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Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014
Politics

Ruling supports politicians’ use of blind trusts


Published:

A Florida judge on Monday ruled in favor of a law that allows elected officials to place their assets in a blind trust instead of reporting each investment publicly.

The ruling is a vindication for Gov. Rick Scott, who has kept his holdings in a trust for most of his time in office. This has allowed certain of his assets, such as his vacation home in Montana, to remain off his annual disclosure forms.

Jim Apthorp, a former top aide to the late Gov. Reubin Askew, filed a lawsuit in May contending that the use of a blind trust does not comply with a 1976 constitutional amendment that requires elected officials to annually disclose their finances.

But Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper, in his ruling, states that the 2013 law that authorizes blind trusts is “reasonable” and “consistent” with the amendment because it helps politicians avoid conflicts of interest since the trust is managed by a third party.

“The purpose of disclosing this information is not mere curiosity as to the public official’s financial holdings,” Cooper states in his ruling. “Rather it allows the public to have the same information as the public official, thus permitting an informed opinion on whether conflicts of interests have or may in the future occur.”

Apthorp said in a statement that he still believes “we are on the right side of this issue” and that he would consult with his attorneys about whether to appeal Cooper’s ruling.

“We contended that blind trusts do not provide the full and public disclosure required by the Sunshine Amendment and are disappointed that the judge issued a ruling that would weaken disclosure requirements,” Apthorp said.

During his first-ever run for public office in 2010, Scott, a multimillionaire businessman, released three years of tax returns and a lengthy list of all his business holdings. But shortly after he took office, he received permission from the state’s ethics commission to set up a blind trust to remove direct control over his finances. The trust is managed by a company that includes a longtime associate of Scott who managed his portfolio before Scott became governor.

Florida legislators passed a law last year that authorized blind trusts, but it says that public officials who set them up must disclose the initial assets placed in the account. Scott last summer disclosed what assets were included in the account as of 2011, but at the time he declined to reveal any information about more recent holdings.

When Scott qualified for re-election he briefly dissolved the trust and released detailed information about his individual holdings, including releasing his tax returns. That information gave a much broader picture of Scott’s finances than previously because the joint tax returns include financial information about his wife, Ann Scott. The Scott campaign repeatedly has asked Democratic candidate Charlie Crist to release the separate tax returns of Carole Crist, but the Crist campaign has refused.

Greg Blair, a spokesman for Scott, maintained that Scott “went above and beyond to provide transparency” and that he is “committed to providing Floridians with the transparency they deserve.”

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