In 1976, Florida voters agreed that “a public office is a public trust,” even though many of its politicians were treating it like a license to bribe.
Floridians wrote the Sunshine Amendment into the Constitution thanks to the campaigning of Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew, requiring “full and fair disclosure of [elected officeholders’] financial interests” in order to “secure and sustain that trust against abuse.”
The verdict of voters was pols could not be trusted to separate official business from graft.
But times have changed. The act’s notions of personal sacrifice for public service have had to adjust to modern investment strategies and the reality that the vast majority of politicians running this state are disproportionately wealthier than the median voter.
Last week, a Leon County judge threw out a lawsuit brought by the former chief of staff to the late Askew, Jim Apthorp, the League of Women Voters of Florida, and others, challenging Gov. Rick Scott’s use of a blind trust to shield the disclosure of individual investments.
A blind trust allows candidates to disclose total dollar amounts without listing where the money is invested.
Circuit Judge John Cooper wrote blind trusts “have become an issue” in Scott’s campaign against Democrat Charlie Crist. But he noted other politicians had used blind trusts, the Ethics Commission had OK’d them, lawmakers were allowed to make changes, and the ones the Legislature adopted in 2013 to sanction Scott’s practice were “reasonable, appropriate and consistent.”
Because the public official and citizens would have the same information – what assets went into the blind trust initially, but not what investments have been made subsequently – politicians “cannot have a conflict related to those assets,” Cooper wrote.
Yet here’s how potential conflicts – imaginary and otherwise — take shape: Scott is a mega-millionaire and has had investments all over the world. One of them, a 2011 investment into a French energy company called Schlumberger, provided services to a Texas-based oil driller called the Dan A. Hughes Co., which was exploring for oil in the Everglades.
Earlier this year, environmentalists accused the company of fracking within 1,000 feet of homes. Scott’s campaign disclosed – voluntarily – that he was no longer invested in the French company, and the Department of Environmental Protection, after much urging from the local government, filed a lawsuit against the Texas firm – only months after granting it permission to explore. Scott’s office oversees DEP. He also had at one point in time a $135,000 financial stake in a company overseen by the agency.
Ironically, the fracking fracas erupted after the blind-trust lawsuit was filed and Scott chose to voluntarily and temporarily dissolve his blind trust long enough to disclose all his holdings.
It has been a little eye-opening political voyeurism and cannon fodder for the campaigns.
Scott disclosed a net worth of $132.4 million last year. He had earned income last year of more than $3.25 million on his investments. Crist disclosed $1.25 million in net worth and $712,000 in income last year — including $296,700 from Orlando law firm Morgan & Morgan and another $182,933 in consulting fees paid by developer St. Joe Co. Scott’s disclosures included details about his wife’s finances, while Crist’s spouse has not done the same – drawing the ire of the GOP all summer.
In the end, a blind trust is both legal and aptly named. The public’s only method for verifying that faith-based approach will be the good will and voluntary disclosures of the potentially conflicted.