Politics

Appeals court hears challenge in blind trust case

Did the Florida Legislature violate the state’s financial disclosure law when it allowed public officials to shield their assets in a blind trust?

Lawyers for Attorney General Pam Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott say the answer is no, and they made that argument Wednesday before the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

The reason: the state’s Sunshine Amendment to the constitution allows lawmakers to write the rules that govern what constitute “full and public” disclosure of financial assets, even if it means shielding some assets from public view, they argued.

But lawyers for Jim Apthorp, the former chief of staff to the late Gov. Reubin Askew, disagreed.

“The Sunshine Amendment starts off with the words, ‘A public office is a public trust,’” said Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former Democratic state representative who helped pass the amendment. “We may not have a blind trust which conceals, not reveals, what the financial interests are of a public official.”

The debate is at the core of the lawsuit brought by Apthorp, asking the court to overturn a portion of the 2013 ethics law, which allows public officials to to create a blind trust in lieu of revealing their assets on a financial disclosure form.

Apthorp initially asked the Florida Supreme Court to ban Secretary of State Ken Detzner from accepting the qualifying papers of any candidate using a blind trust. The court asked a trial court to decide the case. In July, Leon County Circuit Judge James Cooper ruled that the law was constitutional. Apthorp appealed.

The only public official to use the law is Gov. Rick Scott, a multimillionaire former hospital chief executive. After the lawsuit was filed, however, Scott dissolved his blind trust and detailed his assets in his financial disclosure form filed in June when he announced his decision to seek re-election. He has since said he would re-establish the trust, thereby shielding his assets again for his second term.

D'Alemberte told the court that Askew championed the amendment to so that Floridians could better hold public officials accountable by knowing how their assets might affect their decisions.

His argument was effectively echoed by the chief judge on the panel, Brad Thomas, a former Republican legislative staffer, who suggested that the creation of a blind trust could allow a public official to hide his assets.

“If a candidate has 20 extremely valuable assets…and he or she puts them in a trust and they are not required to disclose those 20 assets, they still own those assets,’’ said Thomas, who was appointed to the bench by former Gov. Jeb Bush. “At some point, the owner of that trust, the constitutional officer, gives that money and those assets back when the blind trust is dissolved…you’re not disclosing assets that you still own…and the pubic has a right to know.”

Solicitor General Allen Winsor, who represented the attorney general and the secretary of state, said that Askew’s amendment wanted the Legislature to have a powerful role.

"The constitution gives the Legislature the authority to determine what is and what is not full and public disclosure," he said. "The Legislature was never meant to be excluded from this process. It was meant to be there to fill in the gaps."

Thomas then asked “what’s the point of the amendment” if the Legislature can weaken and eliminate it.

Winsor responded that Askew’s amendment allowed such broad legislative discretion.

D'Alemberte replied: “If the Legislature has all the power that my opponent says it has, it destroys full and public financial disclosure.’’

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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