Beach permit OK'd after lobbyist, Babbitt met Driving on Daytona sand approved in 1996 despite endangered sea turtles


WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has said that his biggest mistake in the Wisconsin casino controversy was meeting privately with one of the lobbyists involved in the fight. If so, it appears to be a mistake he repeated on another occasion on a different issue.

The issue this time: whether officials in Volusia County, Fla., including the resort town of Daytona Beach, should be required to ban driving on beaches to spare baby sea turtles, which are on the federal government's list of threatened species.

The babies -- called hatchlings -- were being killed by cars, which have long been permitted on the flat, wide, hard-packed expanses of sand at Daytona.

Babbitt met twice with a well-known Democratic lobbyist and fund-raiser, E. William Crotty, who had been hired for $25,000 by officials in Volusia County who were opposed to the ban.

The officials chose Crotty, documents show, because of his connections to important politicians, including Vice President Al Gore. Crotty donated $62,000 to Democratic Party committees and candidates in the 1996 election.

With Crotty's help, the county won a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Interior Department in November 1996. The permit held the county blameless for killing an "incidental" number of sea turtles if officials would impose some restrictions on beach driving and make other conservation efforts. Some environmentalists and biologists view the measures as insufficient.

The tale of the sea turtles and Babbitt's dealings with Crotty began in 1995 with the filing of a federal lawsuit by Shirley Reynolds, known as "the Turtle Lady" to many of her neighbors in New Smyrna, where she patrols the beach to shield turtle nests and hatchlings from beach traffic.

Reynolds hoped her suit would force the county to ban driving on the beaches.

Crotty declined requests for an interview. But in a written response he said: "The Fish and Wildlife Service decided on the merits to grant the permit that my client sought," adding, "That was clearly the right decision."

The Interior Department referred questions about the permit to Dawn Zattau, a biologist in the Jacksonville office of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Zattau said: "We processed this permit like any other. There was no pressure placed on us from Washington as a result of the county hiring Mr. Crotty."

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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