Pam Bondi files response to blind trust challenge in Supreme Court

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Responding to legal challenges over the use of blind trusts by elected officials, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Legislature requested the state Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of the 2013 law allowing the use of trusts to shield business assets.

Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida reports that Jim Apthorp, former aide to the late Gov. Reubin Askew, filed the complaint last week. The suit argues that blind trusts are a violation of the open-government Sunshine Amendment’s “full and public” disclosure requirements, one of Askew’s foremost legacies.

Representing Apthorp is former Florida State University president Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, past president of the American Bar Association. D’Alemberte was part of the team that created the amendment.

Bondi’s response, which she filed on Monday, asked the court to reject the case, arguing “blind trusts have been widely accepted as promoting the very purpose of the Sunshine Amendment: to avoid conflicts of interests.”

Unanimously passing the Legislature last year was sweeping ethics reforms pushed by House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, which Kam notes included provisions concerning blind trusts.

The Florida Commission on Ethics and statewide grand jury also recommended in 2010 using blind trusts so elected officials can avoid the appearance of conflicts between private interests and public duties.

On Monday, Gaetz and Weatherford also filed a separate response supporting the law.

“A qualified blind trust removes the temptation of a public official to advance his or her private interests over the public good. Without any knowledge of the particular assets held by the trust, the public official lacks even the ability to act in his or her self-interest,” according to the brief filed by House and Senate attorneys.

Apthorp’s petition asks the Florida Supreme Court to prohibit Secretary of State Ken Detzner from agreeing to take qualifying papers of any candidate using a blind trust. Since the weeklong qualifying period begins June 16, Apthorp is seeking an emergency ruling from the justices.

“Such trusts may hide financial transactions from the person establishing the blind trust, but what is hidden from that person is also hidden from the public,” D’Alemberte wrote. “By their very definition, blind trusts cannot satisfy the Sunshine Amendment.”

Earlier, legislative leaders dismissed the suit, calling it a “cynically timed political ploy designed and timed to affect the outcome of this year’s elections” since, according to the filing, Gov. Rick Scott is the only Florida elected official using a blind trust.

Scott, currently seeking re-election, used blind trust upon taking office in 2011, after seeking approval from the ethics commission.

Kam writes that Bondi’s lawyers asserted Apthorp “created an artificial emergency” by filing the lawsuit weeks before the qualifying period, adding the case does not warrant Supreme Court review, wrote Detzner’s attorney, Solicitor General Allen Winsor, adding that the court should reject Apthorp’s request about Detzner and financial disclosures since the role of the secretary of state is only bureaucratic.

“The primary question is whether the secretary has an indisputable legal duty to reject filings that the Florida Elections Code commands him to accept,” Winsor wrote. “The secretary does not enforce the qualified blind trust statute. His role in this process is to collect and process candidate qualifying papers,”

Scott’s campaign says the governor will comply with the court decision.

“If the courts believe the governor’s blind trust should be dissolved, the governor will gladly dissolve it,” said Melissa Sellers, Scott’s campaign manager.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.