TALLAHASSEE — A top aide to the late Gov. Reubin Askew asked the state’s highest court to invalidate politicians’ use of “blind trusts” rather than fully disclosing sources of income.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a former for-profit hospital chain CEO who’s worth more than $80 million, has a blind trust. Scott faces re-election in November.
Blind trusts shield those who receive income from them from knowing where the money is coming from, most often to avoid conflicts of interest.
Former Askew chief of staff Jim Apthorp filed an emergency petition Wednesday with the Florida Supreme Court, asking the court to declare the use of blind trusts unconstitutional. The Florida Constitution says a “public office is a public trust.”
“And I think the very name of that kind of trust tells you that it is not public,” Apthorp said at a press conference.
Apthorp argues that the trusts violate the state Constitution, specifically the “Sunshine Amendment,” an initiative led by Askew, who served as a Democratic governor 1971-79 and died in March.
The amendment, passed in 1976, was a reaction to then-government corruption at the federal and state level, including the Watergate scandal.
“All elected constitutional officers and candidates for such offices and … other public officers, candidates, and employees shall file full and public disclosure of their financial interests,” the constitutional provision says.
Apthorp’s complaint says a blind trust “deprives the citizens of Florida of their constitutional right … to receive the benefits of full and public disclosure by constitutional officers and candidates for such offices.”
He wants Secretary of State Ken Detzner to refuse to qualify candidates who list a blind trust under their income disclosures. Qualifying for office runs June 16-20, thus the need for a quick decision.
The petition also asks the court to strike down a state law passed last year allowing blind trusts and to set aside Florida Ethics Commission opinions approving of them. Apthorp’s fear is that “other officials or candidates (will) file blind trusts in 2014.”
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, released a joint statement blasting Apthorp’s suit.
“Former state-wide elected officials, both Democrat and Republican, have used blind trusts in order to avoid conflicts of interest,” they said. “For the plaintiff to suddenly come forward ... raises the suspicion that this is not a serious or sincere constitutional challenge but a cynically-timed political ploy designed and timed to affect the outcome of this year’s elections.”
Wayne Bailey, a political science professor at Stetson University in DeLand, said so many Florida politicians have used blind trusts for so long that legally “it will be a huge jump to rule them out.”
At the same time, “the public has a legitimate interest in knowing the force of wealth of any elected official or candidate,” Bailey said.
Alex Sink, who unsuccessfully ran for governor against Scott in 2010, disclosed as a candidate that she had a blind trust, “supposedly to avoid conflicts of interest after she became Chief Financial Officer,” the complaint said. Sink was state the state’s chief financial officer in 2007-11.
Scott said he, too, would create a blind trust, and the Ethics Commission said it would approve of its use while Scott was governor.
“Nothing in the Florida Statutes authorized Scott in 2011 – or Sink in earlier years – to satisfy disclosure requirements with a blind trust,” Apthorp’s complaint says.
Scott’s trust was last reported as worth nearly $73 million, generating about $3 million yearly in income. The governor’s other assets and income gave him a net worth of almost $84 million at the end of 2012.
Greg Blair, spokesman for Rick Scott for Florida, said in a statement Wednesday, “As recommended by the ethics commission and unanimously approved by the Legislature, Gov. Scott put his assets in a blind trust to prevent even the appearance of any conflict of interest.
“This is the course CFO Alex Sink took as well. Gov. Scott will always operate in full compliance with the law.”
Apthorp is represented by past Florida State University law dean and president Sandy D’Alemberte, who also was president of the American Bar Association.
The Florida Press Association, League of Women Voters of Florida and the First Amendment Foundation, an open government watchdog, support the suit.
Askew and D’Alemberte, also a former state representative, served as Democrats, but he said the case was “not an attack on Gov. Scott.”
“He hired some very good lawyers,” D’Alemberte said. “They just gave him some very bad advice.” Scott’s communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Supreme Court could choose to hear the matter itself, kick the case to a trial judge for determination, or deny the petition.
D’Alemberte said he wasn’t worried about Apthorp’s legal standing to bring the case, which he’s doing as a “citizen and taxpayer of Florida.”
“If Jim Apthorp doesn’t have standing, who the devil does?” D’Alemberte said.