Lawsuit Challenges Scott's Use of Blind Trust

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    A year-old state law that allows elected officials to place their assets in a blind trust instead of reporting each investment publicly violates Florida's constitution, according to a legal challenge filed Wednesday with the state Supreme Court.

    A former top aide to the late Gov. Reubin Askew filed an emergency petition with the high court that asks to court to rule on the issue before state candidates start qualifying for the ballot next month.

    So far, Gov. Rick Scott, who was a wealthy businessman before getting elected in 2010, is the only state official who has chosen to place his finances in a blind trust.

    Jim Apthorp, who was Askew's chief of staff, said the provision goes against the "Sunshine Amendment" that was adopted by the state's voters in 1976. The amendment pushed by the Democratic governor marked the first time elected officials were required to disclose their finances.

    "I think we moved away from full disclosure," Apthorp said. "I think the very name of that trust tells you it is not public."

    During his first-ever run for public office in 2010, Scott released three years of tax returns and a lengthy list of all his business holdings. But shortly after he took office, he received permission from the state's ethics commission to set up a blind trust to remove direct control over his finances in order to avoid potential conflicts.

    A new ethics law passed last year by the Florida Legislature authorizes blind trusts, but says that public officials who set them up must disclose the initial assets placed in the account. Scott last summer disclosed what assets were included in the account as of 2011, but declined to reveal any information about more recent holdings.

    The lawsuit calls on the Supreme Court to strike down the law and to block any candidates from qualifying for the ballot unless they file a full disclosure of all their finances. Financial disclosures are usually submitted during June qualifying.

    Top legislative leaders who had pushed the state's new ethics law questioned the timing of the lawsuit.

    "It raises the suspicion that this is not a serious or sincere constitutional challenge but a cynically-timed political ploy designed and timed to affect the outcome of this year's elections," said a joint statement from House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz.

    Apthorp contended that he and others first discussed it last year with Askew, but that he became ill. Askew died in March.

    Sandy D'Alemberte, a former American Bar Association president representing Apthorp in the challenge, insisted that the lawsuit wasn't an attack on Scott.

    "The governor has some very good lawyers, and they gave him some very bad advice," D'Alemberte said.

    Also supporting the legal challenge of the ethics law are the League of Women Voters and several news media organizations, including The Associated Press.

    When Scott first sought office, he reported a net worth of $218 million. Last summer, he listed a net worth of nearly $84 million as of the end of 2012.

    None of Scott's annual financial disclosures since becoming governor have included anything about the assets owned by his wife of 41 years, who contributed nearly $13 million out of her trust account to help her husband get elected.