TALLAHASSEE – The law that allowed millionaire former Governor Rick Scott to create a blind trust to protect his investments from public disclosure was quietly wiped off the books Tuesday by his successor, Governor Ron DeSantis.
The law was passed by the Republican-led legislature in 2011 when Scott, a former hospital executive, was first elected.
Scott, who was elected to the US Senate in November, was the richest governor in Florida history. He said the law was necessary to avoid any conflict of interest between his job as governor and his fortune, which he disclosed to the US Senate last year between 255 and 510 million dollars.
But a loophole in the Blind Trust Act of 2011 prevented courts and the Florida Ethics Commission from verifying whether the governor had indeed followed the law or used it to circumvent the review, leading to claims. years of prolonged prosecutions against him by his opponents.
THE BUZZING: Rick Scott will no longer put his fortune in a blind trust
When Scott established the blind trust, he placed it under the control of two of his longtime financial advisers and a former business partner. Then, when Scott ran for re-election in 2014, he briefly dissolved his first blind trust and released information about the individual holdings he held. He also released his tax returns for 2013.
Tax returns showed the Scott family making millions more than what the governor individually reported on his financial disclosure form and this raised questions as to whether Scott could control the assets held by his wife.
A Herald / Times investigation in those investments revealed that documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicated that the governor was listed as the owner of investments in several companies that he had not reported to the state.
Questions and fierce pursuits Scott during his eight years as governor to find out if he was using his office to leverage his investments in several companies that did business with Florida.
THE BUZZING: Rick Scott reveals highest ever family assets of at least $ 255 million
Among the companies Scott and his wife had invested in were Gilead Sciences, the company that produces the drug used to treat inmates with hepatitis C; Spectral energy, the company working on the Sabal Trail pipeline in North Florida; Mosquito Control Services LLC, which provides Zika control spray services; and the parent company of Florida East Coast Industries, which owned All aboard Florida.
Senator Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said he sponsored the bill because he disagreed with the law and supported the constitutional amendment that requires the financial interests of elected officials “should be information available to voters”.
“I think it’s great when successful people want to come and bring their life experience to government… but you have to meet the same standards as I do,” he told a Senate committee last spring.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who reported a net worth of around $ 272,000 when she was elected last year, is the only current public servant to have opened a blind trust to protect her investments. The repeal of the Blind Trust Act takes effect in January 2020.
DeSantis told reporters on Tuesday he would sign the bill because “it makes sense,” but he said that didn’t mean he concluded Scott had abused the blind trust law.
“I’m certainly not suggesting he did it,” DeSantis said. “I have no knowledge of what he did.”
THE BUZZING: Rick and Ann Scott’s financial trail leads to Cayman Islands tax haven
Scott spokesman Chris Hartline said the former governor “has complied with the law” and has not commented on its repeal. “Obviously it doesn’t affect us anymore,” he said, noting that Scott now files monthly financial disclosure reports, as required by the US Senate.
Unlike Florida law, which requires specific amounts listed for each asset, federal law allows a high and low range, so it’s impossible to know how much Scott and his wife are worth and how much they own in each of their investments.
In 2014, 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. In 2017, Tallahassee attorney Don Hinkle, a prominent Democratic fundraiser and donor, filed a lawsuit claiming that Scott’s use of the indiscriminate trust violated the state’s constitution, which requires “full disclosure and equitable ”assets by public officials.
Hinkle, who had tried and failed three times to get the Florida Ethics Commission to investigate the governor’s financial disclosures, said the repeal of the Blind Trust Act was “overdue.”
“It is incompatible with the Constitution of Florida,” he said. “They just passed a special law for the benefit of Rick Scott. Since he moved to Washington, they no longer need it.
THE BUZZING: Rick Scott and his wife invested in parent company’s bid on the Tampa bullet train
Hinkle said the court rulings highlight the flaw in the state’s financial disclosure law. He had asked the Ethics Commission to investigate why Scott had signed federal securities documents stating that he was the “beneficial owner” of the assets in his wife’s trust, but did not have them. not reported as assets on its own financial disclosure form. The commission – some members appointed by Scott – dismissed the complaints without reviewing Scott’s financial record.
“What my case has shown is that the decision of the Ethics Commission not to pursue a claim is the end of the road,” he said. “There should be a judicial review of the decision of the Ethics Commission on whether to investigate a complaint. No one has ever looked at what Rick Scott did to see if it is in compliance with the law. We don’t know what he had when he was governor.
THE BUZZING: Rick and Ann Scott had a stake in Putin-linked shipping giant
The Florida Constitution requires public officials to disclose their financial interests, and while the Ethics Commission may impose a fine, reprimand, or recommend an indictment for violating the law, it does not have the power to ” order disclosure if a public official does not.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas