By Bill Cotterell
Attorneys for the Legislature’s presiding officers asked the Florida Supreme Court Monday to quash a petition seeking to stop Gov. Rick Scott and other political candidates from filing statements of “blind trusts,” instead of detailed financial disclosures, when they qualify for the 2014 elections next month.
James Apthorp of Tallahassee, who was the late Gov. Reubin Askew‘s chief of staff when he sponsored the state’s “Sunshine Amendment” in 1976, asked the justices last week to order Secretary of State Ken Detzner not to accept any qualifying papers with blind trusts. Through his attorneys, former Florida State University President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte and his wife-law partner Patsy Palmer, Apthorp said the 2011 statute adopted by the Legislature — allowing blind trusts — can’t override requirements of the Constitution.
Lawyers for Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, compared a blind trust to a mutual fund — in that individual assets are pooled together and reported as a bottom line. The legislative attorneys said the blind trust is even better than a mutual fund, because the politician owning it can’t even know what’s in it.
“On the merits, the qualified blind trust law is entirely consistent with the text and purpose of Article II, section 8, of the Florida Constitution (the “Sunshine Amendment”),” the presiding officers said in their reply to Apthorp’s petition.
“A public official who establishes a qualified blind trust under the law must: (1) provide to theCommission on Ethics a complete list of assets placed into the trust; and (2) file a full and public disclosure form identifying the value of the trust’s assets and any income received from the trust,” said the filing. “A public official reports a qualified blind trust in the same manner as he or she would report a mutual fund: the asset is identified and its overall value is disclosed, but the individual stocks, bonds, or other financial instruments contained within the mutual fund are not reported and the income from those holdings is not disclosed.
Gaetz and Weatherford sought to intervene in the dispute between Detzner’s Division of Elections and Apthorp, who was joined in the filing last week by the Florida Press Association, First Amendment Foundation and several media outlets. The legislative response maintained that “unlike a mutual fund, whose individual holdings might be ascertained by the public officer, a qualified blind trust shields the public official from knowledge or control of the trust’s holdings. A qualified blind trust thereby eliminates the potential for a conflict of interest between public duties and private interests and enhances public confidence in Florida’s elected officials.
“This is consistent with both the text and overriding purpose of the Sunshine Amendment.”
The House speaker and Senate president asked the Supreme Court to kick the case on jurisdictional grounds — saying the justices were being asked to issue an extraordinary mandate, and to oversee the secretary of state’s ministerial functions in accepting qualifying papers next month. Alternatively, they asked the Supreme Court to send the case to Leon County Circuit Court for hearing.
If the justices proceed with the petition itself, the legislators said they should affirm the constitutionality of the blind-trust law.