Scott, Legislature strongly defend blind trust law

05/19/2014 7:28 PM

05/19/2014 7:30 PM

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration and fellow Republicans in the Florida Legislature want the state Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of a year-old law allowing elected officials to place assets in a blind trust.

The emergency lawsuit was filed last week by Jim Apthorp, who was chief of staff to the late Gov. Reubin Askew, who died in March. Together they worked on a citizens’ initiative to pass the so-called Sunshine Amendment in 1976 that requires elected officials and candidates to make a “full and public disclosure” of their personal finances.

Apthorp says a blind trust denies citizens information that should be public. He’s supported by the League of Women Voters, the First Amendment Foundation and many Florida news organizations.

Scott, whose net worth last year was nearly $84 million, is the only current elected official with a blind trust, the Richard L. Scott Trust. The law requires that he have no direct control or knowledge of how at least $73 million in his investment portfolio is managed to safeguard against potential conflicts of interest.

Scott’s trust is managed by Alan Lee Bazaar of the New York investment firm Hollow Brook Management. For more than a decade until 2010, Bazaar was a principal in Scott’s investment firm, Richard L. Scott Investments of Naples.

The Legislature and Secretary of State Ken Detzner filed separate briefs Monday attacking all of Apthorp’s legal arguments and flatly calling his strategy “wrong” on multiple counts, noting that former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and former Gov. Jeb Bush had blind trusts.

“Blind trusts have been widely accepted in Florida for years, and they serve the very interests the Sunshine Amendments promotes,” said Assistant Attorney General Allen Winsor on behalf of Detzner.

Winsor noted that a statewide grand jury on public corruption in 2010 specifically recommended passage of a blind trust law to “reduce the capacity of those who would use a Florida public office for malfeasance.”

The Legislature argues that no emergency exists; that the Sunshine Amendment itself gave the Legislature the power to define “full and public disclosure” and that Detzner has no authority to “refuse to accept” papers of a candidate who has a blind trust, as Apthorp is seeking.

The Legislature also said Apthorp’s lawsuit “is simply wrong” in arguing that an official can place assets in a blind trust “instead of” filing a financial disclosure statement listing all assets and liabilities worth more than $1,000. In fact, the official must file both, the Legislature said, adding: “The court deserves a more complete description of the law.”

The blind trust provision was part of a broader ethics bill (SB 2) that was a priority of legislative leaders in the 2013 session.

Not one legislator voted against it, and Detzner and the Legislature both pointedly questioned the timing and motivation of the lawsuit — by a Democrat at a time when Scott is running for re-election.

The seven-member Supreme Court has to act fast, because the week-long candidate qualifying period opens June 16. That’s also when candidates must file financial statements.

The court could issue a ruling, dismiss the lawsuit or transfer the case to a circuit judge in Tallahassee.

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