State Politics

Nikki Fried says her blind trust is an ‘obligation’ to avoid conflicts of interest

From marijuana lobbyist to candidate for agriculture commissioner.

Nicole "Nikki" Fried, the Democratic candidate for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services speaks during a rally in Orlando on August 31, 2018.
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Nicole "Nikki" Fried, the Democratic candidate for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services speaks during a rally in Orlando on August 31, 2018.

While bills to repeal Florida’s blind trust laws move through the state Legislature, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried quietly became the second statewide officer to have a blind trust since new legislation was passed in 2013. Former Gov. Rick Scott was the first.

Fried said Wednesday that she created the trust in January to stick to “an obligation not to have any conflicts of interest.”

The 2013 legislation — part of a broad bill to address issues concerning campaign financing and ethics — allows elected officials to hold their assets in a blind trust but does not prohibit the trust from investing in companies the officials regulate. Prior to 2013, Gov. Jeb Bush and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink had blind trusts while holding statewide office.

Some say creating a blind trust actually creates the perception of a conflict of interest, but Fried said it’s more preventive than that.

“I wanted to make sure that there were no conflicts of interest, and so I’ve done everything that I needed to do and to make sure that is the case,” she said.

The only asset in the trust is Ignite Holdings LLC, which was incorporated the same day the blind trust was created.

When asked what was inside the asset, she did not answer the question.

Florida’s blind trust law prohibits public officials from making attempts to “influence or exercise any control over decisions regarding the management of assets in a qualified blind trust” and “may not make any effort to obtain information with respect to the holdings of the trust.”

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Scott notoriously shielded his assets from public scrutiny by using a blind trust and a series of privately held partnerships in his name and the name of his wife, Ann Scott. For years, the Herald/Times reported in 2014, Scott’s family bought and sold assets that were the same as assets held by Scott’s blind trust and had them managed by the same financial advisers who handled his investments before he became governor. Since he became a U.S. senator, he got rid of the trust.

The Florida Bulldog, an online investigative website, first reported on the Fried trust the same week that a bill to repeal the blind trust law started to move through the Legislature. The law became part of Florida statute in 2013 as part of a large ethics package. Before the 2013 legislation, there was no provision addressing the use of blind trusts by public officers.

Fried’s trust wouldn’t be affected, as the repeal only applies to future trusts.

In a Tuesday hearing on SB 702 in the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, bill sponsor Sen. Tom Lee said blind trusts are generally only available to people with “substantial wealth.” He said those people should be welcomed into public office, but that a blind trust defies public access.

“Where people invest their money, where they work, where they earn their money says a lot about a person’s character and who they are,” the Thonotosassa Republican said. “I think that information should be available to the voters as they make decisions on whether they’ll elect one of us.”

Igniting Florida LLC is Fried’s one-woman lobbying shop, where she was the president and sole owner. It was voluntarily dissolved by Fried on Dec. 31. Igniting Florida was named after her student government party at the University of Florida.

According to her last financial disclosure, Igniting Florida LLC was worth $125,000 and was her main source of income. The major source of the business’ money came from San Felasco Nursery in Gainesville, which was purchased by Harvest Health & Recreation Inc. in December.

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The company is a vertically integrated cannabis business with one of the largest footprints in the United States. San Felasco was authorized to operate as a medical marijuana treatment center in Florida.

Fried’s trust is controlled by Fort Lauderdale attorneys Darren Spielman and Craig Pugatch and investment adviser Samuel Eppy. Palm Beach Gardens attorney Andrew Comiter is also a registered agent of Ignite Holdings LLC, and filed the trust paper.

Ignite Holdings LLC is only related to Igniting Florida LLC in its name, Fried said Wednesday. “It’s always been a spoof off of when I was student body president,” she said.

When asked whether her net worth has increased since the trust was created in January, Fried said, “No, I’m still poor.”

Per her last financial disclosure, Fried’s net worth was $271,613 — $125,000 of it attributed to Igniting Florida LLC. She now makes about $129,000 per year.

This story was updated to clarify that other statewide officers have had blind trusts and to add details about the legislation enacted in 2013.

Samantha J. Gross is a state government reporter for the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times bureau in Tallahassee, where she covers state government and politics. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.


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