Rep. Steve Southerland called a report suggesting legislation he recently introduced has been influenced by connections to the sugar industry a “political hit piece,” and denied any wrongdoing.
Speaking during a Tuesday press conference in Tallahassee, Southerland told a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times that he had been on a hunting trip to King Ranch in Texas. Southerland had called the press conference to tout his Regulatory Overreach Protection Act, which would shift authority to regulate wetlands from the federal government to states.
The sugar industry supports the legislation, and U.S. Sugar has contributed to Southerland’s re-election campaign. The Florida Conservation Coalition, which was founded by former Gov. Bob Graham, supports continued federal oversight, according to the Times. Bob Graham’s daughter, Gwen Graham, is running against Southerland in what is expected to be a close election.
“The trip … was at the invitation that we had from King Ranch. It had nothing to do with, as the original report down in Tampa Bay claimed, with U.S. Sugar,” Southerland said in Panama City on Wednesday.
The Times recently has published several reports on secretive trips to a King Ranch hunting lease owned by U.S. Sugar by top Florida Republicans, including Gov. Rick Scott, who have refused to discuss details of the trips. Some officials have described the trips as Republican fundraisers. Southerland said it was a personal trip taken at his own expense.
Southerland didn’t provide details either, saying he believed he had a right to privacy in his personal activities, but he denied being influenced by the sugar industry, which stands to benefit financially from the passage the Regulatory Overreach Protection Act, according to the Times.
“It was clearly a political hit piece,” Southerland said, adding that he was thrilled when the Times issued a correction to the original report Tuesday morning. (The Times’ correction noted the original report inaccurately reported where Southerland lodged during his visit. Southerland said the entire premise of the report was wrong.)
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