The lawyer who has sued Gov. Rick Scott alleging that he is violating state law by using his wife to shield his financial assets from public disclosure asked a court to throw out the governor’s appeal Friday, arguing that he should stop fighting the case because he will have to disclose his assets if he announces he is running for U.S. Senate on Monday.
“Procedurally and substantively his petition is unfounded, it is a delaying tactic as he seeks to run out the clock on having to disclose how much money he has made being governor of Florida,” wrote Don Hinkle, a Tallahassee lawyer and major Democratic fundraiser in a response to an appeal filed by the governor with the First District Court of Appeal.
Scott spokesman John Tupps dismissed Hinkle’s lawsuit as “nothing more than a publicity stunt.”
He noted that a previous complaint has been rejected by a court and the Florida Commission on Ethics.
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“He should quit wasting everyone’s time,” Tupps said.
Hinkle sued Scott in November, asking the court to order the governor to disclose more details about his finances under the state disclosure laws. Scott asked the court to dismiss the case, the court rejected it, and the governor is now appealing the ruling.
Hinkle accuses Scott of “hiding his money and finances from the people of Florida” and asked the court to dismiss the appeal. He argued that “if he runs for the United States Senate, he will have to make these disclosures — or else continue his practice of delaying and avoiding the transparency the law requires.”
Scott, a former hospital executive, has maintained most of his assets in the Gov. Richard L. Scott 2014 Qualified Blind Trust. The law allows public officials to create a blind trust in lieu of revealing their assets on a financial disclosure form.
Both Scott and his wife maintain the blind trust but Ann Scott also holds assets in the Frances Ann Scott Revocable Trust. But unlike federal law, Florida law does not require spouses of elected officials to reveal their financial holdings.
If Scott announces he is running for U.S. Senate, as expected, on Monday, he will have 30 days to make the disclosure, or he can seek a 90-day extension, potentially pushing his disclosure into the summer of 2018.
“Federal candidates are required to not only disclose a trust, but the underlying asset, the value of that asset and any income from that asset,” said Kate Keane, a financial disclosures expert at the Washington, D.C., laws firm of Perkins Coie.
There are two potential exceptions: if the candidate has a qualified blind trust or a certified blind trust. Scott has neither.
A qualified blind trust must be approved by the Ethics Committee of the U.S. Senate, and a certified blind trust must be a new trust agreement handled by an independent trustee with no prior relationship with the filer or the candidate, “not a former employee or an existing financial adviser,” and not be created by the candidate, his or her spouse or children, Keane said.
“Because of that, senators with a significant amount of wealth rarely enter into these agreements because the independent trustee bar is so high,” she said. For example, wealthy senators such as Mark Warner and Richard Blumenthal don’t have qualified blind trusts.
The governor’s blind trust is managed by a third party — a company that includes a longtime business associate of Scott. By law, the trust is intended to shield his investments from his direct control, but it also shields them from public disclosure.
If Scott chose to create a qualified blind trust, he would have to close his current blind trust and open a new one with a different trustee who is not personally known to him.
In June, Scott reported that he had a net worth of $149 million in 2016, $30 million more than the previous year.
Hinkle’s lawsuit contends that filings with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission show that Scott retains control of his assets in a family trust under his wife Ann Scott’s name. For example, the lawsuit alleges, Scott signed off on using personal funds to purchase stock and then approving the sale of stocks at the same time they were in a blind trust.
Scott, who does not accept a state salary, first built his fortune as the head of the hospital giant Columbia/HCA. He was forced out of the job amid a federal investigation into fraud. Scott was never charged with any wrongdoing, but the company paid a then-record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.
Questions have followed Scott since he first created the blind trust when he was elected in 2010. When Scott ran for re-election in 2014, he briefly dissolved his first trust and released information about the individual holdings in it. He also released his tax returns for 2013.
The tax returns showed that the Scott family earns millions more than the governor reported individually on his financial disclosure form. It also raised questions about whether Scott may have control over assets held by his wife.
An investigation by the Herald/Times into those investments found that filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicated the governor had substantially larger holdings in several companies than what he reported to the state. A lawsuit was filed by George Sheldon, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, but a court ruled that the governor could not be compelled to disclose more information. Hinkle represented Sheldon in that case.
The lawsuit was rejected by a judge who said it needed to be considered by the Florida Commission on Ethics. Hinkle then filed three complaints with the ethics commission, but that panel concluded Scott was following the law.