03.17.13

Sunshine: Florida’s Fraught Relationship With the Truth

While Florida keeps blowing sunshine, its dark past keeps opening up and swallowing up the present, writes Jim DeFede.

Florida killed Jeffrey Bush. And when I say Florida killed him, I don't mean he was a death row inmate sentenced to die by the Florida court system, which sent more people to death row last year than any other state in the country, including Texas. Nor do I mean he succumbed to a medical condition that went untreated because the state Legislature refuses to expand Medicaid for the poor even though nearly one out of every five Floridians is without health insurance. Nor was he the victim of gun violence in a state that boasts not only the Stand Your Ground Law but also recently celebrated issuing its one millionth concealed weapons permit.

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In this particular case, the actual land mass known as Florida killed the 37-year-old Bush. One minute he was sleeping and the next a giant crater opened underneath his house in Seffner, Florida, just outside of Tampa, and devoured him and his entire bedroom. The only thing rescuers found was a corner of his mattress peeking out of the earth. Officials abandoned their search for Bush after just 48 hours, afraid that they too might fall victim to its voracious appetite.

As the media descended on this "Florida Swallows Man" story, the owner of the house expressed shock and dismay at the thirty-foot wide crater. His insurance company had just inspected his house and declared that he was sinkhole free, he noted, telling local reporters: "They said everything looked good."

Had this tragic incident occurred a year earlier it would have certainly been the type of metaphor writer T.D. Allman would have used in his wonderful new book, Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State.

Allman includes the word "True" in the title because he found the state's official history replete with lies and deceptions. According to Allman:

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Police tape surrounds the house of Jeff Bush, who was consumed by a sinkhole while lying in his bed last night, March 1, 2013 in Seffner, Florida. (Edward Linsmier/Getty)

Ponce de Leon did not discover Florida in 1513. Other Europeans had arrived years earlier.

Nor was Ponce de Leon looking for any mythical Fountain of Youth. That was a lie invented more than 300 years later by Washington Irving, author of other fanciful tales including Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hallow.

Allman brings the same skepticism in researching the state's past as he did to covering the wars in Southeast Asia in the Sixties and Seventies. In fact, in one of the truly remarkable sections of the book, Allman is actually able to tie the creation of Disneyworld outside Orlando to the CIA and its tactics in Indo China. With the help of former CIA operatives and attorneys, Disney secretly acquired land through dummy corporations, mounted a disinformation campaign to hide Disney's interest in Florida, and quietly created two new towns outside Oralndo complete with puppet governments in those unpopulated towns to control land and zoning decisions in advance of Disney announcing its move to the state.

There is a reason why every Ponzi scheme for the last decade -- Madoff, Stanford, Rothstein – has had strong Florida ties.

A native Floridian who maintains residences in New York, France and Miami Beach, Allman has had a long fascination with the Sunshine State—which he notes is actually the second rainiest state in the county after Louisiana. His book Miami: City of the Future was published in 1988 and was the first book I read on Miami when I moved here as a reporter in 1991. Twenty-five years later it remains a must-read to anyone's critical understanding of Miami, painting it as a laboratory for issues the rest of the country would eventually have to take on: racism, poverty, drugs, violence, and a massive influx of immigrants.

In Finding Florida, Allman extends that critical treatment to the state and its real history. an ugly series of degradations. He meticulously charts the massacres of Indians and blacks by Andrew Jackson; introduces us to the Florida governor, John Milton, who preferred to commit suicide than accept the South's loss in the Civil War; then works his way through Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Era, exposing endemic racism with both glee and righteous anger. Given this backdrop, he maintains, the 2000 Florida recount and the attempts at voter suppression in 2012 in Florida are not unexpected.

Until that past is acknowledged, he argues, its sins will continue to be revisited upon the state's inhabitants. "People were constantly ruining Florida; Florida ruined them right back," Allman writes.

And although he started this book long before the events a year ago in Sanford, Florida, he concludes it with the shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Allman writes: "According to the killer, George Zimmerman, it was the victim's fault. His presence had made him feel threatened. That was why he had followed the boy, and ultimately killed him, so the police said what they would have in 1980, 1935, 1920 — or 1876 or 1818. It had been okay to kill him. They told Zimmerman he could go home."

But whether true knowledge of our state’s sordid history would free us from repeating our mistakes is a question even Allman cannot answer. Floridians are expert at deluding themselves.

Allman uses people in cars versus people in boats as an illustration. Traffic is a nightmare in Florida. Yet a man in a yacht is given preference over the poor slob in his car. Whenever a yacht approaches a draw bridge, the bridge tender stops traffic and raises the bridge so the man on the yacht is not inconvenienced. Amazingly, the public accepts this.

"They wait patiently," Allman wrote, "because whatever their real life experience tells them, they prefer to believe that life for them, too, tends toward a yacht. They believe someday it will be their boat, and then the drawbridge, rising in salute, will open wide for them."

We cling to the lies because Florida in general, and South Florida in particular, is a place where people–most, but not all, with good intentions–go looking for a second chance at life.

You can be the leader of a Salvadoran death squad, and then manage a Jiffy Lube in North Miami. You can lose everything you own in Chicago or New York and then come to Florida and convince folks to invest their money in your business plan. There is a reason why every Ponzi scheme for the last decade -- Madoff, Stanford, Rothstein – has had strong Florida ties.

Floridians don't ask a lot of questions about the past of others because we don't want to answer questions about our own. In Florida, history is something to be forgotten.

One of the first stories I covered here involved a West African millionaire named Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, who was brought to Miami in shackles by U.S. Marshals after he was arrested in Switzerland on a warrant accusing him of bribing customs officials in Miami so he could illegally transport military helicopters to Africa.

Normally you would think someone who made their entrance wearing an orange prison jump suit would be looked upon with suspicion. But not here. Sissoko posted the largest cash bond in the history of Miami's federal court and while awaiting trial booked two floors of a posh hotel for him and his entourage that had followed him to Miami. He hired the best lawyers, as well as a PR firm. He donated to local charities. Gave thousands of dollars to the valets and doormen at the hotel. He even wrote a check for $300,000 so a local high school's marching band could travel to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Reporters and politicians fawned over him. One Florida Congresswoman wrote a letter to then Attorney General Janet Reno demanding the case be reviewed since surely this generous man couldn't be a criminal. (The Congresswoman's daughter just happened to get a new Mercedes from Sissoko.)

The federal judge in the case — in what later was learned to be a closed door meeting — struck a deal in which Sissoko made a large donation to a local homeless shelter and in exchange was allowed to the country with a slap on the wrist. Sissoko complied and off he went.

Nobody asked the one question that seemed obvious: Where did Sissoko get all his millions? What was his history and background? The answer would be uncovered a few months later. It turned out Sissoko had allegedly embezzled the money from a Dubai bank. It was all stolen.

For those of us living in Florida, the seas are rising and the ground below are feet is not nearly as stable as we may think.

Yet who could sleep at night wondering if a sink hole might swallow them whole?

We prefer the lie.

Jim DeFede is an investigative reporter for CBS4 News in Miami.