:51 pm
Updated: May 2, 2016 2:20 pm

Marco Rubio pushed for land deal as he backed law limiting critics of it

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, speaks at a rally Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Franklin, Tenn.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio stood before Miami-Dade County officials in May 2002 and pushed them to permit a multimillion-dollar industrial development to be built on restricted land near the Florida Everglades.

Two months earlier, Rubio — a rising Republican star in the state Legislature — backed a law that made it harder for people to challenge the kinds of developments he advocated for as a private attorney. Around the same period, Rubio also requested state money to be earmarked to benefit a flood-prone area around the development project.

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Those efforts by Rubio, now a U.S. senator and the leading establishment alternative to GOP presidential rivals Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, provide a glimpse into how he handled the intersection of his public role as a young lawmaker and his private representation of a company that stood to benefit from his political connections.

There’s no evidence Rubio violated Florida ethics rules. But his seat in Tallahassee, the state capital, put him in the position of advocating before a county commission that relied on lawmakers like him to fight for state money.

“I always had a problem when legislators would lobby at the county commission, because you always felt like if you didn’t vote their way, does this mean we’ll lose funds in Tallahassee?” said Katy Sorenson, a former county commissioner and Democrat.

The commission approved the application for the plan near the Everglades, though Sorenson voted against it because it would have required moving the so-called urban development boundary, an important safeguard that protected agriculture and the local water supply. That boundary was established in the 1970s, and the county considers periodic requests to move it.

Todd Harris, a senior adviser for Rubio’s presidential campaign, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Rubio never lobbied in the traditional sense because that was illegal under state law. But Harris said the part-time nature of Florida’s Legislature meant that “virtually every legislator makes their living from outside employment.”

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“Marco did not gain personally from this, or any other, vote because his compensation was not tied to any other specific project,” Harris wrote in response to detailed questions from the AP, noting the law firm Rubio worked for was paid a standard retainer for its work.

Rubio’s 2002 request to the county involved Pan American, a Miami company owned by well-known real estate developer Carlos C. Lopez-Cantera. He wanted to build a project — then known as Shoppyland — west of the city, but environmental critics said it was too close to an important water source.

Lopez-Cantera did not respond to detailed phone messages left with his staff at Pan American’s offices on Monday and Tuesday. His son, Carlos, is Florida’s lieutenant governor, among Rubio’s closest political allies and running for Rubio’s seat in the U.S. Senate. Rubio’s campaign told the AP the younger Lopez-Cantera worked for his father’s company and recommended hiring Rubio to do the legal work “because of his experience in land use and zoning.”

At the time, Rubio was a young lawyer earning $96,000 a year at the politically connected firm Becker & Poliakoff. He asked county commissioners on May 30, 2002, to consider the Shoppyland proposal while mentioning his legislative responsibilities — which had required the commission to reschedule the hearing.

“I do want to begin by thanking you for your continuance the last time I was before you,” Rubio said, according to archived recordings of county meetings obtained by The Associated Press. “When I signed up for the job of the Legislature, they told me it was part-time, but it hasn’t worked out that way.”

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Rubio’s opponent during his 2010 U.S. Senate run raised his Miami lobbying registration. Rubio’s campaign then acknowledged he registered as a lobbyist in a non-traditional sense to work on county issues, mostly local zoning matters. But they said in a statement at the time that he “never met with elected officials to influence them on behalf of clients.”

At the May 2002 meeting, Rubio won approval of the application right after commissioners green-lit a nearby development known as Beacon Lakes. That project was pushed by Armando Codina, the former business partner of then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who recently dropped out of the 2016 GOP presidential race.

Both projects had required the commission to move the development boundary and provoked opposition from environmental groups. A Sierra Club representative argued to commissioners that the business park would cost taxpayers money and threaten the water supply of more than 1 million people.

Before voting against Rubio’s proposal, commissioner Dennis Moss also noted the presence of Florida’s political heavyweights at the hearing.

“There are a lot of state and ex-state folks around here these days,” Moss said. “I’m not going to say anything further,” he deadpanned. Years later, Moss, currently a Democrat, gave $250 in March 2009 to the campaign of Kendrick Meek, who ran unsuccessfully against Rubio in the 2010 U.S. Senate campaign.

Land use and zoning laws were Rubio’s specialties, his firm’s website once stated. It also touted Rubio’s role in Tallahassee as House majority whip.

While in that leadership role in March 2002, Rubio was one of 73 co-sponsors of a bill that sought to fund cleanup efforts in the Everglades. The bill included language that limited who could challenge development projects based on their environmental impact. Certain nonprofits that might want to object also had to be in existence for a year and have at least 25 of members from the county, the bill said.

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The bill’s supporters, meanwhile, said it still allowed challenges from citizens if a project affected their “use or enjoyment of air, water, or natural resources.” But opponents like the Sierra Club had told the AP the legislation could leave them vulnerable to interpretations by the courts.

A month after voting for the bill, Rubio registered with Miami-Dade County as a lobbyist for Pan American on the development. It was the seventh time Rubio registered as a lobbyist with the county. Further details of his efforts recorded in government documents were destroyed in 2007, a normal practice under county policy.

In January 2002, he requested an earmark for $750,000 in state funds for an early phase of a flood mitigation project in an 83-square-mile area called the C-4 basin, documents show.

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Except for a small portion of land around Miami’s airport — an area that generally doesn’t suffer flooding problems — most of the C-4 basin was outside of Rubio’s district at the time, according to an AP mapping analysis. The business park was near both the center of the basin and canals important to the improvement plan.

After the boundary changes and Pan American’s sale of a portion of the property for $23 million in 2008, the land has since transformed into an industrial park with a Goya Foods Inc. operation and commercial warehouses.

“When I was at the county, we knew that he was influencing the process, that he was in the mix,” said Cynthia Guerra, a former Miami-Dade environmental official who opposed development boundary expansions as head of the Tropical Audubon Society.

She said, “We never really appreciated the unwelcome influence of the state Legislature.”

© 2016 The Canadian Press

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