Editorial: Florida should improve financial disclosure laws for politicians

Tampa Bay Times by Editorials

August 9, 2018

Two forms of reporting paint dramatically different pictures of Rick Scott’s personal wealth — and of the ethical conflicts that could arise for a governor of the nation’s third-largest state. Those differing portraits raise concerns about the a lack of transparency, and the problem likely will get worse. The Florida Legislature should address it by adopting stronger, federal standards for state officeholders that provide more clarity about their personal investments.

Scott released a detailed financial statement in July, disclosing for the first time that he’s worth at least $255 million, with more than $173 million in his wife’s name outside a blind trust that is intended to prevent conflicts of interest. The disclosure came as part of Scott’s campaign for U.S. Senate. Unlike Florida law, federal law requires him to reveal assets held by either him or his wife. That total figure is higher than an earlier state filing in July. And Ann Scott’s assets are outside the $82 million in the blind trust that Scott said was intended to remove him from any conflicts of interest as governor.

This is the first time the Republican governor has disclosed his wife’s holdings. The filing shows that Scott’s wife holds most of the family assets; “spouse” is listed as owner of every asset on 84 pages of a report that must be reviewed and approved by the Senate Ethics Committee. But the details remain vague; federal candidates are required to report the value of their assets only in broad ranges, as opposed to specific amounts, making it impossible to know exactly how much the Scotts are worth. The report said Ann Scott holds as much as $500,000 in stock in NextEra Energy Partners, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, the parent company of Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest investor-owned utility.

Blind trusts serve a laudable goal of keeping elected officials from co-mingling their public and personal business. Scott is the only elected official in Florida who has placed assets in a blind trust. The move makes sense for the governor and three Cabinet members who vote on statewide issues, such as land purchases and contracts. But the state’s reporting requirements are too lax. At a minimum, the Legislature should require that trusts include all assets owned or controlled by an elected official and his or her spouse. And any trustee for a blind trust should truly be an outside, third party. Scott’s current trust adviser is a former business associate of the governor’s. And Politico reported this week that Ann Scott gave a loan between $100,000 and $250,000 to an accountant who formerly worked at the governor’s investment firm and who’s now employed by the firm overseeing Scott’s blind trust.

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