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Everglades, Big Sugar land deal challenged

/ Source: The Associated Press

Florida's proposal to acquire 300 square miles of Everglades land from U.S. Sugar Corp. was illegally brokered in closed-door meetings, an attorney claimed in a lawsuit filed Friday.

Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, who has led efforts to restore the Everglades, is challenging a historic $1.75 billion deal in which U.S. Sugar would go out of business and sell its land to the state for restoration.

Lehtinen contends meetings about the deal were illegal because they evaded Florida's Sunshine Law, among the broadest open-government legislation in the country. It mandates advance notice of government meetings and their agendas, a provision Lehtinen claims was ignored in the lead-up to the U.S. Sugar deal.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions that they've managed to not answer," Lehtinen said by phone after the filing was made in Circuit Court in Palm Beach County. "I'm not trying to stop the purchase. I'm just trying to stop a process in which there are no answers and there's no way to get answers."

Lehtinen said the public has been denied specifics on how the proposal would be funded and whether other Everglades projects would have to be scaled back to make money available.

"If this is added on to the existing projects then it's OK," he said, "but I have every indication it's not going to be added on. It's going to be used as an excuse."

Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Gov. Charlie Crist, who brokered the deal, said: "We support the Southwest Florida Water Management District and have confidence that the district has operated within the public record laws of Florida." A spokesman for the water management district did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

Crist announced in June that the state and the nation's largest producer of cane sugar were close to an agreement on turning over the land for Everglades restoration. The deal would mean the end of U.S. Sugar's operations and the loss of 1,700 jobs.

Officials hope to have a final agreement by November. U.S. Sugar would then be allowed to continue farming for another six years.

Water managers plan to use the land to construct a network of marsh treatment areas and reservoirs to clean and store water before sending it south into the Everglades.

Lehtinen is a former state legislator and Miami U.S. attorney who brought a key federal lawsuit in the 1980s aimed at stopping environmental damage in the Everglades. In private practice he has long represented the Miccosukee Indian tribe in similar lawsuits aimed at accelerating Everglades restoration. He is a Republican, like his wife, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.