Constitutional challenge targets Gov. Rick Scott’s use of blind trust law

An emergency lawsuit filed in the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday raises an election-year constitutional challenge to a law that allows statewide elected officials to place their personal financial assets in blind trusts.

The obvious target is Gov. Rick Scott, the first officeholder to take advantage of the 2013 law, but he’s not a defendant. Rather, the lawsuit seeks to prevent Secretary of State Ken Detzner from accepting candidate qualifying papers of anyone who has placed finances in a blind trust.

The lawsuit was filed by constitutional law expert Talbot (Sandy) D’Alemberte, a former Democratic legislator, who pointed to an erosion of public access to information in a state known for its landmark “sunshine” laws.

“This is not an attack on Gov. Scott,” D’Alemberte said. “This is a chance to say, hell, it’s in the Constitution.”

The plaintiff is Jim Apthorp, 75, a Democrat who was chief of staff to the late Gov. Reubin Askew, a champion of ethical government who died in March. After a series of political scandals rocked Florida in the 1970s, Askew persuaded voters to pass the “Sunshine Amendment” to the Constitution in 1976 that requires officials to disclose personal financial details each year.

“I’m just startled that no one has questioned the damn thing,” D’Alemberte said. “People are disregarding a clear constitutional requirement that’s a bedrock principle of open government.”

The suit seeks emergency court action because candidates must submit candidacy papers, including financial disclosure statements, the week of June 16-20.

Scott, the richest governor in Florida’s history, listed every one of his investments when he ran for governor in 2010, and showed a net worth of $218.6 million. He spent at least $73 million of his own money on the campaign.

With the approval of the state Commission on Ethics, and following a rule used by federal executive branch officials, Scott formed a blind trust in 2011. He held investments in companies that were regulated by the state and said he wanted to avoid conflicts of interest.

In 2013, acting on the advice of a statewide grand jury and the Commission on Ethics, the Legislature unanimously passed legislation (SB 2) regulating blind trusts and setting the powers and duties of appointed trustees, including prohibiting them from telling their clients, such as Scott, what assets are bought or sold.

Scott then got a second ethics opinion that said his blind trust complied with the law. Last year, the trust held $72.9 million in assets of a total net worth for Scott of $83.8 million.

A blind trust allows Scott to declare a lump sum net worth without having to disclose the value of his vast portfolio of stocks, bonds and other investments, some of which are regulated by the state and whose value could be directly affected by Scott’s policies.

Phil Claypool, a former executive director of the Commission on Ethics, faulted the 2013 blind trust law because it allows Scott to know what assets were in his blind trust but not the public.

Claypool said lawmakers rejected safeguards that the Commission on Ethics wanted, such as requiring assets in a trust to be disclosed and preventing trustees from investing in firms that the trustee knows are regulated by the state.

The only other statewide official to create a blind trust was former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink in 2007.

Apthorp’s attorneys are D’Alemberte, former president of Florida State University and the American Bar Association, and D’Alemberte’s wife, Patsy Palmer. In their lawsuit, they write: “The Constitution of Florida demands full and public financial disclosure, and that a so-called ‘blind trust’ does not fulfill the constitutional requirement.”

Apthorp said he is not using the lawsuit to help Democrat Charlie Crist unseat Scott.

“I’m concerned about the Askew legacy, not some current election,” Apthorp said.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, questioned the timing of the lawsuit, calling it a “partisan attack” and said it “raises the suspicion that this is not a serious or sincere constitutional challenge but a cynically-timed ploy designed and timed to affect the outcome of this year’s elections.”

Supporting the lawsuit with court briefs are the League of Women Voters of Florida and several media outlets including the Miami Herald, Associated Press and Florida Times-Union, along with the Florida Press Association, Florida Society of News Editors and First Amendment Foundation.