A state law allowing elected officials to set up blind trusts does not violate the Florida Constitution’s open-government requirements, a Leon County judge ruled Monday, clearing the way for Gov. Rick Scott to continue to shield his assets from the public and himself.
The lawsuit, brought by a former chief of staff to the late Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew, challenged whether politicians such as the incumbent Republican governor could stash investments in blind trusts. A blind trust gives someone else the ability to manage investments without a politician’s knowledge, which supporters of the law say prevents conflicts of interest.
But critics say the device contradicts constitutional safeguards requiring Florida voters to be made aware of what a public official owns and how it might affect his or her decisions. Scott, who reported a net worth of $132.7 million as of the end of last year, is believed to be the only official using a blind trust.
In a 15-page ruling issued Monday, Circuit Judge John Cooper said the law was constitutional because a public official with a trust is not supposed to know any more than voters about what is in the account. That serves the same purpose as the more-detailed disclosure that candidates have generally used in the past.
“The purpose of disclosing this information is not mere curiosity as to the public official’s financial holdings,” Cooper wrote. “Rather it allows the public to have the same information as the public official, thus permitting an informed opinion on whether conflicts of interest have or may in the future occur. The concept of a blind trust is that the official knows only what holdings are placed in it. The public also knows this.”
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Jim Apthorp, who served as Askew’s chief of staff, said he was considering taking the case to a higher court.
“I still believe we are on the right side of this issue and will consult with my attorneys about appealing Judge’s Cooper’s ruling to the 1st District Court of Appeal,” he said. “We plan to decide whether to appeal within a few days.”
Apthorp originally took his case to the Supreme Court, arguing that blind trusts violate the “full and public” disclosure requirements of the Sunshine Amendment, which requires elected officials to provide details about their financial interests. Justices referred the case to the circuit court.
Scott spokesman Greg Blair said in an email Monday afternoon that the governor had made a concerted effort to be public with his holdings. When he qualified to run for re-election in June, Scott disclosed his net worth as of the end of last year and released 188 pages of tax returns from 2010 to 2012.
Scott also ended his first blind trust, formed in 2011, so that he could publicly list his investments before forming another blind trust.
“Governor Scott went above and beyond to provide transparency when he disclosed his assets as well as tax returns for both himself and the First Lady when he filed for office,” Blair said.
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida