The funeral for Gov. Reubin Askew was under way at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee in March when James Apthorp started thinking about Askew’s legacy and an effort by state legislators to dilute it.
“I was thinking about what was really important to him,” Apthorp recalled last week as he left the 1st District Court of Appeal with Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, the former Florida State University president and former president of the American Bar Association. “Someone had to pick up the banner.”
Apthorp, now 76, and living in retirement in Tallahassee, was Askew’s chief of staff and longtime friend. His thoughts at the funeral focused on a 2013 law approved by legislators to accommodate Gov. Rick Scott. The new law would allow Scott and other public officials to put their assets into blind trusts and avoid the “full and public disclosure of financial interests” approved by voters in 1976.
Apthorp sought help from D’Alemberte, 81, a legend in Florida legal circles. Together, the two aging friends of the late governor are using a lawsuit to fight to save the centerpiece of Askew’s fabled Sunshine Amendment.
At the moment, Scott is the only state official who has put his assets in a blind trust, but others could join him if the 2013 change is determined to be constitutional.
Public officials have routinely complied with disclosure laws each year so voters know exactly what the politicians they elect own and control, and their sources of income.
The lawsuit questions whether legislators can change the Florida Constitution without a vote of Floridians.
Leon Circuit Judge John C. Cooper in Tallahassee has already found the Legislature’s action to be constitutional. Apthorp has asked the appellate court to overturn that decision, re-establishing the requirement that all public officials fully disclose their assets.
Askew stumped the state pushing for the constitutional amendment after he spent years trying to get legislators to pass a law that would establish ethical and financial disclosure standards for public officials. Voters overwhelmingly approved it in the face of widespread corruption among state officials.
“If the Legislature has all the power my opponent says it has, it destroys full and public disclosure,” D’Alemberte argued during Wednesday’s court hearing.
Solicitor General Allen Winsor, arguing for Attorney General Pam Bondi and the governor, defended the change in law, even contesting Apthorp’s right to challenge it.
Winsor said the blind trust allowed by the 2013 law complies with the overall purpose of the constitutional amendment to make sure that public officials don’t enrich themselves while in office.
“The Legislature can do this,” Winsor argued.
Judge Brad Thomas, sitting as the chief judge of a panel that included Judges Lori Rowe and Timothy Osterhaus, asked Winsor whether he believed legislators could pass a law that would allow a governor to disclose only assets valued at more than $5 million.
“There might be a challenge to that,” Winsor conceded.
“Either the Legislature has the power or it doesn’t,” Thomas added.
Thomas was appointed to the court in 2005 by Gov. Jeb Bush. Rowe was appointed in 2009 by Gov. Charlie Crist. Osterhaus was appointed in 2013 by Scott.
It is likely that the case will ultimately wind up in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court, but for now public disclosure created by one of Florida’s most respected governors is at risk.
I am pretty certain today’s legislators would not approve the sort of disclosure Askew pursued. Tallahassee’s atmosphere has become toxic with partisan politics in the years since Askew governed.
It’s hard to believe that public confidence in our elected officials could get much lower, but take away disclosure and it’s a certainty.
Lucy Morgan is a retired state capital bureau chief and senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times. She wrote this exclusively for the Times.