By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
When Gov. Rick Scott qualified to run for re-election last year, he made public his federal income tax returns for 2010-2012 “in the interest of full and complete public transparency,” according to his lawyer.
Four months later, with Election Day approaching and media inquiries rising, Scott also disclosed his 2013 tax return.
But today, amid news of Scott’s investment in a company that’s seeking to build a controversial, $3-billion natural gas pipeline in north and central Florida, the governor won’t make public his federal income tax return for 2014.
“If he’s provided his income tax returns in the past, it would seem in the spirit of transparency that he should provide it now,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida.
The governor’s office also declined a request by FloridaBulldog.org for copies of the federal tax returns filed by the now-closed blind trust that Scott used during his first term to hold his assets outside public scrutiny.
Scott revoked his original blind trust in June 2014 in order to run for re-election, immediately opening a new blind trust into which he rolled over his assets. By state law, public officials do not have access to the tax returns of their active blind trust.
Likewise, the governor’s office would not make public copies of the agreements Scott signed with the trustee of his blind trusts in 2011 and again last year. Those trust agreements control the trustee’s actions. Florida’s “qualified blind trust” law specifically allows the governor to make his trust agreements public, but it does not require him to do so.
“A search of the Executive Office of the Governor’s files produced no documents responsive to your request,” said Savannah Sams of the governor’s Office of Open Government.
In 2013, the Legislature decided that if a public official creates a trust and does not control the interests it holds, his “official actions will not be influenced or appear to be influenced by private considerations.”
BLIND TRUST = IMMUNITY FROM CONFLICTS
That justification underlines the enactment of Florida’s qualified blind trust statute, which effectively grants immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest to public officials regarding assets they stash in a blind trust.
There is strong evidence, however, that Gov. Scott retains control over his blind trust.
An investigation last year by FloridaBulldog.org found that the state’s blind trust law has been ineffective in keeping Scott from becoming aware of what’s in his trust. Indeed, on several occasions in the last three years Gov. Scott signed paperwork filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that reported in detail on large stock transactions made by his blind trust. Those transactions brought the governor tens millions of dollars.
Further, the governor has described his trustee, New York’s Hollow Brook Wealth Management, as “independent,” yet the firm’s chief executive officer is longtime Scott crony and former employee Alan Bazaar. Also at Hollow Brook: Cathy Gellatly, Scott’s former corporate accountant at Richard L. Scott Investments.
Bazaar signed paperwork in 2011 and again last year certifying the blind trusts met the requirements of Florida law and were independent of the governor. His certifications, however, were not made under oath and were not notarized, offering the public little assurance or recourse.
When Scott revoked his original blind trust last year while qualifying to run again for governor, he made public a lengthy list of his assets. The maneuver served to insulate Scott from criticism about financial transparency during his successful re-election campaign against Charlie Crist, but it also revealed that since 2011 Scott had placed a large personal bet on the natural gas industry.
One of Scott’s investments was in Texas-based Spectra Energy, which wants to build Sabal Trail, a controversial 474-mile underground pipeline designed to run from Alabama and Georgia to a hub in central Florida near Orlando, in partnership with Florida Power & Light. Scott reported owning $108,000 in shares of Spectra and its affiliate DCP Midstream Partners.
Florida ethics laws generally prohibit public officials from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation or that do business with state agencies.
Gov. Scott’s stake in Spectra wasn’t publicly known in 2013 when he signed into law a pair of bills designed to speed up permitting for the pipeline project, or when the state Public Service Commission – whose members he appointed – unanimously approved its construction.
In July, the Department of Environmental Protection announced it intended to award both a permit and underwater drilling rights for the project to Sabal Trail Transmission LLC. An environmental group challenging that decision has accused the governor of a conflict of interest. A state administrative judge is considering the matter.