Politics

Now that he’s a U.S. Senator, Rick Scott dumps his blind trust

Sen. Rick Scott speaks to reporters outside his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019.
Sen. Rick Scott speaks to reporters outside his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. AP

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott will no longer keep his vast wealth in a blind trust, forgoing a method for publicly disclosing his personal finances that he used during his eight years as Florida’s governor.

Scott said Monday that instead he will report his assets to the public in annual financial disclosure forms required of all members of Congress.

“I’m not going to have a blind trust,” Scott said Monday during a Tampa visit. “What you do is just make the normal filings.”

He didn’t elaborate further. His Senate office didn’t provide more details, including when he made the decision and why he took this step.

Scott, the former head of a healthcare company who left amid a fraud scandal, was the wealthiest governor in state history. His last state financial disclosure report — filed late on a Friday evening last June — showed Scott had a net worth of more than $232 million at the end of 2017.

In 2011, Scott created a blind trust that he said would give Floridians confidence that his decisions were in the best interest of the state, not his bank account. In theory, a blind trust should prevent conflicts by taking the elected official’s investments out of his control.

Government watchdogs and ethics experts, however, have repeatedly said over the years that this arrangement didn’t shield Scott from conducting public business while knowing what his investments were. For one, it was managed by a third party company that included Scott’s former personal adviser. Meanwhile, his wife, Ann Scott, held $173 million in investments, many of which overlapped with Rick Scott’s own assets in the blind trust, Politico reported last year.

Nor did Scott’s blind trust eliminate questions about conflicts of interest. Last year, for example, the Herald/Times reported that Scott had a financial interest in the company that operates Florida’s SunPass system, which collects the fees for the state toll roads and investments linked to high-speed rail development in Florida.

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During a heated and hard-fought Senate campaign last year against Democrat Bill Nelson, Scott declined to say if he would continue the blind trust if he won.

Scott’s trust was not set up in a way to meet the Senate’s more rigorous requirements to shield an elected lawmaker’s assets. A qualified blind trust must be approved by the Senate Ethics Committee, and the trustee must be “completely independent” — meaning, not someone who used to work for the senator.

It’s unclear if Scott sought clearance or guidance from the ethics committee before making his decision. A committee spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Members of Congress are expected to recuse themselves or divest from investments that could benefit from their votes. Without a blind trust, it will be up to Scott to determine whether his duties are in conflict with his fortune — which includes tens of millions of dollars in holdings spanning many sectors of the economy.

“Clearly, that doesn’t work well,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit that promotes good government. “We frequently see members of Congress voting on legislation or promoting legislation that poses conflict of interests with their own properties. If a senator says, ‘I voted this way and it was not to enrich myself,’ you just have to believe them.”

Scott spokesman Chris Hartline called the Senate disclosure requirements “more stringent than the state of Florida.” Scott signed the 2013 bill establishing the disclosure rules for blind trusts in Florida.

In the Senate financial disclosure form, lawmakers only report wide income ranges for each holding, such as “$100,000 to $250,000.” One difference, however, is that Scott will be required to report the assets of his entire household annually, which he avoided for much of his time in Tallahassee.

Most members of Congress, even the super wealthy like Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., don’t put their holdings in a blind trust.

That could change if Democrats get their way. The new House majority has filed a package of campaign finance and ethics reforms known as H.R. 1. Among its many anti-corruption and voting access proposals — including making Election Day a national holiday, requiring the president and vice president to release their taxes and disclosing all dark money in elections — is a blanket ban on actions that would financially benefit lawmakers, their family and associates.

However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said H.R. 1 is dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate where Scott is now a voting member.

Tampa Bay Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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