A state appeals court heard arguments Wednesday on a challenge to a 2013 law that allows politicians to use blind trusts to keep them from tampering with or manipulating money given to them and avoid conflicts of interest. Gov. Rick Scott was the only elected official to open a blind trust, although he closed it last June when running for a second term, and made his financial assets public.
The law violates full disclosure of financial assets that was supposed to be guaranteed by law thanks to the open-government Sunshine Amendment, which Florida voters approved in 1976.
This case before the 1st District Court of Appeals is important to the value of open public records. We understand the importance of not allowing elected officials the power to manage this money. Blind trusts are supposed to guarantee that the beneficiary has no knowledge or control of where the money goes. Keeping those assets a secret also goes against the public’s right to know the source of those contributions. The Associated Press, the First Amendment Foundation and other groups have actively fought for this disclosure and continue to oppose the use of blind trusts as lawful.
The Republican-dominated Legislature unanimously passed the law two years ago allowing for blind trusts, 28 years after then-Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew pushed for passage of the Sunshine Amendment. Askew was tired of legislators dragging their feet on passing full disclosure requirements.
When the three-member appeals court heard arguments Wednesday, it was attorney Talbot D’Alemberte, representing Jim Apthorp, former chief of staff to Agnew, who argued that a “public officer is a public trustee, a trustee of the public interest.” D’Alemberte, a former Democratic lawmaker who helped get the 1976 amendment passed, was making the point that withholding key financial information of assets from the public violated that trust. And it does.
Lawyers for state Attorney General Pam Bondi and Scott say the Sunshine Amendment allows lawmakers to make the rules and determine what is public record, regarding financial assets, even if it means hiding some of those assets. A lower court ruling has already supported the legality of such blind trusts.
We believe the arguments and previous decision are not in the best interests of state residents. All financial records should be disclosed. Period. The Legislature should not have that kind of power. Voters should have access to all financial assets of politicians. There should be no secrets. Full transparency is important and we believe demanded by the Sunshine Amendment.
When the lawsuit against the blind trusts was filed last year, Scott, who is reportedly worth more than $80 million, dissolved his blind trust and detailed his assets in disclosure forms filed in June. But Scott has reiterated he will re-establish that trust now that he was elected to a second term.
The last thing we want to see is Floridians losing their voice in the democratic process, and concealing financial records tears away that voice. It’s been five years since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted restrictions on how much money donors could spend on political candidates. It was a ruling supported by another 5-4 decision by the court last year, declaring financial caps unconstitutional. The nation’s largest watchdog groups have all said that type of free spending is putting the wealthy in control and also taking away the voice of Americans.
The public’s right to know took a beating in 2014 when the Florida Legislature passed, and Scott signed, 22 bills that allowed for new exemptions to public records. The Legislature adjourned in May without approving recommendations to the User Experience Task Force to make the state’s budget process, and supporting websites, more transparent.
We hope the appeals court rules for transparency. Anything short of that violates the public trust.