By Aaron Deslatte Tallahassee Bureau Chief
TALLAHASSEE — In the midst of a high-profile fight over the governor’s office, civil-rights and media organizations are asking the Florida Supreme Court to force Gov. Rick Scott and other candidates to disclose more details about their personal wealth.
Jim Apthorp, a former chief of staff to the late Gov. Reubin Askew, along with the League of Women Voters, the First Amendment Foundation, and other media groups are asking the state’s high court to block candidates from using so-called “blind trusts” in the financial disclosures they are required to file to seek public office.
Apthorp helped Askew campaign to pass the state’s landmark Sunshine Amendment in 1976, which required officeholders to disclose their assets following a series of state and national ethics scandals. But over the years, the Legislature and state Ethics Commission have allowed statewide candidates to get around “full and public disclosure” of their financial assets by placing them in “blind trusts.”
While Florida law doesn’t preclude anyone from disclosing all assets, the “blind-trust” use allows candidates to disclose total dollar amounts without listing where the dollars are invested.
The issue arose in 1991 elections, in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, and again in 2010 when both Scott and Democratic nominee Alex Sink shielded millions of dollars in such trusts.
Scott’s lawyers have gotten two opinions from the Ethics Commission allowing him to shield much of his personal investments from disclosure, and the Legislature passed a bill in 2013 codifying the opinion. But the groups are asking the Supreme Court to rule the law unconstitutional and forbid candidates from qualifying for office next month unless they fully disclose their wealth.
“I believe that standard has been violated by the Legislature and the Ethics Commission,” Apthorp said at a press conference Wednesday.
“The very name of that kind of trust suggests it’s not public.”
If the high court decides to take up the lawsuit, it could impact races for governor and Cabinet posts, half the state Senate seats up for election this year, and the entire 120-member Florida House of Representatives.
Sandy D’Alemberte, a lawyer and former FSU president, Askew staffer and legislator, said the move wasn’t an “attack” on Scott, although it comes in the midst of Scott’s likely brutal campaign against former Gov. Charlie Crist.
“The governor has some very good lawyers, and they gave him some very bad advice,” D’Alemberte said.
“He did what his advisers told him to do,” Apthorp added.
But the action could have unavoidable political ramifications.
Several news organizations, including the Associated Press, the Miami Herald, and the Florida Times-Union have signed on to support the challenge, said Barbara Petersen with the First Amendment Foundation, an open government group supported by the media.
Petersen said others, including the Tampa Bay Times, Gannett and Tribune Co. (parent company of the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun Sentinel) were considering joining as well.
Petersen declined to comment on whether the legal challenge would complicate those news organizations’ efforts to cover the campaigns.
“We’re interested in the issue of full and public disclosure, and I would presume that’s what the newspapers are interested in as well,” Petersen said. “But you’d have to ask them.”