FORT MYERS, Fla. - With all of the big elections on Tuesday, one is already decided. After 24 years as a Lee County Commissioner, Ray Judah lost in the primary in August and will leave office on November 20th.
It was the first time ever a Super PAC went after a local elected official around here and we wanted to know why.
"It was that big of a deal to them to get you off the county commission?" WINK News Anchor Chris Cifatte asked Judah, "there's no question Chris."
If you've lived in Lee County for any period of time, whether a day or a decade, you've seen Ray Judah's legacy. A champion of Spring Training Baseball and the new JetBlue Park. And the driving force behind Conservation 20/20, which created a tax to buy and preserve nearly 25,000 acres of land. Things he unapologetically supports.
So you might think the story ends there. Programs that cost money and voters that didn't want to pay the bill. But Judah says that wasn't the money issue here.
"Those were political action committees with an ax to grind for a number of reasons including U.S. Sugar because I had been fighting the sugar industry for over two decades to try to restore and protect our river and our back bays and estuaries," Judah said.
The Super PAC that helped oust him came from an organization called "Florida First" which Judah says was funded by a lot of interests, not just sugar.
"The fertilizer industry, even the gaming and tobacco industry," said Judah.
But he says it was U.S. Sugar most of all that wrote the big checks to get rid of him.
"And with regards to U.S. Sugar, they actually ended up spending in excess of $300,000. The total accumulation of PAC money was over $750,000 spent to run political attack ads trying to undermine my integrity in both in the personal and professional sector."
Judah says it was his fight for Everglades restoration that made him a threat.
"That I kept pushing the need to provide for greater storage and treatment from runoff from their agricultural fields, their sugar cane fields."
And he says it goes deeper. To gambling and fertilizer money and State Representative Matt Caldwell from Lehigh Acres.
"Well, yes. And it's an insidious process because for instance, I'll just say it right out loud, Representative Matt Caldwell. "He several years ago, took issue with Lee County's budget. I took issue with him on that and countered his allegations. And so he ended up calling in favors from companies like the tobacco industry, the gaming industry."
We asked Caldwell if he was behind the donations to Florida First. He told us he didn't write any checks, but wouldn't say the accusation is false.
"I certainly know of folks that were very interested in seeing Commissioner Judah leave office," Caldwell said.
"I personally didn't write any checks, but you know, you hear things...you hear of things."
But that's the point of a Super PAC. He doesn't have to be the one to write the checks. In fact, politicians can't be directly involved with Super PACs. But someone paid for it.
A search through campaign finance activity filed with the State Elections Office finds that U.S. Sugar hasn't made any contributions to Florida First. But that doesn't necessarily refute Ray Judah's claims.
The biggest check Florida First received was on August 7th, a week before the primary, for $225,000 from Partnership for Florida's Future, Inc. Another Political Action Committee. We checked the contributions for that group and it turns out U.S. Sugar wrote a check for $125,000 on Junes 27th and another check for $200,000 on August 28th, two weeks after Judah was defeated.
The contributions don't end there. U.S. Sugar donated $125,000 to the Florida Chamber of Commerce Alliance on June 27th. That group later contributed $75,000 to Florida First.
We asked U.S. Sugar if they wanted to refute any of Judah's claims, but they chose not to comment.
Florida First has received more than $1.2 million in contributions since 2010. It's run by two political operatives with no known connections to Ray Judah.