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Big Sugar: Hiding in Plain Sight

In Florida the Fox News copycat commentariat is an online web source called Sunshine State News. Nancy Smith, a retired newspaper reporter, leads the operation. With Fox, company ownership is public record. Not Sunshine State.

During the session of the 2015 Florida legislature, the web based source led the counter attack against an outpouring of public support for land acquisition via a major funding source approved by Florida voters in a November 2014 state referendum. So, who is Sunshine State News?

A 2011 report by the Tampa Bay Times asked the same question. “Editors at Sunshine have repeatedly declined to identify the owner of the news service that frequently praises Republican Gov. Rick Scott and routinely trashes Democrats and the mainstream media…  A study completed in July by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism ranks Sunshine as the least transparent news website in journalism’s new Internet-based landscape.” (“Mystery ownership of Sunshine State News identified as CNN, but it’s not”, Tampa Bay Times, Oct. 5, 2011)

Through chief editorial writer Nancy Smith, Sunshine State regularly railed against supporters of Amendment 1, the constitutional amendment intended to secure funding for purchase environmentally sensitive lands like those owned by Big Sugar in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Civic petitions and protests were squashed by state GOP leaders who needed little cover beyond Smith’s calling Amendment 1, a “bait and switch scam”.  On other issues like aquifer storage and recovery wells to substitute for converting sugar farms to water treatment marshes, Sunshine State News editorials read like policy statements written by Big Sugar.

So who is Sunshine State News? Sunshine State News, according to the Tampa Bay Times, “was initially formed by Justin Sayfie, a former staffer of Gov. Jeb Bush  … He formed the corporation but says he signed it over to Lane Wright, a former reporter for Sunshine who is now Gov. Scott’s press secretary. … Sayfie said no money changed hands; he just decided he didn’t want to pursue the business.” According to current records, the manager of Sunshine State News, LLC is Nancy Smith.

“Sunshine State News is always evolving,” claims its website, “always … looking for ways to make ourselves not just content, but a community for Floridians who care deeply about how and what our leaders are doing to improve our lives.”

But the principal place of business of Sunshine State News is not in Florida at all: it is 3009 Sweetgum Avenue in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The telephone contact for Sunshine State News has an area code in Mississippi. The address is an 1890 square foot single family home with two bathrooms. Nancy Smith is listed as one of its owners.

Public records disclose a second corporation: Sunshine State News Holdings, LLC.

Its address is 222 Lakeview Avenue, Suite 1000, West Palm Beach. Its registered agent and manager is Florida Property Investors, Inc., at the identical address. Florida Property Investors, Inc. lists one officer and manager; David L. Perry Jr., a senior partner with Holland and Knight. The law firm’s West Palm Beach offices are recorded at the same address: 222 Lakeview Avenue, Suite 1000.

Previously, Mr. Perry was an attorney with the Miami law firm, Steel Hector & Davis. Steel Hector for many years was the primary law firm on Everglades related litigation on behalf of Big Sugar billionaires, the Fanjuls of Coral Gables and Palm Beach.

The Fanjuls’ corporate vehicles include Flo-Sun, Inc., Okeelanta Corporation, and Florida Sugar Crystals, trademarked in 1991.

David L. Perry Jr., now of Holland and Knight and registered manager of Sunshine State News Holdings, LLC, was correspondent attorney when he worked for Steel Hector for the Fanjul trademark registration of Florida Sugar Crystals.

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It could be that Jeb Bush’s confidante, Justin Sayfie, handed Sunshine State News, with no concern for money at all, to MS. Ms. Nancy Smith.  Only Holland and Knight or the Fanjuls could disclose whether Sunshine State News Holdings LLC is an owner of Sunshine State News LLC, based in Mississippi.

The bottom line: Sunshine State News is the friendly fire of Big Sugar. In 2015 it laid down a steady patter of attacks against environmentalists as unreasonable and driven by emotion, misrepresenting the strong support of qualified scientists for the buyout of lands owned by Big Sugar. That friendly fire gave cover to politicians doing Big Sugar’s business in Florida, who otherwise faced a daily barrage of critical editorials by mainstream news.

Other qualifications of Sunshine State staff include working for Fox News, a former “senior media analyst for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance” in Washington, DC, and and a former organizer for the Florida operations of Americans For Prosperity. Both light up in the network of right wing entities masquerading as the Tea Party and funded by the Koch Brothers.

The Sunshine News website plainly states, “… we strive to cut through the jargon” and that doesn’t take long: the drive from the registered office of Sunshine State News Holdings, LLC to Florida Crystals in West Palm Beach, Florida takes three minutes.

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Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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