TALLAHASSEE — An emergency lawsuit filed in the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday raises an election-year constitutional challenge to a law that allows statewide elected officials to place their personal financial assets in blind trusts.
The obvious target is Gov. Rick Scott, the first officeholder to take advantage of the law, but he’s not a defendant. Rather, the lawsuit seeks to prevent Secretary of State Ken Detzner from accepting candidate qualifying papers of any candidate who has placed finances in a blind trust.
The lawsuit was filed by constitutional law expert Talbot (Sandy) D’Alemberte, a former Democratic legislator, who argues that blind trusts violate the “Sunshine Amendment” to the Florida Constitution.
Approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1976, the amendment requires elected officials to make “full and public” disclosures of their finances as a check against potential conflicts of interest.
“I’m just startled that no one has questioned the damn thing,” D’Alemberte said Wednesday. “People are disregarding a clear constitutional requirement that’s a bedrock principle of open government.”
The suit seeks emergency court action because the week-long candidate qualifying period begins June 16.
D’Alemberte and his wife and co-counsel, Patsy Palmer, represent the plaintiff, Jim Apthorp, who served seven years as chief of staff to former Gov. Reubin Askew, who died in March. Financial disclosure was a centerpiece of Askew’s agenda to restore public confidence in government after a series of political scandals in the early 1970s.
In their lawsuit, the lawyers write: “The history of the Sunshine Amendment, rules of constitutional construction and past court rulings all demonstrate that the Constitution of Florida demands full and public financial disclosure, and that a so-called ‘blind trust’ does not fulfill the constitutional requirement.”
The blind trust provision was part of a broader ethics bill (SB 2) that unanimously passed both house of the Legislature in 2013 and was signed into law by Scott.
The Commission on Ethics approved Scott’s blind trust in September, which allowed the wealthy governor to declare a lump-sum net worth of $73 million without having to disclose the value of a vast portfolio that includes stocks, bonds and various other investments.
D’Alemberte said the First Amendment Foundation, an open government watchdog group, and at least five media organizations will file friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the lawsuit. The foundation said those groups will include the Associated Press, the Miami Herald, Florida Times-Union, Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and Florida Press Association, in addition to the League of Women Voters or Florida.
The foundation is supported by Florida news organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times.
Asked if Democrat Charlie Crist’s campaign was involved in the strategy to file the lawsuit, D’Alemberte said: “Not as far as I’m concerned. I’ve not talked to anyone in the Crist campaign.”