For nearly 60 years, visitors to the Skyway Trap & Skeet Club in St. Petersburg fired at targets using shells filled with lead pellets. Often, their ammunition traveled into neighboring Sawgrass Lake Park, a public wetland. Over the decades, it accumulated there in prodigious quantities.
Lead shot is toxic, and can leach into water and soil. From when the range opened in 1945 through the early 2000s, an estimated one million pounds of the hazardous stuff fell on the property, polluting a lake that feeds into Tampa Bay, a fragile marine estuary.
Elsewhere in Florida, cleanups around gun ranges have proceeded without much controversy. That would not be the case at Sawgrass Lake. The range eventually required shooters to switch over to steel shot, but balked at implementing expensive environmental fixes demanded by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (commonly known as Swiftmud), the entity that oversees water quality in the region. The fight drew the notice of Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s most prominent and effective lobbyist.
Under a legal deal struck in 2004, Swiftmud agreed to pay for removing the lead from the park, and Skyway said it would build a barrier to stop spent ammunition from falling on state property. That wall never went up. So last year, the water management agency sued the gun range.
Skyway tried to get the case thrown out, arguing that it violated a decade-old law, championed by Hammer, that gives gun ranges broad immunity from environmental lawsuits from entities like Swiftmud. But in December, a judge ruled that the case could continue.
Then, this February, Swiftmud abruptly dropped the lawsuit without explanation.
The question of why Swiftmud walked away when it was winning puzzled Florida’s political class. But emails and text messages obtained by The Trace may solve the mystery. Hammer, who had attacked the lawsuit, wanted the case to go away. So she enlisted a prominent Florida Republican lawmaker to make that happen.
Representative Ben Albritton is the head of a natural resources appropriations subcommittee that holds partial power over Swiftmud’s budget. One day before Swiftmud dropped the case, Albritton’s legislative aide sent an email to the water agency’s head of public affairs, Colleen Thayer. Attached to that email was a document spelling out the terms of the lawsuit’s dismissal — written as if Swiftmud had already agreed to it.
“Colleen,” the note stated, “Rep. Albritton wanted me to forward this to you. He said he wants thoughts sooner rather than later.”
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Thayer then forwarded the message to Swiftmud’s executive director and chief of staff. To the former, she wrote, “I have no words … But now high blood pressure.” To the latter, she said, “don’t wet yourself.”
The legislative aide’s email does not reveal who crafted the dismissal. But its metadata, a sort of digital signature, reveals the first name of the source: “Marion.”
Hammer has patrolled the hallways of Florida’s state capitol for more than 35 years, pushing for legislation that shaped the gun debate nationwide. Hammer had brutalized Swiftmud in the press for trying to force Skyway to build the barrier, calling it “a malignant state agency” that was engaged in “an evil attempt to … destroy a small private business.”
Hammer made those remarks in a press release on February 9. The next day she began to privately text Representative Albritton. Their exchanges, which played out over the course of a week, offer a rare glimpse into how the NRA works with elected officials to get what it wants. In a series of messages, Hammer and Albritton discussed a legal “agreement,” which Hammer said was drawn up “at NRA’s direction by the attorney representing us.”
Albritton later replied that he had shared the agreement — the lawsuit dismissal, written as if Swiftmud had already agreed to it — with Representative James Grant, whose district, like Albritton’s, falls within Swiftmud’s territory. Eight days after the text chain began, the legal document was forwarded to Swiftmud, prompting the alarmed reaction from the water district’s public affairs chief.
In an interview, Hammer acknowledges that an NRA lawyer wrote the document that spelled out the terms of the lawsuit dismissal. She says that in addition to Albritton and Grant, she had also sent it to the office of Governor Rick Scott, who must approve Swiftmud’s budget.
“But I don’t know what they did with it,” she says. “I do not know whether or not they were communicating with Swiftmud, and if they were, it was not on my behalf or the NRA’s behalf.”
That claim is contradicted by a text message exchange that shows Albritton and Hammer discussing the transmission of the dismissal document to the water management agency.
“SWFWMD [Swiftmud] has the agreement,” Albritton texted on February 18. “I’m going to give them a couple of days to digest it and then call them. I’ll update you right after.”
Hammer responded: “Did you and representative Grant make any changes to the draft agreement before you gave it to them?”
“No Mam,” Albritton said. “Sent it as is. Feel it is the appropriate starting point.”
Albritton and Liebert declined repeated requests for comment. The governor’s office declined to comment, too. According to an aide, Grant was “out of state and unavailable.”
Swiftmud also did not respond to repeated requests for comment, nor did its outside legal counsel.
“The fact that Albritton sent the agreement to Swiftmud is on him,” Hammer says during a follow-up call with The Trace. “That was his choice. I did not ask him to do that.”
Sixteen years ago, in 2000, a Swiftmud environmental scientist was walking near the edge of Sawgrass Lake Park when lead shot began to fall onto his head. After taking cover, the scientist reported the incident to Swiftmud’s volunteer governing board, a 13-member body appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Florida Senate.
Around the same time, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection excavated a groundwater well on a parcel of parkland near Skyway’s property. A water sample revealed “unacceptable levels of lead,” according to a complaint filed by Swiftmud against Skyway, prompting further investigation.
The water resources Swiftmud oversees are spread out over a 16-county region of 4.7 million people. The lead from the old ammunition leaching into Sawgrass Lake concerned the agency. Water from the park flows through a canal and into Tampa Bay. Officials feared that the lead could harm fish and wildlife, and potentially people.
Swiftmud sued the gun range soon after the water test, in April 2000. The water agency asked a judge to bar Skyway’s shooters from firing into the park. The club contended this was impossible because of the way its facility was configured.
Hammer got involved around 2003. She condemned Swiftmud’s case as “backdoor gun control” and called its officials “drunk with power.” She also claimed there was no evidence that lead shot posed a health risk, even though the NRA had helped produce a safety manual that warned ranges about the potential environmental hazards posed by lead pellets and casings.
Hammer is less than five feet tall, with short hair and blue eyes. She carries a Smith & Wesson .38 Special in her purse and is known to hold a grudge. After the president of the Audubon of Florida criticized a policy she backed, Hammer made it her mission to defeat the group’s proposal for an official state bird of Florida. The pick was a species called the scrub jay. Hammer charged that the endangered creature groveled for food and was the embodiment of the “welfare mentality.”
As the architect of the infamous “Stand Your Ground” law that first passed in Florida before spreading around the country, Hammer holds legendary status among firearms activists. Among those who’ve seen her work up close, her presence at a legislative hearing or vote is a fearsome thing.
“For Marion Hammer, it’s about maximizing the power of gun owners,” says Juan-Carlos Planas, a Republican who held a seat in the Florida House for eight years. “It’s about coming up with policies that allow them to get their way.”
Nan Rich, a former Democratic state senator, remembers Hammer’s frequent appearances in the legislative chamber. “When a bill that concerned her would come up,” says Rich, “she would sit in the gallery as if she were watching over her flock. If a Republican strayed, they knew they’d be getting a primary challenge.”
In 2004, then-Governor Jeb Bush ordered Skyway and Swiftmud to Tallahassee to hash out a deal and end their feud. Under the agreement that resulted, Swiftmud said it would finance the clean-up in the park, which eventually cost $25 million in taxpayer money. The water agency also agreed to construct a giant earthen berm on the edge of the property.
As its part of the deal, Skyway pledged to build a barrier atop the new berm in a further effort to stop ammunition from landing in the lake. Then the gun club would pay to maintain both new structures.
In May 2004, soon after the agreement was reached, Bush signed a bill that was drafted at Hammer’s urging. The law made it a crime for any agency but the Department of Environmental Protection to sue a gun range over pollution — a measure clearly directed at Swiftmud.
Swiftmud finished cleaning up Sawgrass Lake in 2014. The berm, which is 1,100 feet long and 25 feet tall, was completed in February of the following year.
In August 2015, Swiftmud sued to force Skyway to finally erect the wall that the range had promised but never delivered on.
Hammer re-entered the fray this winter. On February 9, she put out a press release calling on Governor Scott to “abolish” Swiftmud. She demanded that the attorney general investigate the agency for “criminal conduct” and “prosecute those responsible for unlawful actions.”
Her text message exchanges with Representative Albritton begin the next day. As part of that week-long conversation, Hammer told the lawmaker that Skyway had “no prior knowledge” that she was having the dismissal drafted “until yesterday afternoon.” She added, “I felt that Skyway was too emotionally beat down and broke from all of this that is was best not tell them (sic) at this point.”
“Understood,” Albritton said. “I have read the draft agreement in full. I feel like it is a great starting place, as we discussed. I have also forwarded it to Jamie Grant and am awaiting his comments after her reads it.”
Albritton had also discussed the draft with another Republican lawmaker, Representative Matt Caldwell.
“He came by my office,” Caldwell tells The Trace. “I don’t recall reading the agreement, but Representative Albritton described what had transpired.”
Caldwell adds, “I decided to put the issue in the ‘he’s handling this’ mental category.”
The legal agreement the NRA drafted is much longer than what Swiftmud eventually filed in court. In its unabridged version, it provides a thorough articulation of Hammer’s worldview.
“We don’t represent Skyway, per se,” she explains in an interview. “We represent the people.”
One provision in the NRA’s draft said that Swiftmud “recognizes” that its lawsuit is “prohibited” by the gun range immunity legislation that Hammer had helped pass — even though a state court judge had recently ruled that the law did not apply to the case. Another part said that the water agency would pay Skyway $350,000 to cover court costs plus $100,000 a month for 20 years to cover staff training and management of “shooting activities.” A third provision said that Swiftmud would take full responsibility for the berm and shot barrier. “Skyway shall pay zero.”
Swiftmud would also issue “a public apology,” the NRA document said.
“It is the most audacious document I’ve ever seen,” says a Florida lawyer who worked for the state government for 40 years and did not want to be named.
The document Swiftmud filed in court on February 19 did not include the demands written into the original. It was a simple memo, informing the court that it was withdrawing its lawsuit against Skyway.
For more than a decade, Swiftmud had tried to compel Skyway to keep shooters’ ammo from falling on public parkland. But now it was yielding to a more powerful foe.
Amy Wells Brennan, Swiftmud’s deputy general counsel, forwarded the “notice of voluntary dismissal” to another attorney in the office along with a note. “Here you go,” she wrote. “It’s as much as I can muster.”
[Featured photo: David Albers for The Trace]