By Margie Menzel
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 14, 2014……….Open-government advocates are backing a lawsuit filed Wednesday in the Florida Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of a 2013 law that allows elected officials to put financial assets in blind trusts that do not offer detailed public disclosure of the holdings.
The lawsuit was filed by Jim Apthorp, former chief of staff to the late Gov. Reubin Askew. It has the backing of the First Amendment Foundation, the League of Women Voters and half a dozen media organizations that will file friend-of-the-court briefs, including the Associated Press, The Miami Herald and The Florida Times-Union.
Apthorp and the attorney in the case, Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, said the use of blind trusts circumvents the full disclosure of public officials’ holdings required by the Sunshine Amendment, which Askew spearheaded and Florida voters overwhelmingly passed in 1976.
Apthorp’s petition asks the high court to prohibit Secretary of State Ken Detzner from accepting the qualifying papers of any candidate who has placed finances in a blind trust. With just a month before the weeklong qualifying period begins on June 16, he is seeking an emergency ruling.
“The judge of this, in the end, is the voter,” Apthorp said. “Whether there is full disclosure or not is a matter for voters to decide.”
Lawmakers unanimously passed the 2013 law allowing blind trusts, and the Commission on Ethics twice approved Gov. Rick Scott’s use of one. Supporters say blind trusts can help elected officials avoid appearances of conflicts of interest in matters involving their personal investments.
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford released a joint statement Wednesday defending the law, which was known as Senate Bill 2. The pointed to a 2010 grand jury recommendation about the use of blind trusts and a 2012 recommendation from the Commission on Ethics and suggested that the lawsuit was politically motivated.
“For the plaintiff to suddenly come forward with his objections four years after the grand jury report, two years after the ethics commission’s recommendations and one year after Senate Bill 2 was enacted 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,” the statement said.
A Scott campaign spokeswoman also noted that former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, used a blind trust.
“As recommended by the ethics commission and unanimously approved by the Legislature, Governor Scott put his assets in a blind trust to prevent even the appearance of any conflict of interest,” Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in an email Wednesday evening. “This is the course CFO Alex Sink took as well. Governor Scott will always operate in full compliance with the law.”
But Apthorp and D’Alemberte said the use of a blind trust doesn’t satisfy the requirements of the Sunshine Amendment and is therefore unconstitutional.
“When you start using these devices, these schemes, to start avoiding the language of the constitution, you run the risk of seeing everything drift back to the way it was before,” said D’Alemberte, a former president of Florida State University.
Although Apthorp and D’Alemberte are Democrats, as was Askew, they said the lawsuit doesn’t target Scott, a Republican.
“Gov. Scott did everything that the ethics commission and the Legislature asked him to do,” Apthorp said. “So I don’t think he’s done anything wrong here. The problem is that the statute under which he received advice is not constitutional.”
Rather, Apthorp said, he and other aides to Askew, who died in March, had discussed filing the lawsuit with the former governor, but Askew’s health worsened. At the former governor’s funeral, they decided to file it to honor his memory.
Apthorp’s petition recalled the era of public corruption that sparked Askew’s campaign for the Sunshine Amendment. That included Watergate and the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew.
“Florida state government also was rocked by scandal: Three Florida Cabinet members, at least three Supreme Court justices, at least one state legislator, and even Askew’s lieutenant governor were exposed for their ethical lapses — some resulting in prison terms,” the petition said.
Askew campaigned for eight months to gather the signatures needed to put the amendment on the November 1976 ballot. It garnered 79 percent of the vote.
Apthorp’s petition acknowledges that he currently knows of only one Florida public official using a blind trust — Scott.
“However, the new statute would allow other officials or candidates to file blind trusts in 2014,” the document said.