In support of Gov. Askew’s legacy of open government, ex-aide challenges Florida’s blind trust law at Supreme Court

 By Dan Christensen, 

Governor Reubin Askew holds a press conference in 1971 Photo: State Archives of Florid

Governor Reubin Askew holds a press conference in 1971 Photo: State Archives of Florid

The former chief of staff for the late Gov. Reubin Askew filed an emergency petition at the Florida Supreme Court Wednesday challenging the legality of the state’s 2013 blind trust law.

The 27-page petition by James Apthorp urged the court to prohibit the use of blind trusts by public officials to avoid full financial disclosure and invalidate two opinions by the Commission on Ethics that held blind trusts are an acceptable form of disclosure.

Likewise, the justices were asked to order Secretary of State Ken Detzner to refuse to accept the qualifying papers of any candidates who attempt to use blind trusts to veil their assets from public view.

“Governor Askew’s commitment to full and public disclosure is a major part of his legacy,” said Apthorp of his former boss, who died March 13 at 85. “Florida voters supported full disclosure when they overwhelming passed Askew’s Sunshine Amendment in 1976. Blind trusts circumvent the full public disclosure mandated by the Constitution, and we’re asking the Supreme Court to prohibit officials from using them to shield sources and amounts of income from the public.”

Gov. Scott, a Republican, is the only public officer in Florida to obtain a qualified blind trust to shield his assets, according to the Commission on Ethics. His trust is worth in excess of $70 million. Former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat who lost to Scott in 2010, also employed a blind trust.

Hours after the petition was filed, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, issued a joint statement calling it a “cynically-timed political ploy designed and timed to affect the outcome of this year’s elections.”

Article II, Section 8(a) of the Florida Constitution, approved nearly 4-1 by voters in 1976, was adopted after Florida was rocked by a series of scandals involving three Cabinet members, four Supreme Court justices, a state legislator and even Askew’s lieutenant governor, Tom Adams. It requires “full and public” financial disclosure by public officers and candidates. There are no exceptions.

But Florida’s “qualified blind trust” law, passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on May 1, 2013, allows public officers to avoid full disclosure and find legal safe harbor from prohibited conflicts of interest by using such trusts to hold their assets outside their knowledge or control.

Apthorp’s petition argues that law, Florida Statute 112.31425, “is unconstitutional because it deprives the citizens of Florida of their constitutional right under the Sunshine Amendment to receive the benefits of full and public disclosure by constitutional officers and candidates for such offices.”

This is the first year a general election will be held since the blind trust law was enacted. The petition seeks emergency action by the justices because the qualifying period begins on June 16 and “many candidates may believe erroneously that filing a blind trust will satisfy the constitutional mandate.” reported in March that Florida’s blind trust law has been ineffective in preventing public disclosure of Gov. Scott’s personal riches. Millions of dollars in large stock transactions made by the governor’s blind trust, whose trustee is New York-based Hollow Brook Wealth Management, are public record due to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission disclosure requirements.

“The Sunshine Amendment requires that things be revealed; blind trusts require that things be concealed,” the petition says. “It would be absurd to conclude that the latter is an adequate substitute for the former.”

Representing Apthorp is former Florida State University President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, who is also a former president of the American Bar Association, and his wife and law partner, Patsy Palmer.

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