By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
When Gov. Rick Scott put $133 million of his assets into a blind trust two years ago, he included his shares of Mosaic, owner of the Central Florida fertilizer plant where 215 million gallons of contaminated wastewater recently drained into an aquifer that provides drinking water for millions of Floridians.
Scott’s ownership interest in Mosaic was relatively small – he valued it at about $14,000 on the list of assets he placed in the blind trust – yet it provides another example of how the governor’s sprawling personal finances conflict, or appear to conflict, with his official duties.
Does Gov. Scott still have an ownership interest in Mosaic? Has it increased? On Wednesday, his office released a statement saying the governor is unaware of any sales, purchases or changes in the trust because it is “under the control of an independent financial professional.”
The trustee is New York-based Hollow Brook Wealth Management, whose chief executive is longtime Scott crony Alan Bazaar.
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission documents filed earlier this year state that Bazaar also serves as an advisory board member of G. Scott Capital Partners, the private equity firm co-owned by First Lady Ann Scott and run by a trio of the governor’s former employees at Richard L. Scott Investments. Both the governor and Mrs. Scott have been substantial investors in Scott Capital’s investments.
Republican Gov. Scott’s handpicked Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, Jon Steverson, is now overseeing Mosaic’s response to the massive dump of contaminated water that occurred in late August when a 45-foot wide sinkhole opened at Mosaic’s New Wales fertilizer manufacturing plant in Mulberry, about 55 miles east of Tampa.
“Governor Scott will hold all responsible parties accountable for their actions and has directed the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to expedite their investigation,” Scott’s communications director Jackie Schutz said in a Wednesday statement. “Governor Scott has also directed the Department of Health to partner with DEP in their investigation to ensure all drinking water in the area is safe. We know Mosaic has taken responsibility, but our job is to ensure 100 percent safe drinking water.”
Earthjustice is a large nonprofit environmental law firm. Informed that Gov. Scott previously disclosed his ownership of Mosaic stock, Senior Associate Attorney Bradley Marshall said, “We’re always concerned about the governor’s ties to industry. We certainly do think the governor has not been a good protector of the environment in Florida. We’ve already seen veterans at DEP fired for doing their jobs.”
Mosaic, based in Plymouth, Minnesota, is a Fortune 500 company (NYSE: MOS) with extensive operations in Florida, where it employs 4,000 workers. According to the company’s web site, it mines phosphate rock from nearly 200,000 acres of Mosaic-owned land in Central Florida and potash from mines in Canada. The products are processed into crop nutrients that are shipped around the world. Mosaic’s revenues last year were about $9 billion.
Mosaic politically active
Mosaic Fertilizer LLC, the company’s principal operating subsidiary in Florida, is politically active. State records show it fields a team of 14 executive branch lobbyists in Tallahassee. Since 2008, Mosaic entities have contributed about $1.9 million to political candidates and causes, with about $840,000 going to the Republican Party of Florida and the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, records show.
In October 2015, Mosaic Fertilizer LLC agreed to a nearly $2 billion settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding charges that its New Wales facility and other plants in Florida as well as Louisiana improperly handled 60 billion pounds of hazardous waste. Specifically, EPA inspectors found that Mosaic had mixed certain types of highly corrosive substances like sulfuric acid from its fertilizer operations with phosphogypsum and wastewater from its mineral processing. Sulfuric acid is used to extract phosphorus from mined rock.
Phosphogypsum is the radioactive byproduct that’s created when phosphate is turned into fertilizer.
An EPA press release at the time said the settlement “will ensure that wastewater at Mosaic’s facilities is properly managed and does not pose a threat to groundwater resources.’’
The sinkhole formed beneath one cell of a mountainous phosphogypsum stack topped with a 250-million-gallon pond filled with acidic wastewater from the fertilizer manufacturing process.
According to the company, plant workers noticed a decline in the water level on Aug. 27. While Mosaic quickly notified the DEP and the EPA, no public announcement was made until Sept. 15.
“A sinkhole formed under the west cell that we believe damaged the liner system at the base of the stack,” said the company’s initial press release. “The pond on top of the cell drained as a result, although some seepage continues.”
Mosaic went on to say it “immediately implemented additional and extensive groundwater monitoring and sampling regimens and found no offsite impacts.”
Company officials who appeared Tuesday before the Polk County Commission reiterated, “No water from the stack has migrated off our property.” The company also apologized for not notifying the public sooner.
Gov. Scott’s blind trust – his second while in office – was created under the terms of a secret trust agreement signed in June 2014. His office has declined to make the agreement with the trustee public.
Scott acquired Mosaic while in office
Gov. Scott acquired his Mosaic investment while in office. His first blind, created in April 2011 a few months after he was sworn in, disclosed no ownership of Mosaic shares.
Florida’s qualified blind trust law was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Scott in 2013. The idea was to prevent conflicts of interest by blinding public officials and the public to their holdings, and also afford those who use them immunity from prohibited conflicts.
“The Legislature finds that if a public officer creates a trust and does not control the interests held by the trust, his or her actions will not be influenced or appear to be influenced by private considerations,” the law says.
But Florida’s blind trust law, crafted with mega-wealthy Gov. Scott in mind, did not contemplate that such a trust could at times become a see-through entity, making it ineffective.
For example, in March 2014 Florida Bulldog reported that SEC records showed Gov. and Mrs. Scott had recently sold $17 million worth of shares in Argan (NYSE:AGX), a company whose principal subsidiary builds and operates power plants in Florida and elsewhere.
Florida Bulldog reported in July 2014 about Scott ownership of shares in a natural gas pipeline firm, Spectra Energy, looking to build the $3-billion Sabal Trail pipeline across North and Central Florida.
In 2013, Florida’s Public Service Commission – five members appointed by Gov. Scott – unanimously approved construction of Spectra’s controversial pipeline venture with Florida Power & Light. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection subsequently approved it, too.
What didn’t become known until the following year, however, was that Scott had investments totaling $110,000 in Houston-based Spectra and DCP Midstream Partners, a natural gas limited partnership 50 percent owned by Spectra. Scott only disclosed those interests in June 2014 when he closed his first blind trust and created his second blind trust while qualifying to run for re-election.
Florida’s ethics laws generally prohibit public officials like the governor from owning stock in businesses subject to state regulation, or that do business with state agencies. A similar prohibition exists on owning shares in companies that would “create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict” between an official’s private interests and the “full and faithful discharge” of his public duties.
The governor has said he was unaware of his Spectra investments because they were in his blind trust.
In February, Florida Bulldog reported that in 2012 Scott owned a $210,000 stake in a private equity firm that owned Fort Myers-based 21st Century Oncology when it was awarded a unprecedented 25-year, no-bid contract to supply radiation oncology services to taxpayer-supported Broward Health. An all-Republican board of commissioners appointed by Scott and his Republican predecessor made the award.
A spokeswoman for the governor said Scott wasn’t aware that 21st Century had sought the Broward Health contract and that no one at the private equity firm, Vestar Capital Partners, or 21st Century, had asked him to try to influence the hospital district’s selection process.